The War on Science?!

Popular Canadian YouTube channel AsapSCIENCE has a video going around this week entitled “The War on Science”. It rightly calls out worrying trends such as the dismissal by many of the overwhelming evidence for human-caused global warming, the thoroughly debunked and yet persistent myth that vaccines cause autism, the ever-decreasing share of public funds going to scientific research, and the muzzling of public scientists. I love science, I hate all of the misinformation that is spread about climate science and medicine, and I think it is vital for our democracies for scientists to be free to speak about their research however they like.

On the other hand, as a historian and philosopher of science, I cringe at the parade of clichés and dubious claims in this video. There’s the classic “linear model” rhetoric that, although we cannot predict how, basic scientific research will lead to technical progress. There’s the indefensible value-neutrality science “simply adheres to evidence” argument. And the Roman Empire collapsed because… they didn’t pursue scientific research?

I wish HPSers could get together to make a really bang-up viral video that we could all endorse unequivocally, but perhaps it’s the nature of our discipline that this is impossible?


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Steve Fuller’s False Hope in IDism: The Discovery Institute’s Anti-Transhumanism, Gregory Sandstrom « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

SERRC: Steve Fuller’s False Hope in IDism

I know Steve Fuller mostly for his critiques of mainstream science and philosophy of science, for example in Social Epistemologyand his proposals for radically democratizing science, for example in The Governance of Science. Of course Steve is also well-known for his defense of Intelligent Design Theory as science, but I had always viewed this defense as in service of his democratization agenda, rather than as reflecting his genuine beliefs. Perhaps I should have known better given that Fuller has written multiple books on the subject. Recently, Fuller has come out as an advocate of transhumanism, a subject I know nearly nothing about.

Gregory Sandstrom’s pointed review of Fuller’s relationship to the ID movement in the context of his transhumanism was therefore very enlightening for me. Sandstrom’s central contention is that Fuller’s transhumanism is incompatible with Intelligent Design Theory, at least as practiced by the Discovery Institute (the primary institution promoting ID’s intellectual and political activities):

In his SERRC paper “Science without Expertise: Defending My Defence of Intelligent Design (Nearly) a Decade Later,” (2014) Fuller speaks of “ID and Trans-humanism.” Yet he obviously does not have the DI’s version of ID in mind when he links these two notions. Instead, Fuller has a significantly different view of ‘intelligent design’ that he is proposing, which I call cybernetic-ID (forthcoming 2015). Onlookers might wonder how or if Fuller confronts the anti-trans-humanism of the DI or if he has found some way to distinguish their IDism from his own social epistemology. This article puts Fuller’s trans-humanism and the DI’s anti-trans-humanism in sharp contrast.


The DI is fiercely and conservatively against trans-humanism. If Fuller wants to promote ID, trans-humanism and his so-called ‘new eugenics,’ then it would help if he distinguished his position from the politically entrenched leaders and fellows of the DI. Not to do this serves only to confuse IDists who rant against human enhancements and human-technology ‘uplift’ with Fuller’s starkly different vision for the future. This is perhaps most severely stated in what Dr. Michael Egnor says of trans-humanists displaying “shades of Mengele.” For the DI, Fuller’s trans-humanist eugenics is a dangerous threat to humankind, not just in the USA, but globally and people like Fuller are comparable to Joseph Mengele (German ‘angel of death’ doctor in Auschwitz) and therefore best removed from polite society.

I was also interested to hear Sandstrom’s account of Fuller’s religious views and how they relate to all of this:

When we read Fuller’s version of ‘trans-humanism’, we must nonetheless remember that it is at its deepest root framed within a Unitarian worldview. Since writing in 2008, “I am a secular humanist who has been steeped in the historical and philosophical relations between science and religion since my school days with the Jesuits” (2008, 8), he has more recently stated his worldview as a “non-conformist Christian” Unitarian (2014, 7). “By ‘Unitarian’ we mean the idea that each person’s connection to the original creative deity is direct and personal,” Fuller writes. “Unitarians believe that we ‘always already’ have God within us but perhaps not the means to realize our divine potential.” (2014, 5) Thus, in seeking to reach his divine potential, we see Fuller identifying his position as having closer affinities with Ray Kurzweil, Norbert Weiner and Herbert Simon (all of whom are/were more commonly considered as Jewish atheists or agnostics than mainstream Unitarians), rather than with (non-Jewish) atheist trans-humanists like Zoltan Istvan or Nick Bostrom. There are notably other non-Unitarian theists who also discuss and even promote trans-humanism, e.g. Ted Peters and Carl Teichrib that Fuller does not appear to endorse.

In reply to Sandstrom, Fuller acknowledges that his account is essentially correct, though Fuller notes that he has long been aware of the tensions between his view of ID and the Discovery Institute’s. However, Fuller believes his energies are best spent defending his transhumanist agenda from opponents on the other end of the theological spectrum:

Source and Image: Steve Fuller’s False Hope in IDism: The Discovery Institute’s Anti-Transhumanism, Gregory Sandstrom « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective


Science Magazine: Climate scientist requesting federal investigation feels heat from House Republicans

In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway showed how attempts by the tobacco industry to avoid regulation paralleled attempts by the fossil-fuel industry to do so. The tobacco industry consciously enlisted scientists in an extended campaign to sow doubt about whether smoking caused cancer, while the fossil-fuel industry has done the same to sow doubt about global warming. Perhaps the most fascinating part of Oreskes and Conway’s story is that in many cases, these are the same scientists.

Given this context, it makes sense that some climate scientists would attempt to employ the same legal tactics against the fossil fuel industry as were successfully used against the tobacco industry. Science reports:

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D–RI)… noted that federal prosecutors had used the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)—originally developed to combat organized crime and corrupt unions—to sue the tobacco industry for covering up the health effects of smoking. And he suggested they could do the same to investigate fossil fuel firms that he charged were “funding a massive and sophisticated campaign to mislead the American people about the environmental harm caused by carbon pollution.”


Last month, 20 climate scientists, led by Shukla, picked up on the idea of using RICO. In a 1 September letter to President Barack Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and White House science adviser John Holdren, they wrote that “if corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds that have been documented in book and journal articles, it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible.”


Other signers of the RICO letter include climate researchers from George Mason as well as the University of Washington, Seattle; Rutgers University in New Jersey; the University of Maryland, College Park; and Columbia University.

However, the political landscape in the United States these days has made this strategy difficult, and perhaps even dangerous:

Last week, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chairman of the science panel of the House of Representatives, announced plans to investigate a nonprofit research group led by climate scientist Jagadish Shukla of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He is the lead signer of a letter to White House officials that urges the use of an antiracketeering law to crack down on energy firms that have funded efforts to raise doubts about climate science.


In a 1 October letter, Smith asked Shukla, who is director of the independent Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES) in Rockville, Maryland, to preserve all of the “email, electronic documents, and data” that the institute has created since 2009. Smith’s panel soon may be asking for those documents, the letter suggests.

To be clear, it appears that the chairman of the House of Representatives is proposing not to investigate possible organized attempts by massive corporations to deceive the American public about the science of climate change, but to investigate the group that wants that to happen. Democracy!

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Weekly Roundup

A new study lends more support to the hygiene hypothesis, the notion that our over-sterilized environment is harmful to developing immune systems. Scientists from B.C. Children’s Hospital found 4 strains of bacteria whose absence from the intestinal flora of 3-month-olds was associated with childhood asthma.

How clean is the air in your town? Now you can find out in real time with the World Air Quality Index which assimilates pollution data from sites around the world.

R2-D2 and a picture of a cat were launched to near space by two girls from Seattle. Their homemade “Loki Lego Launcher” reached 78 thousand feet; you can watch their GoPro footage.

Worms that digest plastic may solve our pollution woes. That is, of course, as long as our tampering with complex ecosystems doesn’t have Simpsonesque unintended consequences.

“Is it possible to fall or crash on a bike or on a walk to work? Absolutely. But it’s also possible we’ll be slowly struck down by longer-term ills that driving seems to be associated with.” Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan at Gizmodo has a great summary of research on the health and stress effects of various commutes.

Federal science and politicians aren’t currently the warmest of bedfellows, both in Canada and the USA, as the powers that be continue to resist or dismantle science for policymaking. Following the  shooting at Umpqua Community College (yet another mass shooting) the US Congress extended a preexisting ban on CDC research into the public health effects of gun violence, even though American victims of gun deaths vastly outnumber those killed by terrorism. Seeking to encourage transparency in federal science, Write2Know‘s second letter-writing campaign draws to a close, and its tally signed letters this year requesting information from politicians about Canadian federal science is in the thousands. Lastly, Environment Canada scientist and “Harperman” auteur Tony Turner has decided to retire rather than remain under paid suspension while the investigation into his alleged breach of the Canadian values and ethics code for public servants; you can now find him unmuzzled on the election circuit.…


Talking science and God with the pope’s new chief astronomer

Having recently finished Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, a near-future science fiction novel about Jesuits making first contact with an alien civilization, I was interested to read this interview with the Vatican’s (Jesuit) chief astronomer. Steve Fuller ought to be particularly happy with this answer, essentially the same argument Fuller made in defense of Intelligent Design Theory as science:

Q: Does God get in the way of doing good astronomy?

A: Just the opposite. He is the reason we do astronomy. I would say that is true even if you don’t believe in God. We do it first of all because we can, because the universe acts according to laws. That is a religious idea. The Romans, on the other hand, believed in nature gods that intervene according to whim—but if you believe in that you can’t be a scientist. Believing in a supernatural god is different.


You also have to believe that the universe is real and not an illusion. You have to believe that the universe is so good that it is worth spending your life studying it, even if you don’t become rich or famous. That sense that gets you up every morning is the presence of God.



Born that way? ‘Scientific’ racism is creeping back into our thinking. Here’s what to watch out for. – The Washington Post

Born that way? ‘Scientific’ racism is creeping back into our thinking. Here’s what to watch out for. – The Washington Post

Yesterday, Ellie’s Weekly Roundup referenced an editorial in the Washington Post arguing that “‘Scientific’ racism is creeping back into our thinking.” The authors see this trend in the media, in science, and in policy. Some examples:

Consider a recent paper that argues that ethnic conflict throughout history is a result of genetic diversity among communities. The authors argue that genetic diversity is the dominant force behind conflict among groups. It pushes religious communities into battle, causes distrust among neighbors and dictates support for problematic social policies. Such an argument places the history and future of human conflict in genes, as if human interaction and environmental influences cannot match their power.

For instance, in the wake of the 2012 Olympics, nearly one-third of the news articles that evoked race, genetics and athletics posited that African American and West Indian sprinters are fastest because they descend from testosterone-heavy ancestors who survived the brutal conditions of transatlantic slave trade—a belief that found resonance and widespread acceptance in a BBC-produced documentary entitled, “Survival of the Fastest.” But there is no gene or allele for “speed,” and no direct link between testosterone and speed (while sprinters may have high testosterone, not all high-testosterone people can sprint).

A highly-praised volume by journalist Nicholas Wade, “A Troublesome Inheritance,” posited that recent genetic and genomic research suggests that Africa’s underdevelopment was a result of genetic inferiority of the communities on the continent, eschewing the devastating effects of colonialism.

I’m not convinced that there is anything new in any of these examples or that we are in the midst of a “resurgence” of scientific racism, though if there is such a trend I’d look to the rise of evolutionary psychology as an obvious source. However, the potential social damage of such studies seems obvious.

Cases like these, where scientific claims can have detrimental social consequences, are a major interest of social epistemologists. Heather Douglas, for instance, argues that in cases like this the evidential threshold for making a scientific claim ought to be higher. With so much at stake, she contends, scientists really need to be sure that they’re right before they make claims like this public. Given that the reliability of many psychological studies have recently been questioned, this seems like even more reasonable advice. In Science, Truth, and Democracy, Philip Kitcher goes even further, arguing that certain lines of research ought to be (temporarily) banned because their potential consequences are too great for our (current) society to take the risk of pursuing them. This idea is anathema to scientists, but perhaps Kitcher’s extreme solution deserves consideration of scientists aren’t able to police themselves?

Source and image: Born that way? ‘Scientific’ racism is creeping back into our thinking. Here’s what to watch out for. – The Washington Post

Weekly Roundup

Brain Pickings has new research from Stanford social psychologist Jennifer Aaker on how we narrate our stages of happiness across our  lifetimes.

From “clues to possible water flows” to “NASA finds water on Mars” to “salty water flows on Mars today” to “possible niches for life, NASA says” to “life on Mars is likely, scientists say“, the discovery of recurring slope lineae on Mars has led to the usual pattern of overhyping NASA can’t seem to shed. At Quartz, Akshat Rathi deflates the NASA announcement about water on mars and what it means for future missions: “NASA’s press statement makes it seem that scientists have certain evidence of flowing water. They do not. What they have is chemical evidence that gives a strong suggestion of liquid water mixed with salts. More importantly, however, even if NASA was 100% certain that there is liquid water on Mars, it could not do anything about it.” Oh, and Rush Limbaugh thinks it’s a left-wing conspiracy.

People got pretty excited about Sunday’s super-blood-moon-eclipse. Here are some of the best pictures of the #supermoon from around the world.

The biggest surprise of MacLean’s Policy Face-Off Machine is that respondents “overwhelmingly” support making government science accessible to the public and ending current muzzling and data-destruction policies. Don Martin from CTV’s Power Play asked Evidence for Democracy‘s Scott Findlay (University of Ottawa) why science isn’t a more prominent election issue. If you want answers from Canadian politicians on pressing science questions, check out Write2Know.

“Scientific” racism is all around. The Washington Post explores the ugly history and current iteration of our preference for genetic explanations of racial characteristics.…


Will the real skeptics please step forward?

The Associated Press reported on their blog last week that they will no longer refer to those who deny the scientific consensus on climate change as “skeptics”, but will instead call them “climate change doubters” or “those who reject mainstream climate science”. Notably, they will also not use my preferred term—“deniers”—because it is seen as pejorative.

It seems like the main push for this change comes from scientists “such as those who are part of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry” who “complain that non-scientists who reject mainstream climate science have usurped the phrase skeptic.”

Fair enough, but to me both uses of “skeptic”—referring to “skeptics” like those from the Center for Skeptical Inquiry and those who deny climate change—are suspect. “Mainstream” skeptics seem to train their skepticism only at claims that occur outside of mainstream science—homeopathy, UFOlogy, and so on. Is this true skepticism or just science boosterism? I’m inclined to think the latter.

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A Rare Interview with the Mathematician Who Cracked Wall Street | Jim Simons | TED Talks – YouTube

Interview with the Mathematician Who Cracked Wall Street | TED Talks

This TED interview with mathematician and founder of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies Jim Simmons should be an interesting watch for those who like the history of mathematics or the history of finance, especially the Efficient Market Hypothesis. Simons’ hedge fund started out successfully using chartist methods, but has gradually adopted more and more sophisticated models. He claims that they are still very successful today, even as many other hedge funds have stumbled.

Jim Simons was a mathematician and cryptographer who realized: the complex math he used to break codes could help explain patterns in the world of finance. Billions later, he’s working to support the next generation of math teachers and scholars. TED’s Chris Anderson sits down with Simons to talk about his extraordinary life in numbers.


Source: A Rare Interview with the Mathematician Who Cracked Wall Street | Jim Simons | TED Talks – YouTube.



New theory of stealth dark matter may explain universe’s missing mass

I’m no physicist, but isn’t “stealth” dark matter a little redundant?

A group of national particle physicists known as the Lattice Strong Dynamics Collaboration, led by a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory team, has combined theoretical and computational physics techniques and used the Laboratory’s massively parallel 2-petaflop Vulcan supercomputer to devise a new model of dark matter. It identifies it as naturally “stealthy” (i.e. like its namesake aircraft, difficult to detect) today, but would have been easy to see via interactions with ordinary matter in the extremely high-temperature plasma conditions that pervaded the early universe.


“These interactions in the early universe are important because ordinary and dark matter abundances today are strikingly similar in size, suggesting this occurred because of a balancing act performed between the two before the universe cooled,” said Pavlos Vranas of LLNL, and one of the authors of the paper, “Direct Detection of Stealth Dark Matter through Electromagnetic Polarizability”. The paper appears in an upcoming edition of the journal Physical Review Letters and is an “Editor’s Choice.”

Source: New theory of stealth dark matter may explain universe’s missing mass