On the difference between speculation and science

Two otherwise unrelated articles recently published online raise again the question of what differentiates artful interpretation from empirical science — in different terms, what is the core difference between “soft” and “hard” science?

The first article, “Mental problems gave early humans an edge,” by Kate Ravilious, was published by New Scientist on November 2nd.

In the article, Ravilious argues that the conjunction of an increase in the mutation rate of genes associated with autism and other mental disabilities with the explosion of tool-making technologies around 100,000 years ago may mean that the technological progress which differentiated humans from other primates, and other hominids, was the result of the innovative skills of “different” minds.

It’s an intriguing idea, but there is one small problem: the association of changing genes and tool technologies is,  Ravilious acknowledges, “circumstantial.”

I would go further and argue that pairing the archaeological record with this genetic information is entirely speculative.

This isn’t a bad thing in itself, of course, for even in the most rigourous physical science speculation is one of the foundations of the experimental methodology, helping scientists to identify areas of inquiry and specific targets for testing.

But it would be a mistake to treat the “Hey, maybe it’s like this …” moments of evolutionary archaeologists and psychologists as true science. There’s more art than science, more invention than investigation, in even those best guesses which prove, after appropriate empirical study, to have been correct.

There’s considerably more speculation in Ravilious’s article, as when she reports on some of the other “research” in this area, with experts suggesting that successful human migration may have resulted from the special skills of the mentally disabled, or that the presumed evolution of “higher emotions” like compassion and tolerance may have nurtured and accepted the differently minded, allowing this small group of mental outsiders to contribute a unique imagination, invention, even spirituality, to prehistoric human groups.

Maybe all of this is true; maybe it all happened just this way. But how are we to know? Not by sitting around a faculty lounge coffee table and swapping ideas. As rich and rewarding as such conversations might be, and I’m sure that they often are, they’re not science.

Why this obsession with empirical science? Why not just lighten up a little?

Well, for one thing, there’s the second article.

“Ancient DNA Provides New Insights into Cave Paintings of Horses,” published online by Science Daily on November 7th, clearly shows both the differences in methodology between artful interpretation and empirical study, as well as some of the implications those differences hold for what we know and how we know it.

The Science Daily article reports that new data undermines one popular interpretation of the famous cave paintings of dappled horses at Peche-Merle, while at the same time reinforcing another view.

The Peche-Merle horses do not look like the bay and black horses long believed to have inhabited the area when the drawings were made, around 25,000 years ago.

Since the horses did not look like the “real” horses the artist would have seen, one popular interpretation has been that the dappled horses are abstract or fanciful objects, not realistic representations of the world as it had been.

With the help of this sort of interpretation, some archaeologists have based entire systems of explanation on the importance of myth and symbolism in primitive art —  in particular, basing their theories of the origins and nature of early religion on this sort of “data.”

Of necessity, such explanations have been substantially speculative. There just wasn’t enough direct evidence available on which firmly to base one’s theories. It’s not that the theories are silly, or even wrong — it’s just that they are not truly scientific, not subject to material confirmation or disproof.

In the small area of these cave paintings, at least, the situation is changing.

The Science Daily article reports a DNA study of existing remnants of prehistoric horses, and that study indicates that dappled horses were, in fact, part of the physical world in which the cave artists lived. Not only that, but further analysis shows that the cave painting ratio of dappled to unicolour horses, of spotted to bay horses in particular, closely matches the frequency of dappled and bay colour markers in the fossils.

In other words, the cave paintings not only show actual horses, but they also show them in an appropriate ratio. The horses at Peche-Merle are, in a word, realistic.

Whether or not the paintings also have symbolic or religious significance can’t be known from this kind of data, but any interpretation that the paintings are wholly or primarily abstract or unrealistic has to deal with specific, empirical data that says different.

What emerges from a comparison of these two articles is another example of the reason that the “social sciences,” despite recent increases in the use of empirical tools to augment interpretation, are still more social than science.

That’s not all bad — unless, that is, speculation and interpretation are considered as rationally equivalent to experiment and investigation.


6 thoughts on “On the difference between speculation and science

  1. I absolutely agree – I think too much speculation is allowed to run rampant in the social sciences under the guise of it being more credible than is the case. On the other hand, I also see consumers of research giving enormous credit to studies that mention DNA, evolution, or involve some kind of empirical investigation… as I have written elsewhere, the ‘science’ needs to be interpreted by someone and between the lines, assumptions are usually made… this is where science and philosophy overlap and where I tend to differentiate between wild speculation and good deductive reasoning. Unfortunately, it is my opinion that while researchers are good at doing the ’empirical’ part, they are usually quite bad at doing the ‘reasoning’ part.

    • It’s clear that assumptions and other heuristics underlie even the most rigourous interpretations of even the most thoroughly empirical data. There’s no way around that. Yet I’m more comfortable with the speculations of science than with the equally speculative presumption of writers like Raymond Tallis and Bryan Appleyard that the mind is essentially inscrutable. That’s a view that’s too often a stand-in for an explicit or implicit dualism, which I believe our understanding has, with good reason, left behind.

  2. I would probably be more comfortable with the speculations of science as well, but sometimes we need to tolerate being uncomfortable if it otherwise comes at the heavy price of our sacrificing our rationality.

    I don’t think Tallis would say the mind is inscrutable, but he is certainly skeptical of the claims many scientists are making on a daily basis (e.g. “science has discovered where ‘love’ is found in the brain,” and so on). He criticizes much of the junk-science that is populating mainstream thought right now. I have not read much of his stuff, but from what I have read, I think he is brilliant – he seems to be using good logic and deductive reasoning, which is different from speculation. Can you say how Tallis’ skepticism might make him a dualist? In my view, it is the rest of the pop-science crowd that is more deserving of that title… developing hypotheses without keeping their exponentially increasing assumptions in check… sure we talk about DNA and brains here and there, but with only a facile understanding (though seldom admitting that), which has the effect of our being overconfident in our science as we create a definition of the mind independent from the body.

    • Tallis came to mind specifically because of his recent review of two books, one of them Gazzinaga’s Who’s In Charge?

      I find many of his pronouncements annoying, despite the quality of his deductive skills. As I read him, his tendency is to make presumptive pronouncements (primarily, that the mind is more than the brain or the functions of the brain while remaining somehow entirely physical), then dismissing contrary opinions on the basis of his unproved premise. “Since the human mind is more than the animal mind, it must have something that the animal mind lacks.” OK. Let’s give you your asserted premise, for argument’s sake. What more? How does it work? If it’s an emergent property, isn’t it emerging from the brain? So our brains are highly-developed mammal brains? Or do you have some other, ineffable quality in mind?

      Then there’s his puerile and derisive tone …

      I’ll be posting an article very soon in response to Tallis’s reviews, which you can find here.

  3. What empirical research would bolster Ravilius’ idea? Perhaps the majority of political, spiritual, artistic and other leaders could be shown to have mental aberrations…..oh dear!

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