An Astronomer Cancels His Own Research—Because the Results Weren’t Popular

Astronomy seems to be in trouble, as it is increasingly populated by researchers who seem more concerned with terrestrial politics than celestial objects, and who at times view the search for truths about nature as threatening. This became obvious in recent years, once the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project in Hawaii was being blocked by Indigenous protestors, who view the mountain it is to be built on as sacred. With a resolution 12 times finer than the Hubble space telescope, the TMT could offer abundant new observational opportunities in astronomy and astrophysics. But a protest in support of the Indigenous groups by advocates in the astronomy community now means that it is an open question as to whether the TMT will ever be built.

Mauna Kea is sacred to Native Hawaiian people. The Hawaiians who have been protesting construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope are trying to protect a sacred site from further desecration. I stand in solidarity with them. #TMT https://t.co/uInzGrrQp6— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) July 23, 2019

Last week yielded another ominous sign of the times, as eminent astronomer John Kormendy retracted an article intended for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from a preprint website. His article focused on statistical results relating to the evaluation of the “future impact” of astronomers’ research as a means to “inform decisions on resource allocation such as job hires and tenure decisions.” Online critics attacked Kormendy’s use of quantitative metrics, which may be seen as casting doubt on the application of diversity criteria in personnel decisions, at which point Kormendy felt the need to release an abject apology (more on this below).

Astronomer John Kormendy, photographed in 2006. 

Of course, statistical analyses of real-world human data are always subject to the possibility that systematic biases can inappropriately skew the claimed results. And I would never suggest that Kormendy’s work is beyond criticism. But the traditional scientific manner of engaging in such criticism is that other scientists present alternative proposals, and explore other data sets, to search for possible flaws in the original analysis. That is how science should be done. Those who claim in advance, without new analysis or data, that someone else’s research results are “harmful” or threatening, without challenging its accuracy, should consider another profession.

I have been a professor of astronomy (as well as physics) for over 35 years, at a variety of research institutions on three continents. But I wouldn’t classify myself as an astronomer. My educational background is in another area—theoretical particle physics—and my professional forays into astrophysics and cosmology have stemmed from my longstanding interest in observing scientific phenomena from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives, astronomy included, as a means of testing fundamental notions about nature.

Nevertheless, I have worked with many astronomers over the course of my career, and consulted and learned from a far larger number. So I know enough about the social and professional dynamics of the profession to be concerned.

One of the astronomers whose work I have been aware of for decades—and which reflects my interest in dark matter and the formation of the universe’s structure—is John Kormendy himself. Indeed, I briefly met him while visiting the Dominion Astrophysics Observatory in Victoria, Canada.

That was several decades ago. But when I recently checked in with a colleague to determine how Kormendy’s reputation had fared during the interim, I was told he stands as one of the “world’s premier researchers on the formation and structure of galaxies.” He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, winner of numerous awards in his field, and his research work has been cited over 33,000 times by other astronomers.

Kormendy has been interested for some time in metrics that scientists can use to ensure that their assessment of potential hires and promotions are less subjective. As with all areas in which decisions depend on human perceptions, there is no methodology that is universally guaranteed to work. Though I personally wouldn’t spend my own research time exploring this area, I appreciate that there are those willing to try to investigate it systematically, in spite of the many obvious obstacles.

Following five years of accumulating data, and consulting colleagues across the globe, Kormendy produced a book on the subject, published in August by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, entitled Metrics of Research Impact in Astronomy, as well as the related (and now retracted) paper submitted to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on November 1st under the title ‘Metrics of research impact in astronomy: Predicting later impact from metrics measured 10-15 years after the PhD.’

Research Impact versus Total Citations for studied astronomy scholars, adapted from Figure 1 in Metrics of research impact in astronomy.

Kormendy began his paper cautiously, recognizing that his emphasis on applying quantitative metrics to human-resource evaluation would be viewed with skepticism by those who claim that such metrics embed systemic biases, and that their use presents obstacles to inclusion. Notwithstanding such anticipated concerns, he argued that

we have to judge the impact that [a] candidate’s research has had or may yet have on the history of his or her subject. Then metrics such as counts of papers published and citations of those papers are often used. But we are uncertain enough about what these metrics measure so that arguments about their interpretation are common. Confidence is low. This can persuade institutions to abandon reliance on metrics. [But] we would never dare to do scientific research with the lack of rigor that is common in career-related decisions. As scientists, we should aim to do better.”

He makes it clear up front that quantitative metrics cannot tell us everything we need to know about a candidate. In the “Significance Statement” provided on the first page, he states

This paper develops machinery to make quantitative predictions of future scientific impact from metrics measured immediately after the ramp-up period that follows the PhD. The aim is to resolve some of the uncertainty in using metrics for one aspect only of career decisions—judging scientific impact. Of course, those decisions should be made more holistically, taking into account additional factors that this paper does not measure (my emphasis).

The bulk of the paper focuses on three out of 10 metrics—citations of refereed papers, citations normalized by numbers of coauthors, and first-author citations—which Kormendy attempts to develop into a prediction machine, correlating the metrics evaluated over the early part of a researcher’s career with their later “impact.”

This latter index was constructed by asking 22 scientists who are well-known in their respective subfields to evaluate the impact of 512 astronomers from 17 major research universities around the world whose other early-career metrics could be correlated with those evaluations. Specifically, Kormendy sought to determine whether such evaluation of individuals’ “impact” 10 to 15 years after they’d received their PhDs correlated, in a significant way, with the metrics evaluated at that time and to those corresponding to these scholars during the early period following their PhD (in other words, whether the metrics could predict the evaluations rendered by the advisory panel). The paper claimed to demonstrate, not surprisingly, that averaging the three different metrics produces, on average, a better predictive estimate than any of the metrics do separately.

One can question many aspects of this model, including the significance of its conclusions. That early-career citation counts correlate with later impact may seem almost tautological. (Why would you not expect that having a large number of citations early on in one’s career would be correlated with attaining a reputation as a high-impact scholar later on?) Also, the proposition that averaging several metrics produces a better predictive fit than does any individual metric in isolation would only really be noteworthy if it turned out not to be true.

Finally, one can always question the subjective assessments of those 22 designated sages tasked with measuring “impact,” especially since their assessments (and Kormendy’s own decisions in regard to who performs this task) may reflect the same kind of subjectivity that Kormendy’s whole project is designed to avoid.

I am not sure Kormendy understood the can of worms he was opening. But the response from the astronomy Twittersphere was swift. One could have anticipated the arguments in advance if one were familiar with the standard concerns of those who tend to view any quantitative metrics applied to assessment (including standardized test results) as being inherently suspect at best, or sexist and racist at worst. Kormendy further tempted fate by focusing only on subjects from well-known schools, and by recruiting mostly well-known male senior scientists as members of his expert “impact” panel.

As it happened, those who rained criticism on Kormendy didn’t just limit themselves to these generalities. It was also specifically claimed that junior researchers who might read Kormendy’s paper would feel threatened, or that their careers might be negatively impacted by selection committees whose members were now further encouraged to be systematically biased against them.

Nevertheless, even imperfect quantitative metrics can improve on qualitative assessments made in the absence of such metrics. And it is quite true that Kormendy’s analysis, if applied as a means to recruit or promote, would expose, for better or worse, those whose metrics are low. There may be lots of reasons for such low scores, including bias. But low scores can also mean that the evaluated researchers are simply not productive or impactful. Either way, it exposes potential problems (either with the candidate or his or her academic environment) that could be addressed. Moreover, as much as one might dislike quantitative—or “objective”—merit-based metrics, the alternatives have, historically, usually been worse—and include nepotism and cronyism.

Yet by the standards of modern cancel culture, the online barrage of criticism against Kormendy did not seem especially ferocious. Unlike other furors, this one did not feature virally circulated demands for his sacking or other forms of cancellation. But surely there must have been some other pressure coming to bear on Kormendy, because he not only retracted his published paper and put further publication of his book on hold, but he also posted an apology whose language seemed out of all proportion to his actions:

I apologize most humbly and sincerely for the stress that I have caused with the PNAS preprint, the PNAS paper, and my book on using metrics of research impact to help to inform decisions on career advancement. My goal was entirely supportive. I wanted to promote fairness and concreteness in judgments that now are based uncomfortably on personal opinion. I wanted to contribute to a climate that favors good science and good citizenship. My work was intended to be helpful, not harmful. It was intended to decrease bias and to improve fairness. It was hoped to favor inclusivity. It was especially intended to help us all to do the best science that we can … But intentions do not, in the end, matter. What matters is what my actions achieve. And I now see that my work has hurt people. I apologize to you all for the stress and the pain that I have caused. Nothing could be further from my hopes. The PNAS paper and … preprint have been withdrawn as thoroughly as the publication system allows. The … withdrawal—if accepted by them—should be in the Wednesday posting … I fully support all efforts to promote fairness, inclusivity, and a nurturing environment for all. Only in such an environment can people and creativity thrive.

It is hard to know what specifically induced this kind of Maoist mea culpa. But Kormendy (or someone with authority over him) presumably was swayed by the online tempest. And an unfortunate effect will be that anyone observing how this played out will be warned off making their own inquiries in this field, for fear that they will meet the same fate. This is one reason why scientific articles should never be retracted simply because they might cause offense. Truth can hurt, but too bad.

What makes this example particularly sad is that Kormendy’s intent was clearly to stimulate healthy discussion and improve fairness—notwithstanding the fact that the mobs claimed (and, if his apology is to be taken at face value, convinced him) that he was doing exactly the opposite. In his lengthy apology, he writes that “intentions do not, in the end, matter.” But of course, they matter. And in this case, not only were Kormendy’s intentions benign, but his original paper actually addressed (and even echoed) many of the critiques he later got:

I emphasize that the goal of … this paper is to estimate impact accrued, not impact deserved. Historically, some people who made major contributions were, at the time, undervalued by the astronomical community. I hope that this work will help to make people more aware of the dangers of biased judgments and more focused on giving fair credit. How to make judgment and attribution more fair is very important. But it is not directly the subject of this work…
My goal has been to lend a little of the analysis rigor that we use when we do research to the difficult and subjective process of judging research careers. But I do not suggest that we base decisions only on metrics. Judgments—especially decisions about hiring and tenure—should be and are made more holistically, weighing factors that metrics do not measure. For faculty jobs, these include teaching ability, good departmental citizenship, collegiality, and the “impedance match” between a person’s research interests and the resources that are available at that institute … Also, many factors other than research have, in the 2020s, become deservedly prominent in resource decisions. Heightened awareness of the importance of inclusivity has the result that institutions put special emphasis on redressing historically underrepresented cohorts. Urgent concerns are gender balance and the balance of ethnic minorities. How, relatively, to weight research impact and these concerns are issues that each institution must decide for itself … My job is restricted to one aspect only of career decisions—the judgment of research impact as it has already happened and as it can, with due regard for statistical uncertainties and outliers, be predicted to happen in future.
I emphasize again that metrics measure the impact that happens, not the impact that should happen. It helps us to understand what happens in the real world. The real world is the only one that we have to live in. My hope is that a healthy—but not excessive—investment in impact measures will make a modest contribution to better science.

Unfortunately for Kormendy, the “real world” is also a place in which claims of victimization and inequity now dominate many academic discussions, to such extent that attempting a modest contribution to better science can be attacked—and, in this case, literally expunged—by those who believe that a quantitative exploration of certain data sets can be harmful or threatening.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/11/10/an-astronomer-cancels-his-own-research-because-the-results-werent-popular/
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Astronomy is all about cyclic phenomena, so I suppose it should be no surprise that it comes full circle and joins up again with astrology. But if we’re going to side with the Mauna Kea protestors, please note that all the research telescopes in the United States are sited on land activists may claim was stolen from the native population.

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All of everything. Personally I’d find a kahuna who would be willing to receive a vision from Pele that there’s nothing he’d like more than another cool telescope on the top of his mountain. In return it would be understood that said kahuna would be handsomely paid for blessing said scope in Pele’s name after installation.

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Legalize pot in the state of Hawaii. This would put an end to the Mauna Kea protests in about a week.

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Oh dear.

Rule One: Do not apologize to the woke mob.
Rule Two: Ever.

How come this noble expert didn’t know that? I mean, does he live in an academic bubble?

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The most important thing sacrificed on the altar of DEI is excellence. We are in danger of losing our naming rights, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson so aptly put the phenomenon when discussing what made Islam turn away from the path of scientific progress and enlightenment. There is a story about the end of the Cold War and a discussion between an American General and his Soviet counterpart.

“Of course, we always knew we were going to win, our economy was twice as big as yours”

“You thought your economy was only twice as big as ours? We were faking it- I can’t believe it worked! In reality our economy was only about 5% the size of yours.”

This was despite having considerable better mineral resources to draw upon. Activists and DEI bureaucracies have this in common, dividing the proceeds of an economy more evenly will matter little when there is nothing to divide, just as there will be no funding for scientific research when there is no acclaim or prestige to garner. The only satisfying thing about the whole endeavour will be the DEI bureaucracies getting their pink slips and their academic fields being dismantled. The untold damage done in the meantime is tragic.

As usual, my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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So what am I reading here? I am tryin gto search for underlying principles or values. Am I reading that the author disregards religious world view as viable in any conversation about the what and where of any human project? or any scientific project? Or is it just indigenous religious world views that should be diregarded? Or is it just unfair that such views might result in the cancelling or postponment of a project? And if it is unfair, what are the ramifications of the unfairness. Will we stop knowing more about the universe. Stop being able to explore the solar system, galaxy or universe? I suspect not. For mine there is something lacking in human-ness to disregard such world views.
And in regard John K withdrawal. Is it possible the author is reading too much into it. Every day the leaning of language might not actually be recieved in the way an author intends. Could it not be the case that the author, in realising his article had the opposite effect to that he intended desired to withdraw it, so that, perhaps, at a later date he could reintroduce the data with renewed language that better hits its intended target. Nonethless, the point he makes has been made by others and is a vital conversation among academics in Australia. Indeed, would it not be better to have higher quality research which may have a longer gestation, than to simply reward the amount of publication. Nonetheless, I would be surprised if no mathematician has tried to solve the problem of the relationship between the highest impact research with the number of papers written. It may not be so easy across fields but I am sure within fields and across the 'maturity of a researcher" there is likely to be indicators of adequate productivity and therefore skill.

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Welcome to Quillette! I agree with you completely, provided belief doesn’t seek to impose itself upon the scientific method. Personally, I think some of humanity’s greatest triumphs have come from the agapē figures like MLK or Gandhi inspired. Rational humanism lacks the narrative force and compelling drive which the belief-based desire to do good inspired in us. We even see it in the way that the religious are more likely to devote time and money to charity.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that on an individual level rational humanists can’t be moral, science is generally a force for good and great at improving the world for better (although one can be either an atheist or a believer as a scientist) and their is always the danger that faith can be harnessed for evil causes (which Kierkegaard warned us about). But generally the Twentieth Century and beyond have shown us that people aggregating in pursuit of some perceived good is almost always more dangerous than its faith-based predecessors- that God-shaped hole is almost always filled with something worse.

I’m not sure if there is a ‘belief mustn’t impose itself’. Well, we can always present an argument of a ‘best’ approach. However there is a problem when that becomes a 'therefore when THE best approach is being over ridden by a belief system, then the particular belief system must be a wrong thing and even should be disregarded, perhaps illegalised. Anytime there is an attempt to link prohibitions across domains e.g epistemological fields and living culture, then the outcome will be political unrest. Why, because now science is then not seen as a vehicle for the advancement of civilisation but the spokesperson of authoritarianism or cultural dominance. The answer of course is in constantly building and tending collaborations and negotiation among peoples of different world views. There is no real shortcut to this, even though a variety of modern institutions from governments to corporations to science organisations have the tendency to make excuses for the quicker route.

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My point was more that if we are going to ask scientific questions (i.e. how does the natural world work?), then the Scientific Method, with its emphasis on empirical observation, is the only really valid approach when attempting to answer these questions, if for no better reason than scientific assertions are falsifiable. Of course, this does not invalidate the spiritual or religious, when attempting to navigate more transcendental matters.

I would argue that there is much more to the world around than the physical or our biological selves. Of course, the evolutionary biologists would argue that man’s seach for meaning is little more than the tilt our brains have towards pattern recognition, but the fact that it is a deep-rooted craving which needs fulfilling can be seen by the way ideology acts as a greatly inferior substitute to a God-shaped hole.

I have noticed that there is an extent to which atheism can sometimes become an assertion that God does not exist, rather than the more belief-less position that there is no evidence that he does exist.

Yes, I get the argument. However: 1. It might not be big T Truth. 2. It might not be the only issue at play. For example in terms of astronomy Australia now has a astrophysicist from indigenous heritage who also has a deep understanding of indigenous astronomy. Indigenous Australians are also botanists and ecologists par excellence. However, their knowledge derivation and terminologies are established through lived experience, imageries the equivalent of doing 3d tetris in the mind, and vast storytelling. It has only been in recent decades the value of the knowledge and what we lost through cultural disruption, has become realised. So while there might be some places in Australia we wouldn’t build an observatory due to sacred site sensitivities, if it was the only place such an observatory could be built it is worthwhile really dwelling in the cultural knowledge landscape before jumping to conclusions about what it couldn’t possibly offer.

I don’t agree with the last part, as whilst lived experience is important for writings and storytelling in general, it is far more susceptible to the error of anecdotal evidence. This doesn’t mean that I would necessarily dismiss such knowledge out of hand, but it would have to confirmed by empirical observation to have any scientific viability whatsoever. But I can understand how at least some ancient wisdom in some fields might have been acquired over the millennia- because even before the Scientific Method people used to rely upon empirical observation, if somewhat more informally.

A case in point would be the transfer of knowledge from wise women across Middle Ages Europe first to the Monasteries and then to the apothecary. We now that sometimes it wasn’t the plants which in many cases had medicinal properties, but rather the spores and moulds which grew in certain conditions. Somewhere along the way the Church was responsible for destroying this accumulated wisdom, in their bid to control both medicine and the largesse often shown on the deathbeds of Europe.

On a related note, there has been a concerted effort to consolidate hidden or lost medical knowledge for some time, long before the fad for reclassifying lived experience as knowledge became culturally widespread. One area in which this bore fruit was in treating super bugs like MRSA which began in 2005, and certainly wasn’t the first such episode:

In a certain sense all science develops from lived experience. Lived experience is primary knowledge. Essentially it is my and your subjective experience of the external and internal environment, otherwise known as phenomenon. Philosophically termed ontologically subjective knowledge. We, yet have no conclusive epistemologically objective (scientific) proof for our lived experience. We do have a form of proof in our social agreement of many of our individual experiences e.g sky is blue, cutting my skin is painful at the cut.
Indigenous peoples (ourselves once being some) have survived by being able to translate their collective lived experiences into a model of knowledge from which they can predict certain outcomes i.e have developed epistemologically objective models = science. Now there might be some sophistication that has developed around the tools we use to measure effects, innovate new tools, ask new questions, etc through the cultural development of cities, fiefdoms and empires, nonetheless both astronomers and botanists in Australia agree that western cultural enterprises got in the way of collaborative scientific enterprise with indigenous peoples and that delayed the building of the knowledge base until it was even too late for some species. Another example is that certain forbidden sites in Australia were call ‘sick places’ and in the modern age were found to have significant uranium deposits. Now indigenous people did not have more than the many generations of experience (data if you will) to determine that there are places to be avoided, and such places become religiously / cultural significant because that is the knowledge framework integrating contemporary experiences with long term ‘rules and story’, to divine a strategy for the season. It also leads elders to warn against disturbing the earth. Now you can argue whether building nuclear reactors are a good thing or a bad thing from a ethical or social point of view, and that has a lot of cultural inlays. You can’t get there from a scientific point of view because science can only tell you what is, not what you should do about it. Moral philosophy is a sophisticated incomplete story. And the philosophy that underpins the scientific approach is also an incomplete story, just as any specific scientific answer is part of an incomplete story of what is. So, does indigenous knowledge or world view get in the road of science or does it get in the road of another cultural world view? In general indigenous peoples have been shown to be quick to up take new tools and enterprises except where it they note the disruption it make to their cultural cohesion. Indeed, I think the argument of cultural cohesion is one that is often made by all types of modern peoples, about technological advancements. We can even scientifically measure some of the disruptive characteristics of advancements. Ultimately, to my mind, there is not clean pathway for human advancement in knowledge, given that I suspect it relys on human social cohesion and human social cohesion in this global society requires extensive learning and interacting, even measuring, and finding new questions to answer of each other, If an astronomical dish is unable to be located, maybe that will be forever, maybe for 100 years, and if postponed and the technology gets superceded before it is built, then maybe it is never built. If, like in Australia, it gets burned to the ground, it had its time and now doesn’t contribute and may never be rebuilt. It is cultural and identity, to rush to know, to conquer, to explore. It is equally cultural and identity to develop bonds of relationships. It is also cultural how we deal with crises. At best science offer us tools to do better than we once could have for each other, and also offers us the possibility to ignore what we can be doing to make a flourishing life for everyone, for more destructive identity expressions.

The question is though, do ‘other forms of knowledge’ possess some inherent moral value which exempts them from the scientific method? The answer would have to be no. We can certainly listen to indigenous knowledge and then subject it to the normal rigours of empirical testing and observation, but if the objective standard proves false then we should rightly reject it from the classification of scientific knowledge. This doesn’t mean we have to denigrate it, but we should instead place it in the same category as other ‘complementary’ areas, which in medicine might have a placebo effect, but produce little in the way of tangible positive results.

Science can certainly be ‘collaborative’ in an internal sense, but unless a hypothesis is subjected to the often brutal process of disconfirmation then any theory is worthless. We’ve seen this in a number of fields, where a lack of viewpoint diversity has led to replication crises, casting entire academic disciplines into doubt. Of course, the postmodernist would argue that we can never really know objective truth- but what this neglects to mention is that provided the scientific method is intact within a discipline, each successive theory only ever flows in one direction- closer to the truth.

If often amuses me to see younger postmodernists discuss consilience. What they fail to recognise is that when E. O. Wilson first wrote the book he meant that other fields of study should become more literate in science and reconcile their worldview accordingly, not the reverse. I believe even Foucault complained of as much- as each year of students became more heavily influenced by postmodernism he was bitter that without a broader knowledge they were increasingly rendered incapable of critiquing things they knew nothing about.

The real threat seems to come from the other direction. When people form the collectivist mindset, and certain viewpoints and ideas are proscribed, it limits the pathways to future knowledge, even producing knowledge which is deeply flawed. Did you see the clip of Ai Weiwei’s recent interview with PBS? I think the interviewer hoped he would endorse the view that Donald Trump was an authoritarian. Instead, he equated Western political correctness with the Cultural Revolution. We only need to look at Lysenkoism to see how collectivism corrupts science.

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Yes, I largely agree with all that. So regarding indigenous knowledge, a failure to be scientific about indigenous frameworks of knowledge, was due to the ineptness of colonial culture. Today that ineptness continues and continues to therefore come up with the same wrong answers about the relationship between knowledge, culture, and implementation. Collaboration first requires communication. That is a cultural issue and so forging cross-cultural aptitude becomes essential between any two cultures. Often this is left the subordinate culture. So collaboration is then forgone due to an inadequacy in developing a communication. Where communication is established, lo and behold, scientific agreements are often seen to exist. Sometimes it is possible to open up a whole new understanding as for example among indigenous Australians whose thinking about how the body worked was entirely guess work and when that was understood by having researchers who could communicate across language and culture, then the education could line up. Indeed I would argue, and I have argued to indigenous people in my region, that the young people need to go off an become scientists, at least equally as being culturally educated. Part of that strategy is in learning the scientific approach but another part is in being able to translate across cultural boundaries. All of this takes time, generations. Rushing it doesn’t work except to create, as we know from a whole gamut of issues in life, entrenchment. For example, in Australia if we accompanied western life with indigenous life from the early times we would have come to understand that they, indeed, had a consultative mechanism to incorporate new ideas, knowledge, tools into cultural life. My own great great …uncle died of thirst while returning from explorations across Australia in the 19th c. He died in an inhabited area being unable to contextualise that the indigenous people could help.
Of the advancement of knowledge by increased human cohesion, it is historically clear that the development of what we call scientific approaches is related to the development of Islam and the European Nations and the Enlightenment. In this there are a number of social elements coming together and creating a feedback that reinforces itself : 1. widespread primary belief that the world (the universe) is to be known; 2. funding 3. education 4. product development . We don’t need to reinvent the wheel however some people didn’t get to buy into the invention of said wheel, and notice that the owners of the wheel are only there to steal. And when that happens, whatever is left of older cultural impressions become retrenched perhaps even amplified. So, culture is always present, along with any distortions, and these form the contextual lense by which we view the application of knowledge and science, even when we think that all we are doing is disconfirming a hypothesis. We could try to disconfirm the hypothesis that a mountain is a sacred site, but to my knowledge that can only be done by proposing one certain cultural view is already correct compared to another. Christian and Islamic missionaries have already done a lot of that to the misery of many, against their stated aims. Shall scientific organisations request their modern governments do the same in the name of science/ And if so, at what point do we stop being scientists and are just another layer of political animal.? Rather, when we are in complete dialogue and are able to find resolutions (that is what i mean by cohesion rather than coercion or proselytising as per colonialism or communism or some religious attitudes), then the socio-political development that goes along with that releases a level of funding, education, product development, and admiration for science that will bring enormous breakthroughs to light. Simultaneously, and this is an infant field in itself, the benefits that accrue from the old adage 'two minds are better than one" , by having a thousand minds in dialogue on the very difficult problems we might like to answer with support from AI, will revolutionise the whole idea of who we are. Will that be a state that only a dominant culture can forge. I suspect not. I suspect there is something about our brain function that get ‘tied in knots’, tight loops, if you will, when we are unable to communicate across all types of cultural world views, and this determines a ceiling to our individual scientific endeavours as well as our cultural specific endeavours, and this goes for all people from all cultures.

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My question is: are your statements like the above treated as falsifiable hypotheses, or as articles of political faith? For example, if your approach was implemented and in reality it did not bring enormous breakthroughs to light, would you treat that as a failed conjecture on your part, or seek for any rationale to preserve what you very much want to believe for non-scientific reasons?

The manner in which you state your opinions on the matter strike me as idealistic and perhaps even romantic. The “noble savage” trope can include elements of real cultural value being recognized, but nevertheless a self-reinforcing narrative tends to omit any inconvenient evidence and over-emphasize sometimes sparse supporting anecdotes as if they were broad patterns.

It is delightful that you are so open to learning from aboriginal experience, but if you have a need to valorize at any cost, that can become another (well-intended) bias diverging from physical truth.

Let me give an example. You spoke of the sick lands and uranium. Many of my non-scientist new age friends would immediately and uncritically sieze on any asserted correlation between aboriginal designated lands and objectively measured uranium prevalence, and come to a full stop there; further study would be anathema, because it has the danger of disconfirmation. A scientist might find that assertion intriguing, but might ask about the degree of correlation (how solidly to the two designation actually match each other geographically?), or they might ask if the level of uranium in the soil was high enough to actually create observable differences in health. They would gather data, form falsifiable hypotheses, and see if they can produce a study which can survive critical review. In other words, scientists would do all the things that the happy new agers fear and dread because it might undermine a beautiful vision to which they became romantically attached.

As I see it, a key element of the scientific heuristics is that they have the best record to date for reducing the degree to which our subjectivity can seduce our mind into emotionally satisfying but objectively false beliefs. There is much about the human condition which does not benefit from that approach; I am not arguing that science has all human answer (in terms of morality or purpose, for example). Only that when one IS specifically seeking to integrate some other way of knowing with science (as oppose to placing it in the realms of the mystical or personal wisdom or cultural values), we must beware of injecting that exact subjective “story so cool it has to be true” bias, which would produce dysfunctional, bad science - like the replication crisis on steroids.

I am stating a pitfall and a question; I am not asserting, concluding, or accusing you of falling into that pitfall.

I will mention another topic of concern. There sometimes today is an unreflective cultural value attached to “diversity”, with a lot of assertions about the value of “diversity” but very little attempt to parse out the qualitatively different types of diversity, or to honestly evaluate each kind empirically to see if indeed it produces the claimed benefits. Does skin color diversity bring more or less measurable benefits than political, economic, personality, or cultural diversity? Absent some reflection, valorized “diversity” can becomes a shallow and misleading platitude, more an article of faith than a real world phenomenon open to critical examination and measurement. I will admit that I personally enjoy many kinds of diversity, but I distinguish that personal (or cultural) preference, from making unsubstantiated claims about the certain positive results of a given type of diversity. Hopes can be good, but they are not the same as facts. Given my predilections, it would please me greatly if, say, an Aboriginal astronomer brought culturally derived insights which contributed enormously to the field; I can admit that I get a real thrill when something like that happens, because it fits well with my hopes and my values. Nevertheless, I don’t presume that such must be the case just because it would please me, I don’t confuse my preference with reality. I want to see the actual results, not just idealistic conjectures treated as revealed truth.

I have a good friend who is invested in her psychic abilities. After every major news event, she announces that the had had a feeling that something like that was going to happen (she has never announced any of them in advance over the decades I’ve known her). I value her as a human being and a friend, but I don’t think her diversity in regard to ways of knowing actually has much to offer to science. But there are other kinds of diversity of thought which DO contribute to science. One size does not fit all.

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Fabulous PWR. Excellent questions, comments and views. I’ll try to walk through them all.

  1. On the future - as that is what is reflected in the passage - there is a communication device called “declaration”. A declaration is not a truth but rather a place from which to stand, essentially a leadership device. It also must be distinguished from prophecy or prediction, as it sits in the future that doesn’t happen anyhow. Likewise, it is not a hypothesis, being a statement of future. Science and falsifiable hypotheses live from the past, are reliant on past experience, knowledge, etc. The hypothesis can only validly be built on all that past and can, therefore only project a predictable future. It is, indeed, the perfect management tool. However it is not, cannot be, a leadership tool unto itself. I think it can be argued that, in as much as scientific breakthroughs and paradigm shifts have not been of a linear nature i.e from falisifiable hypothesis to falsifiable hypothesis, science itself has relied upon declarations of a future that isn’t predictable. It is exactly this reason why breakthroughs in science have commonly been met with ridicule. Nonetheless, the scientist as leader who has seen the new paradigm, has eventually answered all the critics, and has answered those criticisms by walking back from that future in a series of steps of experimentation, sometimes themselves novel, that also prove aspects of the new paradigm through either failing to falsify the hypothesis or in making the observation predicted by the new paradigm or model. Einstein’s work is an easy go to example of this.
  2. A caution how you read, and I write this with complete recognition of this trait in myself. We do not listen nor read what another has said or written. Rather we hear and read through our own frame of reference. This is again a brain matter. We read and listen according to how our brain’s neural networks have strengthened due to the particular exposure it has had. So it may be that ‘noble savage’ is for some reason, strong in your frame of reference, and that is fine. It is itself a cautionary principle. In Australia, historically we had less a ‘noble savage’ point of view as a ‘dying out’ ‘weak species’ point of view on Aboriginal lives. Now some of that was informed by the mass deaths through imported diseases such as smallpox. But also because the colonialists had no idea how much hunter gather ecology was needed to sustain even a small clan in Australian conditions. So when we tore that ecology up for farming in the late 19th c people were found to be starving and even without appropriate materials and spaces for shelter. Likewise we misinterpreted ‘passive resistance’ as ‘laziness’ or ineptitude’. There are parallels here with the South African apartheidt experience. Nonetheless, a people who has lived in an environment that has had considerable changes over 60,000 years, is a people who have put all their past experiences, and any contemporary changes, through a rational governance process and came up with answers that secured survival over that long period. Getting my hands around this has taken an awful lot of reading of anthropological work, and listening to indigenous elders and others. It requires being able to free up our western cultural mindsets. And by that I don’t mean there is any need not to ask scientific questions. It does though require realising that those western mind sets were entrenched 100 & 200 years ago and lead to all sort of straight out misunderstandings and prejudices about indigenous lives.
  3. Yes, you are correct about how science would tend to look for the answer about the degree to which a no-go zone in aboriginal lore-law predicts an actual site that causes illness. Although I suspect it is interesting to anthrpologists whose work is in deriving what is so about a culture rather than any true or false about what is inside the culture viewpoint. Once we knew what uranium did, the rest has been the value we held it, and science doesn’t give us values.
    I am sure you are right about some places not having surface exposure, there are many more uranium mines than sites reported to be ‘sick areas’. However, even before designing a falsifiable hypothesis I would need to answer a number of questions that have cultural framework significance such as how long the story has been carried in the clan. This may be difficult to answer. When I take into account that the local clans to where I live have story lines about volcanic activity and the last know active volcano was 10,000 years, then story could be traversing geological changes as well. And than, mining and indigenous interests have long been at loggerheads, well outside anything to do with science and more about who’s resource is it anyhow? and that is a cultural question. There is no TRUE answer to that. It is all based on world view. Indeed, apart from adding to the voice against uranium mining in a certain ecologically sensitive place, the non-indigenous activist was already well-invested in getting that mine closed.
    The knowledge of botanicals, fauna, ecological dynamics, seasons (not western cultural framework), climate, star fields and the framework that knowledge which is not about falsifiable hypothesis but more about the ‘what is’ questions of science. As it provides very good predictiveness over time it is a least at the foundation of what science is, anyhow.
  4. Diversity. For mine diversity is primarily a derivative philosophy that goes like this, natural ecologies work for all the individual components life and geological forms because of diversity, beauty works because of diversity, and complexity works because of diversity e.g music. Now, are all components equal and are all components necessary. Evolution took a long time to work that out and the short answer is yes. While there are vestigial components in the wild, most things are there because they flourish due to being that way, and assist other components to flourish (sorry I’m sure I’m singing to the choir). We try to shortcut this through science and there seems to me to be pros and cons related to what gets to flourish and why, to just about everything we get out of applied science. In relation to human diversity, I particularly refer to the diversity of mindset. There are 2 aspects to that. Firstly, what can we find through immersing ourselves in the conversation (and here I think falsifiable hypothesis has to sit out for a while), with people of other cultures (not as a linguistic abstraction but real individual people). as some ways of thinking about a problem that opens up new possibilities. Such possibilities that could then be framed as hypothesis. Secondly, the work in philosophy and neurology around what is happening at the brain level when more than one person is able to work openly and completely together on a problem / project such as a marriage, suggests the possibility that, as a group, there is a connective quality that has the effect of enhancing intellectual productivity. So, we might say that in a room of scientists there was the IQ of 2,000. But we don’t usually see it that way. We usually see it that each scientists IQ is as good as it gets and probably there was a trade off of some other intelligence like emotional or social intelligence. However, what happens if the human society was a lot less competitive - let’s say no more wars, everyone has the basics and access to a very good education. What is one of the primary motivators was to see how big a question I could answer and my resources was that I could collaborate with any number of people on it. This is not a simple thing - if you sit with the idea for a while you will see how complicated this would be for us, right now, and how many new skills we would need to master, mostly at the human level. I believe the breakthrough rate and paradigm shift rate would escalate dramatically. Again, this is not predictable. For mine it is like a tingle at the back of the mind given what is in the conversation, both scientific, philosophic and science fictional - all, though, having a fairly good track record.
  5. My grandmother called herself a clairvoyant, crystal balls the whole works. In what we might call her ontologically subjective experience with physical distance and the future, she has had me wondering about the nature of the brain and consciousness, especially in the context of the uncanniness that comes from reading the physics of time. Nonetheless, there was no essential workability from her talent, and she never won enough on the horses to add to a relatively ordinary income. I also wonder, are the outliers of human neurology, i.e subjective experience, an aspect that will have further benefit in a future human social intelligence. I am happy to allow witches their space but believe that they will provide little to the enterprise of science for any forseeable future. In fact so far I see that the various forms ‘sight’ takes is a burden, an interference to evaluating pros and cons of risks and various frames of reference.
    Thanks for the conversation.

Sorry about some of the spelling errors that might make this difficult read.

This is a very reductionistic account of the evolutionary explanation of humanity’s need for meaning and purpose. Claiming that we have a “God-shaped hole” begs the question, and I would contest your suggestion that religions themselves are not ideologies.

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