Thursday, 6 February 2014

Of Science and Scientism

I was told that there would be no math in this debate...

Living in Paris provides many pleasures and distractions.  Not the least of these is the ready availibility of places of great historical importance to remind one of the past, and aesthetic beauty to entice one in.  Indeed, la Ville de Lumière offers many such windows in to the past - perhaps sufficiently many that one must actively seek to avoid them, lest one be inflicted with undesired learning.

Now, there is a comment attributed to George Santayana that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

For those unfamiliar with French history - a history that was somewhat violent and chaotic between the middle 18th and late 19th centuries - the so-called ancienne régime (the monarchists) - ruled in no small part by the divine right of kings.  This priniciple invests the power of the monarch in the idea that God himself has bestowed the earthly power of rulership in the sovereign.  Various of the Bourbon kings based their legitimacy on this idea, and thus over the centuries maintained a somewhat nervous peace between themselves and the Church.  

This is near the centre of the famous novel Les Trois Mousquetaires, revealed in the intrigue between the Crown, the musketeers, and the eminence gris, Cardinal Richelieu.  

Louis XIV summed this up with his famous quip "L'état c'est moi." (The State is me).

When the revolution inevitably came to Paris in 1789, of course the king was gone.  But many turned their anger on the Church as well, seeing it as an enabling, corrupt power.  As a result, many of the now famous religious sites in Paris were attacked.  Some were destroyed.  Others were repurposed.  Few visitors to the Cathédral de Notre Dame de Paris are aware that it was converted, among other things, into a stable for horses; that the massive, neo-gothic Madeleine church became for a period "The Temple of Reason."  

In their zeal, many of the revolutionaries went beyond merely reforming their society, replacing the cult of the Church with an odd cult of "reason" and natural laws.  Though some moderation returned, and an uneasy truce between state and faith struck, France in a sense has never really fully reconciled this battle.

I am wondering if, in the US, we are headed to a similar sort of situation, with the increasingly shrill (and in my view, silly) battle between self-styled "scientists" and increasingly isolated and defensive self-appointed defenders of the faith.  And if so, why?

A recent debate ocurred back in the States between Bill Nye ("The Science Guy," a pop-sciency entertainer) and Ken Ham, a writer and (I guess) prominent man among people who reject evolution and promote the literal interpretations of the Bible.  I never heard of the latter, and my exposure to the former is his somewhat goofy appearances on Nickelodeon.

The 'debate' about various topics (the age of the earth, the origins of man, and other items that touch the erogenous zones of self-righteousness of both the religious and anti-religious) took place at the comical "Museum" of Creation Science in Kentucky.  From what I gather, the place - replete with animatronic dinosaurs alongside people - is not unlike a sort of history museum, if Richard Hofstadter were Fred Flintstone.

There's been a lot of noise in the past few years back home about the creationists, or, their close cousins, the supporters of "Intelligent Design."  Much of it breast-beating from people in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, and Los Angeles, about how these flat-earthers in places like Kentucky (the home of the Flintstone version of the Smithsonian mentioned above) and Kansas are rapidly destroying public education in the US.

Nye himself stated that his reason for entering this discussion was his fear that Ham and the creationists are a serious threat to science education and our ability as a nation to innovate and compete.

I find this claim a bit hyperbolic.  

How large a problem is it, really?  Is the US falling behind China, Japan, Norway, and other nations in science (and maths, reading, writing, critical thinking...) because of people like Ham?

Undeniably, Ham and those who insist on ignoring the mountains of evidence have an impact.  But I would respectfully offer that the bigger threats to our nation in terms of science education, innovation, and competitiveness lie elsewhere.

As I mentioned, if one looks at many putative boosters of science education, their commentaries are full of remarks about "the stupids" in places like Kansas.  A book was written not long ago with the name What's the Matter with Kansas?, by a writer named Thomas Frank, who grew up in Kansas, but now lives in Washington, DC.  When I lived in California, one could scarcely pass a week without hearing denigrating remarks about places like Kansas or South Carolina.

Well, if one looks at the most recent NAEP scores, California ranks 49th in the country in terms of science achievement.  Who is worse?  Why, the Disctrict of Columbia. Kansas is 23rd; Kentucky is 15th. In mathematics, California and the District again are in 49th and last place.

I could be wrong, but I am sceptical that California and DC are hot-beds of creationist activism.

There are real threats to the quality of education we get, but things that concern the anti-religious seem pretty far down the list.  Does anyone actually believe that the centuries old argument about evolution is the main impediment to solid science education?  A significant impediment?  

That said, I wonder, what is really motivating the apparent zeal of those who are so fraught because of the threat of the Intelligent Design crowd?  Is it really a desire to improve science education, or simply a reactionary rejection of religion? And if it's a rejection of religion, is it Christianity or religion more broadly?  Because they are offended by the dogma of the church?

Or is it something else?

My suspicion is the latter.  Many of the loudest people in the discussion seem to me not to support 'science' per se, but rather, are opposed to religion because they don't like religious people for reasons that have nothing to do with religion.

"Liberals" in the SF Bay area where I lived for the better part of two decades seemed particularly anti-Christian (and it's almost always anti-Christian; one seldom heard complaints about various religious practices of other faiths, an artefact perhaps of numbers more than anything else) because they see religiousness as part of a strongly southern, rural culture.  The language in the discussion invariably invoked comments about "red state" people.

Religious faith is associated with the wrong sort of people, you see.  Christianity is not hip, urban, or edgy.  There is not an "app" for it. It's certainly not something one discusses over microbrewed beers at the Empire Tap Room, unless as the punch line to a snarky joke.

There strikes me a huge conflation of religion and politics, with one's view of faith as a sort of proxy for political fealty.  Which is what happened in France in following the revolution.  The anti-Church fervour was less about "reason" and "science" and more about politics.

Bill Nye is worried about science education, and with reason.  Nye deserves praise for his efforts to draw attention to the problems facing science, and indeed, more general, eduxation.  However, though his (undergraduate) degree is in mechanical engineering (he has no post-graduate credentials, which is odd for someone calling himself "The Science Guy"), I am sure he has sufficient mathematical education to see that many of the 'ideas' to fix education popular with his fellow travellers, such as Head Start, are demonstrable failures.  I would suggest to Mr Nye that there are bigger problems.  

And as I suspect, for many others, the argument about science and faith has little to do with either.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

I Robot (Driver)

La mortalité routière en baisse de 9,6%
Les Objets Trouvés de Vos Miroirs Pourraient Être Plus Proches que Vous Pensez...

Read in the news today (sorry, link is in French) that several EU governments are close to an accord (and have been working quietly on the tech required) that would grant them some control over all vehicles on the road by 2020.  The idea is one that putatively has grown from the number of high-speed chases and related injuries.

Under the research, cars, trucks, and other similar vehicles would be equipped with a device that would allow police, from a remote location, to slow or stop a selected car.

It reminded me of the movie "I, Robot" just a bit.

Other applications hinted at would be to control speeds, space cars on the roadways, and otherwise "improve" the road safety in the European Union.

Anyone who has negotiated the notorious Etoile (the confluence of about a dozen roads around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris) can see the appeal, of course.  French drivers are notorious; I personally have had more than one sheepish Parisian explain the various impacts of the "Latin mindset" on driving habits.

Tyco Racing Comes to Paris

One group who are less than enthused is the UK group "Statewatch," who see not safety, but a creeping central government. Of course, the English people are not "Latin" so their driving tends to be a bit less random.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Iacta Alea Esto

Blinded by Science?

With apologies to Thomas Dolby.

I was recently thinking about the progress humanity is making in the realm of automation and, more precisely, artificial intelligence.  As machines become better and better at emulating us, what will the impact be?  Is the future going to look utopian - for example, the sort cartoon future of "the Jetsons" type, or dystopian - the view offered in films like "Logan's Run" or worse, novels such as The Time Machine?

Translated from the Japanese, strong eat, weak meat.

I don't pretend to know, but today I was again thinking about the role "science" plays in our modern world.  In the US, there is a debate - in my view, of very, very little practical importance - about whether political candidates "believe in" science or not.  

In fact, my own view is that one believes in God (or not); one doesn't believe in science.  Science is a matter of precision and experiment, not of faith.  On Sunday morning, I repeat the Creed of Nicaea (or, on some weeks, the Apostle's Creed).  I don't perform a similar ritual when I am at work creating mathematical models.

There are, of course, political points to be had by trying to proclaim one's "belief" in science - or more to the point, the apparent lack of such faith in one's opponents.  We hear almost ad nauseum about whether this or that candidate is a creationist, or believes that the Christian bible is a literal work of history.  This again, in my own view, is pretty irrelevant to whether a congressional candidate is going to be able to reduce our grotesque budget deficits or help put more people to work or fix the immigration issues facing the US.

But perhaps nowhere is the science debate more immediate than in the realm of human reproduction - the debate about abortion rights, genetic engineering, and infertility.

I try to avoid arguing these topics, precisely because it is really here that science, ethics, an faith collide, and I am thus extremely ambivalent.  At the intersection of these ideas one finds odd conflicts - typically, self-proclaimed supporters of small government are quick to grant the state wide powers to proscribe abortion (what in other cicumstances would be recognised as clear and gross traductions of basic freedom).  On the other side, those who proclaim as loudly as possible a support of scientism and who describe abortion as merely a medical procedure to be dealth with between patient and doctor without limit suddenly get extremely cold feet when it is applied for, say, sex selection.

The issue is complicated, and I can see merit in each side.  

The article asks the provocative question of just where the ethical boundaries lie:
(Testing) raises unsettling ethical questions that trouble advocates for the disabled and have left some doctors struggling with what they should tell their patients. When are prospective parents justified in discarding embryos? Is it acceptable, for example, for diseases like GSS, that develop in adulthood? What if a gene only increases the risk of a disease? And should people be able to use it to pick whether they have a boy or girl? A recent international survey found that 2 percent of more than 27,000 uses of preimplantation diagnosis were made to choose a child’s sex
The science of eugenics has an ugly history in the 20th century, so people are rightly queasy when confronted.  

Currently, there are not laws in the US about the use of genetic testing in these cases.  And recent moves to block the use of testing (including ultrasound, a much cruder method) for sex selection have made for very strange political bedfellows.

But I've often wondered - if abortion is merely, as advocates of 'choice' puport, a medical procedure, then what possible, rational and consistent argument could one make that using genetic testing to select for "healthy" babies could exist?  Why not allow testing?  Where is the harm?  

Even further, what is the objection to allowing sex-selection?  After all, to use the "medical procedure" argument, it's not actually a girl that is being aborted, but merely cells.  

Of course, this is precisely the sort of problem that science is not designed to answer.  This is the realm of ethics, which almost necessarily falls beyond the realm of pure reason (Immanuel Kant to the side).

We struggle with these questions because we recognise that an "embryo" is something more than just a clump of cells.  Terminating the unborn because we fear disability almost surely leads to a devaluation of living human beings who are disabled.  THIS is where the advocates for the disabled immediately recognise the threat.

For when we start relying solely on what we can do - the realm of science - we start to lose focus on asking what we should do.