Monday, September 27, 2010

When technology undermines science

On the day the iPad was launched, Apple sold over 300,000 of the tablet computers. Since then, over 3 million iPads have been sold. Our society is infatuated with technology, and this affects us in ways both obvious and subtle. Here I want to examine how our adoration of technology influences the way we think about science, and in turn how we see our whole world. I should note that I write this as a scientist, and someone with a long-time interest in, and fascination with technology.

Because the words science and technology are often paired, their meanings tend to be conflated. But science can be pursued with few technological spin-offs (as is the case with astrophysics, for example) and technology can be developed without the use of science (as was the case with the early technologies developed by trial and error in prehistory). Certainly scientific discoveries can often be used to develop new technologies, and existing technologies can be evaluated scientifically. But science itself is not about developing technology, it's about learning through systematic observation and (sometimes) experimental manipulation. Some would argue that this distinction is mere semantics, but I will argue that confusion between science and technology leads to some very unfortunate consequences.

Because we're so taken with technology, and because of the close connection between science and technology, it's not surprising that science is held in high esteem. But this is a double-edged sword. The downsides of technology (e.g. sedentary behaviour patterns and burgeoning rates of obesity, global warming from carbon emissions, toxic waste, etc.) are sometimes blamed on science. On the one hand, this is fitting: for better or worse, without science, modern technologies could never have been developed. On the other hand, surely it is our society's moral, economic, and political choices that determine how scientific knowledge is applied, and responsibility for those choices should fall to the decision makers. But our terminological confusion blurs such distinctions, and science and technology are routinely seen as one and the same. Praise or criticism of one is seen as identical to praise or criticism of the other. This has lead to a curious polarization of views.

The church of science

On the one hand, a triumphalism of science has become more and more common. Science is increasingly seen as providing the most trustworthy information, or perhaps the only reliable source of knowledge, not just about the physical world, but about all aspects of life.

I believe two factors underlie this tendency. First, the products of technological wizardry provide a concrete demonstration of the mastery and control that scientific knowledge can provide. The most important point here is the universality of this demonstration: no special knowledge or education is required to appreciate the power of technology. This technological factor rides on top of an epistemological claim. As Luke Muehlhauser puts it:
the massive success of science leads me to suspect that methods condoned [sic] by science are the most successful methods of knowing we have discovered yet.
And while it seems likely that a philosophical argument such as this will only appeal to a limited audience, it nevertheless provides the intellectual muscle beneath the alluring skin of technology.

Triumphalism about science has a long historical lineage, expressed in the first half of the 20th century in the school of logical positivism, and more recently in some of the writings of the so-called new atheists. In their extreme forms, such arguments tend towards scientism, the view that only scientific statements have any meaning and that, ultimately, science will provide all the answers. The trouble is, if science is seen as having all the answers, it must either expand to encompass a much broader range of concerns, or else dismiss such concerns as meaningless. Where does that leave ethics, philosophy, literature, history, art? While science can inform each of these fields, a radical redefinition of science would be required to assimilate them. And yet that is just what is being proposed.

Philosophy. Luke Muehlhauser argues: "I think philosophy will be most productive when it functions as an extension of successful science ... ". Commenting on such thinking, Massimo Pigliucci writes:
There are profound differences in method, style and type of problems between science and philosophy, and frankly I think that people who deny or minimize this simply have not taken their time to read any philosophy, or they would immediately see how bizarre it is to deny the difference.

More broadly, I am having a really hard time understanding the agenda of people here who wish at all costs to dismiss philosophy or absorb it into science. Why are you so bent on arrogating more epistemological power to science than it possesses? Why is it not good enough to say that science is by far the best approach we have devised to understand the natural world, but that there are problems that lie outside of it and other disciplines that are better equipped to address those problems?

Ethics. Sam Harris recently gave a TED talk titled “Science can answer moral questions”, in which he argues that "The separation between science and human values is an illusion". Massimo Pigliucci described the "malady that strikes Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having." Thinkmonkey, a commenter on Pigliucci's blog wrote:
Sam Harris has simply not done the hard work needed to understand the historical and ongoing arguments in ethical theory and metaethics - the context in which the argument he wishes to make *must* be situated. Perhaps these arguments have not settled very much, but they have at least established some shared terminology and made important distinctions: Without knowing the terminology and understanding the important distinctions (and the reasons for them), Harris cannot help but be confused - and to introduce still more confusion when he attempts to engage with his critics.

Philosophy may be where all the unanswered questions live, and may not get a lot of respect thereby, but at least we try to avoid these kinds of messes. Or, as Sydney Morgenbesser famously described our collective work: "You make a few distinctions. You clarify a few concepts. It’s a living."

The Humanities. The academic disciplines concerned with the human condition include history, literature, law, languages, art, and religious studies. Aspects of these and related fields may be studied using the methods of social science. But large parts of these disciplines use methods that are not scientific. Criticism of these disciplines is increasingly common. For example, the website of Edge: The Third Culture sneers:
The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

... the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

Mathematics. Interestingly, the claim that science provides the only reliable source of knowledge is easily refuted. Mathematics uses deduction to arrive at certain knowledge, something that science cannot achieve. One response to this is to claim that mathematics is part of science. Certainly mathematics is a key tool of science, but claiming that it is part of science goes too far. A different response is to point out that mathematical knowledge pertains to abstract entities, and thus in itself is not practical. This is indeed correct, but it highlights the key point that there are different kinds of knowledge, which cannot be seen as competing, because they belong to entirely different spheres.

Science is sometimes identified tout court with rationalism, and in a you're-either-with-us-or-against-us manoeuvre, everything else is simply deemed to be irrationalism. This is more a rhetorical trick than a line of reasoning, but once again we see the definition of science being expanded at will.

Science as fiction

At the other extreme, is an anti-science sentiment that manifests itself in support for pseudoscience, quackery, and superstition. From Deepak Chopra to crystals to the anti-vaccination movement, anti-science thinking is surprisingly prevalent. As I suggested previously, some of this is a reaction against the evident problems engendered by technology, coupled with a confusion between science and technology. But some of the anti-science thinking is a reaction to the kind of triumphalism of science that I have described.

What is to be done?

I've argued that fuzzy definitions have done real damage, fueling a grandiose vision of science and its flip side, a crude resurgence of superstition and anti-science thinking. The pairing of science and technology is here to stay, and the allure of technology will continue to promote an exaggerated conception of science. What can be done in the face of this tendency?

First, it remains important to distinguish between science and technology. The careless fusing of the two terms contributes to the unwarranted expansion of the notion of science. Second, it is important to challenge attempts to expand the purview of science to non-empirical matters such as ethics. This does no good to either science or ethics. While science can certainly inform ethics, the primary focus of ethics is normative, not predictive or explanatory. Science provides the best way to understand the physical world, but it is not a source of values or meaning. Third, pseudo-science, superstition, and quackery should be challenged by insisting on high-quality evidence. However it should be remembered that such delusions are nourished by out-sized claims about the universal dominion of science. Attempts to discredit new-age nonsense can backfire when metaphysical claims are denounced as being unscientific. Science can only address empirical claims. Non-empirical claims may certainly be challenged, but not by science.

Mind your own business

Many of the issues I have discussed are particularly vexing where the mind is concerned. Advances in neuroscience have encouraged a physicalist view that in its most extreme form argues that the mind is nothing more than the activity of neurons. This idea has an interesting connection with technology. Early computers were described as being "like a brain". As computers became more familiar, the simile was inverted, and the brain was seen as being "like a computer". More recently this process has reached its conclusion, and it is common to hear that the brain simply "is a computer".

Of course it's true that the brain computes, albeit in a way rather different from our digital computers. But somehow, along with the computation, we experience consciousness, a sense of self, the impression of free will. We experience sensation (rather than simply processing signals), we feel emotion, we delight in beauty and we abhor ugliness. Questions about these aspects of mind have occupied philosophers from the earliest times. Naturally, developments in the scientific understanding of the brain have had an important impact on philosophy of mind. But the fundamental questions remain.

Unfortunately, reductionist views about the mind are flourishing, nourished by both enthusiasm about developments in neuroscience and uncritical acceptance of the technological metaphor that "the brain is a computer". It is perhaps noteworthy that Sam Harris, who argues in his new book that Science Can Determine Human Values, has a PhD in neuroscience. In a New York Times review of Harris's book (with the telling title Science Knows Best), Kwame Anthony Appiah writes:
when he stays closest to neuroscience, he says much that is interesting and important ... Yet such science is best appreciated with a sense of what we can and cannot expect from it ...
Indeed we should approach all science this way.

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Friday, September 03, 2010

Rainbow particles

My son enjoys creating Flash applications. Check this one out:


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