Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dawkins, Tyson, Druyan, Stenger

 
This panel discussion took place recently in November 2007 at the Center of Inquiry in New York. The participants are Richard Dawkins, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan and Victor Stenger. I'm becoming a fan of Victor Strenger and you can see why by watching this video. I'm not a fan of Ann Druyan, and Neil Degrasse Tyson doesn't impress me as much as he impresses everyone else (including himself).

The thing that troubles me most about this discussion is the general agreement that "science" is nothing more than learning about physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology and biology. I think "science" is a way of knowing that includes absolutely everything; english, history, music, sociology and whatever. Real knowledge ("truth") in any of these subjects can only come from applying scientific methodology based on evidence and rationality coupled to a healthy degree of skepticism.

The discussion about whether science should confront religion is particularly interesting. Ann Druyan was the wife of Carl Sagan and she helped produce Cosmos. She claims that science has a wonderful story of its own to tell and there's no need to criticize religion. In fact, it's counter-productive to do so.

Ms. Druyan suggests that Sagan's description of science in Cosmos is the best way to sell science to the general public. She says that the TV series is still being shown frequently on television even though it was made in 1980.

To me that raises an obvious question. Thinking scientifically, I can't help but ask the obvious question. If this was such an effective way to communicate science how come after 29 years it hasn't had much effect on science literacy in the USA? Shouldn't we be basing our claims about science education on evidence and not on wishful thinking?





17 comments :

  1. That panel discussion wasn't exactly that recent, as it took place in November of 2007. I had the good fortune of attending it in person, though I did arrive a bit late and missed the beginning.

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  2. Also, I got a chuckle over seeing Dawkins and Tyson sitting next to each other after that exchange they had at some other conference wherein Tyson rebuked Dawkins and Dawkins provided a witty retort.

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  3. "I think "science" is a way of knowing that includes absolutely everything; english, history, music, sociology and whatever."

    I generally agree.

    However, let's take english for instance. I'm assuming you mean literature and not linguistics or something. How does one arrive at truth in literature? How are truths more meaningful or better conveyed in Macbeth than in The Halfblood Prince?

    What we have to gauge the greatness or even success of a work of art are previously agreed upon criteria applied to a medium in question. These criteria are subjective and wont to change through the course of history, which is why art has movements that fall in and out of style: Structuralism, Formalism, Romanticism, Post Modernism, etc.

    I can't think of a way methodological naturalism applies here, unless your goal is to understand the chemistry behind an emotional response to a piece of work. But does a scientific way of knowing help me explain why Saul Bellow is generally agreed to be a better writer than Stephen King? Maybe I'm wrong here.

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  4. Larry

    I see gilt has questions very similar to mine; however, please clarify

    Is your expression “a way of knowing” the same as “a way of understanding”? The assertion that we can know is presumptuous; it inplies that we know everything there is to know about a subject.

    Do you think/believe that science is a way of understanding [E]nglish, history, music, sociology and whatever?

    By English, do you mean literature written in English and translated into English?

    Do you really think “applying scientific methodology” can give readers a real understanding of literature? If so, are you endorsing literary Darwinism?

    Have you considered that literature/fiction “is a way of [understanding] that includes absolutely everything” including science.

    Is "english" without a capital "e" the scientific spelling of English?

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  5. gillt says,

    However, let's take english for instance. I'm assuming you mean literature and not linguistics or something. How does one arrive at truth in literature? How are truths more meaningful or better conveyed in Macbeth than in The Halfblood Prince?

    In the Department of English on a university campus there will be scholars interested in all kinds of things. Let's say they're interested in the relationship between contemporary society and the Harry Potter novels or Shakespeare's writings.

    How should they go about researching that topic? Should they throw some chicken bones in a cup, or pray to God, or collect evidence and analyze it rationally?

    The knowledge you seek is whether the characters and stories in a novel or play reflect the society in which the writer lived (or whatever else you might be interested in). Do you think there's a non-scientific way of approaching this problem that might yield reliable results?

    They might also be interested in why certain writings are more popular than others. I suppose an English professor could try publishing a paper where she simply declares that Jane Austin is better than Charles Dickens just because she (the professor) says so. Somehow I doubt that such a paper would be accepted. I strongly suspect that actual scientific research would be required to support the hypothesis that Austin is more popular because she's a better writer.

    Do you disagree? Do you think that there's a different way of knowing in English Departments?

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  6. gillt says,

    But does a scientific way of knowing help me explain why Saul Bellow is generally agreed to be a better writer than Stephen King?

    If it's generally agreed that Saul Bellow is a better writer then there must be some evidence to support that consensus. Presumably there's a rational way of analyzing the evidence and presumably if I were to read a scholarly defense of that thesis I could be persuaded. Right?

    Or, are you suggesting that the rules of the game are very different in the field of English literature? If so, what are those rules? Do English Professors ignore evidence, or do they ignore rationality, or both?

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  7. Veronica Abbass asks,

    Is your expression “a way of knowing” the same as “a way of understanding”?

    Pretty much.

    The assertion that we can know is presumptuous; it implies that we know everything there is to know about a subject.

    It does no such thing. I know lots of things about biochemistry but I would never claim to know everything.

    Are you one of those postmodernist types who deny that we can ever know anything because nothing really exists? :-)

    Have you considered that literature/fiction “is a way of [understanding] that includes absolutely everything” including science.

    No, I've never considered such a thing because it seems ludicrous. There's no evidence that I'm aware of suggesting that literature/fiction contributed directly to our understanding of quantum theory, the value of trade unions, the causes of World War II, the beauty of the Mona Lisa, or evolutionary theory.

    Literature and fiction are characteristics of the behavior of a single species on this planet. Furthermore, that species is subdivided into many groups that have very different concepts of what constitutes "good" literature. We know this because we apply a scientific way of knowing when analyzing this particular form of behavior in Homo sapiens.

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  8. I'm not a fan of Ann Druyan, and Neil Degrasse Tyson doesn't impress me as much as he impresses everyone else (including himself)

    Ah, just because Dr. Tyson insists that Issac Newton was the greatest scientist who ever lived.

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  9. By the way, I expect that Prof. Moran is even less impressed with Carl Sagans' first wife, Lynn Margulis who has turned into quite a nutcase in her declining years.

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  10. This, I totally agree with: "How should they go about researching that topic? Should they throw some chicken bones in a cup, or pray to God, or collect evidence and analyze it rationally?"


    This, I'm not so sure about:

    Larry said: " Presumably there's a rational way of analyzing the evidence and presumably if I were to read a scholarly defense of that thesis I could be persuaded. Right?"

    You later bring up the example of 'the beauty of the Mona Lisa'. Granted, I don't know you well but it seems unlikely that if you (or anyone) find the Mona Lisa beautiful, a well-argued scholarly thesis would convince you that she's not. Sure you may gain an appreciation for the other viewpoint, but suddenly not finding the painting beautiful?

    If somebody wrote a scholarly defense of why Tim Hortons coffee is awful would you stop drinking it? :)

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  11. Chris says,

    Granted, I don't know you well but it seems unlikely that if you (or anyone) find the Mona Lisa beautiful, a well-argued scholarly thesis would convince you that she's not.

    My subjective opinion of something isn't "knowledge" in any meaningful sense of the word. What I'm talking about is the study of why so many people admire da Vinci's painting. That gives us knowledge of a sort.

    An objective observer could also ask why Larry Moran likes some things and not others and I'm sure there are explanations, even though they may not be complete.

    The point is, these studies all require use of the scientific way of knowing if they have any chance of success. At least that's my hypothesis. I'm still waiting for someone to come up with another way of knowing that might work.

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  12. If it's generally agreed that Saul Bellow is a better writer then there must be some evidence to support that consensus.



    In such subjective matters, "better" is that which a consensus of scholars agree is better. The existence of a consensus is evidence that supports the consensus.

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  13. William K says,

    In such subjective matters, "better" is that which a consensus of scholars agree is better. The existence of a consensus is evidence that supports the consensus.

    I'm not sure what your point is.

    If you're saying that whenever a bunch of people get together and agree on something then this counts as a way of knowing the truth then I disagree. There's much more to it than that.

    I strongly suspect that a group of scholars who prefer Saul Bellow could give you some objective reasons for their preference.

    Similarly, a group of scholars could apply a scientific methodology in an attempt to explain why so many people believe silly things. But just because you have a consensus on a particular viewpoint (e.g. existence of God) is not evidence that the viewpoint is correct. In order to analyze "correctness" you need science.

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  14. To Prof. Moran: By saying that I do not "impress" you, and then not saying why, you have denied me the opportunity to earn your respect, or to call your attention to elements of my professional output that you may have missed and that might change your mind.

    Note that I see myself as, among other things, a servant of the public appetite for the universe. And so I have no ego invested in what people think of me (good or bad) -- only an interest in being the best communicator I can be in the service of that appetite.

    So I assure you I have no feelings to bruise, as I await the data in support of your sentiment.

    -NDTyson

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  15. Neil deGrasse Tyson says,

    To Prof. Moran: By saying that I do not "impress" you, and then not saying why, you have denied me the opportunity to earn your respect, or to call your attention to elements of my professional output that you may have missed and that might change your mind.

    This wasn't the place to go into a detailed discussion about everything that I disagree with.

    Instead, I focused on two things in particular; the idea that "science" is restricted to the traditional science disciplines and the idea that science should not directly confront its critics (religion).

    I disagree with your position on both of these issues. And they are related.

    If one views science as a way of knowing—as I do—then its realm extends far beyond the study of the traditional science subjects. I assume there's a reason why you are associated with organizations like the Center for Inquiry and that reason is because you have learned to respect the scientific way of approaching problems. That way of thinking leads you to agnosticism and it leads you to recognize the flaws in other ways of trying to acquire knowledge.

    I think you know that "science" is much more than just geology, physics, biology etc. but you don't express that very well in the video. Instead, you seem to support the idea that all there is to science is the learning of facts about traditional scientific subjects.

    There are two schools of thought about confronting religion. I belong to the school that says it doesn't deserve special treatment. The best way to teach the scientific way of thinking is to use examples such as astrology, homeopathy etc. to show why they are wrong.

    Today, the biggest enemy of the scientific way of thinking is religion. Why would we not use that as an example when teaching about science? Why not teach that many religious claims are refuted by science? People hear all the time that the Earth may only be 6000 years old so let's take advantage of that preposterous claim in order to show how science works.

    Ignoring the conflict between science and religion just gives the preachers an advantage on Sunday morning. They can say whatever they want without fear of being contradicted.

    Besides, as I mention in my post, that particular tactic—accommodationism—has had its day in court and it didn't work very well. It's time to try a new approach.

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  16. To Prof Moran: I don't remember making any of the arguments that you chose to refute.

    Rather, I remember making many points opposite to what you have stated. I led off the discussion by saying that science should not be considered a separate entity from life itself. And in reference to Mathew LeClaire, I recommended direct statements against the preposterous claims made by his teacher that, for example, Noah's Ark carried dinosaurs.

    It's as though you are arguing against somebody else's points and not mine.

    And even if all your objections applied, is that really your reason for not being "impressed" with me?

    Like I said, I would like to earn your respect, but can do so only upon learning what led you to this sentiment.

    -NDTyson

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