A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 8 April 2017

No More Heroes

The name of Stephen Jay Gould is still widely cited as an authority on a wide variety of topics. In particular his book The Mismeasure of Man is currently fashionable as an antidote to Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein's The Bell Curve. I'm certain that I've heard him cited by an Oxford academic, and think though am less certain that I've heard him cited by one of my professors at CEU.

The problem is that, politically useful though his ideas may be, they range between the trivial, the utterly false, and the downright fraudulent. The most academically-weighty refutation of his claims is that of Arthur Jensen; the most sharply worded description of his crimes is Eliezer Yudkowsky's. Also, from the comments on that post:

  • He formed a reading group specifically to criticise E. O. Wilson's book, and published these criticisms; despite Wilson being 30 seconds' walk from where this group was held, he was never invited to come along to hear and respond to their counterarguments.
  • He fudged a historical dataset to support his conclusions in The Mismeasure of Man, then accused Samuel Morton, the long-dead creator of the dataset, of having himself manipulated the data. Reanalysis proved Morton innocent and Gould guilty.
Among those who know what they're talking about, he exists only as a punchbag (and, to be fair, the source of a couple of nice terms). But few among the wider population are aware that Gould was a fraud, and so he goes on, year after year, as the People's Expert on Intelligence.

Economics is understood by a larger proportion of the population than evolutionary biology, so John Kenneth Galbraith is no longer celebrated in the way that Gould is. In these days, after Friedman's great victories in the intellectual debates of the 60s and 70s, it is perhaps hard to imagine how economists were perceived in the 1950s. But back then, they were seen not as unhinged free marketeers (not that that's a fair description now, or even that it was for anything more than a short period in the 80s) but as some of the leading technocrats pulling us toward socialism. At their head were Paul Samuelson (who, since I'm not only mentioning him alongside Galbraith but also linking to a key error, I should clarify was a genuinely great academic who contributed crucial concepts to our understanding of economics, engaged seriously and honestly with those he disagreed with at a deep level, etc) and Galbraith. Although Galbraith fell out of what was regarded as economics, and is now read primarily by his son and by sociologists, the fact remains that as late as 2000 he was able to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom. (It's true that he didn't commit any academic crimes in the way that Gould did; his crimes were rather more mundane, like endorsing policies that killed millions of Indians, no biggie really).

These two men dominated the public discourse of their time, were widely respected, and have yet to receive the pissing-over that they both thoroughly deserve. This raises the question: who are today's Goulds?

One person who I unfortunately can't find now is an academic "researching" obesity, who served as a White House advisor, and was observed to have multiple "surveys" in which despite different numbers of letters being sent out, and some offering rewards for response and others not, there would always be the exact same number of responses.

An academic who is currently overrated, but nevertheless genuinely very good and worth reading, is Daniel Kahneman.

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