A new ARG?

Does anyone one else suspect that europeangoldfinch.net is the portal into a Prison Break related alternate reality game? It’s a seemingly fake forum, supposedly about the European Goldfinch, but the comments are unrealistic and there isn’t actually a way to sign in, post, or anything else.

Maybe it will become active later in the season, when the characters actually begin using it on the show.

I guess the Prison Break message boards will be the place to hash it out…

“The End of Science”?

The Final Frontier, by John Horgan

This article caught my fancy. Despite a few caricatures of the “postmodern” perspective used to avoid all that troublesome analysis by people who spend their career’s studying how science works (a misreading of Kuhn, followed by “But the postmodern stance is clearly wrong”, accomplishes this nicely), and the always problematic move of a categorical distinction between pure and applied science, Horgan has a keen eye for the big picture of modern science and its place in the trajectory of history.

Actually, from a Kuhnian perspective, the “end of science” phenomenon is something that demands explanation. Although the current pantheon of mid-level and high-level paradigms has not been around for that long in years, many current theories have survived the scrutiny of many more man-years and research dollars than their predecessors. Much of it comes down to a question Horgan alludes to in the article: To what extent is the universe set up in ways we can understand it? As Horgan points out, it takes a measure of faith to believe that the universe is ultimately rational and comprehensible. Up through the middle of the 20th century, scientific progress seemed to justify that faith; deciphering the genetic code and establishing the central dogma of molecular biology are prime examples pointing toward a fundamental unity of knowledge. But contingency has been replacing unity as the theme of scientific progress: increasingly complex (and seemingly arbitrary) theories in physics; increasingly specific and non-universal discoveries in biology and chemistry. The issue of whether we can expect and hope for another round of over-arching theoretical breakthoughs is very tied up in the ideologies of science.

Case in point: Horgan’s discussion of neuroscience was paralleled in the Terry Lecture panel discussion. Plantinga (the philosopher) expressed the same sort of scepticism about a materialist explanation for consciousness that Horgan does, and seemingly for the same reasons (though perhaps with a theological component as well). Krauss and Miller were fully and unreservedly confident that consciousness will eventually be reduced to matter and motion, so to speak.

John Horgan, a science journalist who sometimes calls himself “The Scientific Curmudgeon” (an enviable title), also has a blog: Horganism.

Terry Lectures: “The Science and Religion Debate: Why Does It Continue?”

Yale University’s annual Terry Lectures took place September 14 and 15. The topic was nominally “the science and religion debate”; actually it focused on American creationism and intelligent design. There were talks by sociologist Robert Wuthnow, physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga, biologist Kenneth R. Miller, and historian Ronald Numbers, followed by a panel discussion moderated by journalist Margaret Warner.

Robert Wuthnow – sociologist of religion – worldview: [unknown]

I missed his talk, but I gather that Wuthnow argued that many or most Americans do not engage with conflicting religious and scientific beliefs that they hold. Thus, there is actually much less conflict between science and religion than we should expect, given the diversity and prevalence of logically inconsistent views (held in some cases by the same person simultaneously).

Lawrence M. Krauss – cosmologist, popular author, and anti-ID activist – worldview: atheist

Krauss gave a talk that was apparently written for his normal anti-ID public lectures; there was nothing particularly new or interesting for followers of the ID debates and political goings-on, but he was an entertaining speaker. From the historian’s perspective, there were numerous nits to pick, the main one being his frequent invocation the Scientific Method and how it inherently precludes what ID is trying to do. To the historian of science, speaking of a single Scientific Method, and especially using such a defintion to make transhistorical proclamations about what science inherently is, is generally one of the first warning signals of scientism. He did make the boilerplate method-based anti-ID arguments, but he also added a warning of the dangers of the intellectual imperialism of science vis-a-vis other disciplines. Overall, though, it was more of a mobilize the base talk than an analyze the debate talk.

Alvin Plantinga – philosopher of religion – worldview: Calvinist, supporter of the philosophical idea of intelligent design, though not the ID movement and its claims of the scientificity of ID

Plantinga argued that evolutionary biology does not necessarily conflict with theism. In doing so, he divided modern evolutionary theory (rather perceptively, I think) into six distinct claims/theories: the Ancient Earth thesis, the Progress thesis, the Descent With Modification thesis, the Common Ancestry thesis, the Darwinism thesis (i.e., mutation and natural selection), and the Naturalistic Origins thesis. One might add a few more items in terms of alternate mechanisms and such (and quibble with the label “Progress” for the trajectory of evolutionary history) , but that covers main elements pretty well; Plantinga noted that with the exception of Darwinism requiring Descent With Modification, these are all logically independent.
He went on to claim that the theistic doctrine of creation is compatible with all of these theses–the caveat being that claiming positively that evolution is an unguided process, in which God plays no part (even an undetectable one), is a “metaphysical add-on”, an assertion of ontological naturalism rather than simply methodological naturalism. I think the audience expected that he would defend intelligent design (as a viable scientific hypothesis), and interpreted some aspects of his talk uncharitably, but this was mostly cleared up during Q&A.

Kenneth R. Miller – biologist, textbook author, author of Finding Darwin’s God ( a response to Darwin’s Black Box) – worldview: Catholic, anti-ID

Miller, as rumored, is a superb speaker and (in the words of one of my colleagues) “a virulent Catholic.” His talk was basically a selective look at recent goings on with the Intelligent Design Movement, mainly focused on various ways in which he as been there to combat it. The Dover trial, public lectures in other problem regions, his appearance on The Colbert Report, the use and misuse of his textbook, etc. Like Krauss, Miller partly aimed to relay the details of the ID happenings, and partly to dispel any doubts about its intellectual vacuity. Miller also had a significant section at the end devoted to explicating the compatibility of (Catholic) theism and modern scientific theories.

Overall I liked what Miller had to say and how he said it (he did far less trampling over the history and philosophy of science than Krauss), but I felt his treatment of the defense witnesses at the trial and the Discovery Institute’s role to be somewhat disingenuous, or at least misleading. He pointed out the statements of all three expert witnesses (Michael Behe, Scott Minnich, and Steve Fuller) to the effect that the meaning/definition of science should be revised, getting rid of methodological naturalism as a strict requirement. But rather than attempt any philosophical attack on that position, he quoted Behe to the effect that, in his proposed definition, astrology would fall within the realm of science. The problem is that for hundreds of years, astrology was a science; it was not abandoned by natural philosophers because of concerns about the definition of science, but rather, because philosophers became convinced that its (testable) predictions were worthless. To greatly oversimplify, it was falsified; it would remain wrong (I think the ID witnesses would agree) even if it were re-admitted into the scope of “science.” Of course, whether or not ID could be tested (or has already been falsified) even after setting aside methodological naturalism is a separate question. But using the astrology example (from the mouth of Behe) was an underhanded way to avoid either of those questions.

Like most ID critics, Miller fails to take the cognitive aspects of intelligent design seriously (as opposed to the theological and poltical aspects). Typically, critics first identify ID with wholesale anti-evolutionism, then proceed to summarize several of the many lines of evidence that clearly suggest the reality of evolution (i.e., descent with modification and common ancestry). Yet what gives ID most of its intellectual traction is (in some forms) its compatibility with a great portion of evolutionary biology. Miller quoted Behe’s denunciation of “Darwinism” from the intro Darwin’s Black Box, but ignored his claims to accept common descent. Plantinga pointed out that a sympathetic reading would suggest that Behe meant what Plantinga called “unguided Darwinism,” but Miller preferred to read an internal contradiction in which Behe accepted common descent yet totally rejected evolution.

I think it takes at least an advanced undergraduate level biological training to understand why the extant intelligent design arguments break down (without simply accepting an argument from authority, which is actually probably a reasonable thing to do); the reigning assumption is that it should be obviously to anyone who’s taken a year of high school biology (assuming evolution was on the curriculum). Thus the self-appointed defenders of science consistently underestimate the level of genuine intellectual interest and open-mindedness on the part ID proponents, and correspondingly overestimate their ideological motivations. Maybe my own first-hand experience with the ID movement (at the University of Oklahoma) was an anomaly, but I think the ID movement wouldn’t exist without a fair number of people who are interested in the intellectual aspects of ID more than the political-theological aspects. I’m also convinced that there is a lot more diversity of opinion within the ID movement than what is represented, for example, in the Wikipedia article, which fully equates ID with the Discovery Institute.

With respect to Miller in particular, this is picking nits. Mostly, he presented things in ways that, though clearly polemical, were factually defensible and not very distorted. I was actually surprised at how large a role religion plays in Miller’s scientific worldview; I don’t know how much I agree with his philosophy/theology of science (which actually matched up almost totally with Plantinga), but I enjoyed presentation (especially the way it got Krauss riled up).

Ronald Numbers – historian of science and religion, former president of the History of Science Society – worldview: non-religious (apostate 7th Day Adventist; husband of an evolutionary biologist)

Numbers talk was fine as far as it went, but it was basically just a history of science and religion in the Anglophone world over the last 200 years; intelligent design played only a minor role, and there wasn’t really anthing original or surprising (from the perspective of a historian of science) in the talk. He’s a great historian, so I was disappointed that he didn’t actually have anything novel to present about ID. I did get the chance to have dinner with Ron (along with another grad student and a couple faculty) the night before, which was very enjoyable.

I was hoping the Terry Lectures, in the printed version that will be published by Yale, would finally provide a scholarly, insightful, and fairly neutral resource for improving ID-related Wikipedia articles, but sadly that won’t be the case. However, the panel discussion should make interesting material for a historian of science and religion 50 years down the road.

“Charging the Void”

BibliOdyssey has two great posts, Charging the Void I and Charging the Void II, with cosmological diagrams and engravings of various vacuum experiments from the work of Otto von Guericke, especially the Magdeburg hemispheres. When I get the chance, I’ll upload the images onto Wikipedia.

Hopefully someday BibliOdyssey will do a post or two featuring my Kunstformen der Natur scans.

Also, in the near future, I’ll be posting a report on the recent Terry Lectures at Yale, on Creationism and Intelligent Design. And maybe a report on my orals fields, and maybe a report on my history of science-related eBay purchases, and the hidden, miscatalogued natural history prints hidden up in the Sterling Library stacks. And probably not a report on my first semester teaching, at least not until the semester is over (I’m already getting hits for search terms like “sage ross yale ta”).

The Patahistory Manifesto is here

Dave Davisson of Patahistory (and the History New Network’s Revise and Dissent group blog) has finally put up his Patahistory Manifesto. All in all it’s a good fun romp, but it’s a little to esoteric for me (as I’m sure my own manifesto is for most people).

Some bits and pieces I liked:

…Syllabi and textbook intros are littered with historian’s hopes that their writing and teaching will somehow transform the learning of history into something fun! They then proceed to write and talk about war, disease, starvation and oppression. Only perverse and idiosyncratic minds (the current state of the historian) want to learn more about this miserable past. Where are the jokes? The songs? The dancing? Where is the can-do spirit of enthusiasm? Must every optimism be overshadowed by the evil humanity commits? Isn’t play also part of the human condition?…

…Historians simultaneously disdain popular histories and yearn for popular success. Patahistory is the reverse. It disdains success and yearns for popular histories….

…Patahistorians are deliberately aware of creating the future. Students look to historians for their cultural metanarrative. They accept or reject current events based on the history they are taught. Creativity and imagination are primary tools of the Patahistorian. The Patahistorian of today helps create the metahistory of tomorrow….

But I think there is some tension between Dave’s patahistorical vision in the first two quotes and the third one. I whole-heartedly endorse song-and-dance, jokes and enthusiasm, and the goal of creating popular histories. But the manifesto suggests that the way to do that is to embrace the historical topics that consumers want. History of pleasant things, genealogical history… he fails to mention the overwhelming popularity of (and scholarly disdain for) military history. These may be cultural dead ends.

If we patahistorians (and here I’ll jump on board) are going to take our roles as creators of the future and authors of the cultural metanarrative seriously, we shouldn’t be turning to the subjects and issues of interest to the history consumer… we should be turning the interests of the consumer to the subjects and issues that can help us move forward culturally. The current range of info- that our society derives -tainment from is one of the parts of modern culture we should be trying to overwrite. Instead of turning history toward the established ruts that happen to be popular, we need to create new genres, new mediums, content that is better than docudramas, family histories, and war films.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t just try to replace current types of popular history, we should aim to take over/replace the modern sitcom, TV drama, feature film, pop song. We want a culture that fundamentally, metaphysically values history and reality (including, as the patahistory manifesto rightly celebrates, future history and potential reality) at every level, from education to entertainment.

The Cognitive Structure of Scientific Revolutions

I just finished a delightful (and fairly concise) book, The Cognitive Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Hanne Andersen, Peter Barker, and Xiang Chen (“ABC”, I’m told they’re called). These three have been working together for about ten years to create philosophical system to revive the essence of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).

Despite Kuhn’s huge, multi-discipline-changing influence, there weren’t (and aren’t) really any intellectual schools of philosophy, sociology, or history of science built around his ideas. Philosophers have never fully shaken free of the need to create a philosophy of science that can be used to demarcate science from non-science/pseudoscience and to categorically separate obsolete theories from reality/truth/currently accepted theories; Kuhn’s incommensurability threatened to make that simply impossible. Sociologists liked Kuhn, but wanted to take it further; only the most extreme advocates of the Strong Programme actually suggested that cognitive/intellectual/empirical/real-world factors were irrelevant altogether, but they generally attempted to explain as much of science as possible in terms of social structure and individual and group interests. Historians also liked Kuhn’s work, especially at first, but could not accept it as a general account of scientific development; historical counter-examples of gradual change are easy to find, like the Copernican revolution (ironically, the subject of Kuhn’s earlier work).

The premise of ABC’s book is that the mature version of Kuhn’s ideas (as opposed to the version in Structure) is historically justifiable and matches up well with developments in cognitive psychology that describe how humans make sense of the world. Revolutionary science happens when scientists (or scientific communities) have to disrupt the dynamic categorical hierarchies (called “frames”) by which they make sense of the world. They take the idea of frames straight from cognitive psychology (as developed by Lawrence W. Barsalou in the ’80s and ’90s), and supposedly they are a pretty good representation of the way humans actually think. Depending on the what aspects of the frames are disrupted, revolutionary change is science may or may not involve incommensurable theories. But incommensurability, in Kuhn mature philosophy and in the frame theory version here, is much less drastic than in Strucuture. In fact, by ABC’s analysis, the shift between geocentrism and heliocentrism did not involve incommensurability; the crux of the “Copernican revolution” was actually Kepler’s idea of orbits, which replaced the orbs (spherical shells) that provided the cosmological basis for Ptolemaic astronomers, Averroist astronomers, and Copernicus and his early adopters (who actually rejected his heliocentrism as well). Both revolutions and incommensurability, in this account, become matters of scale; it depends on how high up the hierarchy the disruptions occur.

Reading Structure was basically what got me into the history of science, and I’m hoping it comes back into fashion. I’ve periodically attempted to restructure the argument into a form that is actually defensible historically without being very very selective about which cases to apply it to. Mainly, this consisted of dividing up science into expansive hierarchies and finding revolutions of differing scale everywhere. Thus, it’s gratifying that the (only, as far as I know) science studies professionals who still take Kuhn seriously have fitted Kuhn to history and the realities of scientific practice by means similar to mine (though, obviously, in a much more sophisticated way, and with the support of some interesting empirical evidence).

ABC’s manifesto is found at the end of the book; they call out both philosophy and sociology for not following the methodology of history closely enough. Neither has lived up to David Bloor’s criteria for a satisfying analysis of science :

1. I would be causal, that is, concerned with the conditions which bring about belief or states of knowledge. Naturally there will be other types of causes apart from social ones which will cooperate in bringing about belief.
2. It would be impartial with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality, success or failure. Both sides of these dichotomies will require explanation.
3. It would be symmetrical in its style of explanation. The same types of cause would explain say, true and false beliefs. And,
4. It would be reflexive. In principle its patterns of explanation would have to be applicable to…itself. Like the requirement of symmetry this is a response to the need to seek for general explanations.

Like many people in science studies (including many who don’t adhere to the Strong Programme in general), I take these criteria to be axiomatic. History’s method of explaining science, which relies primarily on historical context, of course satisfies all four. But the scope of its generality is too wide… nothing conceptually separates the history of science from garden-variety history, and cognitive-intellectual content of scientific knowledge has no special status. Thus, the attraction of the theory-oriented approaches of philosophy and sociology. But, as ABC point out, philosophy and sociology have so far not created compelling theoretical approaches that leave enough room for historical context. ABC are convinced they’ve created such an approach, and I think they’ve convinced me. I’ll have to mull it over, but it’s tempting to try to frame my own research in terms of ABC’s reformed Kuhnianism.