Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Scientific Ignorance on Display

A review article titled "Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science" in the latest issue of Science displays an illustrative sample of modern scientists' ignorance and presumption—ignorance of philosophy and presumption that science is sufficient for understanding the world.

Take this sentence for starters:

Many of the undergraduates retained a common-sense Aristotelian theory of object motion; they predicted that the ball would continue to move in a curved motion, choosing B over A in Fig. 1. [Figure 1A shows the path of a ball leaving a curved tube as a straight line; figure 1B shows the ball's path as curved.1]

I'm pretty sure that Aristotle doesn't discuss the motion out of curved tubes. Why is he referenced here?

The ignorance and prejudice in the rest of the article is more profound. Take the assumed unreality of purpose in the world:2

The examples so far concern people’s common-sense understanding of the physical world, but their intuitive psychology also contributes to their resistance to science. One important bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, 4-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions (“to go in the zoo”) and clouds (“for raining”), a propensity called “promiscuous teleology”. Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and prefer creationist explanations. Just as children’s intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

Did you notice also the parallel the authors draw between denial of evolution and denial of the Earth's sphericity? Of course these statements are about children, not adults,3 though there's still the implied equation of evolution doubters with flat-earthers. Then again, perhaps we should simply be glad the author's refrained from unnecessarily impugning Aristotle here.4

Next, the article goes on to assume that belief in an immaterial soul is obviously erroneous:

Another consequence of people’s commonsense psychology is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain.... The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for people to accept what Francis Crick called “the astonishing hypothesis”: Dualism is mistaken—mental life emerges from physical processes. People resist the astonishing hypothesis in ways that can have considerable social implications. For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls [endnote].

If "hypothesis" means unproven assumption, then Crick is correct (and then scientists complain about the public's misunderstanding of the word "hypothesis"!). The presumption is that there is no such thing as an immaterial soul. The authors seem perfectly unaware that science has absolutely no competence to pronounce on the existence or non-existence of anything immaterial. The presumption in beginning any scientific investigation is that we will only consider material influences. You can't disprove something by assuming its contrary. Science by defintion deals only with material things. To disprove immaterial things requires philosophy.

The endnote ices the cake:

This belief in souls also holds for some expert ethicists. For instance, in their 2003 report Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics, the President’s Council described people as follows: “We have both corporeal and noncorporeal aspects. We are embodied spirits and inspirited bodies (or, if you will, embodied minds and minded bodies)”

Implicit in this comment is that ethics, as understood by ethicists for millennia, is meaningless, and that only science, as conceived by doctrinaire materialists for two centuries, truly describes the universe. In reality, a little education in philosophy would have told them that the presumption that mental processes are purely physical is in fact inconsistent with the fact of a scientist's discovering truth about the world. Intellectual activity requires an immaterial intellect. (How can materialistic science reason about itself? Is science itself material?)

The article is a bit fairer with regard to the scientific reliance on experts.

If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it. Consider, for example, that many Americans who claim to believe in natural selection are unable to accurately describe how natural selection works.

As the article notes in its next paragraph, people's reliance on authorities isn't unique to scientific knowledge. But, unlike many other fields, such reliance is inseparable from science.5 In a paper in The Thomist, Michael Augros discusses how science needs experts because it relies on specialized experience (i.e., experiment). Philosophy, including ethics, on the other hand relies on common experience, so, while experts may be needed to guide our philosophical considerations, every man can in principle verify the conclusions in terms of his own experience. Dr. Augros writes,

No scientist can personally verify in his own experience all the scientific theories and results upon which his own efforts depend. The philosopher, on the other hand, who does not descend to the more particular experiences of the scientist, is restricted to the investigation of those mysteries to which nature itself has seen fit to give us clues; he begins only from things that are naturally experienced by everyone. His advantage is that he need not put his faith in anyone to know his conclusions, since they rely upon no one's experience but his own. Once more, then, we have a reason that scientific knowledge of nature cannot replace a philosophical knowledge of it: a knowledge that relies on trusting someone else cannot replace a knowledge that does not.

Science requires experts. Scientists have expertise in one narrow (powerful but superficial) way of understanding the world. It's a shame when they use their expertise to demand that everyone bow to their authority about everything else.

Augros concludes his article with a worthy hope that the example of the Science article's attitude amply justifies:

We are right to laugh at the legendary philosophers with a predilection for the abstract who, out of their loyalty to obsolete theories, refused to look at the world through a telescope [i.e., Galileo's]. One hopes the day might arrive when we will find equally amusing the scientific type who refuses to remember what the world looks like without one.


1. Presumably A is intended as the correct choice because it reflects inertial motion (an abstraction from real motion: nothing really moved in a straight line, because nothing is removed from the influence of all forces). Perhaps the original article specifies the tubes' orientation in a vertical or horizontal plane (were the tubes oriented vertically in a gravitational field and presented upside-down, the curved path represented by B would clearly be correct.) But I would be surprised if it specified scale or anything else about them. What would be the answer if scale were Planck scale? What would be the answer were the tubes wrapped around the Earth's equator?

2. Were the authors purposeful in writing this article? Or are they unwitting dualists?

3. The subtext is that we scientists can stifle adult resistance to science by better indoctrinating children. Perhaps "resistance" as in "resistance is futile."

4. I debunk the idea that ancients and medievals believed in a flat earth here.

5. In fact, it's pretty clear that the authors of this paper take their knowledge of Aristotle, purpose, and the soul from "authorities." It would be welcome if they relied on authorities who actually have some expertise in these subjects.

Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg, "Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science," Science 316:5827 (May 18, 2007), 996-997. Subscription required for access.

Michael Augros, "Reconciling Science with Natural Philosophy," The Thomist 68 (2004): 105-41; 114. Available here.


rjp said...

From a paper by Frank Tipler, "Teleology has been completely rejected by evolutionary biologists. This rejection is unfortunate, because,
teleology is alive and well in physics, under the name of unitarity. Unitarity is an absolutely central postulate
of quantum mechanics, and it has many consequences. One of these consequences is the CPT theorem, which implies that the g-factors of particles and antiparticles must be exactly equal. This equality (for electrons and positrons) has been verified experimentally to 13 decimal places, the most precise experimental number we have. Which is why very few physicists are willing to give up the postulate of unitarity! Furthermore, unitarity is closely related to the law of conservation of energy, and a violation of unitarity has been shown to result usually in the gigantic creation of energy out of nothing. One model (due to Leonard Susskin) of unitarity violation had the implication that whenever a microwave oven was turned on, so much energy was created that the Earth was blown apart. So physicists are very reluctant to abandon unitarity. Unitarity is most often applied to what physicists call the S-matrix, which is the quantum mechanical linear operator that transforms any state in the ultimate past to a unique state in the ultimate future. But
unitarity more generally applies to the time evolution operator, a linear operator that carries the quantum state of the universe at any initial time uniquely into the quantum state of the universe at any chosen future time. Uniquely is a key word. It means that unitarity is the quantum mechanical version of determinism.
Contrary to what is generally thought, determinism is alive and well in quantum mechanics. Determinism, however, applies to wave functions (quantum states) rather than to individual particles. Alternatively, we
can say that determinism applies to coherent collections of worlds rather than to individuals. There is a sense, which I won’t have room to discuss here, in which quantum mechanics is more deterministic than classical mechanics, and that Schr¨odinger derived his famous equation by requiring that classical mechanics in it
most general expression (Hamilton-Jacobi theory) be deterministic. (See Tipler (2005) for the mathematical
details.) But the usual past-to-future determinism is not the fundamental meaning of unitarity. What unitarity
really means is that the inverse of the time evolution operator exists, and is easily computed from the time evolution operator itself by forming the time evolution operator’s hermitian conjugate. Any operator whose inverse is obtained in this manner is said to be a unitary operator. But in the present context, the important
point is that the inverse of the time evolution operator exists. The inverse of any operator is an operator that undoes the effect of the original operator. In the case of the time evolution operator, which generates past-to-future evolution, the inverse operator generates future-to-past evolution. In other words, it carries
future quantum states uniquely into past quantum states. Therefore, unitarity tells us that any complete statement of usual past-to-future causation is mathematically equivalent to some complete statement of
future-to-past causation. In more traditional language, a complete list of all efficient causes is equivalent to some complete list of final causes. Teleology is reborn!"

Lawrence Gage said...

RJP, thanks for the contribution. It sounds like Tipler is equating determinism with teleology. He's got a point, but it's not clear to me why he trumpets teleology as being "reborn" with unitarity? In actuality every natural law describes a tendency toward a telos (or end): in other words since science discovers natural laws, we couldn't do science without teleology. To tie teleology too closely to one narrow scientific entity is to cede too much to its detractors.

Another caveat is that while determinism is related to teleology, it is more closely a consequence of the principle of sufficient reason (that everything has a cause either in another or in itself).

I have to say that the writings of Tipler's that I've seen have not impressed me as reflecting adequate philosophical understanding. If you want to discover the genuine realistic philosophical view of science, I recommend Anthony Rizzi's The Science Before Science.


rjp said...

I've read The Science Before Science 2 or 3 times anf will no doubt read it again.

I have troulble posting on your blog. More than half just disappeear.

Anonymous said...

It appears that the article should have been titled "Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Materialism"

Lawrence Gage said...

Science printed a letter responding to the Bloom and Weisberg article:

Taking "Promiscuous Teleology" to Task by Dina Strasser (10 July 2007)

Here's a great excerpt:

In particular, I delighted in the genius of the term “promiscuous teleology," as if those of us who subscribe some sense of order and meaning to the universe are to be as easily dismissed as horny teenagers. Yet the phrase’s presuppositional and (dare I say it) subjective negativity bothered me and was advanced elsewhere in the article by the authors. How else can one construct an unsupported syllogism in which a wholesale rejection of science proceeds categorically from a belief in an immaterial soul, much less lump such belief together rhetorically with astrological divinists who have out-of-body experiences and consort with fairies?