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Darwin on the Need for Speculation in Science
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One of the less terrible reviews of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance was the Wall Street Journal essay by Henry Louis Gates and a Harvard geneticist. Gates reposted it on his page on The Root with the following heading:

Why It’s Time to End Speculation About Race in Genomics

Genomic technology makes it possible to stop using science to make the case for the superiority or inferiority of any race, Harvard scholars David Altshuler and Henry Louis Gates Jr. argue in an incisive piece at the Wall Street Journal.

BY: DAVID ALTSHULER AND HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.
Posted: June 8 2014 1:25 PM

That seems to be the more highbrow fallback position: Wade admits (prominently) that chapters 6 to 10 are “speculative,” and we all know speculation isn’t Science!

Of course, as F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested, the crucial test of a first rate mind is to not get stumped when we run into the common pattern that good things tend to be a blend of seeming opposites. For example, scientific progress needs both reliable facts and speculation. Thus, to “end speculation” is to end the advance of science (which may be the point).

That’s not an original insight. One of the more important exchanges of letters in scientific history was between naturalists Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin in 1857-58. In 1857 the younger Wallace, on a collecting trip in Southeast Asia, wrote the better-known Darwin about his still evolving ideas on evolution. Darwin gave the reply below encouraging Wallace to speculate, with epochal consequences.

(Early in 1858, Wallace independently conceived of the mechanism of natural selection, which Darwin had been working on since the 1830s, and dispatched to Darwin an essay entitled “On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties.” Darwin’s friends arranged for a joint reading of Wallace’s essay and a couple of pieces by Darwin establishing his priority at a scientific meeting on July 1, 1858, which Darwin followed up in 1859 with his big book on The Origins of Species. (Wallace, who strikes me as one of the saintlier men in scientific history, was always a good sport about it.)

Here’s part of Darwin’s 1857 response to Wallace:

Darwin, C. R. to Wallace, A. R.
22 Dec 1857

Down Bromley Kent.

Dec. 22/57

My dear Sir

I thank you for your letter of Sept. 27th—f1 I am extremely glad to hear that you are attending to distribution in accordance with theoretical ideas. I am a firm believer, that without speculation there is no good & original observation.



Few travellers have <at>tended to such points as you are now at work on; & indeed the whole subject of distribution of animals is dreadfully behind that of Plants.— You say that you have been somewhat surprised at no notice having been taken of your paper in the Annals:f2 I cannot say that I am; for so very few naturalists care for anything beyond the mere description of species. But you must not suppose that your paper has not been attended to: two very good men, Sir C. Lyell & Mr E. Blyth at Calcutta specially called my attention to it.f3 Though agreeing with you on your conclusion<s> in that paper, I believe I go much further than you; but it is too long a subject to enter on my speculative notions.— …

… You ask whether I shall discuss “man”;—I think I shall avoid whole subject, as so surrounded with prejudices, though I fully admit that it is the highest & most interesting problem for the naturalist.— My work, on which I have now been at work more or less for 20 years, will not fix or settle anything; but I hope it will aid by giving a large collection of facts with one definite end: I get on very slowly, partly from ill-health, partly from being a very slow worker.— I have got about half written; but I do not suppose I shall publish under a couple of years. I have now been three whole months on one chapter on Hybridism!f11

I am astonished to see that you expect to remain out 3 or 4 years more:f12 what a wonderful deal you will have seen; & what interesting areas,—the grand Malay Archipelago & the richest parts of S. America!— I infinitely admire & honour your zeal & courage in the good cause of Natural Science; & you have my very sincere & cordial good wishes for success of all kinds; & may all your theories succeed, except that on oceanic islands, on which subject I will do battle to the death

Pray believe me. | My dear Sir | Yours very sincerely | C. Darwin [Bold highlighting mine]

 
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  1. Steve Sailer was right in opposing the Altshuler/Gates call to an end of speculation of race in genomics. Wade made an good argument that race is a biological construct that is informative.

    But speculation was perhaps a poor choice of words. Hypothesis is better and a hypothesis needs to be tested. I think the whole point behind Wade’s “speculative” chapters was to demonstrate historical and contemporaneous patterns that suggest heritable social behavior that is in need of hypothesis testing and further research. The book would be dull with only a body slam of the race deniers and a historical summary colored with some ethical niceties. The science needs to be promoted.

    Charles Murray predicted the “speculative” parts would be attacked. Why are Wade’s critics so eager to not test any of his hypothesis? Are they not scientists?

  2. Is anything written by Henry Louis Gates of other than pathological interest?

  3. This prohibition on speculation in science is, of course, one-sidedly applied. Speculation is regarded as irresponsible, indeed dangerous, when it threatens political correctness.

    I managed successfully to edit a journal of scientific speculation for seven years until a PC lobby group spotted a hypothetical paper written by a non-person who had been successfully excluded (airbrushed?) from the officially-indexed literature for a decade, the conclusions of which conflicted with their approved view; at which point scientific speculation was regarded as so hazardous that the editor needed sacking and the journal was censored by the publishers (all accepted papers were screened by managers to exclude any non-PC items).

    http://medicalhypotheses.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/medical-hypotheses-affair-times-higher.html

    What was said to me, by several people, that although the speculative nature of the article was explicitly included in the journal’s name, and in the statement at the beginning of the journal – and the journal was explicitly, proudly and combatively NOT peer reviewed; ‘some people’ might misunderstand it, or it might be misrepresented, and therefore such ideas should not be published anywhere.

    This has now become accepted.

    But ‘science’, or should I say the career of ‘professional research’, is by now so deeply corrupted that this kind of thing is of no interest and is no reason for concern.

    Consequently, in my own field, you were for a decade or more more likely to find honesty, hard thinking and interesting speculations in journalism, blogs or books than in the official literature – but now it seems clear that the prohibition on non-PC speculation is incrementally being extended to *all* forms of communication.

  4. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    There is no inherent problem with speculation in science; indeed, it’s the driving force. Speculation (with an insubstantial basis) becomes a problem when it gets published in book form by well-known authors. Speculation then is treated as reality by people who arrive at the subject with prior prejudices, which are subsequently strengthened and sometimes acted upon. White supremacists latch on to this book and say “See, we always told you that n*****s were dumb savages, and now a respected New York Times reporter has written a book about it“. People without adequate scientific backgrounds, and those who think more emotionally than scientifically (the majority of humans) do start accepting these speculations as reality and develop biases in their daily lives. If that is indeed the goal of people on this forum, then you have succeeded eminently. Congratulations!

    People like Steve Sailer would be more credible on this topic if they treated other “speculations” about the causes of human diversity with respect, instead of mocking them continuously and portraying Wade’s speculations as trumping the rest (which include Diamond’s speculations about environmental causes, and the laundry list of books written about how historical events and culture affects the development of people.)

  5. Priss Factor [AKA "Cloudcastler"] says:

    What happened to ‘hypothesis’?

  6. Isn’t an hypothesis nothing more than a speculation that needs testing?

  7. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “Speculation then is treated as reality by people who arrive at the subject with prior prejudices, which are subsequently strengthened and sometimes acted upon.”

    Yes, only the priesthood should be allowed to define reality. Otherwise, pay no attention to the king wearing no clothes.

    All people have prior prejudices, that’s just about the definition of intelligence. You have prejudices about this matter.

    “People like Steve Sailer would be more credible on this topic if they treated other “speculations” about the causes of human diversity with respect…”

    I don’t think so. I think Steve tries to give other “speculations” the respect they deserve. For instance, his noting the importance of iodine in children’s diet. The problem you run into is that sooner or later you have to move, as Darwin writes, from speculation to the “observational” part. It’s observing that keeps you honest. And you have to keep subjecting things to observation and “honesty checks”. Are the speculations true or false? You have to start “believing your lying eyes”. You have to start learning about the problem you are studying. It’s hard work and it never ends. You never know the full truth.

    If, after working hard on observing, you give every speculation equivalent respect, you have failed to learn from your observations. If you insist on always treating all speculations with equivalent respect, pretty soon you are respecting theories (speculations) that it’s all due to the thought beams of the Pleiadians or the Raelians or whatever.

  8. Bruce Charlton’s comment is superb:

    “Speculation is regarded as irresponsible, indeed dangerous, when it threatens political correctness.”

    sadly, science would bend over backward for a journal entitled “PC Hypotheses”
    (& we can imagine who its staff would be.)

    speculation involving long-winded, non-parsimonious PC accounts is encouraged – a few fields in particular ought to be ashamed of themselves (psych, soc, socio-cultural anthro, education, etc.)

  9. “Andrew says:
    June 15, 2014 at 5:24 am

    Charles Murray predicted the “speculative” parts would be attacked. Why are Wade’s critics so eager to not test any of his hypothesis? Are they not scientists?”

    A lot of scientists these days are not very curious. One need only consider the actions of many of the leading “climate scientists” – they have focussed on one particular factor in the Earth’s climate and seem oblivious to all others.

  10. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    In 2007 in the NY Times, the same Dr. Altshuler told us that:

    “I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life researching how much genetic variability there is between populations,” said Dr. David Altshuler, director of the Program in Medical and Population Genetics at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. “But living in America, it is so clear that the economic and social and educational differences have so much more influence than genes. People just somehow fixate on genetics, even if the influence is very small.”

    Was that rampant speculation?

  11. Hysterisis

  12. Why are Wade’s critics so eager to not test any of his hypothesis? Are they not scientists?

    No, they most certainly are not.

  13. Comment 4:
    People like Steve Sailer would be more credible on this topic if they treated other “speculations” about the causes of human diversity with respect, instead of mocking them continuously and portraying Wade’s speculations as trumping the rest (which include Diamond’s speculations about environmental causes, and the laundry list of books written about how historical events and culture affects the development of people.)

    You do not have any credibility commenting on matters of science when you cannot even model environmental and genetic interaction in your mind.

    People without adequate scientific backgrounds, and those who think more emotionally than scientifically (the majority of humans) do start accepting these speculations as reality and develop biases in their daily lives. If that is indeed the goal of people on this forum, then you have succeeded eminently. Congratulations!

    Such as yourself and the rest of the emotional liberal clowns. One of the usual, absurd, and biggest examples of pot & kettle

  14. IIRC, Henry Harpending and Greg Cochran speculated on the probability that humans had Neanderthal admixture in their book, The Ten-Thousand Year Evolution, without any evidence to back them up. That was shortly before evidence came rolling in that their hypothesis was, in fact, correct. Their speculation seemed sound to me, but the evidence did not yet exist at the time of publication.

    Yes, speculation can be referred to as a hypothesis, but some speculation may be beyond the reach of evidence. It’s possible that we may never have been able to prove Neanderthal admixture. The speculation may not have been testable, but it wouldn’t have been pointless.

  15. Priss Factor [AKA "Cloudcastler"] says:

    Technically speaking, prior to genetic science, Darwinism was a theory, not a fact, even though a very powerful one.

  16. The PC Klan says that there are inherent substantive differences between races that justify affirmative discrimination. There is no need to actively test specific individuals to verify that they possess their racial group’s je ne se quoi, stereotyping is appropriate here.

    But apparently attempting to substantiate the basis for “diversity” claims is too threatening to the PC Klan. If actual underlying genetic differences are acknowledged, then the diversity fairytale about only recognizing positive distinctions might be undermined.

    The argument against this book is that white supremacists will seize upon these notions to justify actions based on speculative racial differences. Isn’t this exactly what the diversity supremacists have been doing for the past four decades?

  17. HA says:

    People like Steve Sailer would be more credible on this topic if they treated other “speculations” about the causes of human diversity with respect, instead of mocking them continuously and portraying Wade’s speculations as trumping the rest (which include Diamond’s speculations about environmental causes, and the laundry list of books written about how historical events and culture affects the development of people.)

    I agree with you that Sailer often short changes culture, but otherwise, you’re off the mark. The climate-change “establishment view” sees no problem with mocking research they even suspect as being driven (or even supported) by petroleum interests. Mocking research that is regarded as being driven for the sole purpose of political correctness should not be beyond the pale. (This week it must be lead paint; the next, it must be insufficiently verbal parenting; the next, it’s lack of self-esteem, or that old standby, insufficient funding – when it comes to academic performance gaps, it seems as if any theory will be met with clucking approval by those in charge, so long as it prevents us from considering that genes might also be playing a role.) Also note that those who criticize Sailer seem to be 100% certain that his views are motivated solely by white supremacism (despite the nagging complications of Ashkenazi/Asian IQ scores).

    In the case of Diamond, IIRC, Sailer has stated that Diamond refused to (or was unable to) answer a basic question about adaptability to environments that Steve posed to him in person. That may be a tendentious take on Diamond’s response, or lack thereof, but to characterize that as simply mocking views he doesn’t agree with is unfair.

    The possibility that a hypothesis might give false comfort to racist rednecks should not be sufficient reason for refusing to even give it a fair hearing.

  18. […] i’m not a scientist. i don’t even play one on the internet. but i’ve had a lifelong interest in science, i’ve tried to keep up-to-date with the latest in scientific findings (as much as a layperson can do) — especially biology — for many years now, and i actually did take some science classes (including higher-level ones) in college, so i’m not entirely ignorant of how science works. and as far as i can see, speculation is a part of science. it must be. it’s the first step! speculation about the world is the brainstorming part of science — when hypotheses are built — it’s theory-building (theory with a small “t”). but, of course, speculating is just the start of scientific investigation — all the real investigative sciencey stuff has to follow it, of course. but there is definitely a place — a need! — in science for speculation — as darwin said. […]

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