When I was a kid, I was only allowed to eat candy on Saturdays. My parents had the rule to spare my teeth. But, of course, other parents had different rules. Somehow this bothered me – people who ate candy on Fridays, for example. Or could eat it whenever. It was like they broke a rule. A law. And it was Bad.
In Sweden, when students present their final thesis, they go through a defense, where other students serve as opponents on their work. These students rarely have good expertise about the research area they are opponents for – and we could hardly ask them to, so they discuss and critique what they can, which rarely is the meat of the work. And, frequently, they use their APA manual, treating it as the Laid Down Law, saying things like “I don’t think that is allowed according to APA”.
In my extracurricular quest for understanding us more as a species, I’ve come across researchers like Tomasello (excellent Nautilus paper here summarizing his work), and Richerson & Boyd, which (if I understand it correct) suggests that humans are very good at picking up rules and regularities, especially from other more prestigious individuals, and imitating them, and turning them more into laws than into hacks or cluges.
This is, possibly (although research is continuing) our super-power.
Coming up with new stuff is hard and costly. Imitating is a great short-cut, and a wonderful way of accumulating knowledges, and distribute it over multiple people.
As I’ve been going through Richerson & Boyd (maybe I’ll start practicing the math this summer), it just dawned on me how much of the things I know really are derived, and how little new knowledge I have really provided – although I would say I have provided some tweaked, value added stuff.
Everything I teach, just about, is derived. I trust that the researchers are honest researchers, that those that aggregate in reviews, textbooks and meta-analyses are doing a fairly honest job of it, so that I don’t have to spend the enormous time to actually fact check this from scratch.
I’ll end up like the toaster in this.
This is, of course, our super-power, but also a vulnerability, because there can be lots of misses in our imitation and improving.
Witness the Cargo Cults. There are likely plenty of cargo cults elsewhere right now. I suspect some people I know would nominate Clinical Psychology. Or Social Psychology (grrrr), or Neuro Science. Or why not that computer-inspired chunk of cognitive science. (Hardwired. Spit, growl, hack) It is just time that someone got them on the defensive. Ad agencies are all about cargo cults.
Neuroskeptic, my favorite brain, just kvetched about another ritualized part of science writing – the limitations section. It has become an absolution for having run shoddy research, although I can see the original intent as useful (just like candy on Saturdays, and the APA manual, although it pains me to admit the latter).
There is something similar with the magical blessing of the p<.05, and the ritual of the inferential statistic.
Of course, when you are coming up as a student, the ritual, the things you are supposed to do are the things that scaffolds you into the knowledge (I think anyway). You do the moves, and slowly the reason becomes revealed, as you are mastering the different aspect, and more and more pieces of the puzzle are falling into place.
I sometimes have students asking for something, some patterns, for helping them figuring out how to behave in order to get that magical VG on their exam, and I keep trying to counter act it (at least in my marketing psychology course), because I don’t want them that ritualized.
In other places, that may be an advantage, I’m not sure. Then again, I’m not really sure why people think one should get a university education either.
The ritualized, when it works, can be very productive, I think. You find a good trick, and now you keep building on it, and tweaking it, and expanding on it in interesting ways, and suddenly we have all sorts of flourishing music, and interesting architecture, and the internet, and new and improved living standards!
But, of course, this type of cultural transmission, cultural evolution, can become maladaptive and problematic – which R & B brings up. Their example is one from their own experience, of the academic who severely limits her number of offspring, in order to further her career, because that is what the senior academics do (well, those that do not have obliging spouses). And, that, from the biological perspective, is just maladaptive, if that is what you care about.
The rituals in science can become maladaptive too, and I think they are. Science is supposed to (at least in some part) be explorative. In other parts (the normal science part to go back to Kuhn), solving puzzle and filling in blanks and testing alternatives. Churning through the ideas and burnishing out the truth with little t. But, there will be bad detours.
I think well thought out descriptions of limitations can work out very well. I recall reading Rumelharts & Mclellans interactive activation model paper when recreating it in my undergrad neural network class. I was full of objections, as were all of us. But, in the end, I recall, I was impressed by how they limited the scope, and clearly blocked a number of objections, making it very clear that they were highly aware of these objections, and clearly stating that you have to take it for what it is, and the tiny, pointillistic, Seurat like addition that it makes to the body of research.
(The same cannot be said of a later neural net by McLelland that claimed to say something useful about schizophrenia. I may document my adventures with two computational/mathematical models of that at a later time, where the take home basically is that if an undergraduate can replicate the results with an ill thought out variant, I doubt you really have a model of anything useful).
But, when it becomes like ritualized little incantations, as NeuroSkeptic is saying, there really needs to be a change in the ritual, because now it is meaningless. (Now, who reads the damned discussions anyway? Can you just briefly state what you are after and how it fits, report the hell out of method and your analysis, and stop the blather. You’re no George Elliot. OK, as you were. Just a personal peeve of mine),
And, now, speaking of ritual. Sweden, in fact Malmö, just 20 km south of where I live, are pleased and stoked to hold the xxth European song contest. ESC for short, which I find kinda fitting…
I, perhaps unwisely, introduced my children to this annual ritual when we moved back. They are still young enough to be awed – I’m waiting for them to get old enough to snark.
I usually amuse myself by trying to figure out who they each have borrowed from.
This is one from a few years back – won in Sweden (alas not in Europe). Starts with a clear ABBA intro (sheer and pure Waterloo). Followed by familiar tones, that I cannot quite place, thought the Bowie-esque nature of the singer is unmistakeable. And, this one, I’m now old enough to completely unembarrasedley admit to, I actually like.
The Ark – The worrying Kind.