Counting Crows – One for Sorrow, Two for Joy…
Remember in junior high when Mrs. Thistlebottom made you memorize the nine parts of speech. That was to help you write an essay on what William Blake might have been thinking when he wrote The Tyger. In Biology, Mr. Sallow taught you that nature was carved up into a seven taxonomic categories (domains, kingdoms, phyla, etc.) and that there were five kingdoms. If your experience was similar to mine, your Social Studies teacher then had you memorize the four causes of the Civil War.
Four causes? There I drew the line. Parts of speech might be counted with integers along with the taxa and the five kingdoms, but not causes of war. But in 8th grade I lacked the confidence and the vocabulary to make my case. It bugs me still, as you see. Assigning exactly four causes to the Civil War was a projection of someone’s mental model of the war onto the real war, which could rightly have been said to have any number of causes. Causes are rarely the sort of things that nature numbers. And as it turned out, nor are parts of speech, levels of taxa, or the number of kingdoms. Life isn’t monophyletic. Is Archaea a domain or a kingdom? Plato is wrong again; you cannot carve nature at her joints. Life’s boundaries are fluid.
Can there be any reason that the social sciences still insist that their world can be carved at its joints? Are they envious of the solid divisions of biology but unaware that these lines are now understood to be fictions, convenient only at the coarsest levels of study?
A web search reveals that many causes and complex phenomena in the realm of social science can be counted, even in peer reviewed papers. Consider the three causes each for crime, the Great Schism in Christianity, and of human trafficking in Africa. Or the four kinds each of ADHD (Frontiers in New Psychology), Greek love, and behavior (Current Directions in Psychological Science). Or the five effects each of unemployment, positive organizational behavior, and hallmarks of Agile Management (McKinsey).
In each case it seems that experts, by using the definite article “the” before their cardinal qualifier, might be asserting that their topic has exactly that many causes, kinds, or effects. And that the precise number they provide is key to understanding the phenomenon. Perhaps writing a technical paper titled simply Four Kinds of ADHD (no “The”) might leave the reader wondering if there might in fact be five kinds, though the writer had time to explore only four. Might there be highly successful people with eight habits?
The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), issued by the American Psychiatric Association lists over 300 named conditions, not one of which has been convincingly tied to a failure of neurotransmitters or any particular biological state. Ten years in the making, the DSM did not specify that its list was definitive. In fact, to its credit, it acknowledges that the listed conditions overlap along a continuum.
Still, assigning names to 300 locations along a spectrum – a better visualization might be across an n-dimensional space – does not mean you’ve found 300 kinds of anything. Might exploring the trends, underlying systems, processes, and relationships between symptoms be more useful?
A few think so at least. Thomas Insel, former director of the NIMH wrote that he was doubtful of the DSM’s usefulness. Insel said that the DSM’s categories amounted to consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any empirical laboratory measure. They were equivalent, he said, “to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever.” As Kurt Grey, psychologist at UNC put it, “intuitive taxonomies obscure the underling processes of psychopathology.”
Meanwhile in business, McKinsey consultants still hold that business interactions can be optimized around the four psychological functions – sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking, despite that theory’s (Myers Briggs) pitifully low evidential support.
The Naming of Parts
“Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday, We had daily cleaning…” Henry Reed, Naming of Parts, 1942.
Richard Feynman told a story of being a young boy and noticing that when his father jerked his wagon containing a ball forward, the ball appeared to move backward in the wagon. Feynman asked why it did that. His dad said that no one knows, but that “we call it inertia.”
Feynman also talked about walking with his father in the woods. His dad, a uniform salesman, said, “See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird, absolutely nothing about the bird. You only know something about people – what they call the bird.” Feynman said they then talked about the bird’s pecking and its feathers.
Back at the American Psychiatric Association, we find controversy over whether Premenstrual Dysphoria Disorder (PMDD) is an “actual disorder” or merely a strong case of Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS).
Science gratifies us when it tries to explain things, not merely to describe them, or, worse yet, to merely name them. That’s true despite all the logical limitations to scientific knowledge, like the underdetermination of theory by evidence and the problem of induction that David Hume made famous in 1739.
Carl Linnaeus, active at the same time as Hume, devised the system Mr. Sallow taught you in 8th grade Biology. It still works, easing communications around manageable clusters of organisms, and demarcating groups of critters that are endangered. But Linnaeus was dead wrong about the big picture: “All the species recognized by Botanists came forth from the Almighty Creator’s hand, and the number of these is now and always will be exactly the same,” and “nature makes no jumps.,” he wrote. So parroting Linnaeus’s approach to science will naturally lead to an impasse.
Social sciences (of which there are precisely nine), from anthropology to business management might do well to recognize that their domains will never be as lean, orderly, or predictive as the hard sciences are, and to strive for those science’s taste for evidence rather than venerating their ontologies and taxonomies.
Now why do some people think that labeling a thing explains the thing? Because they fall prey to the Nominal Fallacy. Nudge.
One for sorrow,
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral,
Four for birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven for the devil,
His own self
– Proverbs and Popular Saying of the Seasons, Michael Aislabie Denham, 1864