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Science isn't the Enemy

Entry 1596, on 2013-11-23 at 17:48:31 (Rating 3, Science)

I recently listened to a podcast where a professional astronomer was lamenting the current lack of respect given to her profession and to science in general. I think there are two elements to this point which I need to mention. First, the level of respect varies from one country to another and between groups within a country. And second, where it does exist it is more an anti-intellectual bias rather than one against astronomy (or any other less "practical" sciences) or science in particular.

I'm sure we have all come across the people who are actually proud of their ignorance. Sometimes I talk about how amazing the work being done at CERN is and a person might respond with "oh, I don't know anything about that" with a sort of self-satisfied expression as if that made them better in some way. Or I might mention how incredibly useful modern smartphones like the iPhone are and they will reply "I would never use something like that" even though they might have just been talking about a situation where GPS or some other technology would have helped them.

So astronomers shouldn't take the lack of respect for them as anything personal. I work with technology in a university and I often get the impression people see that as inferior in some way to managing a shop, or being an accountant, for example. And I have often come across the situation where people assume my colleagues working in the more esoteric fields such as quantum physics or organic chemistry are just viewed as boffins working on their own pet projects and as being of no real use to society.

It hasn't always been like this. In the past scientists and technology professionals were often viewed in a similar way to pop music performers or movie stars today. They toured and gave lectures to packed halls, they demonstrated new inventions and discoveries, and their contributions were seen as a way to achieve a better future.

I think there are several factors which have contributed to the decline of these attitudes. First, neo-liberalism (you didn't think I'd get through a blog post without mentioning that, did you?) has emphasised the alleged value of commerce over other activities. Second, science has challenged many established views (evolution and cosmology challenge religion, and climate science challenges some established conservative dogma, for example) so some groups have attempted to discredit it as a result. And third, the rise of environmentalism - which I agree has a lot of positive points - has often had an anti-progress aspect as well, such as begin against nuclear power and genetic engineering.

None of these are good reasons to be anti-science. If science disproves your religious beliefs then change them or do better science to show the original stuff is wrong. If science shows your political ideas won't work then you should be able to change those views to fit without abandoning your core ideals. And if new technology doesn't fit in with your environmental philosophy then maybe it is time to have a more pragmatic approach to your cause.

Whatever the case, science and technology are not the enemy of any reasonable and rational group. If you find yourself opposed to them then I think there's a very good chance that it is you who has got it wrong.

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Comment 24 (3739) by OJB on 2013-11-29 at 09:17:00: (view earlier comments)

You are right that relativism has been a major problem in allowing pseudoscientific beliefs to gain credibility. I often rant about the damage religion has done but other non facts based beliefs can be just as bad. And yes, we can never know the real truth (as I have often said before) but that doesn't mean that all approximations to the truth are equally valid.

I didn't mean to say that anyone who disagrees with the scientific majority regards science itself as the enemy. Clearly that isn't true. Science progresses by minority views gaining support and eventually becoming accepted. But there are large groups who do regard science as the enemy: the majority of global warming deniers, creationists, etc.

We do have to be careful though not to accept every (real or imagined) disagreement with the accepted scientific consensus as a genuine attempt at advancing the truth. Some are, some aren't.

Why is "creationist" an ad hominem? It's just a way of labelling a belief. If I said someone was a quantum physicist that would tell you something about the way they think but it isn't an ad hominem. Many people have wacky religious beliefs but still do good science, however it is useful to know that they might be prone to certain biases.

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Comment 25 (3741) by richard on 2013-11-29 at 16:55:43:

Nice one - My point clearly wasn't to suggest that relativism has been a major problem in allowing pseudoscientific beliefs to gain credibility. Whether that is the case or not is a different discussion, but of course you aren't one to miss a good opportunity. :-) My point was simply that even the very good science is finding it harder to be celebrated than it once was, partly due to relativism.

The word 'creationist' itself isn't an ad-hominem at all, I agree with you entirely that it is a perfectly reasonable label to specifically describe a particular belief, like quantum physicist, who btw may or may not also be creationists.

It's the action of applying of the label to individuals or groups (without providing any evidence to back that up, as occured in the dialogue and Bergmens reference) that constitutes the ad-hominem. What's more, this still applies irrespective of whether the label turns out to be true, because what is happening is that the label is being used soley to convey meaning or implications (almost always negative) that are not (yet) justified with respect to the individual or group without supplying the required 'scientific evidence' that the label is even a fair one.

This is aside from the follow on obvious point that you quite rightly agreed to above, that many people have wacky beliefs (religious or otherwise actually is irrelevant) but still do good science. Therefore the application of the label alone (as was done), when used to help dismiss their scienctific claim is invalid and in fact completely unscientific. By all means disagree with a scientific claim, but merely attaching a label to the messenger provides no assistance to determining the truth of the claim whatsoever.

As for biases - all scientists are potentially prone to biases, which is precisely why ad-hominems (in any direction) never only hinder the dialogue. We should all be careful to stick to only an analysis of the evidence provided for the view. Can you explain WHY then is it even useful to know that they might be 'prone to certain biases', unless you are planning on using that information to depart from that pure evidence only analysis, to a more unscientific analysis? Cheers, Rich.

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Comment 26 (3742) by OJB on 2013-11-30 at 09:47:06:

Very few scientists are creationists and as the level of seniority in science increases religion and other superstition decreases. I'm sure you could find a few quantum physicist who might have some sort of belief in creationism but they don't use creationism in their science.

I gave you a reference to an expert work on the subject stating they are creationist. As per usual you just deny it. Whatever. Clearly you have to be good at denying facts to believe what you do!

The reason "creationist" is negative and "quantum physicist" is positive is because creationism is dishonest and ridiculous. That doesn't stop the label from being relevant.

They make a claim which is contrary to the facts. They make it in a popular book rather than a scientific paper. We naturally wonder why. Simple answer: they are creationists.

Yes, everyone has biases which is why any claim should go through the scientific process instead of being made in a book which has no fact checking at all.

These guys are clowns (there's a real ad hominem). Just admit it!

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Comment 27 (3744) by richard on 2013-11-30 at 12:14:38:

Clearly missed the point of this discussion, which was ad-hominems not creationists. Shame.

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Comment 28 (3746) by OJB on 2013-11-30 at 14:39:01:

Well no, the point of this discussion was my blog post about science not being the enemy. Alleged ad hominems were just a distraction.

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