“My Friends, Right or Wrong”: ‘Virtue’ deconstructing to corruption

Matt Wedel writes in his recent blog postings…


…on scientific productivity:

“…for internet cranks in general, and absolutely pandemic for dinosaur cranks in particular…”

Advice on cranks, from an orthodox subscriber to the dead field of dinobird palaeontology.  (Though he isn’t a bird-evolutionist, the point is, he’s still a palaeontological cliquist, as we shall see.)

And we need not doubt that I am seen by him as a crank; he and his have never once shown any appreciation or positive recognition of anything I’ve offered over the years, whatever it’s nature, and never will.  (They obviously see me as some kind of multi-dimensional nutter.)  How do I fulfill Wedel’s criteria?

“It’s pretty common for internet cranks in general, and absolutely pandemic for dinosaur cranks in particular, to argue that Ivory Tower so-called experts are all blinkered by orthodoxy and that outsiders with no technical training are better suited to having the big ideas because they are unshackled by the weight of knowing all that has gone before.”

Let’s look at my areas of “inexpertise”.  Most of the inverted pyramid of criticism I make rests on cladograms, (computer-generated family trees) and the way Wedel et al. unquestioningly trust them (while usually denying it).  As my masters was in “information systems engineering”, and it dealt with a fair bit of the stats and maths of designing and running programs and understanding their outputs and, importantly, inputs, it would be a terrible waste of (public) money if I hadn’t picked up a reasonable background on computer-generated anything.  I’ve got other useful related experience I hope I’ll resist wheeling out here.  When Wedel and his like behave as though you can never second-guess a cladogram structure, and then roll their eyes and claim special understanding when I point to violated conditions for trusting that cladogram, and to examples of known untrue cladograms, they cannot claim I have “no technical training”.  Since Wedel himself has neither any notable formal training in that area which is central to the science, nor impressive experience in it, his superior attitude is unjustified if directed to me.  There are others he will listen to who have comparable background to mine, but they above all should know better than to brand anyone who doubts a cladogram, as a crank.  (Fact is, the really useful research towards detecting validity levels in cladograms, and detecting what invalid ones really should be saying, is what the “so-called experts” would be doing if they knew their job, and they’re not.  If they were experts they wouldn’t mistake metrics such as consensus, bootstrapping etc as convincing confirmation of validity, as they so often do.)

Another rarely mentioned but telling point is the assumption that a once-through approach is the best way to analyse the data put into cladograms.  For many problems it’s best to progressively refine solutions by going over the same data again and again.  This “iterative” approach can often be used when there isn’t a neat solution, and in fact there isn’t to most complex problems.  That’s why the brain sends feedback from later stages in the visual system to earlier ones.  Not only is a once-through solution unlikely to be the best for combining bone shapes, palaeogeography, time, etc, but in fact, the family tree, the causes of detailed evolutionary events, understanding of ancient connectivity between continents, are all best solved together.  This is well understood by those dealing with processes of complex understanding, and they know it because of their experience of systems performance in engineering, the design and processing of brains, etc.  These are fields I’ve had enough contact with to be able to say categorically that the simplistic once-through, and ‘phylogeny first and everything else later’ approaches are simply due to basic ignorance in the states of the ‘arts’ involved.  That just isn’t negotiable until a critic shows they’ve understood the vital lessons from related disciplines and explained why they can’t apply.

So, in the most important area, his sneer would make more sense reflected back at the likes of himself.

Then there’s the fallacy of “experience” without feedback.  Those skeptical towards religion and astrology understand immediately that no matter how many thousands of years you’ve been doing something, if you don’t actually have any meaningful feedback that your activities genuinely “work”, then you haven’t had any real experience at all.  It’s only too common for people to have been doing something for forty years or forty centuries, while doing it wrong all that time.  The best depiction of this principle is when Adler pronounced on a psychological case Popper informally reported to him (see:  http://www.oocities.com/strangetruther/pottedpopper.html  ).  Adler readily analysed the case in terms of his own theory even though he had never seen the child in question.  Popper asked how he had been so sure of his analysis.  When Adler replied: “Because of my thousandfold experience,” Popper couldn’t help saying: “And with this new case, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold.”  Same with cladograms of long extinct creatures, unless you have that time machine.  Science Is possible on them but only if you scrupulously stick to strategies proved useful in investigative fields that Do offer feedback.

Then there’s just general background knowledge about anything.  I’m constantly shocked by dinobirders, usually cladists, who seem to lack the intellectual hinterland suitable for science.  They hang on desperately to their cladograms because without them they feel lost.  They seem to have no idea that cladograms are just one implementation of “the search for the best explanations”.  That principle underlies all science, indeed all knowledge, yet when they haven’t got a cladogram to hang onto, their next appeal is to simplicity/parsimony/Occam’s Razor as the basis of all science.  Simplicity is one aspect of explanatory power; cladograms can be seen as looking for the simplest solution using some of the data.  (Then there’s the whole “Just-So Stories” fiasco where one of Steven J. Gould’s many unfortunate comments is given huge importance despite that criticism diametrically opposing the basic Popperian principle of explanation – inevitably not even noticed of course.)  Yet more scientifically essential aspects of just Popper’s vital teachings they’ve not taken on board.

Reading Wedel’s talk about ‘cranks’ seems more childish and offensive every time I read it.  His wonderful idea combines the forging of a pack of like-minded friends, while identifying outsiders we are advised to spurn, try to ridicule, and ignore without making any effort to understand them.  It is actually a basic [compound of] instinct[s], and though gangsterism is useful to those doing it, even in science, it is also the opposite of true civilisation, and the enemy of science as a whole.  Most people in the world are religious, and frankly, I’d take a creationist over a cladist most days of the week – denying science is more easily cured that corrupting it.  But the religious would of course be cranks.  In a few minutes though, I could find in any atheist some unscientific or stubborn belief or attitude that would qualify him as a crank, by Wedel’s lights – starting with Wedel himself.  As a psychologist, I count his unpleasant exhortations either as victimisation of the unfortunate, but actually more like xenophobia.  I don’t really mind that it’s the likes of me he thinks he’s talking about since anyone scientific from youth will be familiar with knowing most other people are mistaken, and oddly, it’s not the paradox that actually it’s his lot that are the cranks – it’s really the attitude more than anything else.

However, it’s Really scientifically inadvisable.  In psychology huge efforts are made to take account of non-relevant influences where necessary.  Bias is a huge issue.  There cannot be any justification for recommending listening most your friends; it’s a natural tendency you don’t have to recommend.  Most problems with scientific advance come from people not listening, typically because they don’t like a person or a group, and they don’t like those who keep criticising… which has to be done because of the irrational reasons the wilfully ignorant find for not listening!  And to get back to his paragraph I quoted at the beginning, his implication that “outsiders” (his term) should be treated as cranks, is an invitation to despise those attempting the already hugely difficult process of cross-discipline productivity.  Inter-disciplinary fertilisation certainly finds plenty of resistance but at least most appreciate its value, and if he can’t think of numerous examples, that’s a reflection on him.  Discussing with friends can be very useful but thinking on your own can actually be more useful, particularly for those whose minds have been open a long time.  The trouble with favouring your friends is that you short-change others; it sounds so nice merrily co-operating with your friends – until you realise you’re poisoning science.

In the light of this, Wedel’s comments from part 4 of his 2009 postings…


…are particularly hypocritical:

“…have at least a nodding acquaintance with every field that bears on yours.”

It should be added that academic fields you are not acquainted with often seem pretty insane until you understand them.  Palaeontology is a field you can just walk into and learn without being astonished; philosophy of science, reasonably advanced problem solving, and other relevant fields are not.

“The downside of jumping into a new field instead of just soaking your toes at the shallow end is that it will make you feel stupid.”

So often, because of a serious lack of humility in palaeontologists (see below), if someone familiar with a significant related field, or even sub-field to palaeontology, tries to explain an important error,  Wedel and his friends will simply not believe that person can be so right when they are so wrong.

And from his February 3, 2011 2011 SV-POW! posting “Tutorial 12: How to find problems to work on”:

“It’s not a trivial amount of work, and it requires some humility.”

Too true.  Shame you skipped a relevant degree or two.  Just like most of your friends.

This isn’t the first, or the second, or even the third time I’ve had to deal with a huge pile of crap coming out of Berkeley.

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2 Responses to “My Friends, Right or Wrong”: ‘Virtue’ deconstructing to corruption

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    For anyone who’d like to see how this discussion continues … John also posted this as a comment on the SV-POW! article that he references here. That comment is now up at http://svpow.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/tutorial-12-how-to-find-problems-to-work-on/#comment-9694 as is my (much shorter!) response, and probably some more to come.

  2. Strangetruther says:

    Thanks for the comment Mike. The way I’ve got it set up I have to notice an email to approve a comment, hence a delay if you noticed it.

    You win the prize for the first commenter on SP2010. Not sure what it is yet.

    I have replied to Mike and Matt’s replies, on SV-POW, and I don’t expect to make a further comment.

    (The original blog posting was I think penned by Matt Wedel on blog: SV-POW i.e. Sauropod vertebra – Picture of the Week, which I currently understand to be run by Matt Wedel, Mike Taylor and Darren Naish. The 2009 posting I refer to is from Wedel’s own blog. Mike Taylor also has his own blog. So does Darren and I didn’t comment on his recent posting on bird evolution because I was busy commenting on others!)

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