Busting Myths About Human Nature

Race, monogamy, and other lies they told you.

When Good Science Goes Bad

Science and scientists are not the same thing.

Did “our hands evolve to fight” and does evolution explain why “women love to shop and men don’t”? University of Utah researchers claim to have shown that humans (actually, men) have hands evolved for fighting, and researchers at the University of Michigan assert that gendered shopping behavior reflects ancestral foraging adaptations. However, this this is not what is demonstrated in either of the two actual studies being referred to.  The fighting hands study was a small experimental study looking at ten men’s hand morphology and punching, and the sex differences in shopping study used an online survey to ask 500 undergraduate students about their shopping experiences.  In both cases the authors made large, and unsubstantiated, claims about human evolution that were not the only, or even the logical, conclusions emerging from the studies they conducted.

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There is often a serious disconnect between what research demonstrates and what is claimed to come from that “science.”

The word “science” is a powerful one in our society.  Popular explanations associated with science carry a lot of weight in our views of what humans do and why they do it.  We should care about the knowledge generated by scientific projects, but not always fully accept what scientists themselves have to say. We need to be careful about what we actually mean by “science” and pay close attention to how scientific knowledge is presented.

In its classic form science is not a thing; it is information generated using a research method that is replicable…it is a process of examining the world around us and reducing the number of possible explanations to a few probable explanations via testing.   In practice, much science today consists of taking already existing information and developing hypotheses to create more refined and detailed explanations. Ideally, what we think of as scientific knowledge is produced via this method and is valuable because it can be tested and verified. 

However, we often conflate science with what the scientists say.

You might argue that the opinion of scientists is informed by the science, and that is true, but as the anthropologist Jon Marks point out: not all science reflects a neutral investigation of reality. He reminds us that science is a process that can lead to discovery, but the specific context from which the discovery emerges can be as important as the data themselves. Scientists (including myself) have their own biases and beliefs that act to inform and shape the way they see the world, conduct research, and translate scientific information to the broader public.

For an extreme example take James Watson, the Nobel prize-winning geneticist, former director of the Cold Springs Harbor Research Institute, and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.  In 2007 he told a British audience that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really."   The knowledge that Watson helped produce regarding the structure of DNA remains one of the most well tested and supported important contributions to modern genetics.  However, his thoughts on race, Africa and intelligence are opinions that contradict the verified scientific knowledge about race, geography, intelligence, and genetics in humans.  Here is a case where the scientific data are available, but the scientist is stating a personal opinion in stark contrast to it.  Conflating the thoughts and opinions of scientists with science itself is a source of much of the misinformation leading to myths about human nature.

Even when scientists are not pushing unsubstantiated ideas, we also need to contend with the fact that there is significant bias in what studies get conducted and published. The current prejudice in research funding favoring certain “hot” topics over others, the emphasis on only publishing positive results, the lack of replication of many studies (especially in psychology), and minimal ethics training and enforcement creates an environment that limits the kinds and quality of scientific information that get into press and the public eye. Science is not conducted in a value-free vacuum and scientific results do not always reflect comprehensive or validated answers to the question asked.

So should we listen to what scientists have say? Yes, but not passively.

Science as a methodology is sound and most scientific work is published in peer reviewed journals where the processes and results must be clearly stated.  This enables a concrete assessment of what actually emerged from the study in question and allows the astute reader to develop her/his own take on the data. Gary Marcus closes a recent blog about the problems with science for the New Yorker by stating that “The best science is cumulative, not just a list of fun results; as people push deeper, bad ideas that are invalid eventually crumble.” Ideally this is true, but it can be a long slow process and many ideas put forward by scientists are not necessarily supported by the science they conduct. 

The main task is for scientists to become more aware of their (our) own biases and the contexts and constraints in their disciplines and publishing venues. This is facilitated by the action of the readers of professional and popular science: don’t passively accept what scientists say…investigate, challenge and seek to understand. The method of science works best when we are pushed to seek truth, not when we already know the truth and are simply trying to support it.

 

Agustín Fuentes, Ph.D, is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

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