Sunday, November 29, 2009

Science vs. Religion – False Assumption or True Conflict?

I want to look again at the science/religion topic – this time specifically from a science advocacy perspective. In this context, religion poses a problem because it interferes with the acceptance of science by a large portion of the public. Why? Because many people think that science will threaten their religious beliefs. Chris Mooney argues that this is a mistaken assumption. But correct or not, the sentiment is so powerful that it effectively blocks much of the effort by scientists and educators to promote science in the US. Therefore, in order to raise the status of science in our culture, Mooney claims that we will first have to tackle the misconception that science and religion are opposed.

It won’t be easy. The "science vs. religion" narrative is used in media coverage to the point of cliché (the "battle" most recently being fought in schools over the teaching of evolution). It is also continually perpetuated by people on both extreme sides of the debate – religious fundamentalists on the one hand and militant atheists on the other. Meanwhile, the Americans in the middle, those who don’t necessarily posit any inherent conflict between the sciences and religion, are relatively quiet (Mooney dubs them the “silent majority”). The pressure is on the science advocates to encourage the silent majority to speak up. Until they do, we’ll continue to hear only a few voices.

And they’re not the voices that Mooney wants to hear. At least, not the only ones. He admits there is a place for denouncing religion, but it shouldn't take center stage among scientists. Mooney harshly criticizes figures like the popular science blogger PZ Myers and other vocal atheists for their gratuitous attacks on religion (Myers apparently skewed a Eucharist with a rusty nail, chucked it in the trash, and displayed a photo of his “Great Desecration” online, just to make a point). Coming from what the journal Nature has rated as one of the "Top Five Science Blogs", Myers' hostility toward religion only heightens the tension between the scientific community and much of the religious public. Insults and ridicule turn even the religious moderates away from science, all the while giving religious fundamentalists more ammunition (an anti-science creationist can quite easily point to the unholy atheists as proof that science is an attack on their faith). If promoting science is a priority, scientists cannot afford to bolster the science vs. religion narrative – it’s a useless strategy.

It seems clear from Mooney’s arguments that it may be tactically beneficial to take a conciliatory attitude towards religion. In some cases, like teaching evolution, it may be politically necessary to gently woo a religious audience into a natural engagement with science, rather than shoving the “truth” in their faces. But what if the goal is larger than that? Dawkins, for example, has stated that while winning the battle over evolution would be nice, he is fighting a larger war. It is a war over deep truths of the nature of the universe, and in this fight, religion (inasmuch as it claims ownership of these deep truths) really does get in the way of science. For him, the conflict is real, and denying it exists is dishonest and wholly unscientific.

So it looks like we are faced with two competing priorities. Those in Mooney’s camp want to focus on promoting science in American culture by winning political battles, and those in Dawkins' camp want to defend scientific truth at any cost. These are different goals, but I don’t think they require two vastly different strategies of communication. Regardless of the topic of discussion, adopting a disparaging tone usually doesn’t help. But more importantly, spewing “truths” at people, whether about the value of teaching evolution or the falsities of the virgin birth, won’t change their mind. The message must be packaged in such a way as to persuade, which requires “a sensitivity to the state of mind of the audience” (the words of science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson). Combining this sensitivity with the facts, shaping the content and form of a message to best fit the audience’s capacity to receive it, is how communication functions at its best, at any level. Ultimately the most important thing is to keep the channels of conversation open and not prematurely shut down any chance at dialogue by beginning with a fight.

Note that while it doesn't come up in favor of either position on the "science vs. religion" issue,  this strategy spans both the goals of science advocacy and defending scientific "truth". It is about creating impact and being effective – with any audience. And given that the religious audience forms about 80% of the American public, it seems wise to consider how religion will affect the capacity to understand any message from the scientific community.  I think Mooney would agree.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Paradox, a Paradox!

The story of science and religion has a new narrative – not war, but paradox. Framing their findings in a variation of the typical "conflict thesis", this recent Pew Research Center report describes the relationship between faith and science in the United States as somewhat of an internal contradiction. On the one hand, most Americans hold scientists in high esteem and value the advancements of science and technology. On the other hand, many of these same Americans, because of religious beliefs, are hesitant to accept either widely established scientific theories (such as evolution) or support new technologies (like stem cell research). What follows is rather unsettling:

What is at work here? How can majorities of Americans say they respect science and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer may be that many in the general public choose not to believe scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict religious or other important beliefs. When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, for instance, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people in an October 2006 Time magazine poll said they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept a contrary scientific finding.

If religious belief continues to take precedence over science, the scientific community will face a formidable challenge to improving scientific literacy and engagement. What stands in their way, as these findings highlight, is an underlying sentiment in America today that science is a threat to religion. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, there are some people (prominent scientists and religious fundamentalists alike) who hold that science is incompatible with or necessarily destructive to religious belief. And when so much media attention is focused around contentious episodes between, for example, creationists and evolutionists, it's not hard to see where this sentiment comes from. But a vast majority of both scientific and religious communities disagree that these two are mutually exclusive. The official position of the National Academy of Sciences as well as many religious organizations is that faith and science can exist together just fine. Therefore, promoting this more accommodationist position may be an effective way to approach the science/religion paradox – and it's a strategy that Chris Mooney argues for in his book, Unscientific America. I want to explore his (apparently rather controversial) ideas about religion in more detail, so that'll be coming soon...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Typography – What Language Looks Like.

Typography, I hold you responsible.

Responsible for hours spent scrolling through lists of fonts trying to find one that "works" with Copperplate Gothic. Responsible for giddy excitement at discovering free downloads of 1001 Mac Fonts. Responsible for awkward cringes at misused combinations of Futura and Verdana. Responsible for the Helveticazation of the corporate world and the Comic-Sans-zation of public health handouts. Responsible for homework procrastination, magazine destruction, poster fascination, headache provocation, design obsession. What do you have to say for yourself?

I don't know what Typography would say in its defense, but it would probably be in Braggadocio.

Recent NY Times article on type nerds.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Matters of Value

 The House passage of a health care bill means we're a little bit closer to getting some real health care reform in the United States. But the health care debate will undoubtedly continue even after a final vote on the matter (whenever that happens... fingers crossed for this year!) Health encompasses so much more than insurance and medical care – income, education, and other background social conditions all play a crucial role in improving health. And all of these conditions, which provide the structure and support for a healthy society, are informed by our deeper values: liberty, efficiency, responsibility, and fairness, to name a few. Exploring these values in more detail is a collection of essays by the Hastings Center, Connecting American Values with Health Reform. It's worth a read, as it both grounds the current discussion about reform to greater ideals, and also points to constructive ways to continue the conversation, regardless of the final legislation.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

In the Future...

As common wisdom would have it, predictions can be very difficult – especially about the future. But could they also be harmful? The cover story of The Scientist Magazine looks into the practice of predictions in the realm of science, and whether there is a danger (to research, policy, or science's reputation) in promising too soon. I admit I was a bit skeptical; I tend to think that scientific predictions are critical in gaining public support and engagement with science, and if scientists don't make the predictions, someone else surely will! But as this article makes clear, there are limits and responsibilities that come with any promise. Here are a few pieces of advice from the experts:
When asked how long it might take for your research to translate into therapies, try to communicate the complexities of the process rather than make a specific prediction. “I’ve come to recognize that these things take even longer than you hope,” says Ian Wilmut. So what would he say if asked about the prospects of tackling motor neuron disease with the iPS system? “I would say, one or two labs have now got nerve cells which are the genuine equivalent of those in a person who inherited the disease; it will perhaps take a couple of years before they have identified the molecular differences between them and healthy cells; it might take a couple of years after that to set up a high-throughput assay; a couple more years after that to run that and identify the first compounds. Which of course then simply gets you to the point where you have to put drugs through animal tests before you can get to patients. So, it’s likely to be at least ten years before there is the possibility of a new drug being used on any scale to treat human patients.”

According to Nik Brown, just heeding the lessons of past predictions and promises—both the successes and the failures—can help scientists avoid what he calls “institutional amnesia,” in which they deliver serial disappointments.

Harold Varmus’s gene therapy report concluded that scientists need to “inform the public about not only the extraordinary promise of gene therapy, but also its current limitations.” It might not be easy when the scientific culture encourages promise-making and hyperbole, but for Brian Wynne, science and scientists need to be more modest about their claims. “If modesty were institutional, politics and science would be completely transformed.” Adds Brown: “A more modest science would probably also be a more reliable science.”

“Scientists know about science, at least their own subdisciplines,” says Dan Sarewitz, “but they often know a lot less about technology and innovation and political context, so it’s not very surprising that they’re often wrong in their predictions.” Hilary Rose says that natural scientists are sometimes inclined to think of complex human social and political behavior in biological terms, which can introduce further error. A problem for ecologist Paul Ehrlich’s predictions in The Population Bomb, for example, was that “he did not know enough about demography,” she says. 

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Case to be Made

We’ve come to expect too much of God. We demand proof, evidence, reasons to believe. We assume that our prayers are being heard, our actions supervised, our world directed by a powerful know it all. We’ve got it all wrong.

At least, Karen Armstrong thinks so. The God she presents in her book “The Case for God” may not be recognizable to many present day believers, but she’s got an immense amount of historical and theological research to back it up. The main claim is this: God is not a being at all. God is a symbol, a gesture towards an ultimate reality that we cannot comprehend, let alone describe. Religion therefore is not about belief, it is a practical discipline that aims to bring us closer to this ultimate reality by ethical action and provide meaning to our lives. We would be woefully amiss to think we can get there by passive belief. Quite the contrary; religion is hard work.

So how exactly did Judaism, Christianity and Islam (the three “sister religions” as Armstrong calls them) end up with the notion of an all-knowing, all-powerful, personalized God? To answer this question it is necessary to trace the idea of God back to pre-modern religions. Beginning with pastoral and Neolithic societies and continuing through the medieval period, the idea of an “ultimate”, “absolute” or “divine” reality was recognized by a vast number of religions under many different names: God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Much like music – something with immense power that could not be touched or seen – this ultimate reality could inspire such wonder and humility that it reduced a person to silence. In fact, Armstrong tells the story of Brahmin priests who deliberately sought out such silence. They would hold a competition in which each priest would try to give a definition of the divine, whereas his opponents would listen and then respond with their own definition. The winner was the priest for whom no one had a reply – each was speechless, in awe. The ultimate reality was present in this silence, in the realization that words are utterly inept at capturing the true nature of the divine.

While ancient religions may have worshipped other gods (ancient Greece for example had many), they distinguished between gods who were essentially immortal humans, and a greater sense of an ultimate reality. Ancient Israelites took one of these gods and made it (Yahweh) into their chief symbol of the ultimate reality. Even at this point, God still remained a symbol. Sacred texts were not to be taken literally – they pointed to a lesson, a moral, an interpretation beyond their words. The Babylonian Talmud in the 6th century affirmed, “What is Torah? It is the interpretation of Torah.” But Armstrong argues that monotheism did bring us closer to the modern Western conception of God – the worship of a human expression of the divine, rather than the absolute reality that it was supposed to point to.

The shift happened in the 17th century. At this time in the West, science was revolutionizing people’s lives and fundamentally changing their worldview. The scientific method was increasingly seen as the only reliable means of attaining truth, and people began to expect evidence, certainty, and logical proof. This scientific standard spilled over into the realm of religion, and created pressure to find a “proof” for God. Descartes and Newton provided such proof – for them the only way of explaining the magnificent order in the universe was the presence of a divine intelligence. In arguing for the real existence of God, they for the first time provided the church with scientific support for doctrine. It was not long before some began to regard the Bible as the literal word of God (rather than metaphor or interpretation) and God morphed into a type of caring “father figure.”

The false expectation of literal proof for God meant faith was vulnerable to any scientific argument claiming to disprove God. The existential problem that Armstrong sees in so much of the modern religious world is a direct result of this vulnerability. If God hinges on proof and people don’t get the proof they want, atheism is inevitable, at least for some. Therefore when Dawkins claims that “evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip” he is right – but he is trampling on ground that she doesn’t particularly care to defend.

After chronicling the history leading to our modern religious thinking, which she calls simplistic and even infantile at times, Armstrong urges a return to the pre-modern notion of God and a previous understanding of religion. One where nothing can be said of God because he is no thing, and where religion isn’t about answering questions using logic or reason, but rather about dealing with aspects of life for which there are no easy answers. She repeatedly emphasizes the practical nature of religion, saying that there is a need to practice faith, rather than believe in particular doctrine. She says, “religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.”

I admire Armstrong for her refreshingly non-combative account of religion. I find her arguments for religion as a call to ethical action encouraging (and very compatible with recent scientific work into the evolutionary development of religion, which I’ll get to later). She also provides a compelling account of the modern notion of the Judeo-Christian God, and its contrast to the ancient, inexpressible versions of God as ultimate reality. However, I suspect many people, especially in the United States, would not agree with the notion of God that she is talking (or not talking) about. Belief does seem to be a fundamentally important element to religion for some people, and many do want a personal God. In the end, Armstrong certainly makes a case – but for her own God. Whether or not she can convince others is a matter yet to be determined. 

Man vs. God, a pair of essays in the Wall Street Journal by Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins