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Hypocrisy happens

June 30, 2011 8 comments

Cogitating some more on “The Politics of Demarcation” by Paul Newall and Michael Pearl, I understand their dismay when scientists don’t stick to the values they promote. I get it. Paul and Michael want to right some wrongs, and they do so by highlighting scientists’ shortcomings. Shoddy analysis and cherry-picked data are bad and should be attacked. It’s especially hypocritical coming from the alleged paragons of reason. When we see those awful things happen and say nothing, we’re almost as guilty as if we did it ourselves. Irrationality and sloppy logic anywhere is a threat to rationality and sound logic everywhere. Again, I get it. I too have made similar arguments.

Paul sums up the attitude here (emphasis added):

Ultimately what this discussion suggests is that if the adoption and use of poor arguments is to be lamented when undertaken by those advocating intelligent design, surely those opposing it must hold themselves to a higher standard?

And Michael:

However, is the Creationism/ID issue the sort of circumstance that warrants the abandonment of the principle of philosophical rigor?

Noting that the setting is a legal/political one does not itself justify the abandonment by philosophers of the devotion to argumentative rigor to which they are presumed to be devoted. The Creationism/ID matter is anything but a harrowing circumstance; so, as exactly what are philosophers operating when they so willingly sacrifice the philosophical for the sake of the political? Are they anything more than window dressing?

Although I’ve done so myself, I’m starting to think this is a bad approach. Why exactly should scientists hold themselves to a higher standard? If the standard in question requires them to always make rigorous arguments, it’s clear that scientists never subscribed to it. In this context their highest standard is preventing ID from being taught in science classrooms.

The window dressing comment similarly misses the point. It’s not that scientists don’t value rigor. It’s that sometimes other things are more important. Like everyone else, scientists have context-sensitive desires and goals. At times these desires and goals conflict. Philosophical rigor is not the only, or even highest, principle.

We keep expecting scientists to be different than anyone else. For our public invocations of precision, evidence, and logic to be applied to everything we do, all the time. But why should this be so? When have scientists ever been uniformly consistent in this regard? Does anyone actually maintain an existence of strict, perpetual rationality? Perhaps the biggest change in my thinking over the past couple years has been my often grudging acceptance that I cannot do this. I don’t think anyone can.

I know we all want more intelligent, rational public discourse. Discourse that abides by some basic rules of logic and evidence. Unfortunately, this situation does not exist, and never has existed. In our frustration at those who violate these precious rules, who thwart our attempts to improve public debate, we take on a familiar role. We attack their arguments, emphasize their flaws, accuse them of duplicity. We keep fighting this fight even though we know there will always be too many fallacies, distortions and misconceptions to respond to. Those of us who care for public rationality know we’re in a losing battle.

Perhaps the futility of this battle is a sign it shouldn’t be fought in these terms to begin with. (I’m thinking as I write here, so bear with me.) Careless, bad arguments are an indelible feature of democracy. They will always be there. So perhaps the better way improve public discourse is not only to criticize these bad arguments. We should also acknowledge that there will be times when we all have to argue for something we deeply care about. And in those instances, it’s likely that our arguments will not be completely rational or logical. We are human after all. The exigencies of fighting for our values will ultimately trump academic concerns for reason.

This painful process of accepting our own irrationality should, I hope, temper the outrage when we recognize it in others. Yes, we still should criticize bad arguments, and especially from those who should know better. And yes, we still should note when scientists don’t live up to their standards. When we make such accusations, however, we should do it with the knowledge that at times we too exhibit such hypocrisy. It happens to all of us.

Belated response to the politics of demarcation

June 29, 2011 Leave a comment

It has been two months (an eternity in blogging years) since Paul Newall and Michael Pearl insisted that the issue of teaching intelligent design in schools should not be resolved via demarcation. While Paul is on solid ground when he deconstructs the sloppy philosophical arguments used by the anti-ID crowd, I take issue with his analysis of the implications (emphasis added):

The implication is thus that if arguments for demarcation criteria continue to fail, if these failures are seized upon by intelligent design advocates and if there are better reasons to dispense with this approach altogether, it is likely that objections to intelligent design on some other basis will be more successful at least in part because they are more philosophically rigorous. Criticising an insistence on demarcation, far from demonstrating a lack of political understanding, actually returns the issue to one of science instead of philosophy and provides a service to the debate rather than acting as an irrelevance or hindrance.

I’m not sure I follow. Scientists are already pretty successful in applying demarcation to intelligent design, however erroneously they do so. They do, after all, win the important cases. And so it’s not clear what they would gain by trying to make their arguments more philosophically rigorous. Their primary goal is to prevent ID from being taught in science class, not to get an A+ on a philosophy paper.

Along those lines, what does it mean to provide a “service to the debate?” Most scientists would say that nothing undermines “the debate” more than confusing ID for science, and thus we must employ any and all arguments–even philosophically suspect ones–to ensure said confusion does not persist. Paul, Michael and I are surely among the minority who so desperately believe that the current form of the debate serves as a hindrance. Mainstream scientists are happy to keep it in these terms,especially because they seem to be successful at it.

There’s an irreconcilable mismatch of goals here. Philosophers–and the former space physicists who have defected to their camp–think truth, sound arguments and civil discourse should hold greater sway. Scientists disagree. More than anything else, they care (not too unreasonably) about preventing ID from entering science classes. Even if most scientists understood the demarcation problem (I’m pretty most have never even heard of it), and even if they agreed with Paul that methodological naturalism cannot be used to demarcate ID (most passionately and honestly believe that alone suffices), I bet their approach wouldn’t change much. For better or worse, this issue has always been fought in terms of demarcation. Unless something drastically changes, that’s the way scientists will continue to fight.

Modern science is really hard

June 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Down in the comment weeds of a recent Roger Pielke Jr post, I came across a great Megan McArdle piece on, among other things, the difficulty of translational research. It is, quite simply, very hard to take a bioscience discovery and turn it into a useful drug. Here is former NIH director Elias Zerhouni:

When he arrived at Sanofi, “I thought the solution would be simple,” Zerhouni said at a recent R&D press event attended by the Health Blog. He thought the answer to the company’s R&D woes was to make it more creative and more nimble, like a small biotech.

But he realized that small biotechs are no more successful than large drug makers at coming up with new drugs. “At the end of the day, there’s a gap in translation,” he said.

Zerhouni’s observation reminded me of this graph of the productivity slowdown in pharmaceutical R&D. I wonder how much of this trend can be attributed to “all the low-hanging facts having been found.

Along those lines, here is Atul Gawande commenting on medicine today:

We are at a cusp point in medical generations. The doctors of former generations lament what medicine has become. If they could start over, the surveys tell us, they wouldn’t choose the profession today. They recall a simpler past without insurance-company hassles, government regulations, malpractice litigation, not to mention nurses and doctors bearing tattoos and talking of wanting “balance” in their lives. These are not the cause of their unease, however. They are symptoms of a deeper condition—which is the reality that medicine’s complexity has exceeded our individual capabilities as doctors.

The core structure of medicine—how health care is organized and practiced—emerged in an era when doctors could hold all the key information patients needed in their heads and manage everything required themselves. One needed only an ethic of hard work, a prescription pad, a secretary, and a hospital willing to serve as one’s workshop, loaning a bed and nurses for a patient’s convalescence, maybe an operating room with a few basic tools. We were craftsmen. We could set the fracture, spin the blood, plate the cultures, administer the antiserum. The nature of the knowledge lent itself to prizing autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency among our highest values, and to designing medicine accordingly. But you can’t hold all the information in your head any longer, and you can’t master all the skills. No one person can work up a patient’s back pain, run the immunoassay, do the physical therapy, protocol the MRI, and direct the treatment of the unexpected cancer found growing in the spine. I don’t even know what it means to “protocol” the MRI.

Categories: Misc