Tag Archives: Science in Society

The “You Can’t Trust Science!” agenda

Here’s a nice little video I picked up from The Guardian (see You Can’t Trust Science!). It’s a rebuttal of those claims that “Science has an agenda! Science is unreliable!”

(Please ignore the salacious eye-catching aspects).

Vodpod videos no longer available.

You Can’t Trust Science! | Science | guardian.c…, posted with vodpod

As the accompanying text points out:

“Science is all about evidence. It is based in reality, in facts and in testable evidence — individual reputations do not change scientific facts, nor does belief, brainwashing and coercion. Scientists test and re-test scientific hypotheses about how the universe is put together and how it functions using the latest cutting-edge technologies. Despite this, there are adults who are taken seriously when they loudly declare: “Science has an agenda! Science is unreliable!” Using this distraction to begin a conversation that they want to dominate, these people then pontificate about their personal fantasy life as if it is real, demanding that everyone else in the world share their particular delusions, and they are taken seriously — without having to produce a shred of real evidence to support their statements.”

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Can the “supernatural” be of any use?

This xkcd cartoon is so true (Thanks to xkcd: The Economic Argument).

1: There is a special relationship between scientific knowledge and the real world. Scientific ideas are based on evidence from reality, they get tested and validated against reality. And they get tossed out if found wrong.

So it’s not surprising that scientific knowledge gets incorporated into things that are useful.

2: Just shows how silly all this talk of science being blinkered becuase it “excludes supernaturalism” is. If this term has any meaning in the real world it just means something that is counter-intuitive or hasn’t been explained.  Science is full of such ideas so it is dishonest to claim it is blinkered. What could be more weird or non-intuitive than “spooky action at a distance.”

No, when these proponents of “other ways of knowing” etc., attack science they are trying to remove the requirement of evidence and testing against reality. That’s what they mean by their code word “supernatural.”

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Some pesky delusions

Book review: The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, editors John W. Loftus and Dan Barker

US$14.28; NZ$44.97

Paperback: 422 pages
Prometheus Books (March 31, 2010)

As the title indicates this book is about delusions often promoted by Christians. These are many and varied. The show up in areas such as the history of science, cosmology, morality/ethics, history, culture and anthropology, the nature of the mind and consciousness, ideas of gods, the Christian bible and the historically authenticity of biblical history. Religious leaders and theologians promote them and congregations uncritically accept them. That is the nature of faith and is Why Faith Fails, as the book’s subtitle says.

It is a collection of articles by nine different authors. The advantage – most readers will find some articles which specifically interest them. The disadvantage – few readers will have the same interest in all the articles.

Another advantage of different authors is that they are all experts in their own fields and write authoritatively on the subjects of their articles.

So I should declare my interests.  Part I: Why Faith Fails and Part 5: Why Society Does not depend on Christian Faith specifically interested me. Part 3: Why the Christian God is not Perfectly Good and Part 4: Why Jesus is not the Risen Son of God would interest those with a background or interest in theology. Readers interested in biblical history and analysis might prefer Part 2: Why the Bible is not God’s Word.

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Sam Harris on The Daily Show

Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is now out. I have been offered a review copy but have yet to see it.

Here is a clip of Jon Stewart and Sam Harris talking about the book on the Daily Show last night.

Sam says some interesting things.

I am sure many will find faults with his book but he has certainly started a much needed discussion on the possibility of an objective basis for morality.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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Mapping modern science

Crispian Jago at the  Science, reason and critical thinking blog has produced an interesting map of the last 500 years of modern science. As he says by “gross over-simplification, dodgy demarcation, glaring omission and a very tiny font” (see Map of Modern Science). With a subject this complex compromises are inevitable. Nevertheless the map is quite an achievement. Click on the image to see it full size.

Based on the London Underground design each science has its own line and stops are for named scientists. The stations link to information about the scientist.

The author acknowledges “the result is too crude for serious science historians.” However Crispian hopes “the output retains enough honesty to make it a useful starting point for the exploration of the history of science to the interested layperson or intermediate geek.”

The history and procedure for constructing the map is described in On the Origin of the Modern Science Map.

Certainly looks interesting enough to browse for useful leads.

See also Crispian Jago’s Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense.

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Suzan does a mini- Monckton

The journalist Suzan Mazur seems to be taking a leaf out of Christopher Monckton’s silly book.

A while back I reviewed Suzan Mazur’s book The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry (see Self-exposure – a journalist out of depth). I didn’t like it. My conclusion was that she had no real knowledge of evolutionary science. She approached the issue like a political journalist, believing the worst of the scientists she interviewed and thinking she had a “story” when she didn’t. The title of the book says it all. As does the fact that it was promoted by intelligent design/creationist websites and blogs.

Since then Mazur has had a few other digs at scientists particularly on the issue of peer review (see The Peer Review Prison). It is just so easy to get quotes from disgruntled authors to support a conspiracy theory of the “scientific establishment” censoring honest scientific work and new ideas. Nothing new there. And it is not honest reporting.

Now she has been called out by the scientist/philosopher Massimo Pigluicci. He described his experience with her work on The Altenberg 16 in his recent book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk.* The discrepancy between the material he provided in his interview and the article she wrote allowed, according the Pigluicci, “a rare glimpse from the inside of a journalist’s behaviour once she thought (mistakenly) that she was on to something big.” Pigluicci said it revealed “how thin the boundary is between not only science and pseudoscience, but journalism and pseudo-journalism.”

This didn’t please Mazur at all. And like a mini-Monckton she climbed out of her tree, attacked Pigluicci, his employer (Lehman College) and Publisher (University of Chicago press). She describes Pigluicci’s comments as a “malicious attack,” “twisted,”  disingenuous” and “libelous trash.” She questions whether Pigluicci “is competent to teach with regard to moral and ethics at Lehman College.”

And she demands that the publishers removed Pigliucci’s book from circulation, cancel scheduled readings and “advise Massimo Pigluicci to cease and desist from further derogatory public statements with regard to me and my work.”

This is the sort of thing we have come to expect from lord Christopher Monckton when his claims are subjected to calm, reason, scientific critique (see Support John Abraham against Monckton’s bullying).

Two weeks after making her demands the University of Chicago Press and their legal counsel have advised Mazur they stand by  Massimo Pigliucci, won’t be removing his  book from circulation or stop public readings from it. Se has released the letter she sent to the publishers (see Pigliucci Deceit Drags Publisher Into Big Muddy) but no copy of their response.

Strangely, this little storm in a teacup was reported, as far as I can find, only at New Zealand’s Scoop (which was also involved in publishing her book).

*See Pseudoscience and anti-science nonsense for a review of Pigluicci’s book Nonsense on Stilts


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Science, faith and limits of knowledge

Occasionally we have debates here about the “limits of science,” “other ways of knowing,” and the old “scientism” label. Recently these issues have received a bit of coverage in  a series of articles at the Guardian.

These have been responses to the question Can Science Explain Everything?

Ever decreasing limits

I really like two of the responding articles. Adam Rutherford, who is an editor at the science journal Nature, wrote Ever-increasing circles of science. His conclusions are summarised in the sentence: “The domain of knowledge amenable to science has only ever changed in one direction: at the expense of all others.”

“Science may not tell us much about history, or aesthetics, or metaphysics. But to underestimate the boundaries of what it can say is a fallacy committed only by those who misunderstand or deny the power of the scientific method. When the comedian Dara O’Briain hears the facile maxim “science doesn’t know everything” his response is, of course it doesn’t, otherwise it would stop. As a way of knowing, there are limits to what science can reveal, but those limits are ever decreasing. Is there a sensible reason why it can’t tell us about love, or psychology, or God or the composition of quarks? Abso-bloody-lutely not.”

If you are not familiar with Dara O’Briain or his work have a look at the video clips in Get in the sack! Really great

Sue Blackmore, whose research interests include memes, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation, produced Science explains, not describes

She says: “The experience of consciousness seems incommunicable and ineffable. Yet science can hope to explain how it arises.” She justifies this by arguing:

“Science can (potentially at least) explain everything because its ways of trying to understand the universe by asking questions of it should not leave any areas off-limits. The methods of openness, inquiry, curiosity, theory building, hypothesis testing and so on can be adapted and developed to explore and try to explain anything.”

As her title implies she concludes:

“conscious experiences may remain ineffable even when science thoroughly understands how and why. In this case I would be right in my intuition that science cannot describe everything but may well be able to explain that which it cannot describe.”

Finally I came across similar sympathies in the article Science and Faith at the blog cgranade::streams. The author Chris Granade, a Canadian Ph.D. student,  concludes:

“Why should we mistake the limits of our current methods as being intrinsic properties of the world itself? That seems like the ultimate leap of faith. To hold some phenomenon to be permanently beyond the realm of understanding, regardless of how much humanity grows (or how much our post-human descendants grow), is to take an unpalatable amount on faith.”

I like it!


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Ways of not knowing

We are always hearing about how science can’t explain everything and that there are “other ways of knowing.” Problem is those promoting this idea are very vague about what these “other ways of knowing” are and what the evidence is for their effectiveness. Usually it’s just a way of supporting one’s own pet desires.

So I really like this simple statement by Jerry Coyne in a post at Why Evolutiuon is True (see What evidence would convince you that a god exists?).

“Religion is not a way of knowing because it doesn’t have a way of knowing that it is wrong. And without that, you don’t know if you’re right. That’s why science makes progress in understanding the world while religion is still mired in medieval theology.”

Sums it up, really. How can you know you are right if you can’t know if you are wrong? To do that you actually have to interact with reality.


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Science, values and ethics

There is an unfortunate common perception that scientists are cold, hard people. That they are only interested in objective facts and are emotionless. And especially that science as a process is not creative and does not encourage the development of an ethical outlook. Consequently there is an attitude that while we can learn about the nature of reality from science and scientists we can learn nothing about ethics or the appreciation of reality.

Some people even claim that for this we must turn to religion. Although they never seem to be able to explain how on earth religious leaders can offer any better knowledge of ethics than scientists, boot makers, mechanics. or cooks.

I think most scientists would object to this common perception. So I was pleased to see this recent article from Agnosticism / AtheismValues of Godless Science: Modern Science Does Not Need Religion or Gods for Values. It’s worth a read so I reproduce it below:

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Clear science communication

Book review: Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public by Cornelia Dean

Price US$13.57
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (October 30, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0674036352
ISBN-13: 978-0674036352

I bet you can name some good science communicators. People like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Carolyn Porco, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss among others

They stand out, don’t they? Probably because the rest of us are bad science communicators. We picture scientists as ponderous, given to continual qualification, lovers of jargon, bad speakers (as well as bad dressers) and not interested in communicating with the non-expert anyway. We don’t even want to communicate effectively with fellow scientists for a different speciality or research area.

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. There are many scientists, particularly younger ones, who recognise science communication is important. Some of these probably consciously try to pick up relevant communication skills, and/or practise these in internet and other public settings.

Perhaps more importantly, there are many scientists who recognise science communication is important.

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