Simple isn’t better when talking about science, Stanford philosopher suggests

Taking a philosophical approach to the assumptions that surround the study of human behavior, Stanford philosophy Professor Helen Longino suggests that no single research method is capable of answering the question of nature vs. nurture.


By Barbara Wilcox

Studies of the origins of human sexuality and aggression are typically in the domain of the sciences, where researchers examine genetic, neurobiological, social and environmental factors.

Behavioral research findings draw intense interest from other researchers, policymakers and the general public. But Stanford’s Helen E. Longino, the Clarence Irving Lewis Professor of Philosophy, says there’s more to the story.

Longino, who specializes in the philosophy of science, asserts in her latest book that the limitations of behavioral research are not clearly communicated in academic or popular discourse. As a result, this lack of communication distorts the scope of current behavioral research.

In her book Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression and Sexuality, Longino examines five common scientific approaches to the study of behavior – quantitative behavioral genetics, molecular behavioral genetics, developmental psychology, neurophysiology and anatomy, and social/environmental methods.

Applying the analytical tools of philosophy, Longino defines what is – and is not – measured by each of these approaches. She also reflects on how this research is depicted in academic and popular media.

In her analysis of citations of behavioral research, Longino found that the demands of journalism and of the culture at large favor science with a very simple storyline. Research that looks for a single “warrior gene” or a “gay gene,” for example, receives more attention in both popular and scholarly media than research that takes an integrative approach across scientific approaches or disciplines.

Longino spoke with the Stanford News Service about why it is important for scientists and the public to understand the parameters of behavioral research:


Your research suggests that social-science researchers are not adequately considering the limitations of their processes and findings. To what do you attribute this phenomenon?

The sciences have become hyper-specialized. Scientists rarely have the opportunity or support to step back from their research and ask how it connects with other work on similar topics. I see one role of philosophers of science as the provision of that larger, interpretive picture. This is not to say that there is one correct interpretation, rather that as philosophers we can show that the interpretive questions are askable.


Why study behavioral research through a philosophic lens?

Philosophy deals, in part, with the study of how things are known. A philosopher can ask, “What are the grounds for believing any of the claims here? What are the relationships between these approaches? The differences? What can we learn? What can this way of thinking not tell us?”

These are the questions I asked of each article I read. I developed a grid system for analyzing and recording the way the behavior under study was defined and measured, the correlational or observational data – including size and character of sample population – developed, the hypotheses evaluated.


What about your findings do you think would surprise people most?

I went into the project thinking that what would differentiate each approach was its definition of behavior. As the patterns emerged, I saw that. What differentiated each approach was how it characterized the range of possible causal factors.

Because each approach characterized this range differently, the measurements of different research approaches were not congruent. Thus, their results could not be combined or integrated or treated as empirical competitors. But this is what is required if the nature vs. nurture – or nature and nurture – question is to be meaningful.

I also investigated the representation of this research in public media. I found that research that locates the roots of behavior in the individual is cited far more often than population-based studies, and that research that cites genetic or neurobiological factors is cited more frequently than research into social or environmental influences on behavior. Interestingly, science journalists fairly consistently described biological studies as being more fruitful and promising than studies into social factors of behavior.

Social research was always treated as “terminally inconclusive,” using terms that amount to “we’ll never get an answer.” Biological research was always treated as being a step “on the road to knowledge.”


What prompted you to begin the research that became Studying Human Behavior?

In 1992, an East Coast conference on “genetic factors and crime” was derailed under pressure from activists and the Congressional Black Caucus, which feared that the findings being presented might be misused to find a racial basis for crime or links between race and intelligence. I became interested in the conceptual and theoretical foundations of the conference – the voiced and unvoiced assumptions made by both the conference participants and by the activists, policymakers and other users of the research.


Why did you pair human aggression and sexuality as a subject for a book?

While I started with the research on aggression, research on sexual orientation started popping up in the news and I wanted to include research on at least two behaviors or families of behavior in order to avoid being misled by potential sample bias. Of course, these behaviors are central to social life, so how we try to understand them is intrinsically interesting.


What could science writers be doing better?

Articles in the popular media, such as the science sections of newspapers, rarely discuss the methodology of studies that they cover as news. Yet methodology and the disciplinary approach of the scientists doing the research are critical because they frame the question.

For example, quantitative behavioral genetics research will consider a putatively shared genome against social factors such as birth order, parental environment and socioeconomic status. Molecular genetics research seeks to associate specific traits with specific alleles or combinations within the genome, but the social factors examined by quantitative behavioral genetics lie outside its purview. Neurobiological research might occupy a middle ground. But no single approach or even a combination of approaches can measure all the factors that bear on a behavior.

It’s also important to know that often, behavior is not what’s being studied. It’s a tool, not the subject. The process of serotonin re-uptake, for example, may be of primary interest to the researcher, not the behavior that it yields. Yet behavior is what’s being reported.


What advice do you have for people who might be concerned about potential political ramifications of research into sexuality or aggression?

I see political ramifications in what is not studied.

In studying sexual orientation, the 7-point Kinsey scale was an improvement over a previous binary measure of orientation. Researchers employing the Kinsey scale still tend to find greater concentrations at the extremes. Middle points still get dropped out of the analysis. In addition to more attention to intermediates on the scale, there could be focus on other dimensions of erotic orientation in addition to, or instead of, the sex of the individual to which one is attracted.

Similarly, there are a number of standard ways to measure aggressive response, but they are all focused on the individual. Collective action is not incorporated. If the interest in studying aggression is to shed light on crime, there’s a whole lot of behavior that falls outside that intersection, including white-collar crime and state- or military-sponsored crime.


What other fields of inquiry could benefit from your findings?

Climate study is as complex as behavioral study. We’d have a much better debate about climate change if we were not looking for a single answer or silver bullet. The public should understand the complexities that the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] must cope with in producing its findings.

Source: Stanford News Service