Saturday, April 17, 2010

Questions for accomodationists

Following up on and drawing from recent conversations, I have a series of questions for accomodationists:

1) Do you, personally, believe in a deity of any sort? If so, on what basis? If not, why don't you?

2) Can you clearly define the supernatural entities (including that of the supernatural itself) that you believe to be untestable as to their facticity? Not name in a general way, but define them as entities, such that people can ascertain whether they're amenable to investigation.

3) Do you believe that science is the only reliable means for acquiring knowledge about the world? If not, please describe the others. What knowledge have they produced independently of science? More generally, what is knowledge that isn’t scientific knowledge?

4) If you answered negatively to the first three questions – therefore demonstrating that there is no rationale that you personally can accept for believing in a deity, that the supernatural concepts you’re defending can’t be defined coherently, and that there are no reliable means of acquiring knowledge about the world other than science – on what basis do you promote respect for the beliefs and epistemic “systems” you do?

It seems to me extremely hypocritical to encourage respect for beliefs that are not formed on the basis of science – a reasoned (logical, including parsimonious) and honest systematic engagement with the evidence – while claiming to promote science and personally rejecting those beliefs and approaches. It is dishonest to argue "Well, whatever is true in science, we’re not always scientific in every area of our lives," such that science is presented, in a silly ahistorical manner,* as limited to what professional scientists do in very specific contexts, having no claim on beliefs in general. This is because the questions that immediately follow are: Is this OK? Is an evidentiary basis for our beliefs not a moral requirement? Are we not all required by intellectual honesty and basic morality to base our beliefs, which form an essential foundation for our actions, on the most honest engagement with the best evidence we have?

If you argue that the moral requirement doesn’t hold because some beliefs can be maintained "benignly," without affecting people’s actions or decisions, you need to consider three things. First, even if it might be accurate in some specific cases, this is often not a true claim - people's beliefs are not generally quarantined from their actions in this way. Second, matters on which beliefs that might at one time or one place not be important to people’s actions can become so. Would you recommend agricultural, reproductive, or environmental policies based on beliefs that are not derived scientifically when these are matters of life and death to people? Further, does pondering nonscientific notions interfere with and draw time and resources away from important scientific investigations? Third, and most importantly, in defending nonscientific beliefs and epistemic systems of any sort, aren’t you encouraging nonscientific thinking in general, such that people influenced by you will have fewer intellectual and practical defenses against even those products of nonscientific thinking you find reprehensible?

*(which is, moreover, the contrary of how science education should be encouraging young people to think about science)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

You people wouldn't know scientific literacy if it...

Ay. So the recent flap concerns the NSF’s decision to remove questions on evolution and the Big Bang from its scientific literacy report. PZ has a good post about it, while some others at Scienceblogs, well, don’t.

What framing “experts” clearly fail, or in some cases refuse, to grasp is that we need to define scientific literacy in a meaningful and useful way, and if there exists more than one way of understanding scientific literacy, to focus on the one that is actually important. The concept of scientific literacy advocated by the NSF (in this decision) and some assorted dillweeds seems to be “knowledge of a collection of facts accumulated through scientific research” or “reverence for science.” But the important form of scientific literacy is understanding science as an epistemic system. Scientific knowledge is formed through the analysis of empirical evidence, and specific collective practices have been developed that have made the methods of science the means of acquiring knowledge about the natural world and given its findings a particular epistemic status. Awareness of specific facts in various disciplines is not unimportant, but anyone reasonably intelligent can memorize statements and even processes and any fool can “respect” scientific and technological achievements.

Is it important to contemporary society that a child can parrot facts about biology or cosmology if that child doesn’t understand why his or her superstitious beliefs don’t have the same status as established scientific theories, that the religious “way of knowing” about the world is no such thing, and that knowledge based on decades or centuries of research can’t be dismissed on the basis of ancient texts or the words of religious authorities, political hacks, or corporations? This is a central goal of the NSF? This is extremely dangerous to democracy.

I realize that this can be read as suggesting that even someone with a science degree can be called a scientific illiterate. That is in fact what I’m arguing. The value in scientific literacy is in understanding science epistemically and appreciating the roots of its power. Otherwise, children might as well be memorizing Bible verses or advertising jingles.

HONDURAS: the struggle for a democratic constitution continues, despite the best efforts of the opponents of democracy

I have been collecting reports on those struggling for justice in Honduras and the violence they've faced, but these two recent reports do a good job summarizing the situation:

First, "Disappearing the Truth in Honduras: 'National Reconciliation' & the 'Truth Commission' Provide Cover for Repression Aimed at Destroying the Demand for a New Constitution" from Anne Bird at Rights Action.

Second, "U.S. covering up reality in Honduras" from the Real News Network:

Not much more to say. These governments, by their actions, show contempt for truth and democracy. Continuing to support the movement for justice and a new constitution in Honduras in absolutely necessary.