Category Archives: belief

Democracy and expert advice on scientific issues

Twitter--science

Image credit: James MacLeod

Layla Parker-Katiraee recently asked the question Should science be a democracy? in the blog Biofortified. Most readers here would probably immediately answer no! But hold on. The blog title is a bit misleading. She was actually posing this about social decisions related to scientific issues – not about science itself.

Layla gives this example:

“A January 2015 survey conducted by agricultural economists at Oklahoma State found that 82% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains GMOs. The same survey found that 80% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains DNA.”

She points out that while the scientifically informed may be aghast at such a result the fact is most of the general public are not scientifically literate – and we should recognise that:

“After the initial face-palm, my feelings of intellectual superiority gradually ebbed when I realized that my husband would be in the 80% of the population that doesn’t know that all food, unless it’s highly processed, contains DNA. My better-half has a degree in International Relations and Peace Studies. He is a consultant with high-tech companies. He’s amazing at his job and can charge a premium for his consulting fees. It’s safe to say that he is well educated and knows what he’s doing. However, his last biology class was 17 years ago.”

And another reason for avoiding intellectual snobbery is that even those who consider themselves scientifically literate will readily admit they do not necessarily have at hand the answers to many of the scientific questions posed by the non-scientifically literate who are campaigning against issues like GMOs, climate change or community water fluoridation.

So here is the dilemma. On the one hand, social policies should be decided democratically – or at least by democratically elected bodies. On the other hand, the public and even the membership of democratically elected bodies are usually not well-informed about the science involved in many controversial social policies.

As Layla says:

“This whole topic raises the question of whether scientific matters (such as food labeling) should be decided by a public that is not educated in the technical aspects or nuances of an issue. Should scientific matters be decided upon democratically?

Here are just a few examples: the Shasta County Board recently decided to look into chemtrails; Portland, Oregon rejects adding fluoride to the city’s water; Humbolt county votes to ban GMO production.”

The role of experts

And this despite the fact that society invests in experts to research these questions and give answers to any questions we may have. As she says:

“If we, the people, get to decide on such important scientific matters democratically, then why do we spend billions of dollars, on institutions such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, USDA, FDA? Do we just fund them so that they can come up with recommendations and guidelines which we can then ignore depending on whether we find it convenient or if our favorite celebrity endorses it? I can use the term “we” here because I pay what feels like a kajillion dollars in US taxes, even though I’m not a citizen.

Each of the examples above has been extensively studied and guidelines have been offered. The EPA, NASA, and the FAA joined forces to write a document about chemtrails (believe it or not); the EPA and the Department of Health and Human services have done scientific assessments on the fluoridation of water; the FDA evaluates the safety of all GMOs and regulates them (if you’re of the opinion that the FDA is “bought off”, then here’s a report on GMOs from the National Academy of Sciences). Our tax dollars funded every one of these efforts, yet we’re still taking these issues to the ballot box”.

So – we should listen to, or take the advice, of those experts – after all, that is what we pay them for. And on most issues we happily do that:

“There are MANY matters where I know very little and feel comfortable deferring to experts: what material should be used when highways are built, what water purification system my county should use, and so on. My taxes paid for all these projects and they impact me directly. I spend 2 hours a day in my car. If those highways are not built properly, if the on ramps are not sturdy, if the Bay Area bridges are not properly maintained, I could be hurt or even die. I fail to see why we defer to subject matter experts on these topics, but not on others. I don’t see any direct ballot measures to decide on the amount of concrete used when paving a road. Yet somehow, we feel that it’s appropriate to tell farmers in Hawaii what they can and cannot plant. Somehow, we the people, think we know something that a professional in his/her field doesn’t.”

Why reject expert advice?

It is illogical for “we people [to] “think we know something that a professional in his/her field doesn’t.” Yet it happens – or more correctly – some of us get fooled into rejecting the advice of the professional expert on some matters.

Inevitably on these controversial issues where scientific claims are being bandied about like political slogans one can detect the activity of ideologically or commercially motivated groups wishing to misrepresent the science – or worse, personally attack or otherwise seek to discredit the experts who should be able to give the objective information needed.

The scientifically literate person may, if they have the time, be able to check out the claims and detect the misrepresentation or distortions promoted by such groups. But even without the scientific training “we people” can always maintain a healthy suspicion of any group seeking to discredit expert scientific advice or defame such experts. We may also be able to check out the groups themselves – to discover the ideological or commercial motives and decide whether they are worth listening to.

“The ideal solution here is education”

This is what Layla Parker-Katiraee advocates. This could be helped if more students were exposed to science and critical analysis in their education.

“In the meantime, there are a few things we can do:

1) Encourage children in our circle of influence to take science classes in high school and college, even if they’re pursuing a career in an unrelated field.

2) Scientists should step up their communication skills. There aren’t many scientists in the private sector involved in science communication or education. Many of us have been trained in presentation skills. Giving concise explanations or pitches are often required in the private sector. There’s no reason why you can’t expand that skill into a part time hobby.

3) Remember that we all have gaps in our knowledge. Working to fill those gaps rather than mocking them will go a long way.”

If we worked to educate ourselves and others in understanding the role and nature of science and in critical thinking then society would be better able to handle “controversial” scientific issues requiring democratic decisions.

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Traditions and social arrangements out of step with social diversity

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Image credit:Americans Turning Away From Organized Religion in Record Numbers

A new report from The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life recommends changes which challenge the current traditional role and power of religion in the UK. Among its recommendations are:

National and civic events should reflect the pluralist character of modern society and “national forums such as the House of Lords, [should] include a wider range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England.”

Repeal of the legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship and its replacement by a requirement to hold inclusive times for reflection.

All pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics that is relevant to today’s society – that is education about religions and beliefs – not religious instruction.

More relevant coverage of religion and belief by the BBC. “The BBC Charter renewal should mandate the Corporation to reflect the range of religion and belief of modern society, for example by extending contributions to Radio 4’s daily religious flagship Thought for the Day to include speakers from non-religious perspectives such as humanists.”

Fairer treatment of complaints about media coverage of religion and belief with the establishment of a panel of experts on religion and belief to advise the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).

So far these are still only recommendations. Government action will be required to enact required changes and you can bet the recommendations will face stiff opposition from the establishment.

Religious and belief landscape transformed beyond recognition

The commission’s work shows clearly that the current treatment of diversity, of religion and belief is not suitable for modern society. The existing arrangements and traditions must change to take account of the changes that have occurred in recent years. The report says:

“Over the past half century, Britain’s landscape in terms of religion and belief has been transformed beyond recognition. There are three striking trends:
• The first is the increase in the number of people with non-religious beliefs and identities. Almost a half of the population today describes itself as non-religious, as compared with an eighth in  England and a third in Scotland in 2001.
• The second is the general decline in Christian affiliation, belief and practice. Thirty years ago, two-thirds of the population would have identified as Christians. Today, that figure is four in ten, and at the same time there has been a shift away from mainstream denominations and a growth in evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
• The third is the increased diversity amongst people who have a religious faith. Fifty years ago Judaism – at one in 150 – was the largest non-Christian tradition in the UK. Now it is the fourth largest behind Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. Although still comprising less than one in ten of the population, faith traditions other than Christian have younger age profiles and are therefore growing faster.”

The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life was convened by the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, to consider the place and role of religion and belief in contemporary Britain. Membership of the commission is representative of the diversity of beliefs in the UK and it surveyed opinion throughout the UK with local hearings and submissions.

Some idea of its history and activity is given in this video

The final report is fittingly entitled “LIVING WITH DIFFERENCE
community, diversity and the common good.” It can be downloaded from here.

Relevance for New Zealand

I think we need something like this in New Zealand – specifically to make recommendations to government, educational and policing bodies and local authorities. So far, such approaches to  New Zealand diversity have been rather wishy-washy and have not produced recommendations requiring legal or by-law changes.

However, there always seems to be a problem in such considerations in that non-religious representation tends to be token. Inherent in the situation is that there are a large number of religions and sects, many with small memberships. On the other hand the non-religious, while comprising about 50% of the population, has very few organisations to represent their interests.

Often the majority of participants in such consultations and deliberations assume the issue is religious diversity, rather than belief diversity, and consider only methods of accommodating religious differences.

In such situation the non-religious participants can be ignored or not properly listened too, despite their large constituency.

Still – I would love to see some of the recommendations from the British commission about education, parliament, constitutional relationships and national and civic events discussed here.

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Freedom of religion and belief – not a license to interfere with others

Shopping

This is so relevant.

I am all for freedom of religion and belief – but that does not give adherents of these religions or beliefs the right to interfere with my life.

And, seriously, if I demand my right of freedom from such interference this does not deny the rights of those adherents to their belief. To claim that it does it just childish.

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Religious instruction scrapped from school curriculum in Victoria

Coverting
Religious instruction scrapped from curriculum – what a great headline to see in the newspaper.

Unfortunately, it is just for the Australian state of Victoria. But it could well happen here, considering the opposition to religious instruction in state schools we are seeing in New Zealand.

Victorian schools are scrapping special religious instruction from class time to make way for new content on world histories, cultures, faiths and ethics. The changes to the state’s curriculum raise doubts about the future of the controversial religious instruction program.

The state government said “Extracurricular programs should not interfere with class time when teachers and students should be focused on the core curriculum.”  And curriculum changes mean that classes addressing domestic violence and respectful relationships will also become compulsory for all prep to year 10 students from 2016.

I certainly consider these subjects that are a far more important and necessary use of school time.

The changes mean that he weekly 30 minute religious instruction program will move to lunchtime and before and after school in 2016. Mind you, that opens up the possibility that other religious sects (and, heaven forbid, non-religious ones) may demand equal time for their own presence on school property for lunchtime and before and after school indoctrination opportunities.

These changes are welcomed by teachers – and no doubt by many parents. Lara Wood, a spokeswoman for Fairness in Religions in School, a group that has spent the past four years campaigning against SRI, claimed victory. “We won, we got what we wanted.”

She said religious instruction providers were proselytising in primary schools while students missed out on learning. This has been a common complaint from parents because the chaplaincy organisation involved is well-known for its evangelical orientation and attempts to convert children.

But, predictably, this move is opposed by some religious organisations – including the chaplaincy organisation Access Ministries, the main provider of religious instruction.

In New Zealand, the Secular education network (NZ) is working towards the same ends as the Australian Fairness in Religions in Schools. I hope we can see similar successes here in the near future.

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What is life?

Feynman-life

I am being purposely provocative here – and who else provokes better that Richard Feynman.

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Rapid change in attitudes to marriage equality

marriage-equality

Click the image to go to the video (unfortunately I can’t embed the video here).

The video demonstrates “The Stunning 15-Year March to Marriage Equality Around the World.” And it certainly shows how rapid this change in community values has been.

I suppose many people will look at the map and feel they occupy the moral high ground because we are citizens of a country that has accepted marriage equality. The map certainly differentiates between those who have accepted and those who haven’t.

But the very rapidity of this change in community values is also a lesson. We should expect more countries to accept marriage equality in the near future. and secondly, we should be a bit humble and not make judgments on people and countries who have not yet accepted marriage equality.

After all, we were in that position a very short time ago.

Thanks to:  Same-sex marriage world map: Countries where gay unions are permitted after Supreme Court (VIDEO)..

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isVid=1&isUI=1

Progress in removing religious instruction from public schools?

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Image credit: rethinking schools

Looks like we might be making a bit of progress in attempts to establish a genuine secular education system in New Zealand.

There are reports that “secular education advocates have had a win in their fight against the Bible in Schools programme.”

The Secular Education Network has been asking for months for removal of sectarian religious instruction classes from public schools. They have now been given access to guidelines the Ministry of education may suggest to resolve the problem.

Network spokesman David Hines said schools would be encouraged to end religious instruction during class time.

“And instead have it at lunch, or after school. Parents would also have to give written permission before they could get put in these classes. They are suggested guidelines. But these are both problem areas, so it’s good that they’re addressing those,” he said.

Apparently the suggested guidelines would also make it clear religious instruction is not part of the New Zealand Curriculum and would discourage religious observances in school assemblies. The Ministry will also consider how to raise awareness about the difference between religious instruction and religious education.

So this is progress. Religious instruction will be relegated to an out-of-school-hours activity like sport. Hopefully, there will also be changes to make this an opt-in choice and not the current opt-out system where parents requests are often ignored.

I agree with the Secular Education Network that there is a place for religious education (and education of other belief systems) in schools but this is very different to religious instruction which is a form of dogmatic brainwashing.

Clearly this is an ongoing process of negotiation by of the Education Ministry with concerned parents and schools. I just hope this progress is confirmed and there is no backsliding.

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How to change your Mind – and why it is good for you

It’s funny how we all recognise confirmation bias in others but a loath to see it in ourselves.

Yet it is only human – and in fact the desire to fit new evidence into existing models in our mind does play an important role in attempts to understand the real world. At the same time, one must realise that our mental models do not correspond exactly to reality, no matter how good they are, or we think they are.

That is why it is important to develop the skills to recognise when our mental models really are out of step with new evidence, with reality.

Julia Galef trains people to do this. To learn to change their mind. She described the process in her talk at TAM 2014.

TAM 2014 – Julia Galef – How to Change Your Mind -TAM 2014.

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Science and belief

IMG_0616As long as it agrees with, or can be interpreted to agree with, one’s beliefs.

 

Losing trust in religious leaders

I recently reported the data from our last census showing the decline of the numbers of Christians in New Zealand, and the associated increase in people declaring they have no religion (see Census 2013 – religious diversity). It’s interesting to consider the consequences if the trend continues. As the graph below shows, the”crossover point” (when the number of Christians = the number of No religion) will occur in 2016 – only 2 years away. Christianity itself will decline even further so that in about 20 years it will likely have only  20% of the census responses.

census-trend

I think most people now accept that secularisation in the modern pluralist, democratic societies is a fact. (Although Christian apologist WL Craig still clutches at straws to deny this – see Philosopher reveals his predictions for the future of Christianity in America). Only the reasons for this are debated.

Of course, there is not going to be just one factor – life is never that simple. But one that interests me is changes in the way we perceive the representatives of religion. In my younger years I was quite happy to respect religious leaders – and give to religious charities. Despite my rejection of their beliefs I still held a certain amount of trust in those leaders. But not any more – and I think I am not alone in this.

Gallup recently released results of their latest poll of American’s attitudes towards professions (see Honesty and Ethics Rating of Clergy Slides to New Low). The poll asks people to rate the honesty and ethics of people in different fields. Gallup reported:

“Americans’ rating of the honesty and ethics of the clergy has fallen to 47%, the first time this rating has dropped below 50% since Gallup first asked about the clergy in 1977. Clergy have historically ranked near the top among professions on this measure, hitting a high rating of 67% in 1985.”

The graph below demonstrates this decline of trust in clergy.

honesty

Again, the decline in rating of the honest and ethics of religious clergy will probably have multiple causes. Sex abuse in the church will be a significant cause. As will attempts to promote outdated and inhumane attitudes on moral issues.

For me another strong cause of declining trust is the way that prominent Christian leaders and their news media will flagrantly misrepresent science –  particularly evolutionary science .  I agree, those specific leaders  might not be representative of all Christians (who is), but these other Chrsitians seem unwilling  to criticise them.

How can one maintain trust in people who knowingly misrepresent well established scientific facts and ideas? And how can one maintain trust in their associates who remain silent about that misrepresentation?

Credit: The honesty of clergy, car salesmen, and politicians.

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