Beard vs Taleb: Scientism and Historical Inquiry

Twitter rows and the dangers of scientism


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 havin

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Samuel Bebber 21 July 2022

Finding a competent roofing contractor in your area is not a simple feat. I attempted to locate one in this article but was unable, however this assistance is quite helpful. In these cases, I would recommend that everyone check this blog.

Abraham Joseph 3 September 2017

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 3 September 2017

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 25 August 2017

"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 15 August 2017

"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 15 August 2017

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 12 August 2017

"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 12 August 2017

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 11 August 2017

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 11 August 2017

@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 10 August 2017

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 10 August 2017

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 10 August 2017

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 9 August 2017

@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 9 August 2017

@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 9 August 2017

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

Peter Murphy 9 August 2017

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 8 August 2017

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 7 August 2017

Thank you for this brilliant essay.