Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Science popularising - scientists aestheticise science but deny art

There is a good deal of space in all media given over to science, bringing its intrinsic interest and challenge and significance to all. There are some fantastic resources, free to access.
It is important to bring science thinking and the history of science as it has developed in the West to everybody. Critical thinking is applied in science, and yet examples abound of people of people slipping out of a critical stance into dogmatic assertion, most prominently, perhaps, when it comes to questions of origins (i.e. "creation of species" vs "evolution of species"). 
But I think too much of the thinking that goes into this communication of science thinking and history is uselessly and counter-productively concerned with making scientists appealing. I suppose there is anxiety over falling numbers of young people choosing to study science (at least here in the UK that seems to be the case). And the thinking is that self-conscious young people need to see that scientists too can have TV and media careers.


In January 2011, in a BBC TV programme “Science Under Attack”, nobel-prize-winning biologist Sir Paul Nurse challenged the writer James Dellingpole over the latter’s view that the scientific case for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is not only questionable on scientific grounds, but also politically motivated.

The twitchy Daily Telegraph journalist Dellingpole latched onto the University of East Anglia Climate Scientists’ massaged presentation of climate data as the clinching evidence that scientists act in favour of their careers no less than in favour of scientific truth. To Sir Paul the “Climategate” scandal was a trivial matter, because the massaged presentation of data did not materially alter the conclusions drawn in the scientific paper in which the data appeared. I have no doubt Sir Paul was right on this. But the scandal had done much to undermine the esteem in which science and scientists are presently held in the general population. Sir Paul (president of the FRS) wanted to take the argument back to the ones discrediting scientists.

But as far as perception of scientists goes, surely he only made things worse?

In conversation with Dellingpole, the scientist was ready, without any real forethought one senses, to draw an analogy between climate change sceptics challenging the scientific consensus and a non-scientist cancer-sufferer’s denial (in favour of his own independent research) of the medical consensus over the best treatment of his cancer.

Paul Nurse's choice of analogy was condescending and mildly insulting. I think Dellingpole was right to object that Nurse was caricaturing those who are critical of the presentation of the climate change case as quacks not able to distinguish between good and bad argument. His choice of analogy was revealing in this respect. Though scientists aim to practice value-free science, we know that science as it has been practised has done so within a value-laden framework, which we can attempt to describe and judge. Our not being mathematicians is no automatic bar to making such judgements. For example, any intelligent and reasonably well informed person wishing to spend some time listening to one or two of the many reputable presentations on AGW available on the internet (here’s one I recommend) can derive a good deal of the detail of the debate within science over climate modelling and so forth, with no specialist knowledge of mathematics or science. Conversely, as Sir Paul Nurse’s example shows, there is clearly a need for scientists to appreciate the kind of learning that can spot the significance of the choice of an analogy in the presentation of an argument.


Examples of scientists venturing out of their areas of expertise have been around a lot in the recent spate of "new atheism".

An intersting moment occurs in the programme “The Case For God” in which Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of British Orthodox synagogues, attempts to engage with prominent non-believers and people who regard themselves as atheist and who write books denouncing faith and religion.
One of his interlocutors is the neuro-biologist and Professor of Neuro-science at the University of London, Colin Blakemore.

Their conversation turns to the limits of scienific explanation, and Rabbi Sacks puts the question to Professor Blakemore:

“Do you seriously believe, Colin, that this entire Professor Colin Blakemore, who takes moral stands on the integrity of science and medical research, is actually a self-flattering myth that you are weaving around yourself, because actually all thise grey cells in your brain have worked this out long before, and you never had a choice, you couldn’t have been other than a professor of science?”

and Colin Blakemore answers:

“Yeah, I do believe it”.

Behind the question is the proposition already made in the conversation by Professor Blakemore, that the phenomenon we call subjectivity is the product of physical processes which it is within the domain of science to explain as law-bound, just as every other phenomenon occurring in the universe is law-bound.

To Rabbi Sacks, the immediate consequence of this view is the absence of free will, and the rendering of subjectivity – the awareness of oneself as an agent – an illusion.

Let's accept that Blakemore really does believe that he had absolutely no choice in the matter of becoming who he is, and that any feeling that he may have had in choosing was an illusion.

(Having spent some time hearing thorough-going materialists put their case, e.g. certain speakers at conferences at the Ian Ramsay Centre for Science and Religion), I also hear Professor Blakemore insisting that there is only stuff in the universe, and a complete account of stuff, on the path of which we are, will render consciousness transparent. As we have looked closer, however, what is observed becomes observer dependent: we can't draw ourselves out of the picture. I don't really warm to these kinds of debates, in which the case for "humanities" is answering to criticisms, or demands for justificsation, that emerge from standpoints that deny common ground. I suppose I find the people unsympathetic. Be with who we like to be with!) 

The interesting moment comes when both Sacks and Blakemore both draw the same conclusions about eachother’s view (i.e. that it is reductive), from their opposing views.

Blakemore takes Sacks’ position, holding to the reality of human subjectivity, as reductive in the Dawkinsian manner of finding any claim to an extra-scientific dimension as a kind of “cop-out”, the positing of something likened to a fairy story in the place of explanation, and so curtailing of the aspiration to know scientifically. Blakemore also stresses that beauty (and, he adds, he uses the term beautiful "advisedly" - by which I think he mean us to understand – as if we might be inclined to doubt it – that he is here using the term "beautiful" in the sophisticated sense of something occurring to the mind and not merely sensuous) resides in the scientific explanation, which he fears others tend to overlook when they claim that scientific explanation is not all there is.

Sacks, on the other hand, holds Blakemores’s account to be “pure reductivism”, reducing humans to “just electrical impulses in the brain”. Blakemore is happy to concede that his view does indeed reduce humans to electrical impulses in the brain, and is reductive in so far as it does away (for him) with any call for faith or religion. But he takes exception to Sacks’ use of the word “just”. Blakemore says “[With that word “just”] You diminish it [us] by suggesting that to believe that we are causal machines, where we are simply caused by events in the past, is trivial, when it is unbelievably complex, very surprising and really quite remarkable”.

So, for Sacks’ Blakemore’s view is absolutely reductive because it renders subjectivity – I really don’t see that this conclusion can be avoided – an illusion. Blakemore qualifies his acknowledged reductivism, saving something one supposes to be uniquely human – the capacity to perceive this, and not that, as beautiful – by pointing to the sheer stupendousness that this agglomeration of organic molecules can give rise to the illusion that “here is Colin Blakemore”. The wondrousness of this fact is the remedy Blakemore proposes to any despair one may feel at having only the illusion of selfhood or of free will, and only the illusion that now I am feeling something to be beautiful. (What basis is there for any moral discernment if the freedom to choose this and not that to be beautiful is absolutely devoid of freedom?). For Blakemore, Sacks’ view is reductive because (he thinks) it forecloses on what will be accessible to human knowing by grasping for stories.

As I re-visit this interesting moment, and Blakemore’s ideas and mode of expression, I am reminded of the comment made by John Stuart Mill of the thought of Jeremy Bentham.

“He had a phrase, expressive of the view he took of all moral speculations to which his method had not been applied, or (which he considered as the same thing) not founded on a recognition of utility as the moral standard; this phrase was 'vague generalities'. Whatever presented itself to him in such a shape, he dismissed as unworthy of notice, or dwelt upon only to denounce as absurd. He did not heed, or rather the nature of his mind prevented it from occurring to him, that these generalities contained the whole unanalysed experience of the human race.” (From “Bentham”, 1838).

Bentham used the term “vague generalities” to stand for the reasons for the reasons people gave for their conduct. In other words, whereas people accounted for their conduct with what they considered to be reasons, Bentham could not see anything underpinning those reasons but “vague generalities”, mere assertions, or cop-outs. One understands Mill to have had real sympathy for Bentham, and admiration for the systmatic nature of his reforming projects in law, for example. Yet, emerging from the crisis of his early twenties, he had to challenge Bentham’s understanding of reasons for conduct. Reason was curtailed to denote something reducible to physical movement. The experience of human kind, what has made human history what it has been, falls out of what is analysable, or even worthy of analysis, in the world view that regards felt experience, subjectivity, as a mere accidental by-product of the random agglomeration of particles. This is what Marilynne Robinson refers to as “the dispelling of inwardness from the modern myth of the self”. But it should not be taken that Sacks (or Robinson) are defending something out of sentimental attachment. Surely they are wanting to acknowledge that there are things which are not humanly knowable, and isn’t this the conclusion that the philosophy of science itself reaches?

The realisation that choice (denoting free will and human agency) are factors in one’s own history, and therefore in how things have turned out - and will turn out - will surely conflict with any view of humanly-knowable (i.e. accessible to science) law-bound processes as ultimately all there is. Attending to how things have turned out, one acknowledges the development of science as being centrally present in it. But the stepping off point into “modern” science, with its mathematical character, occurs within a religious impulse. The early modern “scientists” (the term did not arise until the mid-nineteenth century) were concerned with religion and with God. For them, and for others right down to the time of the publication Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species”  in 1859, and after, “Natural Philosophy” was understanding God’s creation.

One can understand that appealing to subjectivity could appear as a kind of cop-out when the success of one’s science (or maybe even one’s personal contribution to science) has given one to feel vindicated.

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