Monday, September 12, 2005

Getting clear on what we're talking about (or, picking nits).

This from the "John Holbo does the extensive reading so I can pick the nits" Department:

Micklethwait and Wooldridge, in their book The Right Nation, claim that "the Right is clearly extending the battle of ideas into new territories." One of these targeted "new territories" is scientific discourse. I, of course, would like to take note of where the "battle of ideas" is a battle within science (such as a battle about what we know, or what we ought to be able to find out to count as getting the job done) and where it is a battle about science (especially about, given a particular piece of scientific knowledge, what one ought to do).

Here are some of the bits John Holbo quoted over at Crooked Timber:

Chapman, a committed Christian, first got interested in the subject because of worries about free speech: in 1995 he rallied to the defense of a California science professor who was threatened with the sack merely for arguing that evolution does not explain everything. …

The intelligent design movement is an example of the Right’s growing willingness to do battle with what it regards as the liberal "science establishment" on its own turf, using scientific research of its own. Right-wing think tanks have attacked scientific orthodoxy on stem cells, arguing that there is no need to harvest embryos, as it should be possible to extract stem cells from adults. They have also pored over the data on global warming. Bjorn Lomborg, the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001), an indictment of green overstatement, is a cult hero in places like the AEI and Discovery. There are also battles brewing on animal rights, euthanasia and the scientific origins of homosexuality. So far the science establishment has given little ground to the conservative upstarts, particularly on intelligent design. In Ohio, some scientists equated supporters of intelligent design with the Taliban. But the Right is clearly extending the battle of ideas into new territories, just as Milton Friedman and others did in economics forty years ago.

The issues, and my take on them:

1. Does evolution explain everything? Does it need to? There's good, healthy discussion within the scientific community about how much any particular scientific theory explains, and how much any particular scientific theory ought to have to explain. And, this is not always a determination you can make quickly — it may take a while to figure out all that a particular theory is capable of explaining (and, some of the things that look like they will be good explanations end up falling apart).

Of course, Karl Popper (the philosopher of science who scientists love the most) famously said that one should be cautious of theories that explain everything. That way lies pseudo-science.

At any rate, the real question one would want to take up is: does evolution explain enough of what we demand that it explain? And if not, do we have a promising alternative that can get the explanatory job done. These are clearly questions within science. And, there are plenty of places you can go to see what the biologists have to say about them.

2. Extracting stem cells from adults rather than embryos. Here, there is the complex of technical issues: Can stem cells be extracted from adult cells? Can this be done with results as reliably good as we would get extracting stem cells from embryos? Will the stem cells extracted this way function in the required or desired ways (i.e., will they be suitable to a particular application, or will the fact that they have been extracted from adult cells mean they won't behave in certain of the ways that embryonic stem cells would)? These are all questions within science.

The question of whether it is morally (or politically) better to get stem cells from adult cells than from embryos is not a question within science but a question about how science ought to be used. Scientist ought to be involved in this discussion, but intellectually honest scientists (and others) can come down on different sides of this issue and the principles of science will not be enough to bring them to agreement.

3. Global warming and "green overstatement". The big scientific questions are what are the data, and what can we conclude (and, especially, predict) from them? Modeling and making accurate predictions are hard, but scientists are pretty good at engaging each other about their modeling practices.

Given that the predictions of even a very good model are no guarantee that what the model predicts will actually come to pass, it's a separate question how one ought to bet about what will happen and what steps, if any, ought to be undertaken to prevent certain possible outcomes. While both of these questions build off of what scientists know (at least, what seems likely and what seems possible given their best models), they also involve value judgments that go beyond the scope of what science can tell you. Is (say) saving a particular city from hurricane-related flooding important enough to warrant the funds required to shore up the levees? This probably depends on what other worthy goals one hopes to accomplish with a limited pot of money. Also, how you bet on the foreseeable possible outcomes depends at least in part on how bad you would judge it to: (a) not undertake a preventative measure that could make a huge difference in avoiding a catastrophic outcome, or (b) look like you expected outcome A when what actually comes to pass is outcome B.

Building good models and collecting good data to shape and test those models = scientific question.
Using those models to decide what to do = question about how to use science. (It would be good to have someone who understands the models in the room when you make your decisions, though.)

4. Animal rights and euthanasia. From their brief mention, I can only guess that these are questions about what science ought to do or facilitate. Science can tell us a lot about pain and consciousness in humans and in non-human animals. But there is a further value decision about what one is obligated to do (or entitled to do) in the light of all the information science can provide. Science can quantify my pain, but science can't tell me whether that pain is meaningful or meaningless.

5. The scientific origins of homosexuality. Presumably, this is about whether there is scientific evidence to establish that homosexuality is innate/genetic/biological/"natural". Of course, all manner of traits (including behavioral traits) are subjects of biological study. Science may end up working out a fairly clear biological story about why individuals end up with the sexual orientations they do. Or, science may end up saying that there isn't any straightforward set of marching orders from your genes (or the hormones to which you were exposed in utero, or the kind of parental influences to which you were exposed while growing up) to your sexual orientation.

Here, I get the feeling that people outside of science really want science to deliver a particular answer. Because then, they can use the official ruling from science to support whatever evaluation they themselves would like to make of homosexuality.

But the thing is, whether or not a particular trait has a biological basis is an entirely separate question from whether we value that trait or try to cure/forbid/eradicate it. You want me to be nice to other people whether or not my niceness comes naturally or only with great effort. If Lance Armstrong is a mutant and that's why he's such a powerful cyclist, it doesn't make his cycling any less cool (or any more worthy of eradication). So ultimately, I'm suspicious of all the non-biologist (on all sides) who feel like they have a lot at stake in whatever biologists can tell us about homosexuality. Because the scientific story won't settle the matter or who we value as human beings and why we value them.

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