Lectures, Teams, and the Pursuit of Truth

One of these days, soon, I’ll post something about teaching. Since I’m not teaching this year, I have had a chance to pull together some thoughts about it.

In the meantime, here are a few comments I posted elsewhere. First, I discovered, to my great surprise, that Andrew Gelman seeks to “change everything at once” about statistics instruction—that is, make the instruction student-centered (with as little lecturing as possible), have interactive software that tests and matches students’ levels, measure students’ progress, and redesign the syllabus. While each of these ideas has merit and a proper place, the “change everything” approach seems unnecessary. Why not look for a good combination of old and new? Why abandon the lecture (and Gelman’s wonderful lectures in particular)?

But I listened to the keynote address (that the blog post announced) and heard a much subtler story. Instead of trumpeting the “change everything” mantra into our poor buzzword-ringing heads, Gelman asked questions and examined complexities and difficulties. Only in the area of syllabus did he seem sure of an approach. In the other areas, he was uncertain but looking for answers. I found the uncertainty refreshing but kept on wondering, “why assume that you need to change everything? Isn’t there something worth keeping right here, in this very keynote address about uncertainties?”

Actually, the comment I posted says less than what I have said here, so I won’t repeat it. I have made similar points elsewhere (about the value of lectures, for instance).

Next, I responded to Drake Baer’s piece (in New York Magazine’s Science of Us section), “Feeling Like You’re on a Team at Work Is So Deeply Good for You.” Apparently a research team (ironic, eh?) lead by Niklas Steffens at University of Queensland found that, in Baer’s words, “the more you connect with the group you work with—regardless of the industry you’re in—the better off you’ll be.”

In my comment, I pointed out that such associations do not have to take the form of a team—that there are other structures and collegial relations. The differences do matter; they affect the relation of the individual to the group. Not everything is a team. Again, no need to repeat. I haven’t yet read the meta-study, but I intend to do so.

Finally, I responded to Jesse Singal’s superb analysis of psychology’s “methodological terrorism” debate. Singal points to an underlying conflict between Susan Fiske’s wish to protect certain individuals and others’ call for frank, unbureaucratic discussion and criticism. To pursue truth, one must at times disregard etiquette. (Tal Yarkoni, whom Singal quotes, puts it vividly.) There’s much more to Singal’s article; it’s one of the most enlightening new pieces I have read online all year. (In this case, by “year” I  mean 2016, not the past twelve days since Rosh Hashanah.)

That’s all for now. Next up: a piece on teaching (probably in a week or so). If my TEDx talk gets uploaded in the meantime (it should be up any day now), I’ll post a link to it.

Science ≠ Community

communityI enjoy Andrew Gelman’s blog; it’s a great place if you have heard too many false and flashy “research has shown” and “science tells us” statements and want to know (a) where such research goes wrong and (b) why these errors don’t get attention. The blog attracts readers and commenters from many fields and perspectives; some of the comments could be pieces on their own.

Recently there was an enlightening post followed by lively discussion of Susan Fiske’s call for an end to the reign of “destructo-critics” and “self-employed data police” in social media—that is, those who employ “methodological terrorism” in criticizing others’ research. She doesn’t name names or give any concrete examples, so it isn’t clear who the “destructo-critics” are. She does suggest, though, that the legitimate channels for criticism are peer review or “curated” discussion. That is, she opposes not just nasty tweets, vicious personal attacks, and so forth, but (possibly) any unsanctioned critical commentary on research. In her conclusion, she says, “Ultimately, science is a community,  and we are all in it together.”

A community, eh? That rings a bell….

A commenter (“Plucky”) seized this sentence this and gave it a good shaking:

The key problem with Fiske is this sentence: “Ultimately, Science is a community, and we are all in it together.”

That is just flat-out wrong, and wrong in the ways that result in all that you have criticized. Science is not a community, it is a method.

That’s just the beginning; “Plucky” goes on to explain the dangers of the “community” metaphor. I recommend reading the whole comment. Here’s another choice quote:

My main criticism of this post is the stages of the metaphor—you’re nowhere near six feet of water in Evangeline. If Science devolves into merely a community, then it’s just another political interest group which will be treated as such.

I then remembered the many times I had heard the phrase “the consensus of the scientific community,” along with references to Thomas Kuhn, who supposedly coined it. Kuhn actually said, “What better criterion could there be … than the decision of the scientific group?” He explained what he meant by this, but I consider the statement problematic at best, even in context.

Kuhn aside, I use the word “community” sparingly and cautiously. Many entities that call themselves communities are not communities or should not be. As “Plucky” notes, “communities do not generally value the truth over their members’ well-being.” They exist to support their members.

In fact, someone who wishes to challenge a prevailing idea must often speak independently, without waiting for “community” approval. Dana Carney has just done this in relation to “power poses.” (This is big news, by the way.)

I do not disparage communities overall. Communities of various kinds have a place in the world, and I belong to a few. Still, even the best communities can ask themselves, “To what extent is this a community, and whom do we leave out?” and “What goals does this community not serve, and where does it even counter them?” The point is not to make the community all-encompassing but rather to recognize its limitations.

When it comes to science, I’ll take an open forum over a community any day.

 

Note: I added the paragraph about Carney after posting this piece.
Update: Writing for
Science of Us (New York Magazine), Jesse Singal reported this morning on Carney’s statement and explanation.