Postmodernism versus Religion

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The Education Life supplement of last Sunday’s New York Times contained a little blurb that claimed college students who majored in the humanities and social sciences were apt to become less religiously observant after college. According to the Times, you may credit or blame postmodernism because it stresses that truth is relative rather than absolute. Small solace, as far as I am concerned.

The research, by Miles Kimball, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan, was supported by the Templeton Foundation, but the link to the final report gave an error. The study is described in somewhat more detail by a press release emitted by the University of Michigan. I could find no link to the study on Kimball’s home page.

According to the press release, Kimball and his colleagues studied a cohort of people who had graduated from high school between 1976 and 1996. They asked questions regarding attendance at religious services, the importance of religion, and how religious organizations benefit the country. They found that humanities and social science majors generally became less religious, physical and biological science majors remained unchanged, and education majors apt to become more religiously observant.

Kimball commented, “Education majors are clearly safe havens for the religious. Highly religious people seem to prefer education majors, tend to stay in that major, and tend to become more religious by the time they graduate.” If he is right, it is not good news for those who want to keep religion out of the public schools.

The Times article also provided an interesting comparison. Define the difference in religious observance between the Bible Belt and the rest of the country as 100. On that scale, the effect of majoring in a given subject is given by

Social science, -47
Humanities, -28
Physical science/math, -24
Engineering, -14
Biology, -13
No college, 0
Business, +2
Other, +10
Vocational, +16
Education, +23

The progression from the sciences to the humanities, incidentally, is roughly consistent with what we reported earlier.

89 Comments

When I was a Biology major, I noticed exactly this - it was culturally neutral. I was something of a freak with friends in film school and art school, but every possible political and subcultural type was represented, and we generally got along because we liked the subject we were studying. At the time, it never occurred to me that anybody’s religious or political beliefs had anything to do with denying biomedical science. I had a Jewish friend who had some kind of ongoing dialogue with an Orthodox Jewish professor of neuroanatomy about being involved in both science and religion, but I didn’t have much interest in it, as I’m not Jewish.

As a neuroscience major I took a fair amount of psychology as well, and was even a psych major for a semester. I have a positive view of the science of psychology, but at any rate, it certainly isn’t “postmodern” in methodology. Just the opposite trend occurred - during the Freudian era clinical psychology was somewhat arbitrary and post-modern in nature, and it is since WWII that emphasis on the scientific method, including concepts of reliability, validity, replication, and rigorous hypothesis testing came to dominate the field. I can’t speak for sociology, but I wouldn’t judge the entire field by Steve Fuller - every academic discipline has crackpots.

Kimball commented, “Education majors are clearly safe havens for the religious. Highly religious people seem to prefer education majors, tend to stay in that major, and tend to become more religious by the time they graduate.” If he is right, it is not good news for those who want to keep religion out of the public schools.

This is quite worrisome. Most of these education majors are probably tolerant and rights-respecting people of faith.

However, it is pretty clear that religious authoritarians are absolutely obsessed with getting themselves into control of groups of young, vulnerable, impressionable people.

The correlation with an Education major doesn’t surprise me in the least.

Back in the 1960s I had noticed that Education attracted not only the most religious students, but also those who were weakest in science and math.

In fact, many students who started out with majors in science or math, and then found themselves in trouble, switched to an Education major. The reason was that the requirements in their area of science were considerably less than for the majors. Education majors could replace the more rigorous courses in science with “teaching methods” courses.

Furthermore, many departments of education required a student to declare Education as their major and that they take all the methods courses. The effect of this has been that, even when a full science major wanted to pick up a teaching certificate, he/she had to not only take the fully rigorous courses in science, but had to switch to the department of education and go additional semesters to pick up all the teaching requirements.

Many of those more rigorous majors then found themselves among a cohort of students who were whiners, constantly complaining about how much work they had to do and how hard their courses were; in other words, they found themselves among people who were going into teaching but didn’t really appreciate or like the subjects they were preparing to teach.

The result is that the more rigorous students got their teaching certificates but dropped out of teaching and found better work and better colleagues in other fields.

So the effect of departments of education was not only to attract weak students, but also to repel strong students.

More than once I have heard faculty in university science departments refer to the Department of Education at their universities as an extreme embarrassment to their university.

A bit off-topic, but since you mentioned the Times, they’re also now running an article on the rise of Old Earth Creationism in Islam.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/s[…]?ref=science

Studying real science doesn’t turn people into atheists after all.

When I first took the GRE, I had recently read Richard Mitchell’s The Graves of Academe, an indictment of the anti-intellectualism he saw in the education industry. When I received my GRE scores, the booklet had a list of average scores by intended majors. Prospective grad students in education were the worst in Language, they were the worst in Math, and they were the worst in Analysis. It made an impression on me that’s never really worn off. And now this.

On rereading the piece just now, I realize that this sentence

the effect of majoring in a given subject is given by

which is straight out of the Times blurb, is not strictly correct. The press release said that students majoring in certain subjects remained unchanged, not that the majors caused the scores in the table. I suspect that it would have been more nearly correct to say that majoring in a given subject correlates with religious belief in such a way as to yield the scores in the table.

In grad school, I read a blurb about a study on undergrads that asked the question “how important is it to study classes outside your major”.

The group with the lowest response was business majors? Number 2: education majors. Scary.

To ass to many of the excellent points above, College guidance counselors (whatever they call themselves these days) track the undecideds with the lowest entry test scores to the education department.

Matt Young said:say that majoring in a given subject correlates with religious belief in such a way as to yield the scores in the table.

meaning? the education doesn’t necessarily effect ones faith? this is assuming a deterministic disposition, which i cant think of how it would be tested.

the blurb “notions of relative truth.” Is this really trying to state there is such a thing as inconsistent truth? .…that annoys me.

I’m bothered by the term “religiously observant.” I see lots of people who never miss weekly services and other required rituals, and their morals span the entire spectrum. Yet ther most sickeningly moral guy I know - heterosexual, monogamous, never thought of cheating, despises bearing false witness, the last person in the universe to ever perform an abortion - is also the last person in the universe to ever join an organized religion. Would I - oops, I mean he - be considered “religiously observant”?

Reed A. Cartwright Wrote:

In grad school, I read a blurb about a study on undergrads that asked the question “how important is it to study classes outside your major”.

I confess that, as an undergrad chem major 35 years ago, I would have answered that all courses other than science or math were a waste. I have done a 180 since then.

Mike Elzinga said:

The correlation with an Education major doesn’t surprise me in the least.

Back in the 1960s I had noticed that Education attracted not only the most religious students, but also those who were weakest in science and math.

In fact, many students who started out with majors in science or math, and then found themselves in trouble, switched to an Education major. The reason was that the requirements in their area of science were considerably less than for the majors. Education majors could replace the more rigorous courses in science with “teaching methods” courses.

Furthermore, many departments of education required a student to declare Education as their major and that they take all the methods courses. The effect of this has been that, even when a full science major wanted to pick up a teaching certificate, he/she had to not only take the fully rigorous courses in science, but had to switch to the department of education and go additional semesters to pick up all the teaching requirements.

Many of those more rigorous majors then found themselves among a cohort of students who were whiners, constantly complaining about how much work they had to do and how hard their courses were; in other words, they found themselves among people who were going into teaching but didn’t really appreciate or like the subjects they were preparing to teach.

The result is that the more rigorous students got their teaching certificates but dropped out of teaching and found better work and better colleagues in other fields.

So the effect of departments of education was not only to attract weak students, but also to repel strong students.

More than once I have heard faculty in university science departments refer to the Department of Education at their universities as an extreme embarrassment to their university.

By labeling all who go into education as “whiners,” etc., you’re doing a great disservice to those of us who did put in the extra coursework so we could use our science degrees to teach. And yes, those education courses are vital to helping teachers understand the history and goals of public education in this country. They’re needed to help science teachers become aware of the vast potentials for liability inherent in teaching lab-based coursework. And they’re needed to help those future teachers understand exactly why they can’t bend to parental or administrative pressures to eliminate or downplay evolution in their classes.

How many science professors actively encourage their best and brightest students to go into teaching? Do you have *any* idea how many times I was told “you’re too smart to go into teaching” or “why on earth would you waste your brain like that”? Otherwise-decent science professors I know discourage their students from becoming science teachers.

It’s an issue that bothers me to the extent that on my one-and-only chance to ask a question of a Nobel laureate, I asked “how do we get college and university science departments to encourage their top students to go into teaching instead of steering them away from it?”

His response?

“A 2x4 with a nail in the end of it.”

Discouraging, that’s for sure. But until most college/university science departments stop envisioning science teaching as a dead-end for the brainless, and start recognizing that secondary science teachers are valuable partners, I don’t see the situation changing.

Please excuse me while I get ready to teach three different levels of classes today for pay that would make most of you laugh.

[/rant]

Cheryl Shepherd-Adams said: How many science professors actively encourage their best and brightest students to go into teaching?

You’re right, they typically encourage their students to become university-level research professors.

But I don’t think we can blame the professors for that. First, because its pretty natural for a person to see their own profession as a worthy goal for others. Second, because Helena’s comment (“guidance counselors track the undecideds with the lowest entry test scores to the education department”) makes it clear that a negative perception of teaching extends well beyond the ranks of professors. If you think this an issue of getting professors to change their recommendations, you’re (to use an overused phrase) treating a symptom, not the disease. What you need to change is the general social attitude.

meaning? the education doesn’t necessarily effect ones faith? this is assuming a deterministic disposition, which i cant think of how it would be tested.

Well, the results could be explained by a number of underlying relationships. Maybe people who choose to major in phsyics, say, are of a mindset that makes them more likely to lose their faith as they get older or as they interact with a wider range of ideas, compared to people who choose education majors. For example, to give a grossly unfair generalisation, do you associate the sort of people who do business majors with introspection and self-doubt? That doesn’t mean the course itself is what produces the changes in belief.

I see simple natural selection in action here. College profs don’t need to major in education, so the only ones majoring in education are the ones hoping to become school teachers.

What are the pros and cons of being a school teacher? + points are job security, good health coverage, predictable working hours, less performance anxiety, lots of holidays and summer vacation and general respect in the community. The - points are lower pay in general, stress related to handling disobedient students and parental and bureaucratic interference.

What kind of people will find this package attractive? Not class toppers, not risk takers, not sports jocks, not ambitious people. Take these out, and what are you left with? This explains why below average students end up as education majors.

But why does below average academic performance correlate with more traditional religious views?

jswise said:

Studying real science doesn’t turn people into atheists after all.

Nope, apparently studying history does. ;o)

Ravilyn Sanders said: What are the pros and cons of being a school teacher? + points are job security, good health coverage, predictable working hours, less performance anxiety, lots of holidays and summer vacation and general respect in the community. The - points are lower pay in general, stress related to handling disobedient students and parental and bureaucratic interference.

What kind of people will find this package attractive? Not class toppers, not risk takers, not sports jocks, not ambitious people. Take these out, and what are you left with? This explains why below average students end up as education majors.

But why does below average academic performance correlate with more traditional religious views?

Ummm Ravilyn, your analysis is a bit off.

First, job security and good benefits are definitely a thing of the past, especially with our current economic situation. Teachers have been forced to pay more for worse benefits for more than a decade now.

Second, I’m not certain what you mean by “performance anxiety” or predictable hours when comparing a “teacher” to a “professor” (or vacations for that matter). When I worked at the university I had summers off, a month off in December-January, and a spring break. Now? Basically the same schedule but with only two weeks off in December-January. I can also tell you, quite honestly, that high school kids will know instantly if you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, so there was just as much performance anxiety on my first day teaching in a high school as their was on my first day teaching at the university.

Finally, I see a huge difference between teachers at the elementary level and those at the high school level. Many, I can’t honestly say most, but many high school educators started as successful majors in their fields and then received teaching certificates after the fact. Personally I had completed my BA and MA when there was a health issue in my family that ended my studies. I decided that I had enjoyed teaching enough as a lecturer that going back for my PhD was no longer a requirement. I’ve known teachers who decided against law school, medical school, or left professional life because they wanted to do something more worthwhile. Perhaps your scenario for education majors fits the profile of elementary teachers (frankly many of them creep me out), but it isn’t reflective of upper level K-12 education.

Interesting! Though saying it’s because of “postmodernism” is a bit of a jump.

As a social science major, one of the most enlightening things about the program was how it exposed me to perspectives different from my own. More importantly, it exposed how our “truths” change over time. History, Psychology, Sociology, all of those courses focus on changes through time and across cultures.

Psychology also exposes the unreliable nature of our own memory and perception.

It might be hard to remain religious – and therefore believe in an unchanging truth – when you see how all human cultures rewrite the “truth” every day, everywhere, and how we ourselves distort and misinterpret the worlds around us.

Postmodernism has the same underpinnings, but even if it were removed from (say) the English Lit and Film curriculums, the social sciences would still – I think – have exactly the same effect on students. It certainly did on me!

As a former college advisor, I can’t tell you the number of students who wanted education because (to quote the students) “I’m not smart enough for nursing or business.”

I was a science major who went into teaching. I lasted 5 years. I loved teaching science. I hated the mandatory attendance at football games and the morning bus duty in January and the 3 staff meetings a week and a principle who didn’t understand science, didn’t like science, and thought the $200 budget I had for science equipment and supplies was wasted money.

BTW: Whoever said that teachers are ‘a respected member of the community’ must not be a teacher. Teachers (at least the various places I taught) are somewhere between janitors and babysitters as far as parents are concerned. It’s obvious (at least in Texas) that the state board of education thinks so too. It may be different where you are… it’s probably not that different.

To get more scientists into public schools, will require a huge shift in the current education paradigm. Better pay, respect of staff and parents, more authority in (and out) of the classroom, etc.

I’d say that you answered your own question.

Cheryl Shepherd-Adams said:

It’s an issue that bothers me to the extent that on my one-and-only chance to ask a question of a Nobel laureate, I asked “how do we get college and university science departments to encourage their top students to go into teaching instead of steering them away from it?”

Please excuse me while I get ready to teach three different levels of classes today for pay that would make most of you laugh.

[/rant]

To follow up on what dogmeatib said, another problem is the poor social standing of teachers today. In popular media, most of the time teachers (whether at grade school or college) are portrayed poorly. Ben Stein’s infamous role is a good example. Teachers are subject to disrespectful students, often backed up by their parents who can’t believe that a student’s poor performance is not due to the instructor. Just about every elementary through college instructor that I know has horror stories where a parent intervenes inappropriately on behalf of their darling child, no matter what happens. This, backed up by poor pay, etc. is IMHO a major societal problem.

If we really want education to improve, we as a society really need to give more respect to teachers, both on a personal and financial level. This, I think, will draw more competent teachers into the profession.

dogmeatib said:

Ravilyn Sanders said: What are the pros and cons of being a school teacher? + points are job security, good health coverage, predictable working hours, less performance anxiety, lots of holidays and summer vacation and general respect in the community. The - points are lower pay in general, stress related to handling disobedient students and parental and bureaucratic interference.

Ummm Ravilyn, your analysis is a bit off. … Second, I’m not certain what you mean by “performance anxiety” or predictable hours when comparing a “teacher” to a “professor” (or vacations for that matter). When I worked at the university I had summers off, a month off in December-January, and a spring break. Now? Basically the same schedule but with only two weeks off in December-January. I can also tell you, quite honestly, that high school kids will know instantly if you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, so there was just as much performance anxiety on my first day teaching in a high school as their was on my first day teaching at the university.

Mike Elzinga and Cheryl Shepherd-Adams -

I actually agree with both of you, odd as that may seem.

I think a lot of Mike’s frustrations have validity, but I also think that teachers as a group, with plenty of exceptions, are intelligent and competent.

It’s okay if most high school teachers are not chosen from the most motivated and gifted university science students. In fact, extensive expertise in a field at the upper undergraduate or graduate school level is, to some degree, ideal, but hardly necessary, in a high school or elementary school teacher.

A potential teacher needs to be motivated and gifted enough to fully master the high school curriculum, at least up to the level that they are expected to teach, AND be highly conversant with the next level down the line.

If you’re going to teach pre-calculus, you should be an expert on all the algebra and trig problems in that course, and be pretty conversant with initial calculus, because that’s what you’re preparing students for.

The blunt truth is, there are many more teachers needed, and many more people who can be teachers, than there are potential creative contributors to science at the professional, grant-funded level.

There’s no reason to steer a highly motivate potential PhD or MD into high school teaching. If they want it, they probably shouldn’t be discouraged, unless there’s strong evidence that they would make serious original contributions to a field of knowledge as researchers, but such people are few, and many people can teach.

What worries me is not that education majors have less math expertise than electrical engineering grad students, but the thought of religious authoritarians (who may not perceive themselves as such), however gifted they may be, seeking out education degrees in disproportionate numbers.

A teacher who is consciously or unconsciously motivated to use their position in a public school, or diverse private school, to promote their own religious views as the “official” or “scientific” view sanctioned by the teacher figure, is potentially a disaster.

Such personalities seem to have an obsessive need to engage in an intimidating and brow-beating style of prosletyzing, to insult the beliefs of others, and to violate the commandment against false witness with “stealth” efforts to do these things even when instructed not to.

In high school and university, and even a stint in trade school, I would often run into instructors who were very well educated and current in their fields, so much so that many of them radiated an aura of impatience and disdain for people who were still learning what they learned 20 years or more earlier.

Even people who were farther ahead in their majors than me defended these profs with an arrogant “well I guess you could think that about him if you’re a first year but he’s really very good”.

Or tenured cadavers who didn’t remember the dim, dark past when they were undergrads, just skimmed over the introductory course material, and then expected detailed insights from their students.

So in some ways I’d rather have a prof fresh out of his dissertation who still gets a buzz out of explaining things they’ve just learned in the past few years, or even an education grad who’s still learning the course material, than a seasoned veteran.

Nonetheless, I still think there never will be enough money to pay the good K-12 teachers what they’re worth. Kinda like cops and nurses.

Cheryl Shepherd-Adams said:

By labeling all who go into education as “whiners,” etc., you’re doing a great disservice to those of us who did put in the extra coursework so we could use our science degrees to teach.

I actually have considerable knowledge and experience with this; and Cheryl is one of those wonderful exceptions I wish we had more of in primary and secondary education.

In the twilight of my research career I did, in fact, go back to teach at a secondary level; albeit with a select group of highly motivated and extremely bright high school students at a math/science center (I had a teaching certificate I had never used, having taught at nearly every level above that and worked primarily in research in academia and industry). Many of these students were taking calculus as freshmen and sophomores, and I and the other teachers moved them on from there. We had very little of the discipline or motivational problems found in typical high schools.

But part of my responsibilities involved being an educational consultant to surrounding school districts, so I got to see the inner workings of quite a number of school programs. Most were quite pathetic for a large number of irrational reasons. The number of highly motivated teachers, especially in science and math, were few.

I also taught summer courses involving laboratory technology to graduate student teachers at a local university. The whining I mentioned in my previous comment was still a characteristic I had observed nearly 50 years earlier. The highly motivated teacher was the exception, not the rule.

But I also observed the incredible inanity of the so-called “professional development” activities imposed on the teachers by their administrators in nearly every school district with which I interacted. These activities were so inane and boring that they would make a grown person cry with frustration, yet they were required regularly throughout the year and teachers could not escape them. Attendance at national and state professional meetings such as physics, math, chemistry, biology and other disciplines did not count as “professional development”, nor did winning summer research opportunities at places like the national labs or NASA count toward those required hours.

As to the courses in education, some of them were helpful, especially the methods courses taught within the science departments. Most, however, were as inane and those “professional development” activities imposed by school administrators. A few others involving the laws were informational. But nearly all these courses could have taken up far less time than they did; the density of knowledge and information was simply too low.

It’s an issue that bothers me to the extent that on my one-and-only chance to ask a question of a Nobel laureate, I asked “how do we get college and university science departments to encourage their top students to go into teaching instead of steering them away from it?”

His response?

“A 2x4 with a nail in the end of it.”

Unfortunately, all too true.

And this highlights another problem with the interface between primary and secondary education and the disciplines of science (probably other disciplines as well); it hasn’t been until relatively recently that the professional societies have begun to welcome teachers into their fold and treat them as professionals instead of children to be talked down to.

But only a very few teachers take advantage of this emerging relationship to the members of the larger scientific community. Some of that has to do with the financial cost of that involvement (school districts don’t pay for it or encourage it); but most of it is due to lack of interest.

But having said all that, in all fairness I should also point to another set of circumstances with which I am quite familiar. I mentioned this on another thread a while ago.

Please excuse me while I get ready to teach three different levels of classes today for pay that would make most of you laugh.

I know exactly what you mean. In the year before I retired, I taught four preps, calculus, advanced calculus, statistics and advanced physics. It was a killer.

Mike Elzinga said:

But I also observed the incredible inanity of the so-called “professional development” activities imposed on the teachers by their administrators in nearly every school district with which I interacted. These activities were so inane and boring that they would make a grown person cry with frustration, yet they were required regularly throughout the year and teachers could not escape them.

Could you be so kind as to give us some specifics on said boring inanity?

I don’t see that you can really conclude much from this study-much less blaming or crediting post-modernism.

As some posters have pointed out, to start with you may have self selection bias. People who are prone to certain kinds of ways of thinking self select for specific subjects. Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Humanities require a lot more questioning of one’s foundations. Some do so more than others.

Another point is that post-modernism could just as easily lead to increased religiosity.

Also, while “post-modernism” (which btw is a very vague, amorphous term) has made some inroads into social sciences, most social scientists are not full bore post-modernists (whatever it means to be that).

Ginger Yellow said: business majors with introspection and self-doubt?

i do see carefree confidence cultivated by those with less wisdom and whose skill set largely relies on fast verbal illusions. but recognition and production are the same skill set… so it still seems a chicken or the egg argument.

i don’t think disposition alone can determine the fields people study and become less observant. There are other factors contributing to stubborn-parochial fixation that causes people to ignore facts

facts they cant see but also don’t want try and see and have no immediate need to see.

i read Philip Caputos works on how in the Vietnam conflict he lost his faith. I cant imagine a hypothesis that measures capacity, or disposition, to loose observance in cept for hindsight. So maybe evolution class doesn’t change 1 form of dispossition, but seeing wild pigs feast on the charred flash of a napalmed human does. i’m just saying.

I wonder what the grapgh would look like - plot IQ or ACT/SAT scores vs. “religious observance”

Science Avenger said:

Could you be so kind as to give us some specifics on said boring inanity?

Sheesh, it makes me nearly vomit go have to go back over it.

(1) Spending entire days with “consultants” who engage the teachers in games such as holding hands and meditating and searching within oneself for peace and relaxation.

(2) Meeting with a “poet” to search for “broader meanings” in the world around us.

(3) Meeting with educational “testing consultants” who are attempting to drum up business to test students for their “learning styles”. The testing involves collecting information that looks suspiciously like what an astrologer would collect.

(4) All day discussions about “educational philosophy” with the kind of business “experts” you can find advertised in those magazines in the seat pockets on airlines.

(5) Excessively repeated requirements to go over the “rules”; perhaps useful for new teachers, but the veteran teachers were required to be there also.

(6) All sorts of pop psychology crap about relationships and self-esteem. This seems to be a favorite with many administrators.

I could go on and on, but the sensations of vomiting are starting to appear.

In general, no allowances are made for the differences between experienced teachers who have heard it all before and the new teachers who might benefit from some relatively short informational meetings.

Very rarely would there be any kind of sharing of techniques, especially lab techniques and technology, among teachers from several districts meeting all at one time. One generally had to go to real professional meetings at the state or national level to get any of this kind of interaction; but that didn’t count as professional development.

also - the quality of teachers will not improve until, as a society, we are willing to compensate teachers WELL.

one of my ‘hot buttons’ is one someone complains about how teachers are ‘overpaid’ for such an ‘easy’ job and how they only work 9 months out of the year. (this usually comes up when a talks of a strike are in the news)

I recieved my BS in Biology from a big 10 university before going back for my teaching certificate as a grad student - I quit teaching because I was dis-satisfied with the pay and sick of the politics

I will not speak to primary school teachers (k-8) but I can say from experience that secondary school teachers have a high stress job, long hours, low pay, little reward. Do you want your summers off? Unless you have some seniority - you will be teaching summer classes / coaching/ going to school full time during those months. Do you want a ‘work day’ that’s only 9-3? I don’t know when you’ll be grading papers, preparing lesson plans, attending meetings, mentoring extra- curriculars, meeting with parents etc - the BEST teachers WORKED 12-13 hours days - often for less pay that the school janitor got.

My biology department requires a higher GPA in science and math courses of our secondary education majors than we do of our pre meds.

I have seen several university-wide semester grade reports. All of the students in all of the education department courses made A’s. Is this not evidence that education professors know how to teach? Would that they would share their expertise with the rest of us.

I’ve supervised a number of our student teachers in local high schools. I’ve been well impressed by what I saw going on there. However, students come to the university out of those same high schools and seem to have learned absolutely nothing. I am at a loss to understand this.

eddie said: But planes will not fall out of the sky if aerodynamics is radically revised tomorrow. Nor will my refrigerator stop working even if all of thermodynamics is rejected on Sunday week.

If planes and refrigerators stopped working tomorrow, I expect you’d have less confidence in science. If so, you are basing your confidence in science at least partially on empirical evidence, not merely on faith of what others tell you.

In fact your entire paragraph belies your original argument (that you accept science based on faith, rather than empirical evidence), because to prove me wrong what do you do? You cite some observable. You’re basing your confidence in science on observables. If you really, honestly did accept science on faith, your counterargument would’ve run something like this: if Dawkins wrote a book tommorow rejecting evolution, then I’d reject it too.

Arguing from pragmatics that planes and refrigerators work, therefore the explanation behind them must be (absolutely and unquestioningly) true, simply isn’t convincing.

I never said that. I said that observations increase your confidence in science. They impact your belief. Thus your belief is not pure faith, its at least partially empirical. I avoided the word ‘truth’ intenionally. Your argument was not about truth, it was about your basis for believing in science. And I’d bet a lot of dollars that part of that basis is your observation that scientists tend to build machines that work as advertised, while theologians do not.

A major factor in acceptance of evolution is the simple fact that the “arguments” against it consistently fall apart when looked at by people with the relevant knowledge.

(And some of the “arguments” don’t even wait for somebody with relevant knowledge, when obvious logical fallacies are involved.)

Henry

eddie said:

Planes do not fly by aerodynamics, they fly by being constructed correctly by engineers. Aerodynamics offers an explanation of why they don’t fall out of the sky and may (I haven’t studied aerodynamics either) even offer hints to said engineers about how to construct better planes.

But planes will not fall out of the sky if aerodynamics is radically revised tomorrow. Nor will my refrigerator stop working even if all of thermodynamics is rejected on Sunday week.

Arguing from pragmatics that planes and refrigerators work, therefore the explanation behind them must be (absolutely and unquestioningly) true, simply isn’t convincing.

That said, even if I could come up with a sociological reason why a particular refrigerator engineer believes in thermodynamics, and even convice her of the origin of her beliefs, there’s no good reason why she should stop designing perfectly functional fridges based on those beliefs.

This seems a bit muddled.

Much of the technology we use has been developed from knowledge of science. Most planes designed these days are “flown” on computers, using the laws of physics, before they are even built and flown in the real world. The fact that they fly in reality, and do it extremely well, is pretty strong evidence that the laws of physics, as represented by the computer program, are real.

It is understandable that laypersons would not know just how much of the knowledge of science goes into the day-to-day work of scientists. One can’t even design and build equipment that has never existed before and have it work without understanding those laws.

Most scientists - I can certainly speak for physicists - work routinely with epistemological and ontological issues when building detectors and other laboratory equipment to make measurements. One cannot even characterize new particles or study in detail a new phenomenon or new implications of the physical laws without being guided by a deep understanding of those laws.

Cyclotrons will not work if relativity is ignored in their design. Computers would not work if quantum mechanics is ignored in the design of the circuitry in their central processing units (CPUs). All the mundane electronic devices would not work either. Even if the classical Maxwell’s equations are ignored, circuits wouldn’t work.

The mere fact of our existence and the existence of the universe in which we live and move around are extremely strong evidence that there are underlying rules by which Nature behaves. The fact that we can learn those rules and build technology from an understanding of those rules is itself evidence that there is an objective reality “out there” that we can understand.

Even primitive humans and other living creatures make use of the regularities in the rules of Nature in order to exist. Just because they don’t know the rules doesn’t mean they don’t follow them; the ones who didn’t behave in concert with those rules died.

eddie said: But planes will not fall out of the sky if aerodynamics is radically revised tomorrow. Nor will my refrigerator stop working even if all of thermodynamics is rejected on Sunday week.

Isn’t that a bit like saying “Projectile trajectories didn’t suddenly alter when Einstein [effectively] explained gravity as bends in space-time”?

Thought experiments have their place, but seriously, all of thermodynamics rejected, but fridges still work?

The principles that lead to things that work are held because they work; because so many different, disparate “world views” (a phrase that annoys me as much as “music scene”) all converge and agree; not because of any kind of… erm… “single-perspective hegemony”(?).

Changing the language that explains the facts does not change the facts, much as relativists and creationists would like to believe it does. My big sister’s explanation of how a pull-chain light switch worked when I was 4 years old was “There’s a little witch inside and when you pull her chain she turns the light on and off”. That explanation only held because I was 4 years old and she was ripped on acid, and both of us were ignorant. It wouldn’t matter if everyone in the world except the manufacturer was 4-year-olds and acid-casualties, that explanation is still wrong, and there’s no way you could use that explanation to make a pull chain light switch. It has nothing to do with perspective or heredity or environment or any sociological excuse.

eddie said:

With your concern for evidence, you will have no trouble providing a reference for an SSK proponent who says “evidence is never the cause of the beliefs of scientists”.

It’s almost an exact quote from David Bloor-I’ll find the precise reference later. It’s also the fundamental building block of SSK. Many people-most people I would venture to say-accept that false beliefs rest on blind prejudice or habit that is commonly socially accepted-or even on outright coercion. The whole point of SSK is that scientific beliefs-say for example laws of mechanics or thermodynamics-are no more justified by evidence than are the beliefs in fairies and witches.

Do you really deny this is the point of SSK?

From which I take, scientists are somehow exempt from being members of society (whether in general or not).

See how you yourself make this slide from Strong to sensible sociology of knowledge? Of course scientists are members of society. And of course scientists can be and are wrong. Of course scientists may be convinced by something other than evidence.

But that doesn’t prove that science, when done well, doesn’t arrive at its conclusions honestly.

There is a ton of literature in philosophy of science on the problem of evidence, how it is interpreted, what counts as evidence, how research traditions or paradigms influence inquiry. The logical empiricists even acknowledged this as early as the 1930’s. C.S. Peirce was writing on similar themes in the late 19th century.

The issue is that honest inquiry practiced by a group of people committed to truth can arrive at conclusions that are more likely to be true than conclusions reached by dogma or claims to revelation.

Just in case you fail to find a source for your claims about SSK proponents (although I have every faith in you), it is obvious that evidence causes beliefs. The difficult question is what counts as evidence in the first place.

It seems to me that you admit this is the basic premise of SSK-and then predictably-you try to deny it.

Why don’t you come out and say what you think SSK is-and is not. Why don’t you give some quotes. Why don’t you explain to us how the poor SSK proponents have been so maligned and misquoted.

The whole point of SSK is that scientific beliefs-say for example laws of mechanics or thermodynamics-are no more justified by evidence than are the beliefs in fairies and witches.

So SSK proponents have figured out how to build a pull-chain light switch with a witch inside? Or took one apart and found her?

Sounds like bullshit to me.

eddie said:

Chip Poirot said: SSK is not trying to explain the beliefs of people in society in general. It is trying to explain the beliefs of working scientists.

From which I take, scientists are somehow exempt from being members of society (whether in general or not).

I feel I should point out that when you’re talking about “society in general” you’re talking about more than just the subset that’s working scientists, and not everybody-except-working-scientists. When you’re talking about working scientists specifically, you focus on the scientists rather than the “society in general” part. It strikes me as sloppy to go from Chip’s statement to your conclusion. You can be a member of society without being representative of your society in general.

fnxtr said:

The principles that lead to things that work are held because they work; because so many different, disparate “world views” (a phrase that annoys me as much as “music scene”) all converge and agree; not because of any kind of… erm… “single-perspective hegemony”(?).

Also, alternative “world views” or rather, hypotheses, to explain things that work have been tried as well, and found lacking because the evidence doesn’t support them. As an example, Lysenkoism was very much a different, largely sociologically constructed, approach to agriculture than those based on Mendelian genetics, and when Lysenkoism failed it did so in spite of all the social investment by the people who wanted it to be true. The evidence just does not support Lysenkoism, even in social systems where the ideas behind it were amenable. By contrast, the evidence rather than the culture supports normal genetic explanations for inherited factors that affect crop yield. Scientists working with genetics knew better, and no amount of political pressure was going to genuinely change their beliefs about Lysenkoism.
That’s the thing about science, that you can take different ideas and put them to the same set of tests to see which one works better. The success or failure of the explanation to fit the evidence is pretty much independent of the social pressures surrounding the tests. If some society just doesn’t like the answers that best fit the evidence, well, they’ll fall behind the societies that do accept those answers, which is one of the consequences that drives me to learn as much as I can about evolution (and other political hot-button science issues).

Maybe there’s a reason that the word “switch” contains the word “witch”? :p

Wheels said:

When you’re talking about working scientists specifically, you focus on the scientists rather than the “society in general” part. It strikes me as sloppy to go from Chip’s statement to your conclusion. You can be a member of society without being representative of your society in general.

It is also a fact that vastly different societies invent and make use of technologies from an understanding of how Nature works. Sectarian backgrounds, political backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, gender, age, ideology; all these are irrelevant when it comes to the rules of Nature.

It may be the case, however, that some of these kinds of backgrounds prevent members of a society from ever obtaining an understanding of those rules of Nature. For example, ID/creationism always gets them wrong; hence, no productive research or understanding emerges from that community.

Just because one is blind doesn’t mean that others can’t see either

It is also a fact that vastly different societies invent and make use of technologies from an understanding of how Nature works. Sectarian backgrounds, political backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, gender, age, ideology; all these are irrelevant when it comes to the rules of Nature.

And, that point pretty much clobbers the notion of a conspiracy among the science “community” - it isn’t a community in any literal sense of that word.

Henry

Chip Poirot said: It’s almost an exact quote from David Bloor-I’ll find the precise reference later. It’s also the fundamental building block of SSK.

Looking forward to it. Not for my own sake, of course, but some of the posters here at PT get understandably agitated when someone makes a grandstanding claim about an entire discipline and then doesn’t back it up with good, hard evidence.

Just to refresh your mind, we’re looking for a quote that says that evidence is never the cause of beliefs in scientists.

When you’ve found your quote (from Bloor, apparently), I’ll let you know whether or not that is the version of SSK I’d be willing to defend.

“[T]he validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences is in no way a ected by factual evidence.” Gergen (1988, p. 37)

Gergen, Kenneth J. 1988. \Feminist critique of science and the challenge of social epistemology”. In: Feminist Thought and the Structure of Knowledge, edited by Mary McCanney Gergen, pp. 27{48. New York: New York University Press

“The natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scien-tific knowledge.” Collins (1981, p. 3)

Collins, Harry M. 1981. \Stages in the empirical programme of relativism”. Social Studies of Science 11: 3{10.

Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature’s representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome | Nature to explain how and why a controversy has been settled.Latour (1987, pp. 99, 258)

Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. </blockquote

For the relativist [such as ourselves] there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such. Barnes and Bloor (1981, p. 27),

Barnes, Barry and David Bloor. 1981. \Relativism, rationalism and the sociology of knowledge”. In: Rationality and Relativism, pp. 21{47. Edited by Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes. Oxford: Blackwell.

Science legitimates itself by linking its discoveries with power, a connection which determines (not merely influences) what counts as reliable knowledge.

Aronowitz (1988, p. 204)

Aronowitz, Stanley. 1988. Science as Power: Discourse and Ideology in Modern Society. Minnapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

I leave it to Eddie to show that these quotes are unfair or out of context. I repeat my earlier point: SSK advocates are either saying something interesting and important-but not all that earth shaking, or they are saying something quite radical.

Which is it? I think the quotes and the record suggest the latter-or else there seems to be little point-or controversy to the whole matter. Eddie himself seems to first say it, and then take it back.

So, just what is your point Eddie?

Chip Poirot Wrote:

I leave it to Eddie to show that these quotes are unfair or out of context. I repeat my earlier point: SSK advocates are either saying something interesting and important-but not all that earth shaking, or they are saying something quite radical.

Groan! These quotes are every bit as bad as I remember from the 1970s and 80s. Not one working scientist I know can even identify with them. Instead, they would wonder if such statements were made under sensory deprivation or under the stimulus of psychedelic drugs.

Maybe we scientists can’t grasp the “depth” of such “philosophy”; but I really don’t think so.

I was going to cut and paste from the following sample, but this is apparently not possible:

Here is a link to the first chapter of Knowledge and Social Inquiry (1976) by David Bloor: http://books.google.com/books?id=hn[…]CBUQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=&f=false

In this chapter, Bloor sets out the founding premises of the SSK and distinguishes it from the teleological and empiricist view of science. Specifically what Bloor means by the teleological view of science is Mannheim’s view (as well as that of others) that it is scientific error that should be explained by sociological factors. Bloor argues for the principle of symmetry-both error and “correct” opinion should be judged equally. Of course what “error” would mean in this context is ambiguous, since Bloor rejects the idea that knowledge is justified belief. In criticizing the empiricist view, Bloor argues that very little of our knowledge is “built up” from our interaction with it.

Those interested can read the entire first chapter (which is better than just taking isolated quotes anyway) and judge for themselves whether or not my earlier description was accurate.

While the SSK program has developed significantly since Bloor wrote Knowledge and Social Inquiry I have never seen any significant departure from the underlying relativist epistemology.

Also, for those who want to see more of the SSK, simply follow the links in the post that started this thread.

I now think the ball is in eddie’s court to show that I am mischaracterizing.

The quote from Collins is out of context, from an introduction to a set of essays. (As you would know having read it.) Nor is this even an epistemological stance by Collins but a methodological one.

You are entitled to disagree with the methodology, but quote-mining to make it look like that’s Collins’ epistemological viewpoint (tried hard to avoid worldview) is ‘mischaracterizing’.

Only have time for one more (I am meant to be working), so:

Your summary of Bloor is inaccurate. To give one quote only (from p.7 of Knowledge and Social Imagery):

[SSK] 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.

eddie said:

The quote from Collins is out of context, from an introduction to a set of essays. (As you would know having read it.) Nor is this even an epistemological stance by Collins but a methodological one.

You are entitled to disagree with the methodology, but quote-mining to make it look like that’s Collins’ epistemological viewpoint (tried hard to avoid worldview) is ‘mischaracterizing’.

Only have time for one more (I am meant to be working), so:

Your summary of Bloor is inaccurate. To give one quote only (from p.7 of Knowledge and Social Imagery):

[SSK] 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.

I stand by my summary and essential accuracy. I think the fact that on one hand Bloor says that other factors work to bring about belief, and then on the other writes extensively about how reality does not bring about belief illustrates my point very well: either Bloor (and others) are saying something important, but not radical, or something really quite radical.

Either Bloor is simply repeating Mannheim-or he is critiquing Mannheim. I think your response and tactics are quite typical of SSK proponents. As I said earlier, they have a tendency to say it, and then take it back.

Now why don’t you quit playing games and say what it is you believe.

Here is a lengthy quote from Bruno Latour (2004), sort of kind of admitting that the anti-realist attitude of the last 30 years or so was a mistake and calling for a “fair way”. Of course if you read the rest of the essay, it is not at all clear what Latour is and is not arguing for. Once again, Latour exhibits this habit of saying it, and taking it back, and then saying it, and taking it back again.

This link was referenced in the previous post on PT on Steve Fuller and post-modernism: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/articles[…]cle/089.html

The quote begins about two thirds of the way down.

I’m done providing quotes. It’s up to eddie now to say clearly what he does and does not support, instead of playing clever word games so that he can have it both ways.

f you think I am exaggerating in my somewhat dismal portrayal of the critical landscape, it is because we have had in effect almost no occasion so far to detect the total mismatch of the three contradictory repertoires—antifetishism, positivism, realism—because we carefully manage to apply them on different topics. We explain the objects we don’t approve of by treating them as fetishes; we account for behaviors we don’t like by discipline whose makeup we don’t examine; and we concentrate our passionate interest on only those things that are for us worthwhile matters of concern. But of course such a cavalier attitude with such contradictory repertoires is not possible for those of us, in science studies, who have to deal with states of affairs which fit neither in the list of plausible fetishes—because everyone, including us, does believe very strongly in them—nor in the list of undisputable facts, because we are witnessing their birth, their slow construction, their fascinating emergence as matters of concern. The metaphor of the Copernican revolution, so tied to the destiny of critique, has always been for us, science students, simply moot. This is why, with more than a good dose of field chauvinism, I consider this tiny field so important: it is the little rock in the shoe that might render the routine patrol of the critical barbarians more and more painful. The mistake would be to believe that we too have given a social explanation of scientific facts. No, even though it is true that we have at first tried, like good critics trained in the good schools, to use the armaments handed to us by our betters and elders to “crack open”—one of their favorite expressions, meaning to destroy—religion, power, discourse, hegemony. But, fortunately (yes fortunately!), one after the other, we witnessed that the black-boxes of science remained closed and that it was rather the tools that laid in the dust of our workshop, disjointed and broken. Put simply, critique was useless against objects of some solidity. You can try the miserable projective game on UFOs or exotic divinities, but don’t try it on neurotransmitters, on gravitation, on Monte Carlo calculations. But critique is also useless when it begins to use the results of one science uncritically, be it sociology itself, or economics, or postimperialism, to account for the behavior of people. You can try to play this miserable game of explaining aggression by invoking the genetic makeup of violent people, but try to do that while dragging, at the same time, the many controversies in genetics, evolutionary theories in which geneticists find themselves so thoroughly embroiled.20 On both accounts, matters of concern never occupy the two positions left for them by critical barbarity. Objects are much too strong to be treated as fetishes and much too weak to be treated as undisputable causal explanations of some unconscious action. And this is not true of scientific states of affairs only; this is our great discovery, what made science studies commit such a felicitous mistake, such a Felix culpa. Once you realize that scientific objects cannot be socially explained, then you realize too that the so-called weak objects, those that appear to be candidates for the accusation of antifetishism, were never mere projections on an empty screen either.21 They too act, they too do things, they too make you do things. It is not only the objects of science that resist, but all the others as well, those who were supposed to have been ground to dust by the powerful teeth of automated reflex-action deconstructors. To accuse something of being a fetish is the ultimate gratuitous, disrespectful, insane, and barbarian gesture.22 Is it not time for some progress? To the fact position, to the fairy position, why not add a third position, a fair position?

Chip Poirot said: I think your response and tactics are quite typical of SSK proponents. As I said earlier, they have a tendency to say it, and then take it back.

To be blunt, I might have a bit more respect for your in-depth knowledge of SSK proponents if you’d shown the slightest sign of actually having read anything more than a few quotes and half an introductory chapter on Google Books.

I’m sure you’re very good at whatever it is you do. For all I know, you’re the world’s leading expert at it. However, this doesn’t make you automatically qualified to critique a body of work you haven’t fully grasped.

Chip Poirot said: Now why don’t you quit playing games and say what it is you believe.

Without playing any ‘games’ at all, I have no idea what you’re asking. If you want a full account of all my thoughts about the history of science, this hardly seems the appropriate forum. (And, it might run to more than a few paragraphs.)

So, I will second guess what you mean and state the following (er..) axioms:

1. There is a real world, and yes…

2. Human beings are capable of investigating this world and coming to interesting theories and beliefs about it.

3. No, not all beliefs are true (I would list astrology, creationism, fairies, and my continual optimism that I will get off with Katy Perry.)

4. When researching the history (or current practice) of science, it is important to be methodologically relativist (no matter what one’s own take on epistemological relativism). Otherwise, the Ancient Greeks were simply stupid for believing in a geo-centric system, and that’s the end of the story.

5. To understand the practices of scientists today, adopting such a methodological relativism enables a clearer insight into their work and theories than asking ‘is this true’? The latter question is one the scientists ask of their work, the former method is for historians and sociologists.

6. No one (repeat: no one) is asking scientists to equate fairies and electricity. However if there was ever a dispute between two groups (one who believed in fairies and one who believed in electricity) about a phenomenon, the sociologist would be interested in the belief systems of the groups, the tactics they used, and their appeals to extra-fairy and extra-electricity resources to ensure that they won the debate. Such a sociologist would take no position in their study on who was speaking the ‘truth’, for this is not relevant to the SSK programme.

7. This is (and you may dispute it only if you provide evidence) strong SSK.

This is really incredible. The proponents of the strong SSK spend decades attacking realism and empiricism, and now eddie implies “there’s no epistemology here”, only method.

The proponents of the strong SSK go to great lengths and pains to distinguish their work from that of Mannheim, then eddie says I am inaccurate when I summarize Bloor critiquing Mannheim.

Eddie asks for quotes: I give him quotes and direct citations. I provide specific lengths to read fuller, longer arguments. Then eddie complains about my use of google.

Some responses:

1. Well that’s a start. So we agree we are not brains in a vat and that evil demons or trickster gods are not pulling the wool over our eyes.

2. By saying we can come to “interesting theories” eddie betrays his actual epistemology. Note he doesn’t say or admit that we can come to true or at least reliable theories.

3. Then admits “not all beliefs are true”, which would seem to imply that eddie does believe in truth in some sense.

4. It depends on what you are trying to explain. Of course it is silly to hold ancient Greeks responsible for modern knowledge, and there are lots of ways to write intellectual history. But note how eddie embeds the implicit assumption that in the history of science, we should not be interested in understanding why some people held false beliefs and how or why false beliefs might be replaced by true beliefs. I’m not even sure what “methodologically relativist” means, aside from the fact that eddie might be arguing historians shouldn’t engage in value judgements about the past-which is an arguable, but defensible position.

5. I think methodological relativism leads to a misunderstanding of what goes right and what goes wrong with science. It goes back to the difference between Mannheim and Bloor (a point eddie refuses to acknowledge). Mannheim argued that false beliefs should be explained by social factors. Bloor argues that even “true” theories should be explained by social factors. But Bloor, and eddie, are actually committing sleight of hand here by automatically failing to account for truth.

It’s important to understand how scientists arrive at the conclusions they do. If you assume that all their beliefs are explained by social factors and not by the natural world, then you assume at the outset that truth in the sense of conformity with the natural world does not enter into the picture.

I would argue in contrast that understanding how or why scientists did or did not arrive at truth, or at least a strongly warranted claim to truth based on evidence, is central to any history or sociology of science.

6. Bullshit. It has been decades now with endless arguments from proponents of strong SSK, feminist viewpoint theories, etc. that science should not be “privileged”.

7. I’ve provided you with the evidence. No matter how many times people present the direct evidence that proponents of strong SSK and other similar approaches make relativist, anti-realist and anti-empiricist statements, they always come back with “we’re being misquoted-we didn’t really mean it” and then go on to repeat it all, attack science as “privileged”, reduce all explanation to sociological factors and then when confronted, take it all back.

Like I said at the beginning of this whole discussion. There is a need for a sensible program in the sociology of knowledge.

But eddie wants to play games.

eddie said:

Chip Poirot said: Now why don’t you quit playing games and say what it is you believe.

Without playing any ‘games’ at all, I have no idea what you’re asking.

No, what we want is an explanation of what you meant when you said this:

Consequently, my ‘belief’ in evolution is guided by ‘faith’ in the above writers, along with a few others. (I have got half way through Origin of the Species, and will attempt it again one day.)

My bold. Do you still contend that your confidence in science, Eddie’s confidence in science, is guided by faith in certain writers rather than any empirical evidence that science may be true?

I, for one, very much doubt that because you are constantly observationally bombarded with ongoing experiments of science. I think your direct observation that these experiments generally work as advertised is information you use to form your opinion about science. Which makes it empirical more than social.

In this respect, you are no different from any other westerner (in that we are all constantly bombarded…etc.)

eric said:

Do you still contend that your confidence in science, Eddie’s confidence in science, is guided by faith in certain writers rather than any empirical evidence that science may be true?

I, for one, very much doubt that because you are constantly observationally bombarded with ongoing experiments of science. I think your direct observation that these experiments generally work as advertised is information you use to form your opinion about science. Which makes it empirical more than social.

In this respect, you are no different from any other westerner (in that we are all constantly bombarded…etc.)

If you seriously believe that I obtain direct observation of natural selection every day, you must live in a very different suburb to me. And even if I lived in a physics laboratory, this would not directly affect my belief (or otherwise) in evolution. (Tangentially, isn’t it true that, of all scientists, physicists are most likely to believe in God?)

My knowledge of evolution comes only through the words of scientists in their books. As it happens, I find what they say convincing.

But it remains that case, that I am persuaded by words. Until I take up that PhD in biology I keep putting off.

By the way, which bit of ‘people form beliefs from a well-argued case in a well-written book by a knowledgable scientist’ do you find disturbing?

eddie said: If you seriously believe that I obtain direct observation of natural selection every day, you must live in a very different suburb to me.

Critters don’t kill each other where you live? Jays don’t squabble with bluebirds over food? Every single tree in your neighborhood sprouts exactly as successfully as it did last year? Your lawn has no encroaching crabgrass?

My knowledge of evolution comes only through the words of scientists in their books.

You’ve never seen a fossil of a critter that no longer exists? Thought about the fact that flu vaccines must be given every year? Thought about the fact that you are not an identical twin of one of your parents?

Perhaps I’m making an unwarranted assumption about your access to the world. How about this - I agree that it is possible for someone to gain a faith-like confidence in science when they have no access to any of the the empirical observations that support it.

Can we agree, however, that these cases do not mean that there is no observational support for science, or that empirical observations play not part in our confidence in science. In the same way that the existence of blind people does not refute the notion that people generally take sight into account when making decisions.

By the way, which bit of ‘people form beliefs from a well-argued case in a well-written book by a knowledgable scientist’ do you find disturbing?

Its the “only” in your preceding paragraph I find disturbing. Just as yesterday what I found disturbing was your claim that empiricism has nothing to do with your confidence in science.

I find that, frankly, ridiculous. You type and hit submit to post a comment because it worked before, not because you read in some book that that’s how you post comments. Your direct experience with electrical technology gives you confidence in the electromagnetic principles by which it works. AKA, science.

Not trying to stir the pot here, eric, but lots of people trust things to work without understanding why.

When I was a kid I never attributed “you look almost exactly like your father did at that age” to evolution. Doesn’t mean it’s not true, I just didn’t know it.

So Eddie’s defence that he doesn’t see evolution in action all around him is a fair one. Probably just never made the connection.

eddie said:

My knowledge of evolution comes only through the words of scientists in their books. As it happens, I find what they say convincing.

But the question is “why should/do you find it convincing?”

Granted, as a secular agnostic Neo-Darwinism fits better with my belief system than Intelligent Design. But there isn’t any reason why for example Lysenkoism couldn’t fit just as easily with that view. And if ID proponents could actually come up with some evidence, I might reconsider my views, including agnosticism.

I believe evolutionary biologists because in spite of mistakes, taken as a whole, over the long run, they are committed to truth and inquiry. I don’t believe them because they are good writers (some of them are not) or use clever rhetorical strategies.

If I saw things popping in and out of existence on a daily basis, I would indeed re-examine my ontology.

Whereas I gather you are saying you believe it out of sheer conventionalism.

But it remains that case, that I am persuaded by words. Until I take up that PhD in biology I keep putting off.

This amounts simply to the observation that humans communicate with language. The question is what is being signed?

By the way, which bit of ‘people form beliefs from a well-argued case in a well-written book by a knowledgable scientist’ do you find disturbing?

I find no part of that disturbing. I don’t see what that has to do with strong (or weak) SSK for that matter.

fnxtr said:

Not trying to stir the pot here, eric, but lots of people trust things to work without understanding why.

The issue is whether the belief is at least partly empirical or wholly social. If they trust things to work because they’ve worked in the past, the “wholly social” argument falls apart.

When I was a kid I never attributed “you look almost exactly like your father did at that age” to evolution. Doesn’t mean it’s not true, I just didn’t know it.

So Eddie’s defence that he doesn’t see evolution in action all around him is a fair one. Probably just never made the connection.

I probably chose a poor example, but to the extent that descent with modification is a part of evolution, the fact that Eddie is not a carbon copy of one of his parents is empirical evidence for descent with modification. Perhaps an accurate description of Eddie’s experience would be to say that he’d never thought about it before he read Dawkins. Having read Dawkins, he understood how empirical observations he’d never thought about before actually support the TOE. But this is not a social or faith-based belief in TOE. Its empiricism. Its just learned empiricism.

There’s a deeper philosophical issue here though. If observation gives me confidence in this method called science, and biology uses this method called science, then my confidence in biology rests in part on observation. Without ever seeing evolution, I can have empirically-based confidence in the TOE as long as it derives from a method I have empirical confidence in. Creationists are very fond of claiming the reverse. Their variation of this argument is that our empirical confidence in “lab science” provides us no empirical justification to be confident in “historic science.” That’s untrue, because the method is the same. Substitute “physics” for the former and “biology” for the latter and ask yourself if the creationist argument is any better.

eric said:

There’s a deeper philosophical issue here though. If observation gives me confidence in this method called science, and biology uses this method called science, then my confidence in biology rests in part on observation. Without ever seeing evolution, I can have empirically-based confidence in the TOE as long as it derives from a method I have empirical confidence in. Creationists are very fond of claiming the reverse. Their variation of this argument is that our empirical confidence in “lab science” provides us no empirical justification to be confident in “historic science.” That’s untrue, because the method is the same. Substitute “physics” for the former and “biology” for the latter and ask yourself if the creationist argument is any better.

I’m not sure the issues are “deep”; mostly mislabeled.

We in the science community have direct empirical evidence for what we know about the universe. Even going back to the ancient Greeks, philosophers observed patterns and tried to put them into some coherent model. The recognition of regularity in nature was already there, and it probably could be traced back into prehistory if we had the records.

The general public has their attention socially directed to a number of camps of “beliefs” about the universe; from ID/creationism, astrology, transcendental meditation, buy-low-sell-high, Ponzi schemes, to science.

If a given individual had only social pressure and assurances in order to choose among such “world views”, then any of these world views could be adopted provided that the society in which the individual lived was comfortable and well-fed and could support such views.

That emphasis is the key; as long as reality doesn’t intrude, as long as one only paid attention to what other humans said, it would not be possible to choose.

But that kind of isolation from reality cannot be sustained in the long run. If the comfortable society broke down for reasons of reality, reality would intrude. Those who get it survive; those who don’t die.

So we are left with the question of how one’s attention gets directed to the various world views that are able to exist within a society. That part is both social and empirical experience. If an individual gets input from only other humans, it is primarily social.

But many individuals, if not too protected and isolated by other humans, come into contact with the real world and start noticing the things that natural philosophers and scientists have always noticed; namely, that there is a real world that apparently has rules we can learn.

Unfortunately peer pressure can label the “scientist types” as “anti-social nerds” in order to discredit them and direct a rube’s attention away from reality.

Airplanes are designed and constructed based on aerodynamic theories which work in the real world.(I design, build and fly model airplanes.) Both Popper and Kuhn have pointed out that theories which pass some tests can be used with confidence in the areas where they have passed the tests. This is what engineers, designers and builders try to do. Sometimes they test theories without intending to; the failure of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge is an example.

I suspect your house was built on a flat earth. However, that you can live in your house does not validate flat earth theory as the best explaination of the shape of planet earth.

Jim, It is not the flatness of the earth that I extrapolate from local to general, it is confidence in the measuring technique. Give me a long enough level, and yes, I can apply a technique from the “field of home construction” to the field of geography and get the right answer to the shape of the earth.

Similarly, if I see that some technique works in physics, and works in chemistry, and works in astronomy, then I have empirical reasons to have confidence that it works biology too.

We know that the curvature of the earth is 0.6 ft per mile below a level line (there is also a correction for refraction which is not relevant here.) My point is that although flat earth theory does not accruately predict the shape of the earth on a large scale, it predicts well enough on a small scale. We are justified in building houses on a flat earth, but not interstate highways.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on November 4, 2009 3:52 PM.

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