Monday, May 30, 2016

Public “Science” Controversy: distrust is not the only issue.

“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That's a clear prescription for disaster.” -- Carl Sagan

No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong. -- Albert Einstein

I would never die for my beliefs, because I might be wrong. -- Bertrand Russell

Need Understanding Promote Acceptance? For as brilliant a scientist (and advocate of Critical Thinking) as Carl Sagan was, he makes a common, and erroneous logical leap: he appears to imply that to understand something or someone is necessarily either to condone or advocate it.

This is wrong. Understanding something (or someone) is not to concede it some kind of validity or authority. But should understanding a practice (or person) bring us to conceding, at least, a live-and-let-live attitude toward it?

Consider the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Or the regimes of Hitler or Stalin. We pretty much know why they did what they did. We have a good idea what their supporting religious and cultural beliefs and practices were, and how they were carried out. Should we thus adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward them? Certainly our understanding of what they were about would not engender any desire to see their examples repeated.

”Science” Perceived as a Special Interest. We live in a Market Culture. Caveat Emptor, folks! It’s not hard to understand why many people -- not necessarily only uninformed or ignorant people -- are suspicious of pronouncements about, say, global warming, safe vaccinations, or gender differences correlating with intellectual inferiority in science. They consider the sources, motivation and social contexts of the claims or claimants. All’s fair in love, war, and marketing. (See Bestowing Trust.)

Anyone with a memory reaching back more than twenty-five years -- or some acquaintance with historiography -- can remember when “science” was invoked to justify slavery, frequent wide-spectrum use of antibiotics and promiscuous electric-shock therapy, as well as systematic X-ray exposure to treat teen-age acne. And, don’t forget, tobacco companies could always find a scientist to insist that there was no link between smoking and cancer. (See The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists.)

But “Science” corrected itself, did it not? Yes, so to speak. But generally, only in areas that did not upset entrenched cultural hierarchies. It took World War II to convince most Americans that women could learn to weld and construct machines. That non-Whites, even Japanese, Native and African Americans could loyally defend a country where they had been treated with so very much less respect than citizens of European derivation. That not all, if some, human behavior was controlled by environmental reinforcement.

University presidents, even, were abashed to find out that common “grunts,” returning working-class GI’s, could actually use the GI Bill to acquire a profession. WWII Veterans on the GI Bill neither destroyed private higher education -- as predicted by James Conant -- nor turned universities into "vast hobo jungles" -- as Robert Maynard Hutchins warned they would.

The Elephant in the Room? Two Antagonistic Conceptions of Knowledge.

“Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” -- Karl Popper


In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.” -- Karl Popper

There is a deeper issue underlying the widespread skepticism about Science than suspicions about marketeering. It is that there are two competing concepts of knowledge embedded in our society. Many people, generally those with scientific training, or interest in scientific activity consider -- or at least give lip-service to the idea that -- scientific knowledge is an accumulation of hypotheses that are

a. tentative and correctible, (therefore, always somewhat evanescent);
b. most persistently survivors of critical testing; and
c. cross-disciplinarily or experimentally mutually reinforcing.
d. Predictions are, at best, estimated with high probability.

This is the notion Einstein and Russell are alluding to in their quotes in the epigraph. Because space is limited I will refer this notion, albeit imprecise, as the notion of “Experimentalist Knowledge,” eXk. Any "Faith" one has in eXk is conditional upon its producing outcomes that one values, or at least, that one can hopefully predict and control through testing and adjustments in theory and procedure.

Within a professional context, eXk is not only given often precise expression, but carefully practiced, because any resultant publication must pass peer revue. Questioning can be quite intense and rigorous (and, to less prepared souls, annoying.} In the marketplace, as we will see below, something else happens.

A Competing Tradition. “Eternalist Knowledge,” eTk is more ancient concept but still quite active today. It is given lip-service, at least, not only by adherents of certain religions, but also by many mathematicians, theoretical physicists, philosophers, mystics and "humanist" educators.

Eternal Truths are:

a. unchanging and eternal;
b. beyond being challengeable by “so-called tests”; and
c. often indifferent to other claimants to truth.
d. Predictions are either certainties, or speculations of lesser concern.

Within a professional context which typically includes non-professionally prepared participants -- e.g. a laity --, there is at most a perfunctory "peer review" with a bias toward maintaining the authority of the professional over the layperson. Questioning, unless ritualized, is not encouraged.

So if adherents of eXk warn about global warming, those of eTk reply in dismissal, “Our Faith in X (or Y or Z) is our assurance that we will be exempt from such travail.” Whether or not they are very devout adherents of eternal truths, many, if not most people’s ideas of science are as sophisticated as weather-forecasting TV permits. Snow, if predicted, often amounts to little. Any yet, despite mathematical models and predictions, we get surprises. In the communities where eTk dominates, lip-service is often reinforced by practices and rituals. But it, too, like eXk, can be transformed by the ethos of various markets.

Debating About “Science” in the Market: a slogan-fest.

The arc of the moral universe really is bending toward progress. -- Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc, (Henry Holt, 2015) précis of article appearing in Scientific American, Jan. 20, 2015

Professional interaction and market interactions are quite different, even among adherents of the same type, i.e. those of eXk, Empiricists, or those of eTk, Eternalists. The epigraph of this section is certainly strange. For appearing in a generally Empiricist publication it looks suspiciously like an Eternalist statement.

What is this "arc of the moral universe" in empirical terms? How does one determine the direction in which it bends? If one considers that 200,000,000+ people, mostly non-combatants, were killed in wars in the 20th century and that the slaughters continue into this, where might this moral universe be situated?

Or is this article's appearance in Scientific American merely meant to get Eternalist adherents to buy a subscription?

Consider the punditry published in even scientific journals about Global Warming, or Vaccination, or Spanking, or anything purported to be of Public Concern. There the rhetoric begins to heat up: individuals are treated as though having melted together into uniform opinion-blocks, e.g. Scientists, Religionists, Believers, Atheists, Conservatives, Liberals. Reifications and hubris abound. False consensus likely rules the day.


Does knowledge of either kind even matter here? Or is this game best described as Fools Fooling Fools?

C.P. Snow in 1959 adumbrated a scholarly schism into two basic cultures, the Scientific and the Literary. Has his prediction been visited not only upon Academia; but, with a vengeance, upon our national culture as a whole?


To examine these issues further, see Knowledge: The Residues of Practical Caution.

Cordially
--- EGR