Weekly Roundup: On Science

This week’s posts, with a smattering of commentary—

Dennis Overbye’s NY Times article, “Over the Side With Old Scientific Tenets” summarizes this year’s edge.org question: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” Overbye ends with that well-worn (threadbare ?) claim:

The true currency of science, after all, is not faith or even truth, but doubt. It’s hard to imagine a similar effort coming out of the College of Cardinals or the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. In science, as in democracy, everything has to be up for grabs.

Maybe it’s time to retire the idea that science traffics in doubt and examines everything, unlike religion which traffics in faith. One essay takes on the idea that “science is self correcting,” but posits the standard distinction between an in-principle self-correcting science and self-serving interests of too many scientists. In other words, corrupt scientists undermine the inherent self-correcting nature of “science.” I wonder what would happen if Edge asked a historian of science or a sociology of science to contribute an essay (somebody besides George Dyson (with all due respect to Jared Diamond, he’s not a historian of science)).

The University of Maryland’s Integration and Application Network has a new series: Scientists who made a difference (series). It pens with a post describing what type of scientist “made a difference:” Scientists who made a difference: Celebrating effective science application.

I am going to attempt to do something a bit different in order to present the human side of ‘Scientists who made a difference’. In addition to providing a brief biographical sketch in the context of the existing scientific paradigms, I will present the ‘Poetry and Art’ of the these scientists. The ‘Poetry’ will use their words, exactly as they wrote them (albeit translated to English when necessary), but in prose form to focus on the cadence and word choice. The ‘Art’ will use their illustrations, again to focus not just on the concepts expressed, but also on the beauty and symmetry of the drawings.

As interesting and possibly creative as this approach might at times be, I worry that it further denigrates history as a domain of expertise. On the one hand, the series will pick out the heroes of science and offer a “brief biographical sketch in the context of the existing scientific paradigms”—a practice that usually highlights a “scientist’s” revolutionary (read modern and familiar) contribution. On the other hand, posts in the series will “present the ‘Poetry and Art’ of these scientists” by cutting “their words, exactly as they wrote them” completely out of context and rearranging them to suit a different purpose. While the repurposing historical texts offers all sorts of interesting and creative possibilities, I worry that the current formulation disguises its creative intervention as history. It is less “the ‘Poetry and Art’ of these scientists” than some modern person’s poetry and art collage of snippets from the past.

Some charter schools in Texas, surprise surprise, continue to use the curriculum as a vehicle for indoctrination: “Texas Public Schools are Teaching Creationism.” As to be expected, evolution, the age of the earth, and the heteronormative-republican (here not meant merely as political party allegiance) reign supreme. It’s a terrifying read. Unfortunately, the article is marred by various fallacies,[1] such as guilt by association, poisoning the well sort of ad hominem, as well as simply misleading statements.[2] While I suspect most efforts to combat the pernicious degradation of education are destined to fail, throwing mud and ad hominem attacks is guaranteed to polarize the issue further and ensure that both sides retrench in their increasingly certain righteousness.[3]

An article in The Guardian takes a more direct approach to the creationism-in-school issue: “Ban the teaching of creationism in science lessons.”

David Skorton, president of Cornell University, points out that scientists often fail to communicate well. His post, misleadingly titled, “Why Scientists Should Embrace the Liberal Arts,”[4] makes yet again the observation that “the robustness of our [scientists’] data” is not persuasive. Skorton makes a few useful observations:

Too often we also fail to respect opinions that differ from our own. Science is a process of iteration—of back-and-forth—and yet sometimes we scientists are guilty of promulgating our own biases. Our subsequent disagreements—some based on differing data but many based on differing opinions—make it that much more difficult for the public to know whom or what to believe.

In particular, his observation about respect seems timely and apposite.

Finally, if you missed it: Science published an editorial on “Reproducibility” (behind the paywall; see the summary).

  1. Even the title is misleading by implying that public schools in general are teaching creationism. According to the article, Responsive Education Solutions—the charter system at the center of the article—runs 65 campuses and teaches 17,000 students a far cry from all (or a majority or even a large percentage of) “public schools in Texas:” there are more than 8,000 public schools in Texas teaching 4.9 million students (see Texas Education Agency)  ↩

  2. The article misrepresents a source for effect: “Paradigm’s website also says that the curriculum is “carefully designed to equip high school students to defend their faith” and is being used in public schools in 11 states.” The source linked in the article does not say that the materials are being used in public schools in 11 states, though it might imply that. Paradigm’s FAQ says: “Public schools in 11 states have purchased Paradigm courses with tax revenue.” While it is plausible to assume that public schools use materials they purchase, the problematic nature of the source—Paradigm’s own material needs to be treated at biased propaganda—requires a more critical evaluation of the claim. If Paradigm knew that their materials were being used in public schools in 11 states, they would probably celebrate that fact. That they did not should encourage skepticism.  ↩

  3. Neither set of zealots—self-styled skeptics or devout believers—has a monopoly on righteousness.  ↩

  4. I say misleading because it does’t give say anything about scientists embracing the liberal arts.  ↩