Friday, May 13, 2011

Political scientist Henry Farrell, in comments, links approvingly to a profile of Paul Krugman
A few years ago, Krugman, having decided that he was going to be writing about politics and so he should know more about it, did a very Krugman thing. He didn’t talk to people who worked in Washington. Instead, he started to read the political-science literature. Krugman had never understood the press coverage of politics, which seemed to emphasize its most irrelevant aspects. Why dwell on a presidential candidate’s psychology when the trends in unemployment would tell you who would win an election? But viewed through the prism of political science, politics began to seem much more familiar to him. There was a mathematics to it—you could assemble data, draw correlations, understand what was essential and what was noise. The underlying shape of politics came sweeping into view: If you arranged members of Congress from left to right based on how they voted on welfare-state issues—Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance—it turned out that this left-to-right axis could predict every other vote: On Iraq expenditures, on abortion, whatever. “When you realize the fundamental divide in U.S. politics is just this one- dimensional thing, and that is how you feel about the welfare state,” Krugman says, “that changes things.”
An actual scientist responds...
Even biologists who have made fundamental contributions to our understanding of what the actual genetic changes are in the evolution of species cannot resist the temptation to defend evolution against its know-nothing enemies by appealing to the fact that biologists are always able to provide plausible scenarios for evolution by natural selection. But plausibility is not science. True and sufficient explanations of particular examples of evolution are extremely hard to arrive at because we do not have world enough and time. The cytogeneticist Jakov Krivshenko used to dismiss merely plausible explanations, in a strong Russian accent that lent it greater derisive force, as “idel specoolations.”

Even at the expense of having to say “I don’t know how it evolved” most of the time, biologists should not engage in idle speculations.
In trying to analyze the natural world, scientists are seldom aware of the degree to which their ideas are influenced both by their way of perceiving the everyday world and by the constraints that our cognitive development puts on our formulations. At every moment of perception of the world around us, we isolate objects as discrete entities with clear boundaries while we relegate the rest to a background in which the objects exist.
I've linked to the first piece by Lewontin before.
Politics is complicated, even in this country.

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