Friday, May 11, 2012

Twilight of the (Scientific) Gods?

(by guest blogger Carrie Figdor)

Is it a mere coincidence that the Metropolitan Opera is offering its latest Ring-cycle blitz at about the same time as my stint as an invited guest blogger for Eric? The skeptic in me warns against hasty judgment, yet I think there's an interesting relationship between the two series. Isomorphisms come cheap, but the best things in life are free, so even a cheap isomorphism is worth more than the best things in life.

Before I go on, I'll introduce myself: I'm a philosopher of mind and metaphysician at the University of Iowa, in the state where Herbert Hoover and Captain James T. Kirk are local notables and gay marriage is legal. I'm also a former Associated Press newswoman, hence a professional gadfly twice over. The news story I'm interested in maps Wagner's distinction between ordinary mortals and the gods to our distinction between "the folk" and scientists, who occupy the most powerful intellectual position in our culture. This story (but not Wagner's) is that the folk are getting deeply and inchoately pissed at the scientific gods. In this series of posts, I want to explore this anger and what it means for science, philosophy and the folk.

One unmistakable expression of it came on April 1, 2012, when Scientific American published a spoof of neuroscience claims, carefully labeled as such just in case the joke was not immediately obvious just by reading it: "Neuroscientists: We Don't Really Know What We're Talking About, Either." It began: "NEW YORK—At a surprise April 1 press conference, a panel of neuroscientists confessed that they and most of their colleagues make up half of what they write in research journals and tell reporters." I suspect the editor had inserted a less generous percentage in an earlier draft.

A second came on April 23, 2012, when The Atlantic Monthly included the following paragraph in an interview with Lawrence Krauss that was sparked by the Krauss-Albert affair (a clash of titans worthy of Wagner):

Because the story of modern cosmology has such deep implications for the way that we humans see ourselves and the universe, it must be told correctly and without exaggeration -- in the classroom, in the press and in works of popular science. To see two academics, both versed in theoretical physics, disagreeing so intensely on such a fundamental point is troubling. Not because scientists shouldn't disagree with each other, but because here they're disagreeing about a claim being disseminated to the public as a legitimate scientific discovery. Readers of popular science often assume that what they're reading is backed by a strong consensus.
I'll borrow from The Atlantic to elaborate the issue: Because the story of neuroscience or physics (i.e., science) has such deep implications for the folk, it is important to tell that story to the folk correctly and without exaggeration. And yet it is not being told that way. The Atlantic is troubled because the public is being fed what may or may not be a crock, not because the gods are clashing (which is only to be expected). Scientific American effectively accuses neuroscientists of being full of it -- half the time, but which half? -- and by adding that "either" practically screams that its staff is getting really tired of being played.

Both missives from leaders in the mortal sphere imply that the folk are not being treated as they believe they should be. This is all the more annoying when your offerings -- um, taxpayer dollars -- are rabidly sought by these gods in the form of NSF grants. And so the question arises: how much longer will, or should, this situation go on? What can be done to change it, for the good of the folk and science?


Brandon N. Towl said...

There is exaggeration in the way that science is meted out in the popular press? The devil you say!

Indeed, such articles often become extra credit fodder in my cog sci classes. The claims that the pop science crowd make sometimes are incredible, and I think the public has a right to feel cheated and/or angry.

Then again, science education (or lack thereof) seems to be a large part of the problem itself. A lot of scientists (and also philosophers, mathematicians, etc.) don't know how to explain, to a lay audience, what they do or what they are trying to figure out. And so they, or the "science journalists" who talk to them, try to connect up their research programs with the kinds of lame and/or misinformed questions that still seem to circulate among non-specialists... even if doing so invites an epic non-sequitor.

This seems to me to be a problem, but I'm not sure what the fix is. So for now, I will simply bask in Figdore's clever syllogism.

John Baez said...

What is the "legitimate scientific discovery" that the Krauss-Albert controversy is supposedly about? I don't think there is one. They're mainly fighting about the meaning of the word "nothing" and whether it makes sense to say cosmology explains how "something can come from nothing". In short, it's basically the kind of argument professors like to have after a few drinks in the faculty lounge, but carried out in public view. The internet is letting people see lots of things that existed all along, but weren't so visible before.

Carrie Figdor said...

@Brandon: I think you will find my upcoming posts interesting, i.e. provocative.

@John: I agree, and have an upcoming post on language with a brief mention of "nothing". I can't speak to the atlantic's assessment of the import of the debate/kerfuffle, however.

Richard Baron said...

The most apposite line is Fricka's, from Die Walküre, act 2, scene 1, about how the gods lose their power and vanish if mortals start to laugh at them:

Von Menschen verlacht, verlustig der Macht, gingen wir Götter zugrund

Carrie Figdor said...

@Richard: :-) (response delayed by Die Walkure)