Politics, science, and a false dichotomy

** Written by “Surak” **

There was a political confrontation last Thursday in New Hampshire between conservative politician, Rick Perry, and a liberal woman protestor. The dispute concerned Perry’s views about evolution and creationism, and it demonstrated why we need to be concerned about the future of science in America. Governor Perry spoke to the woman’s young son in front of the usual swarm of reporters eager for a headline. Perry gave them one by telling the boy that evolution was a theory with gaps in it. In an obvious attempt to contrive an unflattering media incident to hurt the Texas governor’s campaign, the mother could be heard urging the child to ask Perry why he didn’t believe in science. Perry ignored the mother and told the boy that in Texas both evolution and creationism are taught, “… because I figured you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” I am appalled by what the mother did and troubled by the implications of Perry’s response.

The mother undoubtedly thinks of herself as a defender of ‘science,’ by which I guess she means the usual vague understanding of the currently popular but failed mid-20th century version of evolution. Whatever her beliefs, it was an abuse of science to pull a cheap political trick like this. And, it was a disturbing corruption of her child’s innocence by putting words in his mouth he couldn’t possibly have understood. She obviously thought she was protecting him and other children from false ideas, but her actions amount to nothing more than a crude form of indoctrination based on the prevailing conviction that any questioning of ‘evolution’ is an intellectual sin.

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Heroes sometimes fail: Why Stephen Hawking is wrong

Please excuse the inactivity of the last few weeks. I was busy with extensive travel and work, but am now back to posting on a regular basis. The biggest story to emerge while I was away concerned Stephen Hawking’s comments about the non-existence of heaven and the nature of the human brain. I asked Surak to write a response to this, since he has a particular interest in the monist vs. dualist argument. – Ed.

** Written by “Surak” **

As a human being who often struggles with relatively trivial difficulties in life, I have long felt admiration for Stephen Hawking’s courage and determination to continue working in spite of a highly-debilitating disease. As a physics enthusiast, I have the greatest respect for his accomplishments. But now, as a result of an article published in The Guardian two weeks ago, I also feel embarrassment for, and disappointment in, Hawking. The article reported his views on religion and metaphysics — they were unoriginal, ill-informed, biased, insensitive, and even arrogant.

The article was entitled, “Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’.” I don’t believe Hawking is capable of such an inane statement, so I attribute this bit of silliness to the reporter’s desire for an attention grabbing headline. It’s just another example of why no one can trust reporters. Unfortunately the rest of the silliness that follows is undoubtedly Hawking’s.

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When philosophy dominates science

** Written by “Surak” **

Dr. Robb Wilson, who blogs at The Scholar Redeemer, commented on my article “Separating philosophy from science,” and made the following important points:

“good science is NOT aphilosophical”

“a blanket statement that philosophy corrupts science is misleading … there is a philosophy at the root of methodological naturalism as well.”

In light of his excellent comment, I would like to take another shot at what I intended to say.

Ancient Greek philosophy was indeed the solid and necessary foundation on which the first scientific efforts took place, and it was the Judeo-Christian worldview that made modern science possible. I fully accept that whenever and wherever the dominant philosophy/religion of the day acted as a rational foundation on which something higher and broader could be constructed, science flourished. But sometimes the dominant worldview has included beliefs that act like confining walls and a low ceiling on science. The most obvious example is the ancient belief that the Earth was the center of the universe, which helped delay modern science by about 1,800 years.

The point I wanted to make in my original article is that there is today a philosophy that dominates most Western centers of learning, and elements of that philosophy threaten to delay desperately-needed scientific advances in fields such as biology, medicine, psychology, and social behavior. My fears seem to be confirmed by an article published in the February 7, 2011 online edition of the New York Times, titled “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within” by John Tierney. The article quotes Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, regarding what he describes as a liberal bias in his field:

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

While Tierney and Haidt appear to see the problem largely in political terms as part of a liberal vs. conservative struggle, the root of the problem for this branch of science is really philosophical because the “sacred values” cited by Dr. Haidt are those of humanism.  Our original article on ‘transcranial magnetic stimulation’ was an attempt to demonstrate that a similar philosophical problem exists in biology.

There is also evidence that humanist dominance is causing severe problems in the field of anthropology, for example, the controversial decision last year by the American Anthropological Association to remove the word “science” from an official statement of its long-range plan. The problem extends to general psychology, as well. In their 2005 book, Destructive Trends in Mental Health: The Well-Intentioned Path to Harm, Rogers H. Wright and Nicholas A. Cummings identify some distressing developments in behavioral science. In the preface they include the following statements:

Why, after decades of fighting to establish the rightful role of professionalism in psychology, do we now question the validity and integrity of some of the prevalent practices in our profession? The answer is simple: psychology and mental health have veered away from scientific integrity and open inquiry, as well as from compassionate practice in which the welfare of the patient is paramount.

These taboo topics typically unleash a silencing array of unwarranted charges ranging from political incorrectness, insensitivity, and lack of compassion to (in the extreme) bigotry. We are troubled that disciplines such as psychology, psychiatry, and social work, which pride themselves on diversity, scientific inquiry, intellectual openness, and compassion for those who need help, have created an atmosphere in which honest, albeit controversial, points of view are squelched.

We decry the extremism on the right, but we do not address it in this volume because that is not the problem within organized mental health today. Psychology, psychiatry, and social work have been captured by an ultraliberal agenda, much of which we agree with as citizens. However, we are alarmed with the damaging effect it is having on our science, our practice, and our credibility.

It [American Psychological Association] is no longer perceived as an authority that presents scientific evidence and professional facts. The APA has chosen ideology over science, and thus diminished its influence on the decision makers in our society.

Within the profession of psychology there is currently debate over treatment techniques and interventions that have not been scientifically validated.

It is obvious that we need a greater diversity of ideas and a counterbalance to the prevailing ideologies within mental health circles today. … We must broaden the debated by reducing the ridicule and intimidation of ideas contrary to the thinking of the establishment in the field of psychology.

Once again, the ultra-liberalism identified by the authors is best understood as the political manifestation of a relatively new philosophical orthodoxy, and the indisputable truth is that humanism is the philosophy that dominates many if not most universities and colleges in America today. I believe a strong case can be made that some humanists are guilty of many of the same transgressions against science that Christians have long been accused of, including

  • Attempting to establish a new orthodoxy verging on dogma
  • Stifling of descent
  • Condemning and purging those with non-humanist views
  • Corrupting science for political, social and economic goals

If psychology and the social ‘sciences’ continue to be dominated by a philosophy hostile to the free exploration and exchange of ideas, how will they ever develop desperately needed casual understanding about the human condition? A delay in the behavioral sciences similar to the delay in the physical sciences that occurred between Aristarchus and Copernicus would be more than a scientific tragedy; it would be a disaster for humankind. Our hope has to be that the study of human behavior will somehow break through the confining walls of humanism, undergo a cathartic paradigm shift, and become true science.

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Separating philosophy from science

** Written by “Surak” **

An article appeared several months ago in the Daily Telegraph with the headline, “Neuroscience, free will and determinism: ‘I’m just a machine.’” It describes how a British neuroscientist, Professor Patrick Haggard, found that magnetic fields can be used to affect a person’s brain and exert some small degree of control of his body without touching it in any way. The magnetic field is created by a device held close to a person’s head; a technique he calls “transcranial magnetic stimulation.” Although the amount of ‘control’ he was able to demonstrate was only the waggling of his index finger and the twitching of a hand, it was a wonderfully original experiment that sparks the imagination with intriguing visions of further research and possible cures.

Unfortunately the article wasn’t about the scientific possibilities. The researcher chose instead to make wildly speculative philosophical statements in the guise of science:

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