May 2016


Years back I criticized Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, specifically on the subjects of Greenland and Easter Island, and gave an update when new evidence on Greenland supported my critique. I had less criticism for his take on Haiti (or the other places discussed in the final section of the book). The more recent the history, the less we have to rely on Diamond’s often implausible speculation. But now it appears that by relying on the conventional wisdom, Diamond also exaggerated the environmental plight of Haiti. Hat-tip to Marginal Revolution.

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I’ve talked a little about the hierarchy of the sciences and what kinds of evidence are convincing. Greg is an actual scientist who has worked in both “hard” and “soft” fields. I’ve copied the following from here:
Obviously not. Jefferson said ‘error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.’ Milton said ‘who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? ‘ – but I’ve seen it put to the worse time and time again.

Jefferson and Milton were both wrong. Or, more exactly, they were in the ball park when talking about certain kinds of people working certain sorts of problems, but not in general. The truth game works best if your errors can be rapidly and unambiguously detected, as in mathematics. People who like to bullshit don’t even go into math: they’ll never get away with it.

Helps if the topics don’t inherently invoke lots of emotion: ultimately easier to think straight about electrons than than people, even though we’re pre-adapted to understanding people. And to be fair, electron behavior is simpler. One equation to rule them all. Also having strong practical applications is good at sorting out the bullshit: you can argue that there’s really a place for cavalry in modern warfare, but it’s hard to continue to do so after the machine guns have spoken, especially if you’re dead. And, for various reasons, certain cultures, in certain times and places, have been more inclined in this direction that the general run of humanity.

So, why isn’t sociology science? There is no logical reason why it couldn’t be – but it’s not. Reasons? several. Experiments are harder than in chemistry:bullshitters aren’t immediately flushed. And the topics rouse emotions. So most of the people who enter the field aren’t inclined to play the science game, and they don’t. Which is the problem with social psychology: the sort of people who go into it aren’t budding Hari Seldons, and there is no way to change them. (or is there? Brain surgery? electroshock?) Naxalt? Sure, but there aren’t enough. The field as a whole is unsound.

How could you fix the unscientific sciences? You would have to control entry, screen admission, so that only people who liked – needed!- to play the game could enter. Not just brains – people with the sort of personalities you find in astronomers or physicists – maybe even exaggerated versions of such personalities, since the temptations to go off the rails are so much greater in the social sciences. That for starters.