Tag Archives: science

Wrong Side of the Tracks

Science has always been a craft-based activity and the best scientists tend quite literally to be “hands on”. […] Gentlemen do not get their hands dirty in that way. So the greatest of British scientists have tended to be from the fringes of the UK, geographically or socially. The two towering figures of 19th-century British science were Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. Faraday, Mrs Thatcher’s favourite scientist, was the son of a blacksmith and an adherent to an obscure religious sect, the Sandemanians. Maxwell, the brilliant theoretical physicist, was a Scot.

The Secret Sex Life of Marie Curie and the personal dimension of practitioners of science.

Other Ways of Knowing

Nice post by Russell Blackford about the fact that humanities does, in fact, have methodologies, making a clear distinction from mystical claims. I think the most helpful part is pointing out that rigorous investigation is available throughout human endeavor.

What I believe is simply that there are many techniques that are used to find out stuff. All of those techniques are available to scientists, just as they are to everyone else. However, science has refined some techniques to unprecedented levels of precision, control, systematicity, and so on, and has thus made progress with problems that were intractable for thousands of years … but started to become more tractable around about the beginning of the seventeenth century.

It should also be pointed out that the techniques that science has refined to this extent are also available to humanities scholars, just as those used by humanities scholars are available to scientists. There’s just one world and there’s no clear demarcation as to what techniques are going to be useful to find out stuff about it.

Maybe it’s helpful to think of these as “other ways of learning.” There seems to be a lot of anxiety locked up in the learning–knowing matrix.

Read the whole thing at Keeping the humanities alive – and a bit on “other ways of knowing”

Science and Religion

From an interview with John Cook, the creator of the Skeptical Science blog.

Q. What is your scientific background and/or interest or activity in the environmental arena?

A. I studied physics at university and majored in astrophysics in my post-grad honors year. After completing my studies, I went into real world (a sorely needed break from academia) and I’ve been working from home for just over a decade now. I’ve never been involved in environmentalism before. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d characterize myself as an environmentalist now. While I got into global warming out of scientific curiosity, my continued interest and all the hours I spend on it are more out of concern for humanity than nature. I’m a Christian and a strong aspect of my faith is social conscience – hating injustice and caring for the poor. As I pored through the research into global warming impacts, I learned that poor and developing countries are those worst affected by global warming. Ironically, these are the countries least able to adapt to climate change.

(It may help his sense of urgency that he is Australian, where almost the entire population lives within an hour’s drive of the coastline.)

Cook has also produced an iPhone app called Skeptical Science, which contains a list of arguments against standard anti-global-warming talking points.

What Daily Thing? There Could Be Life Out There!

Last night I took a night off, and tonight I did, too, but I at least got out of the house. I joined Kishore Hari’s Down to a Science program for tonight’s presentation from Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute.

Shostak talked about the history and mission of the SETI project, and took lots of questions from a largely excited and completely sympathetic audience. I can’t really do justice to Shostak’s talk. If you’ve followed SETI at all, frankly, there was not a lot of new information, but I hadn’t quite realized what an engaging speaker he is ad lib.

And he took potshots at dolphins, Neptune, San Mateo, college education, the impoverished prisoners of the 4 dimensions we experience, people with navels, AND the post office. I mean, in a nice way, but I can’t help saying, you know, the post office has a really hard job. It’s like DNA, when you think about it, especially if you really love your Netflix subscription, as I do – so many things can go wrong it’s kind of amazing what a good job they do.

Anyway, if you get a chance to see him in an interactive environment, go!

Though you cannot fully know yourself, make an effort to detect your biases

Juliana Gallin hosts a monthly science cafe in San Francisco called “Ask a Scientist,” in which local members of the science community give a brief talk on a topic of interest to them and then field questions. It’s not always the speaker’s main focus, as in May of this year, when Berkeley vision scientist Ariella Popple spoke about broader issues of sensory perception, but the subjects are always interesting, and Gallin has built an appealing series with her curiosity and instinct for producing.

Wednesday night, the subject was “Native science,” and two speakers shared the stage: Rose von Thater-Braan and Isabel Hawkins. Thet worked together at Berkeley, where they met in the 90s. Hawkins is a research astronomer, and von Thater-Braan is a little harder to pin down. She seems to be a combination educator and corporate coach, but the CV published at her website is more of a biographical sketch, and it’s not immediately clear exactly what her path was to administration in a Berkeley astrophyics program (until 2000).

Nominally, Wednesday’s talk was about indigenous peoples’ methodologies for developing knowledge bases and how the Western approach to science can gain from a culturally competent understanding of those methodologies. So far, so good. But the result was an unhappy freighting of some words and insufficient precision with others that made it hard to take claims seriously. “The seriousness of environmental issues, a language bridge provided by the quantum world and the existence of a generation of Indigenous [sic] scholars has [sic] fueled the confluence of native and western epistemologies and revealed an emerging vision of a 21st century scientific paradigm.” So begins von Thater-Braan’s description of her Native Science Academy. In the course of the talk, “quantum” seemed to be invoked to yoke a supernatural, animist worldview with the hard sciences. “Empiricism is a first-order approximation [of indigenous science],” notes Hawkins, but von Thater-Braan steps in to stay that this observational foundation relies not only on the conventional senses but on the “metaphorical senses,” to access the spirit and energy that animate all the matter (and other phenomena) in the universe.

von Thater-Braan is Tuscarora and Cherokee, but most of the native science under discussion was Mayan because of the talk’s focus on astronomy. This lack of unity increased when the questions came out. Did the Mayans, with their superior sky knowledge and calendrical systems, understand that the earth was round? Yes, says one of the speakers. (No effort was made to address the difference between a disk and a sphere.) They believed the earth was a square, says the other. Indigenous science is based in the land, von Thater-Braan says. Except for Polynesian science (navigation), which is based in water. Polynesians could navigate the Pacific without timepieces because they used chants to keep time, says Hawkins. Really? Was this superior to their documented techniques of meshing stellar navigation, ocean current and swell observation, and observations about bird behavior – plus a probably healthy dose of trial and error?

There is a fun, anecdotal way to approach this material, and there is a satisfying, rigorous way. And then there is the way it was approached on Wednesday – anecdotal with some of the vocabulary of rigor. I’m not a scientist; in college I read literature, and my confidence in my conclusions had to be based on something other than experimental data. I have great respect for intuition, and I am comfortable with “science” being used as a bucket for various knowledge bases, without requiring “the scientific method” to be front and center. But I don’t see the value of privileging – in a sphere in which concrete answers are being sought – systems that confuse hypothesis with conclusion, that cannot distinguish between mythology and cosmology. If your “ways of knowing” can’t be tested, then how can you be sure they are illuminating rather than blinding?

Most disappointing to me was an uncritical assumption of heightened environmental awareness on the part of indigenous people, drafting the values of harmony and balance. It’s a view that strikes me as a little ahistorical in its lack of depth and attention to more pressing practical issues of geography and population. It was deepened here, though, into an explicit critique of (implicitly inherently) Western mindlessness and unsustainability, happy to name-drop the quantum without so much as lip service to equilibrium or thermodynamics, or to the elegance of seeking the simplest explanation for the broadest base of phenomena.