Speaking of brain research, over at Obscene Desserts, The Wife takes issue with a piece by German writer Tanja Dueckers in which Dueckers fulminates against genetic determinism. Her target is a recent twin study showing that your basic disposition (optimistic, pessimistic) seems to have a significant genetic component. The mounting scientific evidence in favor of genetic influences on "higher" aspects of being human — like disposition and personality — make some people nervous. The studies are popular targets for commentary by artists and writers, since it (1) allows them to defend "humanity" or "humanism"; (2) while citing all sorts of cool apocalyptic science-fiction (if they get ambitious); and (3) attacking the "engineered futures" being secretly concocted in the dank underground laboratories of the "genetico-capitalist" establishment. Or, you know, words to that effect. If you’ve ever read one of these pieces, you get my drift. You don’t even have to be leftish to endorse these themes; this bandwagon’s open to the ultramontane as well.
The Wife points out, though, that Duecker’s piece scores 0 points. I agree, and will now pile on. First, Dueckers compares contemporary genetic research to 19th-century fads such as phrenology and the study of ‘hysteria’, and boldly predicts that in 30 or 50 years, "with probability bordering on certainty," we’ll have the same attitude toward contemporary brain science. (I’m not sure how "probability/certainty," a moldy piece of German legalese, crept into Dueckers’ column, but will assume charitably that it’s been inserted for ironic effect.) Strange — 21st century trains, automobiles and computers seem to be more advanced and reliable than their 19th-century counterparts, so I’d cautiously assume the same might just be true of medical research. Yet Dueckers’ only argument for comparing current research to 19th-century quackery is that in each case, the results offend her sensibilities. Oh wait, that’s not an argument!
Nor does Dueckers display the slightest familiarity with the research methods she attacks. "Anyone who’s filled out a psycho-test for fun once," she assures us, knows how futile it is to ask people to subjectively evaluate whether they’re happy. It’s apparently never occurred to Dueckers that Ph.D psychologists might have thought of this problem themselves. (Memo to Dueckers: "Control questions." "Interrater reliability." Look ’em up.). In a final jab at these soulless Gepettos of science, Dueckers notes that Charlotte Roche, a former TV star who just wrote a best-selling pornographic novel, says she "really believes in" biology. If a former TV star (sneer! hiss! spit!) approves of "biology" (whatever Dueckers means by that), we should all be "very skeptical." Yet, the fact that a medium-sized literary celebrity believes something is not a reason to reject it. Unfortunately for Dueckers, the fact that a medium-sized literary celebrity believes something is also not a reason to accept it.
And that gets us to the question lurking in the background: What makes Dueckers’ opinion on genetic influences on human personality any more valuable than Charlotte Roche’s? Why is Dueckers being invited to write in a major German weekly about a topic she clearly doesn’t (want to) understand? You can read Dueckers’ bio (g) here: it’s all German studies, American studies, and art history. Noble disciplines all, but not calculated to make you an expert in the role of genes in shaping human behavior. When I ask Dueckers: "Why should I pay attention to what you say about genetic influences on the human personality?", her answer seems to be either: "Because I have opinions!" or "Because I have an art-history degree!"
Now, I have no problem with intellectual dilettantism; I practice it weekly on this blog. But you have to do some homework, give your reader equal access to your sources, and hedge your conclusions in areas where your knowledge is limited. Dueckers does none of these things, as The Wife points out. And, in fact, I see pieces like this all the time in German newspapers: Famous Intellectuals (FI) mouthing off about genes and human behavior, unemployment, torture, counterterrorism policy, capitalism, the environment, turbo-capitalism, space exploration, hyper-capitalism, America, conflict in the Middle East, anarcho-capitalism, Islam, etc. You name it, some German writer (often one you’ve never heard of before) has been given too many column-inches to pontificate about it in a major German broadsheet. Generally, about 2 paragraphs into such pieces, it becomes clear to me that the FI doesn’t know any more about what he’s writing about than the average newspaper reader. The point of the exercise is not to deliver new information or fresh insight, it’s to let the FI tart up his (rarely novel or interesting) opinions with portentous phrases.
Why do the FIs do this? Three factors come to mind. First, vanity. Second, the European tradition of public intellectuals taking bold stands on public issues. They’re all hoping to score a "J’accuse" coup and take their place in the pantheon of enlightenment. And finally, we have the Myth of the Generalizable Intellect, which I define as the idea that your talent for intellectually demanding creative work confers credibility on your opinions about all other subjects. The more defensible version of this thesis is that FIs are generally free of institutional ties and are therefore more free to name and denounce evils than are other people.
There may be something to this last point — yet decade after decade, century after century, we see fresh proof of a central fact of political life: creative people often have disastrous political judgment, and in fact often show crappy judgment in all areas of life that don’t relate to creative work! It’s their tendency to extremes of subjectivity that make them creative, but it’s this subjectivity that renders them clueless in intellectual domains in which dispassionate analysis is the order of the day. Domains such as…genetic research.