Thursday, February 7, 2013

the driving forces behind science denial

OK, this is just going to be an opinion post, as opposed to a rigorously detailed exposition of any field of science.

The major fields for science denial these days are evolution and climate science.  Both fields have seen the development of think tanks with "scholars" generating science-like papers to generate ideas to be funneled into the public discourse.  It would be interesting to track the path of memes in this way, but I'll put that off for another day.

The motivating forces behind these two types of anti-science are quite different.  The anti-evolutionists have traditionally been religiously motivated.  While it is true that many people in the field of evolution still hold religious beliefs of one sort or another, I think it's fair to say that the main issue here is that the theory of evolution (and its cousin the theory of common descent) run into this resistance because they fly directly in the face of the creation stories of Christianity.  (Am I tipping my hand by using the word 'story'?  I think it's slightly more neutral than 'myth'.)

So, when it comes to evolution, religion is the 900 pound gorilla in the room.

When it comes to dealing with religion, there appear to be two main approaches.  There is the Richard Dawkins/PZ Myers approach, which simply goes after religion from the front, i.e. simultaneously fighting the culture war as well as trying to gain acceptance for the science.  Then there is the less confrontational approach, represented by people like Chris Mooney and Francis Collins, and by Stephen J. Gould in the past, who say that there is no reason to make a decision between religion and science, and that it's counter-productive to predicate acceptance of evolution on a victory in the culture war.

My personal opinion on this matter lies somewhere between these two simplified accounts of these strategies.  On the one hand, I don't feel a desire to fight an all-out war on religion simply to get science more widely accepted.  My perspective is that I come from a religious family (even though I am not personally religious any longer) and know from personal experience that there is no need to target religious beliefs if one's immediate goal is to get science accepted.  I said I come from a religious family, but I also come from a very scientifically literate family.  And aside from myself, there are several individuals in my family who are at least as well-versed in science as I am, and yet have no problem whatsoever reconciling science and their religious beliefs.

On the other hand, I don't think arguments along the line of Gould's "non-overlapping magesteria" are terribly useful. For one thing, I've never ever heard the word "magesteria" used except for in the context of Gould's argument.  (Aside: if I google "magesteria" I get 131k hits, while if I google "magesteria -gould" I only get 82.7k hits, which implies that a full third of the time this word is used, its in the context of Gould's argument.  I'm not sure "magesteria" is a more legitimate word than "lorax" or "sneetch."  But I digress.)

But aside from the awkward usage of an obscure word, I worry that trotting out Collins as an example of a "scientist that can be trusted" is not necessarily helpful towards the greater goal of getting people to understand empiricism in general.  Also, I tend to resent the implication that his opinion should be cared about more because he's religious.  At some point we need to recognize that the large majority of Ph.D. scientists are not, in fact, religious, and to the extent they are, they are religious in fairly minimal ways.  (I.e. Christian scientists are far less dogmatic than, say, Christian Scientists.  Hmm.  Mary Baker Eddy really didn't make it easy for us to discuss this topic, did she?)  So I would really like people to become a bit more evidence-based in their thinking.  The reason evolution holds up is because of the evidence, not because of the authority of Francis Collins.

Having said that, there is some reason to believe that the presence of Francis Collins in this debate is certainly a positive for people who fight for science.

On to climate change denial.  This is a field driven not by religious forces so much as it is driven by corporatists, esp. those in the energy industry (read: oil industry).  These people, like their predecessors in the tobacco industry, who spent decades resisting any and all publications pointing out the link between cigarette smoking and cancer, are intentionally trying to obfuscate scientific products solely for the purpose of their personal financial gain.  These people are, unfortunately, far more dangerous than evolution deniers and possibly more dangerous than tobacco science deniers.  All of the available research indicates not only that global warming is happening right now, but also that it's been accelerating in recent years, and that its effects are being profoundly underestimated.

The fact that climate change isn't so directly in opposition to traditionally held religious beliefs gives one hope that there will be more tractability on this issue.  After all, there really is no shortage of scientific evidence in the form of simple measurements of temperature to support the global warming theory.  To deny global warming, it's become increasingly necessary to allege that data is being forged as part of some world-wide conspiracy (presumably to plunder that fountain of wealth known as Grant Money).

So, while the threat posed by anti-science is much greater vis-a-vis global warming than it is in evolution, the presence of so much fairly obvious data (January days in the high 60s Farenheit) gives me hope that public opinion will be malleable here.

The problem is that there's a huge lag between turning public opinion and getting the government on track to address a problem in any meaningful way.  The American government has no policy in place for dealing with carbon emissions other than to whistle past the graveyard while blaming the Indians and Chinese.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Posting more often

Starting to do a better job getting into the science policy community of DC.  And one piece of advice I've gotten is that I should blog more - just to get acclimated to the process and to produce a body of work that people can see.  So I think I'll keep going with this blog and try to dramatically increase the posting pace from the historical average of once per six months.  :)

But as always, we'll have to keep an eye on this Blogger interface, which isn't as WYSIWYG as it used to be.

Some topics I hope to write about soon

  • Global warming - what gets me about this topic is how so much of the criticism simply ignores the theoretical basis for the theories regarding global warming.  That global warming is happening is an inevitable consequence of the increase in CO2 content in the atmosphere.  To deny global warming is to deny everything we know about heat reflection.
  • Vaccines - actually I don't have much to say about the science here.  
  • Fisheries - I think this is a neglected topic.  
  • Charismatic megafauna - why I love pandas and polar bears and don't care so much if some beetle species go extinct.  
Beyond that there are many issues in energy, medicine, computer privacy, and whatnot that will come to mind.