I realize now that my last post sloppily blends two distinct points. I noted first that insisting on “the” rightful place of science is analogous to a football coach following the same game plan for every opponent. Towards the end of the post, I continued my long-running complaint against science-as-foundation. I neglected to emphasize that any a priori role for science is a bad idea. Permanently removing science from its pedestal is no better than permanently keeping it there. Sometimes science needs to be on a pedestal, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the game will be won by handing us the ball and getting out of the way, and sometimes we need to sit on the bench. But I’ve said this before.
I’ve suggested here that there may be real-world consequences for adopting any fixed role for science in policy, whether that role is one of deification or demonization. In contrast, my last post emphasized principled reasons to oppose scientific exceptionalism. From the final paragraph:
Now all this can seem hopelessly academic and pointless. Surely nothing much will change if scientists adopt a different vocabulary. Carbon emissions will continue to rise, the oceans will continue to acidify, and rain forests will continue to be razed. New words alone will not solve these knotty problems. Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for honesty in public discourse, and something to be said against exaggerating one’s virtues and abilities. If nothing else, minimizing the science-as-foundation rhetoric may foster a more honest debate.
At some point I’ll have to detail some specific negatives of an inflexible view of science in decision-making. But this is enough for now.
For the second time in a row I’ll simply restate what I’ve said in an earlier post. While some will take this as an impressive lack of originality, I prefer to think that my blog is on the verge of a membership explosion and so I must introduce new readers to my earlier work. Hey, we all need our fantasies. Or perhaps the recent conference I attended connects to what I’ve been saying for a while and I feel the need to blog about it. At any rate, here it goes.
As I’ve noted before, science in decision-making is highly contextual. To use Jamey Wetmore’s examples, science necessarily plays different roles in abortion and climate change. The upshot of this is that simply asking about “the” rightful place of science sends us down on the wrong path. As any sports fan will tell you, each opponent demands a new game plan. You spend hours upon hours dissecting and document all strengths and weaknesses, accounting for injuries or suspensions, and mapping out hundreds of scenarios. Simply put, you have to really spend some time watching game film. It’d be lunacy to play a game otherwise.
We take the exact opposite approach with science. It’s predetermined as the foundation of policy, and we’re always searching for the rightful place. Even the supremely enlightened denizens of CSPO apparently believe that we should be engaged in this quest. I fail to see how this attitude differs from a football coach using the same game plan every time because he knows the rightful place for the running game. Why do we want the same for science?
Now all this can seem hopelessly academic and pointless. Surely nothing much will change if scientists adopt a different vocabulary. Carbon emissions will continue to rise, the oceans will continue to acidify, and rain forests will continue to be razed. New words alone will not solve these knotty problems. Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for honesty in public discourse, and something to be said against exaggerating one’s virtues and abilities. If nothing else, minimizing the science-as-foundation rhetoric may foster a more honest debate. That’s reason enough for me to make the switch.
Several months ago I suggested we need a new vocabulary to discuss science. From my post:
We need an intellectual framework which articulates there are instances when science is crucially important, instances when it is somewhat important, and instances when it is relatively unimportant. Some decisions heavily rely on science while others do not. Certain disputes are better resolved with politics rather than science and vice versa.
As I’ve said repeatedly, the very words we use impede a productive dialogue. Merely claiming science is the foundation and the basis of policy stacks the deck. Along those lines, I’m curious how “The Rightful Place of Science?” was chosen as the title of the conference I just attended. Given what I know of Dan Sarewitz’s views, I’m pretty sure he opposes the idea that science has a single, predetermined rightful place. So why use the definite article? Doing so only cements the idea that science does have a privileged and rightful place, something I’m sure Dan would like to avoid.
Trying to find the rightful place precludes the possibility of rightful places. As Jamey Wetmore noted, the rightful place of science depends intimately on the specific context. Indigenous farmers in central America, contestants in the abortion debates, and climate-change policy makers all use science in different ways (Jamey’s examples). Contorting these different uses into a single “the rightful place” is pointless and distracting at best. It would be best to completely do away with such a monolithic caricature. But unfortunately our public vocabulary precludes this from happening.
Jason Delborne raised this point towards end when panelists were debating whether science belongs on a pedestal. Delborne wondered whether simply using the word pedestal undermines some of our goals. The 3 or 4 longtime readers of this blog know that I answer in the affirmative. As usual, I found Wetmore’s response to be particularly insightful. He said that it’s perfectly fine to have science on a pedestal as long as we don’t put scientists there as well. I really liked that point, and I’ll have to think about it some more.
Over at the Galilean Library, they’ve been having a good discussion about my recent post on the similarities between scientific literacy and reading comprehension. I realize now that my use of global warming as an example may have caused some confusion. Let me try clarify with yet another tendentious sports analogy. (fyi, most of this comment has also been posted over at the above thread.)
I think what we mean by scientific thinking is a general critical thinking ability that can be applied across domains, even when you encounter a subject for the first time. It’s kind of like we expect someone who’s athletic to quickly pick up any sport. The key point is that in both cases, general skills confer only limited proficiency in a new task. An amazing basketball player will not necessarily be good at swimming or football no matter how athletic she is. Similarly, an accomplished chemist may not be able to reason about geophysics even if she is great at “scientific thinking.” Of course within certain domains it is easier to transfer skills. Tennis knowledge probably helps with badminton, and running the 100 m helps with running the 400 m and so on. But it’s a leap to assume that either a general athleticism or critical thinking ability can be applied everywhere.
So when Peter says “Anyone can develop a good understanding of scientific thinking simply by reading the scientific literature,” I would say that we really have to specify “the scientific literature.” You can understand the thinking in a field by reading its particular literature, and I’m not sure it will apply in other fields.
Has any of this made sense?
I know I still have to respond to the comments on my reading comprehension/science literacy post. I’ll get to that soon. Until then, I recommend you check out two things. First, read this beautiful post over at http://skullcrushermountain.blogspot.com/. LT eloquently describes the sadness of cleaning up his old grad school papers. Take this passage:
But going through the papers made me sad. It was like disturbing the cobwebs in long-dormant parts of my mind. I vaguely remembered many of the papers, and remembered why I had them, what questions spurred me to track them down and read them. Those questions remain unanswered, those avenues of research unpursued, at least by me. It is remarkable, really, how widely human curiosity has spanned. Whatever your question, chances are someone else has tried to find the answer. And yet, we never run out of questions, because every answer suggests more.
And later on:
I am not naive enough to believe that – even had I stayed and prospered in academia – I would have had time to follow all those untrodden paths. I knew and still know many harried and unhappy assistant professors. And it was partly the relentless drive to specialize that drove me away from the university. (It was also a desire to be more relevant – that push and pull I talked about here.) Grad school was a special time and when it ended, it was over regardless of what came next. Short of becoming independently wealthy and being able to do as I please, that existence has forever ceased to be an option. But the systematic asking of questions and iterative gathering up of knowledge to answer them is part of the core of my being, part of how I approach everything. It was simply writ large in my personal library.
As I said earlier, quite beautiful. This blog is the first time in my life I’ve tried to write often and (somewhat) systematically. In the past it was mostly for coursework or an ad-hoc basis. Hopefully one day I can build up to that level.
The second thing to check out is the blog for “The Rightful Place of Science?” conference I’m currently attending. You might be interested in it. Academics often talk about interdisciplinary collaboration, but this meeting is the first time I’ve seen it in action. I’ve already spoken with a dozen or so creative writers, observed a panel with a science reporter and a historian/philosopher, saw a talk by a PhD in religious studies, and watched two short plays about science. It’s really good stuff.
Check out this thread on my recent reading comprehension/science literacy post at The Galilean Library. They’ve got some great comments and insights, and even caught one of my grammatical errors! I’m surprised there aren’t more.
The author nicely decomposes global warming into 5 separate “issues”, which helps clarify the interplay between science and policy. I’ll post my comments there first and then bring it back here.
As a general rule, you should definitely be reading The Galilean Library. It’s a fantastic resource for history and philosophy of science. I wish I knew about it when I taught my seminar on science in society.
I don’t want to beat this issue to death, but I should draw attention to Matt Steinglass’s impressive take down of Sam Harris. It’s the type of argument that should be made more often. As I stated in my first post on the matter, Sam Harris gets some basic facts wrong. I recommend you read the post in its entirety, but here’s a highlight:
[Harris: But the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous.] They have? Name a single disaster that has resulted from “moral relativism.” Couldn’t, could you?
Harris continues in this vein later on to ask: “How many Westerners can Sam Harris find who defend female genital excision?” These type of careless assertions are scattered throughout Harris’s work. Without them, Harris wouldn’t have much to say.
Take his TED talk. Starting at 10:25, Harris has the gall to say that “our intellectual community” generally doesn’t criticize the burqa or wife-beating in the Middle East. Really, Sam? What intellectual community do you live in? At around 13:45, Harris continues to say that religion is the reason we talk about gay marriage but not poverty or genocide. Again…really, Sam? Apparently Harris hasn’t heard of the numerous religious groups doing just that.
I actually made a much longer list of the childish errors in Harris’s talk, but compiling them all would have been tedious.
E.D. Hirsch recently wrote a great review of Diane Ravitch’s last book on education reform.* In his review, Hirsch discussed some of his more controversial ideas on reading comprehension. Whereas most education schools stress strategies and process, Hirsch believes that comprehension depends primarily on background knowledge. No amount of key words and phrases will help you get through this article about the Falcons’ quarterback if you don’t understand professional football. Consider this paragraph towards the end:
Atlanta’s offense never really had a chance to get off the ground last year. The Falcons lost receiver Harry Douglas to injury early in training camp. Running back Michael Turner struggled early in the season and, just when he started getting on track, he suffered an ankle injury that hobbled him for about half the season. Backup Jerious Norwood also was banged up and the Falcons suffered several injuries across the offensive line.
It’s not enough to have a good vocabulary and reading tricks up your sleeve. You really need to know football. The words receiver, training camp, running back, season, backup and offensive line are meaningless otherwise. As Hirsch put it, “verbal ability is not, as the schools wrongly assumed, simply a how-to skill. It is largely a knowledge-based skill.” The upshot of all this is that a content-rich curriculum is really the only way to teach reading comprehension. For more on this, read Hirsch’s book (still on my reading list!) or check out his Core Knowledge Foundation.
While I’ve known about Hirsch’s work for a while, this recent article really sparked my thinking. Is scientific thinking similar to reading comprehension? The routine calls for better scientific reasoning tend to emphasize a way of thinking rather than specific knowledge.** But is it even possible to reason about a subject you know nothing about? I used to believe it was, but now I’m not so sure.
I’ve argued repeatedly that only IPCC scientists should discuss global warming. So I’d be a little inconsistent if I now said that your average Jane reason her way to understanding the issue. We might be promoting exactly the wrong message when we insist students should know how to “think scientifically.” We might be better off if we said that thinking scientifically is meaningless unless you know physics and chemistry.
* For those of you not steeped in education policy, here’s some background. Ravitch is arguably the most important and influential education historian of the past century. She originally supported both No Child Left Behind and charter schools before recanting those views in her last book. It’s caused quite a stir.
** My girlfriend Steph reliably informs me that science education professors debate content vs. process all the time. This debate doesn’t get much attention.
A couple months ago, Tyler Cowen kicked off a “top ten influential books” list. Ezra Klein, Conor Friedersdorf, Matt Yglesias, and Ta-Nehisi Coates (twice!) quickly followed, although Klein substituted magazines and blogs. Cowen even compiled a handy list of other bloggers’ books. I figure I should follow suit, although somewhat like Ezra I’ll include articles as well as books. And like TNC, I’ll list fewer than ten just to show my ignorance. Here it goes.
- Liberal Pluralism: My first introduction to political theory, William Galston’s book is quite accessible even though it was written by an academic. His eighth chapter lays out a great, simple history of the philosophy of education.
- The Practice of Liberal Pluralism: I have to include Galston’s second book. This phrase on page 5 on the limits of politics continues to blow my mind: “not parsimony in declaring truth, but restraint in the exercise of power.” This sentence alone greatly influenced my approach to the intelligent design debates.
- Frontiers of Illusion: Dan Sarewitz’s eloquent, extended critique of the social contract for science should be required reading for all Ph.D students.
- The Fifth Branch: Sheila Jasanoff’s dense treatise is one of the best on regulatory science and science in policy.
And now for the articles:
- The lies we must live with: Dan Sarewitz (yet again!) on science and religion is fantastic. It’s the type of writing I dream about doing. Check out these few sentences:
“As is so often the case when we frame a problem as bimodal, however, we get the problem itself wrong. The alleged debate between science and religion is an incoherent distraction from the real issue, which is how to most satisfactorily reduce the conflict, injustice, inequity, and suffering that seems so intimately a part of humanity itself.”
- The resolution of technically intensive public policy disputes: Harvey Brooks’ journal article is a classic, and offers one of the best explanations of the interplay between facts and values in regulatory science. He describes something I call the Harvey Brooks rule to help resolve disagreement:
“Differences among experts resulting from disagreements over the burden of proof might be “smoked out” by requiring each side in a controversy to specify in advance what type of experiment or evidence or analysis would convince them to alter their policy position on a controversial issue.”
(Brooks, H., The resolution of technically intensive public policy disputes, Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter 1984, pp. 39-50.)
- The politics of problem definition: The first few pages of this article draws a great analogy between policy and the Rodney King incident. The rest gets a bit dense, but is still insightful.
(Rocheford, D. and R. Cobb, Problem definition: an emerging perspective in David Rochefort and Roger Cobb (eds.) The Politics of Problem Definition: Shaping the Policy Agenda, University of Kansas Press 1994, pp. 1-31.)
There are definitely more that could make this list, but I’ll cap it here for now. I may update when I have time to go over my journal.
Since my last post a few weeks ago, the blogosphere erupted with reactions to this Sam Harris TED talk (video below). Harris strangely believes science can be used to resolve moral problems. Now Harris is wrong of course, and the most trenchant critiques were offered by Sean Carrol (see here, with follow-up here and here) and Massimo Pigliucci. Also check out this and this, and follow the endless links therein.
Taken together all of this does a pretty good job showing that Sam Harris is, well, just plain wrong. He gets his moral philosophy wrong, plays fast and loose with his facts, and makes some very sloppy arguments. The very premise of his talk–that morality is concerned with human happiness–can be refuted in any freshman philosophy class. If you don’t want to go through that, you can take a few days to read a simple introduction.* Some conceptions of morality prioritize happiness, some don’t, and there’s no real objective way to tell the difference. This is really very basic stuff. Harris is entitled to believe that happiness is the ultimate goal, but it’s hardly an objective claim amenable to scientific investigation. Believing otherwise, as commenter Fion eloquently put it, is “thunderously stupid.”
The common theme in all these critiques is how much Harris is empirically wrong. For all his bluster about the importance of science, Harris clearly can’t be bothered to follow scientific protocols and verify his claims. Rather than rehash what everyone has said about the TED talk (the above links do a fine job skewering him), let’s go back to a Times op-ed Harris wrote last July. Then as now, Harris’s argument is thunderously stupid. Consider this nonsense: “But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.”
As one of the responders put it, good thing no one told Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Maxwell, Dobzhansky, etc. that their faith would impede their science. Alhazen, the great Arab scientist, invented the scientific method because of his religion. The overwhelming data indicate that religion does not make science difficult, and believing otherwise is itself unscientific. Later on in the piece, Harris goes on to hope that Francis Collins’ beliefs “will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health.” Well, there’s no reason to hope or worry. We already have much evidence that Collins’ religiosity doesn’t affect his scientific judgment, and no evidence to think it will do so in the future. You don’t get to lead the Human Genome Project by being a scientific slouch.
I’ll make two observations, one general and another specifically about Harris. First, there’s something about these discussions that makes us want to have grand philosophical arguments instead of just looking at the evidence. I’ll have to expand more in a future post, but I find Harris’s entire line of argument quite strange. We don’t need to theorize on some alleged incompatibility between science and faith. We don’t need to pontificate on the nature of scientific reasoning and religious belief. We can just look at the damned evidence. If we do so, we’ll find hundreds of millions of data points all over the world who prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that religious and scientific thinking don’t necessarily conflict. Harris conveniently ignores this data to make some tedious claim on “faith as [it] relates to scientific inquiry.”
Now the 3 people who read this blog know I am nothing if not a fan of philosophy. But as useful as it is, there are times when we must avoid it. There are times when data alone suffices.
The second, and final, thing I’ll say about Harris is: who the hell does he think he is? Yeah, Harris wrote a couple books that got some attention. But as far as science is concerned, Harris is a third rate no-name hack who has accomplished absolutely nothing. And he has the gall to talk smack to the former director of the Human Genome Project! Are you kidding me? In the off chance Harris ever accomplishes anything of note, then maybe he can step on the same field as Collins. But until then, Harris lecturing Collins about scientific thinking is like me teaching Peyton Manning how to throw a football. In both cases we’re way out of our league and should really just shut the fuck up.
*Rox and Geremy deserve special thanks for getting me that book as a birthday gift. I am certain they will not read this post.