Saturday, December 24, 2011

The History of Science Is the History of Error

Skull, in a downtown Ann Arbor store

There's a fascinating article at on scientific "truths" that were once strongly held but shown to be wrong. 65 contributors are asked: "The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?" It was Benedetto Croce, I think, who once said that the history of science is the history of error.

George Lakoff is one of the respondents. Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By played an important role in my doctoral dissertation. Here's Lakoff's response, in full, which fascinates me.

Enlightenment Reason and Classical Rationality have been shown over and over in the cognitive and brain sciences to be false in just about every respect. Yet they are still being taught and used throughout the academic world and in progressive policy circles. Real human reason is very different.
Here are the claims of enlightenment reason, and the realities:
  • Claim: Thought is conscious. But neuroscience shows that thought is about 98 percent unconscious.
  • Claim: Reason is abstract and independent of the body. But reason is embodied in two ways: (1) we think with our brains and (2) thought is grounded in the sensory-motor system.
  • Yet, because we think with our brains and thought is embodied via the sensory-motor system, reason is completely embodied.
  • Claim: Reason can fit the world directly. Yet because we think with a brain structured by the body, reason is constrained by what the brain and body allow.
  • Claim: Reason uses formal logic. In reality, reason is frame-based and very largely metaphorical. Basic metaphors arise naturally around the world due to common experiences and the nature of neural learning. The literature on Embodied cognition has experimentally verified the reality of metaphorical thought. Real human reason uses frame-based and metaphor-based logics. Behavioral economics is based on this fact.
  • Claim: Emotion gets in the way of reason. Actually, real reason requires emotion. Brain-damaged patients who cannot feel emotion don't know what to want, since like and not like mean nothing to them and they cannot judge the emotions of others. As a result they cannot make rational decisions.
  • Claim: Reason is universal. Actually, even conservatives and progressives reason differently, and evidence is pouring in that one's native language affects how one reasons.
  • Claim: Language is neutral, and can fit the world directly. Actually language is defined in terms of frames and metaphors, works through the brain and does not fit the world directly. Indeed, many of the concepts named by words (e.g. freedom) are essentially contested and have meanings that vary with value systems.
  • Claim: Mathematics exists objectively and structures the universe. Mathematics has actually been created by mathematicians using their human brains, with frames and metaphors.
  • Claim: Reason serves self-interest. Partly true of course, but to a very large extent reason is based on empathetic connections to others, which works via the mirror neuron systems in our brains.
Given the massive failures of enlightenment reason, widely documented in the brain and cognitive sciences, why is it still taught and widely assumed?
First, it did a great historical job back in the 17th and 18th centuries in overcoming the dominance of the Church and feudalism.
Second, it permitted the rise of science, even though science doesn't really use it.
Third, unconscious mechanisms like framed-based and metaphorical thought are mostly not accessible to consciousness, and thus we cannot really see how we think.
Fourth, applications of formal logic have come into wide use, say in the rational actor model of classical economics (which failed in the economic collapse of 2008).
Fifth, we are taught enlightenment reason in our schools and universities and its failure is not directly taught, even in neuroscience classes. Seventh, most people just think and don't pay much attention to the details, especially those that are not conscious.
Sixth, most people just think and don’t pay much attention to the details, especially those that are not conscious.
Much of liberal thought uses enlightenment reason, which claims that if you just tell people the facts about their interests, they will reason to the right conclusion, since reason is supposed to universal, logical, and based on self-interest. The Obama administration assumed that in its policy discourse, and that assumption led to the debacle of the 2010 elections. Marketers have a better sense of how reason really works, and Republicans have been better at marketing their ideas. The scientific fallacy of enlightenment reason has thus had major real-world effects.

My current favorite scientific theory that proved false is: the idea that our uvierse did not begin to exist, held by Western scientists until the mid-20th century.