The edifice of Western science is built on generalisation, where homogeneity has replaced diversity
Illustration: Tarique Aziz
In these times of relentless 24x7 news, we are constantly dished out a diet of (apparently) scientific ideas about human behaviour largely emanating from the West. And more often than not, we lap them up without pausing for a moment and wondering if they apply to us at all. Take, for instance, a recent study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, which scanned the genetic and physical traits of over 24,000 couples of European descent, and found that a significant number with a genetic marker for tallness tended to couple with tall partners. From this they concluded that we don’t, as many might think, choose our lovers or life partners by accident, but that there seems to be a genetic conspiracy that pairs up people more alike than unlike. The authors detected a similar correlation with respect to years of education among a sample of British couples. And there is evidence to suggest that this might be the case with other traits such as IQ or political orientation.
So far, so good. However, the trouble begins when scientists start painting all humans with the same brush. They assume that since we all go back to the same ancestor, we are all, genetically speaking, pretty much cut from the same cloth. In other words, what’s true of a Peruvian is most likely also true of a Tamilian.
This dogma, however, became suspect when, about a decade ago, three psychologists, Joseph Henrich, Steven J Heine and Ara Norenzayan, who had studied indigenous cultures in Latin America, argued that it was both arrogant and disingenuous on the part of western researchers to assume that their ideas about human nature applied broadly to all societies. They cited a 2008 survey that revealed that a vast majority of research on various aspects of human nature was carried out on subjects living in WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic—societies, which account for a mere 12 per cent of the world’s population.
To quote Heine from an essay published in aeon.co, “A lot of medicine is done with mice, a lot of genetics is done with fruit flies. And in psychology, the model organism is the American undergraduate.” And yet, oddly enough, the dogma persists, with only the odd article carrying a footnote cautioning against sweeping generalisation.
Writing for the New Scientist in 2010, the psychologist trio argued against the myth of a near-perfect experiment model that would yield the most objective and universally valid conclusions about human behaviour. They said that researchers should embrace complexity and diversity in place of homogeneity, and probability in place of certainty. “First, editors and reviewers should push researchers to support any generalisations with evidence. Second, granting agencies, reviewers and editors should give researchers credit for comparing diverse and inconvenient subject pools. Third, granting agencies should prioritise cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural research. Fourth, researchers must strive to evaluate how their findings apply to other populations.”
Evidently, this new resear-ch philosophy hasn’t rocked the old-school boat yet. For, the obstinate blind spot of WEIRD research is one of the important triggers behind the current “reproducibility crisis” in science, especially in biomedical and psychology research, where scientists are unable to replicate results of published experiments even when they are repeated in exactly the same manner. Other major triggers include manipulating data to suit a hypothesis, not verifying other people’s work, and, the pernicious “publish or perish” culture.
Last month, a group of concerned scientists came up with a manifesto to deal with the crisis. Some of the suggestions include registering the study design even before it begins so that there is little scope for tweaking the data; making full disclosure of their findings, and not just those that suit the desired outcome; and, promoting open science where anyone can examine and interpret the results.
Good luck to everyone trying to make science more robust, credible, democratic, diverse and open. But, as we all know, it takes a long time for a new idea to gain critical mass and give birth to a new paradigm. Till then, the lay reader might do well by being more alert and sceptical of any WEIRD claim about human nature trying to pass off as universal truth.
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