Defending David Attenborough: Groupism And Incompetence

“If you can’t ride two horses at once you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus!” (Jim Callahan; Prime Minister).

“Evidence is those observations not well explained by a theory, or not as well explained by one theory as by another.” (Sciencepolice-14 Rules Ж10.1)

“I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses in action.” (Irving Janis: Groupthink (early draft))

“Life is not a popularity contest! Oh wait – it is.” (T-shirt caption.)

The above snippets link together, and to David Attenborough’s 2-part Radio 4 series this week on The Waterside Influence on human evolution, and in the process we need to explain why supposed scientists misbehave in the face of this idea:

Groupism in Science

Scientists go into their field usually with a view of becoming a good scientist; but to have a career in science you have to foster that career. So being a scientist, like being a politician, or an internet phenomenon, or almost anything, is a two-horse business: you must ride both your career horse and the “core business” horse if you are to “succeed”.

Unfortunately for Core Business horses around the world, most people are much better at Doing The Social Thing. They enjoy it more too. That’s because going around and contacting people, in person and these days on the net, and establishing mutual bonds of liking, respect and co-operation, are evolutionarily desirable, so evolution has made it almost universally enjoyable. The reason it’s unfortunate is that establishing how good you are at the core business is almost always contaminated by your (or others’!) success at socialising, and sometimes dominated by it. I believe I once heard a story about someone feeling hard done by because a colleague spent lots of time on the golf course with their boss, and got the promotion, without being any better at the job. You may have heard that story too.

Not only is the work of good performers at the Core Business at risk from specialist Socialisers, but there’s more damage to the core process:

The core business becomes a sideshow to the social operation, leading to more and more decisions being made in terms of social rules, especially rules of Group Behaviour: please others by supporting many people’s ideas – good. Come up with disruptive ideas – bad.

Science is all about coming up with new ideas. That’s why groupist behaviour is bad for science.

But groupist behaviour is very useful in a social animal for passing on your genes. That’s why war is so popular.

The worst thing of all is when worth – all worth, even in terms of morality as well as the core business – becomes judged by how well you please others in the group. Then, errors in a groupist culture become very difficult to correct or control. That’s why the national and group leaders you hate the most, got as bad as they did: the moral framework gets warped by local influences.

Then there’s the problem that outsiders with no understanding of the core business, can’t make judgements except through group performance. Other groupist organisations, especially those involved with pleasing people not just inside the organisation but outside, are especially bad at understanding there is ever any argument that can’t be judged by a democratic measure of popularity. (Martin Redfern, Alice Roberts, et al. at the BBC: This Means You.)

Also, anyone trying to drag judgements back onto a core business basis, gets seen as complicated, incomprehensible, pedantic of course, boring, irrelevant, weird, and eventually mad. (Weirdly, the word weird originally meant “able to control the fate of men”. At some point between the Indo-European era and the social media era, I think it may have changed its meaning.)

Even if instinct didn’t drive groupism, most people have been brought up amongst groupist examples; in most countries groupism was the standard, if not last generation then the one before, and certainly the one before that. Even if blatant sexism and racism are now often out of fashion, the groupist tendency is still intrinsic; it’s still standard practice in academic circles to call those better than you cranks, and block them secretly in every way you can.

Not the least menace is that you can’t feel yourself slipping across to the Dark Side! I’ve seen it happen any number of times. Try telling people they’re caving to peer pressure, and they won’t believe you. But they will hate you. I think the main group able to understand this, to notice the groupism creeping over them, and to resist it, is psychologists: not because they’re incorrigibly weird (though we are), but because the training gives so many examples of people completely believing something blatantly wrong (in either sense), often specifically under group pressure. However, sociologists, philosophers, and those with firm morals, sometimes the religious, are often also resistant to the creeping menace.

So now we’ve seen why groupism infects science, and why it harms it, let’s jump straight to the main criticism made of the Waterside Hypothesis (or whatever name) by groupist scientists…


“Oh, there’s absolutely no evidence for it!”

This criticism has a wonderful side effect of implying your opponent doesn’t even understand the need for evidence, and further, they’re some kind of muddle headed ignoramus… and this becomes the dominant impression your message communicates.

OK Alice Roberts, David Marjanovic, John Hawks, Jim Moore of, Kate Wong, Henry Gee et al. et al,… when exactly did you make a detailed investigation of the nature of evidence sharp enough to computerise, and then relate it to other sciences? You haven’t done anything remotely resembling that because you’ve never had enough interest in any aspect of cognition to become knowledgeable about it. As a result, every time you say anything about evidence, you show you don’t understand it.

A piece of evidence is an observation that helps choose the best theory. Since there is a potential infinity of theories you or people in the future could construct to explain any set of observations, even if a theory accounts for all the evidence, this doesn’t prove it is true. Because of this, you can never prove any theory true, at least not in the natural sciences. Even if it’s the only theory around now that covers all the evidence, that doesn’t stop further theories in the future from explaining it better.

So evidence lacks the power of positive proof. However as theories are required to explain observations, if they fail to explain/account for/predict one or more of the observations they are supposed to explain, they have failed the requirement of a theory.

That’s why evidence always acts in a destructive manner. For example, if you had a theory that all the most recent “20” or so African fossil species (let’s call them) of pre-human, “ape-man-ish” nature, are all more closely related to the human ancestry than to chimps or gorillas, as every person I mentioned three paragraphs ago does, your theory has at a first estimate, one chance in 3 to the power of 20 of being right. That’s an example of evidence acting negatively. And since none of those mostly overpaid punters above has even acknowledged the problem, it’s also an example of not being able to put simple statistics and the basic scientific principle together well enough to be called a scientist. And since every time someone points out your incompetence in this, you blame the problem on them, it’s evidence inconsisent with a basic standard of professional morality. And if you’re happy to include overtones that anyone who disagrees with you has psychiatric issues, thus seeming to be claiming expertise in that area though no professional in that area would behave like that, it is further evidence better supporting the view that you are a charlattan than that you are not. (In fact in her 2014 book which didn’t have to cite mine because she could find an excuse not to, Roberts acknowledged that the ancestors of chimps and even gorillas might have been upright, yet also took uprightness to be diagnostic of the human lineage. Messy thinking not worthy of being published as science, and not worthy of a science professor.)

But if the observation is that many more humanish fossils seem associated with shellfish than would be expected if human ancestors almost never exploited the waterside, then that observation is better explained by a theory that does posit a waterside habit. So that is evidence for: it’s certainly evidence, and somewhat against competing theories. But it’s not evidence that destroys all other theories, which is what the Old Guard say is required. They say that, because they still, subconsciously at least but usually consciously, believe in the positive nature of evidence, and in a version where they won’t start to consider an outsider’s theory until it has already completely proved their own theory impossible. Also of course, it’s standard groupism to apply the strictest acceptance criteria to non-group theories (or people), while applying scarcely any at all to their own. For example waterside theories were expected to make predictions when the Old Guard never required it of theirs. In fact, in historical sciences predictive endorsement is rare compared to simple explanation of pre-existing observations.

Other observations are indeed evidence against the waterside theories’ opponents; listen again to the radio programmes or read Marc Verhaegen.

Whos’s bad?!

Alice Roberts tweeted to ask if the contributors to Attenborough’s programme knew it was so positive towards the aquatic view. Wish on. Those that don’t advertise their support of it are being careful to avoid Roberts trying to damage others’ careers before their good work damages her own reputation. In the last year or two she has flicked the tweet “Bonkers” at the aquatic theory. Well, if your theory requires that David Attenborough is bonkers, you may as well give up – quite apart from all the other people you want to colour bonkers. There is no “strangely” in what Roberts terms “the strangely enduring nature…” of the waterside idea. It endures because people better at science than her think it’s a good theory. What I find strangely enduring is the habit of paying any posers skilled mainly in scientist-impersonation, to occupy positions where they can block good science.

John Hawks tweeted “Even Homer nods”, meaning even great ones such as Attenborough make mistakes. Actually he hasn’t made any error here, but Hawks has made a few blunders:

* No chimp or gorilla fossils found. (And no consideration of the anomaly, so that’s two in one.)
* Extraordinarily low rate of viral insertions in the recent human lineage if 7 million years is assumed – much better explained by reducing the chimp-human split to 4.15 million years ago.
* Confusing the parent-to-offspring mutation rate with the long term genetic clock.

Clumsy brushstrokes like that make his overall picture a nonsense. About what you’d expect of someone without a proper science degree, quickly promoted to the point where he was too self-important to listen. I don’t care if he can code; as John Maynard Smith said, any idiot can write a computer program. Hawks may be good at getting his message out but he’s not as good as Osama bin Laden, and I disagree with some of his ideas on evolution too.

As real philosophy of science simply isn’t taught, not even on the way to PhDs in scientific disciplines, it is only those who can think for themselves and have the power, like Attenborough, or the freedom like Verhaegen, Morgan, Greg Paul, Algis Kuliukas etc. or myself, who can make real headway through the jungles of palaeontology. We have to put up with groupist incompetent professors pissing down our backs and telling us it’s raining, but we have the consolation of the acknowledgement of posterity, and the satisfaction of making the scientific discoveries.

This entry was posted in Human evolution, Philosophy of science, The Secret Dinobird Story, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Defending David Attenborough: Groupism And Incompetence

  1. Refreshingly honest post. I have experienced this kind of groupishness on this subject for much of the last twenty years.

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