Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Science is not on my side

It doesn't take sides.

In a recent online discussion, the subject of male and female typical traits came up.  Inevitably, the person I was talking with mentioned the studies involving spatial reasoning.  From what I could gather, the person believed men act like "normal" men and women act like "normal" women but that, with training, a man or woman could "go against biology" and be an exception.

My response was:

There are two common mistakes in interpreting scientific research 1) thinking of results as prescriptive instead of descriptive and 2) over-generalizing results to the entire population.  

For this, I was accused of being "anti-science", which is a first for me.  Ironically, I tried to teach the boy math - you know, overlapping distributions and standard deviations.

At any rate, I'd like to take that phrase "go against biology" and think on it for a moment.  How can someone "go against biology"?  How would someone do that?

I mean, can I "go against physics"?  If I were to float up in the air, would I be somehow defying physics?  Well, I might be going against our current understanding of nature, but I couldn't go against nature herself.  ("Nature" as in how the universe functions, not as in trees and birds.)  If I could float in air unaided, obviously our understanding of nature is incomplete and physics would need to be changed.

So, how would someone go against biology?  Has every women in science "gone against biology"? Well, there are a great number of successful women in the sciences and in engineering, so if biology says that's impossible (as if it did) then apparently biology would need to be changed.

The idea that science is telling us what *ought* to be is simply wrong.  Scientific theories and principles are predictive, but if they predict something different than what we actually observe, then those scientific theories and principles require revision.  That's how it works.  You don't point at the observation and say, "That goes against science, so it's wrong!"

This is similar to the argument that homosexuals and transgender individuals "go against nature".  Going against nature is impossible.  However, the existence of homosexual and transgender individuals goes against many people's concept of naturally occurring variation in humans, so those concepts would need to be changed for that understanding to conform to our observations of nature.  Just as it's silly to point at an observation and say it's wrong, it's bizarre to point to a person and say that the person "goes against nature".  What?  Are gays and gender queer people all supernatural?  OOooooOOooo spooky!

That's silly, so quit using science as if it is telling you anything about what *ought* to be the case.  Science is an attempt to make sense of how the universe functions.  It is a description of what IS.  It doesn't tell us what should be.  Even if what we know about psychology, sociology, or biology seems to require a particular result; we're living in that "result" currently.  The "result" is necessarily what IS and what actually happens, not what *ought* to happen according to our current models.

Don't confuse this with simply basing opinions on evidence, scientific or otherwise.  When someone tells you that science dictates *blah* that's nonsense, especially when *blah* isn't the case.  Science can predict and usually be right, but it dictates nothing.  In contrast, if people simply bring up a systematic observation within a scientific study to attempt to support their claims - they are golden.  Well, occasionally they are golden...okay, a great deal of the time they are still full of it, but at least they aren't implying that scientists are gods that create rules for nature to follow.

No comments:

Post a Comment