Wednesday, September 20, 2017

by Sean Hays (CNS, ASU)

During the closing plenary session, a, more or less, representative panel of the conferences participants attempted to provide some final context to the conversation of the last three days. The question of the rightful place of science, still unresolved, served as the backdrop to a conversation that was really about the process we had participated in. The panelists were provoked by moderator David Guston to try to synthesize some of the discussion, but the content of this closing debate served to highlight how preliminary the attempt to define the place of science within society still is.

Rather than summarize a long and complicated conversation that took place among the panelists, the moderator, and the audience, I would like to selectively revisit four points of contention or opportunity that arose during the course of the exchange. Panelist, Dr. Lawrence Krauss—director of Arizona State University’s Origins institute, physicist, and cosmologist—restated the critique he had made following the presentation of Monsignor Marcelo Sànchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the previous day. He argued that it was absurd to have invited the Monsignor in his capacity as science advisor to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, when the church, according to Krauss, was anti-science and morally bankrupt. He claimed that the corruption of the institution—evidenced by its seeming inability or unwillingness to deal adequately with the pedophilia scandal—disqualified it, and its representative from meaningful participation in a conversation about the rightful place of science, particularly not in a discussion of its normative or moral implications for society. The internal inconsistency of Dr. Krauss’ critique was fairly obvious to all, but I took the opportunity to make it explicit in my comments from the floor.

The implicit statement in Dr. Krauss’ criticism was that the Monsignor could not simultaneously be a man of science, and a man of God. Further, the contradiction disqualified him from commenting on the rightful place of science. I pointed out to Dr. Krauss that some of the most celebrated scientists in scientific history were also profoundly religious, Newton, and, yes, even Krauss’ own favorite example, the poor, persecuted Galileo. The faith of these scientists was often the motivation for their investigations of the natural world, and it informed the science they performed. If we accept that this is the case, and with Newton it is difficult not to, then by Dr. Krauss’ logic we cannot accept the Laws of Thermodynamics, calculus, or optics, as they were corrupted by the religiosity of their progenitor. The position is clearly absurd, and, thus, the Monsignor has just as much right as Newton would, were he alive, to participate in a discussion on the rightful place of science in his capacity as a scientist, as well as in his role as a representative of the church. Dr. Krauss replied that Newton was also an alchemist, but that he was not interested in Newton’s religion, or his alchemy, only his science. He did not, then, explain why he did not apply a similar standard to the Monsignor, nor did he explain how he reconciled his parsing of Newton with the fact that Newton refers to his faith as a motivation for his scientific work in his own writings. If religious and scientific epistemology were intertwined for Newton, and his ideas remain valid, then so must those of the Monsignor, so long as they are logically consistent. Dr. Krauss treated the Monsignor’s argument as if it had been merely a statement of dogma, rather than the syllogistically structured logical argument for the moral and normative role of science in society. It is possible to critique such an argument on the basis of its logic, but Krauss chose not to do so. Similarly, I pointed out that the institution of the university is well known for handling cases of sexual improprieties among its members in a fashion very similar to the church’s past handling of pedophilia. Tenured faculty members, who inappropriately have sexual relations with their students in violation of both the ethical obligations inherent in their position of power, and the regulations of their institution are regularly shuffled to new posts, rather than exposed and expelled. If this is the case, then do we not question the right of university scientists to examine the moral, normative, ethical, and practical place of science in society? Dr. Krauss’ reply was to deny that such shuffling actually occurred.

Later in the discussion, the claim was made by Leslie Meredith, Vice President and Senior Editor for Free Press/Simon & Schuster, (as well as several other panelists) that part of the problem of determining the role of science in society was the lack and/or deterioration of scientific and mathematical literacy among Americans. I pointed out that the claim that American faith in science, as well as the capacity of Americans to do and understand science and mathematics is deteriorating from some previous, more advanced state is a pernicious myth. Alexis de Tocqueville documented identical conditions of low levels of scientific and mathematical literacy among Americans165 years ago on his tour of America, which, ultimately, led to the writing of Democracy in America. He claimed that part of the nature of average Americans, living in an agrarian society with a frontier ethic, was to appreciate only the practical sciences, and the instrumental goods they could produce. He believed they particularly valued those scientific products of use to farmers, and that a streak of anti-intellectualism was present in Americans even then. The predisposition to distrust scientists and intellectuals was a product of the equality of social condition that de Tocqueville claimed was instrumental in facilitating the formation of a working democracy in this country. Further, he could not conceive of privileging any institution or epistemology in a democratic society such as ours, where the law and the power of the sovereign are supreme, he wrote “The law is an unstoppable force. It pounds upon the ground, crushing all before it into the fine dust and shifting sands that are the foundation of democracy.” De Tocqueville would argue that science belonged among the fine dust and shifting sands, along with everything else that was outside the law.

At another point in the conversation Dr. Jameson Wetmore of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes pointed out that part of how science justifies its autonomy within a democratic system, and the privileged nature of the knowledge it produces, is that the enterprise is self-regulating. Scientists, according to this way of thinking, police the products of science, and act as gatekeepers against badly done science, or intentionally false scientific claims. If science perceives itself to be self-regulating this is:

  • Anti-democratic
  • Bad for science
  • Bad for American democracy

One of the principle reasons we left the state of nature, and entered civil society by contract, was because no man can be trusted to be an arbiter in his own dispute. Science cannot be trusted to regulate itself, because the institutions, and the people within it, are no less self-interested than the hypothetical natural man. Self-regulation is no adequate justification for scientific autonomy given the inherently self-interested nature of humans.
Finally, we returned to the theme of the first day’s keynote speaker, the role of science journalism in distorting science’s relationship to society. The claim was repeated that, if it is the case that science journalists perceive themselves as entertainers, as Mrs. Kolata claimed they do, then this is one source of the corruption of sciences rightful place in society. It is a deviation from the true role of journalism as a source of independent information in a democratic society. Of course, it is an ogre’s choice for journalism, as they must compete in a semi-free market for advertising dollars and readers. If their stories are not entertaining, they will fail to capture either commodity. In an unsolicited endorsement, I would argue that the Smithsonian Magazine’s approach to science journalism: sound, succinct, and engaging prose, coupled with amazing graphics and images, is one potential solution to this problem. It could be conceived of as a way of bridging the gap between entertaining and informing. It could be a way of holding the reader’s interest without compromising the accuracy and seriousness of the science being reported. The way in which the graphically represent the science they are reporting is capable of holding the interest of my two year old daughter for hours at a time, and I can only assume the same would be true of many adults in society.

8 Responses so far.

  1. BRAVO! I had almost come to despair that the ability to be observational and critical – and to call out hypocrisy in all its guises- was a lost art!
    I am tired to death of the constant bemoaning of the lack of intellectualism and disdain for science — science museums are jammed. Popular science magazines proliferate.
    Not everyone is interested in every aspect of science ALL THE TIME! Most surveys indicate that scientists maintain a high rating of trust by the general public and such public supports scientific research at $150B+ a year (conservatively). The hubris and arrogance on display is not attractive and there were times I was truly aghast at what I heard some participants say about hard working citizens trying to live their lives. Stop the demonizing cartooning. Stop talking and start listening.

  2. Lawrence krauss says:

    I appreciated seeing sean’s remarks here, but it would be good if they bore even the slightest resemblance to something I actually said. I understand that Sean had a point he wanted to make, but by choosing to frame it as a comment on something I said, he probably should have actually listened to the content first.

  3. Sean Hays says:

    I listened very carefully, and I stand by my critique. In addressing your comments I chose to respond to both their explicit and their implicit content. I am certain that I accurately represented both. You told me afterward that you were comfortable in the role of agent provocateur, so I hope you can forgive me for taking you at your word, and giving your comments the critical treatment they deserved. I would appreciate it if you would afford me the same courtesy, rather than accusing me of something I most certainly did not do. If you disagree with my criticism, feel free to respond, but to challenge my integrity as a substitute for substantive criticism is, I think, beneath us both.

  4. Lawrence Krauss says:

    In my comments suggesting that Roman Catholic Church is not a moral guidepost interested in justice nor in scientific truth, I no way impugned the Monsignor’s speech. I asked him specifically how he reconciled his own apparent personal interest in scientific truth and justice with the views of an institution that has often displayed interest in neither. This is a legitimate question, and one the Monsignor did not answer, and it is a question I have never heard a theologian or representative of the church provide thoughtful answer to in public. (In private I have had more fruitful discussions.)

  5. Sean Hays says:

    That is precisely the problem, you didn’t address the Monsignor’s presentation, which was a logical, rather than dogmatic, argument. You questioned the validity of having him there at all because of his association with an organization you dislike, because you refuse to apply to him the same standard you apply to Newton, Galileo, Spinoza, Leibniz, Darwin, etc. You claimed to be uninterested in the religiosity and mysticism that these men openly claimed was the motivation for their scientific inquiries, and that you were only interested in their science. Well, why did you not apply the same logic, and courtesy, to the Monsignor? Ignore that he is a part of a flawed organization, according to Niebuhr we all are, and address the logically constructed argument in his presentation, separate the man of God from the man of science, as you do with the venerable ancestral scientists you revere.

    Further, much of the enlightenment and the renaissance would not have happened without church sponsorship. The mere existence of a Pontifical Academy of Science, four hundred years old at this point, is evidence of the Church’s interest in scientific inquiry. What you call truth has been disputed by many, not just the church. The Monsignor did not bother to answer the question, because so many others already have. There are many truths, and it is possible for a single human institution to have an interest in more than one of them at the same time.

  6. Lawrence Krauss says:

    sorry, you know I read this again with an effort to find something compelling in it, and I couldn’t find anything.. To argue that Newton was religious is simply silly and facile. Who the hell cares. Newton did science.. that is all that matters.. whether he was motivated by religion, alchemy (which he was far more profoundly influenced by), or his love of watching forgers be hanged is irrelevant.. I never said you couldn’t do science and be religious.. What I argued was that the Catholic church is not an exemplar of science, or morality, and that I would have found the arguments of a practitioner of astrology, or witchcraft equally appropriate.

    As for the monsignor’s presentation, once again, I asked how he could reconcile what he said with the established policies of the institution he works for.. he never answered it, you haven’t answered it, and no one has.. with good reason.. there is no rational reconciliation.

  7. Sean Hays says:

    And again, you have replied with a statement that is both silly and facile, and does not address my criticism in any way. The Monsignor presented a LOGICAL argument about the rightful place of science, not a dogmatic one. Thus, he was acting in his role as a man of science, so why would you not extend the same courtesy to him that you would to Newton? Galileo remained a devout Catholic all of his life, even under house arrest, do you hate him for having done so? Do you discount his science? Of course not. You were being childish then, and you are being childish now, and it is unbecoming a man of your supposed stature. Read your own sentence “I never said you couldn’t do science and be religious.. What I argued was that the Catholic church is not an exemplar of science, or morality, and that I would have found the arguments of a practitioner of astrology, or witchcraft equally appropriate”, you ARE, in fact, saying that you cannot be a man of science and religious, if you are a Catholic. What you are saying is, so long as you are a Catholic, or a representative of that church, you cannot present a scientific, philosophical, or logical argument without first answering for the church’s institutional inadequacies. If that is the yardstick by which we are measured, then we should all be silent, because none of us belongs to an institution whose hands are clean. Again, return to your own silly and facile words, “As for the monsignor’s presentation, once again, I asked how he could reconcile what he said with the established policies of the institution he works for.. he never answered it, you haven’t answered it, and no one has.. with good reason.. there is no rational reconciliation”, no one has answered it because no one has to. The statement makes no sense. The church can be both flawed in the way it handles the pedophilia crisis AND a credible voice in the debate about the rightful place of science, because one does not logically depend upon the other. Your question is irrational and childish, thus no one is willing to try and answer it seriously.

  8. Tobin Craig says:

    What a fine set of remarks. I would note only that the statement regarding American scientific literacy requires another major qualification. According to the findings of Jon Miller, Americans are at or near the top of all liberal democracies in terms of scientific literacy.