Saturday, October 18, 2008

Knocking Down Straw Men

So, in Us vs. Them, and the diavlog here, I see the author make a big deal out of his insight that instead of thinking that things are either 100% genes, or 100% environment, it is more complicated than that. This is a really silly argument, because no one arguing in favor of sociobiology thinks genes are 100% or deterministic, rather, they think it's like arguing it is better to be tall to play basketball, a multivariate explation with standard errors and several factors.

But anyway, this is David Berreby's big insight, and fellow science writer John Horgan nods approvingly in the discussion. Berreby is a best seller, so obviously this kind of thing sells, but I think it is pretty pathetic that popular authors so often set up straw men, that is, arguments that are extreme that no one holds, and then knock them down as if this takes intellectual courage. I find it kind of bizarre, like someone saying that 'not all women are shorter than all men!', therefore, men and women are generally the same because to assert otherwise is to apply a discrete stereotype to them. Or that 'free markets don't work' because markets sometimes deliver suboptimal outcomes. Uh huh.

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