Sitting in on a case of expert disagreement

This is a short reac­tion piece to a talk titled ‘What do we really know about the UHECR?’ by Dr. Eti­enne Pari­zot at the Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Con­fer­ence ‘Con­tested Astro­physics’ on Tues­day the 12th of April 2016 in the Dublin Insti­tute of Advanced Stud­ies in Dublin. UHECR refers to ultra high energy cos­mic rays which are cos­mic par­ti­cles with a kinetic energy greater than 1×1018 eV.  For a nice intro­duc­tion to cos­mic rays see this link (Prof. Alan Wat­son). This talk was given as part of a wider inter­dis­ci­pli­nary project con­cern­ing expert dis­agree­ment ‘When Experts Dis­agree’. Astro­physics was cho­sen as a rel­a­tively ‘clean’ ref­er­ence point for a case study on expert dis­agree­ment given its dis­tance from polit­i­cal and eco­nomic moti­va­tions. I sat in as an observer. I don’t have access to the talk nor do I have details of all that went on. This is a brief sum­mary and descrip­tion of obser­va­tions I made that day. 

The room was filled with a mod­est but respectable num­ber of astro­physi­cists, philoso­phers and at least one anthro­pol­o­gist, the lat­ter being myself. Sat at the front was one espe­cially promi­nent aca­d­e­mic, a for­mer astronomer royal, Prof. Arnold Wolfendale. To such a diverse and illus­tri­ous audi­ence Eti­enne pre­sented his paper. Much of the sci­ence was lost on me but its cen­tral points were nonethe­less inter­est­ing. For many years Eti­enne said UHECR were believed to be pro­tons. Of course this could have been the case, he argued, but the con­vic­tion of some researchers led to the pur­suit of this hypoth­e­sis in the face of con­tra­dic­tory evi­dence. The empir­i­cal evi­dence of UHECR activ­ity, he argued, sug­gested that it might be other heav­ier nuclei, such as iron, rather than pro­tons. This ‘pro­ton prej­u­dice’, as he called it, led to inter­pre­ta­tions of obser­va­tional data that sup­ported the pro­ton the­ory. His only expla­na­tion was that this was down to sim­ple human foibles which caused this prej­u­dice. For exam­ple, the appeal to author­ity of the researchers who put for­ward these hypothe­ses, the fact that researchers had staked their rep­u­ta­tions on this being the case, and so on. In an area as highly empir­i­cal as this, it was inter­est­ing to see how researchers could still fall vic­tim to the less rea­son­able quirks of human psy­chol­ogy. Astro­physics may be largely a ‘clean’ ref­er­ence point, but it is nonethe­less framed by the nor­ma­tive as well as onto­log­i­cal and epis­te­mo­log­i­cal val­ues of the researchers, which includes the moti­va­tions for why researchers decided to do the work they spend their lives on.

Where the talk became more inter­est­ing still, was in an unex­pected devel­op­ment. As Eti­enne dis­cussed how UHECR activ­ity is mea­sured a dis­agree­ment broke out between two older physi­cists, Wolfendale being the more com­bat­ive, and Eti­enne, over the use of def­i­n­i­tions. No one dis­agreed vocally with the the­sis of his paper, despite his cau­tion­ary intro­duc­tory slide ‘These are highly sub­ver­sive slides’, but with cer­tain def­i­n­i­tions. Eti­enne noted that the meth­ods for record­ing UHECR were indi­rect. The detec­tors on the ground (illus­trated in the image below) mea­sure the activ­ity of the streams of par­ti­cles that hit them. As the UHECR can­not be directly observed, it is by infer­ence from the activ­ity of the par­ti­cles in the atmos­phere they affect, that infor­ma­tion about them is obtained. Eti­enne stated that the data obtained on the ground was about the activ­ity of the par­ti­cles observed, not the UHECR them­selves. This meant, at least from my per­spec­tive, that inter­pre­ta­tions were built into the data. The two older physi­cists fun­da­men­tally dis­agreed on this take on the data. For them this was data about the UHECR. There was then a dis­agree­ment on what an obser­va­tion was, and what con­sti­tutes a model. There was some heated dis­cus­sions as Eti­enne attempted to give his talk. This devel­op­ment was com­pletely unex­pected and intrigued me con­sid­er­ably. That def­i­n­i­tions as seem­ingly innocu­ous as data, model, etc., could be so emo­tive gave me great insight into how dis­agree­ments can unfold. Astro­physics was not so tech­ni­cal and dry in its delib­er­a­tions as I had sus­pected (though I had also been aware of how pro­found it is in its impli­ca­tions for our under­stand­ing of the cos­mos), but like other dis­ci­plines of research, it is dynamic and evolv­ing. Eti­enne, in a strik­ing aside directed at non-physi­cists in the room, stated ‘Now, you see us, naked before you’, allud­ing to the unfold­ing activ­ity before us, which is not read­ily wit­nessed out­side of these dis­cus­sions in how astro­physi­cists com­mu­ni­cate pub­licly, through pub­li­ca­tions in jour­nals, books and doc­u­men­taries. I felt lucky to be a fly on the wall for this moment.

UHECR ground detec­tors

So what con­clu­sions can be drawn from this exam­ple. On a sim­plis­tic level you might state that dis­agree­ment over what UHECR are, and where they come, and even on the use of def­i­n­i­tions, is indica­tive of sci­ence being a mat­ter of opin­ion or that sci­en­tists can’t even agree on what they are look­ing at. This argu­ment is often thrown about, for exam­ple, by polit­i­cally or fis­cally moti­vated per­sons who want to reject cli­mate sci­ence because of vested inter­ests, asso­ci­a­tion of a branch of sci­en­tific exper­tise with a polit­i­cal stance etc., (see this rather funny John Oliver spoof video on the cli­mate change debate). Reli­gious oppo­si­tion to evo­lu­tion­ary sci­ence, often takes up points of dis­agree­ment amongst biol­o­gists on the exact details of evo­lu­tion, as evi­dence against it. This is often framed as there being no con­sen­sus in sci­ence on key issues, and so sci­en­tific opin­ion can be dis­re­garded. This view of sci­ence is overly sim­plis­tic and often delib­er­ately con­trar­ian on the part of cyn­i­cal par­ties. Noth­ing about the exam­ple dis­cussed above speaks to deep unre­solv­able dif­fer­ences between researchers. The sub­ject mat­ter of astro­physics is inher­ently com­plex, by many orders of mag­ni­tude, that sup­ports dif­fer­ing inter­pre­ta­tions at mul­ti­ple lev­els. Dis­agree­ments are to be expected until the accu­mu­la­tion of empir­i­cal evi­dence sup­ports one view or another. Of course some researchers will never accept a new and often bet­ter inter­pre­ta­tion, whether this is due to loy­alty to an idea, the con­vic­tion that their work is cor­rect, the desire to keep their fac­ulty posi­tion etc. For some of these researchers it is only with their retire­ment and even­tual death that their inter­pre­ta­tions die with them. On a less mori­bund note, what is laud­able about this process is the even­tual accep­tance of the bet­ter inter­pre­ta­tion once there are clear rea­sons for accept­ing it. Local dis­agree­ments, at their best, spur on new ideas by chal­leng­ing people’s con­vic­tions, their inter­pre­ta­tions of the data, thus hope­fully lead­ing to bet­ter sci­ence.

Linguistic Determinism as a Testable Hypothesis

Lin­guis­tic Deter­min­ism as a testable hypoth­e­sis

Broadly speak­ing LD is the claim, quot­ing (De Cruz, 2009)-“that lan­guage shapes the way we see the world, and that as a result, speak­ers of dif­fer­ent lan­guages con­cep­tu­al­ize real­ity dif­fer­ently”. The strong ver­sion claims that lan­guage deter­mines thought entirely. If this were the case, we would have to con­front the pos­si­bil­ity of incom­men­su­rable lin­guis­tic com­mu­ni­ties. The weaker form claims that lan­guage influ­ences cog­ni­tion to an impor­tant extent. Many cog­ni­tive sci­en­tists would reject LD out­right cit­ing evi­dence of high-level cog­ni­tion e.g. cat­e­gori­sa­tion, that is inde­pen­dent of lan­guage. In this view lan­guage is nec­es­sary for com­mu­ni­ca­tion but once the infor­ma­tion has been passed on cog­ni­tion is pre­dom­i­nantly non-lin­guis­tic. Psy­cholin­guists like Steven Pinker (The Lan­guage Instinct, 1994)(How the Mind Works, 1997) would argue that lan­guage is cru­cial for thought but that it is, fol­low­ing Chomksy (1965), the gen­eral syn­tac­tic struc­ture shared by all peo­ple through­out the world, a ‘Uni­ver­sal Gram­mar’, that pre-empts lan­guage acqui­si­tion, which fun­da­men­tally shapes thought. This is against the blank slate view of the per­son favoured by social con­struc­tivists (Social Con­struc­tivism). Despite the preva­lence of this view in cog­ni­tive sci­ence LD has per­sisted in some form or other. 

 One means by which the argu­ment may be put to rest is to sub­ject it to empir­i­cal test­ing. LD makes the pre­dic­tion that:

If lan­guage deter­mines or at the very least influ­ences cog­ni­tion, we expect speak­ers of dif­fer­ent lan­guages to have diver­gent con­cep­tu­al­i­sa­tions of the world-as the lin­guist Whorf (1956, 213) put it ‘We dis­sect nature along lines laid out by our native lan­guage’”.

This is a stronger vari­ant of LD that has been the source of much research and con­tro­versy. Whorf claimed that speak­ers of Hopi (a Native Amer­i­can lan­guage) had a per­cep­tion of time and space that dif­fered fun­da­men­tally from speak­ers of Indo–Euro­pean lan­guage. Whorf based this entirely on the gram­mat­i­cal struc­ture of the Hopi, rather than whether the Hopi acted in a way that reflected a dif­fer­ing per­cep­tion of space and time. De Cruz right­fully claims that LD may not be empir­i­cally testable, pre­cisely because it has not been pos­si­ble, and it is hard to see how it will be, to dis­en­tan­gle cog­ni­tive effects which fol­low from lin­guis­tic fac­tors, and those that do not. Some of the argu­men­ta­tion sup­port­ing LD, espe­cially that of the Whor­fian vari­ant is cir­cu­lar. It does not fol­low that lin­guis­tic dif­fer­ences in gram­mar, sor­tal con­cepts, numer­acy etc., have a causal rela­tion­ship to dif­fer­ences in cog­ni­tion. Instead of being bogged down in this debate over whether LD is empir­i­cally testable, it might be more use­ful to think through an exam­ple of a lin­guis­tic com­mu­nity, that uses lan­guage in a way that is rather dis­tinct from uses we may be used to. There is still room for the weaker claim of LD and this is worth keep­ing in mind. We can­not get out­side lan­guage, and we are shaped to an extent by the lan­guages we speak. That we can learn oth­ers and trans­late (though nuance may be lost in trans­la­tion) from one lan­guage to another, with vary­ing degrees of suc­cess, may point to a weaker ver­sion of LD

Wis­dom Sits in Places

Knowl­edge of places is closely linked to know of the self, to grasp­ing one’s posi­tion in the larger scheme of things, includ­ing one’s own com­mu­nity, and to secur­ing a con­fi­dent sense of who one is as a per­son.” (Keith H. Basso, 1996)

I argue that it might be more fruit­ful to think with an exam­ple from the ethno­graphic lit­er­a­ture. I con­cede that it is an anthro­po­log­i­cal bias to seek out exotic exam­ples (my rea­son for includ­ing the Gary Lar­son car­toon below), but these exam­ples are use­ful for estab­lish­ing com­mon­al­i­ties between peo­ples across the world, as well as demon­strat­ing the need to attend to the par­tic­u­lars of cul­tural expres­sion. 

The prob­lem with the early anthro­po­log­i­cal per­spec­tive

Anthro­pol­o­gist Keith H. Basso (Keith H. Basso, 1996) presents a com­pelling and beau­ti­fully writ­ten ethnog­ra­phy, cen­tred prin­ci­pally around four key per­sons, in his book ‘Wis­dom Sits in Places’ (I will leave it to your inter­est to fol­low up on this book). He con­ducted his field­work in Cibecue, Ari­zona, amongst the West­ern Apache. Their prin­ci­pally oral way of life led him to empha­sise the rela­tion­ship between lan­guage, place and cul­ture, in form­ing a people’s way of life in the world. Place is a key fea­ture of how this group of Apache organ­ise them­selves socially, see and move in the world, and record his­tory i.e. through oral his­to­ries, with reit­er­a­tion of place names, play­ing a key role for mem­o­ri­sa­tion. In this case meta­lan­guage e.g. using a place-name to index a story related to that place, which the West­ern Apache call ‘arrows’ of lan­guage, which invoke a moral or instruc­tive les­son, toponymy i.e. place-names, and phys­i­cal places in their envi­ron­ment, form an inte­gral part of mem­ory, and more broadly social iden­tity for this group. One older Apache speaks of this:

I think of that moun­tain called Tsee Ligai Da Sidile (White Rocks Lie Above in a Com­pact Clus­ter) as if it were my mater­nal grand­mother. I recall sto­ries of how it once was at that moun­tain. The sto­ries told to me were like arrows. Else­where, hear­ing that mountain’s name, I see it. Its name is like a pic­ture. Sto­ries go to work on you like arrows. Sto­ries make you live right. Sto­ries make you replace your­self. (Ben­son Lewis, age 64, 1979)”

(Basso, 1996, p. 38)

Cibecue, Ari­zona

Basso cap­tures what place means to the West­ern Apache and its rela­tion to lan­guage and sto­ry­telling below:

Noth­ing is more basic to the telling of a West­ern Apache story than iden­ti­fy­ing the geo­graph­i­cal loca­tions at which events in the story unfold. For unless Apache lis­ten­ers are able to pic­ture a phys­i­cal set­ting for nar­rated events — unless, as one of my con­sul­tants said, ‘your mind can travel to that place and really see it” — the events them­selves will be dif­fi­cult to imag­ine. This is because events in the nar­ra­tive will seem to hap­pen nowhere, and such an idea, Apaches assert, is pre­pos­ter­ous and dis­qui­et­ing. Place­less events are an impos­si­bil­ity; every­thing that hap­pens must hap­pen some­where. The loca­tion of an event is an inte­gral aspect of the event itself, and iden­ti­fy­ing the event’s loca­tion is there­fore essen­tial to prop­erly depict­ing — effec­tively pic­tur­ing — the event’s occur­rence. For these rea­sons, place­less sto­ries sim­ply do not get told. Instead, all Apache nar­ra­tives are ver­bally anchored to points upon the land with pre­cise depic­tions of spe­cific loca­tions. And what these depic­tions are accom­plished with — what the pri­mary spa­tial anchors of Apache nar­ra­tives almost always turn out to be — are place-names.

(p. 86–87)

In this case forms of cul­tural mem­ory are extended here to lan­guage, specif­i­cally meta­lan­guage, and the phys­i­cal envi­ron­ment. There is evi­dently a dynamic rela­tion­ship between the mem­bers of this group, and their envi­ron­ments, made pos­si­ble by par­tic­u­lar pat­terns of social inter­ac­tion and lin­guis­tic con­ven­tion. The way in which this group ori­ents them­selves is both expressed, per­pet­u­ated and enabled by the lin­guis­tic forms they use. Deter­min­ing whether it is the form of lan­guage that shapes their rela­tion­ship with place and mem­ory, or the reverse, may not be pos­si­ble but the exam­ple is illus­tra­tive nonethe­less. This exam­ple does not answer the prob­lem of deter­min­ing the exact rela­tion­ship between lan­guage and cog­ni­tion, but it does merit close atten­tion to the con­ven­tions of a people’s lan­guage, and its rela­tion­ship with how they relate to the world, if a full under­stand­ing is desired. What uni­ver­sal gram­mar­i­ans miss in their empha­sis on the under­ly­ing syn­tac­tic struc­ture, is the rich nuance of the lan­guages that peo­ple use to move in and relate to the world. 

The gulf between ecological validity and controlled experiments regarding social interaction and cultural activity

I recently read a piece titled ‘Brain-to-brain cou­pling: a mech­a­nism for cre­at­ing and shar­ing a social world’ (Hasson,Ghazanfar,Galantucci, Gar­rod, Key­sers, 2012). It was an infor­ma­tive, straight­for­ward read that addressed many of the prob­lems in con­tem­po­rary psy­chol­ogy. It chal­lenged the focus on the mind of the indi­vid­ual in iso­la­tion, except through abstract con­cep­tu­al­i­sa­tion, as opposed to look­ing at the mind in situ i.e. in inter­ac­tion with other peo­ple. What struck me as a con­cern was the repet­i­tive invo­ca­tion of ‘brain-to-brain cou­pling’ (see image below) as the locus of atten­tion that should con­cern researchers in look­ing at social inter­ac­tion. Now of course if one is look­ing at the brain in par­tic­u­lar that this is where the focus must be. For a com­plete under­stand­ing of social inter­ac­tion, an under­stand­ing of the spec­trum from the fun­da­men­tal neural and related phys­i­o­log­i­cal processes, to the activ­ity of the inter­ac­tion itself, it will be nec­es­sary to under­stand the role of the brain in this inter­ac­tion. How­ever, what wor­ries me is not this but that this focus on the brain, and then the body almost as an after­thought, blinds the researcher to other aspects of the inter­ac­tion. The pro­posal of this paper begins to look more and more like tra­di­tional psy­cho­log­i­cal work on social cog­ni­tion. There are pas­sages where the envi­ron­ment and the body are men­tioned almost as an after­thought and in other cases they are not invoked at all. It pro­ceeds from the indi­vid­ual out into the world rather than the indi­vid­ual being embed­ded in a social con­text that enables and con­strains par­tic­u­lar kinds of activ­ity in the world. This is a prob­lem that con­tin­ues to sep­a­rate much of the domains of the social sci­ences from the cog­ni­tive and the hard sci­ences. Cul­ture has notably been absent from cog­ni­tive sci­ence and ana­lyt­i­cal phi­los­o­phy (Cul­ture and Cog­ni­tive Sci­ence) Enac­tivist (De Jaegher & Di Paolo, 2007) and phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal approaches (Froese & Fuchs, 2012) to social inter­ac­tion are attempt­ing to bridge this gap propos­ing new ways of inves­ti­gat­ing social inter­ac­tion.

Brain to brain coupling

The prob­lems with brain cen­tric, in con­trast to some embod­ied mind approaches, are not my par­tic­u­lar focus today mind. Instead I would like to approach the more sig­nif­i­cant issue of how to do a sci­ence of social inter­ac­tion? Though psy­chol­ogy is only really now begin­ning to address this prob­lem it has been the focus of soci­ol­ogy and anthro­pol­ogy for the past 200 years. How can we come at the prob­lem of how two or more peo­ple inter­act suc­cess­fully, never mind how the total­ity of these inter­ac­tions con­sti­tute what we might call soci­ety and/or soci­eties? Anthro­pol­ogy and soci­ol­ogy have made many attempts, some ambi­tious, with mixed results, though nev­er­the­less inter­est­ing, at propos­ing over­ar­ch­ing the­o­ries of how peo­ple engage in and con­sti­tute soci­eties and cul­tures. The French in par­tic­u­lar have made many strik­ing con­tri­bu­tions.

Anthro­pol­o­gist Claude Lévi-Strauss incor­po­rated struc­tural­ism (Struc­tural­ism) into anthro­pol­ogy. The cen­tral idea being that all cul­tures have within them sim­i­lar struc­tures which are com­pa­ra­ble, equiv­a­lent and homol­o­gous. Things such as kin­ship groups, fam­ily, com­mu­nity, gov­ern­ment, etc., were seen as being present in some form or other in all soci­eties. If this idea were cor­rect then cross-cul­tural com­par­isons would be pos­si­ble. His great works ‘The Sav­age Mind’ (Lévi-Strauss, La Pen­sée Sav­age, 1962) and ‘Mythologiques’ (Lévi-Strauss, 1964) attempted to pro­vide a the­o­ret­i­cal sys­tem for analysing cul­tures and cat­a­logued a great deal of soci­etal prac­tices from around the world. This approach wasn’t with­out prob­lems. Some argued that it was an ahis­tor­i­cal approach, ignor­ing the his­tor­i­cal processes by which the cur­rent state of a soci­ety came to be the way it is. Another issue was that it ignored dif­fer­ence and indi­vid­u­al­ity in its focus on shared struc­tures. Jacques Der­rida notably sav­aged this vari­ant of struc­tural­ism with a decon­struc­tion­ist (Decon­struc­tion­ism, 2008) (Decon­struc­tion­sim Yale Lec­ture, 2012) post-mod­ern take in his book ‘Writ­ing and Dif­fer­ence’ (Der­rida, 1967) which attempted to decon­struct West­ern meta­physics [To see my reac­tion against social con­struc­tion­ism, in which decon­struc­tion­ism is a part, fol­low this link here (Finnerty, 2016)].
Emile Durkheim, in his strongly real­ist (Real­ism, Stan­ford Ency­clopae­dia) attempts to con­struct a sci­ence of soci­ety i.e. soci­ol­ogy, pro­posed a func­tion­al­ist the­ory where soci­ety is a sys­tem of inter­re­lated parts where no part can func­tion with­out the other (The­ory of Social Organ­i­sa­tion). His the­o­ries of soci­ety (Durkheim), of rit­ual, etc were founded on those things exter­nal in nature to the indi­vid­ual. They were not con­cerned with the moti­va­tions and desires of the indi­vid­ual (this was the realm of psy­chol­ogy), but with the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness, val­ues and rules which are crit­i­cal to a func­tional soci­ety. His func­tion­al­ism empha­sises social equi­lib­rium; if some­thing hap­pens to upset this, then soci­ety must adjust to achieve a sta­ble state. It focuses holis­ti­cally on the whole. This is a wel­come rem­edy to the strong focus on the indi­vid­ual in psy­chol­ogy but it might be said to go too far, not to men­tion the dan­ger of reify­ing the social as some ethe­real entity which extends beyond the peo­ple, that through their inter­ac­tions with one another, com­prise it.
Pierre Bour­dieu, influ­enced by these works, and the social the­o­ries of  Marx and Weber, pro­posed his soci­o­log­i­cal the­ory of habi­tus (Habi­tus), which is a sys­tem of social struc­tures, which are the his­tor­i­cal, cul­tural con­text in which peo­ple exist. These may often not be vis­i­ble but are implicit, which must be stud­ied through care­ful analy­sis to reveal the power struc­tures which organ­ise activ­ity. He believed that while humans exist in these struc­tures they are not nec­es­sar­ily des­tined to a pre-deter­mined set of actions. Habi­tus organ­ises the way in which indi­vid­u­als see the world and act in it by deposit­ing in per­sons, in the form of last­ing dis­po­si­tions or trained capac­i­ties and struc­tured propen­si­ties to think, the par­tic­u­lar ways of being in that soci­ety. His work goes some way towards a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of the agency and auton­omy of the indi­vid­u­als in an inter­ac­tion with the ‘social facts’ that Durkheim addresses.  It pro­vides a use­ful way of fram­ing and dis­cussing social inter­ac­tion within a soci­ety. One lim­i­ta­tion is that it is hard to see how it might gen­er­ate testable sci­en­tific hypothe­ses. This is a prob­lem that social the­o­ri­sa­tion has con­tin­u­ally run into which is more an indi­ca­tion of the dif­fi­cult and slip­pery nature of the mate­r­ial rather than the efforts of these the­o­rists. These attempts ulti­mately failed to achieve the object of their grand aims though they con­tinue to intrigue and inform research.

Other anthro­pol­o­gists and soci­ol­o­gists have rejected these grand attempts, believ­ing a sci­ence of soci­ety and cul­ture can never be achieved due to the inher­ent com­plex­ity of the activ­ity. They have thrown off the man­tle of appear­ing sci­en­tific, in the objec­tive sense, and instead pro­pose anthro­pol­ogy to be an inter­pre­tive dis­ci­pline con­cerned with pro­duc­ing highly infor­ma­tive, but ulti­mately vig­or­ously con­tex­tu­alised mono­graphs, that occa­sion­ally are guilty of overem­pha­sis­ing the unique­ness of some cul­ture or another. Clif­ford Geertz, in a some­what anti-real­ist vein, though com­mit­ted to the idea of anthro­pol­ogy as a type of sci­ence, pro­poses ‘Thick Descrip­tion’ (Geertz, Thick Descrip­tion) as a means by which to study cul­ture. This approach man­dates an admis­sion of the sub­jec­tiv­ity of the researcher, that com­plete objec­tive dis­con­nected obser­va­tion is not pos­si­ble as “Man is an ani­mal sus­pended in webs of sig­nif­i­cance he him­self has spun” which makes the project inher­ently dif­fi­cult. It takes into account the behav­iour and the con­text so that the activ­ity becomes mean­ing­ful to an out­sider. He calls for a dif­fer­ent take on ethnog­ra­phy that marks a depar­ture from the par­tic­i­pant-obser­va­tion of Bro­nis­law Mali­nowski (Mali­nowski BBC Doc­u­men­tary):
What the ethno­g­ra­pher is in fact faced with—except when (as, of course, he must do) he is pur­su­ing the more autom­a­tized rou­tines of data collection—is a mul­ti­plic­ity of com­plex con­cep­tual struc­tures, many of them super­im­posed upon or knot­ted into one another, which are at once strange, irreg­u­lar, and inex­plicit, and which he must con­trive some­how first to grasp and then to ren­der. And this is true at the most down-to-earth, jun­gle field work lev­els of his activ­ity; inter­view­ing infor­mants, observ­ing rit­u­als, elic­it­ing kin terms, trac­ing prop­erty lines, cen­sus­ing house­holds … writ­ing his jour­nal. Doing ethnog­ra­phy is like try­ing to read (in the sense of “con­struct a read­ing of”) a manuscript—foreign, faded, full of ellipses, inco­heren­cies, sus­pi­cious emen­da­tions, and ten­den­tious com­men­taries, but writ­ten not in con­ven­tion­al­ized graphs of sound but in tran­sient exam­ples of shaped behav­ior.” (Geertz)
This com­plex­ity, for Geertz, mer­its his ‘thick descrip­tion’ approach, which would not per­mit a sci­ence of soci­ety or cul­ture in the way touted by Lévi-Strauss or Durkheim. Some go fur­ther than Geertz sug­gest­ing that the par­tic­u­lar­ity of cul­tures leads to incom­men­su­ra­bil­ity, that undis­torted trans­la­tion is impos­si­ble (Povinelli, Rad­i­cal Worlds, 2001). Testable hypothe­ses con­cern­ing social inter­ac­tion or the­o­ries of soci­ety and cul­ture are unachiev­able on these grounds.

The ten­sion between uni­ver­sal­ity and par­tic­u­lar­ity is at the core of anthro­po­log­i­cal inquiry and is part of the rea­son for its het­eroge­nous con­sti­tu­tion. How can over­come this? The high priests of Big Data sug­gest that it is just a ques­tion of com­put­ing power. If we have enough data (the prob­lem here is that is the data being gath­ered rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the breadth of human activ­ity) then it will just be a mat­ter of crunch­ing the num­bers. Per­haps there is some­thing to this, but until we are all wear­ing devices that record our every activ­ity and analyse the pat­terns that emerge from our indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive activ­ity it is hard to imag­ine how it will be pos­si­ble. I believe there will con­tinue to be a demand for the high qual­ity con­tex­tu­alised data that social and cul­tural anthro­pol­ogy can pro­duce. There is also the prob­lem of how to the­o­rise about this data. With­out the right frame for inter­pret­ing the data how will we make sense of this data?

At present there seems to be a real prob­lem in pro­duc­ing testable hypothe­ses that also reflect activ­ity in the world. Today I have only pointed the prob­lems with cur­rent approaches. Per­haps a new frame is needed with which. My next blog will con­sider Jakob von Uexküll’s Umwelt the­ory and the work of Tim Ingold on a new con­cept of biol­ogy as includ­ing cul­ture as pos­si­ble ways in which to reframe the debate. Enac­tivist approaches will also be con­sid­ered as they pro­mote novel ways of approach­ing social cog­ni­tion and social inter­ac­tion.

Social constructivism and the human sciences

Social con­struc­tion­ism (SC) is a diverse intel­lec­tual field, com­pris­ing per­spec­tives from phi­los­o­phy, social sci­ence, ped­a­gogy, art etc., that resists easy cat­e­gori­sa­tion. It has often been unfairly derided by promi­nent aca­d­e­mics, most notably in the evo­lu­tion­ary and psy­cho­log­i­cal sci­ences. The argu­ment against SC has been pop­u­larised by Steven Pinker (Blank Slate Ted Lec­ture)in his cut­ting cri­tique of the blank slate model of human­ity (favours the social envi­ron­ment as expla­na­tion for behav­iour over innate fac­tors e.g. genetic makeup). Whilst Pinker does some dis­ser­vice to this lit­er­a­ture he is right to chal­lenge the role of the social (the prod­uct of our inter­ac­tions with one another), as the sole deter­mi­nant of behav­iour. How­ever, he under­de­ter­mines the valid­ity of the social in shap­ing behav­iour. I index his argu­ment because it raises key points which framed the Sci­ence Wars and con­tin­ues to polarise opin­ion along real­ist and anti-real­ist lines[1].

The extent to which things are socially con­structed has impor­tant ram­i­fi­ca­tions for how we con­duct sci­ence, our rela­tions to one another in terms of our polit­i­cal, eco­nomic and eth­i­cal sys­tems, and our view of our­selves as humans and indi­vid­u­als in the world. My con­cern here specif­i­cally is rather prag­mat­i­cally ori­ented; how best to con­duct stud­ies of peo­ple, in the vein of anthro­po­log­i­cal and soci­o­log­i­cal work, in their con­text across dif­fer­ent cul­tures, lan­guages and envi­ron­ments. With this in mind what stance should be adopted in rela­tion to SC(Boghoss­ian, 2001) notes how it has been suc­cess­ful in point­ing out those aspects of our social cat­e­gories e.g. racial and gen­der cat­e­gories, that do not reflect some ‘fun­da­men­tal’ inevitable real­ity, but instead are con­tin­gent upon the ways in which a social group is organ­ised. Pro­ceed­ing from this obser­va­tion of the power of SC some have made more strik­ing claims using this per­spec­tive. The stronger claim, that we con­struct the world as it is, rather than being in the world, that we even con­struct sci­en­tific phe­nom­ena such as quarks, is chal­leng­ing. If taken seri­ously we must reject any attempts at under­stand­ing, or even imag­in­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of, a fun­da­men­tal real­ity out­side our social con­structs. The stronger claim negates our dynamic inter­ac­tion with the envi­ron­ment, our evo­lu­tion­ary past and any innate char­ac­ter­is­tics (apart from the abil­ity to ‘social con­struct’ the world). It is this claim which con­cerns me.

Imme­di­ately many flaws are evi­dent to me. If the world is con­structed where do we locate the locus of activ­ity, in the indi­vid­ual, or in the social group? Is it indi­vid­ual per­sons who rad­i­cally con­struct the world? This quickly descends into ide­al­ism. Reject­ing this, is the social then dis­em­bod­ied, shap­ing the world we inhabit, into which we are embed­ded as blank slates? This rei­fies the social, giv­ing it a super­nat­ural qual­ity. How can we explain both the simul­ta­ne­ous vari­a­tion and sim­i­lar­i­ties in cul­tural forms and lan­guages, with­out recourse to talk­ing of indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences (explained in terms of unique aspects of a person’s psy­chol­ogy and per­haps their social group), and uni­ver­sally shared innate psy­cho­log­i­cal archi­tec­tures (favour­ing uni­ver­sal­ism and real­ism)? They are inex­tri­ca­bly linked together. We are the prod­ucts of envi­ron­ments, who then shape these envi­ron­ments through dynamic inter­ac­tions with it, with some of these being the prod­uct of social con­structs e.g. the cre­ation of rugby pitches to play a socially con­structed game, and oth­ers being more basic inter­ac­tions such as loco­mo­tion, for­ag­ing, eat­ing, sleep­ing etc. There is no human activ­ity that is not con­tin­gent on how our social groups are organ­ised, and the lan­guages and con­cepts that are employed, but this is not the whole pic­ture. Sperber’s (Sper­ber, 2004) work on metarep­re­sen­ta­tions pro­vides a use­ful incor­po­ra­tion of evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy (with its suite of cog­ni­tive mech­a­nisms) into a the­ory of cul­tural trans­mis­sion (Epi­demi­ol­ogy of rep­re­sen­ta­tions). Here the par­tic­i­pants in an lan­guage based inter­ac­tion, do not sim­ply pas­sively take up a rep­re­sen­ta­tion (they are not blank slates), but will occa­sion­ally shape, either inten­tion­ally or by acci­dent, what is trans­mit­ted, before pass­ing this on in sub­se­quent inter­ac­tions. This approach nec­es­sar­ily requires that atten­tion be paid both to the innate, and the socially con­structed, with a strong ground­ing in actual inter­ac­tion, to under­stand how cer­tain con­cepts per­sist, and oth­ers change through­out time. Approaches like Sperber’s go some ways towards a cor­rec­tive against favour­ing either strong innatism or SC.

SC decou­pled from a dis­cus­sion of the nat­ural envi­ron­ment, of which we are part, nar­rows the scope of research. It negates approaches that would seek to under­stand human activ­ity in the con­text of both its social and nat­ural envi­ron­ment, erect­ing a sep­a­ra­tion between us and the world. The core idea of con­struc­tion­ism is use­ful when applied in a more lim­ited way, for exam­ple in focus­ing in on a par­tic­u­lar cul­tural prac­tice and/or social group in its con­text. Under­stand­ing uni­ver­sal fea­tures of human psy­chol­ogy will not reveal much about the ‘male fem­i­nin­ity’ of the Waria in Indone­sia (Boell­storff, 2004) (Tales of the Waria) for exam­ple. Look­ing at cul­tural phe­nom­ena through the lens of con­struc­tion­ism teases out the nuances, bring­ing to light the ways, in which our activ­i­ties are con­tin­gent, on the par­tic­u­lar social cat­e­gories and con­cepts being employed. The idio­syn­crasies of local cul­tural prac­tices (by local I mean any cul­tural prac­tice and/or social organ­i­sa­tion in its con­text) are mul­ti­ple and var­i­ous. To dis­cuss these in terms of innate­ness will not much, though it still might be inter­est­ing. Instead it is worth pay­ing atten­tion to the his­tor­i­cal fac­tors, the local envi­ron­ment and the par­tic­u­lar way in which the peo­ple use their lan­guage and con­cepts to be in the world.

So do we con­struct the world? Yes, to an extent, but we do not do so in a vac­uum, cre­at­ing ex nihilo. We are con­strained by the abil­i­ties of our kind and by the envi­ron­ments that we inhabit. Over-egging one per­spec­tive over the other cre­ates severe lim­i­ta­tions for research.

[1] Though his ratio­nal­iza­tion of mind as software/brain as hard­ware has been cri­tiqued, along with other cog­ni­tivist per­spec­tives, for slip­ping in Carte­sian dual­ism through the back­door. This com­pli­cates the attempts of this approach to sit within the real­ist camp.

Extended minds and wisdom sits in places


Are minds extended?

This is a reac­tion piece to ‘The Extended Mind Paper’ (Clark and Chalmers, 1998) co-authored by Andy Clark and David Chalmers with ref­er­ences to some of the more recent work done in this area. I am sure that my impres­sion might change next week but such is the nature of my ‘mind’.

When read­ing the extended mind read­ings for this week I was intrigued and stumped, in equal mea­sure, as it sat awk­wardly with some of my intu­itions, and com­fort­ably with oth­ers. Are cases of peo­ple using mem­ory aid tools such as diaries, other peo­ple, Ever­note (in a reli­ably cou­pled sys­tem­atic way) to func­tion in their day to day activ­i­ties, to be thought of as cases of minds being extended e.g. a protes­tant min­is­ter who can no longer form new mem­o­ries, fol­low­ing brain dam­age, who employs Ever­note to suc­cess­fully go about his duties (Clark, 2014)?
I am not wholly con­vinced by the premise of minds as extended, though I am sym­pa­thetic to the views extolled. So is it some­thing use­ful to think with, but lit­tle more, or are they gen­uine cases of cog­ni­tion? There is an issue con­cern­ing the lax usage of the terms cog­ni­tion and mind in this piece which reflects a more gen­eral prob­lem in cog­ni­tive sci­ence which I will not be able to tackle today (that mind is a con­tested con­cept, not to men­tion that cog­ni­tion is too). For some thinkers, minds are syn­ony­mous with cog­ni­tion and that cog­ni­tion only takes places within the brain, which is the clas­sic cog­ni­tivist view, of which there many vari­ants. For oth­ers it is the view that the mind is thought to be embod­ied, that the cog­nis­ing agent is the brain and body in dynamic inter­play with one another. Enac­tivist approaches go fur­ther not­ing the dynamic rela­tion­ship between the agent and the envi­ron­ment that is inte­gral to cog­ni­tion. I do all of these diverse the­o­ret­i­cal out­looks a great dis­ser­vice by pass­ing over them in this way but I’ll leave it to the read­ers to explore these avenues. Is this sim­ply a case of dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions of the same term being used to describe rad­i­cally diver­gent activ­i­ties, for which Clark and Chalmers should be taken to task, for their mud­dy­ing of the water? I sus­pect that the water has been mud­died long before this. With no expec­ta­tions of putting the ‘what is mind’, ‘what is self’ dilemma to rights let’s explore the Extended Mind hypoth­e­sis (EMH) a lit­tle.

Basic intu­itions about the self

The EMH goes against my intu­ition of what might be called the intro­spec­tive self. I grew up, per­haps mis­tak­enly, enter­tain­ing the intu­ition that I am an indi­vid­ual whose deep­est thoughts are pri­vate, cut off from the world except by some sort of medi­a­tion through lin­guis­tic, aural or visual rep­re­sen­ta­tion. For some of us this intu­ition may lead to the con­clu­sion that we are self-con­sti­tuted through sheer will, a Niet­zschean style self-over­com­ing or mas­tery, so as to explain our agen­tive actions in the world. To talk of minds as extended seems to go against this intu­ition. Despite once favour­ing this intu­ition, which unchecked descends into an unpro­duc­tive ide­al­ism or solip­sism, I would not put too much stock into the idea of the indi­vid­ual cut off from the world. Anti-real­ism of this sort, whilst inter­est­ing to think with, doesn’t lead any­where. Given my anthro­po­log­i­cal back­ground, I am very much aware of the com­plex inter­play between the indi­vid­ual and the envi­ron­ment, that together con­sti­tute that per­son. From a holis­tic approach, the indi­vid­ual is nec­es­sar­ily an inte­gral part of a soci­ety and a nat­ural envi­ron­ment (again this draws the nature/culture divide but it is heuris­tic in this case) and is involved in con­tribut­ing to and recon­sti­tut­ing the social and nat­ural envi­ron­ment around them. This recog­ni­tion of the com­plex and largely inex­tri­ca­ble rela­tion­ship between indi­vid­u­als and their envi­ron­ments at least makes me open to the EMH. But is it use­ful to think with? Does it yield any explana­tory power or lead to good ques­tions? On those grounds I am not sure.

The extended mind; is it a pro­duc­tive the­sis?

If we are to say that minds are extended do we dilute the con­cept of mind to the point where it refers to too many sit­u­a­tions and cou­pled rela­tion­ships? It appears to be a case of once know­ing the EMH you begin to see minds being extended every­where. This seem­ingly abil­ity of the EMH to be extended (pun intended) to many cases is a weak­ness rather than a strength as it can largely explain away counter-argu­ments by appeal­ing to what their, rather loose, def­i­n­i­tions of what con­sti­tutes cog­ni­tion and minds [See Pop­per on fal­si­fi­ca­tion Fal­si­fi­a­bil­ity]. It doesn’t seem to gen­er­ate testable ques­tions or robust def­i­n­i­tions. Would it be harsh to say that it is a gloss rather than the foun­da­tions of an explana­tory the­ory of mind? The Extended Breath (Tha­gard, 2013) par­ody is par­tic­u­larly good at expos­ing some of the flaws in the EMH’s logic, though the piece does embod­ied cog­ni­tion and enac­tive approaches an injus­tice in its lazy char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions.
There is a def­i­n­i­tional prob­lem regard­ing minds. This is not to men­tion the dif­fi­cul­ties of defin­ing cog­ni­tion, and what this entails. Are minds the prod­uct of cog­nis­ing sys­tems? In spite of the bold claims of the paper Clark does not seek to have minds extended every­where, espe­cially if you look at Clark’s more recent work (as dis­cussed in this video lec­ture in Edin­burgh Clark 2014). Clark and Chalmers refer to only spe­cific cases which sat­isfy the nec­es­sary con­di­tions, as was the case for the protes­tant min­is­ter. At this point Clark and Chalmers diverge as Chalmers has went down the rather more rad­i­cal route of pan­the­ism (I  link here a great philo­soph­i­cally themed comic ‘Exis­ten­tial Comics’ Chalmers and the Panpsy­chists). Clark refers to minds as fluid but what he argue for mostly, espe­cially if you look at his more recent work, is the embod­ied mind approach with spe­cific cases meet­ing the EMH cri­te­ria. He rightly takes the view that is not fruit­ful to study minds as dis­em­bod­ied from brains and bod­ies. The mind, if one takes this view, is the brain and body in dynamic inter­play with one another and can­not be sep­a­rated from one another with­out reduc­ing the power of descrip­tion and inevitably clos­ing off avenues of study. Clark goes fur­ther to extend this def­i­n­i­tion of mind to include aspects of the envi­ron­ment such as the diary or Ever­note. This seems plau­si­ble accord­ing to his def­i­n­i­tion of mind and what con­sti­tutes cog­ni­tion but one prob­lem emerges imme­di­ately. The word mind will be used to describe a plethora of pos­si­bly related but markedly diverse phe­nom­ena. In one case, for exam­ple, the term mind is used to describe a per­son per­form­ing a mem­ory task, such as remem­ber­ing where a place is, and in another case the term mind is used to describe a per­son using tech­nol­ogy to aug­ment their mem­ory and recall. So would we have to say in one case we are talk­ing about Mind­Type1 and in another Mind­Type2 and so on so as to be able to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between them? The EMH, on these grounds, poses def­i­n­i­tional prob­lems and obscures rather than clar­i­fies the issues. Now I will briefly look at one exam­ple from anthro­pol­ogy that appears to be amenable to inves­ti­ga­tion using the EMH.

Wis­dom sits in places; place, lan­guage and extended wis­dom

And what about socially-extended cog­ni­tion? Could my men­tal states be partly con­sti­tuted by the states of other thinkers? We see no rea­son why not, in prin­ci­ple” (Clark and Chalmers, 1998)

Knowl­edge of places is closely linked to knowl­edge of the self, to grasp­ing one’s posi­tion in the larger scheme of things, includ­ing one’s own com­mu­nity, and to secur­ing a con­fi­dent sense of who one is a per­son. “ (Keith H. Basso, 1996)

Clark and Chalmers ‘Sea of Words’ idea, that is, that we are born into a social net­work united by lan­guage and com­prised of other peo­ple, is an inter­est­ing argu­ment for the EMH. It is rea­son­able to argue that much of how we think is reliant upon, or per­haps it is bet­ter to say enabled and con­strained by, the affor­dances made by the social world around us. This par­tic­u­lar iter­a­tion of the EMH prompted me to think of a book I read seven years ago on the lin­guis­tic prac­tices of the West­ern Apache. Anthro­pol­o­gist Keith H. Basso (Keith H. Basso, 1996) presents a com­pelling and beau­ti­fully writ­ten ethnog­ra­phy, cen­tred prin­ci­pally around four key per­sons, in his book ‘Wis­dom Sits in Places’ (I will leave it to your inter­est to fol­low up on this book). He con­ducted his field­work in Cibecue, Ari­zona, amongst the West­ern Apache. Their prin­ci­pally oral way of life led him to empha­sise the rela­tion­ship between lan­guage, place and cul­ture in form­ing a people’s way of life in the world. Place is a key fea­ture of how this group of Apache organ­ise them­selves socially, see and move in the world, and record his­tory i.e. through oral his­to­ries, with reit­er­a­tion of place names, play­ing a key role for mem­o­ri­sa­tion. In this case meta­lan­guage e.g. using a place-name to index a story related to that place, and thus invoke a moral or instruc­tive les­son, toponymy i.e. place-names, and phys­i­cal places in their envi­ron­ment, form an inte­gral part of mem­ory, and more broadly social iden­tity for this group. The EMH could be used to argue that minds or cog­ni­tion e.g. in this case mem­ory, for the West­ern Apache, are extended here to lan­guage, specif­i­cally meta­lan­guage, and the phys­i­cal envi­ron­ment. So why don’t I want to bite? Because the EMH doesn’t enrich the study of this cul­tural group and their prac­tices. The impor­tance of place in this par­tic­u­lar group can be described robustly in terms of toponymy, envi­ron­ment and meta­lan­guage, with­out invok­ing the idea that this is a case of extended minds. There is evi­dently a dynamic rela­tion­ship between the mem­bers of this group, and their envi­ron­ments, made pos­si­ble by par­tic­u­lar pat­terns of social inter­ac­tion and lin­guis­tic con­ven­tion, which mer­its a holis­tic approach but the EMH doesn’t seem to pro­vide the nec­es­sary frame­work.

In con­clu­sion Clark and Chalmers have rightly drawn atten­tion to the prob­lems of view­ing cog­ni­tion and/or minds as being con­signed to indi­vid­u­als, whether this is skull bound or brain/body bound etc. But rather than pro­vid­ing a robust set of def­i­n­i­tions to do some sci­ence with they only serve to con­fuse the issue even more. So I would say that it is a piece to think with rather than a prompt for a rad­i­cal over­haul of our under­stand­ing of minds, cog­ni­tion, and human behav­iour. This rad­i­cal over­haul will, if it does, come from approaches in embod­ied cog­ni­tion and enac­tivist accounts of human intel­li­gence and behav­iour in the world.

Purpose of the page

Hi guys,

So this is a brief intro­duc­tion and an attempt to frame the pur­pose of this web­site. I have wanted to write a blog for a long time but, time and time again, I found rea­sons not to write it. Now that I must write a num­ber of entries for uni­ver­sity, I will use this oppor­tu­nity to get into the habit. So these will mainly con­cern cog­ni­tive sci­ence but if I feel I wish to write a polit­i­cal piece, an infor­mal piece con­cern­ing pop­u­lar media, etc., I will post away.