Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Science tribalism?

This is a difficult story. At its face value, if we understand what actually happened, the University of Kentucky denied an appointment to an astronomer because he had Christian creationistic views.  The University people were afraid he'd disseminate such views as if they were science or in contradiction to what accepted science says.

We personally do not think that a creationist belongs in a science department if his (or her) views preclude acceptance of the scientific approach to material problems.  We would say such views make a person unqualified for the job.  But that's the job as we see it.  For example, s/he  might be able to argue that this or that result or experiment failed because God intervened.  Such post hoc explanations are totally unacceptable within science....but if God exists and can meddle in the world they would be perfectly legitimate (whether testable or not is a relevant question, however).

Is our objection to such an appointment reasonable, or is it just our version of tribalism--we want our view and only our view in our community?  If we're honest, this is a difficult question.  Of course, scientists as a rule are convinced that empirical rather than biblical methods are needed to understand the world, and more importantly that they provide a better understanding of the world.

But creationists, at least the sincere ones, don't agree.  Whatever their reasons.  Among other things, fundamentalists disagree as to what constitutes evidence (for example, many would say they have direct communication with God, which is beyond the kind of Enlightenment-derived empirical science but--to them--a legitimate kind of evidence or proof about reality).  And in universities, especially public ones, which are supposed to be centers of learning, and if we believe in democracy, what right does one group have to take over the criteria of knowledge?  After all, roughly half of Americans (and who knows what fraction of Kentuckians!?) do not accept evolution as the explanation for life.

Honest assessments make this a very problematic issue.  Those of us in science don't want shallow, ideological loony tunes on academic faculties of which we are a part.  But most voters may.  This is a clash of belief systems and is very frustrating for both sides.  Again, here, we're being generous and crediting the 'other side' with legitimately, honestly held views rather than just conveniently political tribal ones.

If we insist that we're right, then we don't really have a 'democratic' view of how things should be.  It's a problem because, despite many failings and vanities in science, science really does seem (to us) clearly to be right when it comes to a comparison of theological literalism.  But science, too, has a history of clinging tightly to wrong ideas!  Ask  Galileo what he thought of Aristotle's cosmology!

Can a publicly supported university refuse admission to a student, say for graduate work, who is a fundamentalist?  S/he could perhaps properly be informed of the minimal likelihood of forming a PhD committee or something like that, if it's the case.  But admission?

These are difficult, serious, legitimate questions.  Anthropologically, they can be understood in terms of how culture works.  Politically and legally, within our own culture, the issues are less clear.  But we should think about them.


Ken Weiss said...

Yes, the string theory story is apparently like that. A good book about that is by Lee Smolin (formerly of Penn State) called The Trouble with Physics.

K-12....why are good students not going into teaching? A national crisis in the making. I recently read that you have to be in the top third of your university class to qualify for a teaching job in some Scandinavian countries.

A recent survey found that university students study an average of about 20 minutes a day, have little homework assignments, and get inflated grades. The profs are too busy with their important research to put in more effort, demand attendance, or grade homework. And the students are too drunk or disinterested or unmotivated to put in the effort. College has become a 4-year vacation.

So we elect what we deserve perhaps. But these issues are somewhat off the mark. Who should decide what is 'legitimate' to teach?

For 2000 years it was imperative to teach Aristotle or Galen. Other views were shunned. There are of course many other examples. It has not just been religion that formed the tribal exclusiarchy (new word!), but because of the role religion has played in society it's natural that that would be the ideology around which much of this played out.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Sorry Ken, looks like my deleted posts didn't get deleted in time for you to see before posting this. I'm so squirrely!

James Goetz said...

I've little time this holiday season to diligently document an essay on this topic that's dear to my heart, but hear goes an undocumented rough outline of random thoughts based on what I've read on other blogs, court documents, and my experience.

Here's a brief profile of C. Martin Gaskell. He's an astronomer with a stellar record of quasar research. He's an evangelical Christian that accepts the theory of evolution. He encourages people read intelligent design literature while working with the theory of evolution.

A few atheists on PZ's Pharyngula blog support Gaskell, but obviously not for his encouragement of ID literature.

I suppose that public education, including university science departments, can discriminate against the ID movement since the public education court case.

Opposing somebody's appointment in science (student or facility) because they're an evangelical Christian is wrong. Opposing somebody's appointment because they support ID is okay, depending on the level of appointment.

Evangelicals like Francis Collins have no conflicts with science. Collins is a model theist who distinguishes methodological materialism (science) from philosophical materialism (philosophy). And Eugenie Scott is a model atheist who does the same.

There are no scientific theories that explain the origin of the initial conditions of the universe. There are theoretical physical hypothesis of mutliverses, but nothing remotely close to scientific theory of a multiverse. For example, science is exponentially closer to a theory of abiogenesis than it's to a theory of a multiverse.

If I would've followed through with retaking GREs in the mid 1990s, your department only asked that I wouldn't support creationism and would've tolerated my evangelical Christianity, and I agree with that decision.

ResCogitans said...

It is very clear cut. If he believes god can meddle in anything, and has done to essentially deceive us in our scientific experiments then that is a matter of faith, not science.
The creationists have used the same tactics to try to get ID into the science classroom, but as you point out only in a bracketed aside, whether it is testable is absolutely relevant.
Give em an inch and they will take a mile. Fight them with their own twisted logic (look at the success of the Flying Spaghetti Monster movement) to show them it isn't logic at all.
Religious institutes such as the YMCA or Ken Ham's creationist museum have no bother discriminating against scientists, so lets not stress too long about the inevitable conclusion that it is entirely appropriate to discriminate against this guy.

James Goetz said...

We all trusted that Ken was on an important role that was relevant to something, but thanks for clarifying.:)

There's no evidence that Gaskell ever suggested that "god can meddle in anything, and has done to essentially deceive us in our scientific experiments."

James Goetz said...

I need to clarify an unclear sentence from my 12:34 PM comment. I meant to write:

"If I would've followed through with retaking GREs in the mid 1990s, your department would've tolerated my evangelical Christianity and only asked that I wouldn't support creationism, and I agree with that decision."

Ken Weiss said...

No, Jim, that's not quite right. We said, or would have, that you might have a difficult time putting together a PhD committee for the kinds of things you were proposing to study, and they'd have insisted that any analysis you made be strictly grounded in acceptable empiricism. Nobody would have asked that you not support creationism in your personal life (though you'd have drawn some cold shoulders, I'm sure)

James Goetz said...

Ken, I thought Henry Harpending would've worked with me if I retook the GRE, but if I was wrong about that, then my memory fails me. Perhaps assembling a committee was another issue. Anyway, I vaguely remember somebody making a request that I wouldn't work for an "anti-evolution" creationist institute, which was a moot point because I then worked with a naive theory of evolution and disliked creation institutes. Perhaps that conversion related to preliminaries of forming of a committee. I apologize for any sketchiness of my memories from the 1990s. I mean nothing negative about this.

And yes, there would've been a lot of philosophy of science in what I planned to do. And I've greatly refined my philosophy of science since then.

In any case of what we correctly remember, I suppose you'd agree that my success or failure would've depended on my (1) scientific method, (2) literature research, (3) keeping deadlines, and (4) ability to work with others, but not my faith.

Ken Weiss said...

I don't recall the specifics, which probably don't belong in a public blog anyway, but I would not be at all surprised if Henry said that. I said, or would have said, something similar in relation to some ideas you and I discussed at the time, about human origins. My memory, like yours, is sketchy.

Your success would have rested on just what you say.

But to me, as a purported educator, what I've seen in you over the years then and since, is that you have continued to think hard and constructively about these many issues, struggling with your views and understanding, and trying to advance them. That is what an educated life is supposed to be about. Hopefully, we here at Penn State had at least something to do with that, stimulating your thinking and exploring if nothing else.

ResCogitans said...

There's no evidence that Gaskell ever suggested that "god can meddle in anything, and has done to essentially deceive us in our scientific experiments."

I don't claim he said it explicitly but the logic seems pretty basic to me:
'if a then b'
therefore 'b'

Gaskell is a creationist.
If someone is a creationist they reject masses of scientific evidence as false.
Therefore Gaskell thinks God meddled with the data and deliberately deceives us.

Or can you see room for an alternative conclusion?

James Goetz said...

ResCogitans, I suppose that we need a nuanced typology of "creationism" for me to respond to your logic, which concludes that all creationists "reject masses of scientific evidence." For example, philosopher John Leslie conjectures that God created the universe. Does this make Leslie a creationist who rejects masses of scientific evidence?

Ken Weiss said...

These exchanges usually become tribal right away, as this one has. No attempt to understand, much less to yield, to nuances. Yes, we all know that much of the US debate about religion vs science is at its roots political and largely disingenuous (yes, perhaps mostly on the creationist side).

Our post was an attempt to see this in a larger sense, not to defend the incursion of frank biblical literalism etc. into (public) universities.

But let's take Isaac Newton. Ignoring his alchemy and his nasty (unChristian?) egotism, he was a biblical literalist. Should his equivalents today be banned from astronomy departments? To my knowledge, I don't remember anythning forcedly religious in the Principia.

Newton apparently fiddled the position of the moon to make some of his theory fit, but I don't think he yielded to any temptation to blame the errors on God.

What about this: Suppose Gaskell writes a perfectly normal paper on astronomy, and concludes (in the Discussion section only) the statement that his result on the apogee of planet X-cignus 3 suggests (the usual, perfectly acceptable hand-waving term in science) to him the wisdom of God's plan for the universe. Should the journal insist on striking that comment?

As a reviewer, I'd likely say the Editor should insist on the excision....but I'm not sure that would be the right thing.

James Goetz said...

Ken said, "To my knowledge, I don't remember anything forcedly religious in the Principia."

I'll add that in Gaskell's complicated case, he never suggested anything forcedly religious in his eminent quasar research. All of his comments about religion took place outside of his academic papers and lectures.

I suppose that the biggest concern of the university was that Gaskell applied for a public science education position with their observatory. And despite Gaskell clearly affirming the theory of evolution, he publicly sympathized with the ID movement and encouraged reading ID literature, which caused concern with some of the science community at the university.

Ken said, "What about this: Suppose Gaskell writes a perfectly normal paper on astronomy, and concludes (in the Discussion section only) the statement that his result on the apogee of planet X-cignus 3 suggests (the usual, perfectly acceptable hand-waving term in science) to him the wisdom of God's plan for the universe. Should the journal insist on striking that comment?"

Well, anything about "the wisdom of God's plan for the universe" is metaphysics. That could belong in a philosophy journal, but not a strictly scientific journal, regardless if the statement is right or wrong. And the statement would then be judged on the grounds of philosophy, which considers all of the empirical data.

On the flip side, all multiverse hypotheses are metaphysical hypotheses. Science can test the predictions of various multiverse hypotheses, but can never observe other verses (quasi-universes), regardless if we reside in a multiverse or not. Likewise, many physical cosmology papers drift into metaphysics.