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One problem with the Science Pope, as it were, is that there seems to already be a contingency of people who seem to believe the Science Pope actually exists, and are blindly following his orders -- and scoff at those who do not automatically accept his ex laboratoria pronouncements as gospel truth.

The greatest strength of science is the belief that established science is wrong.


Yes, but sometimes I see a general consensus in science that simply MUST NOT be challenged. This is best seen in global warming (or global climate change, as they prefer now). But notice that this is partly because of a mixture of politics and religion as well (yes, I consider certain forms of environmentalism religion).

Well, that's a question. I've heard from people who have claimed that, for example, the Global Climate change is being "enforced" by certain people. It is a Must Not Be Questioned, and people who DO question is are blackballed. -- or so, as I say, I have heard. Are they telling the truth? I don't know. I'm not a scientist per se, and I'm certainly not one studying in the global climate change area.

That's the flip side of it, as it were. Scientists are people, too, and most people like it when other people agree with them -- and anyone who feels strongly about some point tends to have trouble with people who feel differently. Science does best when everyone is willing to discard what was done before in favour of the new theories, (provided there's evidence) but when it's YOUR theories being questioned... well, ... that's different, innit?

It's not really the fallacy or not of scientific theories that his Science Pope is meant to address, is it?

It is the morality of proposed research. Which is absurd, IMO. One person, to dictate the morality of all proposed science? To, by extension, predict the effects of all proposed science?

In terms of morality, there's already science bishops, if you will. What positive difference could it make to extend the hierarchy upwards? Not to mention the fact that science is a method, not a doctrine, so you can't really have any authority over it, since anyone with money can do it.

Also, this is another in a string of question marks raised above the ethics of scientists as a whole. Making such a generalisation seems over-inclusive, unless the ethics under discussion are universal. Secondly, if you want an analogy, isn't unethical for the indigenous people of the amazon basin to be logging indiscriminately? Many of them do, for economic reasons (so fat westerners can eat beef). Yet if you wanted them to stop, would you really try to appoint a figure-head to appeal to their ethics? Ban the practice, feed the people it puts out of job, and so on. But trying to solve practical problems like unethical research is like trying to halt the AIDS epidemic by telling people to have less sex - impractical.

Trevel: "The greatest strength of science is the belief that established science is wrong."

I thoroughly agree with this claim. The foundation of my scientific beliefs is the surety than in the future people will have different beliefs which are equally scientific, but which accord with observations more completely. Such is surely the direction we are trying to head in.

Ian: the thing about climate science is that it has become grossly politicised on both sides. This issue began to be explored back in the 1970s but became politicised in the 1980s when President Reagan hired an advisor to produce a viewpoint that dismissed the credence of the global warming position. It has been an area of virulent conflict ever since.

You also say:

"yes, I consider certain forms of environmentalism religion"

Well they don't identify these beliefs as a religion so it is probably safer to call it a nonreligion, like Marxism (i.e. something with many of the hallmarks of religion, but that is not identified as such). But yes, staunch environmentalists have specific metaphysical beliefs, specific ethical beliefs, and a guiding narrative ("Save the Planet!"). The parallel with religious belief systems is apposite.

Trevel: "Science does best when everyone is willing to discard what was done before in favour of the new theories, (provided there's evidence) but when it's YOUR theories being questioned... well, ... that's different, innit?"

There's definitely an element of this at work. I like to quote Max Planck:

"An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning."
- Max Planck "The Philosophy of Physics" (1936)

Ian/Trevel: on the subject of the debate over climate science, it has become highly partisan on both sides. I have remained agnostic on this issue for quite some time, and I would say that while the weight of evidence lies in favour of humanity being a major cause of climate change, it is not possible to rule out other causes at this time.

Regardless of the inability to reach certainty (which is never properly attainable), I feel that the risks inherent in climate change are sufficient that we should begin taking action immediately - regardless of the outcome of the climate change debate, we are destroying the natural habitats on the planet which are part of our essential life support system. Action on this cannot wait without risking severe consequences.

zenBen: sorry, you have misinterpreted me slightly. I present two versions of the Science Pope in this piece, but *both* are intended as nonsense.

The 'epistemic authority' Science Pope is something we are currently burdened with (in spirit) and I feel needs to be lampooned. The 'moral authority' Science Pope is something we don't have, never will have, and that I simply pine for out of a desire to have *some* brake against research which is ill considered.

I am not advocating any kind of Science Pope as an actual proposition - only as a cartoon centrepiece for debate.

Moral authority simply means that people listen to your ethical advice. Since scientists have a nasty tendency to listen only to themselves, I don't see any way to have moral authority in science - but I feel an urgent need for a coherent ethics of science. The way to create this this will not be by appointing scientific pontiffs, however, but to change the way we think about science's relationship to society. This transformation is, I contend, desperately needed, and must begin with open discussions in the scientific community, and ideally in discourse with the public.

"But trying to solve practical problems like unethical research is like trying to halt the AIDS epidemic by telling people to have less sex - impractical."

Did you miss something out of this sentence? (Trying to solve practical problems *how* is impractical?) Or do you truly mean that it is impossible to prevent unethical research? Surely there are ways to encourage ethics in science - surely this is not an impossible battle.

Further debate welcomed!

I did notice that it was nonsense, I even called it some such word. Reminds me a piece
I wrote suggesting Dawkins as a prophet - everybody took that seriously at first too.

"Did you miss something out of this sentence?"
Rephrase:
'trying to solve practical problems (such as unethical research) is like trying to halt the AIDS epidemic by telling people to have less sex, because it is impractical to expect results by suggesting that people do something that is against their baser natures'.

My point was that money feeds science, and money feeds scientists, and scientists like to eat just as everyone else. Very little research gets funded for its own sake. Most of the money comes from corporate partnership, and of the rest, a large proportion is government programs. A modern academic must either bring in corporate dollars or become a career teacher (which brings no respect and no advancement).

So if you want to make them work ethically, start at the source. Start with the money-men.

zenBen: thanks for clarifying! But can we realistically start with the corporations?

I have lost, as I have matured, my "naive cyberpunk" idea of evil uberpowerful corporations who we cannot influence in favour of the more viable idea that almost all these corporations (excluding , say, military contractors) depend on consumer spending - which means if you can get the consumers to agree to the issues, you can change the corporations with comparative ease. Look at McDonalds scrabbling to undo their unhealthy image now that public scrutiny has turned upon them.

So I suppose, if your chain of inference holds, the way to resolve the ethics of science is to begin with the populace at large.

But of course, how do we maintain collective action in our fragmentary age? I suppose the internet is our last, best hope for peace. ;) Simple forms of collective agreement; dynamic fora for political discussions in an apolitical format - perhaps we need new tools to advance the discussions if we are to make the changes we need.

Best wishes!

PS: your "prophet Dawkins" piece had the air of sarcastic wit, but lacked a crucial explicit 'flag' to allow it to be interpreted as nonsense, I think. But then, my nonsense is often similar mistaken despite being clearly labeled as such! Perhaps we should just take our licks as they come. :)

There is an interesting talk on how collective action might be enabled in future, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nopOBLrhO-0

For me, alas, life is too short for YouTube. I prefer to read rather than to watch - I can process text orders of magnitude faster than I can watch video, and I just don't have the patience for it these days.

I appreciate you sharing this, but I would have appreciated a synopsis even more! :)

Best wishes!

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