Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Some Possible phil-o-sci Problems I want to solve

How do you properly disseminate scientific information?

Problem 1: The expert, and consensus. Consensus can be achieved amongst the respected scientific community on controversial (whether that controverys be manufactured or no) issues. The obvious topics here are evolution and global warming. However, the problem isn't with the scientific community achieving consensus. The problem is disseminating that consensus, and determining when one can claim scientific consensus such that it is acceptable to use this term in popular discourse. I take it at face value in this blog post that both evolution and global warming are issues upon which consensus is reached. The problem here isn't with the science; it's with our vision of the expert. A society unequipped with the rational equipment to distinguish between good and bad scientific claims -- and not in an immediate way. The research can take time -- is exactly the sort of society one would expect to see if it that society relied upon the image of the expert. The problem of the expert isn't that experts shouldn't speak; quite the contrary. The problem is that theatrical devices can achieve the image of the expert without the substantial mental effort necessary to become an expert. Additionally, the problem of the expert lies in the fact that experts will disagree, yet we lowly types not in the public sphere still need to be able to distinguish which expert is the better expert. This is particularly relevant in issues of basic scientific theory which happen to apply to political issues; because one can find a person with credentials who is willing to adopt a viewpoint, and use their expert status to back it up, we have a culture wherein we can easily select for the expert that happens to make us feel comfortable with our viewpoint. This is confirmation bias at work.

I state the problem of the expert because it is my opinion that this is a more basic question in the philosophy of science than the problem of demarcation. All solutions for demarcation have, at present, only excluded things which most individuals who have chosen rationality already excluded for basic, philosophic reasons. The problem of demarcation is, itself, a problem. If, instead, the philosophy of science concentrated on generating thought-technology for the lay man to integrate scientific knowledge, and to do so without excluding the majority of viewpoints already held dear, then the problem of demarcation would be swept away as an interesting question, in the same way that the problem of being is an interesting question in metaphysics. The problem of consensus is something of an ejaculatory beginning to a question I have that may or may not produce anything -- it may just be an intellectual curiosity. But it seems that one should at least have an idea when consensus is obtained if one wishes to integrate scientific knowledge into a population that, itself, does not practice science, and may not be interested in science enough to be educated in science.

Problem 2: What to integrate? As I'm heavily influenced by Dewey in my educational philosophy, I am interested in teaching methods to knowledge. In the context of science the problem with this is that science doesn't have a method, or rather that the method itself is also constantly evolving and changing with what is judged good by those practicing science, and is better learned by doing science than by formalization, but simultaneously one needs to "catch-up" with the facts before this process can begin. This is a necessity for the progress of science, but it does leave one contemplating the educational question in a quandary: What do you teach the public? Just the facts? But the facts change. The method? Again, so does this. That which is relevant to policy decisions? But here we run into the problem of the expert, and setting ourselves up as experts, which appears, in a theatrical sense, exactly like any expert. (Relevant side note: this highlights just how important Aesthetics are, or can be)

Problem 3: Alienation. While the wonders of science are wonderful to those in the in, the wonders of science appear mechanistic and destructive to a large fraction of the population. And this isn't totally unfounded -- the scientific community should never play apologist to the atom bomb, for example. I think it is in the problem of alienation that one is best able to explain the reaction against evolution, for example. Our cultural understanding of spatio-temporal explanations fall on the logical side of the divide, while our values fall on the extra-scientific side. And, what's more, the scientific community doesn't actually question itself on questions of the ethical impact of disseminating scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge needs be known -- the end. While I'm sympathetic to the need to disseminate knowledge, we also need to question How it is disseminated, and in what way it ought to be disseminated. Several viewpoints which seem to be working great for a large section of the population on their quest towards happiness (the real point of life) run counter to scientific knowledge. As Bertrand Russell said in What I Believe, you need knowledge in addition to love. The problem of alienation arises through our pursuit of the first and our negligence of the second. An answer to this question of alienation is the active integration of scientific viewpoints with existing, followed, and practiced philosophies that seem to work and don't run counter to being able to participate within this rational process. The ethic of this type of work should be -- if a worldview can be justified, then it should be justified. As I've become accustomed to a virtue-theory ethic, this can be justified by our cultural value of pluralism.

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