"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, November 22, 2009

For Science, Against Opposing Anti-Science

Too long for the quote of the week, the following is quoted verbatim from "The Religious Case Against Belief" by James Carse. I think it reflects very clearly on the difficulties we are having. It is crucial that science not be cast as a "belief system", because that simply stiffens the spine of the anti-science movement. It is crucial (er, make that essential) that science be correctly seen as process, not incorrectly as allegiance.
If [Luther and Emperor Charles V] had agreed ... or if the emperor had been indifferent ... the trial would not have been held and we would have heard nothing about the views of the pope. There would have been no mention of this belief at all; it would not even have appeared to be a belief. In other words, the act of belief is always an act against; it requires an opponent who holds the contrary belief.

This feature of belief is hardly limited to Christianity. How could there be Sunnni Muslims if there were no Shia? Would Israeli settlers have been so vocal in declaring G-d's promise considering the land of Judea and Samaria if Palestinians had not thought it was they to whom it belonged? Could American Patriots have flourished during the cold war in the absence of their Soviet counterparts?

Belief systems thrive in circumstances of collision. For every believer there is a nonbeliever on whom the believer is focused, whose resistance is carefully delineated. We could go so far as to say that belief is so dependent on the hostile other that it may need to stimulate the other's active resistance. Belief has a confrontational element built into itself that is essential to its own vitality. If believers need to inspire fellow believers to hold firmly to their position, they need just as much to inspire nonbelievers to hold to theirs.

For this reason, belief systems are territorial. They stand off from all others and rarely do they overlap. (Note how often countries go to war, or threaten war, over disputed boundaries - Kosovo, Taiwan and Kurdistan, for example, or for that matter the American Civil War.) They act variously as factions, states, blocs, interest groups, parties, ethnicities, and schools of thought. Each of these has its comprehensive network of beliefs that offers a thorough analysis and assessment of itself and its opponents. Even self-defined ethnic groups have more than just a (presumed) shared genetic heritage; they have developed a convincing characterization of their persecutors, and they have elaborate explanations for their superiority or purity and detailed histories that justify it all. Just as they share with most other varieties of belief system a panoply of heroes and martyrs, sacred sites, scriptural texts, and binding rituals, their rivals fall under similar, but reversed characterizations. They are schismatics, breakaway groups, racists, apostates, fallen backsliders, subversives, false ideologues, forces of evil, aggrandizing powers, intolerant majorities, all of whom are dedicated to the repression and destruction of one's own group of believers. They are in every respect other, but in this case a hostile other.

Second, because belief is always belief against, it is itself an act of unbelief. Itis the active refusal to take a rival position. To believe something, one must disbelieve something. Each belief must not only have an opponent; it must have an opponent whose disbeliefs are a perfect match. For this reason, each is largely defined by its opposite. If beliefs die when their opposition disappears, they are obliged to mimc any changes the opposition makes of itself. Belief and unbelief are therefore locked into mutual self-creation. Imagine if Luther, under the urging of the emperor and the attending theologians, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Fine. I can alter my position to accord with yours." Should they still be determined to call him a heretic, they must then search out a new issue over which they can nourish their rejection of each other. Failing that, whatever the content or the intensity of their beliefs, the act of believing becomes meaningless.


What better example can we offer than the way that the great belief systems of our age have painstakingly elaborated a portrait of their rivals. The Nazis presented a detailed account of the worldwide domination of "Jewish bankers" whose only goal was the economic subjugation of the rest of the earth. Radical Muslim sects have an almost farcical view of the "Zionist" program against Islam. In the United States, radical underground military groups find evidence everywhere that the government is developing a hidden couterforce to steal their freedoms. Conspiracy theories often operate in the conflicted encounter of belief systems. In American politics the opposing parties are as much antiliberal and anticonservative as they are liberal and conservative. Even a Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia, dissenting in a case that rejected the Texas law forbidding sodomy, referred to what he called "the homosexual agenda".

The point I wish to stress here is that in this case we have gone far beyond disagreement, even byond outright collision; both sides depend on the other to know what they believe. They are joined in a kind of compact that freezes them to a stable self-understanding consisting of a reverse image of the other. There is no middle ground, no dialogue that could result in modified doctrine and practice.
Do you see Marc Morano in there? I sure as Shinola do. Marc wants us to play advocate's devil while he play's devil's advocate. It's all too easy of a trap to fall into. Look at what the well-intentioned P Z Myers and Richard Dawkins do constantly in their ironic crusade for atheism. They play the game perfectly, making victory over superstition impossible by falling into the trap of absolutism and tribalism. (Of course, this dynamic is aided by the fact that they genuinely see nothing of value in their opponents' position. I would say that anyone who sees nothing at all of value in their opponents' position should refrain from arguing with them as they will thereby serve their opposition's purposes as much as their own.)

Every time we fall into the polarization trap we abandon science and slip into antisocial politics. We can't win the cause for reason by falling into unreasoned antipathy. We have to convince people that we are not who the opposition says we are, that indeed the position the opposition opposes does not exist. The first step is to avoid becoming who they say we are, regardless of the provocation.

Update: This is very much apropos why people on the fence find the UEA emails so off-putting.


David B. Benson said...

Let's see E.O> Wilson is an ant-scientist and knows that ants have no spine. :-)

Seriously, "ant" --> "anti", second line.

Vinny Burgoo said...

How far are you going to take this? Are you going to stop talking about a 'scientific consensus' being opposed by 'nonconsensus "scientists"'?

David B. Benson said...

Oops. Fifth line.

Lou Grinzo said...

I agree completely with the sentiment in the quote and your comments. But that's a broad generalization, which tells us precious little about how to deal with specific, real-world situations.

My biggest fear is that too many of the reality enhanced people (the ones who realize CC is real and a very serious threat) will continue to attempt to remain squeaky clean, and thereby lose. I've used the image many times, and I know it annoys some people, but I'm still convinced it fits: Many of "us" act like the TV character Frasier Crane trying to debate a pro wrestler. We whip out our thesaurus, and the wrestler bounces it (and us) off the nearest wall, and the crowd of mainstreamers meandering by on the internet cheers wildly for the wrestler. Worst of all, many in the media tell the world it was a route for the wrestler, further spreading the idiocy beyond the actual encounter.

If we fight the fight their way, we lose. If we fight it our way, we lose.

I don't have a solution for that. We need mainstreamers to support science in public policy and research funding. You can't out-vote the adamant deniers if you don't have the votes.

King of the Road said...

In a country where the Discovery Channel has "Ghost Labs" as a regular and the History Channel has multiple shows about Nostradamus and the Mayan prediction for the end of the world in 2012, the idea that we'll get to where we need to be by convincing "mainstreamers to support science in public policy and research funding" seems pretty hopeless. Not to pick on Lou who is, after all, on my blog roll and is someone with whom I find huge areas of agreement. But if getting the mainstream to think clearly and act rationally is our best hope, I'm afraid the battle is lost.

Michael Tobis said...

I think Vinny has an interesting question. I'd like to hear comments on it before I answer, please and thanks!

Dol said...

>> "How far are you going to take this? Are you going to stop talking about a 'scientific consensus' being opposed by 'nonconsensus 'scientists''?"

>> "anyone who sees nothing at all of value in their opponents' position should refrain from arguing with them as they will thereby serve their opposition's purposes as much as their own."

When Plimer went on the BBC recently and claimed volcanoes produced more co2 than humans, he should have been plunged through a trapdoor into a sharkpit. The interviewer didn't even question it.

That's the case for a lot of climate change attacks - they don't even pass the most basic test of logic, let alone scientific method. I think it's OK to say that without getting tied up worrying about whether that means there's some vast scientific tribe. (Cf. the discussion on tribalism by Judy Curry, over at climateaudit.)

Same for, say, Lindzen - anyone who actually goes around claiming there's no link between smoking and cancer should also be dropped into a metaphorical sharkpit. Whatever other talking points they try to bring up should be ignored. This is saying the same thing as "anyone who sees nothing at all of value in their opponents' position should refrain from arguing with them", I think - except, perhaps, that you should make sure as many people as possible get to hear "but you don't believe there's a link between smoking and cancer; why should we believe anything else you say?"

This is the thing that worries me - so many attacks on climate science are so basic, yet there appears to be no effective strategy to counter it. My own view is - in the UK at least - there's an across-the-board lack of respect for critical thinking, and an implicit belief that most people wouldn't be capable. That's insulting, dangerous and plays into the hands of deniers.

Consider the Science Museum's Prove It exhibition. It purports to present people with evidence, but does nothing of the sort. Nothing even as simple as "is the Earth warming or cooling? An interactive tool for working out trends" - which you could do by looking at a year's worth of temperature data and getting people to pick out daily variation from seasonal change, and asking them to decide what they thought the appropriate sample size was for detecting a trend. Right there, with a very simple exercise that engages a little critical thinking, you've dealt with trends, and intuitively explained chaos and boundary conditions, and why Mockton's attack on climate science using chaos theory is nonsense.

So much of the science is accessible to this very simple approach - yet I wonder if most people are left wondering, when they follow e.g. McIntyre's relentless hockey-stick drip-drip, that it all comes down to abstruse questions about principle components analysis or whatever.

I don't think we need to worry about conflating 'scientific consensus' with tribalism, but I do think there's work to be done in engaging people's critical faculties. I think that counts as opposing anti-science.

p.s. Guardian story on the Science Museum exhibtion.

Michael Tobis said...

I'm not saying we don't oppose bullshit. I'm saying we should avoid defining ourselves in opposition to bullshit.

In other words, if we allow things to be cast as a debate, we only say things that are debated, and we end up looking no more coherent than the opposition. We have to tell the story, over and over again, every way we can.

Michael Tobis said...

Somewhat related: http://is.gd/51QAp

Andy R. Terrel said...

This is a nice point, especially about Myers and Dawkins, but I think it is a bit naive as to how beliefs actually begin, or at least come to opposition. Religion might be a case where someone wakes up one day and starts a whole new way of looking at the world, but it is rarely a system that is slated to kill the current systems. That opposition comes from frustration and embarrassment of those not following the new belief.

This is especially true in science. Most scientists believe the scientific method to be a fundamental way to gain knowledge about the natural world. They become enraged when religious views disagree with sciences logical process quoting nothing but "revelation." The two sets of beliefs that had nothing to do with one another are now opposed. This collision is inevitable; it is Plato's allegorical cave showing truth to be veiled by our own perceptions.