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I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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geo

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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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In this next section, Dawkins has this to say about Lewis Wolpert.
An eminent British embryologist born in South Africa in 1929, Dr Wolpert has a reputation as an outspoken, some would say scientistic (a compliment in my view and probably his, though not in theirs) champion of science.
So what is it about being scientistic (besides being a rather awkward word)? Can we have too much confidence in science? Does it reduce our perspective of the human experience? Does science rob humanity of its soul? And what exactly does this mean?

For what it's worth, I agree with Dawkins that being scientistic—for a scientist at least—can be seen as a compliment. Perhaps the problem arises when poets and philosophers are given short shrift in society, as they surely do. But I also think science has become a a rather broad term that includes technology, which itself is driven mostly by economics and politics. Science itself is a tool that we use to learn about the natural world. And it works to that end, better than any other tool. We should not confuse knowledge with meaning.

If our complaint is that we've become too materialistic, is that really the fault of science? Joseph Campbell once spoke of the symbolism of the tallest buildings.
“It takes me back to a time when these spiritual principles informed the society. You can tell what’s informing a society by what the tallest building is. When you approach a medieval town, the cathedral is the tallest thing in the place. When you approach an eighteenth-century town, it is the political palace that’s the tallest thing in the place. And when you approach a modern city, the tallest places are the office buildings, the centers of economic life.
So the tallest buildings today are not science labs and universities but the centers of commerce.
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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geo wrote:It's very true from an evolutionary standpoint that humans exist to survive and procreate. It's also true that our lives have meaning and purpose.
And sometimes those two principles even overlap. On a piece of reporting about science, it is comprehensible to discuss "all life" from an evolutionary standpoint. But it is also true that the perspective has been taken too far and given too much deference by some science writers. Driven by a commercial orientation, they preach to the choir.
geo wrote: I think it's widely presumed that people know the difference between the two. Do we have to be told by scientists that we feel love for our spouses and children? The naturalist in the NPR program was speaking to his area of expertise. Science and poetry have different purposes, science to learn about the natural world, poetry to explore meaning.
Given that the Four Horsemen have taken on the opposite position, that science is capable of being determinative about meaning, you may be presuming too much about people's ability to know the difference. But my real quarrel is with the individualistic perspective, that, for example, love for spouses and children is a given from within the individual rather than a part of a social process that needs a certain amount of tending and nurture.
geo wrote:I'm really very surprised that we are still talking about the idea that science ruins the poetry of a rainbow. Can anyone really say with a straight face that a sunset just isn't beautiful because they now understand that it's the result of light being scattered by particles in the atmosphere?
Well, Facebook seems to be rescuing the social process of appreciating sunsets together, but I think I have made a fair case that scientific pronouncements and cultural framing does interfere with the way people think about meaning in life. I'm okay with working on the integration of the two perspectives, and Tyson and Sagan demonstrate a certain ability that way, but I don't think there would be an essay about the issue in a book about science writing if the resolution was obvious.

I have seen, live and in real time, an audience who had been hearing about the pursuit of the Higgs Boson burst into spontaneous applause for an expression of the loss of charm created by scientific explanations. It didn't help, I suspect, that the press had been repeating some foolish labeling of the Higgs as "the God Particle." That kind of pushing and shoving against the other side of culture is exactly what science writing does not need.
geo wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:Can we have the same curiosity about why a gifted, insightful person like Keats or Poe or Whitman would be nauseated by having the scientist stand triumphant over the corpse of a star or a rainbow?
Now who's being reductive? These poems are vastly more nuanced and meaningful than how you paint them. Take a page from Whitman, if learning about science becomes too irksome—and I have to say the "learn'd astronomer" in this poem was probably not much like Carl Sagan—take a step outside and gaze up at the stars. The point Whitman makes is poignant, definitely not "down with science."
Yes, clearly I was being reductive, and I am intrigued by Whitman's variety of reactions. Yet I still think there is an important issue under discussion, and that the poets intuited it before some of the more fatuous versions came out of the mass of the common people. Pointing out that both perspectives can be held without conflict may be valid (I do it myself), but it isn't the same as harmonizing them. It is, in fact, a case of the highly educated leaving the task of squaring the perspectives up to the less educated. Not my idea of a responsible approach.
geo wrote:And Whitman again:
I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open.
A wise perspective. But I have seen repeated instances of scientists and their fans rejecting the views of others (even, sometimes, without even knowing what they were rejecting) for taking a politically incorrect position on science. I am not interested in political dogma of any variety.
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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geo wrote:So what is it about being scientistic (besides being a rather awkward word)? Can we have too much confidence in science? Does it reduce our perspective of the human experience? Does science rob humanity of its soul? And what exactly does this mean?
I am not an expert on the use of the term "scientism", but I have gathered some idea of it. Scientism stretches the confidence we should all have in science, to do a good job of resolving objective questions of fact, into a faith in its supporting social processes that is borrowed from admiration of its intellectual prowess.

Scientism tends to discount doubts about the ultimate goodness of scientific endeavors, for example. Is repackaging opiates as opioids really such a good thing? Of course it is! Science did it! The presumption of innocence that allowed opioids to be shamelessly promoted, and defended by lies, for a decade was abetted by scientism. Nuclear energy will be harmless. Geoengineering will solve climate change. To paraphrase the Beatles, all you need is science.

Can we have too much confidence in science? Yes, of course. Scientists tend to assume that because they follow protocols for ethical science, that their research will lead only to further experiments which follow the protocols for ethical science. No one with an authoritarian or militaristic mindset will ever get hold of them. Mengele was a one-off, never to be repeated. Umm, right.

I really don't know if science reduces our perspective on the human experience. I am keeping on open mind on the subject. I have a high degree of confidence that power gathers more power, and so bringing more power into existence is an activity that we should reflect on and not just assume it will be harmless. It's at least possible that creating more power led mainly to checks on concentrated power for the last 100 years but is now turning on us and will instead mainly enable concentrated power, as Tyler Cohen has suggested. More subtly, it's possible that more power is turning all of our attention onto empty questions of accumulation and away from the arts of mutual support which contribute more happiness at this stage of affluence. I have seen the calculations of marketing take precedence over issues of meaning which had formerly been decisive, and it gives me reason to worry.

Soul is the relationship of a relationship to itself. The ability to go get more information to learn more about decisive issues, not just about the world out there as a cat goes to investigate new scritchings in the woodwork, but crucially about the inner world that relates objective fact to goals and strategies. This includes the ability to choose from a range of possible strategies, and to consider the choice reflectively. Also the ability to construct inner tools, such as categories and priorities, and to evaluate these tools for possible improvement. And so, ultimately, the ability to weigh different goals and decide what we "really" value most. Animals don't go on vision quests, or fast to strengthen devotion to a principle. A soul is a charged process.

There is no way that science robs humanity of its soul. But it has the potential to reduce the scope of humanity's soul, by pushing ahead issues of capacity without reflecting on issues of purpose. Just watch Putin in action, pushing the creation of new cybercrime methods and new espionage techniques and new abilities to manipulate the common people. Consider what happens if such an orientation begins to feel inevitable, as when the U.S. felt it had to develop nuclear weapons to prevent someone else from developing them first. Can the spell learned by the sorcerer's apprentice get out of control? Does anyone really need to ask?
geo wrote: But I also think science has become a a rather broad term that includes technology, which itself is driven mostly by economics and politics. Science itself is a tool that we use to learn about the natural world. And it works to that end, better than any other tool. We should not confuse knowledge with meaning.
Yes, I think this is well put. Reason is a whore, going with whatever priorities show the money. Scientism is a confusion of knowledge with meaning, taking the fact that we value knowledge for its own sake as a sufficient reason to give it priority over other values. Or perhaps it is just a tendency to discount questions of meaning in a kind of blind faith in knowledge.
geo wrote:If our complaint is that we've become too materialistic, is that really the fault of science? Joseph Campbell once spoke of the symbolism of the tallest buildings. . . . So the tallest buildings today are not science labs and universities but the centers of commerce.
No, not the fault of science. But possibly a side effect of technological improvement, which is a side effect of scientific investigation. I like Joseph Campbell's observation, though I must say religion in its heyday was not a comprehensive source of meaning or even a reliable guide for society whenever it did bother to quest for meaning. "Religionism" (if I can coin the phrase) was surely as much of a problem before 1900 as scientism is today.

The argument that is taking hold among educated progressive Christians, from my limited observation, is that religion offers something that materialism doesn't, and we should be unapologetic about creating communities which tap those benefits. You can see it in David Brooks' work, which is not particularly Christian. We continue to engage with the modern world and seek to ask questions that will lead toward wisdom, but that isn't the primary goal of communities of meaning. Rather it is an aspect of such communities that keeps them from the extremes of Orthodox Judaism or the Amish.
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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I just ran across a different variety of scientism. The work of Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford psychologist, has examined people's hallucinations cross-culturally, including in religious contexts. I have seen scientistic discussions declare that these hallucinations must represent schizophrenia, even though Luhrmann is eminently qualified to assess that question and has tested and concluded with sufficient evidence that schizophrenia was not a part of the hallucination.

To some extent this is a case of "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," which is certainly a potential problem in a world in which the president of the U.S. can dismiss his opponent as "ozone man" for opposing climate change. But the real problem was the perception that a researcher was taking "visions" seriously, and not immediately putting a politically convenient label on them to dismiss them, as she ought to do. This involved taking sides, with science on one side and religion on the other, and insisting that others must take sides in the same way - for the sake of politically backing science. The fact that it involved denying scientific methodology was lost on these scientistical people.
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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Writing this during a magnificent total lunar eclipse, visible here now as a blood moon, it occurs to me that the clash of paradigms raised by Dawkins’ ideas pits the value of description against the value of connection. Science is all about description, and in the case of the rainbow, descriptive reduction of the observation to its optical wave structure enables more detailed objective physical understanding. Poetry by contrast is all about connection, about how our perspective relates to the whole of which we are a part, something that finds meaning in subjectivity rather than in measurable facts. An eclipse is a good example of a natural event with both a descriptive and a connective meaning, like a rainbow.

The epistemic value of our connection to the world around us lacks the precise and quantitative nature of scientific measurement. That is a big reason why Dawkins expresses such disdain for astrology, which he tells Tyson is idiotic. The underpinning complaint seems to be that astrology is not descriptive but is entirely about intuiting a mystical wholistic connection between the individual and the cosmos in terms of the physical structure of the moment in time. Like the poetry of the rainbow, the irreducible holism of traditions like astrology conveys a spiritual meaning that Dawkins seems to find morally offensive.

There is a strong ethical power in the values Dawkins presents, setting evidence and logic at the core of his morality. And yet as Tyson counters, it is important to have respect for the artistic creative impulse that despite its lack of scientific rigor is a contrasting mode of awareness that is equally valuable.
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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geo wrote:
So what is it about being scientistic (besides being a rather awkward word)? Can we have too much confidence in science? Does it reduce our perspective of the human experience? Does science rob humanity of its soul? And what exactly does this mean?

For what it's worth, I agree with Dawkins that being scientistic—for a scientist at least—can be seen as a compliment. Perhaps the problem arises when poets and philosophers are given short shrift in society, as they surely do. But I also think science has become a a rather broad term that includes technology, which itself is driven mostly by economics and politics. Science itself is a tool that we use to learn about the natural world. And it works to that end, better than any other tool. We should not confuse knowledge with meaning.
I was a little surprised that Dawkins seemed to embrace 'scientistic.' 'Scientism' wasn't used positively by our late (and missed) friend, ant, so has Dawkins decided what the heck, let's own up to the fact that we do place science in highest esteem, turn the tables on our opponents, and be unabashed about our scientism? Barack Obama made a similar turn in adopting the pejorative 'Obamacare.'

What I understood from ant was that a scientistic outlook was severely reductionist, claiming the facts science revealed were automatically the essence of the subject. I think of it as a "nothing but" statement, as in "love is nothing but the release of oxytocin in the brain," or "near-death-experiences are nothing more than the brain being starved of oxygen." See, there's no miracle here, and what else do you need to know about love and the soul? My view is that, while it may be true that love is chemically based, if we're looking for a sense of the miraculous, we still have it in the nature of those chemicals, whose true nature and function may always elude us, even if we think we've learned a lot about them. It's probably up to art to open up that dimension of deep appreciation of scientific reality.

I'm recalling that Dawkins and Tyson begin their conversation complaining about the public's ignorance of math, arguably the main base of science. Mea culpa. So they seem to be striking back at a culture that forgives such ignorance and even celebrates it. Are we not scientistic enough, in their view? I think they're wrong, though, that ignorance of art and culture is stigmatized, while math dummies are okay. Neither is stigmatized much.
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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Harry Marks wrote:
geo wrote:Science and poetry have different purposes, science to learn about the natural world, poetry to explore meaning.
Given that the Four Horsemen have taken on the opposite position, that science is capable of being determinative about meaning, you may be presuming too much about people's ability to know the difference.
To understand this point, it is important to be aware of how the philosophy of science has approached the concept of meaning. In the mid twentieth century, scientific triumphalism generated the philosophy known as logical positivism, which held as a basic axiom that there is no meaning outside science. The meaning of a statement, in the positivist view, consists in its objective factual content. Anything else is entirely unreliable, unsubstantiated, subjective opinion.

Looking for the background of this attitude, I have just discovered this gem: “At the age of 24, AJ Ayer published a very influential first book, Language, Truth, and Logic (1936), which presented and built upon the logical positivist ideas of the Vienna Circle. It became one of the most widely read and successful philosophical books in the twentieth century. Its central doctrine is based on the principle that if something cannot be verified as true through our own sensory experience of the external world, it is meaningless. According to this principle, there are two sorts of cognitively meaningful statements: those which are empirically verifiable and those which are analytic. Scientific statements and statements of ordinary fact belong to the first class, while statements of mathematic and of logic belong to the second. Ayer used this theory to argue that religious and metaphysical statements such as “God exists” are unverifiable and meaningless.”
Here we see well summarised the outlook of analytical philosophy, subordinating thought to observation, and completely rejecting the poetic theory of meaning that Geo advanced.
Harry Marks wrote: I have seen repeated instances of scientists and their fans rejecting the views of others (even, sometimes, without even knowing what they were rejecting) for taking a politically incorrect position on science. I am not interested in political dogma of any variety.
Recalling Keynes’ line, which I think is absolutely brilliant, the science “fans” are distilling Ayre: ““Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
Harry Marks wrote: Scientism stretches the confidence we should all have in science, to do a good job of resolving objective questions of fact, into a faith in its supporting social processes that is borrowed from admiration of its intellectual prowess.
The trouble I see with scientism is that it is a sort of autistic psychology, rejecting the complexity of mystery in favour of a restriction of truth to only what can be accurately represented in language. The problem is that scientism actually is a form of faith, but a faith based on the total ostensible rejection of faith. Such pure intellectuality is not practical, as it leaves no room for trust, belonging or emotion.
Harry Marks wrote: Scientism tends to discount doubts about the ultimate goodness of scientific endeavors, for example. Is repackaging opiates as opioids really such a good thing? Of course it is! Science did it! The presumption of innocence that allowed opioids to be shamelessly promoted, and defended by lies, for a decade was abetted by scientism. Nuclear energy will be harmless. Geoengineering will solve climate change. To paraphrase the Beatles, all you need is science.
I think here you are conflating science and technology. I don’t think it is fair to blame scientists for the opioid epidemic, which was entirely a product of corrupt commercial abuse of science, although there is some sort of social convergence between the attitude that pills can cure sickness with the general causal attitude of materialism.

These issues touch on the theme of scientific prophets and wizards as presenting alternative visions of the future. On your point about geoengineering, I believe it is central to solving climate change, but has to be integrated into a coherent spiritual philosophy to gain any public credibility. The trouble is that most of its advocates have no capacity to engage with spiritual conversation.
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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DWill wrote:'Scientism' wasn't used positively by our late (and missed) friend, ant...
Oh goodness, I missed this, when did it happen? As I recall Ant would frequently call science a religion similar to what Mr. Tulip says about faith above. I never bought that, but still BookTalk will be lesser for his passing.
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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I hope this isn’t true about Ant. Perhaps the “late” only means he doesn’t hang out on BT any more.
-Geo
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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geo wrote:I hope this isn’t true about Ant. Perhaps the “late” only means he doesn’t hang out on BT any more.
What a poor choice of words! Sorry to alarm you all.
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