Sunday, February 25, 2007

More on the Marcus Ross Case

 
Read what Janet Stemwedel has to say in Scientific and unscientific conclusions: now with pictures!.

It's going to take me a while to figure out how to respond but I think she's make a big step toward clarifying the issue. What it boils down to is this. Is it possible to be a scientist and hold "beliefs" that flatly contradict scientific evidence? Janet suggests that it is possible because your "beliefs" can be entirely separated from doing good science.
But, it seems to me that the aim of the scientific enterprise is to find ways to draw inferences that move beyond the beliefs of any individual scientist. Leaving the "belief" boxes out of the flowchart doesn't seem to remove any of the steps required for building sound scientific conclusions. Scientific conclusions may well affect the belief structures of individual scientists, but that's a matter of their own personal growth, not required step in the construction of the shared body scientific knowledge.
I wonder if this point of view can be extended to philosophy? Janet talks about Popper in her posting. She doesn't mention Kuhn. Lets imagine a philosophy student who is preparing a thesis in epistemology. Assume that the student writes all the right things about Popper and Kuhn in her thesis. Assume that this students then gives public lectures where she claims that Popper advocated scientific revolutions and Kuhn was really a proponent of falsifiability. In other words, points of view that are contrary to fact.

Is it fair to ask this student about her "beliefs" during her Ph.D. oral? Is it fair to say that she is a good philosopher as long as she keeps her strange contrary-to-fact beliefs separate from the work she does on campus?

14 comments:

  1. Is it fair to say that she is a good philosopher as long as she keeps her strange contrary-to-fact beliefs separate from the work she does on campus?

    I wonder if this is actually a particularly useful question to ask. It would seem to me (a non-scientist) that the judgement comes from the body of work, and should not be modified by any knowledge (or lack of knowledge) about any "unacceptable" personal beliefs.

    It sounds to me like treading on shaky ground to bring "beliefs" into it.

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  2. I am never surprised anymore when people hold contradictory views. Some (many very religious) are completly rational about most things, but when it comes to religious views they can get strange. This isn't just religious people though. I know a person who swears if you put warm water in an ice cube tray it will freeze faster than cold water. I told him that thermodynamics doesn't support his view, I performed the obvious experiment to proove it wasn't true, but he still maintains it's true! Go figure!

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  3. I find this issue to be very interesting, and I've been trying to think of an example of personal beliefs affecting the judgment of professional work that I'd view in a positive light.

    The only examples I've come up with are negative. One obvious example is the slagging of various Soviet composers on the basis that their music was junk because of their perceived political views. Another would be the vanishingly small probability of a non-religious individual being elected US president.

    None of these are really comparable, I recognize. However, I can't find an example where bringing one's "beliefs" into the question of judgment of professional worth is a good thing ...

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  4. The example of the philosopher is, I fear, not apropos to the Ross case, because we expect philosophers to engage in counterfactual thinking. With scientists, it's not so clearcut.

    However, there remains a solid argument in favor of broad tolerance for scientists maintaining counterfactual beliefs. Consider that Mr. Darwin held strong religious beliefs. It is impossible to produce a scientific case in favor of the existence of a deity. Therefore, Mr. Darwin clung to counterfactual beliefs. Should we not therefore banish him from the community of scientists?

    It's not too difficult to concoct a defense of Mr. Darwin, but the problem is that any such defense relies upon principles that, taken to their logical extremes, can also be used to defend Mr. Ross.

    The situation here is analogous to our notions of free speech. We tolerate all sorts of hateful speech, not because we like hateful speech, but because we know that there's no clear way to differentiate between obviously hateful speech and merely disagreeable speech -- and we know that disagreeable speech is sometimes valuable to our society.

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  5. Yeah, I wouldn't ask her about her beliefs at all. Instead, I'd ask her to defend her ideas about Popperian revolutions, with examples from Popper's writings. And if she refused, I'd quote a few of her public comments on Popper to show that she apparently did think it was an important topic.

    Same with Ross. I'd have grilled him on those 65 million year+ dates he was talking about.

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  6. I suppose the argument can be broken down to, "What does a Ph.D mean?" If a Ph.D is only a recognition of work achieved, then Ross (and any other hypothetical crackpot that bluffs their way through a dissertation) should be recognized for the work done, but any further work that doesn't meet standards should be treated as such.

    If a Ph.D is a recognition of expertise, then Ross et al should have the doctorate taken away, as would a job promotion be taken away if someone lied about their merits.

    I tend to view a Ph.D as the first category, but that is based on speculation. What is the goal of a Ph.D, recognition for work done, or expectation of work to come?

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  7. I have some sympathy with Ross on the grounds that the devil can quote scripture. When I talk about theology with my Christian friends, I do so on the basis that if we were talking about God on the available evidence, and according to the rules of theology (eg taking seriously what other theologians have said) then certain consequences would follow.

    Now, if I, as an unbeliever can do this -- or (to take a more serious example) if we allow that Bertrand Russell could give an accurate account of the thought of Thomas Aquinas in his "History of Western Philosophy" -- then I don't see why Ross can't give an accurate account of what scientists ought to believe; of what would be true if materialism were in fact true.

    Now I, like everyone else here, believe that materialism _is_ in fact true. But I don't see why it should in principle be impossible to improve the structure of materialistic thought even if you don't believe that it is, ultimately, real. There's a good argument that this in fact is what Copernicus did.

    So the really interesting question becomes, what would Ross have said if PZ had been one of his examiners? Again, to put it another way, suppose PZ goes off to the Jesuit university in Rome and passes all his exams. Should he be awarded a degree in theology?

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  8. Is it possible to be a scientist and hold "beliefs" that flatly contradict scientific evidence?

    No.

    But I think I'm going to play devil's advocate for a moment here, and ask a countering question: what is Marcus Ross actually doing? Is he denying the evidence? Or is he choosing, when outside the lab, to not accept the assumptions that underlie the conventional interpretation of the evidence?

    If a sample of igneous rock shows a given ratio X of certain isotopes, then a geochronologist applies several well-known deductions and assumptions, and concludes that the rock is Y million years old. Fine with me. I've seen those deductions and assumptions, I accept them as valid, and so I accept the final result as valid. I've spent lots of time over the years reciting such arguments at creationists and demanding rational, scientific counter-arguments -- not that I've ever gotten one. Personally, I don't believe one is possible. But here's the kicker: there are assumptions involved in interpreting any evidence, as much as we might want to think otherwise. Suppose that for every scientific paper he writes, Ross is mentally attaching a rider of "given certain assumptions." Is he actually being dishonest when he changes his thinking-mode and uses different assumptions to interpret the same evidence when he's outside a scientific environment?

    To put it another way, consider these two questions:

    1) Is there any evidence that ghosts exist?

    2) Do ghosts exist?

    Is it possible to give different answers to those two questions without being dishonest?

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  9. wolfwalker asks,

    To put it another way, consider these two questions:

    1) Is there any evidence that ghosts exist?

    2) Do ghosts exist?

    Is it possible to give different answers to those two questions without being dishonest?


    Bad analogy. Here's a better one.

    (1) Is there any evidence that the Earth is only 10,000 years old.

    (2) Is there any evidence that the Earth is billions of years old.

    (3) Is the Earth only 10,000 years old?

    You can't answer "no, none"; "yes, lots"; and "yes" to those questions and get a Ph.D. in geology.

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  10. dennis...

    the same volume of warm water will freeze faster than the same volume of cold water. do the math. (hint: the difference is in the density)

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  11. "Is it possible to be a scientist and hold "beliefs" that flatly contradict scientific evidence?"

    Yes, but it is not sustainable. Such a 'scientist' would soon be out of doing serious work.

    As it happens, I have several problems with Janet's analysis. One of several dubious points is that she conflates (a common hazard among philosophers, btw) her diagram on both the individual scientist and the enterprise of science.

    The former can use one way to arrive at conclusions, that she actually doesn't need to trust as exemplified by Ross. The latter must have procedures in place to arrive at trustworthy conclusions, and both the enterprise and the good scientists need to trust their conclusions or it wouldn't work in practice.

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  12. Bad analogy. Here's a better one.

    (1) Is there any evidence that the Earth is only 10,000 years old.

    (2) Is there any evidence that the Earth is billions of years old.

    (3) Is the Earth only 10,000 years old?

    You can't answer "no, none"; "yes, lots"; and "yes" to those questions and get a Ph.D. in geology.


    Hmmm. What if you're one of the people who believes God created the world and faked it to *look* like it was billions of years old?

    In that case, the answers are "no, none"; "yes, lots"; and "yes, but this is not detectable by scientific means".

    Worthy of a PhD, or not?

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  13. Peter asks,

    Hmmm. What if you're one of the people who believes God created the world and faked it to *look* like it was billions of years old?

    We don't have to worry about those people. None of them would ever want to get a Ph.D. in science. Why would you bother studying the natural world if you believe that it's all faked and doesn't reflect reality?

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  14. Good work,, whether undergraduate or not, deserves good marks. Bad work, whether done by a PhD or not, deserves criticism.

    And there is considerable debate, or rather was back in the 70s, about whether Popper did advocate scientific revolutions, and Kuhn falsification. Kuhn held that he was taking Popper's position seriously, and Popper denied that one had to accept paradigms to believe in revolutions.

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