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Massimo’s choice (actually, his pledge)

Published on 09 April 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Massimo PIGLIUCCI , a professor of philosophy of science as well as ecology, has published a pledge in his blog Scientia Salon. Under the provocative title: The history of garbage is scholarship, he argues that i. a. part of the scientific output is, well, garbage, or as he puts it more politely: “I cannot begin to tell you about the countless number of research seminars in biology I have attended over decades, and about which the recurrent commentary in my own head (and, occasionally, with colleagues and students, after a glass of wine) was: ‘clever, but who cares.’ ”

Massimo concludes by posting a three-part “pledge” to be circulated widely, and to become the beacon for “fellow academics.” Here is the pledge:

  • To my students, to provide them with the highest quality teaching that I am capable of, and never to refer to my duties in this respect as a ‘load.’
  • To my fellow citizens, to devote a substantial amount of my time and intellectual energy to engaging in public debate aimed at together figuring out a way to ameliorate our problems as human beings.
  • To my fellow academics, to engage in the type of scholarship that can reasonably pass the Dennett double test: (i) it can be fruitfully explained to bright but untrained undergraduates; and (ii) it is of the type that people outside of a narrow group of graduate students and professionals in my own field can be brought to actually care about.

Prof. Pigliucci’s argument does not specifically address the first two bullets – so I shall not discuss them here (I’d support both pledges on their face – with a caveat on the second, but that is another story).

The core issue is the third bullet: the tendency of academics to study “chmess,” a variety of chess with little relevance to the real world. So the question would seem to be: why would people who have committed themselves to rational inquiry behave “irrationally?”

Prof. Pigliucci does not explain this. He simply proposes a cure for the phenomenon – the pledge. It aims at self-improvement. There is no jot wrong in Prof. Pigliucci’s approach. He grounds it in the enthymeme: “talk rationally to people committed to rational inquiry.”

Yet, might there be a way to enrich the discussion, looking at the issue from a different angle, and find an easier way to solve the problem? I have a hunch that this might be possible – that the “rational individual” approach may be missing part of human reality. Introducing an anthropological and social-psychology perspective may lead us to improved understanding of the chess/chmess phenomenon, and we may find added ways to move toward Prof. Pigliucci’s more than justified goal.

My unproven “working hypothesis” – sort of a Bayesian first guess – is that humans are both individuals and members of one (or many) groups at the same time. Their identity is akin to a coin with two sides, and each agent is forever torn between which of the two sides to prefer. This leads to inherent uncertainty or at least fuzziness about individual behavior.

My next hunch is that often the “social” side prevails. When push comes to shove: being a member of a group – in this case academia – might often trump the autonomous commitment to “scientific truth.” If scientists were to be placed before the existential choice: “peer acceptance vs. truth,” many might choose group solidarity over truth. According to my conjecture, celebrating and strengthening the social cohesion of the group would seem paramount. Let’s follow this hunch a bit further.

In science, one wants to discover nature’s hidden rules – Thomas Kuhn called this “problem solving.” One establishes a working hypothesis and confronts it with the material reality. Reality is a hard (and subtle) task-master. A breakthrough from the hypothesis to the rules is the exception; mostly, it is a long and frustrating process of trial and error. The outcome is forever uncertain.

Thomas Kuhn argues: “Normal science means research firmly based upon one or past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for bits of further practice.” The aim is no longer the discovery of unknown rules; it is the proper application of known rules, which validated by the scientific community has previously validated. It is “puzzle solving” – to use Kuhn’s words again. Skilful manipulation has replaced discovery as the criterion for success.

With a modicum of application, one can master manipulation of rules and gain acceptance within the scientific community. Wanting to belong and succeed within the scientific community, a risk-minimizing researcher learns manipulative skills of known rules, rather than risk everything in a search for unknown rules. This is the essence of chmess.

With chmess, skilful manipulation of the agreed rules replaces struggle with the unknown. There is neither surprise nor disappointment: success is there every time. One can go on indefinitely playing chmess (how many times has one played Sudoku?): the system is capacious if repetitive (and mostly uninteresting). Finally, chmess allows a (welcome) pecking order within the group to emerge (again, remember the ratings in Sudoku): the rating rewards manipulative skill. If a scientist craves acceptance, chmess is the way to go.

The pointer to the social character of such “ordinary science” is unmistakable. We may not have so much irrational as socially-motivated behavior. If one wants to change such individual behavior, one might want to change the social setting motivating the individual. Asking the agent to go against the grain of the social setting may prove difficult.

Anthropologically, there may be just a passing (and amusing) resemblance between playing chmess and potlatch – rituals within a social group aiming to capture prominent political, kinship and religious roles. We have the conspicuous display of papers, the celebration of “big men” of the scientific community who have set the rules; and in my view the most prominent element: the celebration of inclusion of all participants. The “big men” may be jaded by the ritual, but the “little men” are thrilled. We see this in religious festivals, where it is the common people who are the most active. It is the moment when they feel that they “belong.”

We may view all of the above as being unsupported hunches, weak analogies – so is the reflection useful? I think so.

If my hunch is right, then addressing the “rational individual” is unlikely to yield generalized change in behavior. In fact, those most likely to play chmess will be most reluctant to change, for they are the least equipped to “solve problems,” yet they will fear exclusion if they stray from the trodden path – even though the path may be circular. Expect self-affirming criticism of Prof. Pigliucci’s proposal, rejection, or simply neglect. At best, the community might split into “with-” and “without-” pledge sub-groups, each vying for the “high ground.”

What would I suggest? I’m not a social psychologist, but my hunch is that Prof. Pigliucci’s pledge might include the creation of “quality circles” of scientists wishing to implement the pledge. Fellow signatories gather and would help each other to change, stabilizing appropriate behavior, advising each other on how to put the pledge into practice. Strayers may gently be brought back into the fold; doubts may be assuaged, and mutual help may facilitate the identification of “problems” rather than “puzzles.” Coercion is out, but patient nudging is in. These groups would be small but could have structured connections like wine grapes. Hopefully, over time one would get a bandwagon effect, and a new “social paradigm” would emerge in academia, reflecting Prof. Pigliucci’s concerns (and more). What I’m proposing, in short, is a mechanism – the support group – for silently changing academic mentalities.

I do not know, at this stage, whether such support groups will eventually dissolve into individual autonomies – whether we will be able to dispense with mentalities. My hunch is that we’ll need some sort of mentality – hopefully a better one that the wasteful display of rote routine papers. Few people are ready to become fully “autonomous.” Fred Hoyle argued: “Home is where the wind blows” – few would follow him in standing in the social gale.

My suggestion is rooted in ignorance, rather than deducted from enthymemes (self-evident, if provisional, truths). As with any Bayesian process, my approach is not subject to (vulgar) Popperianism: improvement, not falsification is the point. This has the welcome collateral effect of being inclusive of criticisms and avoiding dichotomies and categorizations. I may close with a quote from Sir David CANNADINE: “Most academics are trained to look for divergences and disparities, rather than for similarities and affinities, but this relentless urge to draw distinctions often results in important connections and resemblances being overlooked.

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