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The Healer

November 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Will Saletan’s dated but still fantastic profile of 2012 Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka is worth reading:

Shinya Yamanaka, a scientist at Kyoto University, loved stem-cell research. But he didn’t want to destroy embryos. So he figured out a way around the problem. In a paper published five years ago inCell, Yamanaka and six colleagues showed how “induced pluripotent stem cells” could be derived from adult cells and potentially substituted, in research and therapy, for embryonic stem cells. Today, that discovery earned him a Nobel Prize, shared with British scientist John Gurdon. But the prize announcement and much of the media coverage missed half the story. Yamanaka’s venture wasn’t just an experiment. It was a moral project.

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Categories: Misc, Values

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.

Obama is a politician, not a philosopher

February 17, 2011 2 comments

I’m glad to see Ryan Myer blogging again after a long break. His recent post does a typically good job dissecting the Obama administration’s ratcheting up the value of a human life used in cost-benefit analysis and regulatory decisions. As Ryan notes, despite their quantitative facade, such calculations ultimately hinge on subjective, moral judgments. But as often happens in these situations, the Obama administration insists their actions “utilize the best available science in assessing the benefits and costs of any potential regulation.” Ryan asks for greater honesty:

It would be great to see the Administration taking an open, straightforward approach to this. They could just come out and make a very reasonable argument that, based on their values, they feel that human life should be more important than it was under Bush. Instead, they’ve disowned the decision entirely, hiding behind a scientific-seeming method.

I sympathize with this request, and I’ve repeatedly called for simpler, more honest arguments. But methinks Ryan is a bit harsh here. Obama has not “disowned the decision entirely.” Everyone is aware that these decisions flow from Obama himself. I’m also pretty sure that everyone already knows that with respect to environmental regulation, Obama values life more than Bush did. Moreover, greater regulatory oversight is a longstanding liberal policy goal and it’s no surprise that Obama has been following through on it. The values are already widely known and so I’m not sure how much benefit there would be to Obama’s publicly vocalizing them.

As much as I would like to see more nuanced public discourse about science in decision-making, it’s a bit much to expect that from elected officials. Obama is simply doing what it’s his job to do–push his agenda with the best tools available. For better and for worse, science is often viewed as one of the best tools. And so it’s not surprising to see Obama deploy it here. Especially since hiding behind science doesn’t seem to be hurting him (and may in fact be helping), I don’t see how he can do otherwise. Sure there’s a bit of grandstanding and p0litical theater there. But are we really surprised? We are are in fact talking about the President. Grandstanding and political theater comes with the territory. Careful arguments based on logical premises is ultimately the realm of philosophers, not politicians.

Unless its power is diminished, we really have no choice but to accept that science will be used as a cover for politics and values.

Against hypocrisy

August 16, 2010 8 comments

A couple months ago I was a bit too glib in some of my writing on basic research.  From my comment on Ryan’s blog:

I think it’s perfectly understandable and reasonable for scientists to [exaggerate our benefits].  Every other special interest group does so. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. Some would even say that healthy democracy requires special interest groups.

In the back and forth that followed, Ryan criticized this attitude as blithely accepting an outcome with potentially harsh consequences.  More money for genetic maps and global climate models may mean less for research on racial health disparities and adaptation.  The mundane gets sacrificed for the sexy while the public continues to believe in utopian promises, a meme that the science studies folks have pretty much beaten to death.

All of this is of course true.  Scientists do unreasonably favor basic research over short term need, and surely many important questions remain unanswered as a result.  I should not have so readily acquiesced to the current, imperfect state of affairs.  Lives are at stake after all.   And so we must push against scientists’ false promises, and we must highlight the opportunity costs of basic research.

But in making such arguments, as the science studies community so often does, they themselves ironically neglect more mundane and less sexy ones.  Yes it’s true that more biochemistry won’t necessarily lead to better health.  But it’s also true that those making this claim forgo logic and evidence for anecdotes and sloppy reasoning.  What most bothers me is not our ineptitude in solving cancer and global warming.  It’s that the lobbying done in my name brings with it distortions and half-truths that contradict the very qualities I allegedly embody.  How can we honestly advocate for better science education and data-driven decisions while also promoting the deranged belief that basic research is the source of technology?

Such carelessness is unbecoming of people who supposedly value reason and evidence.  In the end, potential negative consequences shouldn’t be the only reason to resist scientists’ exaggerations.  Protesting blatant hypocrisy is also a good reason.  In my view it’s reason enough.

Conflating science with morality

July 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Last week Ross Douthat had a wonderful post on the disturbing tendency to reshape moral and political disagreements in terms of science, thereby restricting debate and giving scientists an unfair advantage:

The culture of science has a bias toward action — if something can be done, scientists almost always want to do it, or at least want the right to do it, without any interference from the civil authorities. This bias is natural enough, and even salutary, so long as we recognize that it is a bias, and don’t allow ourselves to be bullied into thinking that it’s some sort of scientific law or testable hypothesis.But such bullying is commonplace: Throughout the stem cell debate, for instance, supporters of embryo-destructive research have consistently invoked the mantle of capital-S Science to close off what debate on what are ultimately moral and political questions, better settled in a legislature than a laboratory. In such controversies — and there will be more and more of them, as our technological capabilities advance — the problem isn’t exactly that scientific findings are being “spun” by one side or another. It’s that the prerogatives of science are being invoked on questions that science has no special competence to answer.

All of this will be old ground for fans of Dan Sarewitz.  What’s so dispiriting is that while Douthat, Sarewitz, et al. are most certainly correct, they (we?) keep losing.  Heartfelt appeals for honesty and nuance are weak opponents for possible cures to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.  Abstract appeals to improved democratic discourse will always lose to the probability, however minuscule, of concrete benefits.

Reversing the trend towards scientizing politics will not be easy.  It will certainly take more than eloquent op-eds and logical arguments.  The current situation exists in no small part because most of the scientific establishment–the professional organizations, the National Academies, the popular science magazines and so on–actively promote it.  They expend much effort and money to achieve their goals, and at this point they’re quite good at it. There’s nothing similar for the Dan Sarewitz’s of the world and there needs to be.

I realize these recommendations may place scientists in an unfamiliar position, one that many will find uncomfortable and somewhat distasteful.  Fellow scientists are not supposed to publicly question our primacy about stem cells or whether science really is the basis of policy.  But such debates will not improve unless our private disagreements on such topics are publicized and publicized widely.  As the education policy scholar Andy Rotherham said in a different context:

…history teaches us plainly that progress requires tension.    More recently Martin Luther King reminds us that the absence of tension is often a negative peace.  So at some level all this concern about tension misses the bigger picture in terms of what it usually takes to see progress for disadvantaged groups and how much of this is par for the course with change.

Andy spoke about education reform, but the same lesson applies if we substitute “more intelligent discourse about science” for “progress for disadvantaged groups.”  In both cases progress requires tension and disagreement.

Categories: Society, Values

Science, tolerance, and homosexuality

June 14, 2010 1 comment

William raised some good points on my last post:

Now, as for why we gay people might be touchy about whether we are EMPIRICALLY mentally well, OR whether maybe it is just by the grace of genteel, liberal, enlightened psychologists that we can be judged morally (but perhaps not scientifically) well – you’d be touchy too! Obviously, mental illness cannot be measured in centimeters, but I believe psychologists have some objective standards concerning what mental illness is and isn’t…Homosexual is a normal variant of human sexuality. It has always existed, and baring genetic engineering to eliminate it, it always will exist. The fact that homosexuality is not a mental illness is just that: a fact. It is not a moral judgment that allows us to politely TREAT gay people as normal when in fact, we believe that the question of their mental health is just unknowable.

I think there are a few issues getting conflated here.  First, to what extent is homosexuality as mental illness an objective scientific judgment? And second, to what extend did a greater empirical and scientific understanding provide the catalyst for greater tolerance? We could agree on the first point while still recognizing that moral values as well as  science advanced the cause of tolerance.

I admit I may have overstepped the bounds of trans-science with this example, although the continued discussion at Sanchez’s post shows it’s far from settled.  I’ll punt on that issue for now to address the more interesting question of science and tolerance.

The empirical rigor provided by science may indeed help overthrow prejudice.  We can and should apply sound research methods to try reach a conclusive answer.  But we should remember that these questions are not studied in an an imaginary world by imaginary scientists.  They are studied by actual human beings, some of whom possess the very biases William tells us science can eliminate.   To believe science will set us free therefore requires us to believe that all-too-human scientists will both conduct sound experiments and interpret the data correctly.  But if the history of craniometry is any guide, we can’t be counted on to do so.  More often than not, sloppy science and faulty analysis has bolstered and supported those in favor of discrimination.  Some would argue that the pattern continues today.

Which is why I’m a little perplexed that William so opposes the notion that moral values along with science can help advance gay equality.  Yes, it may be that homosexuality is objectively not an illness and gay mental health is an empirical, knowable fact.  But it’s important to remember that it wasn’t until at least 1973 that we recognized these facts.  Until at least 1973, the best available data indicated that homosexuality was, in fact, an illness.

So wouldn’t it have been a good thing if moral judgment forced us to treat gays equally regardless of empirical data? Wouldn’t it have been a good thing if genteel, liberal, enlightened psychologists insisted before 1973 that (in Sanchez’s words) “we shouldn’t stigmatize dispositions and behaviors that are neither intrinsically distressing to the subject nor harmful, in the Millian sense, to the rest of us.” And finally, wouldn’t it have been a good thing if we realized that tolerance is an intrinsic good that should not be held hostage to the vagaries of an ever-changing scientific consensus?

William is ultimately too eager to embrace science and too quick to dismiss morality in the service of gay equality.  Both can play a role, and if Sanchez is correct, both did play a role. Admitting this does not undermine the case for tolerance.  Rather, it recognizes that some things in life are too important to be left to science alone.  Opposing discrimination is one of them.

Categories: Values