Is society losing its capacity for rational debate? Did it ever exist?

In a recent debatable Curtis asked if history and philosophy of science can be applied in socially relevant ways. The consensus answer seems to be “yes”. For instance, Rebekah Higgitt wrote,

In my view history and philosophy of science are always socially relevant for demonstrating the processes by which science is created, where science ‘sits’ within society, and how and why it – or aspects of it – have achieved their current levels of authority.

Since at least the days of the Vienna Circle, historians and philosophers in the western tradition have held to the tacit assumption that clear and careful analysis of science will contribute to a more rational society. This belief in a close link between politics and the study of science has been echoed by such figures as John Dewey, Karl Popper, and Philip Kitcher. Earlier, and more pessimistically, Thomas Hobbes believed that society would collapse if there was not an absolute monarch to make final pronouncements on scientific (and other) matters.1

Recent events might suggest that Hobbes was on to something, as it seems that society is losing its capacity for rational debate. Browsing blogs on opposite2 sides of the ideological spectrum reveals incommensurable world views on a scale never envisaged by Thomas Kuhn. Who would have thought we’d ever have competing encyclopedias? John Stewart’s “Rally to Restory Sanity” was an attempt to address this problem:

  1. See Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump or chapter 5 of Science in Democracy by Mark B. Brown for a discussion of Hobbes’ views on the relationship between science and politics.
  2. See “Climatism: That Climate Change Chameleon” for a revealing look.

Weekly Roundup

Mehrdad Hariri recommends that Canada engage in more science diplomacy, connecting our current lack thereof up with the recent loss of our seat on the UN security council

William Easterly applies some interesting work on “physics envy” in finance to thinking about Third World development. Find the original paper on physics envy in finance here.

Matthew C. Nisbet over at Age of Engagement observes that the mood in the United States is not best described as “mad as hell”, but as “anxious”. Nisbet wonders how this will affect people’s reaction to climate science, given this article from the National Science Foundation. From the latter:

In the study, subjects with individualistic values were over 70 percentage points less likely than ones with egalitarian values to identify the scientist as an expert if he was depicted as describing climate change as an established risk. Likewise, egalitarian subjects were over 50 percentage points less likely than individualistic ones to see the scientist as an expert if he was described as believing evidence on climate change is  unsettled.

In a move that could have huge implications for the biotechnology industry, the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a brief arguing that genes cannot be patented, as they are part of nature.

In an article sure to give Curtis fits, Michael Robinson at Whewell’s Ghost,

just published a short piece in the Journal of Cosmology’s special issue Colonizing Mars: The Mission to the Red Planet. It argues that humans will not reach Mars on the power of peripheral arguments about science, national pride, or technological spin-offs. Advocates of a human program need to articulate the core values of human spaceflight and justify their missions accordingly, even if they are difficult to measure. Although the essay leans towards science policy rather than history of science, it discuss the importance of historical analogies in contemporary debates about spaceflight.

Reaching for the stars and staying down to earth

Astronomers recently discovered an Earth-like planet, orbiting a Sun-like star, at an Earth-like distance, only 20 light years away. 1  The lead scientist in this project, Steven Vogt, has gone so far as to state that he is basically “100% certain” about the existence of life on the newly discovered world, a bet placed primarily on the planet’s distance from its sun.2  The only inhospitable-sounding part of most descriptions is the planet’s catalog-derived name – Gliese 581 g.

The subsequent public uptake of this discovery, for example by NBC’s Brian Williams, has gotten many people rightly concerned about the social consequences of generating hype about this astronomical discovery.  After reporting on this astronomical discovery during the nightly news, Williams finished his report by stating, “It’s just nice to know that if we screw this place up badly enough there is some place we can all go.”  David McConville, a science educator, responded with an avatar-based video, arguing that statements like Williams’s are routinely used to “subconsciously justify the continued destruction of our planetary ecosystems,” and that he should therefore retract his insinuation that Gliese 581 g could serve as a “back-up” Earth.  It’s not at all clear that he’s wrong about that.

  1. This discovery has not gone undisputed, however.  Here is a discussion of the controversy surrounding this “finding”
  2. This claim has, rightly, come under intense criticism from astronomers.  As Mark Thompson put it, “We can’t even be 100% sure it’s made of rock!!!”

Can medicine revive the dying patient-as-subject?

Evidence-based medicine (EBM) has come to dominate medical epistemology. Whether you are designing a clinical trial, prescribing medication, or Googling an unusual symptom you will most likely encounter EBM: the new standard of medical knowledge. EBM aims to improve patient care by systematizing medical research in a hierarchy of ‘best evidence’. This hierarchy helps to streamline clinical guidelines in the face of an ever-growing literature and the subjective ambiguities of the clinical encounter. But ambiguities remain, and the most notable source of ambiguity is the patient. Since the early EBM movement in the 1990s – when EBM identified itself as a paradigm shift – the movement has struggled to incorporate patient subjectivities into its objective standards of evidence. 1

In its most recent incarnations, EBM seeks to balance a systematic approach with a patient-centered ethic. Patient preferences, values, narratives, and lived experience are ostensibly integrated into the clinical expertise and patients’ choice of the clinical encounter. At first glance, this integrative approach may seem inclusive and progressive, revitalizing the patient’s role and expertise in the management of her own health. Respect for autonomy and consent, it seems, is enough to prevent ‘slavish, cookbook approaches’ in dealing with individual needs and experiences.

  1. In defining EBM, the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine currently emphasizes the need for both conscientious clinical expertise and current best evidence:

    Evidence-based medicine is the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients. … Good doctors and health professionals use both individual clinical expertise and the best available external evidence, and neither alone is enough. Without clinical expertise, practice risks becoming tyrannised by evidence, for even excellent external evidence may be inapplicable to or inappropriate for an individual patient. Without current best evidence, practice risks becoming rapidly out of date, to the detriment of patients. Evidence-based medicine is not restricted to randomised trials and meta-analyses. (

Weekly Roundup

In a must-read article for anyone interested in evidence-based medicine, scientific fraud, or scientific funding structures, David H. Feedman, for the Atlantic, profiles medical researcher John Ioannidis. Ioannidis argues that there is an extremely high rate of shoddy statistical work in the medical literature, not due to incompetence but to funding and institutional structures. An excerpt:

This array suggested a bigger, underlying dysfunction, and Ioannidis thought he knew what it was. “The studies were biased,” he says. “Sometimes they were overtly biased. Sometimes it was difficult to see the bias, but it was there.” Researchers headed into their studies wanting certain results—and, lo and behold, they were getting them. We think of the scientific process as being objective, rigorous, and even ruthless in separating out what is true from what we merely wish to be true, but in fact it’s easy to manipulate results, even unintentionally or unconsciously. “At every step in the process, there is room to distort results, a way to make a stronger claim or to select what is going to be concluded,” says Ioannidis. “There is an intellectual conflict of interest that pressures researchers to find whatever it is that is most likely to get them funded.”

David Goodstein, former vice-Provost of Caltech, has published a new book about scientific fraud. He argues that fraud is more common than thought, he identifies condition under which fraud is likely to happen, reviews several case studies, and discuss the ways in which fraud can be avoided.

David Segal of the New York Times, echoing Mike Thicke’s post about macroeconomics, writes about the difficulty of testing economic theories and one of the major reasons for that difficulty: people are unpredictable.

Cory Doctorow points us towards a new initiative by Canadian public scientists to communicate directly with the public in response to the government’s perceived hostility.

The New York Times reports that every serious Republican candidate for Senate is either a global warming denier or skeptic, and they are using this to avoid any discussion of solutions and to label Democrats as out-of-control taxers.…

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

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Many years (and several careers) ago, when I was working in the lab, I often used HeLa cells. They were a standard culture of human cells, used for a variety of purposes. I never gave much thought to from where (which is to say “from whom”) they came. We had a variety of cell lines to choose from, and HeLa were just the standard, go-to choice.

Fortunately, people like Rebecca Skloot are a good deal more curious than I, and she was inspired not only to research the history of these cells (and through that, the history of cell culturing as a science) but also to research the history of the woman from whom all those countless cells have come.

In many ways, tracking down Henrietta Lacks (the original donor) and explaining the story of cell culturing was the easiest part of the story. It is a standard detective tale of tracking down false leads and looking for evidence in unlikely places. And for Skloot, an experienced medical writer for the New York Times Magazine and NPR, this is just another day at the office. But the book goes beyond the scope of a standard history of science/medicine when Skloot decides to track down the descendents of Henrietta Lacks and tell their stories. It becomes an intensely moving, disturbing story of race and class in contemporary America.…

Can History and Philosophy of Science be Applied in Socially Relevant Ways?

In the wake of economic crises and new austerity measures, social institutions are often rethought.  For the humanities, this can be quite threatening, as social support for characteristically intellectual activities dwindles when production is at a low and in need of heavy “stimulus,” possibly in the form of tax cuts.  Federal funding structures in Britain, for instance, have begun a re-orientation towards funding only those projects with the potential for economic or social “impact,” even within the humanities.1  This was resisted by many eminent academics in Britain, but it was especially resisted by philosopher of science James Ladyman2.  Ladyman works on the metaphysics of science, and metaphysicians often find it especially difficult to defend their projects according to criteria like “social impact”.3  Historians of Science working on esoteric topics are no stranger to similar challenges to their funding levels, based on the lack of any straightforward “social relevance” for their research into, for example, Medieval methods of timekeeping.

While I do not want to insinuate that history, science, philosophy, or any other intellectual discipline should be measured according to the standards of Britain’s “impact”-based Research Excellence Framework, I do think that it is important for historians and philosophers of science to be aware of all the different ways their activities could impact society, and not only so that they have ready responses when the people challenge the “impact” of their work.  So, for this week’s debatable, we have a very general group of questions to ask:  How can history and philosophy of science be applied, used, or employed in socially relevant ways?  How have they been applied, used, or employed?  What use do people who don’t study history and philosophy of science have for people who do study them?

  1. The new Research Excellence Framework, which will affect this reorientation, is set to go into effect in Britain in 2015
  2. it was joked that the degree to which one spoke out against the “impact” policies could be appropriately deemed the “Ladyman Index“.
  3. Much of my own work, which is by no means unique in this respect, has been oriented towards demonstrating that some practical issues depend on our metaphysical commitments, i.e. I have aimed to show that metaphysical issues can, in fact, be socially relevant.

Weekly Roundup

Egil Asprem at Heterodoxology gives a nice taxonomy of several different forms of scientism

Obesity is identified as a threat to National Defence

Researchers admit they are still unclear about how many genes there are in the human genome

Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda discusses whether the common argumentative strategies in STS lead to conflicts of interest with the history of science.

This is only about science contradistinctively, but it should be of interest to most philosophers and historians of science: Stanley Fish of the New York Times announces that the crisis of the humanities has officially arrived.

CBC covers a favorite Bubble Chamber issue – Golden Rice and GMO crop regulation

The Atlantic provides some insight into medical science and how the quality of the research question asked affects the quality of evidence produced by randomized control trials.

Abigail Baim-Lance reviews “Science, Citizenship, and Genetic Identities” at Somatosphere

A US court sets a cyber-precedent by ruling that Amazon can patent “one-click” internet shopping

Jai Virdi at From the Hands of Quacks hosts a blog carnival on Visuals and Representation, and gives some great overviews of three recent papers on expertise in the 18th century

Path Dependence: Genome Canada’s Commercialization of Research

SPIEGEL: So the Human Genome Project has had very little medical benefits so far?

Venter: Close to zero to put it precisely.1

Biologists such as Richard Lewontin and Evelyn Fox Keller have long been challenging the view of the genome as a simple recipe that contains everything we need to know about organisms. The genome, our cells, our bodies, and the environments they inhabit are far more complex than most scientists suppose, they argue. Until recently, however, they have been marginalized voices. When the human genome was first sequenced 10 years ago, most assumed that dramatic advances in medicine, and biotechnology in general, were just around the corner. But as time went on, it has become increasingly clear that Lewontin and Keller are right.

Heather Douglas: Values and Scientific Integrity

Heather Douglas, author of Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal, recently spoke at Muhlenberg College’s Center for Ethics. Amid charges from both sides of the ideological spectrum that science is being politicized, Douglas asks, when are values acceptable in science, which values are those, and what role should they play? This becomes most interesting when judging scientific evidence rather than merely picking research directions: in the context of unavoidable uncertainty, how should values affect our evidential judgements?