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.