What's a scientific controversy...

...Or "What I've been up to for the last week or so."

Last week was a busy travel week. I was in West Virginia for the first half of the week, on a whirlwind tour of the Morgantown area, speaking in the geology department at West Virginia University, then twice at a symposium on science communication, and then at a local freethought group (meeting in a beautiful Unitarian church with a view of the valley).

The video above is a slidecast from a talk NCSE's Steve Newton and I gave about the Process of Science and Scientific Controversy. Steve didn't record his talk, so you miss the lead-in, alas, but a good introduction to issues in the nature of science can be found at UCMP's Understanding Evolution website.

In the afternoon, Steve and I did a session on outreach to the media, and I hope to post a slidecast from that event, too. It was a smallish group, but we had the chief of staff to the president of the university and Skeptoid's Brian Dunning in the group, which kept things lively.

And let it be said that the WVU Free Thinking Inquiring Secular Humanists (FISH) were a charming and thoughtful gang. We (Steve, me, and Brian Dunning) had a good time with them, and there's a tape of the event somewhere out there that may make its way to Youtube some day. After that, we saw Sheril Kirshenbaum speak about science communication, and then crashed.

The next day, I traveled down to Orlando, to catch the tail end of the National Association for Research on Science Teaching conference, and to take part in a working group on tools for assessing evolution understanding and acceptance. It was a fascinating couple days of conversation, with some interesting research and publications that should emerge from it (but mum's the word until then).

While I was somewhat incommunicado, Templeton gave its award to Martin Rees, the gnu atheists pitched six sorts of fits, and various other inane things happened in the world. The tremendous opportunities for science outreach and education that I saw last week made all the petty BS that goes on between gnus and "accommodationists" (whatever that term means) look especially silly, so blogging has taken a back seat.

But it will return to its usual schedule, and with exciting news to report, including a session I'm organizing at Netroots Nation (this June in Minneapolis). Meanwhile, enjoy the video, and I look forward to your thoughts in the comments. FWIW, here are the slides on their own:

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Welcome back, Josh.

Group selection -- Yikes! There are that many biologists against it?

By Riman Butterbur (not verified) on 15 Apr 2011 #permalink

Excellent analysis of the political controversy over evolution as opposed to the scientific ones within evolution. Though the real controversies within evolution are not separable from the political one. First any ambiguity that creationists can use will be used to gull people unfamiliar with the science. Their goal isn't to discover the truth, it's to undermine peoples' acceptance of anything but their narrow view of the first few chapters of Genesis and the Bible. For them it's like a disagreement with people who take a liberal view of scripture based in scholarship of the context in which the Bible was written down and put together.

But there are real problems from within science, as well. The arguments over "altruism", for example, are, to some extent, assertions of materialist absolutism. The desperation over unselfish behavior, making that fit with the Malthusian content of Darwinism, has produced a huge part of the controversy. That some of the major figures in that controversy have also been some of the more vicious antagonists of religion, from Thomas Huxley to Richard Dawkins, is no accident. I don't believe for a second that it is merely a scientific effort, it's an ideological one as well, one based in the emotional need to tie down a rather bothersome set of phenomena for a materialist view of life that takes natural selection as the only real mechanism explaining life. In Dawkins' Huxley, Dennett, it goes out the other end into an incredibly bizarre view of the absolute power of natural selection well outside of biology. All of this effort to destroy the reality of unselfish behavior is based on the shakiest of grounds, largely dependent on unprovable equations, convenient redefinition and evidence free story telling carried on at a pitch that is generally fevered, low grade to ragingly febrile. I read it and see a deep, emotional need for confirmation that, in many of the most strident participants, is very much like old fashioned creationism, only it's materialism.

The class context of a lot of the discussion and the

I don't think science will escape these kinds of controversies because it is a very human activity taking place in the context of human minds and cultures. The issues for science are:

1. keeping extraneous content out of public school science classrooms. That content isn't merely religious. I remember sexism frequently entering into my biological classes, not to mention those in the social sciences, political and racial content is far more ubiquitous than overt religious incursion into science. Look at the literature of sociobiology and evo-psy. And it is far less frequently objected to.

2. The funding of science by the government. I won't go into details except to say that even the majesty of science is dependent on the willingness of The People and their representatives in government to fund it. That's not helped by UNNECESSARY class derision or disdain, it's not helped by condescension. It also isn't helped by scientists who go overboard in using science to push their extra-scientific ideological beliefs. I wonder, if Thomas Huxley and others in that generation hadn't overtly used evolution as an attack on religion whether things wouldn't have been less bad. The information that Genesis was not literally true should have been all the trouble that evolution needed, but, if you look at Huxley's attacks on just about every aspect of even liberal religion, he made a lot of trouble for science. And he was hardly alone as Nietzsche and a host of others referred to evolution to further the strife. That the oil, gas and coal industries and their allies in the Republican Party have used the antagonistic atmosphere surrounding evolution to other ends shows that it is really dangerous in ways that transcend the strife over evolution.

I'd think, considering the large majority of those who accept evolution and the present state of climate change science are religious believers, scientists who care about these two areas of their profession, as well as the continued life of the planet, would do better by not trying to alienate their largest constituency. Which is something that Barack Obama seems to need to learn as well. This week, it seems he might be.

By amatechidnes (not verified) on 15 Apr 2011 #permalink

That last comment should say Anthony McCarthy, I don't know why my e-mail appears there instead.

By amatechidnes (not verified) on 15 Apr 2011 #permalink

Were you still signed in to TypeKey or whatever account you use to comment on Pharyngula? I've had problems with that.

By Riman Butterbur (not verified) on 16 Apr 2011 #permalink