Saturday, March 14, 2009

Blundering toward productivity, Part 4: cranks, evolution, and humility

If you're new to this series, you might like to read the previous installments first: here they are.

It's pretty common for internet cranks in general, and absolutely pandemic for dinosaur cranks in particular, to argue that Ivory Tower so-called experts are all blinkered by orthodoxy and that outsiders with no technical training are better suited to having the big ideas because they are unshackled by the weight of knowing all that has gone before. These people are almost always wrong, because they keep reinventing the wheel, and the wheels they reinvent are often square. That's why I was careful to specify in Part 3 that you hang out with people who are not afraid to look stupid (check) but also know enough to make useful suggestions.

The advantage of collaborating with friends is that neither of you mind the occasional stupid comment on either side; laughing those off and going on is worth it for all the good ideas that you'll have that you wouldn't have had otherwise. The disadvantages of listening to cranks are that the ratio of good ideas to stupid comments is very low, that cranks almost always mistake the latter for the former, and that almost by definition cranks are immune to being corrected (if they were willing to accept logic, reason, and the weight of evidence, they wouldn't be cranks). Even if you could somehow engineer a polite crank, who would immediately and humbly accept being corrected when he was wrong, you'd still waste most of your time explaining entry-level stuff and never get to the really good questions.

Although in retrospect Mike and I did a lot of this when we were first friends; he didn't know any biology to speak of but had a decent command of math and logic, and I knew a little biology but had never really been schooled in how to think clearly, and we both kind of helped each other up (i.e., took turns smacking each other down) until the conversations we were having anyway started to be applicable to exciting and tractable problems. So if you are an expert you shouldn't waste any time on a crank unless that crank is both potentially remediable and also your friend, and if you're a crank (or any other variety of n00b), learn how to swallow your pride, find a friend who can do likewise, and start climbing together. Maybe that is the definition of a crank: a n00b who mistakes himself for an expert.

It's not that cranks don't know a lot of facts. Usually, they know too many facts; they are blinded by their own command of the esoterica of the field in which they are cranks. The problem is that their command of that esoterica does not automatically mean that they are capable of thinking clearly about it; usually the opposite is true. After several bitter years of realizing how muddled is my own thinking, I now think that everyone, without exception, could stand to improve the clarity of their thought, and that the surest sign of this is thinking that you already think well enough.

This is like Richard Dawkins's definition of evolution as "the one subject that everyone thinks they understand." If you think you understand evolution, you don't understand it, and the more certain you are, the more grave your misunderstanding. Nor is evolution special: I suspect that this is true of any sufficiently rich field. That doesn't mean that there aren't lots of things that we know about evolution, like the fact that is has happened and continues to happen. It just means that we haven't solved it, in terms of reducing the whole field to anything that can be grasped in a blog post, or a lecture, or a documentary series, or a book, or even a career. Saying you understand evolution is not like saying you understand orbital motion, it's more like saying you understand physics. All of it. The term 'evolutionary biology' is a misnomer: evolution isn't an aspect of a more inclusive phenomenon called biology, biology is an instance of a more inclusive phenomenon called evolution.

The partner of useful stupidity is humility. In Part 2 I mentioned two aspects of humility: letting your guard down enough to let out the good ideas will probably let out some dumb ideas at the same time, and sometimes your dumb ideas will trigger someone else's good ideas. Here I am talking about another, deeper level of humility. Not humility in front of another person, but humility before the universe itself. Recognizing that any commonplace object or idea that you take for granted probably stands at the end of an almost impossibly long series of unlikelihoods, most of which have never been explored. Stephen Jay Gould seemed to have a knack for asking questions that most of his colleagues could not even have formulated; he was really good at not just seeing the box and then thinking outside of it, but wondering what it was doing there in the first place. I wonder if he was a biological evolutionist rather than an evolutionary biologist; I suppose Dawkins must be. Too bad they were always at odds (when Gould was still alive), I'll bet they would have had some killer ideas if they could have ever let their guards down around each other.

In any case, this is another way to quickly separate serious cranks from potentially remediable n00bs: cranks lack humility. Not just humility toward other people, but toward the universe. The true crank is beset by the dual delusions that the answers are all straightforward, and that he has them and no one else does (except maybe one or two of his fellow cranks; sometimes they run in packs). Look around for someone who doubts if we're even asking the right questions, and chat that person up instead. Not just instead of talking to the crank--instead of doing whatever it was you had planned for the rest of the day.

Where am I going with all of this? I have no clue. I just intended to write a little bit about e-mail and the value of conversation. And I'm not going to find out tonight, because right now my need for sleep is greater than my curiosity to see what comes next. Stay tuned, though. I'm probably stupid enough to bring this to a satisfactory close, but it remains to be seen if I have the humility.

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Blogger Mike Taylor said...

For the record, Matt is being way too kind here. When I started out, I didn't teach him anything; he taught me everything. The most I could do for him was point out when he'd made a mistake in his reasoning. Even now, eight or nine years on, I know maybe a quarter as much biology as he knew then -- although that is, slowly, changing, and I aspire one day to know a full third as much as he knew then.

But I couldn't agree more on stupidity: really, the one solid thing I had going for me (apart from a passion for sauropods) was that I didn't much care whether people thought I was stupid. Or at least, ignorant. It is that that's allowed me all these times to come right out and say things like "Actually, what is a hyposphene?"

8:54 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Thanks, dude, but I'll be the judge of how big a doofus I were when we did started.

Mike's right about his fearlessness when it comes to asking possibly dumb questions. In fact, he's being too modest. He has an iPod Shuffle that he won at a conference for asking the most annoying questions. Tragically, this was some kind of computer science conference and not a paleontology conference; I really like the idea of rewarding people who ask good questions.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Speaking as a certified crank, I endorse Matt's comments.

Speaking of cranky notions, it was only a few days ago I came up with a demonstration that evolution really does work at the level of the organism, not the gene. Consider a bacterium equipped with a mechanism to extract a copy of any random gene in its genome, pack it into a phage, and send it out to be injected into some random other bacterium, there to be incorporated into that bacterium's own genome.

Any gene would be lucky to be carried as part of such a bacterium, because it has excellent prospects for being incorporated into every other bacterial lineage. Despite that, there would be no evolutionary pressure to develop or maintain such a capacity. The genes would benefit, individually, but only after being ejected, so they no longer participate in the reproduction of the bacterium.

Such apparatus could naturally develop, though, as weaponry, and would ultimately be suborned by an opportunistic virus. A virus might develop a practice of grabbing a gene or two from its host to carry along and make itself less unattractive to its next victim.

This has been your cranky thought for the day.

4:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm I know of one crank that this all definitely applies to very well, and you may have been thinking of the same one. Some might even say I built my early career on deconstructing his crankitude.

An important point is to listen to the cranks, as sometimes they do have good observations, but don't be seduced by them.

And call them on their B.S. as appropriate, while standing your ground based on methods and evidence.

And don't let their latest "I had the same idea in 1987, see my non-peer-reviewed paper on it for proof" spoil your fun. Publish the definitive study and all of science will smile with you.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Zachary Miller said...

*raises quivering hand*

What about paleo fanboys? :-)

10:04 PM  

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