Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Chomsky: genetic barriers to scientific progress

Chomsky on the limits of human intelligence. Although I don't agree completely with Chomsky, trying to explain the Higgs boson to non-physicists (even, to non-particle physicists) makes me sympathetic to his perspective.

I do think the rate of progress in science is partially limited by the availability of human capital. If we had more and better human capital we could advance much faster. See Plenty of room at the top.

QUESTION: Do you think genetic barriers to further progress are becoming obvious in some areas of art and science? 
CHOMSKY: You could give an argument that something like this has happened in quite a few fields. It was possible in the late nineteenth century for an intelligent person of much leisure and wealth to be about as much at home as he wanted to be in the arts and sciences. But forty years later that goal had become hopeless. ... 
I think it has happened in physics and mathematics, for example. There's this idea, which goes back to the French mathematicians known collectively as Bourbaki, that the development of mathematics was originally the exploration of everyday intuitions of space and number. That is probably somewhat true through the end of the nineteenth century. But I don't think it's true now. As for physics, in talking to students at MIT, I notice that many of the very brightest ones, who would have gone into physics twenty years ago, are now going into biology. I think part of the reason for this shift is that there are discoveries to be made in biology that are within the range of an intelligent human being. This may not be true in other areas. 

QUESTION: You seem to be saying two things. First, that whatever defines our common human nature will turn out to be a shared set of intuitions that owe much of their strength and character to our common genetic heritage -- our species genotype. Second, that the exhaustion of these intuitions in many areas is producing a peculiar kind of artistic and scientific specialization. Further progress in music or mathematics, for example, requires a scientist or artist with an unusual heredity. [[ It's called g, it's heritable and it's normally distributed in the population ...  So, yes, high g corresponds to "unusual heredity" ... ]]
CHOMSKY: Well, it's a different mental constitution -- something like being a chess freak or a runner who can do a three-and-one-half minute mile. It's almost a matter of logic that this change is going to occur sooner or later. Has it happened already? That's a matter of judgment. It's a matter of looking at, say, the twentieth century and seeing whether there are signs of this change. Is it the case, for example, that contemporary work in the arts and sciences is no longer part of our common aesthetic and intellectual experience? Well, there are signs. But whether the signs are realistic or whether we are just going through a sort of sea change and something will develop, who knows? Maybe a thousand years from now we'll know.

Chomsky may not be aware of it, but many physicists had doubts that humans could understand atoms and quantum mechanics:
Wigner: Until 1925, most great physicists, including Einstein and Planck, had doubted that man could truly grasp the deepest implications of quantum theory. They really felt that man might be too stupid to properly describe quantum phenomena. ...the men at the weekly colloquium in Berlin wondered "Is the human mind gifted enough to extend physics into the microscopic domain ...?" Many of those great men doubted that it could.


5371 said...

The most creative musicians and mathematicians are uniformly those with the highest "g"? I'm sure you don't believe that, but you wrote it.

steve hsu said...

I interpreted "unusual" as exceptional. I do not assume any tight correlation between g and achievement. For example, a genotype which is +3 SD is exceptional/unusual.

Chomsky talks as if there are discrete differences, but really they are continuous.

MtMoru said...

The Chomsk is certainly right about selection for obedience in American education. His linguistics is now quaint though. "I do think the rate of progress in science is partially limited by the availability of human capital..." It is limited in principle BUT not in fact. That is, there are many more PhDs in the natural sciences and many times more without PhDs in the natural sciences who could do important work as PIs or as professional research group staff but acn't for lack of funding. Academia is an extremely inefficient way to get research done. The funding is almost all public. The NIH budget and the amount Americans spend on make-up per year is about the same. I'm sure Milton Friedmann would have an explanation for why this is best.

MtMoru said...

Music is typhos and trumpery. The world would be better without it.

MtMoru said...

"But there may be cognitive thresholds for mastery of certain subjects."
And the number above that threshold doing science is a small fraction of the total. And that threshold is much more important in theoretical physics and other theoretical science than in the often routine grunt work of the lab.
Just use IQ rather the "cognitive". Only two syllables, less to type. Does IQ need a euphamism?

Tony Wittry said...

Steve, Chomsky needs therapy worse than peer review. Seriously... he may be intelligent and insightful in the same way Kim Kashardian is attractive and fashionable; ostensibly true, but if he's showing up in your news feed, you've got a problem.

Inverse said...

Right, he's only been consistently voted the world's most influential thinker (n) times.

FactsNotFallacies said...

Influential != accurate.

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