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Who is the Leader of Science?
Posted: 21 August 2007 03:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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P.S.  I got back from Ireland today.  Saw all the family and had a fantastic week.

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Posted: 21 August 2007 04:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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how was the Motherland?

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Posted: 21 August 2007 04:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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It was superb, but I happened to say to my cousin (after we’d both had a few) that there was no way I could live back in that village now because I need my cash machine and my supermarket close by and all the rest of modern living and he went off on one about my family back through the ages all being rural.  I let him rant on about how I was a country lad and always would be, knowing that he’s lived in liverpool for the last three or four years and I can’t see him ever going back either.  I didn’t mention that these thoughts were going through my head though.

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Posted: 21 August 2007 04:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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dougsmith - 20 August 2007 06:58 PM

Funny, since in many ways science is one of the least democratic belief systems. It’s basically an oligarchy of the best-informed. Scientific results aren’t up for public vote. To the extent that they are up for a vote, it’s only within the very rarified atmosphere of the small group of scientists who actually do work on one particular area. To know about the latest results in cosmology, the opinion of a biologist is worthless. And vice versa, of course.

And even within a particular area, the votes of the group of scientists are not equal. Some are titans in their field whose opinions matter a great deal, and others (perhaps at less prestigious universities) are ignored, sometimes with good reason. Science can be very meritocratic.

An example of a democracy that’s often used is ancient Greece since all the citizens were supposed to vote on each decision (although many didn’t show up at the forum).  However, the term “citizen” was very narrowly defined, slaves, aliens, the young, women, etc. were not enfranchised.  Similarly, my description certainly wasn’t including the general public as part of the scientific democracy.

Continuing with the Greek analogy, I rather doubt that Plato had only the same strength of opinion in the forum as the average citizen.  I certainly wouldn’t want to accuse you, Doug, of wanting to define Democracy as equality of all to ten to the minus forty-third.  While I like to be accurate, there seems to be a reasonable level of precision one should use if one doesn’t want the discussion to sink into micro-nit-picking.

Occam

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Posted: 21 August 2007 04:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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Occam - 21 August 2007 04:49 PM

An example of a democracy that’s often used is ancient Greece since all the citizens were supposed to vote on each decision (although many didn’t show up at the forum).  However, the term “citizen” was very narrowly defined, slaves, aliens, the young, women, etc. were not enfranchised.  Similarly, my description certainly wasn’t including the general public as part of the scientific democracy.

Continuing with the Greek analogy, I rather doubt that Plato had only the same strength of opinion in the forum as the average citizen.  I certainly wouldn’t want to accuse you, Doug, of wanting to define Democracy as equality of all to ten to the minus forty-third.  While I like to be accurate, there seems to be a reasonable level of precision one should use if one doesn’t want the discussion to sink into micro-nit-picking.

Right, that’s true. In any democracy some citizens will have more power than others through—at the very least—charisma and strength of character.

But my former point about cosmologists vs. biologists is still good. Science is an oligarchy, and the opinions of those not in the know, or without the relevant data, counts for nothing. (One could argue that democracy should work that way too ... but not sure how to make such a government manageable! wink ).

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Posted: 21 August 2007 05:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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I see the problem.  We define citizenship differently.  Yours is broader, in that it includes all scientists.  I would define citizenship in the democracy of cosmology as limited to cosmologists, and citizenship in, say, paleobotany as limited to paleobotanists.  While, as a scientist, I can stand on the outskirts of quantum mechanics and have slightly more understanding than a layman, there’s no way I would consider myself part of that democracy. 

Sure, I’ll go along with having a democracy in the U.S. with the vote limited to citizens, and defining citizenship as open only to humanists who’ve scored in the top, say, twenty percentile of a combination of an IQ test, a couple of psychological adjustment tests, tests on the functioning of the political system, on knowledge of philosophy, knowledge of the sciences, and a few others.  Hmmm, you’re right.  That group would be completely unmanageable.  LOL

Occam

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Posted: 21 August 2007 05:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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Occam - 21 August 2007 05:13 PM

I see the problem.  We define citizenship differently.  Yours is broader, in that it includes all scientists.  I would define citizenship in the democracy of cosmology as limited to cosmologists, and citizenship in, say, paleobotany as limited to paleobotanists.  While, as a scientist, I can stand on the outskirts of quantum mechanics and have slightly more understanding than a layman, there’s no way I would consider myself part of that democracy. 

Exactly. There’s a sort of oligarchy of cosmologists telling us about cosmology, etc.

You could also flip it around: in a standard political oligarchy, there are a group of people who may well behave democratically between themselves. But you and I can’t horn in on the action ...

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Posted: 21 August 2007 05:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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doug,

youre bringing up some good points about specialists. what i would like to bring up and get your input on is accountability. how are/could specialists be held accountable to prove/explain/justify their work; and who holds them accountable?

not everyone can be a specialist in every field, so some form of “representation” has to be made and there are “checks and balances” (ie peer review). but bringing the issue out in a larger scheme of things, dont all these different forms of representation/specialists unite under a common cause or banner; the advancement of science and the scientific method?

even in a (hypothetical) Anarchist influenced society not all citizens can be completely informed and up to date on every issue, but there can be a level of involvement in not just participating but the management of those issues on the part of the general public. im about to go for the day but, I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on a scientific parallel.

I’ll see ya’ll homo sapiens later!

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Posted: 21 August 2007 06:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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No, Doug, you’re point about opinions of biologists isn’t good when you phrase it that way.  Nobody’s opinions matter a damn in science.  Certainly, I evaluate everyone’s idea for a way forward equally strictly if I’m working as part of a team and go with whatever makes the most sense (and if I already know that they can’t articulate it well, I make an extra effort to construct what they are saying and properly evaluate it before I act).  I don’t ever regard great scientists opinions with any reverence, but any good science (from wherever it comes) I regard as a good paradigm.  Opinions are not science and are worthless without a either supportiing evidence or a likely pathway and a means of testing meaningfully.

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Posted: 21 August 2007 06:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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truthaddict - 21 August 2007 05:53 PM

youre bringing up some good points about specialists. what i would like to bring up and get your input on is accountability. how are/could specialists be held accountable to prove/explain/justify their work; and who holds them accountable?

not everyone can be a specialist in every field, so some form of “representation” has to be made and there are “checks and balances” (ie peer review). but bringing the issue out in a larger scheme of things, dont all these different forms of representation/specialists unite under a common cause or banner; the advancement of science and the scientific method?

Well, I’d argue that crucial to the enterprise is something amorphous like “culture”. I mean, it didn’t need to turn out this way. It could have been that scientists just made everything up to suit themselves, and played “as if” it all worked. That’s sort of how alchemy, astrology, homeopathy and other pseudosciences operate: people go along pretending that they’re making “advances” and “new discoveries”, but when you actually look at the work, it’s all rot.

Science appears to me to be a very interesting enterprise in that part of the “accountability” (as you put it) comes from the experimental method itself. In the final analysis, it is the experimental results that prove/explain/justify the work of the scientist. And these results are objective in that they are repeatable even by antagonistic scientists. So there is—if you will—an objective, unimpeachable “third party” (reality itself, known through experiment) that decides the case.

That said, in a sense it is only other humans that can hold someone accountable ... so what’s needed is the culture which produces and sustains a community of professional scientists—people who are trained well enough to know how to design a good experiment (one that yields results that don’t depend on the desires of the person running the experiment, for instance), who know how to execute the experiment well, to write it up and get it published. You have a community of universities, corporations and other organizations that train people, keep them current, give them the funds to do the necessary work, etc.

Re. the problem of “representation”, I am not entirely sure where you’re going with that. I mean, in a standard representational form of government, the people choose the representatives that suit their political ends. Nobody chooses the scientists, except perhaps the people who train them. The senior, knowledgeable scientists choose their successors, basically, but it’s not done to represent them or anything. It’s done to succeed them. This is a delicate balance, and we are all supremely lucky that it has worked so well for so long.

On the side topic of representationalism in government, it is a necessity. 99.99% of the people don’t have the time, interest or inclination to do the work of government. I know this firsthand, in a small, quasi-political organization to which I belong. The vast majority of people would prefer to wash their hands of it, and choose someone once every few years. And they’re right for that. There are more productive things to do than sit on budgetary panels all day. Someone has to do it, but hopefully not more than a handful. It’s frankly tedioius, boring work much of the time.

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Posted: 21 August 2007 06:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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narwhol - 21 August 2007 06:45 PM

No, Doug, you’re point about opinions of biologists isn’t good when you phrase it that way.  Nobody’s opinions matter a damn in science.  Certainly, I evaluate everyone’s idea for a way forward equally strictly if I’m working as part of a team and go with whatever makes the most sense (and if I already know that they can’t articulate it well, I make an extra effort to construct what they are saying and properly evaluate it before I act).  I don’t ever regard great scientists opinions with any reverence, but any good science (from wherever it comes) I regard as a good paradigm.  Opinions are not science and are worthless without a either supportiing evidence or a likely pathway and a means of testing meaningfully.

I agree with you completely. But we’re talking about a more rarified political abstraction here: where and how are the decisions made? They’re made by the people with the best access to the evidence relevant to the subject matter. Cosmologists have this about cosmology. Biologists don’t. And vice versa.

We all know of, e.g., computer scientists with odd ideas about biology. In fact, those opinions (even if they appear to be supported by a kind of evidence) are virtually always worthless.

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Posted: 21 August 2007 11:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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NecAsperaTerrent - 20 August 2007 05:42 PM
truthaddict - 20 August 2007 05:29 PM

In fact, to a large degree politics is removed from it.

Unless of course one is relying on central funding to pay for research…

Try getting a grant for stem cell research in the USA!

That’s a good thing.  Politicizing it would be a bad thing. 

Everyone here probably agrees in the separation of church and state, so why not also advocate the separation of science and state? 

When a science is politicized and taxpayer money goes to the science, then that science and all the research that goes with it becomes nothing more than a pawn for politicians to use to buy votes with.  And if they can get more votes by taking money away from the research, they will do it in a heartbeat. 

It’s easy to talk about funding stem cell research when it is taxpayer money.  But why are the loudest, shrillest proponents of using other people’s money to fund such things, the tightest with donating their own money to something they think is a worthy cause? 

There are at least nine private stem cell research centers in the U.S. Harvard University alone has more than 100 researchers working on stem cell research.  Why don’t people who advocate that the government should pull out its guns and force other people to pay for stem cell research take out their own checkbook and donate some of their own money to the cause? 

Remember how AIDS was politicized back in the 80s (and still is today)?  Remember how disastrously wrong the experts were in their predictions of AIDS back then?  If it were not for the politicization of AIDS then who knows where medical science would be today in not just AIDS treatment, but with other diseases that strike more people but were not politicized.

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Posted: 22 August 2007 12:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Doug,

I was using parallel terms between science and government (i.e. specialists and representatives) to illustrate similarities. You’re right, not everyone can be on the panel. Or like the saying goes, “you can’t have too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”

Rocinante brought up the valid point about politicizing science; having the authority of a State subjugated over you only cripples you. Just like social, political and economic views of Anarchists (see Bakunin’s writings on the state, or any other Anarchist for that matter), there is a catch: funding. But, for scientists or anarchists an important issue is: who controls the funding and what is their agenda? Noam Chomsky likes to stress that governments should only have obligations, not rights…

It’s all about balancing authority, not doing away with it completely, but balancing it on a steady and appropriate fulcrum to avoid coercion or corruption. This is something the Ukranian Anarchist, Nestor Makhno, struggled with – against the White and Red Army – during the Russian Revolution. Read The Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists [http://www.nestormakhno.info/english/platform/org_plat.htm]:

“Anarchism is not a beautiful utopia, nor an abstract philosophical idea, it is a social movement of the labouring masses. For this reason it must gather its forces in one organisation, constantly agitating, as demanded by reality and the strategy of class struggle… The progress of modern society: the technical evolution of capital and the perfection of its political system, fortifies the power of the ruling classes, and makes the struggle against them more difficult, thus postponing the decisive moment of the emancipation of labour.”

The fulcrum for Makhno is an organized Anarchist movement centered around “the emancipation of labour.” The fulcrum for science is the Scientific Method.

My comments about the parallels between science and democracy/anarchism are not that I’m calling for politics to be placed over science, quite the opposite. But, that there are lessons in Science that should be applied to politics. Makhno is not the only one to draw similar conclusions. Scott Ritter in his recent book, Waging Peace; The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement, argues essentially the same thing; what he cites as the OODA-loop (observe, orientate, decide, act, repeat till you succeed) which is very similar to the scientific method.

No one wants to pervert science by allowing it to be a stooge to the State or any external force with its own agenda, so why would we subject that onto whole populations; why allow labor to be a stooge to private or state tyrannies rather than directly controlled and administered by the workers (something Tolstoy understand well)? There has to be lines drawn, compromises made, etc. So far as the political rights go, this has largely been achieved in the US. But that is not so in terms of the economy, industry and labor. Society and Science needs some form of “organizational platform” in which to thrive.

Again, science – for the most part – has this with its method and it’s that final step of the Scientific Method that society needs: some form of peer review. And, there is no better “peer” than the general population effected by the decisions made whether political or economic. Anyway, im starving and about to goto lunch…

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Posted: 22 August 2007 02:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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I think a key point truthaddict raises, intentionally or no, is the idea that since training and a specialized body of knowledge is necessary to participate fully in the community of a scientific field, the layperson tends to view science as an elitist, exclusive culture or cabal, and that breeds mistrust. So the issue of representation touches on the communitcation of science to the public, and the way we make the public feel that their values and agenda is served by science. This is especailly true if government money funds science. Unlike rocinante, I believe government should fund science because the public sector is freer to focus on basic knowledge with unknown chances for commercial applicability, whereas the private sector has to consider the likelihood of profit. Sure this is not truew for non-profit supported research, but there the total resources available are tiny compared to what government can marshal. Anyway, that is a side issue for another theead.

So given that science is not especially democratic, how do we practice and communicate science in a democracy so that the common person feels ownership of the results instead of suspicion? The other thread touching on framing is part of the answer. Sagan’s style of talking respectfully to non-scientists about the process and the implications is another. Training scientists to communicate outside of formal publication is also important.

In my field, my clients almost never have the knowledge or ability to judge accurately my competance. They must allow me to do scary and expensive things to their beloved pets without undertsanding thoroughly how medicine works. So I have to build their trust first, and I have to find ways to educate them, to gently undermine misconceptions about medicine. I have to speak gently and respectfully however absurd their ideas or they will not hear me. And I have to include them in making decisions while knowing that I have an understandiong of the situation they cannot fully share. This is difficult, and for many doctors one of the most frustrating parts of practice. And sadly we recieve little or no training in it. But just as the days when doctors could dictate what patients did and did not do, and dispense only that information they felt they wanted to are over, so the days when scientists could practice quietly undisturbed without accounting for their work to the larger society are over.

We have lost the public’s trust in the rise of anti-intellectualism and conservative religious thinking. Some of this is our fault, some is due to the more effective PR of our “cultural competitors.” But training people in scientific thinking, if not necessarily in science, and training scientists to see the forest, the cultural context in which they do their work, and in how to negotiate this is vital to “win the hearts and minds” of non-scientists.

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Posted: 29 August 2007 04:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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I just happened to be reading a book by the Russian anarchist, Michael Bakunin, titled God and the State:
http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bakunin/godandstate/godandstate_ch1.html

To sum up. We recognize, then, the absolute authority of science, because the sole object of science is the mental reproduction, as well-considered and systematic as possible, of the natural laws inherent in the material, intellectual, and moral life of both the physical and the social worlds, these two worlds constituting, in fact, but one and the same natural world. Outside of this only legitimate authority, legitimate because rational and in harmony with human liberty, we declare all other authorities false, arbitrary and fatal.

We recognize the absolute authority of science, but we reject the infallibility and universality of the savant. In our church-if I may be permitted to use for a moment an expression which I so detest: Church and State are my two bêtes noires-in our church, as in the Protestant church, we have a chief, an invisible Christ, science; and, like the Protestants, more logical even than the Protestants, we will suffer neither pope, nor council, nor conclaves of infallible cardinals, nor bishops, nor even priests. Our Christ differs from the Protestant and Christian Christ in this-that the latter is a personal being, ours impersonal; the Christian Christ, already completed in an eternal past, presents himself as a perfect being, while the completion and perfection of our Christ, science, are ever in the future: which is equivalent to saying that they will never be realized. Therefore, in recognizing absolute science as the only absolute authority, we in no way compromise our liberty.

I mean by the words “absolute science,” the truly universal science which would reproduce ideally, to its fullest extent and in all its infinite detail, the universe, the system or co-ordination of all the natural laws manifested by the incessant development of the world. It is evident that such a science, the sublime object of all the efforts of the human mind, will never be fully and absolutely realized. Our Christ, then, will remain eternally unfinished, which must considerably take down the pride of his licensed representatives among us. Against that God the Son in whose name they assume to impose upon us their insolent and pedantic authority, we appeal to God the Father, who is the real world, real life, of which he (the Son) is only a too imperfect expression, whilst we real beings, living, working, struggling, loving, aspiring, enjoying, and suffering, are its immediate representatives.

But, while rejecting the absolute, universal, and infallible authority of men of science, we willingly bow before the respectable, although relative, quite temporary, and very restricted authority of the representatives of special sciences, asking nothing better than to consult them by turns, and very grateful for such precious information as they may extend to us, on condition of their willingness to receive from us on occasions when, and concerning matters about which, we are more learned than they. In general, we ask nothing better than to see men endowed with great knowledge, great experience, great minds, and, above all, great hearts, exercise over us a natural and legitimate influence, freely accepted, and never imposed in the name of any official authority whatsoever, celestial or terrestrial. We accept all natural authorities and all influences of fact, but none of right; for every authority or every influence of right, officially imposed as such, becoming directly an oppression and a falsehood, would inevitably impose upon us, as I believe I have sufficiently shown, slavery and absurdity.

In a word, we reject all legislation, all authority, and all privileged, licensed, official, and legal influence, even though arising from universal suffrage, convinced that it can turn only to the advantage of a dominant minority of exploiters against the interests of the immense majority in subjection to them.

This is the sense in which we are really Anarchists.

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