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Beard vs Taleb: Scientism and the Nature of Historical Inquiry

How a Twitter row on diversity in Roman Britain became a masterclass in the dangers of scientism
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He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Before reading this essay, you may want to watch this short BBC cartoon, aimed at an audience of children, and explaining basic facts about Ancient Roman life in Britain. Done? Okay, what did you think of it?

This 5’30” video sparked a really nasty Twitter war (okay, “nasty” and “Twitter” may be slightly redundant, but still) involving two high caliber academics: historian Mary Beard (author of the highly readable and engaging SPQR) and statistician Nassim Taleb (author of the best selling and controversial The Black Swan). We’ll take a look at the exchange in a moment, but first — if you can stomach it — check out this “commentary” (I’m using the word very generously) by alt-right celebrity Alex Jones, who rails against the BBC for having succumbed to political correctness, on the grounds that one of the characters in the video is a young boy with a darker-than-white skin.

The kerfuffle began in earnest when Beard tweeted that the video was “indeed pretty accurate, there’s plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain.” Which I would have imagined is uncontroversially the case, since it is well known that the Roman Empire as a whole was highly diverse, and we have direct historical record of, for instance, one Governor of Britannia — Quintus Lollius Urbicus — who likely was a Berber from North Africa (specifically, modern Algeria). And Urbicus, based again on historical documents, was not an isolated case.

(As a side note, I did find the BBC video just slightly too informed by modern sensibilities, as for instance in the scene, at 1'50", where a Patrician girl expresses the desire to one day become a military commander, only to be rebuked by her mother who explains that women are not allowed in the Roman military. Then again, it is a video meant to teach an audience of modern children. And if one wishes to be picky then one would also have to point out that the Ancient Romans did not speak modern English with a British accent either…)

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"Taleb immediately moves from a criticism of Beard, a single, particular historian, to the class generalization, “historians.” Tsk, tsk, I would tell students in my informal logic class, that’s fallacious reasoning"
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Anyway, back to the Twitter wars. After Beard’s modest comment comes this retort from Taleb: “Historians believe their own BS. Where did the sub-saharan genes evaporate? North Africans were lightskinned. Only “Aethiopians”, even then.”

Before we proceed and evaluate Taleb’s substantive argument, please take note of a couple of things. First off, it is perfectly possible, I dare say preferable, even, to simply state that someone may be wrong on something, and provide the evidence backing the claim, rather than immediately descend to the level of accusing others of bullshitting. (Which, in philosophy, is a technical term, by the way.) Second, notice how Taleb immediately moves from a criticism of Beard, a single, particular historian, to the class generalization, “historians.” Tsk, tsk, I would tell students in my informal logic class, that’s fallacious reasoning. But Taleb has reasons for making that jump, as we shall see, even though they are definitely not good ones.

Taleb continued: “We have a clear idea of genetic distributions hence backward composition; genes better statisticians than historian hearsay bullshit.”

Setting aside the second use in a row of “bullshit,” Taleb is simply wrong here, and I say this as a population geneticist, and despite his impressive-looking tables of statistical data, which he proceeded to Tweet shortly thereafter. No, we don’t have a “clear idea” of ancient genetic distributions, because we only have DNA data from modern populations, and a lot of assumptions and guesswork has to go to infer ancient population DNA profiles from current ones. That is, genes are not “statisticians,” they are one — important, but limited — piece of information about human history. And one can just as easily bullshit with statistics as one may with “anecdotal data.” (Moreover, historical documents are not anecdotal data, they are individual pieces of evidence. Historical work is very akin to forensic work. Imagine a CSI operative looking at fingerprints clearly linking a suspect to a crime scene, shrugging her shoulders, and tossing them aside on the grounds that they are “anecdotal.”)

Indeed, the very same study referred to by Taleb, conducted at Oxford’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, also shows — again DNA data in hand — the presence of very few Norman genes in the modern British sample. Yet it would be crazy to deny, on that basis, that there was a Norman invasion of Britain (11th century, obviously much later than the Romans). Other explanations are possible without having to invoke alien interference (as Taleb mockingly did in another tweet aimed at Beard), for instance that there was little initial admixture between the invading population and the then resident one, or that further historical events obliterated many of the traces of that admixture. These are well known problems in population genetics, which is why the statistics, by themselves, don’t tell you anything. Careful interpretation, checking of assumptions and, whenever possible, and comparison with independent sources of evidence, must always be carried out.

Moreover, even if correct, Taleb’s argument is very clearly at cross-purposes with Beard’s statement. Nowhere did Beard claim that the presence of dark skinned individuals was “typical” in Roman Britain. She only stated that there was such presence, period. For that kind of modest claim, and despite Taleb’s disdain for it, “anecdotal” evidence is enough. If I were to tell you that the average height of people in Manhattan was 6’4” on the basis of having encountered a single individual that tall in the subway you would justifiably laugh me out of court (or of Twitter). But if my claim was instead simply that there is at least one person who is 6’4” in Manhattan, my direct observation of such a person (assuming I’m not lying) is all you need to establish the truth of that claim. No statistics are necessary. Indeed, given that the “population” of reference has a size of n=1, no statistic is possible.

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"Why do we care about this exchange at all? Because it is representative of a malaise that has stricken a good chunk of academics and an increasing portion of the general public: scientism"
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If anything, Beard did not go far enough when explaining to Taleb the nature of historical evidence. Although historical research can and does benefit from statistical analyses (see, for instance, my colleague Peter Turchin’s work on long-term historical trends), history, like paleontology and astronomy (the latter two obvious examples of historical sciences) can and do arrive at solid conclusions without statistics. Historians know that Napoleon lost at Waterloo; paleontologists know that a giant meteor or asteroid hit the Earth 65 million years ago (off the coast of the modern Yucatán peninsula), and astronomers know that there was a supernova explosion visible to the naked eye back in 1006 CE. Again, no statistics are necessary, or even possible, since we are talking about unique events. Again, the parallel with CSI is informative: in forensic science as well one uses DNA analyses and statistics, when available and appropriate, but the full picture emerges from a combination of different sources of information, properly integrated by way of careful reasoning, in turn based on a number of (always debatable and open to revision) assumptions and inferences. There is no such thing as reading stuff straight off the data.

Undaunted, Taleb made his above mentioned comment on alien interference, discourteously referred to Beard as “Ms.” (not Prof.), and — in response to an admission by Beard that she had not read Taleb’s technical papers, but only one of his popular books — wrote: “I get more academic citations per year than you got all your life!,” thus lowering his side of the debate to the level of kindergarten exchanges.

Now, why do we care about this exchange at all, other than the peculiar fact that it involved two highly respected academics going at each other in a very public forum? It isn’t because of the not-so-subtle sexist undertone (not just of Taleb’s, but of many of his Twitter-based supporters), nor is it because it is a spectacular example of the (anecdotal) fact that one may at the same time be smart and unpleasant. The most interesting aspect of this Twitter war is that it is representative of a malaise that has stricken a good chunk of academics (mostly scientists, with a peppering of philosophers) and an increasing portion of the general public: scientism.

I have co-edited an entire book, due out soon, on the topic, which features authors who are pro, con, and somewhere in the middle. Scientism is defined as the belief that the assumptions, methods of research, etc., of the natural sciences are the only ways to gather valuable knowledge or to answer meaningful questions. Everything else, to paraphrase Taleb, is bullshit.

Does Taleb engage in scientism? Indubitably. I have already mentioned above his generalization from what one particular historian (Beard) said to “historians” tout court. But there is more, from his Twitter feed: “there is this absence of intellectual rigor in humanities.” “Are historians idiots? Let’s be polite and say that they are in the majority no rocket scientists and operate under a structural bias. It looks like an empirically rigorous view of historiography is missing.”

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"The mistake of scientism is to elevate scientific knowledge and data crunching to a level of certainty and competence they most definitely do not have, while at the same time dismissing every other approach as obsolete nonsense"
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It’s a good thing Mr. Taleb was being polite, I hate to imagine what he’s like when he’s not. Of course, so far as I know, he is no rocket scientist either, and he also operates under a “structural bias.” We all do, there is plenty of empirical evidence (not to mention good philosophy of science, but of course that’s just part of the humanities, which lack intellectual rigor anyway) that everyone is affected by personal cognitive biases. Moreover, any organized enterprise — not just the academic study of history, but also the practice of statistics, or population genetics, or whatever — is affected by structural constraints and biases. That’s just another way of saying that no human being, or organized group of human beings, has access to a god’s eye view of the world. All we have is a number of perspectives to compare. Which is a major reason, as articulated by philosopher Helen Longino, to work toward increasing diversity in the sciences: many individually biased points of view enter into dialogue with each other, yielding a less (but still) biased outcome.

The mistake of scientism is to elevate scientific knowledge and data crunching to a level of certainty and competence they most definitely do not have, while at the same time dismissing every other approach as obsolete nonsense. But human knowledge and understanding are not zero sum games. On the contrary, they work best when we expand, rather than artificially or ideologically limit, our methods and sources of evidence. The scientistic game is foolish not just because it is incoherent (what statistical, empirical evidence do we have that scientism works? What does that even mean??), but because it is dangerously self-serving. It makes a promise on behalf of science that science cannot possibly maintain. And this in the midst of an already strongly anti-intellectual climate where half of the American public, for instance, rejects the very notion of global warming and does not believe in the theory of evolution.

Taleb & co. will likely argue that this sorry state of affairs is the result of scientific illiteracy, not of scientism. But they are empirically wrong: more scientific literacy only marginally decreases, and sometimes even increases (via motivated reasoning) people’s beliefs in pseudoscientific notions. And while certainly scientism isn’t the only causal factor at play, it just doesn’t help. Taleb, Beard, myself, and every other academic who takes the trouble to write for the public have a moral duty to be constructive, courteous, and careful with our evidence and arguments, practicing what is known as virtue epistemology. That, not name calling and insulting, is the way forward, in history, statistics, or any other field.

 


 

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He is both a philosopher of science and an evolutionary biologist who specializes in statistical population genetics. He blogs at platofootnote.org. His most recent book is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy for Live a Modern Life (Basic Books, 2017).

 

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Abraham Joseph on 03/09/2017 4:17pm

Very central subject! Appreciate the author for bringing it in!

Science's words received the same treatment once Church had received, after her victory over the latter. It caused the origin of 'scientism', the image of 'infallibility'.

Thus, she turned a quasi-religion of the sort, in the public eye, as well as for the scientists themselves. Her conclusions have become DOGMAS of the sort, like dogmas of Religion. The original SPIRIT of SCIENCE sadly had taken a back seat! Following peer-reviewed paper might throw better light on this tragedy: http://argumentsagainstscientificpositivism.blogspot.in/2014/05/thescientific-explanation-of-reality.html

But, as Author suggested, doesn't man has any way to sense reality that in God's eyes? Whatever that we have as 'sense' of Reason' doesn't permit us to accept it, as the whole story doesn't make sense! Are we left on planet earth as dream makers?

It is quite possible, that, we are not yet aware of the gadgets/tools Nature might have left in us? I think we must have taken many centuries of our intellectual growth before we realized our eyes 'see' and ears 'hear'! Similarly, it is a matter of time and intellectual maturity for mankind to discover such a sense organ or tool, what ever we may like to call it! This writer was into seeking answers to this question for decades together. He loves to share with the author and other open minded readers, his proposition, that, yes, man indeed is blessed with not yet realized 'sense-organ' that is capable of giving insight into God reality, or simply reality beyond what our mind creates! Better we leave the God image here, and just view it from a true scientific angle; as man's rightful and real ability to see reality beyond the known mind.
As he mentioned earlier, the Religious mind of Science might IGNORE such propositions as it straight away will cross her dogmas!! This writer shared the following paper with all leading universities in the world and received only a fanatic silence as if from our religious authorities Christain, Muslim or Hindu! Paper link is: https://isreasonasenseorgan.blogspot.in/2013/09/is-reason-internal-sense-organ-super.html

Bruce Netinter on 03/09/2017 7:33am

Thomas Kuhn in Wikipedia
[....] the notion of scientific truth, at any given moment, cannot be established solely by objective criteria but is defined by a consensus of a scientific community. Competing paradigms are frequently incommensurable; that is, they are competing and irreconcilable accounts of reality. Thus, our comprehension of science can never rely wholly upon "objectivity" alone. Science must account for subjective perspectives as well, since all objective conclusions are ultimately founded upon the subjective conditioning/worldview of its researchers and participants.

Katherine Woo on 25/08/2017 8:03am

"we only have DNA data from modern populations, and a lot of assumptions and guesswork has to go to infer ancient population DNA profiles"

This an utterly erroneous statement that discredits Pigliucci's entire argument with regard to the science itself. The last ten years have seen a huge swell in publications, directly examining DNA of pre-modern populaces, including other hominids. There have been studies relevant to this debate on North Africans and Greeks published within the last few months alone, which favor Taleb's claims.

Pigliucci's attempt to smear Taleb as sexist without any supporting evidence speaks for itself. Worse Pigliucci attempts to attack Taleb using a guilt-by-association argument, as if Taleb can control the behavior of other Twitter users. Pigliucci just got done self-righteously taking Taleb to task for projecting Beard's position onto "historians" in general, but can't avoid a similar attribution fallacy in the very same paper. Smh.

Rebecca Kennedy on 15/08/2017 5:06pm

"As a side note, I did find the BBC video just slightly too informed by modern sensibilities, as for instance in the scene, at 1'50", where a Patrician girl expresses the desire to one day become a military commander, only to be rebuked by her mother who explains that women are not allowed in the Roman military."

There is ample evidence from antiquity to suggest that girls and women could desire to participate in "male" activities and chaffed against gendered restrictions. In the land of Boudica, in a world where myths and legends of female warriors were common, and where even female gladiators existed, the idea that a little girl in a military family would be enamored of being a warrior with a mother rejecting the notion is perfectly plausible. Modern feminists are the historical anomaly some people make them out to be.

Julian Svedosh on 15/08/2017 12:55am

Thank you Massimo for a lucid parsing of the debate. I respect Taleb as a fellow quant, but you rightly point out that statistics are just as open to abuse in argument as anecdotal evidence. But although I respect his quantitative chops, this twitter battle leads me to doubt his decency. We are all tempted by ad hominem attacks in the heat of argument, but going after Mary Beard? Why?

To Mohan Matthen: Taleb's citation boast is not idle. It has nothing to do with how widely someone is read. There is an recognized measure of academic importance -- the Science Citations Index -- which measures the number of times an article published in a respectable journal is cited in other respectable journals. That may not be a meaningful measure of importance, but it is the best empirical measure we have of the impact of academic work. And let me assure you, important articles in finance are cite far more often than the work of any classicist.

Paul Hayes on 12/08/2017 4:31am

"No statistics are necessary. Indeed, given that the “population” of reference has a size of n=1, no statistic is possible."

Unnecessary, yes, but impossible? It's the sample that has size n=1 there and a possible statistic, T, is the proportion of Manhattanites 6’4” or taller. I would've thought even frequentists would be able to contrive a statement of the obvious in such circumstances (e.g. "The datum warrants rejection of the hypothesis T=0 [p=0]"). Anyway... "scientism"? It seems to me this is just another case of Taleb misusing probability / statistics in the service of pseudoscience: https://arxiv.org/abs/1410.5787

kyoung21b on 12/08/2017 2:50am

Ben,

Thanks, it's enlightening to have such a carefully argued post explain my feelings and show me and the rest of my lot (maybe you could flesh that out just a wee bit) that we're simply wrong about Taleb (and so elucidating to know that ad hominem can be considered wrong (or right)). Also nice to learn from your fact filled post that intelligibility is synonymous with appeal to unexamined belief. I just had one question: Kenneth ?

Mohan Matthen on 11/08/2017 8:53pm

Question: was it appropriate for the BBC to portray a Roman boy and his father as dark-skinned? Given that there were non-white Romans in Britain at the time, why not?

Taleb's indignant protest that North Africans were light-skinned is risible. Contemporary "mummy portraits" portray Egyptians as distinctly brown. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fayum_mummy_portraits (As a South Asian, I can anticipate the response: the BBC cartoon character has darker skin than the Egyptians portrayed in these portraits. But I thought only South Asians would get hung up on that.)

As an aside: Taleb's citation boast—“I get more academic citations per year than you got all your life!,”— is completely silly. Mary Beard is at least as widely read as he is.

Ben Newton on 11/08/2017 11:56am

@kyoung21b

What’s the shibboleth, Kenneth?

“I've always had the overwhelming feeling that Professor Taleb took a perfectly respectable statistical theory, the theory of large deviations, and used it to generate a mass of unintelligible, sloganeering, populist horse shit.”

It would seem that you’ve misidentified the nature of the feeling which has overwhelmed you as you have entered a regime best thought of as, “many intellectuals (yet idiots?), one cup.”

You’re simply wrong about Taleb (although, I will admit, much of his public behavior does him no favors on this point.) And giving what you have to say the slightest bit of serious consideration would be like me refusing to take seriously any of these attacks on Taleb without it being accompanied by a convincing explanation as to the centrality of mom jeans with regard to the experience of being black in America.

Taleb has done nothing more than make a show of not playing your virtue signaling game and now you’ve gone haywire as a result. (Does not compute, does not compute, respond with self-contradictory ad hominem leaving my ignorance undoubtable, where is my kombucha) You’ve interpreted intelligible as “populist,” and reduction as “sloganeering.” This is self-evident given that there’s no way something can be both a populist slogan and unintelligible, unless you are speaking only for yourself and the rest of your lot who Taleb has quite openly, and at great scientific and mathematical depth, accused of living inside some sort of scientism fever dream driven by unproven yet duly received knowledge.

kyoung21b on 10/08/2017 6:19pm

Though I sometimes disagree with Professor Pigliucci, e.g. his faith that there is currently a reasonable way to characterize demarcation, I thought this was an excellent article, and that despite the predictable flames from the devotees of scientism who just can't fathom how practitioners who's approach differs from theirs should be treated with the slightest respect. Though not a naturalist, I do believe that science is currently the only game in town re. explanation, prediction, and control. But only an overwrought sense of hubris would cause me to assert that the set of methods we currently call science, is, once and for all, the only possible way of ever generating understanding.
And since we're having fun with ad hominem I have to throw in that I've always had the overwhelming feeling that Professor Taleb took a perfectly respectable statistical theory, the theory of large deviations, and used it to generate a mass of unintelligible, sloganeering, populist horse shit (I think the bulls have taken enough abuse here) and that he should actually study the dynamics of citation indices before increasing his swagger on that score.

Seth Edenbaum on 10/08/2017 5:34pm

Frankfurt is a master bullshitter. And scientism isn't a preference for science; it's a preference for rationalism. Numbers are a formalism. Historians are empiricists and empiricism is unavoidably messy.

"History is like foreign travel. It broadens the mind but it does not deepen it."
Descartes believed his own bullshit.

Frank Looney on 10/08/2017 5:00pm

This article defines "scientism" as "the belief that the assumptions, methods of research, etc., of the natural sciences are the only ways to gather valuable knowledge or to answer meaningful questions."

What are these other ways of gathering knowledge that don't require the empiricism and fact-checking of science? When I hear "non-scientific ways of knowing," my mind goes to crystal balls and tarot cards, but presumably that's not what you're referring to here.

Carolyn Mason on 09/08/2017 9:27pm

@Kenneth - I think you have missed the point of the article. It really is very good, and I am not being sarcastic or smarmy when I suggest that you read it again carefully. It is making points about reasoning and knowledge that are relevant to all of us, whether we are scientists or non-scientists.
One correction of fact: The term "scientism" and discussions of scientism by philosophers and scientists can be found from about the 1920s onwards. It isn't a recent invention.

Ben Newton on 09/08/2017 9:11pm

@EarlSackgrab Why are you afraid to say it? You clearly have a lot to say, and so much if it is of such great and illuminating value. We all see your intellect on display, and the level you're on really quite obvious.

Maybe, if you repeat it a few times you could overcome your irrational fears of uttering petty insults? Go on. Give it try. I believe in you.

Carolyn Mason on 09/08/2017 9:05pm

@Earl I think you might have missed the point of the article ;)

Peter Murphy on 09/08/2017 5:31am

Kenneth: "Scientism" has been explained quite satisfactorily to me here. "The belief that the assumptions, methods of research, etc., of the natural sciences are the only ways to gather valuable knowledge or to answer meaningful questions" - yes, that seems to be the case with Nicholas Nassim Taleb's insulting rants about DNA evidence.

I don't know what your animus to the piece is based on, exactly. "Would you fly in an airplane that has been built based on historians scientific principles?" sounds like a false analogy, and "you disparage the whole community of mathematical and physical scientists" - I can't think of the fallacy for that beyond "utter nonsense". The only explanation I have for your anger is that Nicky Taleb has a habit of attracting sycophants to his Twitter account, and one of them may have wandered in here by mistake.

While Taleb has made a complete arse of himself, the episode has sparked many brilliant essays, especially this. That's why I shared this link on Facebook, with much appreciation from my friends - many of whom are science graduates. Thank you very much.

Kenneth Meyer on 08/08/2017 5:32pm

would you fly in an airplane that has been built based on historians scientific principles?

And by the way, with your concept of "scientism" , which effectively is an invention of self justification you disparage the whole community of mathematical and physical scientists.

Gabriel Finkelstein on 07/08/2017 7:08pm

Thank you for this brilliant essay.

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