FOR THE MEMBERS OF
CENTRAL OHIOANS FOR RATIONAL INQUIRY
Founded by Ann Pratt in 1996
Our 10th Year of bologna detection!
Volume: Number 10 ___ Issue: Number 7 ___
Date: JULY 2005
It's the *CORI SUMMER HIATUS* - No Meeting this Month!
*MEETING: The next membership meeting will be
OCTOBER 1, 2005
LOCATION: TBA . . .
*TOPIC 1: WHITHER CORI – Is it time to fold the tent? (See Remember Flim Flam) Perhaps we've remained "old school" skeptics ...
*TOPIC 2: TBA . . .
BUSINESS: Follows presentation.
LUNCH: Follows Meeting; attendees are invited to gather at a nearby venue.
QUOTE / UNQUOTE
"The biggest cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid people are so sure about things and the intelligent folks are so full of doubts." - [Bertrand Russell]
"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." - [Albert Einstein]
How to be a modern skeptic.
- By Daniel Engber, a writer in New York City
June 22, 2005 Slate
In line to get my badge for this year's skeptics conference in Pasadena, Calif., I recognized the little man standing behind me. He was bald, with a full, white beard, and he looked older than I would have imagined. "Excuse me," he said, "is this the line for the skeptics meeting?" When I nodded, he looked me up and down and replied, "Oh, I doubt that."
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the worlds' most famous skeptic, the Amazing Randi.
I was in the seventh grade when I first came across Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions, Randi's 1980 classic of the early skeptics movement. When I got on board—as a fan, if not a true believer—the group was entrenched in a slugfest with the flourishing occult business. The skeptics were a feisty group of scientists, philosophers, magicians, and atheists, united by their dedication to rational thought and their intolerance of credulity. Randi, a professional magician and escape artist who once dangled upside down in a straitjacket over Niagara Falls, joined up with Paul Kurtz, a philosophy professor in upstate New York, who had himself taken on newspaper astrologers. In 1976, Kurtz formed the Committee for the Scientific Inquiry Into Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) to explain, expose, dispel, and debunk the supernatural and all its practitioners.
<= AMAZING RANDI
For decades, CSICOP's members did all of that with fierce passion. But in recent years the skeptics' enthusiasm for debunking has begun to subside. Kurtz now disowns the practice, instead favoring what he calls a "positive" defense of science and reason. Michael Shermer, the historian of science whose California-based Skeptics Society hosted the conference in Pasadena, also avoids the D-word. He'd rather talk about why people are fooled by supernatural hoaxes than spend his time debunking them. His group has doused the activism of CSICOP's early days with a program of research, lectures, and meetings.
Why have the skeptics grown so dreary? Their tactics have changed to reflect a new set of targets. What was once a movement to take down television psychics and fortunetellers now concentrates on mainstream foes like President George W. Bush, Intelligent Design theorists, and opponents of stem-cell research. A tedious battle against the modern bugaboos of religion and politics demands tedious tactics and more manpower. Today the skeptics comprise an alliance of interest groups, only a subset of whom even call themselves skeptics. A recent effort to choose a common name for the movement failed miserably—perhaps because the proposed appellation managed to sound both arrogant and New Age-y.
Many of these subgroups have their own societies and annual meetings, and the Skeptics Society conference I went to is one stop on the circuit. In keeping with Shermer's philosophy, the meeting in Pasadena had little to do with the supernatural. A parade of invited speakers provided popular-science lectures on the workings of the human brain, without reference to the paranormal or the occult. When the Amazing Randi finally took the stage as the keynote speaker on the last night of the conference, he seemed almost retro.
Randi had for decades used his insider's knowledge of the flim-flam trade to humiliate a generation of occultists. Chief among his trophies was Uri Geller, an Israeli-born, disco-era mentalist who claimed, among other things, that he had the ability to soften metal and move a compass needle with his mind. Geller appeared on talk shows and magazine covers, and several academic researchers said they had validated his powers in the lab. Randi cleverly challenged Geller as a magician. He mimicked Geller's tricks using sleight of hand and then explained how they were done. In 1973, Randi went for the kill, conspiring with Johnny Carson (who was himself an amateur magician) to trap Geller on live TV. At Randi's instruction, producers on the Tonight Show provided all the props for Geller's act and didn't let him on the set before the cameras rolled. The plan worked, and a squirming Geller was unable to perform a single trick. The video clip of his on-air collapse remains a cherished keepsake of diehard skeptics. (Today Geller is best-known as a close personal friend to Michael Jackson.)
Since that glorious display of public humiliation, the Amazing Randi has taken on levitators, psychic surgeons, dowsers, and astrologers. In 1999, he debunked homeopathic remedies for insomnia by swallowing an entire bottle of "natural" sleeping pills in front of a congressional committee. His provocative and grandiose style has landed him in court more than once—Geller made several attempts to sue him, for example—and Randi says most of the $272,000 MacArthur "genius" grant he received two decades ago was spent on legal bills.
Today, the closest thing Randi has to successors are the magician-debunkers Penn & TellerShowtime, Bullshit, tries to avoid legal liability by calling con-men "assholes" instead of "fakes"). As the man who inspired so many people to join the skeptics early on, Randi remains a principal attraction at society meetings, even as the movement officially heads in a new direction. Before he took the stage on the last night of the conference, Shermer introduced him with the clip of Uri Geller's unmasking on The Tonight Show. Randi walked on to multiple standing ovations; a woman bounded up from the audience to give him a hug.
Shermer and Randi sat on chairs near the front of the stage, as if for a quiet chat. But it wasn't long before Randi began to sway with emotion. He choked up while describing a little boy who had been deceived by a charlatan faith healer. And then, in a burst of bravado, his voice surged to the last row of the auditorium: (whose half-hour TV show on
"They're fakes, they're phonies, they're scoundrels … and they need to be behind bars!"
The skeptics in Pasadena went crazy. After days of restrained, informational talks, here was someone with a flair for theater—a rabble-rousing activist. But if Randi's words inspired us, it wasn't clear exactly what we were inspired to do or to whom we should do it. To us, Uri Geller seemed small-time: The enemies we had in mind were fundamentalist ideologues, like the ones on the Kansas school board who have tried to demote evolution in the science curriculum.
That's the conundrum of the modern skeptics movement: Intelligent Design theorists and deniers of global warming may very well be phonies and scoundrels, but no one is going to debunk them in the classic sense. You can't reveal their hidden microphones or mimic their tricks with sleight of hand. Intelligent Design, after all, is an attempt to recast (even to "rebunk") Creationism in scientific terms. The best weapon against it isn't dramatic exposé, but scientific argument. So a change in tactics makes sense for the movement.
Still, the fervent response to Randi's tirade suggests a deep-seated nostalgia for old-
fashioned debunking. In the end, it's just more fun to see a fake like Geller squirm than it is to hear a science lecture. Supernatural scammers may not be the most dangerous opponents of reason, but why not knock a few off every now and again to rally the troops? After all, protests from academic scientists aren't exactly changing the world. Reports on climate change are still vetted by industry flunkies, and the federal government remains unwilling to fully support stem-cell research. With few victories to inspire us, let's keep on debunking. If only for old-times' sake.
by Rev. Art
Item 1: CRAZY ABOUT MERCURY?
As I have followed the alarming news about a link between autism and mercury-based preservatives in children's vaccines (it's a crusade on "Imus in the Morning"), I was almost caught up in the hysteria. My bologna detector reacted and began to make my hair hurt, so I stepped back and listened to cooler heads, for example this academic surgeon and scientist who has thrown up a website Orac knows that specializes in debunking pseudomedicine & pseudoscience, who said:
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s article (Deadly Immunity) in Salon & Rolling Stone is a one-sided account of the supposed link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism that is being promoted by antivaccine activists as an indictment of the government and pharmaceutical companies. For example, the Schaefer Autism Report e-mail list reports that ABC News has cancelled appearances by RFK Jr. on 20/20 and Good Morning America this week. The e-mail invokes the usual conspiracy-mongering, saying, "Our opinion is that they are more concerned about protecting their huge advertising revenues from the pharmaceutical industry than reporting news that could protect pregnant women, infants and children from mercury tainted vaccines."
Personally, I suspect it was because ABC News probably figured out that the article was a biased and shoddily researched piece of crap, but then that's just my opinion and hope ... I've been forced to change my opinion. Before, I just thought that RFK Jr. had simply let his bias and his close contact with Lujene Clark and other mercury-autism activists during the preparation of his article lead him astray. After reading Skeptico's (another blog) take on the matter, now I reluctantly have to conclude that it is more likely that he was being downright dishonest in his treatment of the entire issue of the Simpsonwood Conference.
Lindsay Beyerstein, an evangelist for critical thinking who blogs as Majik Thise, summed up her findings this way:
According to the World Health Organization's statement on thimerosal FDA, concern over the safety of thimerosal was initially sparked by a confusion. After 70 seemingly uneventful years of widespread use, thimerosal came under scrutiny from the FDA in 1999. During a review of vaccination recommendations, some experts became concerned that the cumulative mercury exposure in the standard vaccine schedule exceeded U.S. exposure limits for mercury. As it turned out, the exposure limits were for set methyl mercury, whereas thimerosal is a derivative of ethyl mercury. The FDA had been treating ethyl and methyl mercury as equivalent, but we now know that two compounds have significantly different toxicological properties ...
Perhaps the best evidence against the thimerosal/autism hypothesis is the fact that banning thimerosal doesn't reduce autism rates. If thimerosal caused autism, you would expect autism rates to fall after the offending vaccines were stricken from the immunization schedule. Several nations including Denmark and Canada have already banned thimerosal-containing vaccines, but no declines in autism have been observed so far. In the United States, the FDA has worked with vaccine manufacturers to decrease thimerosal exposure in the standard infant immunization schedule by 95%. So far, decreased exposure hasn't translated into decreased autism incidence.
Item 2: DON'T TRUST POLYGRAPHS?
HOW ABOUT THE PLETHYSMOGRAPH?
Everybody seems to have an opinion concerning how authorities (local, state, federal) should deal with convicted sex offenders. I ran across a nearly amazing and definitely troubling report @ Plus One blog:
In Colorado ... any convicted sex offender can face up to life in prison, depending on the outcome of various tests, chief among them the plethysmograph.
Here’s how it works: a guy gets put in a room with tv and headphones; he is shown innocent pictures of adults and children, while being made to hear an explicit audio track. The plethysmograph is supposed to tell us whether the guy is thinking, "Boy, I’d like to have that preteen", or "Look at the pretty children!"
How does the PG know? It records penile girth. Still unclear? If you have an erection while listening to a little girl asking you to orgasm on her breasts, then you are extremely likely to rape a little girl in real life. PG data in hand, a judge reviews the results and decides whether the convict can or cannot be reformed. (Incidentally, the plethysmograph was developed by the Czechs to prevent young men from avoiding the draft by claiming they were gay.)
The plethysmograph is stupid and cruel, to be sure. But it is also like a group hug in that it shores up the depressive paradigm, the idea that thoughts and feelings are liable and, by extension, subject to punishment without end ...
Item 3: EXCERPT
Your Corporate Network And The Forces Of Darkness
By Lucy A. Snyder June 2005
Cybermancy is the hottest new trend in information technology.
Companies worldwide are eagerly deploying cybermantic networking strategies to open doors to a whole new reality of profit.
"Is it a big deal? Absolutely," says Mindy Axedame, a top human resources specialist who consults for many Fortune 500 firms.
"These technologies enable communication with the dead. That's huge. If a key employee drops dead from a heart attack, now you can ask him questions that would normally be lost to the grave," Axedame says.
"But it goes way beyond conference room Ouija—you can keep the dead employee on the job! Or truck in cadavers to raise for menial labor. One network tech can monitor and control up to twenty undead taking customer support calls—that's incredibly cost effective."
Axedame agrees that the technology provides staffing solutions that have yet to reach public acceptance or full legality ...
Read the entire delightful piece, with artwork by D. E. Christman: Strange Horizons
MAGIC VS. MODERNITY
By Thomas R. DeGregori
@ One Good Move
(Perhaps Dewey's The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action provides a key to understanding why the know-nothings seem to be prevailing in the "culture war" . . .)
In the European Enlightenment, the belief was that science and reason would soon sweep myth and magic into oblivion. For some, myth included religion while others operated in terms of some variant of Deism or even Theism, believing that there was an unknown power beyond what was known and knowable to humans. In fact, many scientists, then and now, could fully exercise their religious convictions and interpret them in such a way as not to allow them to interfere with scientific understanding. For those for whom there was no conflict between science and religion, it was because particular statements or religious beliefs about the way the things work always gave way to emerging facts and theories of scientific inquiry. Science and reason became the basis for advancing human understanding and enlightenment.
By the time that I was an undergraduate, the enlightenment ideal was well established in my University. The opposition to evolution was thought to have been laid to rest in the 1920s; the religious groups that continued to oppose Darwin were small and marginal; their beliefs were expected to fade away as their children studied biology and other sciences in school. The various romantic reactions in literature and in such areas as the various arts and crafts movements, organic agriculture or homeopathy were likewise considered to be minor and relatively harmless. The literature professors who railed against science and materialism had ways of life not all that different from their colleagues in the sciences.
More violent reactions to science and reason such as the Nazis were explained as reactions by those who had been harmed by the transition to modernity and signaled a dying gasp and not an indicator of anything to follow. In any case, this reaction had been permanently laid to rest in May 1945. In the emerging post-colonial world, students were flocking to Europe and North America for education, and newly minted countries were establishing Universities with science, technology and engineering programs modeled on those of their former colonial masters. Contrary to post-modernist and other critics, few of us believed that Western Culture was a universal model for all to follow without question, but many of us believed that science and techno-engineering understandings transcended cultural boundaries and created a global discourse and mechanisms for advancing the human endeavor.
Six decades after World War II, now into the 21st century, the area of basic human understanding of the world around us has greatly expanded and yet the enlightenment vision seems farther away than ever in my lifetime. The extent and horizons of modern knowledge are beyond the comprehension of earlier generations. And this knowledge and understanding is far more than merely being "theories" in the pejorative misuse of the term theory. Modern knowledge has pragmatically proved itself in helping us to live much longer, healthier lives and enjoy amenities undreamed of by our progenitors.
It has to be one of the great paradoxes of our time that as our knowledge has expanded in recent decades, the opposition to it has become more assertive and politically potent. One of the crowning ironies of the anti-science brigades is that groups that are largely contemptuous of each other often frame their anti-science rhetoric in essentially the same terms. My colleagues in the Humanities cluck piously about those ignorant rednecks who oppose Darwin and promote ‘‘intelligent design,’’ yet they in their own way hold anti-science ideas no less absurd. One strains to find any difference, significant or minor, between the argument of intelligent design that there is in life an "irreducible complexity" and the post-modernist critique of modern science as being "reductionist" and not "holistic." To both in their particular crusades, the species barrier is immutable, or at least should be.
Clearly there must be considerable frustration among scientists as organized groups oppose various forms of science education or scientific research. One recent article included in its title "why scientists are angry" and spoke about the anger that grips scientists when demonstrably false statements are paraded as facts and influence public policy. As an economist with a layman's knowledge of the natural sciences, I understand these frustrations. I am a member of various newsgroups involved in agricultural biotechnology, most of whose contributors are in the sciences. This piece was inspired by a recent extended discussion on the difficulty of combating absurd phobias about transgenic food crops that anti-biotechnology activists have so carefully disseminated. (Unfortunately, other writing commitments prevented me from being other than a passive participant at the time.) Each time one scare is seemingly laid to rest, another rises, as one scientist described it, like a hare from nowhere. Even those fears that are massively refuted never die, but seem to be in some Sargasso Sea of cyber space awaiting a new current to set them afloat again as part of the litany of horrors of genetic modification of plants.
There were discussions about being proactive, but the question becomes how can one be proactive against opponents who may be ignorant of science but who lack nothing in imagination and talent for fear-mongering? On a typical day, a scientist awakens and is concerned with ongoing research . An activist wakes up thinking about what the next campaign should be or whom they should they contact in the local media and whose friendship they should cultivate. Some even have focus groups to help them select the scare terms that would be most effective. Like the multi-national corporations that they attack, some of the activist groups begin promoting one cause, then morph into all-purpose NGOs with a diverse agenda of causes with which to garner publicity and raise money. An anti-science agenda links the dangers of biotechnology to the evils of multi-national corporations along with destruction of the environment and cultural and biological diversity; all turn into lucrative sources for fund raising and membership recruitment.
It is difficult to be proactive when you are dealing with carefully calculated rational irrationality. When one is confronting claims of transgenic bacteria that could destroy all life on earth or similar unscientific nonsense, one is responding to a kind of irrationality that is impossible to predict and therefore to be prepared to respond to in advance, let alone educate the public on the subject. However irrational various anti-science proclamations may be, their advocates are supremely rational in the sense of being very skilled at crafting their propaganda so as to win public support and influence policy. Some groups are so good at driving public opinion to support their anti-science agenda, some of us wonder whether their leaders may be dealing from the bottom of the deck to their own members as well as to the public.
The media may often put an obvious pejorative like "Franken food" in quotation marks, but too often the media routinely accept the terminology of the activists, even though the habit introduces biases which violate professional journalistic standards. Pollen drift from transgenic plants is almost always referred to, tendentiously, as "contamination" even though there is no evidence of harm. Similarly, "organic" agriculture is described as "sustainable" and "earth-friendly" while their food crops are said to be better tasting, fresher and healthier, without a shred of evidence for any such claims. In Houston, the food writers for the main paper have become unwitting propagandists for "organic" agriculture, as has happened in many other large and small circulation newspapers.
The 24 hour news cycle has led to a reverse feeding frenzy, with activist groups all too ready to conjure up a scandal, inflating a statistically insignificant variation in a clinical study to a threat to the human endeavor or even to the planet, and to label a defense as part of a corporate cover-up. Scientists attempt to respond to these scare stories on a case by case basis, trying to explain the nature of the scientific inquiry involved and the way it is used to interpret experimental results. That is how scientists work, and the only way to wear down the opposition to scientific reasoning.
Countering falsehoods with facts is a necessary condition to promote better understanding of issues involving science, but unfortunately, it is not a sufficient condition. Scientists present their evidence with appropriate qualifications, and with recognition that there are no absolute truths. The anti-science ideologues have no problem with absolutes and certainties. The scientists’ answer to the often asked rhetorical question - can you guarantee that no harm will ever come from transgenic crops - is obviously no. The activist now moves in for the kill, making it difficult for a scientist to explain that one cannot give such a guarantee for any phenomenon. There is a blatant but unstated falsehood in the rhetorical question, in that it implies that there are alternative actions that carry a zero risk on into the indefinite future. That transgenic plant breeding may possibly be the most precise, predictable form of plant breeding yet devised by humans is simply lost in the rhetoric of fear.
A further problem is that editors and other news professionals are rarely educated in science and have little understanding of the scientific method. My experience has been that newspapers hate to make substantive corrections to a major story. One case involved a major story of two columns with picture on the front page of the Sunday edition and over one full page inside. In this case (in which I was involved), a group of scientists wrote in and pointed out some of the many errors in the story. Even though the writer had traveled to Mexico to do a story on transgenic maize in the company of anti-biotechnology activists, the newspaper's ombudsman defended the objectivity of her reporting. Not only were there errors in the story, but the institutions and individuals that were not interviewed, as well as those that were, made it clear that the activists were more than just good traveling companions. In an extended exchange with the ombudsman, it was admitted that the author did not even know of the existence of the world's leading experts and the research and development institutions on maize and on the issues raised in the story that were available in Mexico and Texas to be interviewed. I have compared it to going to Rome to do story on a controversy in Roman Catholicism and not knowing about either the Pope or the Vatican.
Had the writer traveled to Mexico in the company of employees of a biotechnology firm, we would never have heard the end of it and anything written would have been dismissed simply on this basis alone without the necessity of any factual refutation. A widely shared characteristic of anti-science groups across the political spectrum is a Manichaean view of the complete corruption of those they oppose, and the purity of their own cause.
In many respects the problem is more complicated and therefore more difficult for scientists to address. It is becoming increasingly obvious that no matter how clear and meticulous in fact and scientific reason one may be in presenting a scientific theory or refuting pseudo-scientific falsehoods, a large portion of the public is simply not receptive. The question is why and what can be done about it? The why is easier to address than is what can be done about it.
The very human curiosity that leads to scientific inquiry makes us creatures who wish to have answers and make use of these answers to navigate the world around us. I have often quoted, from John Dewey's The Quest for Certainty (Dewey, 1929, p. 3):
Man who lives in a world of hazards is compelled to seek for security. He has sought to attain it in two ways. One of them began with an attempt to propitiate the powers which environ him and determine his destiny. ... The other course is to invent arts and by their means turn the powers of nature to account; man constructs a fortress out of the very conditions and forces which threaten him. ... This is the method of changing the world through action, as the other is the method of changing the self in emotion and ideas.
In many ways myth and science are two sides of the same coin as attempts to explain the world around us. It is thus understandable that some of us have believed that, as the realm of what could be understood is expanded, the realm of myth would give way and contract. What we failed to realize is that we essentially inherit the myths: we grow up with them as a part of our everyday culture, so it requires little effort in subscribing to them. Much basic science has become a part of this package, so people have no problem in believing in many cause and effect relationships. What takes effort is to learn of the larger dimensions of science that have been progressively displacing myth or simply superseding a lack of knowledge in a number of areas. It is far easier to cling to inherited ways of thought then it is to engage in a process of learning new things.
Though many seek to cling to the old beliefs in a pure form, science and technology have transformed our world in ways that are too obvious to be totally ignored. There are a variety of pseudo-science beliefs that are an extension of traditional mythology and purport to be compatible with modern science, or better still, they purport to be science in a purer and less corrupted form. On this view intelligent design is better science than what is being offered by biologists, whose views are distorted by their secular ideologies. On the other side of the spectrum, beliefs in a natural harmony that is violated by biotechnology is superior science to that of scientists who have been bought off by large corporations (whether or not they have ever received any funding from them). Any argument that the conflict over the teaching of evolution or genetic modification is one of science vs. anti-science is vehemently rejected.
The ease of mastering the rhetoric of contemporary pseudo-science is part of its appeal. "Training sessions" in which the pseudo-science vocabulary can be learned have become part of the activists' agenda. The appeal of these beliefs, in addition to their flowing seamlessly from what one has already learned, is that a few simple beliefs seemingly can explain everything - which to a scientist means that they in fact explain nothing.
The world of contemporary knowledge is so vast that it is beyond the comprehension of any individual to master even the smallest part of it. It is far easier to accept an all encompassing pseudo-scientific formula. This worries those of us who wish to create a world where questions of fact are explored and resolved, at least provisionally, by science and reason. This does not preclude differing moral and ethical considerations, but it does mean that morals and ethics can not be based on factual claims that are demonstrably false. An anti-biotechnology referendum that was passed in a California county, defined DNA as a complex protein found in every cell of the body. This egregious error in basic biology seriously undermines the credibility of its proponents - except in the eyes of the believers.
The fact is that we can navigate the world intelligently without the need for myths and pseudo-science. The immensity of knowledge may in some respects be a problem for each of us, but in more important respects, the way in which this knowledge was created provides us with a roadmap. Just because I am in a newsgroup in which scientists exchange ideas, explain issues and counter the errors of the anti-scientists, does not mean that I as an economist, have anything more than a superficial understanding of their explanations. What reinforces my acceptance of what is said is my trust in the scientific method, peer review, and the larger body of scientific practices. Part of my trust is simply that these methods are an integral part of my own work as an economist. It is what allows me to select between competing ideas and navigate my way through the world. And it is the success of this method in transforming our lives for the better that it gives it a moral and ethical dimension.
In my judgment, the scientific method and the democratic ideal are integral to one another. Both scientific inquiry and democracy are self-correcting methods, one is correction by ongoing inquiry in which prior beliefs no longer stand the test of experimental inquiry and new more verifiable propositions supersede them. Democracies can correct this election's errors in the next election or the one after that; both are a work-in-progress.
Being self-correcting is an implicit recognition of possibly being wrong. Whatever the possibility of being wrong may be, the very self-correcting aspect of the process is one more factor that makes the outcomes of science or democracy more likely to be right today than any other way, and even more likely to be right tomorrow than any other form of inquiry. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst form of government except for all others. Given the possibility of error, both science and the democratic ideal reject absolutism of all sorts, including those that entitle one to trample on the rights of others such as destroying a field of transgenic crops in the name of saving the planet. Tolerance is a key idea.
In science, there is or should be a continued re-examination of the validity of the method as it is practiced. In recent days there have been articles in prestigious journals concerning the way in which biases are creeping into scientific research such as clinical tests for pharmaceuticals, and suggestions for ways of overcoming them. The activists will point to these studies, not as a strength of scientific inquiry, but as evidence of its corruption. However, when is the last time that any of the groups pushing a pseudo-science agenda stopped to question the validity of their beliefs or whether their actions were helping or harming humankind? A thriving democracy should always be involved in internal debate concerning its ideals and practices. Both science and democracy require freedom of thought and freedom of exchange of ideas for their effective functioning. Participating actively and intelligently in a democracy provides the same barriers as being knowledgeable about science; it takes concerted effort and is far more complicated than simply following the dictates of a peerless leader or a totalizing ideology. The widespread acceptance of the basic principles of democracy means that like science, many more claim to be adhering to it than is the case in practice.
Evidence-based knowledge derived from experimental scientific inquiry allows policy formation on every level from the personal to the public, to be dynamic and respond to changing circumstances. Ideologically driven policy is almost by definition binding and static, capable of obstruction but not progress. John Dewey spoke about a "warranted assertion." However ignorant each of us may be about other areas of science, technology, and engineering, we can each accept their findings as being both provisional as all knowledge is, and at the same time to be warranted assertions as a basis for action until better ideas come along. In other words, instead of the blind faith of believers, we can simultaneously have trust and still retain a measure of reservation and skepticism. This requires that all inquiry be kept open and that vigorous dissent be encouraged.
It has often been noted that the critics of genetically modified food crops, who frame their opposition both as pseudo-science and as opposition to corporate dominance of agriculture, have had a perverse impact on the industry exactly opposite to what they claim to be their intent. By attacking the science of transgenic modification, they make it difficult to get the kind of public research funding for it that would give farmers public and private sources for the kinds of crop improvement that biotechnology makes possible. Not only do the protests reduce public research funding for agricultural biotechnology, but the cumbersome, expensive regulations that frightened politicians are imposing make it virtually impossible for small firms to afford them, which then leads to the kind of industry concentration that the critics claim to be fighting.
The "precautionary principle" and other alleged safety concerns that have been driving up the cost of getting new crops marketed, have also had other perverse impacts. As I argued above, our trust in the scientific inquiry that provides us with the evidence for the most warranted actions, including considerations of safety, is predicated upon an open process, including dissenting views. In a kind of Gresham's law of public attention span, bad criticism drives out good. Scientists are rightfully hesitant to voice criticism when it might identify them with anti-science activists. Further, there have been too many instances where research that raises a legitimate safety or environmental concern is seized and grossly distorted or publicized before a final analysis can be made. Scientists who seek to withold their findings until the research is completed, or who offer a more benign interpretation of their results than those of sensationalized media coverage, will have their integrity questioned and be charged with a cover-up.
Technology Review had a recent set of postings where Stewart Brand suggested that critics not oppose nuclear power but embrace it and be involved as critics who want to see it done right rather than simply opposing it. Needless to say, his wise suggestion was less than enthusiastically accepted by those ideologically opposed to nuclear power. The major criticism against activist groups is that they are obstructing the introduction of new technology and new improved ways of doing things for human betterment and opposing the science that can continue this process. In my judgment, equally as deleterious, is their stifling of the critical component of the dynamics of scientific inquiry that appropriately restrains technophiles such as this author and makes the use of it safer, fairer and more intelligent and beneficial to the human endeavor.
What has been happening is that scientists have been winning the battles but still managing to lose the war. The message here is that scientists have to operate at two levels, continually countering the pseudo-science of false fears and ideological driven beliefs, but at the same time working to bring about a fundamental transformation in the public's understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry, and allowing scientists to operate within it.
Scientists have to recognize that when they are countering a demonstrably false idea, they may well be entering a conflict with the total worldview of those who hold them. To the family in Kansas that rejects evolution, the biology teacher at the local school is doing far more than merely teaching science. The science teacher is in effect entering their home and family and undercutting beliefs upon which their family and sense of community is based. Is it any wonder that they feel like victims? To many activists, the plant bio-technologist is contaminating and polluting the planet as part of a corporate plot to dominate the global economy. Is it any wonder that they also feel like victims? To the absolutist mindset, breeching a principle is the same as abandoning it, and therefore any concession to differing views amounts to total surrender. This helps to explain why many disillusioned ex-communists became radical conservatives, why activists' opposition to transgenic food crops is total, and why the scientific research use of embryonic stem cells is defined as taking a human life.
As the new millennium was approaching, there were many candidates for the greatest achievement of the past 1,000 years; one such candidate was the development of the scientific method. That candidate has my vote. If we work at it, one of the greatest achievements of this new millennium could be the continued refinement of the scientific method, its integration into the beliefs and practices of everyday life for the greater part of humankind, and the continuous improvement in the quality of life of earth's inhabitants that could be realized as a result.
Dewey, John. 1929. The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action. 1980 reprint, New York: Capricorn Books, G.P. Putnam & Sons.
RATIONALLY SPEAKING e-Column for July
OK, I changed my mind . . .
by Massimo Pigliucci
OK, I changed my mind about the never-ending battle against creationism. When I first got involved in it, soon after having moved to the University of Tennessee (near the site of the infamous Scopes trial) in 1996, I began debating creationists in public. I have since done several debates against most of the major figures of that bizarre cultural movement (including Duane Gish, Ken Hovind, Jonathan Wells, and William Dembski, to name a few). But the number of debates I have engaged in has diminished to a trickle over the years, reflecting a change of heart I have had about the whole approach.
Once again, Genie Scott was right (and, this time, on the same side of Dawkins!): debating head-to-head against creationists is a bad idea because most debate formats favor sound bites, and sound bites are easier and more effective for people who wish to attack science than for those who want to defend it. It is relatively easy to throw hundreds of apparently damning questions to a scientist in the span of a few minutes; it is very difficult for a scientist to seriously address even a few of those or, more importantly, to explain to the public how science really works (as opposed to the caricature presented by creationists). This is not to say that scientists shouldn't be engaged in the public arena to counter creationist claims; indeed, even Scott agrees that some public forums are acceptable for two-way encounters (usually media appearances with a truly neutral host and a conversational, rather than confrontational style). But the best strategy we have is to talk to the public directly, on our terms, and using the arsenal of tools available to science educators. So, please, don't call me again for future debates, OK?
US radicals blow their tops
over volcano movie
as Darwinism debate rages
Copyright © 2005 Agence France Presse.
WASHINGTON (AFP) - Culture wars raging in the United States are reaping new victims as monster-screen IMAX cinemas and top museums are dragged into the fierce debate over the origin of life.
Pressure from ultraconservative religious groups has prompted some theaters equipped with the high quality panoramic IMAX screens to cancel showings of several movies which refer to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
Some politically powerful religious groups dismiss the theory, despite its widespread acceptance throughout the rest of the world. Instead, they advance a hypothesis that holds that the universe is so complex that it must have been designed by an "intelligent" being, i.e. God, and is not the result of random natural selection. Many scientists have savagely attacked "intelligent design", arguing the theory is not significantly sound, and is simply the latest political shot from religious creationists.
Since the beginning of this year, numerous movie theaters in highly religious states in the US south have refused to show documentary films like "Cosmic Voyage," "Volcanos of the Deep Sea" and "Galapagos" named after the islands Darwin used to showcase his theory. The films crimes? Mentioning the idea that the Universe is the product of a "Big Bang" explosion or that the origin of life is in the oceans. "Volcanos of the Deep Sea" has prompted some radical religious conservatives to blow their own tops. But oceanographer Richard Lutz, who collaborated on the movie, said the controversy centered on "a reference in the film that life may have originated in the deep sea."
Lutz, a professor of Marine Ecology at Rutgers University, said he was troubled to see other film producers steer clear of scientific subjects that risk controversy and low box office receipts. Earlier this year, the Museum of Science and History of Fort Worth, Texas, refused to show the volcano film after a screening for a test audience. "At the time, we had better choices that scored better in our screening tests," said Margaret Ritsch, the museum's Director of Public Affairs. She admitted, however, that some people had made comments about the theory of evolution.
Valentine Kass, a science education program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF) which helped finance the film, hit out at the campaign against the IMAX movie. "It is very troubling if science museums don't want to promote what we consider totally accepted ideas of science. It is not a positive trend at all."
Blocking scientific movies from IMAX theaters is only one part of the creationists' agenda; they also promote their own films that document their theory of a cosmos-crafting higher intelligence. "The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe," is one such film, based on work by University of Iowa astronomy professor Guillermo Gonzalez. Stirring outrage from the scientific community, the Museum of Natural History at Washington's world-famed Smithsonian Institution agreed to show the movie. The Smithsonian, however, was forced to issue a statement making clear that it did not consider intelligent design geled with scientific fact. "We have determined that the content of the film is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution's scientific research," the statement said. But the Smithsonian still plans to show "Privileged Planet" as scheduled on June 23.
RATIONALLY SPEAKING e-Column for July