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Natural Reflections Review, Part I

September 30, 2010 6 comments

I just finished Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s wonderful book Natural Reflections: Human Cognition ad the Nexus of Science and Religion, and I can’t recommend it enough.  One of the best parts is that it’s pretty short (~150 pages) and quite readable–way less dense compared to so much I’ve read in the social sciences.

Smith spends much time examining, and debunking, some recent efforts to explain religion/religious behavior entirely in terms of evolutionary psychology and genetics.  More strongly, natural sciences alone offer minimal explanatory power for religion in particular, and human culture and behavior more generally.  Our beliefs, attitudes, and cultural patterns depend intimately on context and cannot be traced solely to evolved cognitive processes.  As she says eloquently on p. 66:

In seeking to account for any complex behavioral, cultural, or social phenomenon, a good starting assumption would be that it was the emergent outcome of multiple factors of various kinds, operating at many scales and levels, interacting over time.  The starting assumption of evolutionary psychology and “cognitive” approaches to religion, however, is that the best way to explain any behavioral, cultural, or social phenomenon is by demonstrating that it is the outward effect of the activation of some underlying mental mechanism.  A methodological tradition of this sort puts a premium on ingenuity with respect to the hypothesizing of mental mechanisms and, by the same token, encourages negligence with respect to the investigation of possibly relevant environmental, experiential, and developmental factors.

Smith goes on to argue that these recent analyses of religion, dubbed the New Naturalists, have a very misguided view of what natural science offers.  In trying to construct a grand unified theory of religious behavior, they cherry pick data, distort the available empirical evidence and, in short, engage in some of the very same unscientific practices they accuse the religious of.

Smith does not use these observations as a cudgel with which to bash the New Naturalists (although I wish she had!).  Rather, she wishes to highlight that both science and religion are ultimately derived from a similar set of cognitive processes and functions, and there is much overlap between what we call science and what we call religion.

Another message that I found appealing was her insistence that natural science does not provide the only or even best  means with which to query religions.  There are “intellectual aims and purposes other than those associated with the natural sciences and, accordingly, of other marks and measures of intellectual value” (p. 143).  That is, while evolution and genetics are useful and illuminating, they do not tell us everything we want to know.  So-called interpretive approaches (history, sociology, cultural anthropology) also have a role.  On p. 111:

Although our general structures and modes of operations as biological creatures have been strongly shaped by selection pressures, not everything we do as particular persons involves the furthering of our own reproductive fitness or the perpetuation of our genes.  We may also remind ourselves that, as creatures who continue to develop throughout our lives, we are affected by particular experiences that shape our responses, purposes, judgments, and actions…no less significantly than our biological endowments.

In the end, this was a fascinating and eloquent read. I’ll have a big more along with a few minor complaints in a future post.  This has gone on long enough.

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Categories: Book Reviews, Religion

Science and politics

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

The always insightful Ta-Nehisi Coates criticized Adrian Fenty for sloppy campaigning in his recent loss in the DC Democratic primary (emphasis added):

I think when you’re in a pitched battle over something you care deeply about, it’s often tough to remember that it isn’t enough to be visionary, perceptive, or prophetic. Leadership, in a democracy, isn’t simply a matter of identifying solutions. You also have to convince a critical mass of people to either trust you, or at least trust your solution.

Having not lived in the District in some years I could well be getting this wrong, but those two quotes, and yesterday’s reporting in the Post, paint a picture of an administration that believed being right was good enough.

And later on:

We can all agree on the substance of that statement–eight percent of eighth graders doing math at grade level is criminal. I suspect that many of the people who voted Fenty out would also agree. But Michelle Rhee isn’t merely in public education–she’s in politics. Presumably, she understands this as she was out, last week, doing political work for Fenty. In that context, the implicit reasoning here–that being politically deft necessarily equals sugar-coating–is rather amazing. In a democracy, persuasion is a necessary aspect of politics. Large-scale reform certainly complicates persuasion, but the two aren’t antithetical…
…That is an essential part of politics–not alienating your allies, and converting would-be enemies, all while pushing the right solutions.
I’m wondering how much this message can be applied to science.  It’s true that some of our campaigns are also an exercise in politics, and global warming comes to mind.  It’s clearly not not so much about getting facts right as it is about persuasion. We’ve also known for a very long time that many Americans are scientifically uninformed, and anti-regulatory sentiments aren’t new.  We should have been aware of this landscape and navigated it accordingly.  That said, scientists aren’t politicians and it’s understandable–and desirable–we don’t act as such.

How to think about science

September 28, 2010 1 comment

Via Matt Nesbit (in a post I’ll also try to comment on in my 3-day blogging rampage), I’d like to draw your attention to a wonderful series “How to Think About Science” from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  The host interviews sociologists, historians, philosophers, and even a couple scientists.  Unfortunately, the podcasts don’t seem to be available for download and so you’ll have to listen to them from your computer.  I’ve already listened to the first interview with Steven Shapin, co-author of the allegedly ground-breaking book “Leviathan and the Air-Pump.”

I can’t speak for the rest of the series just yet, but this first installment is excellent.  Shapin stresses the need for a more nuanced image of science to be more widely communicated, something I feel the STS community woefully neglects.  He also points out that the term “public understanding of science” can be taken to have two distinct meaning.  On one hand, it can mean that the public should know or accept scientists’ view of the world.  Alternatively, it can also mean that the public should know how scientists produce knowledge of the world.  A subtle difference that can lead to vastly different outcomes.

A couple other interesting tidbits from the hour-long piece:

  1. During the science wars, Shapin asserts that a few hypersensitive scientists confused the demystification of science with “catastrophic undermining.”  I like that phrasing.
  2. There are two conflicting, yet consistently promoted images of science.  Either scientists are superhumans capable of solving any problem (critiqued by both Ryan and myself), or science is simply organized common sense.  Both images are incorrect.

That’s it for now.  Stay tuned for an upcoming review of Natural Reflections.

Categories: Communication, Literacy, STS

Indifference not scorn

September 28, 2010 4 comments

Sorry for the long break–I’ve been traveling the past two weeks.  I did, however, keep a mental list of topics I wanted to raise.  Given that I’ve also been trying to blog twice a week, I’ll have to write 6 posts in the next 3 days to make my quota for the month.  That would be an unprecedented rate of blogging for me.  So here it goes.

A few weeks ago Joe Romm highlighted a Nature editorial decrying the “anti-science strain pervading the right wing in the United States.”  In typical Rommian fashion, Nature neatly divides the world into two camps.  The “anti-science streak” in the American right must be countered by more effort on the part of the “defenders of science.”  As the science communication scholar Matt Nisbet has noted, such hyperbolic rhetoric itself undermines public engagement with science.  While Nesbit is probably correct, I think this analysis misses a deeper point.

I have a nagging suspicion that even if we followed Nisbet’s guidance and dutifully eschew “war” and “anti-science” language, public engagement wouldn’t improve that much.  Not because the public is scornful, but because it is indifferent.  Scorn requires substantial emotional and intellectual investments.  When it comes to science, most people simply don’t care enough.  Our neglect of this uncomfortable middle ground is perhaps the biggest casualty of our use of exaggerated metaphors.  Scientists are left unprepared to grapple with the brutal fact of our own irrelevance.  That most Americans can happily go about their lives ignoring both science and scientist and, for the most part, pay no serious penalty.

To truly improve public engagement with science, I think we have to acknowledge that indifference rather than antipathy underlies public attitudes towards science.  We also have to acknowledge, rather painfully, that this indifference may even be valid.  Ultimately, we have to acknowledge that science may just not be that important.

Quote for the day

September 7, 2010 3 comments

From page 9 of Natural Reflections:

…contemporary research and theory suggest that the cognitive tendencies that give rise to much of what we call religious behavior, from the positing of superior invisible beings to the performance of ritual sacrifices, are indistinguishable from the capacities and dispositions that give rise to what we call culture more generally.  Thus it appears that we could not eliminate the conditions responsible for religion and, with it, the recurrent emergence of some of its most troublesome features without risking the loss of much that we value in culture and, with it, the conditions for human existence.

Another point may accordingly be added.  Given the fundamentally ambivalent operations of cognitive conservatism as described here, it is not surprising that lists of the individual costs of religious commitment and of the many crimes against humanity committed under its sway can always be countered with equally long and impressive lists of the personal benefits of religious faith and of the many achievements for humanity performed by those inspired by it.  Not is it surprising, given the demonstrated general power of cognitive conservatism, that the final tallies in such cost-benefit assessments appear to have everything to do with the prior cognitive commitments of those doing the tallying.

Categories: Religion, Society

The narrowing of public discourse

September 3, 2010 2 comments

It’s been a busy week and I haven’t had the chance to blog as much as I would have liked.  Next week I’ll continue reviewing the Hernnstein-Smith book.  I’ll also start trying to discuss the narrowing of public discourse in science debates.  That is, certain beliefs and viewpoints are automatically neglected, marginalized, or demonized.  I was largely inspired by Glenn Greenwald and Conor Friedersdorf (see “Who are the real crazies in our political culture?”  and the piece in Newsweek).

While both of them discussed foreign policy and the war on drugs, I will try to stick to science as much as possible.  I know this this tact avoids the topics most people would actually find interesting.  But I promised myself that I wouldn’t let this blog become a forum for my political rants.  I hope the inclusion of the uber-liberal Greenwald balances my previous reference to the conservative Daniel Larison.

Categories: Misc, Public Discourse