Should scientists (just) be scientists?
#1
The recently released 2011 edition of the Edge World Question Center, features among 163 others, this article entitled 'Scientists should be scientists'. The article makes an unusual suggestion that it is not scientists who must fight Creationism, but experts in psycho-sociology and civic administration. This is because Creationism is a social pathology, and treating social pathologies is not what evolutionary biologists are trained to do. They should rather stick to evolutionary biology.

Of course, the stance in the above article can be contested, but I bring this up in the context of a larger concern. Here is an excerpt of an email query I had recently posted to an American professor well-known in the field of science advocacy:

Quote:As a neophyte investigator (1st year PhD student to be more prosaic) I wonder if the times are now such that every young scientist must 'serve time at the front-line' fighting religious misconceptions. On the one hand, I feel that what we are here for is to DO science, rather than engaging in hearts-and-minds battles. On the other hand, there's a lot to suggest that these hearts-and-minds battles have tangible impacts, especially on funding, and it will be suicidal for scientists to leave the advocacy to others. The larger question is that the Principal Investigator and the Public Intellectual jostle for space and time within the same person. I look forward to some more writing on this issue of how a scientist can harmonize and do justice to both these selves.

How can a scientist do justice to both these selves?
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#2
(26-Jan-2011, 12:05 PM)arvindiyer Wrote: The recently released 2011 edition of the Edge World Question Center, features among 163 others, this article entitled 'Scientists should be scientists'. The article makes an unusual suggestion that it is not scientists who must fight Creationism, but experts in psycho-sociology and civic administration. This is because Creationism is a social pathology, and treating social pathologies is not what evolutionary biologists are trained to do. They should rather stick to evolutionary biology.

The example that the author uses is pretty clear to me. Having lived and worked with them, I feel that evolutionary biologists are not the best persons to directly advocate for any PR actions, even regarding subject areas of their expertise, when dealing with the general public. But in general regarding the thesis of the article, I don't quite see a requirement for such a hard line between those who do science and those who communicate science. Gregory Paul's article presents somewhat of a false dilemma. One simple reason for this is that promoting science can, in effect, be a scientific endeavor.

http://pus.sagepub.com/
http://pus.sagepub.com/reports/most-read

Also, check out this study: http://www.uiowa.edu/~grpproc/crisp/crisp15_3.pdf

The answer, IMO, is science advocacy groups that work with both scientists as well as PR experts. Like these folks: http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/

Quote:Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust. We respond to the misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence on issues that matter to society, from scares about plastic bottles, fluoride and the MMR vaccine to controversies about genetic modification, stem cell research and radiation. We work with scientists and civic groups to promote evidence and scientific reasoning in public discussion.





"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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#3
There are two distinct things here: Science as a profession; and the application of the scientific method for seeking knowledge. Scientists get the training for understanding the spirit of the scientific method, and they use this training for doing science. It comes as a bonus to them that the scientific method is the only method for seeking truth, not only regarding natural phenomena, but in all other matters also. Scientists are a privileged lot in that they learn about the scientific method as a part of their initial training. It is also a stark reality that only a tiny fraction of the human population understands and applies the scientific method for interpreting information. History tells us that there have been disastrous consequences of this fact of life. And who is best trained to change this situation? Scientists, of course. The job is stupendous, and cannot be left to just a few specialists. All scientists should do their bit.

Countering the creationists is only a small part of the problem. The larger issue is that of questioning the credentials of almost all the organized religions. There is no doubt that, as the message of science sinks in, more and more intellectuals are shunning the irrational belief systems. But the process needs to be speeded up consciously. All scientists have a moral obligation in this regard. The least they can do is to lead by personal example, and become role models for the young generation. What we are seeing instead is that most of them are no different from non-scientists. Sad.
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#4
Prof. Wadhawan,

You said: "It comes as a bonus to them that the scientific method is the only method for seeking truth, not only regarding natural phenomena, but in all other matters also."

What do you mean by "truth" in matters not regarding natural phenomena? And how can science investigate these matters that are not regarding natural phenomena?
"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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#5
(05-Apr-2011, 07:14 AM)Ajita Kamal Wrote: Prof. Wadhawan,

You said: "It comes as a bonus to them that the scientific method is the only method for seeking truth, not only regarding natural phenomena, but in all other matters also."

What do you mean by "truth" in matters not regarding natural phenomena? And how can science investigate these matters that are not regarding natural phenomena?

Investigations are done by people, not by science. And investigations can be in non-science areas also. Objectivity, logic, rational thinking, intellectual honesty, respect for truth, personal integrity. These are the hallmarks of the person following the scientific method. You will agree that ALL pursuits of truth and knowledge should be based on these same principles. Personally, I am not aware of any other legitimate way of acquiring knowledge of any kind.

It is true that in fields other than the 'hard' sciences, the word 'truth' acquires a somewhat nebulous connotation. But everything is done by man and judged by man (Maxim Gorky). And if man sticks to the scientific method for interpreting any kind of information and data, this world would be a better place to live in.
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#6
(06-Apr-2011, 07:04 PM)Vinod Wadhawan Wrote:
(05-Apr-2011, 07:14 AM)Ajita Kamal Wrote: Prof. Wadhawan,

You said: "It comes as a bonus to them that the scientific method is the only method for seeking truth, not only regarding natural phenomena, but in all other matters also."

What do you mean by "truth" in matters not regarding natural phenomena? And how can science investigate these matters that are not regarding natural phenomena?

Investigations are done by people, not by science. And investigations can be in non-science areas also. Objectivity, logic, rational thinking, intellectual honesty, respect for truth, personal integrity. These are the hallmarks of the person following the scientific method. You will agree that ALL pursuits of truth and knowledge should be based on these same principles. Personally, I am not aware of any other legitimate way of acquiring knowledge of any kind.

It is true that in fields other than the 'hard' sciences, the word 'truth' acquires a somewhat nebulous connotation. But everything is done by man and judged by man (Maxim Gorky). And if man sticks to the scientific method for interpreting any kind of information and data, this world would be a better place to live in.

Allow me to nitpick a bit more.

My understanding of science is that it is concerned with finding objective answers to questions about the universe. The scientific method can be applied to subjective experiences (and often is), but it can only be used to ask and answer objective questions about these experiences. But subjective experiences are a major aspect of our human existence, and we all make subjective judgments all the time. These are simply identifiable as preferences- for example, who we love, what we choose to eat for breakfast, etc. Of course science would be the best way of understanding all the objective facts concerned with our subjective preferences. But I don't think science can be applied in any way towards determining what our subjective preferences should be.

The reason I bring this up is because of the is-ought problem, often characterized as the more general 'naturalistic fallacy', which is being challenged by Sam Harris in his recent book. I understand that you are talking about knowledge and truth, not preference. But consider this. If I want to eat dosas for breakfast instead of parathas, that is a type of knowledge. It is a knowledge of what I want. I do not think science can ever answer this question, because it is a knowledge determined to our individual subjective experiences. Science can certainly provide us with all the factual data and information about the types of food out there, and what they could offer us in terms of nutrition and taste. But there are various premises (such as moral ones) that are involved before the application of science to such problems, and various subjective elements that affect how we regard the scientific conclusions. These premises are subjective and outside of science itself (even if the premises themselves can/should be subjected to scientific analysis), and furthermore the question of how we should use particular scientific knowledge on individual questions lies outside of science.

Essentially, I am arguing that there are subjective elements in our determination of the ought, and that science is not concerned with that type of subjective knowledge. We can always say, well I do not want to do the scientific thing, and that makes the knowledge of what we want different from what science says what we should want (this is not a comprehensible sentence, because science cannot say what we should want without assuming certain unstated premises). In this regard science becomes a philosophy with no objective answers, and has to keep examining its own premises in order to stay relevant to the question.

What are your thoughts on this?
"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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#7
Ajita, here is my point-wise response:

1. "My understanding of science is that it is concerned with finding objective answers to questions about the universe. The scientific method can be applied to subjective experiences (and often is), but it can only be used to ask and answer objective questions about these experiences. But subjective experiences are a major aspect of our human existence, and we all make subjective judgments all the time. These are simply identifiable as preferences- for example, who we love, what we choose to eat for breakfast, etc. Of course science would be the best way of understanding all the objective facts concerned with our subjective preferences. But I don't think science can be applied in any way towards determining what our subjective preferences should be."

I agree.

2. "The reason I bring this up is because of the is-ought problem, often characterized as the more general 'naturalistic fallacy', which is being challenged by Sam Harris in his recent book. I understand that you are talking about knowledge and truth, not preference. But consider this. If I want to eat dosas for breakfast instead of parathas, that is a type of knowledge. It is a knowledge of what I want. I do not think science can ever answer this question, because it is a knowledge determined to our individual subjective experiences. Science can certainly provide us with all the factual data and information about the types of food out there, and what they could offer us in terms of nutrition and taste."

Problem: What does Ajita want to eat for breakfast: dosas or parathas?

Solution: Set up experiments for brain mapping, lie detection, etc. for Ajita's body (including the brain, of course). Show him a dosa and record the voluntary and involuntary responses. Ditto after showing him a paratha.

Scientific evidence: Ajita wants to eat dosas, rather than parathas. (Being a Punjabi, the result will be different if I am tested, instead of you!)

3. "But there are various premises (such as moral ones) that are involved before the application of science to such problems, and various subjective elements that affect how we regard the scientific conclusions. These premises are subjective and outside of science itself (even if the premises themselves can/should be subjected to scientific analysis), and furthermore the question of how we should use particular scientific knowledge on individual questions lies outside of science."

I find these statements confusing. We are discussing the application of the scientific method for testing a hypothesis. What do you mean by 'premises' in that context?

4. "Essentially, I am arguing that there are subjective elements in our determination of the ought, and that science is not concerned with that type of subjective knowledge."

I agree to only the first part of the sentence. If you set up a good enough set of experiments (like the dosa / paratha experiment above), the so-called subjective knowledge in a particular brain will certainly manifest in a variety of ways in the results of the experiments. I admit that the experiments can be difficult to perform because of the complexity involved, but I do not see any qualitative hurdle.

5. "We can always say, well I do not want to do the scientific thing, and that makes the knowledge of what we want different from what science says what we should want (this is not a comprehensible sentence, because science cannot say what we should want without assuming certain unstated premises)."

That is just your wish, or viewpoint, or preference.

6. "In this regard science becomes a philosophy with no objective answers, and has to keep examining its own premises in order to stay relevant to the question."

Please see Page 5 of The Grand Design by Hawking and Mlodinow (2010). I agree with them when they say that ' . . . philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.' It is important that questions be formulated properly. There is a need for philosophers to first teach themselves a lot of modern physics, and then ask the questions they want to get answers of. The need of the hour is a fundamental change in the thinking habits of professional philosophers!
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#8
(12-Apr-2011, 05:05 PM)Vinod Wadhawan Wrote: 2. "The reason I bring this up is because of the is-ought problem, often characterized as the more general 'naturalistic fallacy', which is being challenged by Sam Harris in his recent book. I understand that you are talking about knowledge and truth, not preference. But consider this. If I want to eat dosas for breakfast instead of parathas, that is a type of knowledge. It is a knowledge of what I want. I do not think science can ever answer this question, because it is a knowledge determined to our individual subjective experiences. Science can certainly provide us with all the factual data and information about the types of food out there, and what they could offer us in terms of nutrition and taste."

Problem: What does Ajita want to eat for breakfast: dosas or parathas?


Solution: Set up experiments for brain mapping, lie detection, etc. for Ajita's body (including the brain, of course). Show him a dosa and record the voluntary and involuntary responses. Ditto after showing him a paratha.

Scientific evidence: Ajita wants to eat dosas, rather than parathas. (Being a Punjabi, the result will be different if I am tested, instead of you!)

I realize I wasn't being clear enough when I switched from should/ought to want. Your experiment only tells what I already know. What I am asking with the is/ought distinction is can science tell me what I should eat. The process of coming to the determination of what I want involves various ought decisions. Science is only coming into the picture after I have already decided the various oughts. I'm saying that those oughts are not science's domain.

Quote:3. "But there are various premises (such as moral ones) that are involved before the application of science to such problems, and various subjective elements that affect how we regard the scientific conclusions. These premises are subjective and outside of science itself (even if the premises themselves can/should be subjected to scientific analysis), and furthermore the question of how we should use particular scientific knowledge on individual questions lies outside of science."

I find these statements confusing. We are discussing the application of the scientific method for testing a hypothesis. What do you mean by 'premises' in that context?

Exactly! There are an infinite number of premises (dealing with the ought/ought-not)that are made before the application of the scientific method, and there are an infinite number of preferential subjective judgments made after any scientific experiment when determining how the results of that experiment ought to be used.

Quote:4. "Essentially, I am arguing that there are subjective elements in our determination of the ought, and that science is not concerned with that type of subjective knowledge."

I agree to only the first part of the sentence. If you set up a good enough set of experiments (like the dosa / paratha experiment above), the so-called subjective knowledge in a particular brain will certainly manifest in a variety of ways in the results of the experiments. I admit that the experiments can be difficult to perform because of the complexity involved, but I do not see any qualitative hurdle.
Again, as I said above, your experiment only addresses the want, not the should. Those are fundamentally different questions.

Quote:5. "We can always say, well I do not want to do the scientific thing, and that makes the knowledge of what we want different from what science says what we should want (this is not a comprehensible sentence, because science cannot say what we should want without assuming certain unstated premises)."

That is just your wish, or viewpoint, or preference.

That is what I'm saying. The decision about what I want is fraught with multiple subjective choices, and the argument is that science cannot make those choices because they are inherently subjective.

Quote:6. "In this regard science becomes a philosophy with no objective answers, and has to keep examining its own premises in order to stay relevant to the question."

Please see Page 5 of The Grand Design by Hawking and Mlodinow (2010). I agree with them when they say that ' . . . philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.' It is important that questions be formulated properly. There is a need for philosophers to first teach themselves a lot of modern physics, and then ask the questions they want to get answers of. The need of the hour is a fundamental change in the thinking habits of professional philosophers!

I completely disagree with the statement from Hawking and Mlodinow. It is an ignorant statement that is clueless about the importance of philosophy in many areas of human life from international politics to ethics to economics to appreciation of many aspects of what it means to be human. Hawking and Mlodinow seem ignorant about how philosophers of the 20th century affected science itself, and how science is in turn affecting the philosophers. In fact, their very statement that philosophy is dead is a philosophical view-point, not a scientific one. The fact that we are having any discussions here is evidence that philosophy is not dead. The fact that there will always be such discussions is evidence that philosophy is not dead. It is a mistake to even talk about science as being unencumbered by philosophy. Science is a type of philosophy, and the basic philosophical ideas behind science have not stopped evolving. The science a 1000 years from now will be significantly different, and that will be because the underlying philosophical rules would have evolved over hte years. The scientific method is a tradition with a slew of philosophical rules (dealing with types of logic, inference etc) guiding its evolution based on its success at determining objective reality.
"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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#9
Dr. W.
In addition to my previous comment, in regards to point 6 I feel that your answer does not actually address the question, and seems like a non-sequitur. Let me explain.

Quote:6. "In this regard science becomes a philosophy with no objective answers, and has to keep examining its own premises in order to stay relevant to the question."

To place this in context, I was referring to the well established fact that there are various premises that science glosses over as reasonable presuppositions, in practice. Here are my exact words laying out the context:
"Essentially, I am arguing that there are subjective elements in our determination of the ought, and that science is not concerned with that type of subjective knowledge. We can always say, well I do not want to do the scientific thing, and that makes the knowledge of what we want different from what science says what we should want "

I can't help thinking the need to go from this discussion to outright denial of philosophy is a distraction and an excuse to not address the questions. What else can explain that response at exactly that point in our discussion? Yes, these are not scientific questions. But that is no reason to refuse to concede that there exists such a thing as philosophy of science, and that it is very much relevant when it comes to understanding ideas that may be sometimes uncomfortable to us.

Here is Albert Einstein in 1930:

Quote:"For the scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other. The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capabIe, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations. Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. And it is hardly necessary to argue for the view that our existence and our activity acquire meaning only by the setting up of such a goal and of corresponding values. The knowledge of truth as such is wonderful, but it is so little capable of acting as a guide that it cannot prove even the justification and the value of the aspiration toward that very knowledge of truth. Here we face, therefore, the limits of the purely rational conception of our existence.

But it must not be assumed that intelligent thinking can play no part in the formation of the goal and of ethical judgments. When someone realizes that for the achievement of an end certain means would be useful, the means itself becomes thereby an end. Intelligence makes clear to us the interrelation of means and ends. But mere thinking cannot give us a sense of the ultimate and fundamental ends. To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly."

Einstein in the above excerpt is talking about science and religion, and I do not say that I agree with everything he says. For instance, I believe that those functions of religion he points to can be supplemented with secular social and cultural alternatives. But Einstein is a lot closer to really understanding things as they are in objective reality, with nuance that takes into consideration our subjective natures.

If I were to not mince words, what you are advocating could be characterized as scientism. This is amusing to me, because usually I'm on the other side, defending myself from accusations of scientism. Nevertheless, I think that the line is a clear one even if it is a fine one.
"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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#10
An article in this month's issue of Scientific American about why so many people choose not to believe what scientists, touches upon quite a few issues discussed in this thread.
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#11
(12-Apr-2011, 11:44 AM)Ajita Kamal Wrote: In this regard science becomes a philosophy with no objective answers, and has to keep examining its own premises in order to stay relevant to the question.

I agree with you to an extent. I think the right way to view Science/Scientific theories is as an invention rather than as a discovery. Similarly, Mathematics is an invention and it is a language, though more sophisticated than English or Hindi. If you accept these views, the first part of your statement seems self-evident.

Scientific theories are basically stories about our universe most often in the language of mathematics. Just as a good story is one that is relevant to the reader a good theory is one that is relevant to the pursuits of humans. And just as stories can influence one's pursuits, scientific theories can do too. But neither stories nor scientific theories can tell you what you should pursue.

I think it is a major flaw of the education system through out the world that students are not encouraged to question what Science itself is. In my opinion the best scientists are also the best philosophers and vice versa. However, in my experience (engineering) many graduate students and Professors are not bothered by this question and have never thought about it, which unfortunately means that most practitioners of Science are in the profession only to earn a livelihood and are not Scientists as such.
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