Saturday, November 18, 2006

Eugenie Scott – Part 1: Evening Lecture

Following what has now become the standard long winded introduction by Kristalka, Eugenie Scott began her talk by stating that the attacks on science, evolution in specific, were not limited to Christianity.

The problem, as she saw it, was that people failed to understand what science is; how it works, what it’s used for, and its strengths and weaknesses. The same, she said, is true of religion. She suggested we, “render unto science what it science’s” and the same, again, being true for religion.

She then dived into epistemology and what she perceived as the three ways of learning.

The first, was through authority. This, while having the potential to be exploited, is not always a bad thing she suggested. It works well with children and could very well have been important all the way back to prehistoric times in which a Neolithic mother told her children “don’t tease the sabertooth.”

A subsection of this would be scriptural authority, which, again, she said had its uses.

The next way to knowledge in Scott’s presentation, was personal revelation. This could come from miracles, meditation, drug induced states of mind, or any other number of situations.

But the trouble with these, is that although they may be ultimately convincing for an individual, they don’t transfer well and aren’t convincing to others.

However, the third path to knowledge, science, is different. It relies on empirical evidence.

Yet despite this, science is a limited way of knowing. The reason for this is that science can only explain the natural world, the universe of matter an energy, and as such, it can only use natural causes.

Limiting science to this physical realm in necessary to avoid the “God of the gaps” type reasoning. If you don’t limit science to natural causes, “Goddiddit” is the result.

“I can guarantee that the moment we stop looking for natural causes, we’ll never find them,” Scott told the audience. This keeps us honest to the nature of science, even if it means having to set problems aside until technology allows us to fully investigate the problem. Science has the ability to say “We don’t know, yet.”

With this, she began exploring the difference between this naturalistic methodology of science, and the philosophical naturalism of some like Dawkins.

Eugenie began by pointing out that, within America, testing is not associated with science. The Science and Engineering Indicators in 2004 conducted a survey in which Americans were asked which of the two following would produce better information:

1. A new drug is given to 1,000 people and then we see how much blood pressure decreased in the subjects.

2. The drug is given to 500 people with high blood pressure and then not given to another 500 people with high blood pressure. Again measure how many have lower blood pressure.

Amazingly, only 43% of Americans figured out that the correct answer was #2.

She then discussed the practice of dowsing, or looking for water though pointed sticks. If asked how they know when they’ve found water, dowsers will respond with the first two epistemologies she’d listed earlier such as personal states of being (sensing some sort of energy from the water), or on authority (this is how uncle Fred does it). They might also claim that they know their practice is correct because it works.

But does it really work?

The Australian Skeptics Society decided to put this to the test. They arranged a test with the a dowsing group there, and it turned out that the dowsers found water no better than random chance predicted.

From there, Scott began discussing inferences in science. She said there is a misconception that inferences are somehow less important than facts in science. But this is far from the truth.

In science, inferences are far more important, because they tie together and explain facts. All the really important things in science are inferences. A prime example of this is heliocentrism.

Yet despite the mistrust of inferences in science, America is quite happy to accept them in other circumstances, namely the court room in which we send people to prison for life based on inferences. If police are given the choice between good inferences and eyewitnesses, they will almost always take inferences, because eyewitnesses (based on authority) are notoriously unreliable.

Thus, if we can execute people based on inferences, it’s certainly reasonable to have the same level of trust in the fossil records.

At one point, Eugenie asked one of her scientist friends why he chose his profession. He replied by saying, “As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life – I can became a scientist.”

However, his statement ended, “This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls.”

Because of being based on inferences, there are aspects of science that are always changing, she noted.

This led her to the discussion of the three levels of science as Scott perceived them. She envisioned them as three concentric circles.

The innermost was the “core” ideas. This includes things like gravity, evolution, heliocentrism. In this sphere lies theories which have been so thoroughly tested that they are accepted as fact and no longer truly debated about.

She labeled the next realm as the “frontier.” This, she said, is where the real business takes place. New ideas here are tested. A few will eventually go into the core, but most end up dying off. When we say that science is changing, this is what we’re talking about. She quoted one scientist as saying “I have 10 ideas a day and nine and half of them are wrong.”

The last and outermost sphere is the “fringe” which not much time is spent. This includes the untested ideas and things like psychokenisis, dowsing, and of course, intelligent design.

But even though they’re in the fringe, this does not preclude them from eventually becoming core ideas. However, she said, if that is to happen then the idea must do the work. This is where ID fails.

Yet even the core ideas are not completely immune to change. The example she cited was the concept that a certain fungus was primarily responsible for the Irish potato famine. However, it was discovered that this was not the case. And scientists were happy to change.

Science, Eugenie states, makes several, reasonable assumptions.

- There is an objective reality outside the observer.
- The universe operates according to regularities (If water is H2O today, then it will be tomorrow).
- Human beings can understand these regularities.

But, she suggests, there are some things that we cannot yet understand, even if they are not supernatural in nature. She used the analogy of a goldfish in a bowl: No matter how smart it is, it is beyond the goldfish to understand an earthquake.

What we need to realize is that we may be goldfish.

Despite the possibility that there may be things we don’t or can’t understand, this does not mean that we should not try and just take things off the table like Behe and Dembski suggest. They confuse the unexplained with the unexplainable.

Eugenie then began talking about religion.

She started by trying to come up with a definition that included not only the Abrahamic religions, but also tribal and other sorts.

The one she gave was: A set of rules and beliefs a people have a bout a nonmaterial universe and its inhabitants (transcendental reality).

Religion too, she states, makes assumptions:
- Something exists beyond matter and energy (the material world). Cannot be proven.
- Usually assume that it is possible to interact with this other reality.

Furthermore, many religions have common characteristics:
Belief in supernatural beings or powers
Truth is revealed from sacred sources
Personal states of being are important
Sense of Sacred
Feeling of awe
Afterlife (common)
Concern with morals and ethics (common, NOT ALL)

She then began comparing the features of religion to those of science through use of a table. Because copying the table here will undoubtedly screw up the page format, click here to see the table.

The empathically noted that the right side of the table is science, not scientists.

We should be concerned when science and religion begin influencing one another.

To illustrate this, she quoted anti-scientist Henry Morris who said, “The word of God must take first priority and secondly the observed facts of science.”

But even though religion should not inform scientific understanding, the converse is also true.

Ultimately, Eugenie says, it's not religion and science that are at odds, but rather, religion and naturalism. She then showed the same table as before, but with a column for Philosophical Materialism added. It was here that religion found the true anthesis. But since both of these are ideological standpoints, she reiterated that science, being the neutral party with only natural explanations, should be left out.

Eugenie also mentioned a few "Models of Religion and Science":
1. Conflict: The two are at eachothers throats.
2. Independence: The two have mutually exclusive domains.
3. Dialogue
4. Integration

Given that she was running out of time, Eugenie stopped and didn't expand upon the last two but instead recommended a book by Ian Barbour called "When Science Meets Religion."

Unfortunately, Laura didn't take detailed notes on the Q&A, so I'm afraid I'll have to leave it out. I'll renumber the later post appropriately.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for having the guts to point that out about Professor K.

And what about that "joke" by Hall about her being squirrel like? Supposedly he was quoting someone else, but I could tell he hurt her feelings.

What an ass.

Jon Voisey said...

I didn't seem to think that she was hurt in any way by it. But regardless, Kristalka is an awful speaker when he's presenting prepared material. His worst was the introduction for Miller (of what I've seen; I skipped Guiness and Jones) in which he'd read three words, stop, look down at his notecards and then repeat.

The Brittish guy is a much better speaker.

Anonymous said...

Hey, whats with Professor K's hair. He looks like Larry Fine!

As to you not seeing that she was hurt in any way by the squirrel remark, that is because you are a jerk.

By the way, I noticed you are your bald headed buddy comparing notes. With two minds like you guys have, what chance do the rest of us have?

Jon Voisey said...

I'm a jerk? My my manny. You're insults are even getting pathetic.

And I assume by "bald headed buddy" you mean Jack Krebs. We spoke for a bit before the presentation. I was introduced to the executive director of an astronomical society. I'm not sure how that qualifies as "comparing notes", but don't let the facts get in the way of your assumptions. They never have before.

As far as what chance you guys have, not much, which is why creationists have to keep lying and cheating to avoid having undergo scientific scrutiny. Perhaps if the DI would actually join the scientific community instead of pretending it has data but just won't share it, then it could be taken seriously. But what it shares, it fails miserably at. Thus, it hides whatever if thinks it has, burying it away like a jealous squirrel.

Anonymous said...

Over the past three or four weeks, i've been running an experiment. Each morning, i flip a coin. If it turns up heads, then i tell myself it's a good day. If tails, then it's a worse than average day. Then, during the day, i try to match the day to the coin. By the end of week one, i was convinced that there was a correlation. By the end of week two, i was extra careful to use the same magic coin, as it seemed to have predictive power. But now, i'm looking for a coin with two heads.

Why don't doctors prescribe the new double strength placebo?

Anonymous said...

Science is a limited way of knowing"

What crap!

It is "limited" to the whole natural universe - and this isn't big enough?

Forthekids said...

Hi there.

You did a nice job with your review of the lecture. I'm a supporter of the ID movement, and I attended Scott's lecture as well.

Though we have a difference of opinion regarding various issues in this debate, I enjoyed considering another perspective. In fact, I shared your review with my readers.

Here's mine.

Forthekids said... link didn't seem to work.

Here you go...

Anonymous said...

Hello, I just followed a link to your blog from the Bad Astronomy site, and started reading. I rather liked the blog, and will probably be back.

When I got to this post, I had to wonder though: what is with defining science as excluding anything "non-material"? And how is a "supernatural" world that we can interact with outside the scope of science? If we can interact with it or it makes useful predictions, it is within the realm of science. It we can't interact with it and it doesn't make useful predictions, it isn't science, but it really isn't anything else either.

"Supernatural" really depends on your definition of "natural". Murder is supernatural, as is getting hit by a bus. A thousand years ago nightvision goggles, airplanes and contact lenses would have been considered mystical and supernatural. Are these phenomenon outside the scope of science? Not at all.

To claim that science is incapable of seeing or understanding Heaven, Hell, God, Angels, etc. is like cavemen saying science is incapable of seeing or understanding what causes disease, or what stars are made of. Maybe we don't have the tools now, but that doesn't mean we won't later.

Of course, that assumes such things really exist, and that we can interact with them. Since such things have been hypothesized since time immemorial, but never amounted to anything of value, science has dismissed them as fringe claims with no substance. The reason is that gods and devils were unfounded explanations for tangible effects, like disease, gravity, seasons and death. The only reason they exist is for a false pretense of knowledge. And most, if not all, cases of "seeing" these supernatural beings have been explained, by science, with more mundane causes.

Basically, putting these two statements together forms an oxymoron:
- Something exists beyond matter and energy (the material world). Cannot be proven.
- Usually assume that it is possible to interact with this other reality.

If something exists and we can interact with it, it is part and parcel to reality. As such, it is within the realm of science. If something exists and we can't interact with it, it is not part of science, but it serves no point. I can claim that when I die a copy of me will be created in a different world where I am God, but it's as pointless as claiming God created the world 10 years ago and all memories and physical evidence of a world beyond that are an aggregate deception to make us think the world is much older. In neither case can I prove that I'm right, in neither case am I likely to be right, and in neither case will my life be enhanced by these claims.

FYI, I can't get your preview functionality to work; it just reloads the page with a different word for the verification field. I chose "Other" and filled in my name. Perhaps it only lets registered "Bloggers" use the preview functionality.