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Saturday, October 30, 2004

A Broccoli Story

As a kid you likely grew up with the constant exhortation by your parents to ‘eat your broccoli’. Why? Because it was good for you, and science said so. Well, since it was science rather than a sadistic impulse that was behind that parental commandment, you accepted the advice and ate your broccoli. As adults, mom and dad are gone, but we still have ‘science’ around to nag us, as all good nannies do, with the ‘facts’. Although discovering facts takes scientific minds, using facts is simple, and the more facts we have the more useful they are and the simpler they seem to be. That’s because we can hook facts together like tinker toys into logical tools that can enable us to make some pretty good predictions about our world. Thus we know from science how broccoli is good for us because scientists found that people who ate broccoli lived longer than people who don’t eat broccoli. We also know from equally scientific minds how to cook broccoli so that it tastes good, and how broccoli does good things to our bodies to help us grow up big and strong.

But what would happen if scientists acted like seven-year-old children, and gave some special status or privilege to ‘their’ unique way of exploring the wondrous world of broccoli? This new world of broccoli knowledge would be bizarre to behold. One group of scientists would say ‘eat your broccoli’ because the people in the broccoli crazy state of Minnesota live longer than the folks in the state of Wisconsin, who much prefer cauliflower. And then they would say in a loud voice: ‘AND THAT’S ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW!’ We would of course persist in asking how broccoli can be so good, to which the broccoli scientist would make up some inherent need, drive, or impulse for broccoli. Not knowing any better, we would accept this wisdom, and accept broccoli consciousness as the reason why we must wolf down our broccoli at every occasion we can.

Not accepting broccoli consciousness as a scientific reason for why we must eat broccoli, a second group of scientists noted that if you cook broccoli just the right way and add on just the right sauces, then folks would eat their broccoli with enthusiasm and gusto. And then they would say in a loud voice: ‘AND THAT’S ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW!’ We would of course persist in asking why broccoli is so good; to which the broccoli scientist would say you don’t need to know why when you’ve got good recipes!

Not accepting broccoli consciousness or recipes as a scientific reason for why we must eat broccoli, a third group of scientists noted that broccoli does good things because of all those amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that help keep our molecular machinery ticking. And then they would say in a loud voice: ‘AND THAT’S ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW!’ We would of course persist in asking where one can find some tasty broccoli. To which they would respond; we’re physiologists, not cooks!

Of course, we eat our broccoli because to use knowledge we must take it anywhere we can get it, and we know our knowledge is sound because we can fit together and use the facts we get from different ‘levels’ of observation. Thus broccoli is a good and desirable thing because we know statistically we should live longer, that a good recipe makes us want broccoli more, and because broccoli is good for the heart, brain, and other body parts. Now the scientists who come up with these facts may say that my particular fact is better than the other guy's; but we ignore them, as we should. That’s because as common folk, we have to be practical and not parochial, and are forced to look at life as a whole, from the infinitely large to the microscopically small.

Unfortunately, in the world of social science, parochial trumps the practical, and knowledge for its own sake ends up being trumped up knowledge, for goodness sake! That is, in academia, practicality is not an exclusive gauge of scientific goodness, hence useless, convoluted, and simply wrong information often gets by if it merely sounds good on paper. So because practical measures of the goodness or badness of ideas are scarcely applied, the relative goodness of the methods that give you those ideas often takes the place of pragmatism. Thus we are treated to endless debates on the 'epistemology' of science, which is a fancy way of saying how we should go about discovering which methods are best at finding out the facts, as if truth somehow was easier to find if you just limited the types of questions you asked.

And so, if we get our facts by taking polls or observations of groups of people and comparing them statistically, we call ourselves sociologists, anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, or social psychologists. If we get our facts by observing individual people and the various events from rewards to punishments that make them do things, we call ourselves behaviorists. And if we get our facts by taking a microscope to individual brains and bodies and see how such molecular events cause behavior, we are neuro-psychologists. And each 'school of thought' of course is perfectly prepared to ignore or disparage the methods and the results of those who do not adopt their standards for what counts as understanding.

We do not of course have broccoli sociologists, broccoli behaviorists, or broccoli neuro-psychologists, as our earlier example implies, since we after all have to work rather than think for a living, and we need to know why we should eat certain foods to survive. (Hence, less patience for nonsense) Similarly, we will eventually get to the bottom of our behavior, and in the process understand ourselves, but only when we get practical about it. It's as simple as asking ourselves why we must eat our broccoli.

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