(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?
Friday, May 11, 2012
(by guest blogger Carrie Figdor)