Saturday, March 14, 2015

Science & Politics

It is generally assumed that religion is a cause of political conflict.  That assumption is wrong.  Politics is the cause of political conflict.  Religious controversies drive politically controversies only when theological doctrine and religious practices become part of the self-identification of some political faction and/or, more importantly, when some faction comes to regard certain doctrines or practices as definitive of its enemies.  
Much the same thing is true when we consider the politicization of science.  The political left in the United States often accuses the right of being “anti-science” and the left is right, if you mean that conservative political views often determine what scientific evidence a conservative is willing to accept.  However, according to Erik C. Nisbet and R. Kelly Garrett.  They conducted a recent study of how political bias leads conservatives and liberals to distrust science.  The study is published in the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and they summarize their findings in The New Republic. 
Nisbet and Garrett found that “Conservatives are no more biased about science than liberals are,” to cite the title of the TNR piece.  The authors consider two explanations for the ideological divide between conservatives and liberals over scientific issues. 
The first explanation assumes that conservatives are inherently anti-science as they tend to be more dogmatic and close-minded compared to liberals. They are therefore more “motivated” to reject scientific information that clashes with their world view and distrust its sources (in other words, scientists).
In contrast, the second thesis argues that though there are some nuanced psychological differences between liberals and conservatives, it would be a mistake to overstate them. Liberals are viewed as no less likely to respond to scientific information in biased manner than conservatives.
For instance, liberals and conservatives are equally likely to reject fact-checking messages that contradict misperceptions or believe in false political rumors about candidates they oppose.
I am inclined to accept the second explanation, whether because of brain design or because it happens to confirm my thesis, stated above.  
Unsurprisingly, we found that conservatives who read statements about climate or evolution had a stronger negative emotional experience and reported greater motivated resistance to the information as compared to liberals who read the same statements and other conservatives who read statements about geology or astronomy.
This in turn lead these conservatives to report significantly lower trust in the scientific community as compared to liberals who read the same statement or conservatives who read statements about ideologically neutral science.
Significantly, we found a similar pattern amongst liberals who read statements about nuclear power or fracking. And like conservatives who read statements about climate change or evolution, they expressed significantly lower levels of trust in the scientific community as compared to liberals who read the ideologically-neutral statements.
Biased attitudes toward scientific information and trust in the scientific community were evident among liberals and conservatives alike, and these biases varied depending on the science topic being considered.
As is the case for religious ideas, some scientific ideas are politically significant and some are not.  The former are those around which genuine political factions coalesce. 
There is probably no way to remedy this.  Religious wars in the West were ended not so much by deciding that religion was politically irrelevant as by a collective decision that politics was religiously irrelevant.  We discovered that we are not such fools as to believe that God needs us to save Him.  It will be harder to work that same strategy for science and politics.  Evolution is the right theory or not, regardless of whether a school board in Texas likes it.  Deciding what to do about climate change requires a lot of judgment calls on scientific questions and those calls must be made in political, not scholarly forums. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Platonic Biology

Theodosius Dhobzhansky famously wrote that “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.”  I gather that Dhobzhansky, an Orthodox Christian, was arguing against creation scientists and other critics of Darwinian Theory.  I agree with him and will add one more step.  Nothing in Darwinian Theory makes sense except in light of Plato. 
Plato’s Socrates more famously advanced a theory of forms or ideas as a way of making sense of human perception and intelligence.  In a nutshell, the theory goes as follows.  When we perceive a physical object, say a tree, our perception only captures one possible perspective on that object.  Thus the tree looks small from a distance and large up close.  Likewise we see only one side of it at a time.  It is our intelligence, not our perceptions, that informs us that the tree is one object that has not changed as we approach it and circle around it.  That one tree is in fact invisible to the eye and visible only to the intelligence. 
We also notice that the tree itself does seem to change over time‑gray and leafless in November but green and flourishing in June.  Yet it is still this same tree: an object that is one thing and another as it extends across the dimension of time.  Likewise, we recognize this tree and another tree as one and the same kind of thing because our intelligence informs us of a pattern that is more persistent that any individual tree.  Plato (or his Socrates) supposed that the pattern was more real than the example because it was more persistent and more knowable. 
Plato’s many critics as well as his misguided disciples (Neoplatonists, for example) neglected to notice that Socrates usually qualified his speculations by saying that it is only “something like this”.  I think that it is indeed something like this and that a qualified but genuinely Platonic approach is necessary to make sense of Darwinian biology. 
I am working on revising a paper I presented last year in Montreal.  You can see critical comments on the paper by Scott James here and my reply to those excellent comments here.  Some sections of the paper and my argument can be found here, here, and here. 
In this post, I will present some examples of Darwinian ideas that are in fact Platonic ideas.  To begin with, consider this argument: if it’s a mammal, then it’s an animal; it’s a mammal, therefore it’s an animal.  That simple, biological modus ponens recognizes this here organism as an expression of a larger object that extends across time and space.  Individual mice and men come to be in dependence on larger forms that are more persistent across evolutionary time and more pervasive across evolutionary niches at any one time.  That is “something like” what Socrates had in mind. 
Evolutionary theory works exactly the same way that Plato’s theory worked: by recognizing that the caterpillar and the butterfly as well as the butterfly and the moth are, in a very real sense, the same things.  What is real is mostly invisible to the eye but visible indeed to the properly educated intelligence. 
To take another example, natural selection is a robust, Platonic idea.  Although we have no Platonic writings about mathematics, he clearly thought that training in math was essential for philosophy and regarded mathematical concepts as among the most important ideas.  Natural selection is a logical rather than strictly mathematical principle, but it works the same way as such explicit Platonic ideas as justice and the good.  Natural selection is the same thing whether it is shaping pathogens or pacifists, liver cells or lush barflies. 
I will close here with one final example: the pied flycatcher.  The male of this avian species attracts females with the implicit promise he will help provide for her and her young once they are hatched.  He often makes the same promise to a second female, but there is only some much time he can invest and the second female will find that she is cheated.  The female that he supports will spend more time warming eggs and chicks with a payoff of four or five healthy progeny.  The cheated female will be lucky if one or two survive.  The logic of fidelity and adultery are the same whether we are talking about avians or apes.  I am not sure whether Plato would be pleased to admit adultery among the ideas, but this Platonist has no problem. 
In my paper, I argue that political autonomy is another expression of biological autonomy.  All living organisms build walls between inside and outside, self and not-self, and maintain what is inside in resistance against what is outside.  Life is a Russian doll of coalitions, cells in organs, organs in bodies, individuals in tribes.  At every level, the Platonic idea of autonomy is expressed.