William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Entry For The Most Pompous Statement Of Scientism

I know more than you do.

Our friend John Cook came (via The Renaissance Mathematicus) across what is easily one of the most pompous declarations by a scientist we have ever seen.

The words came from Russell Foster at The Times Higher Education while he was musing on what it would be like to be invited to a cocktail party. He began:

The season is once again upon us when we scientists are asked to leave the safe embrace of our laboratories and enter the complex social matrix of unfamiliar relations, friends of friends and obligatory conversations with complete strangers.

Unwashed supplicants approach unknowable, powerful, and wise oracles and ask them to have a drink. Foster could, only just, deign to take part. But then he wondered and he fretted how he could possible explain to these near illiterates what he does for a living. He considered avoiding the subject and saving everybody the mental trauma involved in meeting a superiors minds, but he rejected this as beneath his vast intelligence and now has at the ready this speech:

“Well,” I say, “as a scientist my occupation grapples with the fundamental nature of truth. It is worth reflecting that before the emergence of a robust scientific class in the 19th century, truth was defined by the whim of the ruling class. Indeed, we scientists wrested truth away from the claws of religious dogma and liberated humanity from the leaden hand of ignorance and, in the process, provided the evidenced-based infrastructure required for a truly democratic society — namely individual liberty and equality of opportunity. I suppose I’m just part of that meritocratic force that has defined our civilisation.”

This surpasses politician-level arrogance, exceeds even that found in appointed bureaucrats, and it comes thisclose to matching that from the Morning Star himself. His prose is purpler than the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s nose. And his grasp of intellectual history is feeble.

On the other hand, maybe we can agree with him when he says “we scientists wrested truth away” from the religious. Yes, and stomped it into the ground. In its place they hold aloft the idea that only Science can tell us what is true and what is false. Since that itself is not a scientific statement, and not subject to empirical verification, the ultimate goal of scientists can never be met.

And, incidentally, neither can “equality of opportunity” be found (which is not a scientific concept). Does he not remember those great scientific societies the USSR, Mao’s China, and the like? After his speech, he says he does this:

At this point I pause for both gas exchange and dramatic effect.

I wish he’d keep quiet about his flatulence. He continues:

“Why was it, do you think, that during the 19th century the poorer sectors of society embraced science so avidly?”

Military advantage, mostly. Science has given us efficient and creative tools with which to massacre ourselves.

People were there not only to hear the latest scientific findings about the origins of our species, but also to witness first-hand the liberating affirmation that truth is the product of experimentation and is forged upon evidence.

Let’s remind Foster that no mathematical truth—and mathematics is the language of science—can be the product of experimentation nor forged upon observational evidence. Thought itself could not begin or progress without truths which are not and cannot be known by experimental evidence.

“The words ‘how’ and ‘why’ took on a new and sharper significance 150 years ago, cutting the knots of meek acceptance that bound the individual to the state, allowing humanity to stride unfettered into the modern world…

“So that’s what I do — how about you?” [ellipsis original]

Listen, Rusty, we see how much “freer” from the State we are the more science there is. I think of this every time I look into a CCTV camera or go through a TSA x-ray or scan the newspapers to see what new food the government has scientifically forbidden me to eat.

Foster admits his speech bombed once: “I apparently soured the atmosphere after midnight Mass.” “But,” he says “At least I felt better knowing that I had shared an appreciation of the scientific method. Christmas is a time for giving, and what more precious gift could a scientist give?”

I don’t know. Humility?

31 Comments

  1. The incredible lack of historical perspective of modern scientists is both sad and disturbing. Empiricism in the west goes back to at least Aristotle…

  2. All that hubris and he really didn’t answer the question.

  3. “Well, as a scientist, my occupation grapples with chasing grants. When I’m not doing that, I divide my time between administrative tasks, teaching, and weighing lizard turds. I find that my extensive experience with lizard dung qualifies me to pontificate on the bigger issues of life, such as the importance of funding my research into lizard dung.”

  4. Let`s start a new contest to name this boundless love of science. I’m proposing scientophily, scientomania, scientocaecitas, …

  5. Thoughts:
    1. Science obviously finds no use for manners.
    2. Love the idea of the poorer sectors building military weapons with his precious science.
    3. Christmas is basically crass commercialism, which should please him since science gave us much of commercialism. He should embrace the whole notion and brag incessantly (which he has no problem doing, it appears) about how he is responsible for Christmas being as it is today.
    4. This may work with academics, but
    Anyone in the laboring class would just flip him off or pour beer on him.
    Anyone within a mile of wind turbine would go ballistic on how HE caused their misery.
    The janitor might “accidentally” spill the mop bucket on him.

    He is a daring soul–probably only uses these lines where the rest of the party is 18 to 22 year old giggly coeds.

    (If this is a duplicate comment, and I cannot tell if it is, my apologies. I hit enter at the same time John did apparently and the original comment never appeared. Zeros and ones–so frustrating….)

  6. Pride – Fall; Haughty Spirit – Destruction. Just wait.

  7. I’ve looked him up a bit. If he wanted to describe his research, he’d probably say something like, “I’m trying to figure out how having the lights on affects the nervous system, especially the timing, duration, and quality of sleeping.” That would help people understand what he’s trying to learn about, and take an actual interest in it (and him).
    But as Mr. Briggs says, the goal of this particular pontification is not to tell people what he does, but to gratify his desires to feel important and superior to the hoi polloi. Eradicating these particular desires from myself has been a project of over ten years, and unfortunately I am nowhere near done yet.

  8. For a change, he could try feigning interest in what the other guests have to say about their work, views on current events, and quirky likes and dislikes.

  9. RE: “…one of the most pompous declarations by a scientist we have ever seen…”

    REALLY???

    Let’s put the overall situation in context:

    The quote is from a scientist.

    Scientists, & that ilk overall (e.g. researchers of many stripes), are notoriously introverted and/or shy. It’s the unusual one that is an extrovert.

    That ilk is likewise notoriously uncomfortable in social situations — “social anxiety” E.G.: http://socialanxietydisorder.about.com/od/glossaryi/g/Introvert.htm

    EVERYTHING quoted & noted is consistent with a person with social anxiety being forced by circumstances to engage in social rituals found to be uncomfortable & worse. Who but an introvert/shy personality would, or could conceive, of describing a laboratory as a “safe embrace”???

    Most likely conclusion:

    The person quoted is an introvert and/or shy and likely suffers from some form of “social anxiety.”

    Such a person, who is willingly [if grudgingly] conceding to engage in social rituals is in fact displaying a type of courage by willfully doing what they find uncomfortable & perhaps even frightening.

    OF COURSE, we don’t know what’s in that particular person’s mind & motivations, however the above logical analysis I’ve presented most likely conveys the motives & attitudes of the quoted — given how ubiquitous the introvert & shy personality pattern is among researches who willing choose professions sequestered & cocooned in isolated work environments. Arrogance is not even a factor…I’d bet.

    Regardless, why pick on someone for some remark so trivial?

    Why not give him the benefit of the doubt?

  10. “It gives me a pain in the diodes down my left side just thinking down to your level.” Oh.

    “Shall I switch myself off?” Do.

  11. Ken: Just as most of psychology, the idea of introvert has been completely changed and used as self-promotion by actors, actresses, etc. It makes the person look important and like they overcame some “flaw” and succeeded. An advertising gimmick, it seems. The entire concept as put forth by Jung is gone, replaced by another “I’m proud to be overcoming my introversion” flag. Actors and actresses are listed as introverts, which is contrary to the entire idea that introverts draw energy from within and are drained being around others. According to pop psychology, the professor should have no problem even if he is an introvert–he can just study Jerry Seinfield or Julia Roberts and learn how to be famous and introverted. I’m not buying your explanation based on the current definition of introverts.

  12. @ Sheri re: “…According to pop psychology, the professor should…”

    GOOD CALL!

    GREAT TACTIC!!!

    To get a desired answer just grab whatever works…

    At least a good call/great tactic is one is unconcerned about one’s credibility…such as:

    “I’m not buying your explanation based on the current definition of introverts.”

    There is no formal definition, much less a “current definition”…the meaning of the term depends on context (e.g. layperson vs. medical).

    But its always nice to have such good examples illustrating the lengths to which people will go to support their preconceived viewpoints to disparage someone of whom they know nothing or next to nothing.

  13. The gremlins are at it again Briggs. After editing I believe the link is:

    http://thonyc.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/resignation/

    Interesting perspective Ken and after all Paul Erdos was known to make pompous statements when compelled to speak outside of mathematics. The real insight about Foster is not his exaggerated views about science but the fact that his views outside science are the everyday politically correct statements that many people make, including the hoi polloi. He is more guilty of democratism than scientism, the former being the belief that all good comes from democracy and only evil can come from the ancient regime. This is also called the Whig view of history.

    Interesting enough the new Pope seems to be falling into the same trap.

  14. Ken: Glad I made your day. Somewhere in my education, I apparently missed the reality that there are no static definitions in psychology. Okay, I knew that was true in philosophy, but I suppose I labored under the obviously mistaken belief that words had meanings and terms in psychology had meanings. I wasted all that time studying and getting a degree and now I find the terms have “no definition” but the terms are instead situational definitions. Wow–I am just blown away. I must go compose myself……

  15. Ye Olde Statisician

    December 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    So, wait. Is he a scientist or only a psychologist?

  16. Reminds me of the parable of the Pharisee. The Pharisee certainly had a high opinion of himself. Probably overdosed on self esteem. “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people, robbers, evildoers, adulterers or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

  17. Sheldon Cooperism. The broad satire of TBBT succeeds because these characters are so identifiable and common enough.

  18. He wears a suit and white shirt

  19. I came away with a different impression after reading Foster’s take on how to reply to the question ‘And what do you do?’ at Christmas cocktail. I actually found the article funny.

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/ill-drink-to-that-almost-foolproof-party-spiel-for-scientists/2009747.article

    My first thought was to ask a colleague what he said at cocktail parties. Missing the point entirely, his response was immediate: “I’ll have another.” Then, warming to the theme, he added that climate change scientists say “where’s the ice?”; seismologists ask for their drinks to be “shaken and not stirred”; microbiologists request “just a small one”; and social scientists prefer “something soft”.

  20. Sheri – Sometimes where you’re in a hole its best to stop digging….

    Pretty much everybody knows, first-hand, someone that’s a “loner” or “shy” or “introverted” and the meaning of the terms is generally self-explanatory in context (some might have avoidant personality disorder, etc.). And, for anyone that knows such personalities, the sentiment expressed by R. Foster is pretty typical — being social, as expected during the holidays, is pretty stressful. So much so many don’t/won’t/can’t make the effort.

    An extreme example, N. Tesla, is described by a comedian at: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla

    Here’s some examples of just “introvert” and the varied, and contradictory, meanings in everyday contemporary use:

    “Introvert” DSM V (maybe a new definition where there wasn’t one before, maybe not) for a specific diagnostic criteria: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/self-promotion-introverts/201004/are-introverts-nuts

    The NEO PI (this diagnostic is shown to work across cultures) applies the concept in terms of degree or absence of extroversion (“introvert” isn’t used): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revised_NEO_Personality_Inventory

    Meyers Briggs for understanding coworker relational styles to interact more effectively: http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/extraversion-or-introversion.asp

    Dictionary (lay person’s broad context), DOES include “shyness” as a synonymous term: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/introvert

    Other references are more refined/parsed, noting that shyness IS NOT a synonymous term (or, is not always synonymous…it depends): http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/03/caring-for-your-introvert/302696/

    Or, may encompass Avoidant Personality Disorder though that’s something slightly different & more extreme: http://www.buzzle.com/articles/introvert-personality.html

    What’s amazing to me is how a statistician’s blog can result in, apparently, so little actual intellectual rigor and so much emotional “reasoning” from those it attracts.

    BRIGGS — I bet if you save this particular essay for a year or two most will have long forgotten it, THEN, present the exact same quote as an example of the timid shy introvert type & how they suffer [and how their competent research suffers] under the machinations of the minority few of politically crafty & extroverted in their midst. You’ll find, after comparing the responses to the same exact prompt, that people like Sheri will also buy into that counter viewpoint right off the bat as well…because the real issue flagged here is how many people are quick to pounce on a perspective based on the flimsiest of facts, or outright unsupported conjecture (and the more emotional the conjecture the faster the acceptance), and then resist vehemently any information that challenges a new viewpoint. …examples of the “I’ve made up my mind don’t confuse me with the facts!” thing…

  21. Ken: Carl Jung?

    No, no matter how the quotes are presented, they will sound arrogant and condescending. I really don’t care if the guy is labeled “scientist”, “introvert”, “world class jerk” or “nobel prize winner”. His comments are arrogant–it matters not why.

  22. JH,

    Ha! one can only guess what a psychologist would ask for.

  23. DAV,

    A dreamsicle drink? Maybe Ken has a better answer.

    I do have a good friend who is a psychology professor. She usually asks for hot water.

  24. That was a pretty good little speech, but not quite the elevator speech to really inform folks what you do. If you realy wnat to turn people off at a party, just tell them you sell life insurance, used cars, or that you are a financial advisor.

    I met a guy once who would tell people he was a steam fitter, plumber, or some other manual labor person. The doctors and lawyers would just cough and move to another part of the party.

  25. Bob, risky strategy- people might start asking you for advice. I used to go with carpentry but about 10 year ago people started asking me about carpentry. I tried plumbing but that was even worse with people wanting my opinion on what was wrong with their plumbing. Now I just pick some random letters and string them together, “I work in UC, although these days I mostly just handle LFTs and RNTs.”

  26. My stock answer is, “I try to get to the end of the day without being found out.” But then I don’t go to cocktail parties.

  27. He gets invited to parties?

  28. There really is only one moral to this little story: Some scientists are jackasses.

    That should come as no surprise to anyone. Some bus drivers are jackasses. Some cooks are jackasses. Some mechanics are jackasses. Some professors of liberal arts are jackasses. Some bishops are jackasses. It’s a risk we run by being human.

    However, given that this is a blog by A STATISTICIAN, it should be noted that finding one or even several examples of jackass scientists does not justify the extrapolation that scientists are “all a bunch of jackasses”, MUCH LESS the statements made by many commentators here about science per se.

  29. Gary on 16 December 2013 at 2:47 pm said:

    “Sheldon Cooperism.”

    Indeed, and just like Sheldon, I’m sure the professor can assure us of his normalcy.

    Video link

  30. Where do we keep digging up these Vogons from?

    I’m not sure the 19C poorer classes embraced science per se, I think they embraced not being killed by cholera and medical procedures that didn’t kill them.

  31. He’s wrong. Scientists do not deal in “truth.” They deal in “facts.” There is a difference. Religion and philosophy deal with truth, the ultimate meaning behind facts.

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