Friday, May 7, 2010

we can't help but advocate, let's be honest

Jasen Rosenhouse has a piece here about advocacy in science, and, more or less as usual, I'm in agreement. Of course, I'm not a scientist, and I get overwhelmed sometimes by the detail in some fields - in climate change for example - but you don't have to be absolutely certain about your own position to know that at least some other positions are crap, or baseless. So you advocate for not having a baseless position. You advocate for evidence, and fruitful methodology.
Of course, in the science versus religion debate, there's just so much going on it's hard to know where to start, re advocacy, but clearly if a person claims that evolution by natural selection is false because it contradicts the Bible account of creation, then those with knowledge about natural selection have every reason to advocate for its soundness, and the real question is whether or not it should be seen as a duty. The same, of course, goes for geologists and cosmologists when faced with the arguments or dismissals of young earth creationists.
Rosenhouse takes issue with Steven Benner who has warned of the dangers of advocacy in science on a site called Biologos, which seeks to promote a dialogue between science and faith, it seems. I might have more to say on that, generally, later, but for now let's look at what Benner says:
... it is important... for scientists to emphasize that uncertainty is central to science, and advocacy is disruptive of it. When a scientist becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use scientific discipline to discern reality.
Reading this makes me think of the process of philosophical discourse, as it has occurred through the ages. Some of this discourse has been about the nature of reality, and this is largely the province of science today. There has also been much discourse about how we should live - the fields of moral and political philosophy. Philosophers, or thinkers generally, have proposed different ethical approaches, consequentialist or deontological or whatever, and defended their position against critiques. Often they strengthen their argument though critical conversation. Are they not advocates? Many people - Robert Hughes being one I remember -have said that arguing is the best way to learn, to develop your ideas. Scientists argue vehemently and healthily, for the most part, about their interpretations of reality - string theory, the multiverse, the nature of time even. Some are fierce advocates for particular positions, but are guided by the results nonetheless. Science can and does help us with developing ethical systems by contributing to the ongoing understanding of what we are, and how we best thrive as highly socialized but individual creatures. The idea that you can't derive an ought from an is has always struck me as false - we do it all the time.
Besides, I'm not sure that uncertainty is central to science. Skepticism, yes, but uncertainty? Would science ever get off the ground if uncertainty ruled always? Science owes much of its success to transformational positive findings or theories that have stood up against all testing and have opened up fruitful avenues. The developers of those theories weren't driven by uncertainty - which doesn't really drive anything. They were driven rather by skepticism or dissatisfaction with existing accounts.
 This is an important issue - scientists are the last people who should shy away from advocating in the fields in which they are experts. As Nick Matzke says in his comments on Benner, there are levels of uncertainty, and these are often exploited, for example when politicians such as Tony Abbott claim that AGW is not 'settled science'. When this sort of distortion is promoted, it's time for scientists not only to advocate, but to unite in advocating.
Having read all the comments on this Benner piece, many of them by people apparently sympathetic to ID, I feel confirmed in my view that scientists should advocate for evidence-based thinking, reproducible results and so on at every opportunity. Which I suppose brings me to the issue of 'scientism', which I might write about soon.

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