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Go Ye Into All The World and Make Disciples of Them

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…”
Matthew 28:19 (English Standard Version)

If there is one thing that unites Evangelical Christianity, it’s The Great Commission: Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to going out into all the world and to bring them the gospel. So enthusiastic about this command are some strains of Christianity that a friend recently walked out of his bedroom stark naked, only to be surprised to find that his front door was open, and that two representatives of the local church were smiling at him and asking if he had time to talk about the Good News.

This urge to tell others about your perspective, with the aim of persuading them of it’s benefits as a world view, is common as a social behaviour. If we accept that humans are tribal animals, then its in our nature to both want people to share our value system, and to distrust people who do not. I’m sure that anyone who’s watched the news will be familiar with this, because it’s at the core of any dispute between any two groups you care to name. Participants will each try to besmirch the name of the opposing group whilst promoting the advantages of their own.

I feel the same pattern can be observed in much the same about some of the periodic science communication conversations that come round time and time again. You know the type, the stories which appear in specialist and public press, claiming that, for example, science literacy levels are embarrassingly low, or that governments are spending too little on science and technology or, today, that hard-to-reach groups are disengaged or unengaged in conversations about science. In short, the bread-and-butter of the interface between science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and publics. Today, I see that Australians are jumping on this band wagon, complaining that communicators need to work harder to engage the unengaged.

The unspoken predicate for all these rhetorical attempts is that STEM is so important that in order to validate your existence as a consumer of its outputs, you must have a deep and meaningful understanding of, and views on, a wide range of STEM topics. If this assumption were not lying at the bottom of the discussion, it would be impossible to make a statement like: “But worse than any of the above [recoiling in horror or laughing heartily]: you may not have reacted at all [to news about STEM strategies]” (Cormick, ibid).

Consider the implications of that sentence.

If you recoiled in horror to news that people don’t do well on exams for which they haven’t prepared, then you are in Our Club. Alternatively, if you laughed at such ignorant fools who care so little for the universe around them, then we also approve of you, for you value Science.

If you celebrated that a government chief scientist is promoting the strategic consideration of STEM issues within a governmental context (and, by the way, I might argue that’s what a government chief scientist is paid to do, whether in Australia or Britain) then you are fighting the good fight, sister. If you shook your head, mildly embarrassed that such a basic step had yet to be properly implemented, then you too are a committed to the fight against the legions of uneducated darkness who threaten civilisation.

If, on the other hand, it passed you by, perhaps because you were distracted by the slightly-over-reported news of the birth of Royal Baby Prince Diana (it’s what she’d have wanted), or by news that supposedly-democratic states misuse surveillance technology, or by the introduction of fascist homophobic policies into Russian law, then you are a sinner! You will burn in hell for not caring the degree to which the government funds STEM development in universities. Your soul is forever damned for putting your immediate priorities (feeding the family, going to work, playing Candy Crush Saga) above the Gospel of STEM. AS Cormick puts it:

That’s three in every ten people lined up at the check-out at your average local shops who probably haven’t once thought of Brian Cox nor dinosaurs nor space, yet alone basic chemistry, in the last year!
(Cormick, ibid)

I know! Thirty percent have not been saved! 3 in 10 of the population are trapped, forever doomed to not appreciate STEM. Worse, they don’t even understand what they are missing. So sinful are they that they cannot see the light, they deny the truth of the beauty of science, they say things like (brace yourselves, for this is horrifying to the True Believer):

Why do you think it so important that we know about your science?
(quoted in Cormick, ibid)

Such infidels hold deeply heretical perspectives, for example, worrying more about whether something is safe and works than how it works, or take sacrosanct rituals such as The Science Lesson and fail to see the inherent beauty in it. They might even take their teachings from people who aren’t Qualified Experts, and thus form an understanding that doesn’t appreciate the true, rational basis of the Truth being conveyed unto them.

Now, obviously, I am slightly paraphrasing and I am reframing the arguments, but if one were so inclined, one might find it difficult to differentiate between the rhetoric of the Science Zealot from that of the enthusiastic preacher from a pulpit of a Sunday morning.

There is a serious issue here: the less socioeconomic advantages a person has in life, the less engaged with STEM issues they tend to be. This to me is entirely understandable: the valency of a carbon atom tends not to be incredibly valuable information when you are working three minimum wage jobs, nor do you tend to have time to watch the latest Epistle from St Brian of Cox. When your education was punctuated with bullying because of your sexuality, when your ethnicity acted as a boundary in the classroom, or when your parents weren’t home and you had nothing to eat, I frankly find it unsurprising that STEM doesn’t seem like a priority.

This serious discussion, in which the failure to engage with STEM is placed at the door of the unengaged sinner, doesn’t address the underlying problem of social inequality and instead goes for the traditional Evangelical approaches to conversion:  send more preachers out into the places where the poor wretched delinquents congregate, and TESTIFY the Word of the Lord, sorry, promote the benefits of STEM unto the blasphemer unengaged until he (or she!) sees the light.

Such a conclusion about outreach (also what churches call it) can only be supported if you accept that without Science people cannot truly be citizens in society. It’s a fundamentally scientistic position in which we take a small step from the Creed of Scientism “everything that is worth knowing is science” to “unless you know science, you have no worth”.

I, for one, cannot accept that conclusion. I love science, I love the way in which science has transformed the ways in which I perceive the world, and I love the ways in which the world is transformed by science, but science is far from the only way to perceive the world, and it’s a privileged perspective at that.

Because if we accept Evangelical Scientism, we are but a step away from instituting a Science Literacy Inquisition. We are but a step away from using our privilege to oppress people whose perspectives differ from ours. And we are a mere step away from knocking on people’s doors at nine o’clock in the morning to ask them if they’ve heard the Good News about evolution.

Goldman Conjecture: How do I know who to believe?

I heard Massimo Pigliucci on For Good Reason nearly a year ago (episode 1 and episode 2) talking about his book Nonsense on Stilts: How to tell science from bunk.

I’ve just finished reading the book (well, technically, listening to it in my car), and it’s a reasonable, Skeptical discussion of philosophy of science and epistemology. Massimo Pigliucci has three doctorates (genetics, botany and philosophy of science), and writes clearly about the issues, ranging from the demarcation problem (what is science and what isn’t?) to how science works.

However, it was his penultimate chapter on expertise which promoted me to write this post. In it, he advocates five principles which are adapted from Alvin Goldman’s Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?. Here they are (paraphrased):

  1. What is quality of the arguments presented by the experts (eg. are they citing evidence or using fallacious arguments)?
  2. Do the arguments agree with the arguments and evidence presented by other experts in the field (eg. do they agree with the consensus)?
  3. What recognition of expertise does the person have (eg. do they have a relevant academic qualification or other recognition)?
  4. What are the biases affecting of the experts, and how do they related to the positions they are espousing (eg. if they’re researching drugs, are they funded by pharmaceutic companies)?
  5. What is the experts success rate like (eg. do they have regular/recent/relevant peer-reviewed research published)?

In the book, Pigliucci compares an advocate of creationism with an advocate of evolution, and unsurprisingly his conclusion is that the evolutionist is more worthy of trust than the creationist. He also uses the criteria against a single person – Deepak Chopra – and concludes that he falls at the first hurdle: his arguments aren’t really arguments at all.

My problem with the first this is the context in which such assessment is supposed to occur. Outside of a few professionals, who is expert on assessing and weighing evidence? The fact is that most debates in the public sphere are decided on the basis more of effective rhetoric than expert application and assessment of inductive and deductive logical patterns.

The second assumes that people have access to the information necessary to assess the quality of the evidence, and assumes that it is necessarily possible to identify consensus. To Pigliucci’s credit, he does point out that consensus can be wrong, but I’d question whether developing – or even developed – science is quite so amenable to objective analysis, not least because information may be hidden behind paywalls, technical language or mere obscurity. It also assumes a desire to check this information.

[edit: added this paragraph at 2115] It also occurs to me that this requires you to know who is an expert in order to be able to identify who is an expect. Seem like this could result in a recursive loop in which every expert can only be an expert when the comparator expert has also assessed!

The third assumes that most people know what is, or is not, relevant to the issues at hand. For example, which type of biologist should I ask about evolution? Why is a biologist not the right person to talk about abiogenesis?

The fourth, it seems to me, can be problematic on both sides of the equation and requires a subjective decision as to which biases should be included and which should not (for example, is a persons religious affiliation relevant to a discussion on the development of life?).

Finally, the fifth has the same weaknesses as the second, and in addition assumes that people have the ability to assess the relative success of different papers and publications in the knowledge ecosystem.

Although Pigliucci’s writing is a good introduction to epistemology and sciphi, it very much preaches to the choir. His clear disdain of post-modern thinking is amusing (but doesn’t seem to have evolved much since Sokal), but I would hope – as Pigliucci himself encourages – that readers treat his conclusions with some, dare I say it, skepticism. After all, the people who most need to think critically are the people least likely to read it…

Why science cannot always be trusted…

Ever wondered why people don’t think science is straightforward and why you can’t just apply logic, ignore emotions and solve scientific problems? Wondered why the scientific method isn’t straightforward, and why people find it so difficult to differentiate science from non-science?

It’s because it’s complex, and such a point of view has the following issues:

  1. Theories cannot be reduced to observations.
  2. Scientific method is not merely logical entailment.
  3. Observation is not theory-neutral.
  4. Theories do not cumulate historically.
  5. Facts are theory-laden.
  6. Science is not isolated from human individuals.
  7. Science is not isolated from society.
  8. Method is not timelessly universal.
  9. Logic should not be privileged.
  10. There is no gulf between fact and value.
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