Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Tyler Cowen on the difference between bricks and buildings in the construction of knowledge [Or: Why the academy stands in the way of deep a understanding of human behavior, mind, and society]

Mark Zuckerberg recently hosted Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison for a discussion on progress (transcript (PDF)); as you may recall, they’d recently issued a call for progress studies (my post acknowledging their article). One theme that crops up here and there is the inadequacy of the academic world to study a variety of problems. One such problem is the so-called cost disease. That prompted this exchange:
Mark: Yeah, why do you think more people aren't studying this? I mean given that this is just such a central thing in the lives of most people, right, I mean, the cost of living in the city has gone up so much. We have a whole generation of students--I think the total student debt is now almost $2 trillion, right? I think it was 1.7 the last stat that I saw. And, of course, healthcare is--is just, you know, the number of people in the country who are within, you know, one issue of being bankrupt is just kind of staggering. So-- [overlapping chatter]

Mark: What's preventing people from studying this?

Tyler: I wouldn't say anything's preventing them. The incentive is to build a brick and to build a brick that can survive scrutiny by referees. The incentive is not to build a building, in most cases. Biomedicine actually is often different. But in the social sciences, so, there's so many bricks out there and so people wanna say, oh, we're already studying this. It's correct, the bricks are there in the millions. But the bricks and the buildings are a different thing.
YES! Bricks and buildings, big difference. The academic world is, for the most part, structured for the creation of bricks. Buildings, they do get built, but who knows where or how.

But one reason various social and behavioral scientists have written books for the general educated public is that that is a way for the to assemble a pile of bricks into a building. Steven Pinker is a good example. His first general interest book, The Language Instinct (1994), was primarily an act of popularization. But his next one, How the Mind Works (1997), was that and more. It was an attempt to gather a wide range of material from different psychological disciplines into one place so he could step back and say: This is what we know; this is how it fits together. Sure, he was saying that to the general educated public, but he was also saying to himself and to other academic specialists. The same is true for Words and Rules (2000) and The Stuff of Thought (2007), to list only the books I’ve read. I’m pretty sure that The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) is in that category as well, and possibly Enlightenment Now (2018).

Some other books in this category, again sticking to books I’ve read: Karl Pribram, Languages of the Brain (1971), to be sure, a tough read, but it wasn’t written for specialists; Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997); more recently, Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success (2016); still more recently, Mark Moffett, The Human Swarm (2018) — I’ve not yet finished reading it myself, but that doesn’t keep me from blogging about it as I read. I would include my own Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (2001), in this category. Disciplines covered include: neuroscience; perceptual, cognitive, and motor psychology; primate ethology, paleoanthropology, and anthropology; and musicology and the history of music. And laced throughout are anecdotes of musical experiences: Bette Midler singing to Johnny Carson on the penultimate episode of The Tonight Show, Leonard Bernstein in ecstatic absorption into the music, Dizzy Gillespie, too; magic bell tones during rehearsal with Eddie Knowles, who’d toured with Gil Scott-Heron for seven years; antebellum slaves singing together as they chopped wood; Australian aborigines mapping their territory through songlines; a distinguished literary critic and amateur cellist, Wayne Booth, becoming absorbed listening to a performance of a Beethoven quartet while mourning his son; and so forth, the list goes on.

What these books have in common is the need and desire to grasp human behavior in the full. Human society and behavior are enormously complex and need to be studied in great detail. That’s what the academy knows how to do. But it doesn’t know how to formulate a comprehensive account that crosses disciplinary lines, lots of them. It know how to create bricks, but not how to construct buildings. I note that, in the preface to Beethoven’s Anvil, I describe it as a work of speculative engineering. Engineering, not science. Engineers design and build things. Scientists analyze and theorize about mechanisms. We must do both if we are to understand human behavior and society. But I deliberately chose to emphasize the engineering aspect because that is not sufficiently appreciated.

Yes, we talk of social engineering, often in dismissive tones, as an attempt to manipulate people to do this or that. I’m talking about engineering in the process of understanding how people and societies behavior. Steven Pinker talked of reverse engineering* in How the Mind Works and so acknowledged the constructive aspect. But the element of construction is not at all recognized in the institutional structure of the human sciences. Thus, while the academy is good at the making of bricks, it stands in the way of using them to build anything interesting.

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*As an aside, I have the sense that that metaphor has been kicking around in psychology since the late 1950s, perhaps due to Donald Broadbent, but I’ve been unable to track down a citation.

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