March 17, 2008

Career Advising Day

Attention conservation notice: Another thousand-odd-word rant about reactionary idiots pretending to be scientists.

Contemplating the writings of the now-deservedly-forgotten Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the late, great Peter Medawar was driven to observe that "Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought." (Whether that is a trained incapacity is itself a nice question.) Some of those people, owing to those tastes, pursue careers in academic research; the problem for them is that they are not actually very good at what they are supposed to do, which is come up with novel, insightful, important, precise, and accurate findings. Suppose that you are such a person, and that you do not want to switch to some other line of work to which you might be better suited. What to do?

Perhaps the best thing which could happen to you would be to run across a new and controversial theory which speaks to you at a deep level, both intellectually and temperamentally. If you are what William James called "tender-minded", like Teilhard de Chardin, then Medawar has already mapped out your trajectory, though nowadays the Templeton Foundation would likely be involved. If instead you are what James called "tough-minded" — "materialistic, pessimistic, irreligious, fatalistic, sceptical" — then edification-through-obfuscation is not an option, but it wouldn't even occur to you. Instead, you take your theory and you write papers about it, where you make claims about lots of hot-button topics, especially sex and current political controversies. The papers seem to carry the signs of rigor, but are actually deeply fallacious — maybe you see this, but are so convinced the conclusions are right you don't care, or maybe you're so convinced of the conclusions you can't see the errors. (There is some peer-reviewed venue where you can publish almost arbitrarily sloppy papers, so getting into print won't be a problem.) Then — and this is the key — you start promoting your papers, and find that more salacious and provocative your spin on them, the bigger the response. Your possibly-unconscious shamelessness about publishing rubbish will not only give you an advantage in sheer publications over other mediocre scholars who happen to have an intellectual conscience, but will also get you media attention. The reason it will get you media attention, and credibility with the media, is that they will see your institutional affiliation and your peer-reviewed papers, and so you become not just another crank but a Serious Scholar Contributing to the Debate. The whole package — carelessness, provocation and publicity — is wonderfully self-reinforcing, so you write even more careless papers, with yet more provocative conclusions, which you push even harder. (As a wise woman once said, "No one ever forgets how to do something that's worked for them in the past.") With a bit of luck, book contracts, magazine columns, etc., will follow in their train. Your career becomes like two drunks supporting each other as they stagger down the street: neither crappy academic research nor media presence could stand up on their own, but together they can lurch and shamble in glorious, glorious inebriated freedom, bellowing about the fierce joys to be found in facing what's revealed by the harsh light of your pseudo-scientific prejudices.

Ladies, gentlemen, and distinguished others, I give you Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics, the Fenimore Cooper of sociobiology, a man who has leveraged an inability to do data analysis or understand psychometrics into an official blog at Psychology Today, where he gets to advocate genocidal nuclear war as revenge for 9/11. He seems to mean it, rather than be fukayaming.

His argument — to the extent that it is an argument and not just a wish-fulfillment fantasy — has to do with his earlier attempt to explain "why most suicide bombers are Muslims". Leave to one side whether his attempted explanation is coherent, two things strike one on reading that. The first is his near-total disconnection from the literature on, precisely, the causes and motivations of suicide bombing — no Sageman, no Pape, the only mention of Scott Atran (an actual evolutionary psychologist, and very aware of the problems with the kind of crude ad hominid argument Kanazawa pushes) basically misses Atran's point, etc. The second is that the fact he is trying to explain something which isn't true: the tactic was pioneered [Update: a poor choice of words; see below] is and long has been heavily used by the decidedly non-Muslim Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This is well-known to anyone even slightly interested in understanding this horrible practice; Kanazawa doesn't even try to explain it away. But facts like these don't matter when the real goal is some combination of, on the one hand, constructing and projecting a fantasy ideology, and, on the other, sheer self-promotion.

I don't know of any systematic data on whether James's distinction between tender-minded and tough-minded thinkers really holds up, but at the level of casual empiricism it's pretty persuasive, and I fall very much on the tough-minded end of the spectrum. I find that sort of position persuasive, but at the same time it takes only a minimal amount of self-knowledge (certainly that's all I've got) to realize that it exposes one to certain characteristic errors or temptations. One of them is self-congratulation at being, precisely, so tough-minded. And one prominent expression of that is a delight in one's superior ability to perceive things as, supposedly, they really are, stripped of sentimental ornament; more than that, a delight in imagining how the tender-minded will be shocked by having to confront these realities. It is especially a delight in reductionism, not as a productive if not inevitable explanatory strategy, but as a series of "nothing-but" claims. This is one of our characteristic forms of wishful thinking, just as much devising imaginary consolations for real sufferings is a characteristic of the tender-minded. With these thoughts in mind, I invite you to read the conclusion of Kanazawa's article on suicide bombers:

Maybe the Muslim suicide bombings are not "terrorist" acts, as the term is usually used. Maybe it has nothing to do with Israel or the American and British troops. Maybe it's all about sex, as everything else in life is. Men do everything they do in order to get laid (Kanazawa, 2003). Maybe young Muslim men are no exceptions.
Satoshi, mon semblable, mon frère: whoever she is, I really hope the sex is worth it.

Obligatory disclaimers:

  1. I am agnostic, and uninterested, as to whether Kanazawa, like one of Thorndike's cats, developed these habits by trial, error, and environmental reinforcement, or whether, like one of Köhler's chimpanzees, it came to him in a flash of insight that he could reach the seemingly-unobtainable prize, if only he stacked publicity atop bullshit.
  2. Of course, Kanazawa has a perfect right to express whatever opinions and beliefs he might have (within the usual limits of the laws of libel, etc.). Moreover he ought to have the right to pursue whatever lines of inquiry seem to him most promising. Reciprocally, the rest of us have every right to criticize his research as idiotic, ideological rubbish.
  3. I actually think there is a lot to be said in favor of evolutionary psychology, but if anything that only makes it more important to stomp on things like this.
  4. I cheerfully admit that "I hope we catch the bastards who did this and nuke them till they glow" was one of my first reactions to seeing the pictures from 9/11. (The very first was that I was being shown some kind of disgustingly tasteless viral marketing for a disaster movie.) This sort of reaction is not a sound basis for making policy, and I leave it as an exercise to explain why on evolutionary grounds. I would still like to see us catch the bastards who did this, however.

Credits: Kanazawa's blog found via the appropriately dumbfounded reaction of Michael Meadon. I owe the insights, and much of the phrasing, of my second paragraph to a correspondent who prefers to keep their name out of this.

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Posted at March 17, 2008 15:05 | permanent link

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