Inter-disciplinary Work Sounds Exhausting

We have had a good week on grappling with the diffrerences between the Social Sciences, and the Cognitive Sciences.  Last month it was the Social Sciences and Population Genetics.

I am of course a Social Scientist, and much more in tune with what Michael Scroggins and Max Holland write.  They are squarely in the traditions of the social sciences regarding the nature of culture, definitions, and interpretations of data.  They are also well-read in the natural sciences, and trying to tie the two fields together, a difficult task.  As several of Michael’s earlier posts point out, his dissertation work brings him into close contacts with biologists in DIY bio labs.  He does this on the general assumption (as I understand it) that biologists have culture too, and that the techniques and approaches Boas used to study Native Americans, and Malinowski used to study Trobriand Islanders in the early 20th century are relevant to studying scientists in 21st century California.  Max has written an engaging thesis (and book) about similar issues which I have so far only skimmed.  It is worth a closer look, as you can see from his blog from earlier this week.

Much of the discussion at over the last few months frankly exhausts me.  It points out how little other people have read in my social sciences as they point to the psychometric, population, and other studies which they regard as more important than Boas, Malinowski, and their successors.  But it also points out how much I have to read in their fields.  Most important it points to different criteria for validity used between different disciplines.  Frankly, I don’t get what is so great about physics and mathematics.  Both sound like great disciplines, but why are SAT scores on the math portion of the SAT “better” than those on the English portion? How could anyone think that Physics is harder than Philosophy? Have they ever tried to read Hegel?

I guess the sum of this rumination is to say that while I continue to disagree with dad, Dailliard, Razib Khan, Randall Parker and others who posted here, I also appreciate their comments which both help me examine my own positions, and point me to the many many things that I have not read.  Inter-disciplinary work is difficult—more difficult I think than staying comfortably within our own disciplines where we can go to seminars of the converted, and perform the self-congratulatory rituals needed to preserve the status quo.  This is why I appreciate it that they take the time to write thoughtful comments.

And “dad” for what it is worth, I still don’t think it makes much difference whether the sperm donor for my putative child is a nuclear physicist or the ticket taker at the movie theater.  Still, you rhetorical question helped me frame my thoughts more precisely—it was a good question!


PS.  What do you think of the Dennett quote that Max posted?  “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination” (Dennett 1995)?



12 thoughts on “Inter-disciplinary Work Sounds Exhausting

  1. but why are SAT scores on the math portion of the SAT “better” than those on the English portion?

    who said that? the verbal portion is more informative because the distribution is more dispersed. too much compression > 700 (just like the GRE math). i haven’t been participating i the comments. but i don’t have that many issues with much of what you say. your co-blogger scrggins’ forays into commentary on natural science are as informative as retarded assertions by me on adorno would be. the fact that your colleages think this comments are of value reflects badly on your field a la sokal, just like natural scientists on occasion engage in tiresome philistinism, as if because they have mastery of one domain of knowledge they are generalized savants.

  2. e.g., case in point, his post on myriad genetics. this is a serious issue with serious consequences. not acceptable that he chooses to play his amateur games when lives are at stake.

  3. dad

    Thanks again to you as well, Tony. You’ve done a great job taking on new perspectives. I guess I also still don’t understand how, if no judgment can be made about what’s better, any judgment can be made at all! You’re still making a judgment call but it’s just “different” than ours. Wouldn’t our opinion therefor be equal to yours?
    And credit that question to Richard Dawkins cuz that’s who I stole it from:)

  4. max

    Razib – from your own blog writing I get the impression you are a smart fellow with diverse interests.

    You evidently also draw upon findings and theories from across a range of fields of enquiry (physical, social, historical) – e.g. your piece on Minoan language. You engage in constructive engagement between fields, based on the kind of inter-disciplinary fluency that you have demonstrated.

    Since you have also written extensively on inclusive fitness theory, I would be interested to get your take on why this theory hasn’t yet made the bridge to human applications in a widely accepted format. Would you fault the EP/sociobiology folks, or the anthropologists of kinship, or simply point to the academic culture of a lack of interdisciplinary fluency across disciplines?

  5. max

    Dad – that’s reasonable stance to take (though I don’t think Dawkins was the first to point it out!). That – there is no timeless reference standard to measure judgements by – amounts to a kind of relativism. Probably Dawkins would be surprised to hear that this stance puts might suggest he is a relativist!

    I think what the social-science folks get frustrated by is that *sometimes* folks who wok in a hard-science focus (and often exclusively, ie. they may not be at all fluent in the cultural side) are NOT sufficiently cautious about this aspect of the partial relativism of alternative perspectives.

    What social scientist are usually quite cautious with is in making *any bold claims* about human nature for example. Case in point – I would say the sociobiology folks often are not sufficiently cautious about this. I’m somewhat fluent in both hard and soft sciences (and I think we all should be).

    Don’t forget that Boas was a big fan of Darwin – in other words, he was reasonably fluent in both the hard and soft sciences of his day.

  6. dad

    oh, actually, i was referring to the “sperm donor” question that Tony mentioned in the post. that’s my bad for lack of clarity.
    anyway, i get what you’re saying and i think that what they may not realize is that we kind of already grasp the “softer side” intuitively and that’s why we dig deeper for specifics from the hard sciences. it’s the details that frame the generalities – not the other way around.

  7. Michael Scroggins

    The irony here is that Boas was a laboratory trained physicist (and an immigrant from a group commonly denied citizenship based on IQ testing!). Since his dissertation was on the perception of color in seawater and it left him with a new set of questions – as all good science does – he set out on a post-doc, of sorts, to study the perception of seawater among the Eskimo.

    I find it a sad commentary on the state of academia that what Boas did is essentially impossible today.

    @ Khan

    The Myriad case before the court is about patent law. It isn’t about effectiveness of the diagnostic or anything of the sort. The question is whether or not human genes can be patented and a monopoly formed for certain medical tests.

    The interesting question the court faces from the perspective of the debates here revolve around the fact the Myriad claims a patent on three types of three uses of the “gene”. The isolated genes BRCA1/2, BRCA1/2 cDNA, and a set of primers.

    So, the court will face the task of unraveling multiple, overlapping definitions of “gene” and it will have ramifying effects on the biotech industry. No so far from the 1909 article introducing the term.

  8. Tony

    @Razib: I go the ideas about the SAT Math scores being more interested from BGI Genomics request for volunteers who are “cognitively gifted” given high scores on the SAT (800 in Math and 780 in English), Putnam Math competitions, or a PhD from to “top” US university in Physics, Math, Electrical Engineering, or Computer Science. Since you are endorsing Steve Hsu’s work with this project, I thought you had bought into it as well–but maybe not.

    @dad. You are right that we are all making judgment calls. But we should also all be open to changing our minds in light of new evidence. For example what if indeed in a 20 or 50 years the BGI Genetics should work out. I should be open to changing my mind. (I actually owe that observation to a colleague at Chico State who is really into Evolutionary Psych).

  9. dad

    I concur but it doesn’t seem like Michael will ever be that way.

  10. I would be interested to get your take on why this theory hasn’t yet made the bridge to human applications in a widely accepted format. Would you fault the EP/sociobiology folks, or the anthropologists of kinship, or simply point to the academic culture of a lack of interdisciplinary fluency across disciplines?

    i am not sure we are smart enough to scale from small-scale dynamics of inclusive fitness and reciprocal altruism toward social phenomena. this is like asking why psychology hasn’t been reduced to neuroscience. in theory possible. but do you find the prospect appeal? 🙂

  11. max

    Razib –

    So I’m guessing that you would be surprised to learn that the interpretation of Inclusive fitness I outline in the EP article has been given the thumbs up by both evolutionary geneticists (Alan Grafen, Steven Frank) AND attachment psychologists (Michael Lamb) AND cultural anthropologists (Charles Stafford, Mary Weismantel& others)…?

    If that means I’m smart (which I don’t think I am particularly*) – then – thank you!

    *just willing to look at all sides of a debate perhaps.

  12. max

    “Max Holland gets to the heart of the matter concerning the contentious relationship between kinship categories, genetic relatedness and the prediction of behavior. If he had been in the debate in the 1980s then a lot of subsequent confusion could have been avoided.”
    Robin Fox, Anthropologist, Member of the National Academy of Sciences.

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