Saturday, July 31, 2010

Facile Inferences

In my previous post I suggested that some misunderstandings about intellectual history are due to a lack of literary experience and reading comprehension. Many of the misunderstandings I had in mind were misunderstandings by non-scientists about science. In this post I will suggest that this sort of misunderstanding also occurs among scientists about non-science, specifically about value theory and theology--domains that are arguably quite removed from the "hard" sciences, which may serve to explain, in part, why some scientists might be liable to this sort of misunderstanding.

I was reminded of this sort of misunderstanding among scientists by an opinion piece in the August 2010 issue of Scientific American (not available online, which is probably just as well), which I continue to read in spite of the increasing presence in it of opinion pieces of this sort. The essay, called "Faith and Foolishness", was written by Lawrence Krauss, who is presently the Director of an outfit called the "Origins Initiative" at Arizona State University, which appears to be some sort of popularizing "think tank" directed at what they describe as "deep and foundational questions ranging across the entire spectrum of scholarship at ASU" (see the website here). The essay itself begins by pondering "the sad fact that U. S. adults are less willing to accept evolution and the big bang as factual than adults in other industrial countries." Evolution and other Big Ticket scientific theories appear to be the principle focus of the "deep and foundational questions" of interest to the folks at the Origins Institute. It would be easy, at this point, to focus in on the mistake of conflating the notion of "fact" with the notion of an explanatory theory, however robustly confirmed, but that would be rather like shooting fish in a barrel, and I certainly have no beef against evolutionary theory or any particular cosmological theory as such. This sort of mistake is made quite often on both sides, by both scientists and non-scientists, and there isn't much point in belaboring it here. I was more interested in something Krauss said later in his essay:
Last May I attended a conference on science and public policy at which a representative of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences gave a keynote address. When I questioned how he reconciled his own reasonable views about science with the sometimes absurd and unjust activities of the Church--from false claims about condoms and AIDS in Africa to pedophilia among the clergy--I was denounced by one speaker after another for my intolerance.
It probably goes without saying that Krauss is not complaining about his martyrdom to the truth, in fact he is reveling in it. Of greater interest is his strange opinion that there is something difficult to reconcile here.

Look carefully at the point where he thinks he has caught his interlocutor out. The Catholic Church, he avers, makes false claims about condoms and AIDS in Africa, and there are some priests who are pedophiles. These, I take it, are intended as specific examples of cases where the Church has engaged in "absurd and unjust activities", and these particular cases are then supposed to make it difficult to "reconcile" having, at the same time, "reasonable views about science". We may put aside, for the moment, the fact that his own asseveration about condoms and AIDS in Africa is actually contradicted by the empirical evidence, which rather supports the Church's view; we may also lay aside the fact that the church does not actually support pedophilia, but rather condemns it (though perhaps not fast enough to suit Krauss, but that is irrelevant). These are, perhaps, satisfying rejoinders if one is out to win debating points, but what is more important here is not the refutation of Krauss but the "sad fact" that he thinks he has made some sort of clever inference that establishes the general point he is trying to make.

It seems to me that it can hardly serve to increase public respect for scientists and their powers of reasoning if people like Krauss are the ones put up for consideration. Here, in particular, we have an astonishingly stupid assertion made by someone who is not merely blissfully ignorant of how silly he is making himself look, but quite the contrary, he appears to think he has scored quite a point, and one gets the impression from looking at his personal website that he is unlikely to benefit from training in critical reasoning (it would be unfair to laugh at his belief that he was somehow responsible for the "reevaluation of the Catholic Church's position on evolution", so I will leave it to the reader to explore the many howlers he claims as his own; indeed, an exploration of his website will be a salutary exercise for anyone who worries that they have too high an opinion of themselves--no matter how prideful one may feel, it is always nice to find someone else with an even bigger ego).

Let us take the most obvious mistake here: the claim that a disagreement over an empirical question entails a difficult-to-reconcile attitude towards science and religion. So Krauss happens to accept one set of studies regarding condoms and AIDS in Africa, and some folks in the Church accept another. Again, putting aside the fact that most empirical studies support the Church's view, it is enough to merely point out that scientists disagree among themselves all the time about empirical facts, and it ought to go without saying that scientists differ amongst themselves even more frequently regarding what sort of social policy ought to be enacted given the empirical facts. So there is nothing at all absurd about both having "reasonable views about science" and agreeing with the Church regarding condoms and AIDS in Africa (indeed, given the empirical evidence, it appears rather as though it is Krauss who has a problem with reconciling the facts with his ideology). In short, theoretical questions cannot be settled by observational data alone, the classic problem of underdetermination. This is not unrelated to Krauss's earlier mistake of conflating the notion of a fact with the notion of an explanation: every explanation is theoretical, including explanations that appeal to, say, natural selection or quantum physics. Hence every explanation is in principle falsifiable, but facts are not falsifiable even in principle.

I suspect that the bit about condoms is supposed to be the "absurd" activity of the Church, while the bit about pedophilia is supposed to be the "unjust" activity, but really it is the claim that the Church is unjust when it comes to pedophilia that ought to count as something absurd. What on earth does this even mean? I take it that his central claim here is really nothing more than "the Church has not acted in the way (or, perhaps, as quickly) as I myself would act if I were in charge". That is, of course, the standard of justice held by many people, but it would be pointless to undertake a proof of how ridiculous it is to accuse someone of injustice on grounds of that sort, because those at whom the proof would be directed would be unlikely to benefit from it. It is enough to merely point out that it comes as no surprise that someone whose expertise is physics but who has an ego to match his MIT PhD in physics should be so willing to air his sophomoric views about value theory in a public forum. Putting aside the obvious facts (the Church does oppose pedophilia among the clergy, the Church is taking action against clergy who are pedophiles, etc.) the broader issue is really why we ought to take seriously someone who actually believes this to be a major point in favor of the claim that anyone who agrees with the Church and has "reasonable views about science" has something difficult to reconcile on his hands. One begins to think that when Krauss uses the expression "reasonable views about science" what he really means is "views that are consistent with my own opinions."

Krauss goes on to criticize Bishop Thomas Olmsted, who somehow "excommunicated" Sr. Margaret McBride for her decision in support of an abortion at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix (for a slightly better informed analysis of that, check out my own earlier post on the topic). Again, we may pass over the erroneous details, which are probably due to the fact that Krauss knows nothing about Catholicism (for example, the Bishop did not "excommunicate" her, she excommunicated herself by her action). We may even pass over the fact that in the space of just two sentences Krauss forgets McBride's name, calling her first "Sister Margaret McBride" and then in the very next sentence "Sister Mary". These are, again, just debating points. More important is the glibness with which such ignorance is passed off as magisterial scientific authority, or at the very least as the voice of someone who represents the voice of "reason" in the face of "faith and foolishness".

Krause concludes his condemnation of Bishop Olmsted by saying
Ordinarily, a man who would callously let a woman die and orphan her children would be called a monster; this should not change just because he is a cleric.
This particular sophism is so outrageous as to border on being intellectually offensive. Note, first of all, the deliberate rhetorical re-description of what has happened. A woman with a dangerous condition needed an abortion in order to alleviate the danger to her own health (and possibly to her very life). This set of facts can be described in a lot of different ways, depending upon the particular values one might happen to want to emphasize. One could say that a woman was about to deliberately kill her own innocent child, or that a doctor was about to kill one human being in order to save another one, or that a terribly difficult situation was being faced with great bravery by all around--the way one describes it will be a function of what one happens to think is going on. Krauss casts the situation in terms of the Bishop deliberately letting a woman die, which clearly reflects his own values, but he asserts his view as though it were not a value judgment but a set of facts. Again, one could note that an innocent child was about to be killed, but Krauss chooses instead to talk about the orphaning of children (which ones--the ones that are already safely outside the womb, perhaps?). I suppose that from Krauss's point of view the "facts" are all rather obvious, and this is why he feels no need to address possible arguments that might be directed against him. Indeed, he may describe any attempt to re-describe this situation in a way other than his own way as something "monstrous". But what he has done here is pure sophistry, and it is the sort of sophistry that one could only engage in if one were already in the grips of a theory about what abortion is. Although Krauss continually portrays himself as the voice of reason acting to protect the rest of us from the "irrationality" of the foolish faithful, what we get instead is a pompous rant grounded in nothing more than Krauss's own prejudices. Rather than discuss the difficult moral complexity of the situation, he acts as though it is clear cut: a woman is about to die--there are no other variables at play here. As simplistic and simple-minded as this is, it is not enough for him: he must also paint anyone who disagrees with him as a "monster", because of course when the argument does not go his way invective is the next best thing.

Why on earth should anyone, scientist or non-scientist, take this man seriously once he has made such a spectacle of himself? It seems to me essential, if we are to correct the "sad fact" of scientific illiteracy in the U.S., to put forward thoughtful and intelligent advocates for science. I suppose it is not impossible for an ideologue to be thoughtful and intelligent, but if that conjunction has occurred in Krauss he has done a remarkably good job of hiding it: all one can see here is the blind adherence to ideology, and poorly argued (if argued at all) ideology at that.

The "sad fact" is that there are plenty of well-informed, thoughtful, and intelligent scientists out there who know plenty about value theory, philosophy of science, theology, and related areas, but none of them writes for Scientific American. They are out there (one thinks of Stephen Barr, for example, or Kenneth Miller), but they are in need of a larger public forum. Sadly, many of the popular venues, such as Scientific American, appear to prefer the strident and ideological to the thoughtful and the intelligent.

The tag line of Krauss's essay, "Religious leaders should be held accountable when their irrational ideas turn harmful", is one of those delightful instances of unintentional irony that are happily becoming ever more common in writers of this sort. The good news is that most people don't pay much attention to this sort of thing; the bad news is that some people, including many who ought to know better, find it exhilarating reading. I'm not sure what the prognosis is at this point, but the prescription ought to include wider reading in the relevant literature: philosophy, value theory, intellectual history, theology. The bigger egos won't have room for all those extra books on their shelves, but the honest scholars will, and that ought to give everyone hope.

4 comments:

Tony said...

Scott, I suspect that the prognosis is that it will get worse before it gets better. The schools are in the grip of those who decide what constitutes "science", and at the moment that group is not committed to thoughtful critique of anything bearing on questions of the "received wisdom".

Used to be, back a long, long time ago, a person who had training in the practical professions (a blacksmith, a joiner, a shipbuilder, even an architect), knew that their education was a limited, incomplete education. They looked up to those whose education was devoted to the exploration of and understanding of the first principles, the root truths: a liberal education. That is, the education suited for a free man, an education suited to man as man, not as breadwinner, nor as an advanced programmable machine. An education that did not neglect the sciences, but did not focus solely on those; did not neglect history and the arts, but did not leave those to founder without deeper roots; did not neglect philosophy and theology, but grounded these in relation to other fields of knowledge. Such an education was admittedly not for everyone - it requires years of leisure, and an aptitude for quiet and patient work. Those who had to work in the manual fields for a living simply could not afford it. But they respected those who did complete such an education as having a right to speak to the larger questions, the difficult things of life, in a way that their own limited education did not suit them.

What is the situation now? Most universities require at most one course in philosophy for technical degrees, (one steeped in skepticism at that) and then think that they are qualified to have an opinion on deeply difficult philosophical matters. Why? Because they have been mis-taught that there is no definite truth in philosophy. So chemists, marine biologists, and computer engineers feel free to speak to questions like whether God can be known from the world and from natural things. And yet if a non-chemist or non-physicist were to spout opinions about the technical details of nuclear theory, they would laugh themselves silly at such pretensions.

It is extremely difficult to forecast a method by which the universities could be brought in line with a more wholesome approach toward teaching and toward what education is for man. It may be that they have to essentially crumble into ruin and a new start be made - which kind of implies a great dearth of use or need for advanced technical studies.

Tony said...

Scott, I suspect that the prognosis is that it will get worse before it gets better. The schools are in the grip of those who decide what constitutes "science", and at the moment that group is not committed to thoughtful critique of anything bearing on questions of the "received wisdom".

Used to be, back a long, long time ago, a person who had training in the practical professions (a blacksmith, a joiner, a shipbuilder, even an architect), knew that their education was a limited, incomplete education. They looked up to those whose education was devoted to the exploration of and understanding of the first principles, the root truths: a liberal education. That is, the education suited for a free man, an education suited to man as man, not as breadwinner, nor as an advanced programmable machine. An education that did not neglect the sciences, but did not focus solely on those; did not neglect history and the arts, but did not leave those to founder without deeper roots; did not neglect philosophy and theology, but grounded these in relation to other fields of knowledge. Such an education was admittedly not for everyone - it requires years of leisure, and an aptitude for quiet and patient work. Those who had to work in the manual fields for a living simply could not afford it. But they respected those who did complete such an education as having a right to speak to the larger questions, the difficult things of life, in a way that their own limited education did not suit them.

What is the situation now? Most universities require at most one course in philosophy for technical degrees, (one steeped in skepticism at that) and then think that they are qualified to have an opinion on deeply difficult philosophical matters. Why? Because they have been mis-taught that there is no definite truth in philosophy. So chemists, marine biologists, and computer engineers feel free to speak to questions like whether God can be known from the world and from natural things. And yet if a non-chemist or non-physicist were to spout opinions about the technical details of nuclear theory, they would laugh themselves silly at such pretensions.

Robert Sheehan said...

Thank-you Scott, both for returning to the blogging world and for this delightful dissection of the arguments which are unfortunately so common in the fantasy world of science vs religion.

Ken said...

Hi Dr. Carson,

I just found your blog today and enjoyed reading your posts.

I look forward to future posts.

BTW- GO HEELS!

Regards,

Ken Burgess
Florence, SC