"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Twa Corbies

'Expansive,' you say.  I don't think that word means what you think it means.

You know, the thing about science is that it's self-correcting.

So, it should be a simple case: There are lots of errors right on the surface, and there’s not really anyone defending the work. But, still, it took months of pushing and pushing and pushing for Anaya and Brown to get journals to admit there were problems. As Anaya explains, “If something is going to take several months, you might expect it to be a sufficient correction of the record, or at a minimum accurate. Unfortunately, we didn’t find either of those to be the case.”

My point here is not to go over the pizzagate story one more time. Anyone paying attention should now know not to trust the claims, published or otherwise, coming from Wansink’s lab. The point I want to make is how much effort was required by Anaya and Brown to get any changes at all, even in this easy case where there were actual and demonstrable untruths in the published papers. Not just questionable research practices, misinterpretation of statistics, overblown claims, etc. Those alone would be enough of a reason to disbelieve a published claim and enough of a reason for journals to post a correction. But in these cases, you have actual clear errors, and very minimal changes.

Sometimes.  Eventually.  If someone is obsessive enough.  And if someone finally listens.


The Slate article is about how important it is to be obsessive enough.  The author is interested in what he calls the "Javert Paradox":

The problem with Javert (played by Russell Crowe in the 2012 film adaptation, pictured above) was not that he was indefatigable in his pursuit. No, the problem was that he was indefatigable in his pursuit of a guy who stole a goddamn loaf of bread to feed his family.

And can I, a humanities student all my life, note the C.P. Snow "Twa Cultures" irony of an article about science that has to explain a famous character from literature in terms of a movie and an actor to be sure his audience gets the reference?


The Javert Paradox is what interests the author, but what interests me is this:

But … if they hadn’t been so thorough and careful—as Anaya puts it, “I know Wansink’s work better than he does, it’s depressing really”—then I suspect none of this exposure would’ve happened. Recall that the Wansink lab was called out five years ago on data problems, and the researchers just bobbed and weaved and never acknowledged any problems. And recall that, after the first batch of pizzagate errors came out (more than 150 wrong numbers in only four papers!), Cornell tried to dismiss the whole story. And then, of course, there are the journals that have required months of nagging to make even the smallest corrections.

Why is it so hard to reveal errors in science?  Theology and philosophy are nothing but battlegrounds where ideas are relentlessly subjected to criticism, skepticism, revision, and rejection.  It can be hard to get started with the simplest statement in theology or philosophy, knowing how it is going to be parsed and parceled and critically examined for error.  No one needs to pursue a theological or philosophical "error" like a Javert, because there is no resistance to correcting the "record."  Largely because in theology and philosophy there is no "record," only contention, only discussion, only argument.  This is as old as the "Socratic method" and Jewish midrash, at least; and probably much, much older.

But science?  Apparently if you produce a stack of numbers that everybody likes, those numbers become gospel and challenging them is akin to challenging the literality of scripture to a roomful of fundamentalists.  And the best recourse is to praise the obsessives that force the organs of science to occasionally, after great effort and tremendous diligence and sheer dogged stubborn persistence, to get them to consider that MAYBE something out to be changed.

Huh.  Who'da thunk it?


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