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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Darwinism and academic culture: Skepticism not allowed?

A friend draws my attention to an essay published in Nature (458, 30 (5 March 2009) doi:10.1038/458030a) by a sociologist, who advises that we cannot live by skepticism alone.
Scientists have been too dogmatic about scientific truth and sociologists have fostered too much scepticism — social scientists must now elect to put science back at the core of society, says Harry Collins.
Harry Collins is director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge Expertise Science at Cardiff University, UK. He is currently working on a book about tacit and explicit knowledge.

As a friend points out, this guy's views are chilling:
One can justify anything with scepticism. Recently a philosopher acting as an expert witness in a court case in the United States claimed that the scientific method, being so ill-defined, could support creationism. Worse, scientific and technological ideas are nowadays being said to be merely a matter of lifestyle, supporting the idea that wise folk may be justified in choosing technical solutions according to their preferences — an idea horribly reminiscent of 'the common sense of the people' favoured in 1930s Germany. Some social scientists defend parents' right to reject vaccines and other unnatural treatments because a lack of danger cannot be absolutely demonstrated. At the beginning of the century, President Thabo Mbeki's policies denied anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant mothers in South Africa. Some saw this as a justified blow against Western imperialism, given that the safety and efficacy of the treatment cannot be proven beyond doubt.
Well now, some responses:

1. The scientific method can support any evidence-based view, and that would include creationism (= the Big Bang, for example).

2. Common sense is the best deterrent to fanaticism based on ideological certainty. Fanaticism based on ideological certainty has killed far more innocent people than common sense ever did.

3. Compulsory vaccination is a bad idea because most people will simply choose to be vaccinated, which greatly reduces the prevalence - and danger - of an illness. That usually means that even the people who don't get vaccinated are much less likely to get it. So there is really no need for strong arm tactics.*

Because advanced modern societies can consistently exert more technical power over the average person than traditional ones could is all the more reason to be cautious about how that power is used.

4. I think that Mbeki's policies re anti-retrovirals must have been hatched on some planet other than Earth. But he is the head of South Africa. If South Africans do not care enough to do something about this problem, I would recommend that (1) we consider the possibility that they know something we don't; or (2) those of us who care should design inputs that do not cause more hostility to us than to him (easy to bring about, unfortunately, as the history of imperialism has shown).

In my view, there is currently way too little skepticism today, rather than too much.

Indeed, another friend writes to say that Collins's views sound like "consensus science" in the sense that outsiders have no access to truth, and have to rely on the votes of current science establishment figures. And they must not be skeptical. As my friend points out, this approach "closes the door to effective critiques, because the standard is 'expertise' rather than evidence."

*I remember when the Salk vaccine against polio came to Regina, Saskatchewan, in - I think - 1955. I was a small child in a lineup in front of the school house stretching way down the street, whining, "Mommy, I'm scared! I don't want a needle!" My mom was carrying my brother and holding my younger sister's hand, and she told me, "Just be quiet! You don't want polio either."

As per usual, it did not take long for average Canadians to figure out what science advances were really of use to us. We are way better at that than some would give us credit for.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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