A Nature editor defends the value of woo

A few weeks ago I discussed a surprising essay by Daniel Sarewitz in the online version of Nature.  His piece, “Sometimes science must give way to religion,” not only claimed that science was identical to religion by ultimately resting on faith, but also argued that there was an “unknowable and the inexplicable beyond the world of our experience” and that science fails to give “insight about the mystery of existence.” In other words, he was dissing science while stepping into the muck of faith.

Although I’ve seen Nature go soft on religion before, this was a remarkably fuzzy and wooish piece from one of the world’s premier scientific journals, and, predictably, elicited a bunch of negative comments from scientists.

Now, however, Ananyo Bhattacharya, chief online editor for Nature (and presumably the editor of Sarewitz’s piece), has taken to the pages of Discover magazine to defend that piece. That is triply surprising, for Bhattacharya not only echoes Sarwitz’s sentiments and even distorts what he said, but published his own piece in a different but still reputable science magazine.

The echoing is evident from the title of Bhattacharya’s piece, “The limits of science—and scientists.”  After first reprising Sarweitz’s woo-ishness, and admitting that he “has his own problems with the piece” (if so, why did he publish such a remarkably vacuous essay?), Bhattacharya defends Sarewitz’s view that accepting science depends on faith (quotes are from the Discover piece):

The critics disagreed. Unlike religion, science does not require blind faith, they said—only trust in scientists, who had, after all, produced verifiable results and made successful predictions in the past. But that is to conflate well-established science—a body of knowledge supported by so much experiment and observation that it is very likely true—and the new findings of science at any particular moment, which are quite likely to be false. Scientists are of course human, many as fallible as any whisky priest. So you could argue that the much vaunted “trust” in science—proclaimed by Sarewitz’s critics as being purely rational—looks a bit more shaky than it did at first sight. Sarewitz was right that accepting new research requires not blind faith but “belief,” and most dictionary definitions of the word are perfectly consistent with his argument.

(Check out the link to the “quite likely to be false” assertion.)  This is logic-chopping, for Sarewitz never drew a distinction between “well-established science” and “new science (that is probably wrong).” So that’s Bhattacharya’s first misrepresentation. Another is the equating of not just some scientists, but many scientists, with “whisky priests.” Lordy!

The third misrepresentation is the contention that Sarewitz simply used people’s normal interpretation of the word “belief”, and in that sense belief in scientific authority is similar to belief in the tenets of religion. But Sarewitz didn’t say exactly that: he said that belief in scientific truth is just as irrational and faith-ridden as belief in religion. Here are two quotes from Sarewitz’s original paper (my emphasis):

The Higgs discovery, elucidating the constituents of existence itself, is even presented as a giant step towards the ultimate cure: a rational explanation for the Universe. That such scientific understanding provides a challenge to religion is an idea commonly heard from defenders of science, especially those in more militant atheist garb. Yet scientists who occupy that ground are often too slow to recognize the irrational bases of their own beliefs, and too quick to draw a line between the scientific and the irrational.

and

But people raised to believe that physicists are more reliable than Hindu priests will prefer molasses to milk. For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.

Here the issue is not “belief” (I prefer the word “acceptance” when it comes to scientific findings), but “faith.”

Finally, Bhattacharya defends the questionable “other ways of knowing” hypothesis—and in a particularly careless way (my emphasis):

But what was truly staggering was the support for the notion that science was, as one critic put it, “the best and only method we have for understanding reality”. It was here, in their rush to defend the walls of reason from the barbarians at the gate, the scientistas unwittingly took their cue from the logical positivists and came rather embarassingly unstuck. It is as if, given an excellent Philips screwdriver, someone had concluded that only cross-head screws are of any use. Or worse, that they are the only type of screw to exist.

Imagine if, the next time you go to see The Long Day’s Journey Into Night or The Dark Knight Rises, the activity of your brain is recorded by an MRI machine. Would a full scientific explanation of those recordings really constitute the “best or only” way to understand the experience? For anyone?

Yet in their eagerness to bash those that dare to suggest that one might experience wonder and awe, or be moved, outside a scientific context, the scientistas happily dismiss culture without a second thought.

When the philosopher A. J. Ayer was asked in the 1970s to identify the key weakness of logical positivism, Ayer, once one of its leading propononents [sic], replied that “nearly all of it was false.” By recycling the discredited notions of a dead philosophy, those that [sic, should be "who"] rashly criticised Sarewitz have demonstrated that they would benefit from a good, hard reading of poetry.

Do note the dismissive term “scientistas” That’s rather unseemly for a Nature editor. And let me add that I’ve had plenty of good, hard readings of poetry, and I still found Saarweitz’s piece deplorable. But so be it.

I’m perfectly comfortable with the notion that science is not yet able to understand or explain subjective experience, such as that produced by reading poetry. But that doesn’t mean that such understanding is forever beyond the ken of science. In the meantime, yes, poetry, art and literature are wonderful things, and may produce some kind of subjective realizations on the part of the reader and viewer. But I question whether poetry, art, and literature convey “understanding” of the world in the same way as science: one produces a subjective description of experience, which can vary from person to person, the other an objective description of reality that holds for all rational observers.

Bhattacharya’s accusation that scientists as a whole dismiss culture is, of course, totally ridiculous.  Maybe there are a few scientists who don’t appreciate any of the humanities, but I haven’t met any. And there are surely far more laypeople or humanities scholars who don’t appreciate or pay any attention to science.

I’m not sure why journalist/academics like Bhattacharya and Sarewitz are falling all over themselves to denigrate science as just one of many ways to “understand” the universe, but it’s distressing. I halfway suspect that they’re pandering to religion, something that seems obvious in Sarewitz’s piece.  We scientists—at least in America—must practice our art in a culture that’s largely religious, and we’re constantly subject to the criticism of scientism, and of being cold, bespectacled creatures who lack an appreciation for anything outside science.  If we want to keep our image burnished for the public, we have to pay lip service to those “other ways of knowing,” even if their value lies not in helping us “know”, but in enhancing the way we feel.

I’ll let two commenters on Bhattacharya’s piece have the last word. The first is Callum Hackett:

This article is a dire straw-man. You move from the claim that science is “the best and only method we have for understanding reality” to ridiculously equate this with a dismissal of non-scientific awe and culture. I mean, really? Really?! You clearly are not familiar AT ALL with the cohesive, complete world-views of such scientists. It is naive beyond measure to think that because they believe EMPIRICAL truths are best arrived at by the scientific method that they therefore think human EXPERIENCE is best reduced to formulae.

And the second comes from reader Geack:

“…there other ways, apart from science, through which people understand the world…” is simply not true. There seems to be a confusion here between “understand” and “appreciate” or “experience”. Ananyo’s choice of Long Day’s Journey and Dark Knight are illustrative of the point: they provoke emotions, and they provide exposure to the experiences and thought processes of other people. These are useful exposures and enjoyable experiences, but they provide no reliable picture of actual behavior.

Think of any complex phenomenon – take, for instance, a volcano. Poetry might be the best way to share with others the emotional experience of seeing a volcano, but only careful observation and data collection (science) can allow us to understand it – how hot is was, how fast the lava flowed, how far the ash traveled, why it happened at all, when it might happen again.

There are myriad ways other than science by which people organize their expereince of the world around them. But only the methodical recording and analysis of data that we now call science has provided actual understanding.

h/t: Dom

184 Comments

  1. Lewis Spurgin
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    I assume you’ve come across your old PhD student’s comments on this, in his review of Gould’s ‘Rock of ‘ages’?:

    It may seem obvious that there are mathematical truths (1+1 = 2), logical truths (All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; Socrates was mortal), historical truths (Socrates was mortal), folk psychological truths (someone who’s blushing is embarrassed) and socially constructed truths (paper bearing George, but not Grover, Washington’s likeness is worth something). And it may seem equally obvious that none of these is scientific. The world is not all science and there are places where science cannot and even should not go. But this lesson has come surprisingly hard to many philosophers and scientists–for instance, E. O. Wilson.7Gould has, all along, been on the right side of this skirmish. Scientism is naive and it is hubristic. But, most of all, it’s just plain wrong.”

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

      Yes, of course I’ve seen that. Is the point of your comment to imply that I’m either responsible for or agree with any statement that one of my ex-students makes? If so, you’re wrong on both counts here.

      • Lewis Spurgin
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        No, of course not. You very clearly disagree. It was your hypothesis that this kind of viewpoint is ‘pandering to religion’ that made me think about it (I have know idea whether Allen Orr is religious/faitheist).

    • Sastra
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      I think you are defining “science” more narrowly than Dr. Coyne.

      You can make any position sound ridiculous if you get to define it. Before you criticize people for “scientism,” it’s best to find out what THEY think the term means. Discover what they would include in the category of things which can be intersubjectively verified — and not just assume they’re excluding those things from reality.

    • Gary W
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      Orr’s argument amounts to a quibble over language. Science involves and depends on math and logic, so “scientific truths” necessarily implies “mathematical truths” and “logical truths.” And Orr’s other examples of supposedly “nonscientific” truths all depend on the same basic method as formally “scientific” truths — observation, experiment, reasoning. Orr can’t provide any examples of “truths” known by any other kind of method — in particular, “religious truths” — because there aren’t any.

  2. ambulocetacean
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    If science be no better than religion, you, Jerry, are one fine whisky priest.

  3. Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    those comments at the end are very nice. I very much like the idea that appreciation and experience aren’t understanding.

    All of these excuses for some magical “other way of knowing” strike me as just more “god of the gaps” nonsense. People who invoke such a thing have never advanced, but always have retreated in the face of sciencetific inquiry.

    • Bebop
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Those other ways of knowing are not magical at all!! Yes, science is the best method we have to learn about objective reality.

      The thing is that reality is not just objective. As a human being, you are well placed to know that.

      Besides, you just can’t have objectivity without subjectivity. It is impossible. They are co-existing simultaneously. They give birth to each other.

      Objectivity and subjectivity are contained in a superjective space, a spectrum, and depending which part of the spectrum your field belongs, you find objective truths, like in physics, a mix of objective and subjective truths like in history, and more subjective truth like in art.

      Don’t tell me that the joy I can feel when listening to a piece of music isn’t real. It may be more subjective than objective, but that doesn’t say anything about its realness. It only indicates its place on the scale of a superjective spectrum.

      Again, objectivity can’t exist without subjectivity.

      • Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Don’t tell me that the joy I can feel when listening to a piece of music isn’t real.

        I know of nobody who would ever even think to tell you such a thing.

        Just because all cognition takes place within the real-world confines of skulls doesn’t mean that what goes on inside those skulls isn’t real.

        Quite the contrary — and most emphatically so.

        You are able to appreciate music because the music is real and because your appreciation is taking place in a very real brain in a very real manner inside a very real skull.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • david middle
          Posted September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

          there is only inside your skull

          • Posted September 13, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

            “there is only inside your skull”

            now that is woo. Isn’t Plato dead yet?

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        I think this objective/subjective difference is what causes a lot of the confusion.

        Humans understand the world subjectively, building a mental map of symbolic and linguistic representation of the objective world.

        All of our experience is subjective, how we see, all our sensory perceptions, our emotions, and our evaluations are subjective.

        We are constantly making inferences about objective reality in our subjective minds. Some of these are better than others.

        Religion happens to be really bad at making certain inferences about the objective world.

        Science has reliable feedback mechanisms that allow it to more confidently make inferences about the objective world.

        Generally the “other ways of knowing” people talk about are really ways of knowing what other people have in their head. They are communications emanating from the internal subjective linguistic/symbolic representations people carry in their heads.

        Some of these subjective models are more reliably calibrated to the objective world than others are. And some are better at stringing together messages to communicate what their subjective experience is like, which help others to know something about the contents of their subjective mind, even if that mind is not well calibrated to the objective world. So it is questionable to assume this kind of communication actually carries knowledge about the objective world.

        The big mistake comes from people confusing knowing about other people’s subjective experience, with knowing about objective reality, and when people confuse their own subjective inferences about the objective world with the reality of the objective world.

        These kinds of mistakes are pretty much what religion is based on.

      • Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        “The thing is that reality is not just objective.”

        Yes it is.

        • Bebop
          Posted September 13, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

          Beauty,meaning history are part of the world. Have a lot of influence. And re not objective “things”. Objectively speaking…

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        Besides, you just can’t have objectivity without subjectivity.

        Yes, we can, or we wouldn’t understand the laws for everyday physics. We got there by contingent means, a unique pathway, but the convergence tests that science is robust against such constraints.

        In other words, experimental constraints and so our observations do depend on happenstance and resources including mental resources. But the outcome of the process do not.

        Humans can’t exists without subjectivity. Objective reality can exist without humans, and we can learn about if despite being human.

        Never confuse the map and other tools with the terrain.

        • Bebop
          Posted September 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

          Sorry but if there is no one to do the measurement, to decide the nature of the measurement, to look for something, then you can’t have a measurement. Measurements don’t exist by themselves, they need a subject to think about them, to decide how long or how heavy they are gonna be. Of course, nature has its laws that help to make those measurement but that alone doesn’t prevent subjectivity to play a role in measurement.

          You talk about understanding the laws of physics. Tell me how you could understand them without someone who wants to understand them? Subjectivity implies creativity, bringing hypothesis in order to reduce the fields of possibilities and getting results.

          Objectivity and subjectivity is a pair that co-exist. You can’t have objectivity without subjectivity. If you have it, then it is not objectivity. You need high in order to decide that something is low just like you need evil to know good.

          Objectivity and subjectivity are both the end of a spectrum. The intensity varies depending of what you are experiencing, but they belong to the same spectrum.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted September 13, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

            I think you need to re-read this: “Humans can’t exists without subjectivity. Objective reality can exist without humans, and we can learn about it despite being human.”

            The sun is 93 million miles from earth, whether humans measure it or not. That is an objective fact, which does not depend on any measurement. It simply is, independent of any subjective consciousness.

            Your idea of spectrum seems confused to me. What variable are you measuring as you vary between various intensities of objectivity and subjectivity? I don’t think you can find one that makes sense.

            The difference between subjective and objective is one of kind, not one of degree. They don’t belong on a spectrum together.

            Subjectivity is every thought or emotion we have, every word or idea we generate, every stimulus we perceive of the world around us and every experience that results. It is the conscious experience created by our brains. All of our science, economics, art, music, literature, etc. takes place entirely within the subjective human mind, except to the extent that we use objective phenomena as tools: to communicate from one subjectivity to another, such as by playing music or writing books, or to measure or manipulate material reality in some useful way.

            All of human culture and learning is based on subjective representational symbols, language that approximates or stands-in for the objective reality in which we exist. Our sight is a representational model created by our brain to map our surroundings. Just as a road map differs greatly from the road, what we see in our heads differs greatly from what exists around us. What we see is not what is, it is a tool that guides our navigation through the environment. It is purely subjective, but it is derived from our objective environment using reliable algorithms, i.e. it is a good map, a useful map.

            The objective world is the material world, the universe, the earth, our bodies and brains viewed as objects. The objective world contains the subjective views of each human, and contains each human viewed as an object.

            When we do science we are building up subjective models in our heads that are explicitly designed to give the best subjective representation possible of the objective world, so that we might understand, control, and manipulate the objective world that surrounds us for our own benefit and pleasure. Just as our sight is a subjective model derived from objective reality using reliable algorithms and methods, science is also a way of seeing, a reliable set of methods and procedures used to build trustworthy subjective representations of objective reality. That these models are good models is demonstrated by our ability to use them to make predictions and control our environment in ways useful to us, in ways that give us great advantages.

            Religion, on the other hand, is a set of cultural norms created from the desire to control people’s behavior, the desire to understand the mysteries of our origins and our deaths, and the desire to overcome fears. It is not about seeing objective reality accurately, but rather about projecting our subjective wishes and imaginings onto objective reality, thereby assigning various subjective properties to objective reality that objective reality doesn’t actually possess. It is a translation error in the bridge between the subjective and objective. It is also an attempt to control our environment, but it is clearly not based on good models, since it utterly fails to accomplish any useful predictions or modifications of our surroundings.

            • Bebop
              Posted September 13, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

              “The sun is 93 million miles from earth, whether humans measure it or not. That is an objective fact, which does not depend on any measurement.”

              If that fact wouldn’t rely on any measurement, you wouldn’t be able to say that the sun is 93 miles from earth. You need a subject to state that a mile is a mile and that there are 93 millions of them that separates us from the sun.

              Something can only be considered objective if something can also be considered subjective. I still don’t get what is hard to get about this!

              You can state that your t-shirt is now wet because it used to be dry. Same thing here with objectivity vs subjectivity.

              And just like you can have an in between, i.e. a humid t-shirt which has a balance of wetness and dryness, you can also have “human sciences” (that is what we say in french) like history, economy or sociology that mix subjectivity and objectivity nearly equally.

              That is why I say that objectivity and subjectivity comes in pair, are both the end of a spectrum that makes each other co-exist simultaneously, but at different degrees depending of the nature of what is experienced.

            • Posted September 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

              Jeff, your explanations are both lucid and patient.

              • Bebop
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

                Thank you.

      • Posted September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        reality is pretty damn objective if you are holding white hot iron and there is no subjectivity that gives rise to the objectivity of physics. Your experience of it is subjective. Your experience of joy is subjective. It’s real, e.g. objective as a emotion felt by a human thanks to probably the limbic system but joy come to differnt people for different objective stimuli. And “superjective spectrum”? What might this be? Sounds like quite a bit of woo and from a google search, *is* quite a bit of woo. You make stuff up very well, Bebop. Just like any woomeister, trying to make up your nonsense and adding pseudoscience terms to make it sound plausible.

        • Bebop
          Posted September 13, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

          Superjective is the spectrum that contains objectivity and subjectivity. They are at both end of the spectrum, co-existing simultaneously and their intensity varies accordingly to what is observed.

          That is the reason why history or sociology has a lot of subjectivity in it even if it relies on facts. Nothing woo here.

          Like economy. Economy can really be sometimes irrational because it deals with subjective (confidence) and objective (rates) issues.

          Nothing woo here.

          • Posted September 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

            sorry, much woo when you claim that one somehow creates the other.

            • Bebop
              Posted September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

              I’d like to know how you can get objectivity without subjectivity.

              That would be woo.

              • ritebrother
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

                In you model, would facts about the universe (e.g. the composition of the sun) still exist if human subjects did not?

              • Bebop
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

                Yeah but you would need another word than objectivity to describe them, which brings to an absurd situation given that nobody would be there to describe them. But let’s invent the term: let’s say it would then be a-subjective facts, or a no-jective reality. I don’t know.

              • ritebrother
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

                So you simply object to the historical use of the word “objective” to refer to such observer-independent facts? Why? It’s worked pretty well for a long time.

              • Bebop
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

                Keep in mind that for something that can be labeled as a fact, an observer is required. But not just an observer, an observer that knows he is observing, i.e.: an observer with a certain quality of self-awareness. When that quality is reached, a subject appears. And with that subject, objectivity also appears.

                Beavers, like humans are conscious. But I hope nobody here will claim that beavers can be objective (please)… So I would use my word above. Beavers are a-subjective observers. And from their perspective, well, what can I say…

              • Bebop
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

                First, my answer above wasn’t a response to your comment.

                Second, the scientific method, from an historic perspective is something new and I wouldn’t be surprised that the term objectivity is not old too. Circus used to be a place where gladiators were fighting to death and/or were eaten by lions. Now we bring our children there so they can have a good time.

                We believe that we finally have access to real objective knowledge because of what science has shown us since the last century. But it looks like the objectivity in question is taken for granted. Language is a tricky thing. It shapes our mind to think in a way but it doesn’t come to our mind that it shapes it. In other words, language leads us to believe in some kind of absolutes while reality, i believe, is more tricky that what language, logic, math or science (i.e. : our senses) are able to say about it
                In our case the absolutes here are objectivity vs subjectivity. But this is a construction of our mind. They are not opposite like language wants us to believe. They are co-existent and complementary. You can’t have a fully objective phenomenon just like you can’t have a fully subjective phenomenon.

                But I must say that all what I’m saying is driven by the belief that consciousness is uncreated, i.e.: beyond time space and matter.

              • ritebrother
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

                You need read up a bit on the history of philosophical realism. These ideas, and how they impinge on the function and epistemological limits of science, have been addressed for a long time. The concept of objectivity is not new, and is already well-defined, as several posters have neen trying to explain to you.

              • Bebop
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

                The word objectivity from what I have rapidly checked, arrived in the dictionary in 1803.
                I don’t know for you, but this sounds new to me…

                Don’t want to sound cocky, but I still don’t see how objectivity can arise without subjectivity. Or evil without good. or cold without hot. Or female without male.

              • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

                Or female without male.

                See, this is another example of you taking the piss.

                Not only do plenty of species reproduce asexually, but there’re lots of examples of both parthogenic and truly hermaphroditic species, and self-fertilizing species. And species that switch from one of those modes to another. Hell, there’re even species whose reproductive cycles are dependent upon some other species entirely — that’s quite common, in fact, probably to the point of predominance.

                And other forms of sexuality have long been a staple of science fiction, such as three (or even more) genders or other variations even more bizarre. I’ve even got an anthology of short stories on the subject somewhere on a bookshelf.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Bebop
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

                Of course Ben. Male and female are both end of a spectrum. I don’t believe in absolute so I don’t expect that reproduction has an absolute mode. But sexual reproduction is a big tendency.

            • ritebrother
              Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

              But you just agreed that observer-independent facts exist (e.g. the composition of the sun, as above).

              • Bebop
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

                oups… my answer is above your comment…

              • Bebop
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

                Yes but they are not absolutely independent since there is an observer that can rely the information. In other words, objectivity can only be manifested with the complicity of subjectivity. They both are the end of a spectrum and we’ll call the space between the 2 ends, the superjective space.

                Now, depending of the field you are observing, the rate of objectivity or subjectivity will vary. If you look at the sun, subjectivity doesn’t play a big role outside providing consciousness which is necessary to measure and discriminate. But miles are not natural-by-themselves measures, and particles are not solid objects. You need a part of subjectivity to make boundaries and put label on “things” or concept and transform them into objective things.

                The opposite is also true…

                As for socioloogy…

              • ritebrother
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 3:52 am | Permalink

                This sounds like you are claiming that facts about the universe do not exist until they are observed and ascribed a label. You have it backwards. Objects exist, and our use of language to circumscribe and define those facts generates a provisioal model of those facts. Objectivity escapes the limitations and provisionality of our description by definition. Objectivity is independent of subjectivity BY DEFINITION. You are simply misusing the word to describe something else (i.e. the model that derives from observation and description.)

              • Bebop
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

                “This sounds like you are claiming that facts about the universe do not exist until they are observed and ascribed a label.”

                No, what I’m saying is that objectivity can’t exist without a mind. But did the laws of nature begin to emerge because we discovered them? Of course not. I agree that the term objectivity is more than acceptable to describe things that humans don’t influence much. The problem comes when we assert that something can only be true when it fits with the scientific method. Popper with his 3 world model was working on that problem because for him, scientism wasn’t able to include all reality

                But if by definition objectivity is independent of subjectivity, in reality that independence doesn’t exist. It would like saying that cold is independent from hot, or evil from good, that they are parallel and can never meet.

                Objectivity relies on consciousness. It is just a fact. What is wrong with that!? Subjectivity too. Are labeled objective the phenomenons that are constant, testable and measurable. The less constant, testable and measurable the phenomenons are, the more subjective they become.

                But all this has to be experienced within a conscious space, that I would describe as superjective, and in which the degree of subjectivity and objectivity are varying depending of what is observed. But just like the Ying and the Yang symbol illustrates, you can’t have all white or all black.

                If objectivity was independent from subjectivity,if there was a wall between them, that would mean they can never be mixed. That would also mean that disciplines like History, Economy, Philosophy even Science wouldn’t exist because following the definition of “objectivity”, it can never blend with subjectivity. How could you build hypothesis without creativity? How could you assert that the plague in the middle ages is responsible for the emergence of democracy in Occident? How could you endorse Keynes view?

            • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

              Bebop “…..arise….”

              Most of use do not believe in the Resurection.

              • Bebop
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

                Excuse my french…

  4. TJR
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    Agreed, the piece starts with a bit of tone trolling, followed by several straw men and of course the usual lack of precise definitions of key words (“science”, “faith”, “understanding” etc) so that everyone is arguing at cross-purposes.

    Incidentally, is there a collective noun for straw men? A bale? A haystack?

    • lkr
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      As an old farmboy, I can suggest “bedding” — after the straw has been pissed on, shat on, and laid in…

  5. Jeff Johnson
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure why journalist/academics like Bhattacharya and Sarewitz are falling all over themselves to denigrate science as just one of many ways to “understand” the universe, but it’s distressing.

    My unscientific guess is that they are Templeton Trolling. What easier way to win a cash grant that otherwise might require real hard work.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      My own unscientific guess is that they think reductionism = smallism or greedy reductionism: the belief that higher-level phenomena like minds, emotions, aesthetics, persons, money and so forth ought to be completely understood or explained at the physical level. They think there are a lot of people out there like that, so they translate anything that sounds like it MIGHT be that into that.

      You see, they’re in the MIDDLE. On one side are the supernaturalists and woosters — and on the other side are mad-dog eliminativists and greedy reductionists.

      Everybody knows that the best place to be is in the middle between extremes. That’s where you find the truth. So — they need the extremes. They require extremists. They know religious fanaticism and pseudoscience are on one side. So if they don’t have “scientism” on the other side of their position, then they themselves become extremists. And extremists, by definition, are always wrong. Otherwise, they would be considered reasonable moderates.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

        Yes. One thing that I find unbearably annoying is this assertion that atheism is just another form of fundamentalism. This gets thrown around by those who like to be part of that chummy gathering of “honest agnostics” and “sophisticated theologians” in the reasonable center.

        It’s much like the false neutrality of ‘he said/she said’ political journalism: Politicians disagree on shape of the earth! Journalism should try to get at the truth, not treat everyone fairly.

        Whoever invented the notion of hell must have noticed that the difference between heaven and earth made earth look too bad. They had to create an opposite extreme so that earth, rather than just being real, could be in the middle.

        It must be safer to stand in the middle of the road than on either extreme edge.

        And given the question: “Is 3 + 9 = 12 or 2?” you should answer 7 just to be on the safe side, because 12 would be extreme fundamentalism.

        • Sastra
          Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

          Agree. Apparently, fundamentalists and atheists are extremists because one side says they’re absolutely positive a particular version of God exists … and the other side says it’s extremely unlikely that any version of God exists. The rational hedging on that second position is deemed irrelevant: what really makes both groups alike is that they both want to make truth proclamations outside of their group (the ultimate sin.)

          The middle position is that God both exists and doesn’t exist; God kind of exists. You should neither firmly believe nor firmly disbelieve; you should sort of do one or the other — and never strongly enough to want to spread it around. God is not just one way or another way; it’s all ways, depending.

          The middle position steps forth and confidently asserts that if people are going to argue about this well then it’s time to change the subject. Okay then. How are things going?

          Fair to middling.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

            Or mediocre…:)

    • Msirp
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      Why is nobody mentioning the obvious? The past decade saw Neoconservatism become the unchallenged governing philosophy of the U.S.

      Neoconservatism is expicitly anti-enlightenment. To wit:

      There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.

      This philosphy was neatly packaged up for scientists by one Matthew Nisbet, who proclaimed that the public treasures its superstitions and predidices, so scientists, as recipients of public funding, have a solemn responsiblity never to allow the public to be exposed to findings that might disabuse them of them, so any such findings must be muddled, confounded, distorted, misrepresented…in short, lied about.

      (Of course his touching concern for the public’s tender feelings is a transparent veil for the neoconservative idea that the public must be kept ignorant to make them amenable to control.)

      Nisbet became a joke on Scienceblogs when he denounced Dawkins for challengeing the Expelled producer in a Q&A session, exposing his “framing” doctrine as a sham that only benefitted the other side. He still is a favorite in the circles of power, though, for obvious reasons. What you’re seeing here is the result of his handiwork.

      • Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

        @msirp

        No. The position you cite, which amounts to “reality is socially constructed,” is straight out of the mouths of post-modernists, not neo-conservatives.

        And in the US, neo-conservatism is NOT the governing philosophy, let alone the “unchallenged” philosophy. Post-moderns and various other schools of constructivist neo-Platonic belief dominate academia and in turn the schools of education and in turn the “tone” of k-12 education.

        Anyone with a teenager attending the public school system in the US is likely to hear “Well Dad, that might be true for you, but it is not true for me” as a fully confident belief system. So confident that “Well son, while you are under my roof my truth is true” is not funny or humbling; it might be thrown back in Dad’s face as philosophical fascism.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted September 14, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

          I wonder if I detect a note of blame being leveled at post-modernism for this kind of filial impiety? But this rebellion against the father is age old, regardless of the language used. When I was a kid it might have been “what makes you such an authority”, which might have brought punishment, but at the very least a firm “I pay the mortgage, that’s what makes me the authority under my roof”. Many years ago I heard a guy joking about how when he was 15, his dad was a complete idiot, but by the time he reached 25 it was amazing how smart his dad had become. lol.

  6. TGC
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Great. Just great. I teach AP Biology in northern Michigan, a region ruby red in a supposedly blue state. Discussing evolutionary theory in the classroom is a daily battle, but I always felt that Nature had my back, and that I could rely on them being steadfast in the face of the opposition I have to deal with. Is this just an abberation, the isolated view of a couple of editors, or a general trend in the editorial stance of Nature?

  7. eric
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    But people raised to believe that physicists are more reliable than Hindu priests will prefer molasses to milk. For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.

    But people do not believe physicists becaused they were raised to believe them. They believe physicists because physics results in stuff that actually works. Regfrigerators, airplanes, and computers. Those two geographical charts that JAC has shown in the past (about acceptance of science vs. religious belief) illustrate the difference quite nicely: acceptance of science does not correlate with what people were raised to believe, at all. It is cross-cultural.

    ***

    I think there is a tendency by apologists to conflate “have faith in” with “recognize uncertainty in.” There is uncertainty in science. We believe in its uncertain conclusions. A religious person also believes in uncertain conclusions. But the similarity pretty much ends there. The justification for believing uncertain things in science and religion is quite different. It is that justification that differentiates faith from empiricism.

    • eric
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

      Ack, the first paragraph was intended to be a quote. HTML tag fail.

  8. Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.

    I agree; that’s a pretty ridiculous assertion. Testimony is a source of knowledge that does seem pretty clearly empirically verifiable and calibratable.

    These latest posts also have me wondering, though: Suppose it turned out that science was the best way of knowing about contingent, descriptive, empirical facts (which it is), but we had to admit that something other than science was necessary to learn a wide variety of non-contingent, non-descriptive, or non-empirical facts. (And therefore, such facts would exist.) But there was no reason to think religion was a good way to learn these facts, either.

    Why exactly would this be bad? What would you lose, or how would that harm you (or other scientists), or how would that harm society or humanity?

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      what caused you to have to “admit that something other than science was necessary…”

      • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        John Donohue,

        I left that unspecified. I want to know about the real-world effects of admitting that there are other important ways of knowing than science. Just suppose that for whatever reason, it became widely known or believed that non-scientific sources of knowledge are sometimes trustworthy.

        • Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

          “…it became widely known or believed that non-scientific sources of knowledge are sometimes trustworthy.”

          Well, “believed” in this context is irrational, unfounded and therefore dismissed out of hand; it has no connection to trustworthy knowledge.

          Can you elaborate on “widly known?” How would another form of truth be “known” without reason?

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:14 am | Permalink

      I am very curious to know of an example of a “non-empirical fact”. I can’t think of one, so an example would be helpful.

      • Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        “Empirical” requires being reliant on experience. Abstract mathematics, such as Euclidean geometry or set theory, thus provides examples of non-empirical facts. They may have some correspondence to the empirical; however, a lack of correspondence does not indicate that a theorem is no longer a fact, but that the choice of that math to try and model those facts was incorrect.

        Of course, from this vantage all facts become contingent in some sense — particularly, on the underlying axiom schema they’re asserted within.

        Empirical “facts” are also subtly contingent on axioms. They are first contingent on the axioms used to establish the mathematical framework used to describe them, akin to a language choice. To a speaker of English, “Tout corps persévère dans l’état de repos ou de mouvement uniforme en ligne droite dans lequel il se trouve, à moins que quelque force n’agisse sur lui, et ne le contraigne à changer d’état” is not a truth, but a pile of gibberish. They are secondly contingent on the axiomatic assumption to bridge the inductive divide between “experienced” and “is”; the phrasing “experience has some class of pattern” roughly approximating the usual bridge. It’s philosophically possible to take the refutation, instead, and lose all the usual empirical facts. Most philosophers do not seem to find the resulting Ramsey Theory sea of chaos a particularly interesting alternative, however.

        • Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

          “Empirical” requires being reliant on experience. Abstract mathematics, such as Euclidean geometry or set theory, thus provides examples of non-empirical facts.

          I don’t get this popular distinction between math and the other sciences. I really don’t.

          And geometry is the perfect example.

          Take a piece of paper. Put it on a flat table. Using the same techniques you learned in school, draw a right triangle. Now, draw three squares, each with a side equal to the lengths of the sides of one of the sides of the triangle. Measure the areas of all three squares, and you’ll discover that the combined area of the two smaller squares equals the area of the single larger square.

          Congratulations! You’ve just empirically demonstrated Pythagoras’s most famous theorem.

          Now, tell me: how is what we just did with geometry any different from what Newton and Kepler did with planetary motion, or what Einstein did with relativity?

          Yes, of course. You can easily invent new mathematics that’s internally self-consisten but has no bearing on reality as we know it.

          But, so what? You can just as easily create internally self-consistent physics with different values for any of our favorite constants — gravity, the charge of an electron, Planck, etc., etc., etc.

          If doing a thought experiment to try to figure out what a geometry would be like on a sphere (or other complex surface) rather than a plain is all that it takes to move math from the empirical to the abstract, then simply changing the value of c in Einstein’s famous equation is all it takes to make physics non-empirical.

          And, you know what? Spherical geometry is really quite useful when flying an airliner, and lenses wouldn’t work if it weren’t for changes in the speed of light.

          At the absolute most, all you can claim is that there are areas of math which haven’t yet been found to have real-world applications or that are less-than-optimal models for real-world phenomenon. But so what? That’s true of each and every other branch of science. Proportions differ, to be certain…but, Shirley, that can’t be justification for classifying this one branch of science completely differently from al the others?

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Tim
            Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

            There many mathematical assertions that are true, even in very applicable math – math with lots of real world applications, that are still not directly verifiable. In my lecture today, I will probably get as far as the statement of the Great Orthogonality Theorem which applies to the characteristics of the matrices that make up symmetry (and other) group representations. The consequences of the GOT on the way that symmetry influences quantum mechanics are very important, but the GOT itself is not something one can experimentally test.

            Sure, one can construct lots of examples and show that the theorem “works”, but that is far from being a proof. One can’t prove things to be generally true by empirical test. Lots of conjectures that seem to be true can be shown to be false by doing abstract mathematics. Or, to take a different tack, try to empirically verify that 0.999… is identically equal to 1.

            • Tim
              Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

              I should have said: …the GOT itself is not something one can experimentally prove.

            • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:34 am | Permalink

              Or, to take a different tack, try to empirically verify that 0.999… is identically equal to 1.

              But that’s exactly my point!

              Try to empirically verify that every apple that falls off a tree does so at 1.0e1 m/s/s. Or that nothing anywhere has ever gone faster than 3.0e8 m/s. Or that every electron has a charge of 6.6e-19 C.

              …or, for that matter, that every time anybody has ever drawn a right triangle with squares attached to the sides, the areas of the two smallest squares equalled the area of the biggest.

              Yes, mathematicians deal more with abstracts and other scientists tend to get their hands dirtier. But that’s like complaining that sprinters aren’t runners because they stop after a mile, or that marathoners aren’t runners because they can’t run a mile in under four minutes. It’s all the same thing, just with the emphasis on different pieces of the same puzzle.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Tim
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

                All well and good, but the point of my comment was that the truth of mathematical theorems ultimately nothing to do with the whether the mathematics is applicable or with empirical observations that ‘work out’ because the physics is correct (and hence the mathematical framework in which the physics is correct). The confidence with which we assert that nothing ever travels faster than 3 × 10⁸ m/s arises from the empirical verification that nothing ever has and the other relativistically expected consequences that are observed when the speed of particles approach the speed of light. The confidence we have in the truth of the pythagorean theorem is correct has nothing to do with it’s empirical verification. If it weren’t empirically true it would simply mean that we don’t live in a world that behaves Euclidean (i.e., the axioms that we assume in our proof don’t apply to the real world). In other words, it would be our assumptions that would be wrong, not the mathematical “fact” of the Pythagorean theorem in Euclidean geometry.

              • Tim
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

                There’s are several errors (missing words, etc) in there – sorry.

              • Posted September 13, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

                The confidence with which we assert that nothing ever travels faster than 3 × 10⁸ m/s arises from the empirical verification that nothing ever has and the other relativistically expected consequences that are observed when the speed of particles approach the speed of light. The confidence we have in the truth of the pythagorean theorem is correct has nothing to do with it’s empirical verification.

                Eh, unless I’m sorely mistraken, if anything, you’ve got that exactly backwards.

                I can all but guarantee you that it was only after a great deal of empirical observations of geometric figures that Pythagoras figured out that the areas of squares drawn on the sides of right triangles are simply related, and I certainly can guarantee you that he only ever phrased and conceived of it in those terms — as an empirical observation. Hell, he didn’t have the math / algebra for anything else, as it wouldn’t be invented for many centuries. (When was the exponent invented?)

                And, on the flip side, Einstein’s insight came long before we had any way of testing the limits of velocity — or, really, any empirical way of reasonably suggesting that there might be some sort of absolute limit. We got E=m*c*c (Fucking exponents! How do they work?) in 1905, but it was a quarter century later before the first particle accelerators were built — and long after that before they started to reach relativistic speeds. And it wasn’t until just last year that Gravity Probe B empirically confirmed the last big observational gap in Relativity.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Nikos Apostolakis
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

                In addition to Tim’s point that the standards for accepting something as true in mathematics are absolute (and there are good reasons for that) I think that the nature of (at least) some mathematical objects is too abstract to talk about empirically verifying propostions about them in any meanigful sense, IMO. Take the theory of (infinite) cardinal numbers for example: assume that the continuum hypothesis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuum_hypothesis) is “really” true (whatever that means). How could one empirically verify it?

              • Posted September 13, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

                Nikos, I think the ultimate point I’m trying to make is that the empiricism v math debate feels akin to somebody who’s adept with a hammer arguing with somebody who’s adept with a saw over whether or not they’re doing carpentry. They’re both building stuff with wood, and you can’t build stuff with wood without using both tools — and you can’t use the one tool the same way you’d use the other.

                You can’t empirically understand reality without math, and it sure seems like you can’t do abstract math without inadvertently discovering something useful about the empirically-observed universe (even if it’ll be centuries before somebody else realizes the significance of the discovery you made).

                b&

          • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

            Oh my god, Ben! You just helped me understand Pythagorean Theorem like I never did before. I don’t ever recall seeing it so plainly before.

            My prof in my astronomy class this morning just used a similar method to help explain why gravity affects objects twice as far away 1/4th as much.

            • Posted September 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

              Glad to help!

              …but I have to give credit where it’s due: Vi Hart. Google “vihart phythagoras” and you’ll get at least a couple superlative videos on the subject.

              For me, the easiest way to understand the Theorem is with an isosceles right triangle.

              Draw a square on a page. Draw a diagonal line, creating two isosceles right triangles. We’re going to focus on one right now, but the other will be important in a bit.

              Next, draw the three squares on each of the sides of the selected triangle.

              We know that the two smaller squares have exactly the same area as the original square we started with at the beginning.

              Now, let’s consider the larger square. If you look back at the second triangle, the one I earlier told you to ignore, you’ll see pretty obviously that that triangle comprises a quarter of the biggest square. And that triangle is, itself, half the area of the original squares. So, the area of the biggest square is 4 * 1/2 of the original square, or twice the area of the original square.

              And we had two smaller side squares, each the same size as the original square, so the areas of the two are the same as the area of the third.

              All Pythagoras did was extend that beyond squares (and therefore isosceles right triangles) to any type of right rectangle. And that should, in turn, tell you that any two right rectangles with the same perimeter have the same area!

              I wish I learned geometry like this in school, I really do. Ah, well.

              Cheers,

              b&

          • Nikos Apostolakis
            Posted September 14, 2012 at 4:53 am | Permalink

            You can’t empirically understand reality without math, and it sure seems like you can’t do abstract math without inadvertently discovering something useful about the empirically-observed universe (even if it’ll be centuries before somebody else realizes the significance of the discovery you made).

            I agree. Lately I’ve been leaning towards the epistimology of “model-dependent realism”, in that framework mathematics is the study of “pure” models without necessarilly refernce to the real world. It’s actually amazing that the second part of your quote seems to be true: often models constructed without any (a priori) reference to the real world eventually find a reference, some people call this the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”.

          • Posted September 14, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

            Congratulations! You’ve just empirically demonstrated Pythagoras’s most famous theorem.

            Actually, no. To be pedantic, you’ve given an empirical demonstration with (approximate) correspondence to of one of the proofs of that theorem. As I noted, lack of correspondence would not necessarily indicate that a theorem is no longer a fact, but that the choice of that math to try and model that demonstration was incorrect. (Contrast the classic empirical “demonstration” that 64=65.)

            It’s a rather fine philosophical point. The key seems to be in that the truth of mathematics is not limited by empirical constraints; it’s a broader field than science.

            The notion of “changing the value of c” has to do with the question of which description best corresponds to the evidence. It’s a case where it does not correspond; and once you are no longer interested in whether or not it corresponds to the empirical world, it’s no longer “physics” in the usual sense. (Or at best, it’s a physics conjecture that’s falsified.)

            Contrariwise, there are branches of mathematics which include things that effectively cannot correspond… though the weasel-word “effectively” involves a mathematical can of worms that I’m trying to leave unopened.

            What I’d argue is that the proper classification is the other way around. Mathematics isn’t a branch of science; science is a branch of mathematics, which in turn is a branch of logical philosophy, which in turn is a branch of philosophy. Science implicitly relies on the validity for the philosophical assumptions of mathematics (ZF, these days) to have a language for talking. It also takes an additional axiom, to treat “experience” as something that be referred to, and constrain such reference.

      • Tim
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        Other than mathematical theorems (understanding that they are contingent upon whatever system of axioms have been agreed upon), I was wondering the same thing.

        • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

          Tim,

          Necessarily, 3 > 2. But I mean that necessarily, a person who has three apples has more apples than a person who has two apples. That seems to be saying more than just saying that there’s a purely theoretical system in which 3 > 2 is a theorem.

          As for other examples, if normative facts exist, such as that happiness is objectively good, that would presumably be non-empirical. If abstract facts exist, such as that non-physical numbers exist, that’s also presumably non-empirical, since no one has ever literally observed the number (not just the numeral) 3. And if modal facts exist, such as that necessarily, nothing can be all red and all green at the same time, that’s presumably non-empirical; no one has ever empirically observed an impossible all red, all green thing.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted September 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

            No problem: If it’s all red an all green, it’s all white (color mix) or yellow (light mix). =D

            But as Goren notes, these things are all model that can map (or not) to reality. They are inventions, often accomplished with mutually agreed on heuristics of how to do “proofs”. (Since as far as I know, proof theory fails for most math.)

            If they existed anyway, it would be some platonist dualism arguing for existence by non-existence (non-physical). That sounds absurd.

            • Bebop
              Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

              Non-physical = non-existence ?

              This is funny. Humor, for instance, is something that isn’t physical but if it didn’t exist, Seinfeld wouldn’t have created his show about nothing….

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

                You haven’t understood the point.

                The distinction is not between what is massive, and what is an appearance created by energetic material processes, such as humor, which is entirely dependent. Take away matter and energy and humor would cease to exist.

                If you don’t agree with this, you are a dualist who believes in invisible undetectable magic that materially influences our world.

                The distinction is between a natural material universe that we know exists, and a hypothetical immaterial world of spirit or ideal platonic forms that would presumably still exist if all matter and energy were subtracted from existence.

              • ritebrother
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

                Well, Bebop does think that consciousness is “beyond space time and matter” (see above), which I guess implies dualism.

              • Bebop
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

                Well, if you look at consciousness without a priori belief, you can only see that it always stays in the present. Everything around it moves and change, but even if a clock shows me that it used to be 2:59 and that now, it is 3:00, this always happen in the present. Looks like consciousness is an open space that cannot escape the present. And of course, it is immaterial. That is obvious, even if it would be an emergent property of matter.

                As for the dualism vs material monism debate, there would be a lot to say about why we consider those concepts in that way. Ideas have an history. We take the way we think for granted but we are not that smart, those ideas came from somewhere, they are social construction.

                To make a short story, I don’t think monist materialism (monorealism) is the real story. But that doesn’t make me automatically a dualist. But yes, for the sake of the argument, I’ll say that I’m a dualist because I believe that consciousness has an uncreated nature, just like energy. Uncreated means it is beyond time. And matter. This is why we can experience consciousness like we do, i.e.: in a constant now.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted September 14, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

            The intuition that an object can’t be all red and all green seems like it could be considered an empirical result encoded in our genome by natural selection over long periods of time.

            Babies less than a year old, for example, show surprise when an object they observed being placed behind a screen is removed having changed color or number. The intuition that two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time is seemingly embedded in our genome by millenia of empirical experiences encoded into the human genome.

            Certainly we can imagine mathematical oddities, such as a three dimensional object embedded in a four dimensional space that could appear to be different colors to differently located observers at the same time. The simple fact that this is unnatural for us to imagine is itself probably a result of the fact that the very structure and functioning of our brain is shaped and determined by the impact of empirical experience and remembered by DNA.

      • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        Rixaeton,

        I gave some examples in my reply to Tim below. Basically, I’m talking about normative, abstract, and modal facts.

  9. MAUCH
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    It’s always said that it is naive to think that only science is able to bring understanding to the world around us. Okay what insight has woo truly provided for us? Do we have irrefutable proof that a blastocyst possesses a soul or that that martyrdom puts you on a fast track to 72 virgins? The only insight we can gain from woo is the fact that its assertions are totally without substance.

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      While I agree with the goal of this challenge, notice that you allow onto the field of battle something that has not been proven to exist: supernatural virgins in the sky.

      What if you require them to first prove the existence of everything in their argument before they start discussing the availability, aspects and powers of things?

      To say it another way: don’t make them prove a martyr will acquire virgins in the sky; make them prove the existence of the virgins first.

    • raven
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      Okay what insight has woo truly provided for us?

      About zero, nothing.

      The religions can’t agree on anything. Including whether the gods even exist. Some Buddhist sects are agodless, for example. Some have herds of gods, some just a few.

      There are thousands of gods and religions, most of them sleeping in the graveyard of the gods these days.

      Even xians don’t agree on anything. There are 42,000 One True Xian Cults, and new ones are formed every year in an ever expanding cloud.

      Science converges asymptopically on the truth. Religion constantly diverges from one guess to countless guesses.

    • Bebop
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      So was is not science but is able to provide knowledge = woo??

      Meaning, joy, humour, language, creativity, sex, etc… all this = woo?

  10. Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    to the assertion that there is an “unknowable and the inexplicable beyond the world of our experience” . . .must come the response: “How do you know that is true?” (since it is not only unknowable but inexplicable)

  11. wantstoknow
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Does anyone have ideas regarding a more effective response than these (albeit beautifully thought out) comments? Cancel our subscriptions? Draft someone, preferably Coyne to write a response to both Nature and Discover? I think we really need a powerful and far reaching reaction to these terrible editorial comments.

  12. Sastra
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    I think the writers at Nature are falling into the trap of allowing the religious to turn the word “faith” into a deepity: a term with two different meanings or interpretation which are frequently conflated based on a superficial resemblance.

    A causal, secular meaning for “faith” is that of confidence or trust despite uncertainty. This form of faith is similar to pragmatic reliance: a working assumption which can and will be changed given new evidence or argument.

    Religious “faith” is a different kettle of fish. You hold on to such faith. You commit to such faith. You identify yourself by what you believe in and defend it as if you’re being tested for loyalty, bravery, or the capacity to love and hope despite obstacles.

    The religious LOVE to conflate these interpretations. It’s like including diet and exercise into “alternative medicine.” It’s like labeling evolution “just another religion.” It grants credibility to dogmatism, making it seem like something we all do, can’t help but do — and SHOULD do.

    The editors ought to try an experiment: every time they use the word “faith,” substitute the term “religious faith” and see if there’s any difference. Is a scientist who has faith in his or her theory any different than a scientist who has a RELIGIOUS faith in their theory?

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      I think “absolute” is a more precise modifier than “religious” for that experiment.

      • Sastra
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Not if you’re trying to distinguish the sort of faith which is unique to religion from other, secularized forms of faith.

        • Posted September 14, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

          I still hold my point. Keeps out ambiguities from yammerheads who go on about how “science is a religion”, by noting that inferences in science about the empirical are always made with non-unary probability, and thus not absolute — making the distinction explicit.

    • Bebop
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      I would say that faith is first a psychological process. It can be applied to a lot of sphere, religion, business, sport, life and also science.

      Scientism, not science since it is a method, is the belief that only science can provide true knowledge, which implies indirectly that our senses have access directly to the absolute.

      Now I don’t see why to not subscribe to scientism means that you believe in woo…

      There is absolutely no contradiction between a good scientist that doesn’t adhere to scientism.

      • Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

        b&

        • Bebop
          Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

          So you are basically saying that you can’t use the scientific method without believing that it is the only way to provide true knowledge?

          That being known from a philosophical perspective (nothing pejorative here) as scientism, criticizing scientism = woo and religious salad.

          Is that it?

          • Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

            No, I mean that I have absolutely no clue what it is you’re trying to communicate.

            I suspect part of the problem may be that English isn’t your native language, but a much bigger problem is that you’re abusing the language in absurd ways, including inventing bizarre definitions for terms (such as “scientism”) that are already ill-defined.

            And, even after I attempt to reconstruct some semblance of coherent through from that wreckage, what I’m left with still makes no sense — such as that “no hot without cold and no good without evil” nonsense.

            It clearly goes the other direction, too, as all sorts of cogent responses by other posters haven’t even made a dent in your posts — you keep regurgitating the same incomprehensible whatever-it-is.

            Really, as I wrote, what we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

            b&

            • Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

              This is what he is trying to say:

              “But I must say that all what I’m saying is driven by the belief that consciousness is uncreated, i.e.: beyond time space and matter.”

              We don’t have to know any more than that. All their noise boils down to that.

              That is the Woo singularity after which when it “bangs” becomes either religious woo or secular woo.

              I’d like to say this: everytime “woo” appears in this thread, I read “irrationality.” The antidote to it is “reason as an absolute” with reason meaning facts plus logic, moving forward and back through induction and deduction with no contradiction tolerated.

              • Bebop
                Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

                That my noise is driven by the belief that consciousness is uncreated doesn’t imply that what I say is incoherent. It is really a fact that objectivity can’t exist without subjectivity. Even a new atheist can come to that conclusion.

                Science also believes that energy is uncreated.
                It doesn’t make science incoherent.

            • Bebop
              Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

              C’mon!!
              I don’t invent that scientism is the belief that only science can provide true knowledge…

              That is what this thread is all about. And a lot of people here translates this as a critique of science as a method (which is not the case), so it must be woo or religious bla bla.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

                My definition of scientism, as used by the woo-meisters, is:

                that fungible term used reductively to diminish the importance of empirical claims made by science in order to simultaneously reserve breathing room for religious and spiritual claims to knowledge, while casting dehumanizing aspersions on the character of scientists as cold, vacuous, empty of emotion, and unaware and unappreciative of life’s finer experiences.

                The word as used by those who please themselves to imagine that “scientism” describes an actual belief system held by actual people is weighted with the baggage of a lot of illegitimate assumptions and presumptions.

                Oh, and they like to pretend it just refers to the claim that only the empirical scientific approach can be used to discover facts about our universe, and that religion can’t discover facts about our universe.

                But if that were true, they would just call it science rather than “scientism”, which carries all the delicious hostility employed in trying to box one’s opponent into the pigeon-hole of unimaginative narrow minded ideologically constrained rigid thinking.

              • Bebop
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

                I don’t recognize your definition in the thread we are arguing about. That scientism is a philosophical problem isn,t a new thing. Popper, who can,T be accused of being a woo-meister, addressed this a few decades ago.
                I still believe that Nature and Discovery aren’t paranormal or religious reviews.

                It never crosses your mind that reality MAY not rely exclusively on matter?

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted September 15, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

                It never crosses your mind that reality MAY not rely exclusively on matter?

                This takes a lot of nerve. This is a trivial question even the most simple minded person must consider. To even doubt or question whether I’ve considered it is insulting.

                During my 53 years I have spent a great deal of time considering this. In fact, before I had spent a great deal of time thinking about it, this is what I assumed, that mind was something immaterial.

                Your position is the default obvious one that requires little consideration, so I could just as easily turn this question around. Have you ever considered that what appears immaterial may be other than it appears to be? Do you lack the imagination to think beyond your culturally conditioned assumptions?

                There are many reasons I am convinced that mind is a product of the material brain alone. A simple one is drunkenness, drug induced states of mind, anesthesia, and sleep. Why should consciousness be so affected by biochemical changes to the body? Another is the effects of brain injury and disease on consciousness. We know certain brain injuries can stop us from seeing or from recognizing loved ones. There is hardly a human characteristic one can think of but there is a case of that characteristic being lost due to disease or injury.

                A simple minded response, the idea that the brain is some kind of antenna immediately comes to mind, but is easily dismissed because it raises more questions than it answers.

                There are also paradoxes raised by dualism. If our apparent uncaused free choices are not the result of a material brain at work, but driven by some unknown and mysterious force, how exactly would that force avoid causation? And how would it affect matter in order to move the body?

                Which gets down to the argument that most strongly gives me the confidence to dismiss the idea of immaterial ‘spiritual’ forces. If there were some kind of divine or spiritual force capable of altering the laws of physics and changing the state of physical material, we could build an instrument to detect its effects and it’s presence, if only indirectly. In fact this is exactly how science has discovered many unknown phenomena in nature, by seeing its indirect effects. If there were immaterial forces that could not affect our physics, they are effectively forever invisible to us, of no consequence to us, and effectively non existent. If there are unknown forces that can effect our physics, then they are effectively a part of our physics we haven’t discovered yet, just as magnetism, electricity, weak and strong forces, and gravity once were.

                The idea that there is some mysterious force or energy that we only see occurring in that mass of neurons we call the brain and nowhere else, and that this extremely mysterious and elusive entity can be extinguished entirely by introducing chemicals into the brain, or radically altered by physical changes to the brain, gives me a lot of confidence that consciousness is a product of the brain activity and depends intimately on the structure of the brain.

                So if you think there is an immaterial element to consciousness, and your reasons go beyond hope and faith, what are they? What is your thinking behind your assertions? Keep in mind that by material or physical is not meant just matter, as you implied above, but matter and energy in all their forms and interactions.

              • Bebop
                Posted September 15, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

                From where I come from, atheism is the default a-religious state of mind… So I had to re-think about it in order to not be conditioned by what seemed obvious… One point about the possible immateriality of the mind: it doesn’t mean matter can’t influence it. That I’m drunk says nothing about its original state. Just like a broken tv will alter the signal it receives. Energy is said to be uncreated. It changes all the time from what I can see.

                Now for the dualist vs materialist debate, let’s keep in mind that those words have an history. These are concept that didn’t come in our time by themselves. They are cultural, historical AND mostly linguistic inventions. That reality may be beyond what language and our senses are capable to grasp is not something that should be considered as WOO.

                For finishing, let’s say it would be true that the mind has an uncreated nature and can manifest itself within the limits of an organic machine. let,s just assume this and think the same way human would find themselves if that would be true.

                No matter how intelligent and sophisticated their machines would be, if their consciousness would really be uncreated, there is technically speaking no way to find something about it. Science and technology are only able to deal with material phenomenons. If the mind is not a material phenomenon, but is influenced by the material it interacts with, that is an explanation why consciousness can’t find itself. If your own consciousness, which isn,t material, tries to find itself through material devices, don’t ask how come you don’t find it.
                It is like looking for a white spot on a white screen.

          • Sastra
            Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

            It might be useful if critics of “scientism” provided some specific examples of a statement that would be “scientistic.” I don’t mean re-working the definition into the sentence, but an actual illustration of someone applying science in an improper way.

            Here are some helpful suggestions:

            “My analysis of sound tones demonstrates that Wagner was a better composer than Mozart, and therefore his music is more pleasing. People who prefer Mozart are wrong.” (or vice versa)

            “Since human beings are made of atoms and chemicals, then emotions don’t really exist. No person of reason should feel any “love” for any thing or any one.”

            “It is unscientific to do math using imaginary numbers. Stop it.”

            Is this sort of thing what you mean by “scientism?” If not — could you make up your own samples of pro-science people running amok?

            • Bebop
              Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

              “I don’t mean re-working the definition (of scientism) into the sentence, but an actual illustration of someone applying science in an improper way.”

              Scientism isn’t about applying science in an improper way, it is about believing that reality can only be reduced to scientific truth or statements.

              Which also implies the belief that subjectivity, qualia, humour, joy, meaning, concepts, philosophy, science, morality, etc, have exclusive material origins.

              • Sastra
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

                I’ll ask again: give an example of someone making a “scientistic” statement WITHOUT just restating your definition (ie “Reality can be reduced to scientific truth or statements” is NOT what I’m looking for.) Be specific.

                Are you suggesting that the entire theory of naturalism (“all mental events ultimately come from what is nonmental”) is automatically “scientism?” That would imply that some form of dualism (or idealist monism) is the DEFAULT state, in need of no evidence, argument, and brooking no honest dissent.

                I mean, what if it’s actually true that materialism is true — and this is established beyond reasonable doubt? Would it still be ‘scientism’ to say so?

                Can you make a distinction between reductionism and greedy reductionism?

              • Bebop
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

                “I mean, what if it’s actually true that materialism is true — and this is established beyond reasonable doubt? Would it still be ‘scientism’ to say so?”

                That is a good question. But how can you be sure that materialism is established beyond reasonable doubt? Because you don’t eave here any space for doubt which means you have the certitude that your senses are not limited and give you the absolute , as it is, big picture?

                The problem is that you have no way to verify this.

                So I believe that the right question is yes: scientism is still scientism even if you are convinced that only science can provide true knowledge.

                By the way, scientism is seen as a philosophical problem in philosophy in general. Not because it argues with material monism, because it shows some inherent contradictions.

                And no, as I said above, a non-material theory isn’t automatically a dualist theory. reality isn’t limited by ideas and the historical reasons why we came to split reality in a materialist vs dualist debate. Oriental tradition has a lot to say about this and it is not here that I’ll start to talk about it.

                M. Coyne still waits for a scientific explanation of poetry. I’m afraid that won’t happen because science deals with what is measurable and poetry isn’t measurable, unless you believe it is… You can believe that science has explained consciousness and qualia but if it would be the case, that thread wouldn’t exist.

                Again, scientism and science are 2 different things. If there was a plane, a dimension that would escape the material dimension, how could you see it? How could you see especially if what makes you conscious comes from that plane?

                here is objectively speaking (haha) no way be certain about the origin of consciousness because if consciousness has truly an uncreated nature, science wouldn’t be a tool that could measure it.

              • Bebop
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

                As for your specific example you are asking, I gave plenty of them already. The problem is that you believe that consciousness is a property of matter so no matter what the argument will be, you’ll just nail it by saying that “since it is well known that what belongs to the subjective world has no real basis, that argument is refuted”, which would still be an example of scientism. But meaning is a good example. Meaning makes no sense from a purely objective reality. But since there can’t be objectivity without subjectivity (sorry, this is factual), meaning has no choice to be real for real.

                But one of the problem is language. We take for granted that language translates reality. We don’t realize that language shapes our mind in a certain way. Language has a proper dynamic, a binary dynamic (good vs evil, materialism vs dualism, subjectivity vs objectivity) that leads us to believe in absolutes. It is very good for the everyday life, but it is not the right tool when it comes to deal with what is real because language is the product of our mind which grasp the world in a CERTAIN way, not an absolute way. The problem is that we believe the absolute exists because we have words to describe it: good vs evil, subjectivity vs objectivity, beauty vs ugliness, high vs low, matter vs anti-matter…

                So for the same reason science wouldn’t be able to capture or isolate something immaterial or not emergent from matter, language is not able to talk about something that is not limited by our senses. Well it can provide some terms but they would be beyond our imagination.

  13. Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Weird: It’s like a zen thing or a paradox: “Don’t trust scientists to tell you about reality” published in a science magazine. Maybe it only works out if Ananyo Bhattacharya is not really a scientist, because if he was we would not be able to accept what he says about reality and/or our ability to “understand” or “appreciate” it, or not.

    After all:

    Unlike religion, science does not require blind faith, they said—only trust in scientists, who had, after all, produced verifiable results and made successful predictions in the past. But that is to conflate well-established science—a body of knowledge supported by so much experiment and observation that it is very likely true—and the new findings of science at any particular moment, which are quite likely to be false.

    So I can disregard what Mr Bhattacharya says as it is a “new finding of science” at this particular moment? Or is it that when you only have a screwdriver everything looks screwed? Fortunately science does bring the whole toolbox of ways of knowing that have been verified to work in the past, so we have a great deal of confidence that they can continue to work in the future. Adding superfluous woo-tools like horseshoe hammers for miniature pink invisible unicorns may be more colourful and make for great conversation starters at parties, but they won’t fix my carburettor or tell me why I really liked Heath Ledger’s interpretation of The Joker in The Dark Knight.

  14. Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    this is slippery:

    “new finding of science”

    It was announced yesterday that a new species of money has been “found”
    http://phys.org/news/2012-09-african-monkey-species.html

    Leading up to the rational confirmation of the investigation and the identification of the essential characteristics which then, through induction, led to the new concept to which the appellation “Cercopithecus hamlyni” has been assigned — was a period of rumor, conjecture, skepticism and curiosity: “does this monkey actually exist?”

    The full identification is a proof, and it is certain. The rumor period is specifically and professionally never asserted to be true by scientists even though some evidence has been “found.” Juxtaposed, unfortunately there is a fairly innocent and quaint history of calling a proven scientific fact “a finding.”

    The slippery part is the implication that a new “finding” of science can be wrong. They are drifting hypotheses periods and conjectures under the umbrella of “finding” in order to assert that “science is often wrong.”

    • Tim
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      new species of money

      A wager on a hedge on a derivative of a credit default swap? 😊

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      …new species of money would be of more interest to economists than biologists.

      • Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

        why did you make that comment? I posted a typo, there is no “edit” feature. Mea culpa.

        • Tim
          Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

          Just having fun. Typos mostly yield mispelled words or just nonsense, so it is humorous when the typo makes a weird kind of “sense”.

          • Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

            I got that yours was funny, no problem. Here’s my extension: “A wager on a hedge on a derivative of a credit default swap?”

            Yes, the usual monkey business!

          • Posted September 14, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

            IE, play on the word “specie”.

  15. raven
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.

    This is trivial and silly.

    For those who don’t have radio telescopes, the existence of quasars and millisecond pulsars is an act of faith.

    For those without electron microscopes, the existence of mitochondria is an act of faith.

    For those who can’t follow quantum mechanics, the existence of microprocessors is an act of faith.

    For those without medical degrees, belief in modern medicine efficacy is an act of faith. To explain this further, anyone can look at the data and find that people who visit doctors live a lot longer than people who don’t. It’s actually highly rational to do so which is why most people demand modern medical care.

    It’s also wrong. The Higgs boson has been observed. Anyone can see the data, some of which doesn’t require any mathematics. It’s just graphs and pictures of particle collisions.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      We who are not mathematicians and particle physicists do not accept that the Higgs has been discovered because we believe in the Higgs. We do not accept it because we believe the mathematicians and particle physicists.

      We accept it because we have confidence in a system which has dispute, argument, competition, demonstration, caution, and skepticism built into it, at the foundation. It’s the whole point of the scientific process. If a scientist is mistaken, then other scientists not only want to know that — they want the scientist who made the mistake to know that.

      • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        That’s part of the picture.

        But the real reason to have confidence in the system is that it’s not hard to verify, for yourself, the overwhelming majority of the discoveries. Or, at the least, to verify the broad outlines of all of the discoveries as well as a great many of the fine details.

        In the lab portions of your science classes at school, you should have performed exactly that verification on all of Newtonian mechanics as well as lots of other phenomena. Absolute zero, for example, is something you can calculate with a long glass tube, some water, some ice, a ruler, and a thermometer. You can buy telescopes from Amazon that will let you confirm many of modern astronomy’s findings, and any Ham Radio operator should be able to observe the Cosmic Microwave Background without much trouble. Any gardener can confirm Mendelian genetics, and I’d expect that Jerry’s own fruit fly research is something you could do at home without any exotic equipment at all.

        That even extends to things like particle physics. Sure, you’re not going to reach anywhere close to the energies they’re playing with at CERN, but a dedicated amateur should be capable of building a Wilson cloud chamber or a small cyclotron.

        And, you know what? If you need even more proof…just ask. All the big science centers do lots of public outreach and would be thrilled to have members of the public ask probing questions.

        But do please be respectful of their time and resources, of course. And the best way you could show respect would be by doing everything you can to get up to speed beforehand.

        But wait! There’s more! If you’re really serious about wanting to know everything, there’s even an entire class of public institution dedicated to helping you do exactly that. It’s called a “university”….

        Cheers,

        b&

      • Occam
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        Confidence, as laid out by Sastra and Ben, is the key expression in this context.

        Confidence is not equivalent to “an act of faith”.
        A cascading Bayesian model could be associated with every step in the entire chain of reasoning to show why, based on available evidence, a scientific explanation is more likely than competing non-scientific ones.

        Faith has nothing to do with it. The basic mental processes involved are probably similar to those that tell you it’s unlikely to be a good idea to plunge your hand in boiling water, or fondle that rattlesnake, or try to stop a bullet with your nose.

        On the contrary, faith is precisely the kind of erroneous meta-assumption that could induce you to believe that any of the above actions would be a good idea, with nasty consequences.

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      Seriously, you look at a picture like http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2012/07/05/world/jphiggs3.html and see the Higgs boson? That’s some imagination you have!

  16. raven
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Science has taken us from the stone age to the space age. It’s the basis of our modern Hi Tech civilization and responsible for America’s leadership of the world. US lifespans have increased 30 years in a century and we feed 7 billion people.

    What has religion done for us?

    Nothing, other than kill a lot of people in various conflicts on an almost daily basis. A lot of it is just baggage being dragged along behind our society and holding it back.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      What has religion done for us?

      The religious would like to reply that it’s brought us a way to appreciate and love such benefits as science has brought us, and a way to find value in life even without them.

      Dishonest of them, since they’re co-opting human nature and philosophy and pretending that this all falls under the mantle of “religion.”

    • Bebop
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      That is ridiculous. It is not because science is great that religion didn’t do anything good.

      Where I live, until the ’60, schools and hospitals were ran by religious communities.

      A lot of their members were dedicated nurses and teachers.

      And believe it or not, some of them taught science and even used the scientific method!

  17. Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Scientists are of course human, many as fallible as any whisky priest.

    Intellectual maturity means understanding that the response to, “so-and-so is not perfect,” most emphatically is not, “therefore, anything goes.”

    Just because biologists don’t have a living sample of the last universal ancestor…does not mean that life originated in an enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry wizard.

    Just because Pons & Fleischmann made a mess of that whole cold fusion debacle…does not mean that there’s some sort of secret conspiracy keeping zero-point energy and 100 MPG carburetors off the market.

    Just because you don’t understand the lingo that climate researchers use in interdepartmental emails…doesn’t mean that burning half the planet’s total petroleum reserves over the course of a century has no effect on climate.

    All those who trot out the “you’re not perfect” card as an excuse for espousing bullshit don’t need to take off their shoes to count their emotional ages.

    Cheers,

    b&

  18. Tim
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    …the new findings of science at any particular moment, which are quite likely to be false.

    This may be more true than we’d like to believe if an editor of Nature thinks so – at least insofar as what is published in Nature! Seriously, this editor had better start getting more competent referees if he really believes the new science he is publishing is quite likely to be false.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      If we rephrase that a little, and say that all new science is provisional, subject to review and verification, with the understanding that it can be proven wrong at any time, then we are talking about a strength of science.

      Science explores it’s own boundaries cautiously with a recognition of the possibility of human error that must be guarded against using proper methodologies and peer review.

      This is exactly why well established settled science is so damn reliably correct!

      Religion on the other hand is correct by definition, without any verification or doubt.

      Of course sophisticated theologians like to talk about doubt, but for them doubt doesn’t mean seriously questioning and testing the assumptions of theology; it’s more like the play of deferred ejaculation, prolonging voluptuous uncertainty before the inevitable homecoming to the ‘truth’ that was postulated in the beginning.

      Sophisticated theological doubt is the process by which faith is not challenged but rather intensified and strengthened, more like the risk-free play of weight lifting than the actual combat of facing hard reality head on.

      With this kind of doubt there is no risk of losing faith or of being wrong. It’s more a mental masturbation, indulging in the pleasures of deep mystery while never letting go of the lifeline of false security, never dispensing with the safety that comes from knowing an imaginary answer awaits you in the end, a conclusion that provides the smug pretense that its vague mysteriousness is a deep embrace of uncertainty, which serves as a token of what a sincere reaching for truth this mystical doubt represents. Oh yes, the deeper you push into vagueness and mystery, the closer you are to ultimate truth! I think I’m about to see the light…

      Ugh, I’ve made myself ill now.

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      And of course, it doesn’t take much for publication bias to produce mostly false entries. Suppose that out of the new drugs scientists study, only 1 in a 100 turns out to have an effect. Then if 101 scientists run experiments, say the 1 doing the true experiment reports their results, and 5 more out of the remaining 100 report their experiments as success with p value of 0.05. Then only 16% of what is published is actually true.

  19. Roo
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I think there are some decent points to be had here, I just don’t think they have anything to do with religion, which is what I always find perplexing about these articles. I do think it’s worth talking about:

    – How subjective interpretation relates to the scientific process. I don’t like the argument that’s seemingly implied at times, that subjectivity is some sort of rarified event that only happens upon gazing at the stars or reading poetry. Subjective interpretation is an integral part of the scientific process itself, from what I can tell. Of course, there’s a gradation between “When I push this vase it falls over – I interpret this as a cause-effect relationship” to “to what degree does nature vs. nurture influence development in what ways” to the notion that WWII would have ended by Christmas of 1944 had Montgomery been allowed to be Supreme Commander in Europe rather than Eisenhower. The ‘softer’ the science, or the more theoretical the ‘hard’ science (again, from what I can tell,) the more subjective subjectivity is invoked (as opposed to subjective experience we can all agree on – none of us has, as of yet, accomplished the sensory feet of actually experiencing 1+1 equaling 3.) When I hear an argument for / against group selection, how am I to judge its validity without appealing to “that makes sense (i.e. ‘feels’ right)” or “that doesn’t make sense”? What does “make sense” mean, really? That side of subjectivity is well worth studying, I think, and should not be relegated to the fuzzy feeling you get when staring out over the Grand Canyon.

    – “Other ways of knowing” may in fact have some sort of value, again, related to the above. Say we can isolate the types of biases that arise from having experienced life a certain way. I believe there was a study out not long ago that indicates reading fiction actually improves Theory of Mind skills. If you’re able to hypothetically take on the experiences and emotions of someone coming from a different perspective, for example, then yes, I can see that working as a sort of corrective for cognitive biases in interpretive work. I’m not saying that process is a stringent as biochemistry, but perhaps there is some value there that should be studied and considered.

    – No, there is not some sort of polar opposition where atheists and rationalists claim that religion is always Bad and Wrong and science is always Good and Right. Certainly on this blog alone I’ve seen Jerry reference what I suppose are the ‘whisky priest’ scientists (falsifying data and the like.) And yes, scientists are people prone to biases, agendas, and influence from special interest groups. I don’t think anyone has claimed otherwise, but if people are left with that impression, well, sure, by all means clarify that point then, it’s important. The idea is not to set science on some sort of holy untouchable pedestal, and people should know this.

    – As society becomes more and more specialized, yes, we do rely on our “faith” in one another to self-monitor, act ethically, act in the best interest of society (i.e., not come up with results that are questionable but will sell a lot of books, and so on,) etc. This isn’t true just in science, I understand little about what goes on in the high levels of the financial world, or various industries, and so on. We do not live in ye ol village where we can check up on John the Blacksmith’s handiwork anymore, and this specialization appears to be becoming more and more pronounced. Yeah, it’s kind of scary. Perhaps we need better ways of disseminating that information to laypeople, or assuring trust among groups, and so on.

    That said, again none of those points relate to religion, from what I can tell, and it annoys me that arguments like this are so often conflated, because it just means that no one takes them seriously. They become the purview of ‘woo-ish’ people.

    Also, I love that Wittgenstein was such a deranged sassy pants. Oh, Ludwig. Also also, the phrase “slapping someone around with the Holy Bible” is going to make me giggle at random intervals throughout the day that will be entirely uninterpretable to anyone around me.

    • Bebop
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      Forget this. If you don’t adhere to scientism but still use seriously the scientific method, what you say can only = woo or religious bla bla. Period. You can’t critic scientism. Scientism doesn’t even exist. It is even not a philosophical position since it relies only on facts. And since philosophy is not material and what is not material doesn’t exist, I can you give credit to a scientific that says scientism exists?

      • Roo
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

        Ha, my childhood nickname Bebop, weird coincidence! Also, sorry, I used the dreaded ‘blog’ word above, it just slipped out! Website! Website!

  20. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    One might gain genuine insight into alcoholism from some plays by Eugene O’Neill. But one will probably get an incorrect and misleading portrait of alcoholism watching Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights”. Thus the insight one gets from these dramas has to be checked against…reliable research into alcoholism!!! (Likewise, while multiple split personality is one of the rarest of all psychological disorders- some dispute its existence at all-, but it’s such a favorite trope of Hollywood, an avid moviegoer can get the impression it’s fairly common.)

    Thus, I will suggest a highly modified version of this thesis.

    Great art and intuition can in fact sometimes provide “understanding” of human nature and “big questions”, but that understanding is most reliable in those whose emotions are well-integrated with their capacity for rational thinking(!), and who periodically test and sift out the insights they get from great art and intuition against other sources of insight, including rationality! In other words “other ways of knowing” (I really don’t like that phrase) need to be checked against science.

    Lots of people think one of the most profound novels ever written is Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”. But this novel has a thoroughly (Russian Orthodox) Christian frame of reference. Dostoevsky has thousands of non-believing fans who nonetheless labor to transpose the core insights of this novel into a framework other than FD’s Christianity.

    We sometimes do, on an entirely intuitive basis, get terrific insights into other human minds. But the same intuition can lead us astray as well.

    • Roo
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      Those are all great points Jon.

  21. Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    I’ll say something friendly first: my subjective opinion is that Market Garden was a significant factor in the stalling of the 1944 endgame and also that the only way the war would have ended in that year was for Monty, Bradley and Ike to get out of the way and give the ball to Patton.

    On the substance of your post: you duly crush down religion near the end. However, you give a tremendous amount of credit to secular woo woo above that by valorizing “subjective” and “faith” as working terms for rationals.

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      that post was meant to be @ Roo

      • Roo
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

        Ha, thanks, I was thinking “Am I just becoming so self-centered that I see everything as directed at me”?, but it sounded like you were talking to me!

        I’m not clear on where, exactly, you disagree though?

      • Roo
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        Also, just to clarify, here’s more what I meant when I used the word ‘faith’. The author of the article said that many people nowadays don’t actually understand science, and he’s probably right. To some degree it’s because we’re not as scientifically literate as a society as we should be, but let’s be honest – many, myself included, simply wouldn’t be able to understand some of those concepts past a certain level. It takes years of training and a certain natural ability in many fields nowadays. So in that sense he’s right, we often do have to take the scientists word for it, or assume that as a group they’re doing an adequate job of self-policing and producing quality work. I can’t verify that personally. Perhaps a better word would be ‘trust’, not faith.

        My larger point was that this is true in many areas of society, and I don’t see the concern in general as illegitimate. Look at what Wall Street got up to when no one was really watching this past decade. Sure, we want to make sure we have safeguards in place so that even if we can’t personally check on a person’s work, we feel reasonably safe in the process that produced the results we rely on. It’s just not a questions specific to religion.

  22. Alice Wonder
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Science is a philosophical discipline, but it is the systematic study of natural phenomena.

    Religion is also a philosophical discipline, but it explicitly deals with super-natural phenomena that can not be systematically studied. Arguments and concepts based on metaphysics are used to study religious principles, a systematic approach simply does not work.

    It is a scope error to try and compare the two.

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      …except, of course, for the fact that religion has never even pretended to restrict itself to philosophy and abstain from making perfectly unwarranted absolutely authoritative pronouncements on reality.

      Christianity would have you believe that a zombie wandered ancient Jerusalem getting his rocks off telling people to fondle his intestines through his gaping chest wound, and therefore you should eat a magic cracker or else he’ll have you infinitely tortured. And, oh-by-the-way, the zombie didn’t like it when people got divorced, so you can’t have a divorce, either.

      To a rationalist, that’s as absurd as it gets, on every level, in every manner, from the empirical to the theoretical through the philosophical.

      Yes, it is an error to try to compare science and religion. One is sane, and the other is batshit fucking crazy.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Alice Wonder
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        You are intentionally and blatantly mis-representing what Christianity would have people believe for the purpose of mocking them.

        If you don’t wish to be intellectually honest yourself, then you really have no place arguing against the integrity of their statements.

        • Posted September 13, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

          I’m sorry. Misrepresenting? That would mean that I got the facts worng, which I’m quite sure I didn’t. Yes, I dressed up the facts in intentionally insulting language, but the facts remain.

          Here’s a deconstruction:

          Christianity would have you believe that a zombie wandered ancient Jerusalem getting his rocks off telling people to fondle his intestines through his gaping chest wound, and therefore you should eat a magic cracker or else he’ll have you infinitely tortured. And, oh-by-the-way, the zombie didn’t like it when people got divorced, so you can’t have a divorce, either.

          Jesus bodily rose from the grave, his wounds still gaping — and that’s the whole thrust, if you will, of the Doubting Thomas story.

          For many years, now, the term, “zombie,” has been used to describe exactly such a phenomenon. Indeed, the reanimated corpse with multiple graphically bloody major wounds that feature prominently in the horror show is the very archetype of the trope.

          And Jesus spent the proverbial 40 days in this undead state, staying in Jerusalem, continuing to preach. “Wandering” is poetic, but not unreasonably so in this case, and two millennia ago certainly qualifies as “ancient.”

          The “getting his rocks off” bit is poetic license, granted, but hardly unjustified.

          John 20:27 Then saith He to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

          28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.

          Read that to any pubescent boy and the snickering will be uncontainable — Jesus told Thomas to “thrust” his “hand” into Jesus’s “side,” and Thomas said, when he was done, “My God!”

          And the magic cracker? Where do you think the phrase, “hocus pocus” originated from but a comedic corruption of the Latin Mass? A special man mumbles some incantation over a piece of stale bread, thereby inexplicably transmuting it into the flesh of an ancient zombie…and that’s not a magic cracker?

          If the Biblical Hell of hellfire and brimstone that Jesus repeatedly describes, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, doesn’t qualify as infinite torture, then nothing does. And it’s Jesus’s judgement that determines whether you’ll be so tortured or get to spend eternity groping his glorious guts.

          Lastly, the Church’s objections to divorce are well-known, and it’s not at all hard to find red-letter text anti-divorce statements from Jesus…such as in the early part of the Sermon on the Mount, where not only are all adulterers condemned to Hell, but so are all men who commit virtual adultery thoughtcrime by admiring a pretty woman and failing to immediately gouge out their own eyes and chop off their own hands.

          Really, there’s no need to make fun of Christianity — it really does fun of itself. But it does so in carefully stilted language, such that it helps shake people up enough to realize that, for example, yes, it really does famously feature a talking plant that gives magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Alice Wonder
            Posted September 14, 2012 at 5:29 am | Permalink

            You do have the facts wrong.

            Nowhere is eating a cracker demanded or the person is tortured.

            The cracker that is used is actually from the Jewish Passover tradition. The last supper was a passover seder.

            Jesus was making an analogy that he was the passover lamb, sacrificed to save them from the bondage of sin just like the original passover lamb saved them from the bondage of Egypt.

            The passover cracker was unleavened bread, leaven was often used poetically to represent sin.

            Jesus did say “Do this often in rememberence of me” but one’s salvation was never tied to it, either in the words of Jesus or the apostles who wrote the rest of the new testament.

            Salvation from sin was always an act of grace for those who believe and never the result of works (such as eating a cracker). That message is quite clear.

            As far as torture is concerned, hell as the modern church sees it is actually a rather modern concept post new testament. But that’s a different topic.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted September 14, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

              Are you saying a Catholic can refuse communion for life and still enter heaven? Certainly it’s true that not all Christians practice communion, so Ben’s description was not catholic Christian satire, it was Catholic/Anglican Christian satire.

              To debate the factuality of his alternate telling of the good news is a bit absurd, since it was itself meant to illustrate the absurdity of the dogma as it appears to atheists.

              At the very least, each phenomenon he made reference to exists as a belief for many, such as transubstantiation, resurrection, the touching of the wound, etc. even if the consequence for not taking parts of Christ’s body into your mouth is not as he implied. Which parts of the body do the crackers turn into by the way? Loin, shank, heart, brain, buttocks, penis? An important theological point no doubt, since whether or not humans fellate Christ unknowingly depends on the answer.

              Here is the ironic part about your mention that ‘hell’ seems negotiable: thousands of heretics and witches were burned at the stake because of fear of hell and fear of Satan, and countless Christians over centuries upon centuries have lived and died in terror of hell because of the holy infallible authority of the church, and now they say “oh, you know all those sinners that we used to insist we’re already burning in hell? Guess what? We changed our minds.”

              Are you a believer? Can you not see the irony, the contingency of it, and the credibility problem this creates for the entire belief system, the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, heaven, and God himself? Certainly Christians can see the absurdity of belief in the Egyptian system or Aztec system of faith. For hell to be a ‘reality’ based on faith for so many for so long that can just be erased by human agreement on doctrine reveals that all of it is simply just a human creation for human convenience. Nobody receives revelation of absolute truth; every “authority” simply decides what story makes the most sense to them, is most coherent and compelling and believable in their personal view. To convert hell by human fiat from being an actual ontological category to being a story that was told in order to keep the masses in check gives the whole game away.

    • Gary W
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      Religion is also a philosophical discipline, but it explicitly deals with super-natural phenomena that can not be systematically studied.

      What reason is there to believe there’s any such thing as super-natural phenomena? You say that religion “deals with” these phenomena. What does it tell us about them?

      • Alice Wonder
        Posted September 14, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

        Different people have different reasons for believing there are super natural phenomena.

        My own reason is too lengthy to put here and probably does not belong in a science blog, since science must be highly skeptical of anything that by its nature claims it can be tested with the scientific method.

        Religion does not belong in science, in my opinion. It taints science when you bring religion. Either science explains something with testable hypothesis and falsification principles or science does not have an answer and keeps looking for one. There’s no room for religion in that kind of investigation.

        • Alice Wonder
          Posted September 14, 2012 at 5:46 am | Permalink

          sed -e s/it can be/it can not be/ ;)

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted September 14, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

          True. Do you feel that one religion is true, and the others mistaken? Is there a place for such competition amongst religions? And what do you say to the losers who believe with all their heart in the ‘wrong’ faith? Why would you be correct and they wrong?

        • Nikos Apostolakis
          Posted September 14, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

          There’s no room for religion in that kind of investigation.

          In what kind of investigation is there room for religion in your opinion?

          You must be new here. The conflict between science and religion, the comparison of their modus operandi and their essential incompatibility is a recurring theme in this bl.. er website. So when you make statements like “religion and science are not comparable” you will get a lot of reactions from the regulars. Just a heads-up.

        • Gary W
          Posted September 14, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

          Different people have different reasons for believing there are super natural phenomena. My own reason is too lengthy to put here and probably does not belong in a science blog

          I’m not asking for an essay, just a short description of what you believe to be valid reasons for believing there’s any such thing as supernatural phenomena.

          And you ignored my second question. What do you think religion tells us about these supposed supernatural phenomena?

  23. Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    With respect, I think most are missing the point of the Sarewitz article. Sarewitz is pointing out that both science and religion uses poetry to try to give a description of their actions and understanding to the broader public. “The cosmic molasses” and “sea of milk” are both poetic images. One comes from science, one from religion. Which do we prefer?

    When I think of science, I think of microwaves and jet engines, like so many commenting here. I trust scientists because of their results. So I naturally gravitate towards the scientists poetry.

    But it is just poetry! It is not reality or even an understanding of reality. Poetry is not correct or incorrect: It is words placed in such a way to evoke a mental image in my mind that has little to do with the theory underlying the phenomenon.

    Heck, it was Leon Lederman who called it the God particle (another poetic image!) No wonder the public is confused by the difference between science and religion. When even our own physicists employ the same tactics as the religious, it does become difficult for a layperson to tell the difference.

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      Heck, it was Leon Lederman who called it the God particle (another poetic image!

      …except, of course, that he wanted to call it the “goddamned particle,” but his publisher wouldn’t let him.

      And even the most poetic of scientists, such as Sagan or Dawkins, will rush to tell you that their poetry is an introductory first approximation, a teaser, and that true understanding comes not from the poetic metaphors but from the precise language used in peer-reiewed papers.

      All disciplines have and need jargon to fully express and comprehend that particular specialty. And few people outside of the discipline have the time or inclination to learn a jargon just to get a basic idea of what’s going on. So, that’s what the poets do: they translate the jargon into common poetry.

      But they don’t at all make the mistrake of confusing the translation with the original — and neither should you, either.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted September 13, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        But they don’t at all make the mistrake of confusing the translation with the original — and neither should you, either.

        Yep, that’s why I wrote: “But it is just poetry! It is not reality or even an understanding of reality.” It’s not a mistake I’m likely to make!

        But your response leads to an interesting question: if poetry leads to understanding, then it is a nonrational means for acquiring knowledge. (“Cosmic molasses” is about as nonrational as it gets.) If poetry does not lead to understanding, then why do scientists such as Sagan and Dawkins keep using it? Can rational thought be translated to a nonrational means of expression?

  24. raven
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Sarewitz is pointing out that both science and religion uses poetry to try to give a description of their actions and understanding to the broader public.

    It’s a very superficial similarity.

    We use language because it’s what we use to communicate.

    Science uses language to describe things that are real and reproducible by anyone.

    Religion uses language to confuse and just make up a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with reality.

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      Certainly both science and religion use language to communicate, but saying that they both use poetry to communicate is a much stronger and more specific statement than the trivial “they both use language” statement.

      • raven
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

        No it isn’t. You are saying both use language and that is trivial.

        And BTW, you have no idea what you are talking about.

        In formal scientific papers among ourselves, we use as precise and non-poetic language as possible. The main idea is to communicate correctly not poetically.

        You’ve never seen much less read a scientific paper of which there are 100,000’s per year. They are very dry and generally difficult to impossible for nonspecialists to read. It took me a long while to be able to just read them like a newspaper.

        • Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          You seem to be misreading what I am saying, so I will rephrase. I am not saying that poetry is the *only* way in which scientists communicate, especially to each other. That would be absurd!

          I am saying that it is one way in which scientists communicate deep ideas to laypeople. The article itself gives “Cosmic molasses” as an example. Other famous poetic turns of phrase include “We are made of star-stuff” and “God does not play dice with the universe”.

          You point out that scientific articles are dry and difficult for nonspecialists to read. This is why (I believe) many scientists turn to poetry to express their ideas *to laypeople*.

          By the way, I am a Ph.D. who reads many scientific journal articles in the course of my job. I am not sure where you got the mistaken impression that I “have no idea what I am talking about” but in fact, I do!

  25. Bebop
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    So woo equals to believe that only the scientific method can bring knowledge?

    • Nikos Apostolakis
      Posted September 14, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      No, it’s actually to believe the exactly opposite.

  26. MNb
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    “Do note the dismissive term “scientistas”
    Oh, but we can play that game too.
    Hereby I proudly declare myself to be a scientista. Who’s next?

  27. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    US science magazines have lately turned towards accommodationism pieces for some reason. Here is Scientific American criticizing Bill Nye’s video on creationism and extolling accommodationism through a business communication expert, never mind Rosenhouse’s review of advertising science that finds it says precisely the opposite. Meaning the expert isn’t well versed even in the science of his own area.

    Sarewitz is political scientist, and likes to use his head as a resting place for white doves. Why does anyone take an ideologue seriously on matters of science?

    Finally, that Bhattacharya implodes science to the narrow confines of the philosophy of logical positivism is speaking magnitudes. Empirical learning, which is part of science, is relative a context. So different “truths” don’t necessarily lend themselves to absolute verification. If we can generalize them, certainly we can do that. But there is no guarantee.

    Bhattacharya rather put up a philosophical strawman than find out what empiricism is.

  28. Posted September 13, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    The limitations aren’t with science, the limitations are with people. Science is objective but people–including scientists–are not. Science is rational, not so most people. The difficulty is thus how to separate the science from the people doing, explaining and trying to understand it. I’m not sure there is a clear answer.

    • Posted September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      That’s what the peer review process is supposed to do — separate the science from the scientists.

      There’s lots of empirical data that the peer review process as it stands today is not without its shortcomings, which is why we’re starting to see some new experiments to address those shortcomings, such as open-access journals.

      I’d guess we’ll see significant reform of the peer review process, if not its replacement with something rather different, over the coming decades. Peer review has done well enough so far, but we can do a lot better.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Alice Wonder
        Posted September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

        The peer review process itself has serious flaws. Papers get through peer review all the time that are highly flawed while other papers can not get through peer review because they challenge concepts the reviewers do not want challenged.

        The problem isn’t just peer review though. It can be very difficult to legally obtain some papers if you are not a member of a subscribing institution. There are papers I needed to reference where the only way I could get them was to ask people to send them to me because the journal did not allow jstor to sell me the PDF.

        When one can not get legal access to peer reviewed content, that is a serious problem. Fortunately it is usually easy to get someone (often the author) to send a copy but sometimes it can be difficult.

        I guess if you are at a University that is less of a problem, but not everyone is.

        • Nick
          Posted September 13, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

          From your first paragraph:

          “Papers get through peer review all the time that are highly flawed while other papers can not get through peer review because they challenge concepts the reviewers do not want challenged.”

          We can probably all agree that poorly supported claims sometimes get through peer review, but I would disagree with your claim of “highly flawed”. And what finally discovers that these bad claims are not supported? That’s right… more peer review.

          I think you need to provide evidence for your claim that some ideas that “challenge the concepts” are ignored. Please provide a few relevant examples. A single example of a claim that has reasonable evidence that has ever been denied a voice in the peer-reviewed literature will do as a start, since I don’t believe you can provide one.

    • Bebop
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know if I’ll live enough to see the scientific operation that will separate science from people.

      Or I must say, that will liberate science from people.

      Good luck with that. Ahh the Objective Eden. One day, one day…

      Sorry but science is a method that rely on the scientific method. And unfortunately, it is a human construction. I say unfortunately because humans are subjected to subjectivity.

      The good news is that it is also what allows them to be objective.

  29. Posted September 13, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the quote! :D I actually thought I might have been a little bit strong, but never mind. :P

    I actually ended up having a very brief, very incomprehensible exchange with Bhattacharya on Google+. Let me reproduce what he said:

    “Callum, I’m very familiar with the world views of many scientists – after all, I was one for a decade or so before moving into journalism. Some indeed have thought things through but many have not. In the UK, the education system doesn’t really encourage it (specialism way too early) and science isn’t taught with its history or philosophy.

    I certainly agree that suggesting science is the only way to interpret reality in a useful way is a ridiculous assertion – but that did not stop many scientists, sceptics and folk with scientific backgrounds saying exactly that. Chris Chambers, whose comment I link to in the piece continued to defend that narrow interpretation on twitter and still seems to be puzzled that he somehow overlooked other ways of ordering knowledge eg Wittgenstein’s description of language, Marx’s theory of history – which, while not ‘scientific’ are certainly useful.

    So if it is a ‘straw man’ ie an empty argument – it is one that many believe.

    I’m reassured by your comment that not everyone is so blind to the logical error.

    Lastly, I find the odd dichotomy that atheists seem to insist on between belief and trust to be unsupportable by language – ie atheists (I’m an atheist but not of this sort of ilk) insist that anyone who uses the word belief to point out similarities between the way science is perceived (not how it ‘is’) and religion is misusing language. That’s not true. No-one has a monopoly on meaning – and the definition of ‘belief’ that Sarewitz used is perfectly consistent with dictionary definitions of the word.”

    In response to this, I asked for an explicit demonstration that some scientists think awe and culture are replaceable by empirical investigation because I did not believe that is what Chambers meant. He replied:

    “You don’t have to believe me – take a look at my twitter feed from around a week ago and you’ll see a long thread with Chambers. He did indeed suggest there was no other way of getting to knowledge. When I pointed to theories of history etc he argued that historians were also scientists. (or used the scientific method). I then had to ask him abotu Wittgenstein and Marx and whether he thought they were doing science too. I was rather taken aback at the naivety of his arguements. He wasn’t alone.

    If he had stuck to saying as you do the best method for assessing empirical truths, then he would probably have saved me the time I spent writing the post.”

    I then said, “What do the experience of awe and culture have to do with getting to knowledge?” to which his final response was:

    “I was responding to your point that thinking human experience can be reduced to formulae is “naive beyond measure”. You suggest I used this as a straw man – I did not – Chambers and others implied exactly that by suggesting science was the only tool for interpreting experience/reality. As for your second point about awe and culture – culture has a great deal to do with getting knowledge. Culture includes Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations, MArx’s theory of history and War & Peace. All impart non-scientific knowledge – all help us to order experience and analyse it. By dismissing these forms of non-scientific knowledge the critics were indeed dismissing ‘culture’.”

    I gave up after this because he clearly just doesn’t get the scientific worldview, or understand what people like Chambers are talking about. He also has a very unhelpful working definition of knowledge and culture.

  30. Austin McGrath
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Time to cancel Nature subscription I think

  31. sunyavadi
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    The scientific ideology (not scientific method) is predicated on a single ‘domain of truth': ‘an objective description of reality that holds for all rational observers’. This is descended from prior Christian notions of ‘the single domain of truth’, albeit now purged of those elements deemed ‘subjective’. The result is essentially monist: there’s one domain of truth, and this the way to approach it. Hence the sense of righteous umbrage when that legendary usurper, the dreaded Religion, pops its head over the parapets. Begone, imposter!

    The Jealous God dies hard, eh?

  32. Posted September 13, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m astonished that an editor of a credible journal can pose such terrible arguments. I think you’re right in suspecting that there’s a religious appeasement going on in the background.

    The idea that our feelings are a “way of knowing” relies on an equivocation (or at least blurring) of the definition of “to know”. If someone tells me they “know” that they are feeling happy, I’m obliged to accept that statement. However, they’re informing me about a mental state, not a property of the external world: As soon as they tell me they “know” God loves them, then appealing to this feeling as “another way of knowing” about the natural world becomes fair game for scientific testing.

    My friend Damon Young recently wrote a piece for the ABC that deals with these ideas, by way of David Hume. For anyone interested:

    http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/4218268.html

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      Dan, for some reason the weblink isn’t working. As a fellow Australian, I tried to go in through the ABC site, and there is something awry.

    • Bebop
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

      Beauty is a way of knowing. Ugliness too. As a human being, you know that since a long time.

      I’m really surprised about the reaction those guy is causing…

      Why is it threatening science? Science is a method. How can only one method could provide ALL knowledge since it can only address what can be measured or tested.

      What is so new about the hypothesis that the universe can’t be reduced to only what can be measured and tested?

      I also find regrettable that a lot of comments about what Daniel Sarewitz and Ananyo Bhattacharya are taken for woo or religious remarks since they are not stating that paranormal or religion are true.

      All they say is that scientism is a position and that the scientific method is a method. one doesn’t need to lead to the other. You still can do good science without doing woo or having religious belief and not endorse scientism (which states that science is the only mode of knowing).

      • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

        What is so new about the hypothesis that the universe can’t be reduced to only what can be measured and tested?

        At best, that’s a complete failure to understand what’s meant by the term, “observed.” The alternatives are far less generous, so we’ll run with that.

        Does a phenomenon have an effect — any effect — on the universe?

        Does that effect manifest itself in any way that impinges on human perception, no matter how subtly or indirectly?

        If so, then it can be observed.

        It might be very difficult to observe; witness spacetime curvature, which Gravity Probe B was only able to observe last year, or the (presumed) Higgs Boson which was only observed a couple months ago, or dark energy, which is still an hypothesis (but one on very solid ground).

        Or, it might be easy to observe but difficult to measure — say, the emotional response to art.

        But it can still be observed.

        And, without exception, every observable phenomenon has proven to be one that we can objectively observe. We know, to a great deal of certainty, the exact mass of the (presumed) Higgs Boson, and we also know whether a painting makes most people happy / sad / whatever.

        Now, consider something which cannot be observed. Most proposals for parallel universes fall into this category…but so do most of the phenomenon claimed by superstition, especially religious superstition.

        Here’s the thing: if it doesn’t even leave an indirect trace on human perception, then you don’t know anything about it, either. Or, conversely, if you do somehow still know something about it, then a scientist can trivially use the same methods you yourself use to start making some empirical observations about the phenomenon.

        It’s that last point that trips up the religious.

        We know that the Cosmic Microwave Background is real because anybody with a bit of basic handy skills can cannibalize a satellite TV dish to make a radiotelescope capable of observing it.

        If the gods were real, than either anybody could invoke them using some sort of standard methodology, or anybody could observe the effects as one of the chosen people invoked them. For example, the prayers of the pious would alter outcomes in a manner not consistent with expected statistical variation — for example, patients prayed for by Christians would recover at a better rate than those not prayed over.

        But that’s not at all what we observe, which is how we know that the hypothesis that Christians have a direct line to a superior power is bullshit.

        As is, I’m afraid, most (if not all) of the rest of the woo you’ve been peddling.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

          nicely put Mr. Goren. If that does not end the noise then nothing will.

          to his line:

          “if it doesn’t even leave an indirect trace on human perception, then you don’t know anything about it, either.”

          and at the risk of gilding the lilly, I would add: “and there is no justifcation whatsoever for asserting that it exists at all.”

          • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

            Thanks!

            Considering the communication difficulties involved, your terminal statement is not at all superfluous.

            b&

            • Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

              You are being generous to call it simply a “communications” problem.

              One science writer I admire greatly is Alan Cromer, who taught at Northeastern and wrote a very powerful “history of objectivity” as part of his book “Uncommon Sense.”

              http://www.amazon.com/Uncommon-Sense-Heretical-Nature-Science/dp/0195096363/

              One of my favorite lines came when he pinpointed the “moment” when the Greeks discovered objective reality.

              “Athens and Jerusalem, only 800 miles apart, have always represented very different modes of thinking. Greek culture, with its penchant for reason and reality, very early broke through the barrier of egocentrism. Then, as though a giant blindfold had been removed from the eyes of humanity, the external world was seen for the first time. It isn’t a sight that pleases everyone.”

              Note: Cromer uses the term ‘egocentrism” to mean those holding to the Primacy of Consciousness, to whom objective reality is unknown and who think they are making up reality with their mind as they move along.

              • Bebop
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

                Objectivity can only happen within consciousness, no matter what we believe about its origin.

                I’d like to know how you could measure the distance between Athens and Jerusalem without someone that wouldn’t have subjective attributes…

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

                Objectivity can only happen within consciousness, no matter what we believe about its origin.

                I’d like to know how you could measure the distance between Athens and Jerusalem without someone that wouldn’t have subjective attributes…

                You are playing with word definitions. I would agree that “objectivity” describing human thought, relies on the existence of a subjective mind. This kind of objectivity is impossible in my opinion; everything is mediated through a distorting subjectivity.

                But objective reality, as a noun describing material existence, depends in no way on subjectivity.

                Stop causing confusion by confusing these concepts.

                Let’s postulate an unconscious robotic drone programmed to fly at a fixed velocity from Athens to Jerusalem, and to record the duration of that flight on a timing device. Hypothetically eliminate all life, all subjective consciousness from this universe. Does the time spent on the flight change because there is no objective observer?

                Your claims are like saying if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, it makes no sound. This is juvenile pot inspired philosophizing. The answer is of course it makes a sound, if you by sound you mean vibrational energy transmitted via air molecules. The answer is no if you define sound in terms of subjective experience in the first place. This is trivial equivocation that you are investing with imaginary significance.

              • Bebop
                Posted September 14, 2012 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

                Maybe your comment illustrates well the irreducibility of consciousness..?

                Language has limits but it maybe can’t limit the expression that lies behind its invention.

                No matter how we’ll play with words, objectivity needs a subjective mind so it can be defined and make sense.

        • Bebop
          Posted September 13, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

          Let’s keep God aside and let’s stick to knowledge. And everyday life.

          Let’s take humour. Is humour able to provide knowledge?

  33. ForCarl
    Posted September 14, 2012 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Here is a copy of an email I sent to Sarewitz after his comments were posted here.

    “Daniel- I came across your article via the website whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/ which is hosted by Jerry Coyne. You might want to check it out. I would like to see you take this essay and read it in front of the physicists at Fermilab and/or CERN. In fact, I crossed paths with Leon Lederman many times before he retired, and I think you should share it with him and see the response that you get. I find it really sad when I see people in the field of science let their brains become TempletonFoundationized. I am also sorry to see an International Journal of SCIENCE decide that this is an appropriate forum for someone’s spiritual ramblings. Scientists may use metaphors in order to describe something like the Higgs Boson to the general public or even with each other, but they all know that the true description of the Higgs Boson is a mathematical equation on a black board, evidenced by occurances in an accelerator/detector system that matches the predictions of the formula. No god or gods or mysteries there. What you felt in Cambodia was a brain generated sense of awe over the mathematics of architecture and man’s ability to put his philosphies into stone carvings. Carl Sagan felt awe in the face of the universe all the time, but he knew what was real and what wasn’t and he knew that religion and science are in NO way “similar”. Each time someone labels a phenomenon a “mystery” science has been able to take that event and move it to the non-mystery file. I really hope that you correct your attempt to turn the Higgs Boson over to the realm of woo.”

    Here was his reply-

    “Sir or Madame:
    Many thanks for your message. No doubt the fault was in my poor writing, but you are not reacting to what my column said, although your note is an object lesson in the problem that I was trying to illustrate. The fact that subjective phenomena can be reduced to neuronal impulses or ultimately to the behavior of subatomic particles has no bearing whatsoever on the point that people find meaning in the world precisely because of the subjective nature of their experiences.
    Best wishes,
    Dan”

    • Posted September 14, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

      That is a condescending and non-responsive email.

      I suggest the “Sir or Madame” is a deliberate stinger: “so many people have stupidly misunderstood my masterpiece that I have an auto-responder running.”

      And of course “your email was an object lesson” in stupidity and disobedience to my profundity just piles on.

  34. Tim Harris
    Posted September 14, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    ‘In the meantime, yes, poetry, art and literature are wonderful things…’ I trust you are not suggesting that once science ‘understands’ the arts, those wonderful things will wither away as Marxists once thought the state would after the revolution.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted September 14, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      I doubt it.

      Seems in context like he is saying that: while these things (art, poetry, etc.) are wonderful, and they are mostly beyond the reach of full scientific understanding today, there wonderfulness does not elevate them to a realm beyond the reach of scientific understanding forever.

      The worry you expressed should not be a concern. As far as I know, for example, birds did not stop flying as soon as we were able to understand and explain how they do it. They still delight bird watchers and nature lovers everywhere.

  35. Peter Beattie
    Posted September 16, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    claimed that science was identical to religion by ultimately resting on faith

    Which is wrong, as has been discussed here many times. But for those of you who’d like to read a more philosophical treatment of that question—containing some quite appropriately anti-religious ammunition—may I recommend W.W. Bartley’s The Retreat to Commitment. Bartley was a student of Popper’s and tried to improve on what the latter once expressed as a necessarily “irrational faith in reason”.


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