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RS 164 - James Evans on "Using meta-knowledge to learn how science works"

Release date: July 24th, 2016

James Evans

Has science gotten slower over the years? Does the proliferation of jargon make it harder for scientists to collaborate? What unstated assumptions -- "ghost theories" -- are shaping our research without us even realizing it? In this episode of Rationally Speaking Julia talks with sociologist of science James Evans, who investigates questions like these using some clever data mining.

James's 1st Pick: "Distilling Free-Form Natural Laws from Experimental Data" by Michael Schmidt and Hod Lipson

James's 2nd Pick: "The Discovery of Structural Form" by Charles Kemp and Joshua Tenenbaum

Julia's Blog Post on Entropy and Postmodernism: "Provably Nonsense: Part I"

Podcast edited by Brent Silk


Full Transcripts 


Reader Comments (13)

Hey Julia, I'm a big fan of yours, and Rationally Speaking has been my favorite podcast for a long time. I enjoyed the end of this episode, and it reminded me of an paper by the brilliant philosopher Herman Cappelen:

I think you guys are on the same page in regard to diagnosing nonsense.
July 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterChristos
Julia and friends,

Great podcast as usual. I'm excited to explore James Evans paper "Benchmarking Ontologies."

I was reading your old post on Postmodernism and was a little surprised by it. I am sympathetic to the rationalist tradition, but also find much to be gleaned from continental philosophy. I hope this post can support some openness to appreciate both traditions of thought.

In that article, you quote an obscure passage from Deleuze's Logic of Sense as an example of potentially obscurantist nonsense. I can sympathize with this, but unfortunately, the passage is totally coherent and sensical. Surely, going to the middle of an organic chemistry textbook or an advanced statistics book and taking a paragraph out of context would be equally incomprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the field.

I also feel it is important to refute the idea that the Sokal hoax shows the field's nonsense. IA Sokal hoax can be performed for almost any highly specialized field with different quality journals. This would merely show that there exist journals in each area which admit of horrible material, and this we already knew. I concede that continental philosophy is much easier to make these errors in, because there are more degrees of conceptual freedom / ambiguity in the nature of the work, but I believe this is more an issue with the American education of continental philosophy rather than its inherent sense.

Moving to the Deleuze passage - let's bring it first into fields more familiar. His work bears directly on very intelligible philosophical debates on the problem of individuation, the philosophy of time, and the problems dealing with the representability of being.

When quoting a continental philosopher, one shouldn't start with the philosopher, but what problems the philosopher was dealing with, the history of the attempted solutions, and their problems. Here's a basic layout of it. As you know, we all have biases that make our models of reality somewhat distorted. Well for Deleuze one of these biases is a “reification bias” that is reflected in notions of representation and identity that assumes a concept of "sameness" which he found incoherent.

Just like many philosophers have investigated the concept of free will, self, and others, and found them to be incoherent. Deleuze did the same thing with identity and sameness.

In the history of philosophy this is the problem of individuation - what makes something utterly itself. Deleuze's project is to understand the world without assuming concepts of identity which usually states that things can only be different if they have something else in common. For example - "two things are the same in something (genus) before they can be different (species)" - Two cats are different, but they are both cats. Two atoms are different spatially, but first they are both atoms.

While this makes common sense, since identity and difference are related in our minds, Deleuze found issue with what we mean by "sameness" here. What does it really mean that two different things have something in common? This is a huge philosophical issue and debate.

Deleuze was trying to create a logic or structure of the world without this underlying assumption that things have an underlying sameness which is not itself the result of some other difference. He made difference primary ("only the strange is familiar"). And if sameness isn’t “real” then only differences differentiating can account for what is and therefore also time's passage.

He did this by borrowing and extending a distinction in science between extensive differences (differences which can be divided - like volume) and intensive differences (or differences that cannot be divided - like temperature). He claimed that intensive differences are real and their differentiation is like an event since they “change” necessarily, while extensive differences have no "force" to them and are inert. Intensive differences therefore are "events" - and thinking them properly is the task of thinking what for Deleuze is truly real, while thinking extensive differences is the task of representation and identity and doesn't get at what really is.

This is the beginning of solving the problem of thinking the world without assuming identity is primary.

My opinion is that I think most of this issue is due to simply horrible teaching and not having enough clarity themselves to motivate students to take the appropriate time to understand it with a sense of humility and joy.
July 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Meli
I accidentally hit "create" instead of "preview."

I wanted to pull it all together - In the Deleuze passage, what I explained above about intensive differences is what he means by "heterogeneous series." That is - instead of relating different to different along some assumed sameness of identity (which he found incoherent), it is different to different related by difference itself (this is what he was trying to think). Hence his concept of pure difference. Regardless of whether we agree, if you go into the problem of individuation, this is a perfectly reasonable offering of a solution to it.

To unpack the rest of the terms we would have to go through a similar exposition in all of the individual concepts (quasi-cause, etc.). When you put them all together you get the passage you quote, which can make sense once all the concepts are understood.

My hope is not that it all of the sudden makes sense, but that there is a basic trust that the concepts can be explained, that they are relevant to long-standing philosophical questions, and that they simply serve as different models to approach these questions.

There are many people that will abuse this style and just throw terms they don't understand around. It is too prevalent. And worse, yes there are even "experts" in the field that do the same thing! But while this poisons the well, time purifies it as readers take it seriously and study it and put it in simpler words. Many writers including Manuel Delanda and Levi Bryant have done a pretty good job of bringing Deleuze's work to the ground.

In time I hope it becomes less ambiguous. Meanwhile, I'm excited to follow Mr. Evan's work and remain an intrigued follower of RS. :)
July 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Meli
July 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdmf
This show really needs Massimo back.
August 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMGN
@ Thomas Meli

"IA Sokal hoax can be performed for almost any highly specialized field with different quality journals."

No, it couldn't. Any non-scientist attempting to create a nonsensical physics paper would be laughed at within seconds of reading it, at least by expert reviewers. At best, you might fake data, but it would take knowledge to do that convincingly. Sokal showed that experts in cultural studies couldn't detect bullshit by an amateur and that's a serious blow to the field.

BTW, your posts were outrageously long for a "comment". You'd be more considerate to think carefully about what you have to say and digest it down to a paragraph or three. I didn't read much further than that.
August 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres

"This show really needs Massimo back."

Yes, or at least a second host. The interplay between Massimo and Julia was engaging, and having a mixture of voices kept things interesting. When Massimo left, there was the promise to seek out a replacement, but surely it's been a year without any hint of a prospect. I listen much less often, now.
August 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres
@Greg Esres

Thank you for your feedback about the comment being long. I am unfamiliar with the commenting-on-posts best practices, so this was useful to me.

However, your comment about the Sokal hoax is not very convincing. In an article by science magazine to show the ineffectiveness of open-access journals, they sent dummy science articles to 304 journals and 157 were accepted.

The article is here:

There is also scigen - - which generates scientific looking papers which also have been accepted to scientific journals.

This quite clearly strikes me as supporting the idea that this is about journal quality. I did make an admission that it might be harder to notice in the social sciences, but the idea that all scientists would notice fatal errors easily strikes me simply untrue and lacking in the proper humility for our tendency to make fatal mistakes in any endeavor.
August 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Meli
I really enjoyed this podcast. I just want to put my two cents in about Massimo. I like the podcasts without him much more because I like how Julia asks questions that I think are very relavent and make me think and makes things easier to understand for me. Massimo seemed to take over the conversations and actually they seemed more like lectures to me. I'm always interested and thoughtful of what Julia has to say.
August 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie G
I agree with Melanie. I grew to dread Massimo opening his mouth, because my expectation became either condescending dismissal of a guest's idea that happened to be novel to him, or a tangential reference to the philosophical literature that seemed largely self-aggrandizing. The number of times he cut of an interesting, open-minded question from Julia especially pissed me off.
August 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJ. Goard
Regarding the question at about 25 min in, about scientists potentially working more effectively at solving problems when working in separate groups with local knowledge rather than working together and getting stuck in a local minimum, see Kevin Zollman, Conor Mayo-Wilson, and David Danks, "The Independence Thesis: When Individual and Social Epistemology Diverge" Philosophy of Science 78(4): 657-677, which is online at:
August 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJim Lippard
Actually, Zollman has a number of relevant papers to that topic in addition to the one I just gave a link to, listed in the section of his website titled "On the social organization of science":
August 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJim Lippard
Some of the comments prefer a RSPC with Julia, or with Julia and Massimo. I'm presently binge listening RSPC in reverse order, so I can tell you that I really enjoy RSPC with Julia. I like her open style of asking lots of intelligent questions. I have also seen several videos with Massimo, however, and like Massimo as well. I expect RSPC is good with Julia alone, and was also good with Julia and Massimo. When I have finished listing to all the RSPC episodes, I will have to update my viewpoint.

Regarding Julia's question about narrowness in research scope as it relates to tenure, given the "publish or perish" dynamic in academic careers, one has to wonder if the constant need to produce scholarship immediately for publication does incentivize academics to pursue more acceptable standard theories. Julia also makes a good point that this narrowness does have the benefit of leading to additional replication of prior work in a variety of new ways that could lead to falsifying the original theory. However, in order to encourage more adventurous science, and possibly more productive science, perhaps we need to reform our tenure system to count wild guesses and unique ideas as meritorious work, even if they just yield a null result and fail to discover some new phenomenon or prove some new theory.

I read Julia's blogpost on postmodernism, as well as Julia's and Massimo's comments to that blogpost. I'm still not sure just what the heck postmodernism is, and I suspect it just doesn't make any sense at all. Postmodernism also seems to embrace some type of moral relativism, and thus lacks merit as a serious ethical philosophy.
December 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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