Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Greg Ransom on Kuhn and Membership Selection

Greg Ransom wrote an interesting essay on Kuhn's theory of scientific paradigms, attempting to explain the way paradigms emerge. In it he proposes what he called "membership selection", which he defines as follows:

"membership selection is a selective process which selects over individuals for a property of those individuals which either does or does not contribute to a group property, a property which cannot be exhibited alone by a single individual, but which can only be expressed as a group property. Through this process which selects over individuals and for a property these individuals either do or do not contribute to the group, there will be selection for the group property which selected individuals exhibit."

This is to be distinguished from group selection, where one engages in an action that may harm you, the individual, but benefits the group (which contain some of your genes -- in a Daqwkins "selfish gene" way). In group selection, an individual may give a warning call that protects most members of the group, but may draw attention to the individual giving the call. With membership selection, the individual is not harmed at all with the behavior. Ransom gives the example of musk ox keeping wolves at bay by constantly facing the threat and keeping the calves behind them -- this benefits the individual and, when with other musk ox, results in the famous circling behavior that is even more protective. Another example would be herding/schooling behavior.

While this is an excellent theory of biological evolution, there are, as usual, problems with metaphorically extending it to social behavior. Specifically, Ransom tries to say that new paradigms in science are created through membership selection as he describes it. He does so to try to explain that natural selection is insufficient as an explanation for why a particular paradigm will gain members to the exclusion of others. The problem with his metaphor is that people are capable of changing their minds (even if many do not), while genes change from generation to generation. With the emergence of a new paradigm, people are going to choose to accept it or not, for a variety of reasons. Is there a genetic predisposition for believing in Newtonian gravitation vs. Relativistic gravitation? Hardly. But clearly there is a genetic element to circling behavior in musk ox. This is where the metaphor fails. Where it works, however, is when, if I believe something, I am benefitted if others believe it as well. If we add in an ability to convince ourselves and others, the idea of membership selection works for paradigm acceptance. A new paradigm takes over as more members are added to the group that believe in the new paradigm.

But what makes us believe in the new paradigm? Ransom doesn't address this, but there may in fact be an element of natural selection at this level. Kuhn believes that new paradigms are accepted if they "bear fruit." Well, many theories can and do bear fruit, yet are not accepted as a dominant paradigm -- or such theories may be delayed for a while before being accepted. Perhaps it is those that bear the most fruit most quickly, thus demonstrating a selective advantage to those who accept the paradigm and join in with others in using it as a research model. This would explain the selection of a particular paradigm. As it demonstrates its usefulness, more people are convinced, and membership selection takes over. Perhaps if Ransom had added in the theory of memetics, he would have come to such conclusions himself. Catastrophe theory also provides a mathematical model that demonstrates how one moves from one paradigm to the next. He would have also benefitted from such a model.

Now, this works well for the hard sciences -- physics, chemistry, and even biology to an extent. But it hardly works for the soft sciences and the humanities, which do not demonstrate the dominance of a single paradigm, but rather demonstrate the dominance of several paradigms. Of course, this isn't exactly right, either, as the humanities are still dominated by blank slate theories since discarded by practically everyone else -- though there are different sub-paradigms within that theory that make up the majority of humanities scholarship. Anyone with any kind of foundationalism -- including evolution -- or belief in human universals have no place in most humanities programs. But the problem in the humanities and the soft science is that none of them can "bear fruit" in the same way. With the hard sciences, you have to have hard results. But in something like economics, you don't have to have a result that matches the real world for people to accept it. In fact, you can have the opposite result in the real world, and still have supporters (think of Keynesian economics, which was a demonstrable failure in the 70's, yet is making a comeback). The problem is that economics is not really an experimental science. You can observe what happens, and theorize from that, but you cannot conduct experiments to see if your ideas work. The result is and has been a proliferation of theories and models that may or may not have any relevance to the real world, and which may help or may harm. Scientism and mathematicism in economics has thus been quite harmful, because they give the appearance of hard science and precision where none can ever be achieved. Certainly mathematics forms the foundational paradigm of contemporary economics -- but it has been very much to the detriment of economics, as it gives the appearance of hard knowledge where there is none. This is what happens when something is used incorrectly in a field. There is a place for math in economics, of course, but not to the extent that it has been used, where it masks reality and results in false conclusions.

Of course, what I may simply be saying is that economics is really for a paradigm shift. If revolutionary science is when we get a "crisis due to the emergence of some intractable anomaly," then the current economic crisis shows that economics has certainly reached this point. Except in abstract model-building, math has reached its limits in economics. But I predict it will be harder to make the shift, and the transition will be longer, precisely because of the nature of economics as a science.

The humanities are in even worse shape, because the results are even less clear. Nobody is reading the works of humanities scholars anymore, and perhaps that is the expression of the crisis there. But how do the humanities "bear fruit"? Not merely be increased "interest," whatever that may mean. And people in the humanities who dominate are in protected positions in universities, so there are no real consequences for them to hold bad theories. They just keep producing more like them, hiring more like them, protecting those people, and thus perpetuating bad ideas. Membership selection in this case only perpetuates bad behavior and bad ideas. How, then, does one create a paradigm shift on the humanities? If revolutionary science arises because of bad consequences, how can there be revolutionary humanities if bad consequences are protected?

To a limited degree, this problem also exists in the soft sciences. The good news, though, is that as complexity theories and biology begin to dominate, fewer bad ideas can survive. The soft sciences need to be made more scientific through biology and systems science rather than made more like math and physics. That will be the real paradigm shift -- in the soft sciences as well as in the humanities. Unfortunately, it seems that those of us in the humanities who do not believe in postmodernism and rather use evolutionary and systems theories in our work will perhaps find ourselves more at home in social science departments. But those social science departments are going to have to be open to hiring us, which they currently are not -- primarily due to a wrong-headed, tribalist turf protection. If they could get over that and become more interdisciplinary, that would open things up for both the soft sciences and the humanities. Now that would be a major paradigm shift.
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