The Intersection

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My latest Science Progress column is now up. It’s about, well…big stuff. Science, the humanities, their failure to intersect, how to save the world….

All I can say is that it starts like this:

Nearly ten years ago, to get myself officially clear of college, I wrote a senior English essay about parallels between the work of Charles Darwin and the writings of several Victorian novelists. I singled out Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and George Eliot’s Middlemarch in particular. It seemed to me that the scientist and the novelists alike sought to address a particularly prevalent human failing: How we deceive ourselves into believing what we want about reality, rather than what is true, by selectively reading the evidence (rather than considering it in its entirety).

In short, I argued that Dickens and Eliot were proposing a kind of “scientific method” for avoiding self delusion, in life and especially in love. Darwin, meanwhile, had a similar approach to the naturalists who had come before him and had tried desperately to fit species into Linnean categories that just didn’t work any more–in the process disregarding the full range of evidence from nature, which showed insensible gradations between variations and species that, in turn, suggested common ancestry rather than immutability.

On some level, then, the scientist and the novelists were engaged in closely related endeavors….

I found a part of myself that I hadn’t accessed in a long while in writing this article, as well as the Science Blogging convention speech in N.C. last weekend (delivered with Sheril) upon which it is based–so I hope you enjoy it.

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Penfold
    January 24, 2008

    Chris,

    Why is that you always find the scientist to be at fault ? If there is a problem with science connecting with the humanities then could the fault not also lie within the humanities ? You bring up the Sokal hoax but surely there it was the humanities who were at fault ? Nobody with even a basic science education could have read that paper and not seen it for what it was, unless they were so intent on pushing their own agenda that they were blinded to reality.

    You also have your usual dig at Richard Dawkins, mentioning that he is the author of “The God Delusional” but not mentioning others books such as “The Selfish Gene” and “The Blind Watchmaker”. Those books have probably done more to explain how evolution works to the general public (and in this context that would include those working in the humanities) than any others, including those by Gould. If you want to know more about how Dawkins has influenced the humanities may I suggest you contact Melvyn Bragg, who whilst having an arts background also has a keen interest in science and is highly critical of colleagues in the arts who think it is somehow cool to claim to be ignorant about science. Douglas Adams, another person who had an arts background, of course proclaimed “The Blind Watchmaker” as the book that had the single biggest influence on his life. Stephen Fry is another.

  2. #2 Jon Winsor
    January 24, 2008

    It’s been a very long time since I read Snow, but my favorite essay on the subject is the Divorce Between the Science and the Humanities by Isaiah Berlin. He dates the divorce back to different parties during the Enlightenment… He places Voltaire on one side and Vico on the other.

    You can go back farther, though. This recent book by Richard Rubenstein dates things back to the Medieval Renaissance, where Platonism and newly-discovered Aristotelian texts vied to dominate Christian European culture, resulting in a cultural rift that never healed.

    As far as the relationship between science and art, it’s sometimes a troubled relationship isn’t it? James Gleick near the end of his Newton biography talks about how S. T. Coleridge and William Blake both railed against Newton, for instance.

    (By the way, in graduate school I studied with the guy who wrote this book on Darwinism and Victorian art.)

  3. #3 Jon Winsor
    January 24, 2008

    Sorry, that should be Victorian literature, not art.

  4. #4 T. Greer
    January 25, 2008

    @ Chris: Nice Essay, keep it up.

    @Matt P.: I think Chris (and the author he cites) is in the right here. You will notice that the humanities are always actively trying to prove their relevance to everybody and anybody all the time. For the most part, scientists don’t do that. In cases of public relations, the smaller guy on the block always has to try and get the big guy to hear their case- and if all goes well, make it their own. Scientific study is not exempt from this; scientists are the ones who should be putting the extra effort to heal the wound.

    (Plus I can only guess that the number of humanities based readers are comparatively smaller than the science based readers here. Don’t expect Chris to make his cry to action to people who are not reading his blog.)

    As for Dawkins- eh. I only had to hear his anti-religious demagoguery once to want to never listen- or read -his viewpoints again. He is far from the white knight of science you make him out to be.

  5. #5 Matt Penfold
    January 25, 2008

    “As for Dawkins- eh. I only had to hear his anti-religious demagoguery once to want to never listen- or read -his viewpoints again. He is far from the white knight of science you make him out to be.”

    If you are unable to separate what Dawkins has to say on religion with what he has to say about evolution then I think that tells more about you than about Dawkins. When you, or Mooney, or Nisbett, have done as much to explain what evolution is and how it works then come back to me. Until then it just seems like sour grapes. Dawkins outsells any of you.

  6. #6 Jon Winsor
    January 25, 2008

    You will notice that the humanities are always actively trying to prove their relevance to everybody and anybody all the time.

    I think it helps to make a distinction between the humanities as a profession and a humanities education. If you say that a lot of humanities professionals aren’t relevant, I agree (I didn’t end up becoming one myself, by the way).

    But a humanities education is a different matter. A law degree is essentially an extended humanities education. Rhetoric, history, ethics, analysis, etc. are all things you learn about while studying the humanities. (You don’t hear all that much about the humanities from these people because they have no need to prove their relevance to you.)

    The “social sciences” and “political science” both have “science” at the end of their names, but they’re both part of the humanities. And they don’t just rely on empirical methods (see Berlin’s discussion of Vico toward the end of the essay I mentioned above).

    Chris has written about the conservative think tank infrastructure, at one point referencing this Paul Krugman article discussing Irving Kristol’s efforts to shift Washington’s intellectual climate to the hard right. How did he do it? His humanities education was crucial, and in some sense, very successful:

    Kristol showed conservative business and political leaders that New Deal managerialism had bred a liberal “new class” of academic, think-tank, and media experts who trafficked in words more than in deeds or missions accomplished. He counseled conservatives to outdo liberals at this game in order to rescue liberal education and liberal democracy for the kind of capitalism and politics conservatives can profit from and enjoy.

    Now to simplify things a bit, you could see this in two ways. You could blame the influence of humanities hokum and say that if we only had more of a straight scientific/empirical outlook, this wouldn’t have happened. Or you could say that the political system would have benefited from having more effective competition of ideas coming from the other side. I don’t see how you do that without the humanities. (For instance, how do you get a reasonably thorough understanding of Federalist 10 without the humanities? I say you can’t.)

  7. #7 Fred Bortz
    January 25, 2008

    I’m with Matt when he writes:

    If you are unable to separate what Dawkins has to say on religion with what he has to say about evolution then I think that tells more about you than about Dawkins.

    I, too, dislike the approach of The God Delusion, which turns atheism into anti-theism.

    But I gave The Ancestor’s Tale a rave review for both the science and the sense of awe it conveys. (Click my name or http://www.scienceshelf.com/AncestorsTale.htm )

    For an understanding of the theistic impulse which both atheists and theists appreciate, I prefer Barbara J. King’s Evolving God.
    http://www.scienceshelf.com/EvolvingGod.htm

  8. #8 Jon Winsor
    January 25, 2008

    I said “part of the humanities” above. It’s probably more accurate to say “overlap considerably with the humanities.”

  9. #9 T. "Chimpy" greer
    January 25, 2008

    “If you are unable to separate what Dawkins has to say on religion with what he has to say about evolution then I think that tells more about you than about Dawkins. When you, or Mooney, or Nisbett, have done as much to explain what evolution is and how it works then come back to me. Until then it just seems like sour grapes. Dawkins outsells any of you. “

    I -like most people- was first exposed to Dawkins as the crazed anti-theist. It did not take long for Dawkins to prove himself a condescending bigot in all matters regarding anyone of a religious persuasion. It didn’t take me long to decide I would not support him by buying his books. I assure you that I am not the only who feels this way.

    Which leaves me with a question for you: what is the use of the best explanation of what evolution is and how it works if no one will hear it? That is exactly what you get with Dawkins; his polarizing character prohibits his books from doing more than preaching to the choir.

  10. #10 mlf
    January 25, 2008

    “…Dawkins; his polarizing character prohibits his books from doing more than preaching to the choir.”

    Wrong: http://richarddawkins.net/convertsCorner

  11. #11 Chris C. Mooney
    January 25, 2008

    Folks,
    I have read many (though not all) of Dawkins’ books. I was an addict for a long time. I can distinguish the great science writing from the atheism book.

    But I’m not the relevant audience, really. It doesn’t matter whether I can, it matters whether John Q. Public can.

  12. #12 Lance
    January 25, 2008

    Looks like more wishful thinking about what you would like science to be rather than what it is. Even worse you want to bastardize science into some amalgam of liberal arts relativism and activism directed spokesmodel.

    Your grand plan includes revisions,

    …that, in turn, would require broad changes to education, and considerable reforms to the way in which science trains its students and awards its graduates. It would take a massive, creaking, groaning alteration of current scientific culture–a reinvestment of resources to train the kinds of ambassadors who can blend scientific knowledge with some other type of understanding and thereby help it to resonate beyond the rarefied world of science itself.

    Speaking as someone with a science education I couldn’t disagree more.

  13. #13 Fred Bortz
    January 25, 2008

    Chimpy overstates the case by writing:

    I -like most people- was first exposed to Dawkins as the crazed anti-theist.

    I think most people were exposed to Dawkins as the author who had innovative ways of seeing evolution, such as The Selfish Gene and the more recent (and previously noted) The Ancestor’s Tale.

    His atheism was clear, but I didn’t see him as a crazed anti-theist in words or in person (at a signing of The Ancestor’s Tale at Politics and Prose in the D.C. area).

    Even The God Delusion (judging by reviews, since I have no interest in reading it) is not “crazed.” Perhaps “passionately wrongheaded” in its assessment of others is a better way to describe it.

    I know many people who are atheists, agnostics, or non-theists (people who don’t care whether God exists or not when choosing how to live their lives) who belong to my congregation or others like it. They certainly don’t accuse the believers among them of being delusional, nor is there any point in doing that, except perhaps to sell books.

  14. #14 T. "Chimpy" Greer
    January 25, 2008

    Hmm. I can see where you are coming from, but I have to disagree with your assessment of Dawkins. I can hardly call a man who equates religion to child abuse anything but a crazed anti-theist.

    As to how most people came across his work- perhaps we are familiar with different audiences. I will not hide that I am a conservative, and as such, I associate with more conservative-minded people than not. Among this group the exposure is almost exclusively with the anti-religious Dawkins; few even know he has a more benign side that shows up in books such as the Ancestor’s Tale. (I am taking your word for it.)

    The problem with this is that the people scientists need to reach out most to, the ones they need to convince most, are conservatives. Already skeptical of science’s utility, most conservatives turn science out to the cold once they begin associating it with the hate rhetoric from Dawkin’s pen.

  15. #15 Fred Bortz
    January 26, 2008

    Chimpy and I agree that Dawkins is an anti-theist.

    Whether he is simply wrong-headedly passionate or crazed depends on what source we are viewing–the book as described by reviewers in my case or the official Dawkins website in Chimpy’s–and our personal reactions to those sources. It is, in short, a quibble among friends.

    I find it hard to believe that conservative-minded people who respect science, which I presume describes the conservative participants here, saw Dawkins’ most famous work, The Selfish Gene (1976), as a work of anti-theism rather than as a work explaining evolution. Dawkins never hid his atheism, but I doubt he trumpeted it in that book.

    Quoting Wikipedia’s entry on Dawkins:

    He first came to prominence with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which popularised the gene-centered view of evolution and introduced the term meme, helping found the field of memetics.

    Of course, it’s possible that Chimpy was born after 1976 or was too young to have heard about that breakthrough in approach. Still, the blatantly anti-theism of Dawkins is a recent phenomenon. It doesn’t discredit Dawkins’ brilliant science and communication skills any more than James Watson’s recent racist remarks discredit his work on the double helix.

    But it will change the way people view his writings from here forward.

  16. #16 Lance
    January 28, 2008

    The fact that Dawkins doesn’t tippy-toe around the sensibilities of believers doesn’t make his work any less compelling.

    Does anyone really think that deity worshippers can be charmed into abandoning their furtive and idiotic fantasies?

    Oh, I forgot, I’m in framing-land where it’s not the evidence and facts that matter but that the presentation has “emotional resonance” and doesn’t hurt the self-esteem of the delusional.

  17. #17 Fred Bortz
    January 28, 2008

    Lance, you ask:

    Does anyone really think that deity worshippers can be charmed into abandoning their furtive and idiotic fantasies?

    My answer is: Not when deity worship appears to be an evolved trait with varying intensity among individuals (click my name for an oft-cited review). The trait appears to have survival value for the species, which makes your choice of adjectives (“furtive and idiotic”) seem questionable.

    A curiosity question, since you have conveyed holiday greetings here and have described your in-laws as believers in previous posts: Do you tell god-worshipping people to their faces that they are idiotic and delusional with furtive fantasies? Or are you respectful of their religious choices, even when you consider a belief in a deity delusional?

    As noted, I simply consider a belief in a deity irrelevant in my life. If such a belief helps some people make sense of the quandaries of everyday living and leads them to civil and respectful relationships to others, who am I to criticize it?

    I separate prayer or worship, which may be communal behaviors, from belief in a deity, which is impossible to measure or prove except by the individual’s statements (as far as I know–perhaps someone has used EEGs, MRIs, or PET scans to determine “belief”).

  18. #18 Lance
    January 28, 2008

    Hi Fred,

    I have reached a truce with my wife and religious relatives. They are quite aware of my opinion of their deity worship. I think they are self-deluded and they think I am hell-bound. We actually joke with each other about it most of the time. The heated arguments are mostly behind us. We drop books over the wall to each other once in a while. I even go to church with my wife once in a while, although she cringes when people ask me religious questions. I try to be polite but I don’t pull any punches. Hey, they asked?

    However in most day to day affairs it really doesn’t matter how you think the universe came into existence or whether you think morality must be underpinned by some eternal law giver. It’s mostly “pass the potatoes” and “What happened at work or school today?” So long as people are willing to grant each other the right to follow their own path and that path doesn’t restrict the rights of others everything is peachy, with or without invisible pals.

    I have long wondered why humans are prone to religious belief. I have read a few explanations that attribute it to an adaptive evolutionary advantage. I’ll check out your links, but I remain skeptical that such a complex behavior can have a genetic basis, but who knows! I can’t think of any other logical reason that people of almost all cultures are so prone to belief in some sort of deity and have for all of recorded history.

    As for it having “survival value for the species”, it doesn’t necessarily hold even if there is a genetic link. There are plenty of wide spread disadvantageous genetic conditions (myopia, diabetes, cancer etc.) as well as neutral ones (male pattern baldness) that persist in the gene pool with no survival value.

    I think frank in-your-face realism is the best way to deal with “believers”. Just look at the violent reactions of Muslims to challenges to their anti-science misogynistic lunacy. Their cultures have put their religious beliefs behind “sacred” walls that carry a penalty of death for those that even dare to question what lies behind them.

    I’m not willing to give believers that expectation of sanctuary from the scrutiny of reason, nor is the US constitution. If it pisses them off, too bad. They’ll get over it.

  19. #19 Fred Bortz
    January 28, 2008

    Thanks, Lance.

    I grinned when I imagined your wife’s cringing when you are asked certain questions.

    As for the persistence of disadvantageous traits, I think most of them were advantageous traits at least until recent times. I recall reading in one of the books I reviewed that even something as awful as the Huntington’s gene once had some survival value, allowing the person to survive some environmental challenge and reproduce before losing his/her faculties at grandparent age.

    The classic good/bad gene is the sickle cell trait, which conveys an immunity to malaria if you get one copy of the gene. Even though two copies is a bad thing, it actually increases survival on the average in an area where malaria is endemic.

    Click my name for my most recent review, What Bugged the Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease, and Death in the Cretaceous, which ran in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer Health & Science section. I wonder what traits dinos evolved in response to insects and the parasites and microorganisms they carried.

    Perhaps they evolved a belief in a superdino that protected them from falling asteroids. That proved to be inaccurate and arguably delusional. :)

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