Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Spheres Are in Commotion

Not to be anti-scientific, but:

“Once science has been established, once a scientific truth emerges from a consensus of experiments and observations, it is the way of the world,” [Neil deGrasse] Tyson told Colbert. “What I’m saying is, when different experiments give you the same result, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science: It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.”

In other words, science is the one true religion now.

Or something.

Actually, that isn't (necessarily) what Tyson is saying here, but it is how his statement is being taken:  that science is about "truth," while "religion" is about "faith," which means believing what you know ain't so.  (and listen to part two, and Colbert's response to Tyson's assertion that "the idea of the multiverse is cool."  Colbert:  "So is the idea of the Force.") (UPDATE:  Yeah, I didn't think that's what he meant.)

No wonder so many otherwise intelligent people are so confused about ethics.  Because, frankly, what Tyson says here about science could be equally said about torture.  Whether you believe in it or not, its proponents insist, it works.

Some say that about religion, even.  Which one is right?  And why?  Depends, first, on what is being declared as "working."  Medicine "works," except in the field of psychiatry, where everything does something, but nothing cures like an antibiotic (the true foundation of modern medicine).  Even then, it works so long as we don't abuse it.  Super bugs, anyone?   (And, of course, what science has established is absolutely, undeniably true, and what science has established as probably true, is not just a matter of the definition of "true," but of what little has been declared undeniable, and what how much is still a matter of Hume's synthetic statements (v. analytical).  In other words, as Hume pointed out, analytical statements are unremarkable ("This stone is heavy") and synthetic statements are unprovable opinions.)

Which leaves us with science not really telling us much about anything except how to make technology that runs on fossil fuels or leaves behind heavy metals and waste products that poison others, or generally costs a great deal which we are still expertly shifting onto others (how many of us live near the waste dumps of our computer products alone, or among the refineries of the Texas Gulf Coast, where cancer rates are higher than anywhere else in the state?  But who cares as we drive our cars and use our plastics with such abandon we through them away after one use?  We treat our citizens the same way....).

Again, not to disparage science per se but as Auden said in another context, torture works, too.  That doesn't make it an unalloyed good.   Torture, of course, is an evil; science, per se, is not.  But if the fact that science "works" is its best feature, then it doesn't have many good features at all.  Or that we certainly need more than science.

Just sayin'......


  1. Please, please turn off autoplay on the videos you have inserted!

  2. I like Tyson, but he veers dangerously close to Scientism (BigScience *Alleluia* as Religion).

    The Geordano Bruno segment on the first ep of the new "Cosmos" typified that. No, Bruno wasn't a scientist . . . but hey, we can make him into a martyr (instead of just a murder victim) for BigScience!

  3. If I still went to those kinds of blogs and people started in on this like the commenters at HuffPo, I'd throw the terrier into the pidgeons by noting that if the standard for something being valid was it "working" then celibacy works to prevent any number of ills. Which would be as popular an observation as..... celibacy.

    Neil D.T. sells an extraordinarily unaware and romantic version of science, which does, frequently, work but only for those kinds of things it can work for. What it can't do, it can't do at all.

    Since I refuse to do Facebook I couldn't comment at HuffPo. If I had I'd have noted to those who scoffed that the bible was "written by men" that science is also written by men and, so, it shares the limits of human abilities. Which, in fact, isn't something they want to hear anymore than a fundamentalist wants to hear that Moses didn't write the first five books of the Bible.

    I've become convinced that one thing the writers of scripture got right is that God communicates to us through history and, as your excellent post the other day said, through the consequences of our actions. And, even with those continual and hard lessons, people are mighty dim at learning the lessons of those, why, even scientists are constantly ignoring what they know are the predictable results of actions they either do themselves or which they get paid to lie about the predictable results will be. Pay, income, profit, those are all, obviously, stronger than science since they suffice to defeat the stated purpose of science so often, to such horrific results. Only scientists could never use science to find out why they shouldn't do that. I think the 49% of scientists who poll as atheists are probably even less able to resist temptation to do that than the 51% who believe in God or some Force. Which could explain a lot, an explanation that might work. Is it true because of that?

  4. A few comments/responses from a scientist and applied mathematician (namely, moi)

    In other words, as Hume pointed out, analytical statements are unremarkable ("This stone is heavy")

    I think that Godel, et al, have shown that analytical statements can be quite remarkable. I guess though the truth of the statement "analytical statements are unremarkable" depends on your definition of "remarkable". BTW, I am not an expert on Hume -- would "analytical statements are unremarkable" be a synthetic statement?

    Which leaves us with science not really telling us much about anything except how to make technology that runs on fossil fuels or leaves behind heavy metals and waste products that poison others

    But science can also tell you that burning fossil fuels is maybe not such a good idea and also show you exactly what heavy metals can do to you (people were poisoning themselves with heavy metals long before modern science). Science can also tell you that the claims of "Social Darwinists" are bull-hockey: evolution does not always produce optimal results (c.f. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photorespiration). But you are right, ultimately, science cannot get at objective truth: in fact when you start taking science as the source of truth, you might start missing some of the finer points about how contingent scientific results actually are (since when do "different experiments give you the same result"?) and fall victim to mis-applications of science like "Social Darwinism".

  5. Alberich, you have to allow those of us in the humanities our near occasions of hyperbole. That's a privilege asserted so often by the sci side of things so much more often. Though you are right. I've always held that environmental science, poorly funded and largely ignored by the powers that be, is the most important of all the sciences. You should hear my sister-in-law, the environmental scientist, talk about that.

    About Social Darwinism, it hasn't, actually, been purged from what is called science by mainstream scientists but is continually asserted in association with natural selection. I've always meant to write about the post-war assertion of eugenics, of the most primitive racism, from scientists as eminent as Francis Crick. And by many who I think just barely qualify as scientists, such as W. D. Hamilton and Richard Dawkins. I have come to believe that as long as natural selection is held to be the only allowable frame in which to talk about evolutionary science, some form of eugenics and Social Darwinism is inevitable, as is the Malthusian economics that it was derived from. If Darwin had understood that the food shortages in Britain that inspired the state-funded Parson Malthus to come up with his theory that led directly to the horrific New Poor Law, were the result of the dispossession of the poor in favor of the aristocracy and the well off, he may never have framed evolution that way. As it was, he took Malthus's assumptions as being self-evident facts of nature instead of the artificial dispossession of the many in favor of the few. He, of course, was one of the few, himself.

  6. Alberich--

    I did engage in hyperbole, and knew I was trying to get away with something when I did it. My point was not that science is bad, however (it did come across that way; mea culpa, mea maxima culpa), but that it is not an unalloyed good.

    Not that the latter was (necessarily) Tyson's point, either; but it's being blathered about that way, especially as a riposte to the usual ideas (usual among a vocal minority, admittedly) about what "religion" and "faith" are.

    I'll agree science is corrective, over time; but that's in the realm of the abstract. In the realm of the concrete, it is no more self-correcting than any other human endeavor. It may point out correctives, but it doesn't enforce them. So the presumed "superiority" of science within the terms of Tyson's statement is an hyperbole that I answered with my own.

    Although two wrongs do no make a right....

  7. TC--

    Yeah, when science finally corrects itself, I expect Dawkins and all his works to slip beneath the waters of our attention. I think he'll eventually be seen to have been as important to genetics and biology as Carl Sagan was to cosmology.

  8. I don't think your (RMJ) point came accross that science is bad. And as to hyperbole, I can't complain about it, as I myself do not avoid hyperbole -- I just prefer litotes ;)

    Anyway, TC: agreed about the environmental sciences being underfunded. FWIW, many of us figure that my field (biophysical chemistry) only gets the funding it does because our research has the potential to benefit the drug companies.

    As to "natural selection is held to be the only allowable frame in which to talk about evolutionary science", it depends upon what you mean by "natural selection" and "evolutionary science" (and for that matter what you mean by "only"): a lot of evolutionary studies cannot even be done seriously without considering that much genetic variation is NOT the result of selection of any sort but rather due to genetic drift. And notice what always gets left out when Social Darwinists co-opt evolutionary theory (which co-option was done even by Darwin himself, AFAIK): variation -- if you don't have variation, you don't have anything from which to select. And again: evolution doesn't always produce optimal results and, moreover, evolution oftentimes acts at the population-level and a society that doesn't take care of "the least of them" may not be a society that survives long and hence may not pass its genes/memes forward ... so natural selection doesn't even really argue for Social Darwinism as much as certain scientists, from Darwin forward seemed to have thought it does. Even Dawkins' key scientific (as opposed to his, IMHO unscientific, scientism) insight tends to undermine his meta-scientific opinions: if evolution operates at the level of genes, then those behaviors, including altruism, that allow a population to robustly grow and maximize the survival of even "the least" of its members, promote the survival of genes within the population. A population filled with Randian Social Darwinists ready to go Galt at a moment's notice is not a population that will keep its genes/memes propagating.

    I tend to think science is particularly self-correcting: look at how quickly quantum theory was adopted when classical mechanics failed to explain blackbody radiation, for example. I would say that science is hardly a repository of truth, but the arc of science bends toward truth ... and oftentimes bends much quicker than the arc of justice. Unfortunately, because the arc of justice takes so long to bend, there are many people who are eager to take advantage of whatever science tells them is "the truth" and whatever tools technology gives them to wreck havoc.

    And yes, science is ultimately a human endevour like any other human endevour. Scientism is pernicious and damaging both as a philosophy and to science itself, in part because it ignores this fact.

    Well ... I guess I am more prone to hyperbole than I'd like to admit.


    As to Dawkins and Sagan: I would say some of Dawkins' early works in genetics will stand the test of time (albeit only as synthesized with the work of others, such as Gould, with whom Dawkins disagreed on so much), but his scientism will indeed "slip beneath the waters of our attention". As to Sagan, he may not have been a top flight scientist, but his work in understanding planetary atmospheres does shed light on how bad global warming can be and how fragile our environment really is. And his popularization of science is something to be respected. I may not agree with Sagan's religious views (and he was certainly ignorant of aspects of religious history), but he also was very clear in terms of the role of belief in science and the degree to which technology gives us an even greater power to destroy ourselves. Dawkins' science may hold up, but his popularizations will not hold up as well as Sagan's advocacy will hold up.

  9. Alberich--you know better than I about science (and thanks for your comments on evolution; very enlightening). I know Dawkins from his popular works, and I've never been a fan of "selfish gene" theory.

    If he has made true contributions to science (and he must have; Oxford is not dazzled by fools), I accept it is so. For the rest of what he's done, we agree on that, too.

  10. I think science is cool. It and faith are not mutually exclusive, which is a point of Tyson's that I appreciate.