Archive for the '[ScienceinSociety]' category

The Difference Between Religion and Woo

In one of my first couple of years as a physics professor at Vanderbilt, fellow astronomer David Weintraub introduced me to another faculty member we ran into at lunch. He was from one of the humanities departments— I forget which. When David introduced me as somebody who worked on measuring the expansion rate of the Universe, this other fellow's immediate response was that the only reason we astronomers believed in the Big Bang theory was because of our Judeo-Christian cultural bias that there was a moment of beginning.

I was quite taken aback. I tried to talk about the Cosmic Microwave Background, light element ratios, and so forth, but he waved them all off. I mentioned that his assertion wasn't even historically correct: earlier in the 20th century, the steady-state model (the Universe has always been as it is now) was if anything the dominant cosmological model. His response to hearing the postcard description of the Steady State Universe: "I like that one better." Scientific evidence be damned....

It was really quite an eye opener. I had run into a living stereotype of the post-modernist deconstructionist, who believes that absolutely everything is a social construction. He had quickly judged the intellectual output of a field of study he was ignorant about based on his own bias and methodology. While I suspect that scientists have overreacted to post-modern deconstructionism, this fellow showed me that at least some of what we overreact to is real. There are those who have convinced themselves that absolutely everything is a social construction. Thus, the only people who are studying what really matters is those who deconstruct said social constructions; everybody else is ultimately fooling themselves and playing around with their "science" and so forth while ultimately being trapped by their cultural blinders. Of course, this is a load of hogwash, and I am led to understand it's not even really what most post-modern deconstructionist types really believe.

Why do I mention this? Because I see a lot of those who call themselves skeptics making exactly the same mistake— judging another field of intellectual inquiry on what they believe to be the one true way of reason. They dismiss things as trivial or childish based on criteria that fail to be relevant to the field of human intellectual activity they're trivializing. Specifically, there are a lot of people out there who will imply, or state, that the only form of knowledge that really can be called knowledge is scientific knowledge; that if it is not knowledge gained through the scientific method, it's ultimately all crap.

When I was in first or second grade, I wrote a story about a boy named Tom Tosels who found a living dinosaur. It was very exciting. It was also, well, a story written by a 7-year old, and not one who was particularly literarily talented. Now, from a purely scientific basis, it's difficult to distinguish this story from the poetry of Robert Frost. It's words, written on a page, out of the imagination of a person (a person named Robert, even), telling a fictional story. What makes Robert Frost so much more important to human culture than the stories I wrote when I was 7? It's not a scientific question, but it is a question that is trivially obvious to those who study literature, culture, and history. And, yet, using my 7-year-old story to dismiss all of literature as crap makes as much sense as using the notion of believing in a teapot between Earth and Mars as a means of dismissing all of religion.

If you cannot see the difference between Russell's teapot and the great world religions, then you're no more qualified to talk about religion than the fellow who thinks that cultural bias is the only reason any of us believe in the Big Bang is qualified to talk about cosmology.

Phil Plait has written three blog posts on his famous "Don't Be a Dick" speech to TAM, a meeting of skeptics. (The posts are here, including a video of the talk, and here, including links to bloggy reactions to the talk, and here, including personal reactions to the talk.) Some of the comments on the posts— including, ironically, many of those who accuse Phil of being too vague and denying the effect he discusses really exists— are excellent illustrations of what he's talking about. Some of these comments (and even some comments that are supportive of his general message) illustrate the philosophical blinders that you find on many in the skeptic movement. In the third post, there is a picture of Phil hugging Pamela Gay, a prominent pro-science speaker, a leading light of the skeptic movement... and a Christian. There are a number of responses that express the sentiment of commenter Mattias:

When will we see Phil hugging a medium — calling for us to include them in our mutual skepticism about moon-hoaxers, homeopathy or, lets say, dogmatic religion?

There are quite a number of skeptics who openly say that they cannot see the difference between religion and belief in UFOs, Homeopathy, or any of the rest of the laundry list of woo that exists in modern culture. Even those who agree that ridiculing people for their beliefs is not only counter-productive, but just bad behavior, often don't seem to think there's any difference between the brand of religion practiced by Pamela Gay (or by myself, for that matter) and Creationism, or even things like UFOs, mystical powers of crystals, psychic powers, and so forth. The assertion is that being religious is a sign of a deep intellectual flaw, that these people are not thinking rationally, not applying reason.

It's fine to believe this, just as it's fine to believe that the Big Bang theory is a self-delusional social construction of a Judeo-Christian culture. But it's also wrong. Take as a hint the fact that major universities have religious studies and even sometimes theology departments (or associated theology schools, as is the case with Vanderbilt). Now, obviously, just because somebody at a university studies something, it doesn't mean that that thing is intellectually rigorous. After all Cold Fusion was briefly studied at universities, and ultimately it was shown that there was basically nothing to it. But it should at the very least give you pause. The fact that these studies have continued for centuries should suggest to you that indeed there must be something there worth studying.

Creationism is wrong. We know that. But the vast majority of intellectual theologians out there would tell you that creationism is based on a facile reading of Genesis, a reading that theology has left as far behind as physics has left behind the world-view of Aristotle.

Astrology is bunk, because it makes predictions about the world that have been shown to be false. Likewise, Creationism is bunk, because it makes statements about the history of the world and the Universe that have been shown to be false. But religion in general, or a specific instance of one of the great world religions in particular, are not the same thing. It is true that lots of people use religion as a basis for antiscience. But there are also lots of people like Pamela and myself who are religious, and yet fully accept everything modern science has taught us. There are people— theists— who study those religions whose studies are based on reason and intellectual rigor that does not begin with the scientific method. Yes, there is absolutely no scientific reason to believe in a God or in anything spiritual beyond the real world that we can see and measure with science. But that does not mean that those who do believe in some of those things can't be every bit as much a skeptic who wants people to understand solid scientific reasoning as a card-carrying atheist. Pamela Gay is a grand example of this.

Don't be like the post-modernist so blinded by how compelling his own mode of thought is, that you come to believe that the only people who are intellectualy rigorous and not fooling themselves are those who use exactly that and only that mode of thought.

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Argument from Authority vs. Trusting Experts

Some folks who argue against anthropogenic climate change argue that folks like me who accept the evidence that it's happening and it's something we should worry about are guilty of bad science. Specifically, that we're accepting arguments from authority, rather than evaluating the evidence.

While argument from authority works in some lines of reasoning, it's anathema to science. Science usually proceeds by starting from a set of assumptions or postulates, and seeing what results-- but those assumptions and postulates are always subject to test, and if experiment or observations show that they're wrong, they have to be tossed out. We believe something is true in science because the experiments or observations have show it to be true, not because some designated authority has asserted that this is how things are.

However, if you perform reducto ad absurdum on this argument, most of us have no right to accept the vast majority of the scientific knowledge that the human race has amassed. Have you, personally, verified Einstein's theory of Special Relativity? OK, I have seen the moons of Jupiter making their way around Jupiter, so I've confirmed Galileo's observation disproving Geocentricity... but have you? And if you haven't... what right do you have to assert to Geocentrists that they're full of it, and that the center of mass of the Solar System is really close to the Sun? Huh? Huh?

Over at the RealClimate blog, a guest commentary by Anderegg et al. make this point in a way that struck me as rather nice:

We accept and rely upon the judgment and opinions of experts in many areas of our lives. We seek out lawyers with specific expertise relevant to the situation; we trust the pronouncement of well-trained airplane mechanics that the plane is fit to fly. Indeed, the more technical the subject area, the more we rely on experts. Very few of us have the technical ability or time to read all of the primary literature on each cancer treatment’s biology, outcome probabilities, side-effects, interactions with other treatments, and thus we follow the advice of oncologists. We trust the aggregate knowledge of experts – what do 97% of oncologists think about this cancer treatment – more than that of any single expert. And we recognize the importance of relevant expertise – the opinion of vocal cardiologists matters much less in picking a cancer treatment than does that of oncologists.

They don't even reducto to as absurdum a point as I did-- whereas I was talking about replicating the experiments yourself, they're just talking about reading the primary literature. Of course, in reading the primary literature, you're already taking some things on faith. (Little-f faith, not big-f Faith.) Specifically, you're trusting the ethics and competence of the investigators who performed and confirmed the experiments. You're trusting that it's not one big collusion and conspiracy amongst the writers of the primary literature to promulgate a falsehood on the rest of the world.

We do that constantly, every day, and it's only rational to do that. This includes climate change. The vast majority of people who know anything about climate change are convinced about the existence of anthropogenic climate change, and that it's a problem. The details and the severity of the problem remain under debate of course, but the consensus that there's something to worry about is very strong. Accepting and acting on their expertise is not resorting to an argument from authority; it's just trusting the experts to know their field of expertise. Saying that we shouldn't advocate national and global response to the problem of global warming without each of us individually verifying the evidence ourselves is tantamount to saying that it is unwise to get on an airplane without learning enough to verify the mechanical fitness of the plane first.

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