Well, I finished with my exam this evening and sent it off. We’ll see how that goes – I still have to put together and do a presentation in two weeks time. But since I’m back, in the mean time I thought I’d take the time to shift gears and do some writing again.
And one of the things that caught my eye yesterday was this piece by Satoshi Kanazawa over at Psychology Today, fetching entitled “What if it turns out the Earth was flat after all?” Kanazawa is lamenting the rise of the Freudian explanation for homosexuality in the 1960s, which displaced nascent explanations based on genetics and in utero development. In his last paragraph, Kanazawa writes:
What happened? How did we go wrong? How could scientists in the early 1960s abandon (what we know today to be) the true theory of male sexual orientation for such Freudian nonsense? In 1966, I was in kindergarten; I was too busy writing a (not terribly original) sequel to 101 Dalmatians to stay abreast of the cutting-edge frontiers in sex research. (I also believed that girls had cooties, so I would not have made a good objective scientist then.) But if this kind of reversal of knowledge can happen, if scientific knowledge is not cumulative but cyclical, as sociologists and philosophical conventionalists and relativists would have you believe, then how can we trust any of the knowledge that we produce? How do we know, for example, that the earth is not flat after all? We once believed that the earth was flat, but the notion was abandoned in preference for the new idea that the earth was round. How do we know that, at some point in the future, it will not turn out that the earth was flat after all, as the ancients always believed?
Kanazawa makes two surprisingly basic errors here. The first is exceedingly obvious: the ancients didn’t believe that the world was flat. Eratosthenes, for example, had already worked out an estimate for the circumference of the Earth as far back as 240 B.C. (I’m nearing the end of a great book that deals with the way our view of the Earth has evolved over the centuries; I think that Kanazawa would find it an enlightening read).
His second error is a little less obvious, but much more important. The error is committed in the last paragraph, but it’s set up in the first:
Science is a cumulative endeavor. We build on past knowledge to attain even greater knowledge than before in a progressive manner. Unfortunately, however, science doesn’t always work as it should.
The view that Kanazawa puts forth of science, as a straight forward and exceedingly linear progression, is fairly simplistic. Reality is a bit more complicated: science progresses, and it will always move forward (eventually), but the speed and direction of the movement of scientific knowledge is dependent on evidence. When evidence comes quickly and in large amounts, science moves forward quickly and with increasing accuracy. When evidence is scant or non-existent, scientific knowledge can meander back and forth or even double back.
And it is this context that Kanazawa misses. In the 1960s, genetics was still a relatively young empirical science, and the evidence concerning possible genetic underpinnings to homosexuality was still weak, at best. With little to no evidence allowing scientists to make a selection between two competing theories, it is no surprise that the scientific community could be dragged off-course. And, of course, when the evidence began to accumulate for a more complete view of the origin of homosexuality, one based on a better understanding of the interaction between genetics, development, and environment – well, the scientific community adjusted course appropriately.
As to the notion that scientific thought is cyclical, well, I don’t have a lot of time for that nonsense. People who believe that science is cyclical or just a matter of convention need to stop using antibiotics, using their computer, wearing modern clothes, eating food, … well, my point should be obvious. Science isn’t infalliable by any means, but the community is not going to suddenly ignore mounds of accumulated evidence and adopt a false belief. It may go astray when there is no evidence to lead it by the hand, but there is little need to worry: the world is still round.