Oct 14 2016

Science Is Not Colonialism

science-fallismThis Youtube video is making the rounds. Relax, tape a deep breath, and take a look at the video.

The core point that the primary speaker is making is this: Science is nothing but Western colonialism imposed upon the African people (and presumably others). The only solution is for science to “fall” – she would like to wipe away all of science and start with a blank slate, so that Africans can develop their own knowledge.

She gives as an example that Newton saw an apple fall, made up gravity, wrote down some equations, and now that is scientific truth imposed on the world forever (seriously, I am not exaggerating this one bit).

The other pillar of her position is that in Africa there are practitioners of black magic who can summon a lightening bolt at their enemy. This is not explainable by “Western” science, and yet this is African knowledge, and therefore is an example of Western colonialism suppressing indigenous wisdom.

After stating that practitioners can summon lightening, someone in the audience shouted “It’s not true.” While this might be considered rude, it is an understandable impulse. The response of the moderator was illuminating, in my opinion. She stood up, shamed the audience member, lectured him about the fact that he violated their safe space that is supposed to be free of antagonism, and then forced him to apologize. 

Science It Not Colonialism

Of course, I understand the historical context here. Europeans, with their “guns, germs and steel,” and a massively racist outlook on the world, did some pretty horrible things to indigenous people in the name of colonization. This did include imposing Western culture onto colonized populations.

I also have no problem with reasserting indigenous culture, which can be considered decolonization. That’s all fine.

But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Science is simply different than art, religion, and music, despite what the radical postmodernists would have you believe.

Science is transcultural. Science is, I would argue, anti-culture, it is inherently, therefore, anti-colonial. That is because the very essence of science is to seek objective truth that is separate from the assumptions of any particular culture. Science is about breaking cultural assumptions, dethroning authority and tradition, and using a transparent and egalitarian process to figure out what is really true.

If science is working correctly, then a lab in Japan should get the same result as a lab in Sweden. There is an international community of scientists collaborating and working together to push collective knowledge forward. Science, therefore, belongs to humanity, not to any one culture.

Of course the history of science is full of failures to achieve this ideal, because science is a human endeavor. The process of science has been subverted in order to pursue cultural and ideological ends, trying to prove that one race or one gender is superior to another, for example. Science is subverted when it is used in an attempt to prove that a religious belief is factual, or to write history in a way that is pleasing to one cultural group.

The speaker’s summary of our knowledge of gravity is simply wrong. This was not one white guy imposing his beliefs on the world through Western colonialism. Understanding the nature of gravity, and of mechanics, was the result of a process of discovery and experimentation. Not only that, Newton was later overturned (in a way) by Einstein. His description of gravity was correct, but incomplete, and had to be revised by general relativity. Our understanding of gravity is not imposed by authority, but is questioned, tested, and challenged. We provisionally accept it now because it has withstood dedicated attempts to disprove it.

The irony is, by advocating for the abolition of “Western” science in favor of “African” science they are promoting a cultural and colonial view of science. They are arguing that science does not belong to humanity, and that African scientists would come up with different answers than other scientists. What they clearly really want is for science to authenticate their cultural beliefs, so they are making the same mistake as creationists, deniers, and revisionists.

This would be a massive disservice to Africa and Africans. This would, again ironically, be magnifying the harm that colonialism did to the continent, by motivating them to separate themselves from the collective human journey of science, to reject the principles of science itself, and to enslave themselves to the traditions of their past.

In fact, part of racism is to deprive indigenous people of the opportunity to participate in science. Arguing that Africa should rid itself of science is therefore playing into the hands of horrible racism.

The witchcraft that the speaker apparently wants to preserve from the discriminating eye of science is not a good thing. Belief in witchcraft victimizes children, and albinos, and women. It deprives Africans of effective medical care, and has greatly magnified the HIV epidemic in that part of the world.

This problem, of perceiving science as Western colonialism and advocating for indigenous science, is not unique to Africa. Unfortunately it has significant ideological support from well-meaning people who are appropriately horrified by racism and exploitation. Attacking science is just misguided, and will achieve the exact opposite of what its proponents hope.

Conclusion

There is no Western science, or African science, or Asian science, or Native American science, or any modified science. There is only science. Science is only science when it strives to rise above authority, above the assumptions of any one culture, and when it is open and transparent.

The ideal of science is that ideas are judged entirely by their merits, by their logic and evidence. Anyone wishing to oppose racism or colonialism should therefore enthusiastically embrace the principles of science.

Rejecting science in favor of a cultural subversion of science is harmful on many levels. It mostly harms the people who embrace such notions, and ironically magnifies the harm of racism and colonialism.

Unfortunately the video, in my opinion, shows people who have the certainty of self-righteous fury (even if the fury itself is historically justified), and who believe that shutting down discussion and shaming those who might disagree with them is the way to advance their misguided cause.

 

72 responses so far

72 Responses to “Science Is Not Colonialism”

  1. CDShamon 14 Oct 2016 at 9:57 am

    I’m a high school science teacher in South Africa, and I think some parts of this video have been misunderstood, mainly because it’s been taken out of context. This appears to be intentional, as the video is clipped out of a longer panel discussion from the UCT Science Faculty Engagements ( https://www.facebook.com/SciFacEngagements/ ). The account which posted the clipped version, “UCT Science Faculty” is not an official university account; at present, it’s not known who actually posted this.

    The speaker’s point is perhaps badly worded. Although she speaks about problems with “science”, I’d say her concerns are actually primarily with the teaching of science, the way the process, the facts, and the historical context are presented to students. I do not believe her major concern is with what’s true and what’s false, but with why a kid in Tokoza should accept alien-seeming claims presented as dogma. Finding ways to make students’ own contexts gel with the historical context of most of the science syllabus is a major hurdle to their full and deep understanding of the work. Education that doesn’t make an effort to build that bridge for students is much less likely to get anything more than superficial rote learning.

    Does the speaker literally believe that people can control lightning? Does she literally believe that Newton was wrong? I think those are the wrong questions to ask, and the broader context of the panel discussion supports that. A good science education is not about what facts to stick to, but about the process of how we come to accept or reject those things. (I think I heard that on a podcast once.) “Decolonising science” here should be thought of as a short-hand for finding ways to make the curriculum locally approachable and useful, no matter how universal the theory ought to be.

    We have a science syllabus that is still mostly unchanged from the version set under apartheid (i.e. set solely with the wealthy white minority in mind). It is still taught only in English and Afrikaans, the two European languages, despite most students having a different primary language. Textbook authors may have little idea of what’s “normal” for their audience (for example, I once taught from a textbook that spoke about a sled being pulled through snow; my students had never seen snow and had never even heard the word ‘sled’ before). Lack of resources and over-crowding don’t help (another example, I had 60 kids in one class, and only 10 chairs). Many teachers do their best to adapt these things for their own students, but it’s definitely worth giving our entire system a thorough re-build from top to bottom. And I’m quite sure that’s the sentiment the speaker in that video was trying to convey.

  2. TheGorillaon 14 Oct 2016 at 10:00 am

    I think it’s an error to say science is anti-cultural. There’s simply no such thing, and never could be such a thing, as human activity detached from culture — the interpretation of data and the questions asked will always be joined at the hip to a society’s culture. IE iq scores of minorities or the design of an IQ test period (or the very concept of IQ). Forgetting this just leads to disaster.

    But it neither means that there isn’t objective scientific truth, like the sort of extreme person in the video believes. Einstein is right (for now?) Regardless of which country or society. The soft sciences, especially sociology, however, show that science is not immune from colonial/western attitudes.

  3. Kestrelon 14 Oct 2016 at 10:30 am

    Some of the comments on the video give me hope for humanity.

  4. Steven Novellaon 14 Oct 2016 at 10:46 am

    Gorilla – I disagree. Read the article again. I plainly state that science itself, by its very conception and principles, seeks objectivity, and to weed out cultural assumptions and bias. It is absolutely anti-cultural.

    But science is a process, sometimes a long process, and it takes time to weed out culture, and there are many failures along the way. You are simply giving an historical example of one failure, or at least extreme difficulty, in filtering culture and bias out of science. The fact that you know about this, and can critique it now, just shows you that the process of science to identify cultural bias is continuing. Your example actual supports my position.

    Obviously it is going to be most challenging to sift out cultural bias when studying culture and psychology. It’s not as hard when studying electrons. It’s irrelevant to my point – the process of science inherently seeks objectivity.

  5. Willyon 14 Oct 2016 at 11:15 am

    ” Newton saw an apple fall, made up gravity, wrote down some equations, and now that is scientific truth imposed on the world forever”

    In the words of Frank Barone: “Holy crap!”

    I love ya, Dr. Novella, for bringing us things like this. It helps me feel that, while I ain’t perfect, I must have at least a half way decent head on my shoulders as compared to some “out there”. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go outside, observe something, and write down some equations. I hope I have the ability to impose my equations on the world.

  6. Jonathan Jarryon 14 Oct 2016 at 11:23 am

    It is sad that some university students combine their scientific illiteracy with their desire for social justice and create from whole cloth this monstrous straw man. I have written about this problem before (http://princearthurherald.com/en/politics-2/western-medicine-is-not-relative-663), since a McGill University student had published a piece in 2014 about “decolonizing healthcare”: http://www.mcgilldaily.com/2014/09/decolonizing-healthcare/ . Sigh. Here’s a doozy from that article: “Unfortunately, medicine in the West only accepts knowledge if it conforms to the scientific method. Any other knowledge is fetishized, seen as mystical and different.”

  7. Bill Openthalton 14 Oct 2016 at 11:36 am

    Steven —
    Actually, the guy didn’t shout “Bullshit” but “It’s not true”.

    Of course, I understand the historical context here. Europeans, with their “guns, germs and steel,” and a massively racist outlook on the world, did some pretty horrible things to indigenous people in the name of colonization. This did include imposing Western culture onto colonized populations.

    You are already down the rabbit-hole. There is nothing special about what the Europeans did during the past few centuries. All through history, humans have “moved” around, and “colonised” the local populations. Look at the history of the Han expansion in China, the Romans, the Persians, the Mongols, the muslim Arabs, the Turks, the Aztecs, etc. Each and every successful (i.e. expanding) society has “stolen” the land of people living around them, often pushing them to invade and subjugate their next-door neighbours (the Turks fled from the Mongols, and defeated the Byzantine empire, for example). Every successful culture has modified, absorbed or displaced the local cultures (to stay with the Ottoman empire, the Hagia Sophia was a church before it became a mosque — it’s now a museum, called Ayasofya Müzesi).

    The outlook of the Europeans on the world isn’t any more racist than the outlook of the Chinese on the world, and in South Africa (where the video was recorded) there is as much “racism” between Zulu and Xhosa as between “black” and “white”.

    What is different is that science (and technology) have made the world a smaller place, and have brought people closer together. We now know — through science — that there are no real differences between humans. We no longer believe that one culture is inherently superior to another. We still have some problems with the differences in moral principles, where many still believe their society’s choices should be imposed on the whole world.

    The West / the Europeans haven’t been any worse than their predecessors. But the culture they brought forth has done what no victorious culture has done before — accept the equality of the people they vanquished, feel guilt about the lives they destroyed, and a attempt to make repairs. No-one can claim this as their achievement, but it is something all humans can be proud of. Like science.

  8. Steven Novellaon 14 Oct 2016 at 11:54 am

    Bill – I agree and that is not incompatible with what I wrote I never said the Europeans were the worst in terms of their racism or colonialism. Humans are tribal.

    The Europeans, I would argue, were the most recently and broadly successful. That’s it. But that is the situation we are dealing with now.

    I also agree that culture has become more enlightened, partly through science. We are now transitioning to a more enlightened post-colonial age. That is all part of the context I am talking about. The fact that other cultures did it also throughout history does not to any degree diminish the negatives of European colonialism in Africa.

  9. Steven Novellaon 14 Oct 2016 at 12:10 pm

    CDSham – I think you are being overly generous. While the problems you point out are legitimate, and the panel may have addressed them also, I think the segment shown is pretty clear. I don’t see how you can get from what they actually say to how you are interpreting it.

    It is still a baby and bathwater problem.

  10. Rogue Medicon 14 Oct 2016 at 12:12 pm

    “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world. Science is the highest personification of the nation because that nation will remain the first which carries the furthest the works of thought and intelligence.” – Louis Pasteur.

    The “alternative” medicine pushers also like to claim that “western” science is inherently ______. They fill in the blank with whatever insult is supposed to support their logical fallacy of the moment.

    What is “western” about reproducibility?

    What is “western” about objectivity?

    What is “western” about transparency?

    What is “western” about continually learning and improving?

    What is “western” about science?

    .

  11. CDShamon 14 Oct 2016 at 12:55 pm

    “the panel may have addressed them also”

    I take it that means you didn’t actually take the time to absorb the full video (parts 1 and 2). If you’re not going to look at the complete context (when it’s been pointed out that context is key here), then you don’t get to decide how it should be interpreted.

    Bear in mind also that this speaker is a young, inexperienced student, most likely with a home language other than English. Give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she has not expressed herself as clearly as possible.

    You may also find similar thoughts expressed by more qualified academic writers helpful: https://theconversation.com/yes-mathematics-can-be-decolonised-heres-how-to-begin-65963

  12. highnumberon 14 Oct 2016 at 12:57 pm

    CDSham,
    Thanks for providing more context.
    Based on the context, I think I understand the conversation they were trying to have a little better. When the speaker was saying throw it all away, I don’t believe that she literally wants to ignore all science-based knowledge and give everything equal footing until post colonial Africa has found all the same results for themselves. I now interpret it as “When you have people who are raised to believe that someone can summon lightning bolts, you can’t just bring in this wealth of knowledge and dump it on them and say ‘What you know is wrong. Here is the truth.'” You need to recontextualize, take more of a first principles approach. Decolonize science. Show rather than just tell.
    Maybe I’m being generous but it seems stingy to interpret the conversation based on such a short snippet. Also, the person who yelled “It’s not true!” was rightly asked to apologize. It was rude and against the rules for the forum. I noticed the man next to the speaker doubling over with laughter and pointing at the yeller after the interjection. To me his body language said, “Get a load of this guy thinking that we don’t know that it’s not true, what a maroon!”

  13. jpengeon 14 Oct 2016 at 12:58 pm

    I actually had someone once try to argue that white people wouldn’t be able to understand African science because of a lack of melanin. They kept coming back to this as if it was some “gotcha” point.

  14. TheGorillaon 14 Oct 2016 at 2:19 pm

    Dr Novella – I completely understand what you are saying, and that you conceive of science as a process seeking out objective truth. Let me be more explicit: saying such a thing is *possible* is utter nonsense. The idea of any kind of scientific truth that transcends culture does not hold up to the basic fact that human beings are involved in the process, and that virtually every aspect of our engagement with the world is mediated through culture.

    That we had scientific facts to back up the idea black people are sub-human, less intelligent, or whatever is not intended to be some extreme example that is an outlier, but a very clear example of the process at work. Do you think there will ever be a point in time where culture is unrelated to the types of questions we ask? To how data is interpreted? Can there be a world where mental illness has no normative aspect? Are neuroscience programs unaffected by whether the mind is conceived computationally or as embodied and dynamic?

    Science is a human activity, and humans are cultural beings. Even the criteria that you would use to weed out biases are thought up by human beings — human beings who happen to exist and move about in a certain cultural context.

    This isn’t an attack on science or a claim that gravity is just a matter of opinion, but an attitude toward science that refuses to recognize this is not just wrong, but even actively prevents the sort of cultural bias critique that you rightly recognize as important.

  15. irenedelseon 14 Oct 2016 at 2:57 pm

    @CDSham: As someone who speaks English as a second language, I call BS on the “oh this speaker was misunderstood” part. Seriously. When you invite students to talk in public, with video of it published online for all the world to see, you also make sure the students who take part understand what’s going on, know how to make their points across, etc. This is not a speech therapy sessions, even though it’s treated as “safe space”. Safe from what? Apparently, from people who say that magic isn’t real and that things fall down to earth in Africa in the same way as they do in Europe.

    I agree with Dr. Novella that the students in Africa are done a great disservice by this kind of activity, and I’ll add one more reason to those he’s given: it’s make-believe decolonisation! What we have here is a panel in a European language, in a format typical of Western universities, based on a Western theory (postmodernism). And all published on Facebook, another tool out of the industrialised West.

    Though, to be fair, Facebook is better than postmodernism at giving Africans today the tools to communicate in their own languages: as the giants of the internet want to open new markets, they translate their services.

  16. nina79on 14 Oct 2016 at 4:18 pm

    Thank you for trying to provide some context, CDSham. Dr Novella, I think you may not be aware of the upheaval which South African universities are currently experiencing. Many of the major universities are now faced with closure after a year of protesting, chaos and violence which has resulted from the fact that most South Africans do not have access to basic amenities and receive education of a very poor standard. Although I completely agree with the points you make, it might be wise to also consider the context around this.

  17. BillyJoe7on 14 Oct 2016 at 4:42 pm

    CDSham,

    “I’m quite sure that’s the sentiment the speaker in that video was trying to convey”

    You are simply projecting.
    They are your sentiments not those of the speaker.
    There is no sense in which what she is saying aligns with you are saying.

    Please watch the video again and listen carefully to what she says and the self-righteuosly indignant way that she says it. She is simply ignorant of the nature of science. Her hubris is astounding and born of that same ignorance. There really is nothing positive at all in her presentation.

  18. BillyJoe7on 14 Oct 2016 at 4:46 pm

    “safe place”

    “She stood up, shamed the audience member, lectured him about the fact that he violated their safe space that is supposed to be free of antagonism”

    Unbelievable!

    This is a university right?
    Universities are places of learning where beliefs are confronted, not places to shelter the little children from the “nasty truths” in the world at large.

  19. FuzzyMarmoton 14 Oct 2016 at 5:47 pm

    I came away with a very different set of impressions than Dr. Novella. I’d like to contribute two main points:

    1) Science does not have a monopoly on knowledge, if one takes a broad view of what “knowledge” means. Science is the only way to understand how things like gravity and lightning work. But daily life involves much more than calculating orbits or predicting electrical discharges. Our daily decisions are based on knowledge gleaned from morality, tradition, and emotion.

    2) Like Dr. Novella says, science endeavors to be free from cultural bias and influence. However, like TheGorilla elegantly explained, this is futile. Science will always itself be a culture, shaped by the norms and prejudices of its practitioners. The questions science seeks to address, the way that it teaches, trains, and rewards it practitioners, etc.– these are all part of its culture. And that culture has historically been an impediment to diversity. Yes, science should continue to work hard to identify and eliminate its cultural biases. But it should also be humbled in acknowledging that it will always have these flaws.

  20. Patrickon 14 Oct 2016 at 6:41 pm

    FuzzyMarmot –

    I think your wording reveals a fundamental misrepresentation of “Science” that recurs in discussions about cultural biases in scientific teaching.

    A sufficient definition of “Science” is:

    “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

    The operative word here is ‘activity’ – meaning “Science” is fundamentally a process (the Scientific Method). I submit that it is the single best process humans have devised to arrive at objective truth of the natural world.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that you, and TheGorilla, are claiming that since humans are marinated in cultural bias, the creation of this process was, notwithstanding the best of intentions, tainted with these biases (specifically a predominantly Western European bias), and therefore conclusions drawn from this process are inherently flawed.

    Yet this process was rigorously created with the exact idea to REMOVE these biases by it’s very nature of identifying and singling out variables, testing specific and precise hypotheses, reproducing results etc etc.

    I ask you, what would a different method, seeped in a different cultural bias, look like? Would it, as a result of its origins, arrive at different conclusions? Could it be used to land someone on the Moon with these different conclusions?

    I think you’re getting hung up on the fact people have USED this method to further cultural biases, but are failing to see the method’s independence of these.

  21. Gotchayeon 14 Oct 2016 at 7:35 pm

    My main question about the video is that it’s not clear to me that the objection to the interrupter was that he was saying that people who believe in magic are wrong. It seemed to me like the objection may have been just that he was /interrupting/ when he disagreed.

  22. Gotchayeon 14 Oct 2016 at 7:40 pm

    I’d add that at the 30 second mark when the speaker says that science as a whole should be scratched off there’s a lot of laughing. It feels to me like this laughter is at how absurd the statement is. There’s again laughter at the interruption. Also note that they’ve clearly got some system for determining who’s allowed to talk that they’ve put a great deal of effort into, with hands going up and down even among the panelists in a way that would be absolutely bizarre for most discussions of this sort that I’ve seen.

    So I don’t see much reason to believe that most of the people here are hostile to the actual opinion expressed by the interrupter.

  23. BillyJoe7on 15 Oct 2016 at 1:08 am

    Fuzzy Marmot,

    “Our daily decisions are based on knowledge gleaned from morality, tradition, and emotion”

    There are as many moralities, traditions, and emotions as there are people on the planet with no way to distinguish between them – except through the lens of science.
    That’s why science was invented – to distinguish between multitudinous “truths”.

    “…science endeavors to be free from cultural bias and influence…But it should also be humbled in acknowledging that it will always have these flaws”

    You are confusing science with scientists. There will always be scientists with biases, but science is the method invented for accounting for the biases that scientists inevitably have.

  24. FuzzyMarmoton 15 Oct 2016 at 3:31 am

    BillyJoe7 and Patrick-

    The “process” of science is indeed highly influenced by culture. I disagree with Dr. Novella’s statement that there is only one science. What constitutes statistical evidence? Which statistical methods are best? How valuable are simulations vs. mathematical models vs. field observations vs. experimental data? What questions are most worthy of investigation? The current form of science– as a practice and institution–is highly dependent on historical circumstance. One could easily imagine an alternative history where science developed quite differently. It would still be focused on the basic principle of discovering objective, verifiable truth, but its focus, methods, and disciplinary boundaries might be very different.

    We should be cautious not to discard non-scientific sources of knowledge. For example, consider the questions of how to best organize economic systems. “Science” gives us historical data, complex mathematical models, and simulations. But this can be complemented with other sources of knowledge, including tradition, historical anecdote, literature, moral values, etc. Relying on “science” alone leads to things like the 2008 financial crisis.

    I enthusiastically agree with Dr. Novella that science should be an inclusive endeavor, and we should promote the participation from people all cultures. To accomplish that, we should check our assumptions that our current scientific culture is the only valid approach. Maybe we need to be better listeners and learn from the perspectives of people like the panelists in this video.

  25. BillyJoe7on 15 Oct 2016 at 8:50 am

    Fuzzy Marmot,

    “Maybe we need to be better listeners and learn from the perspectives of people like the panelists in this video”

    I’m sorry, I listened intently and learnt only that the panelist we heard in the video is clueless about science. Science itself is culture neutral and, even if scientists do bring their cultural biases to the table, in the final analysis the cultural influence is neutralised. Otherwise explain to me the cultural elements in Evolutionary theory, QM, and Relativity.

  26. Johnnyon 15 Oct 2016 at 9:50 am

    “A Manifesto for a Skeptical Africa” by Nigerian skeptic Leo Igwe might be of interest here: http://archive.randi.org/site/index.php/component/content/article/37-static/1891-leo-igwe.html

    It is worth pointing out that while we in the West might trace (proto) science and critical thinking to the ancient Greeks, it has appeared in other civilizations as well. For example Persia, ancient India, and Meso-American civilizations.

    To quote Amardeo Sarma, chairman of the national German skeptical organization GWUP: “Science is not Western science, it’s universal just as the skeptical movement is.”

  27. FuzzyMarmoton 15 Oct 2016 at 2:10 pm

    BillyJoe7,

    Cultural aspects of quantum mechanics: Do you see describe it using the Heisenberg representation? The Path integral formulation? Using C* algebras? What you learn depends on who your teachers are and what textbooks you encounter. And they profoundly impact how you view the field, how you teach it to others, and the types of insights you might glean in the future.

    Similarly, there are multiple ways to define and interpret the tangent space to a manifold.

    Not trying to nit-pick…. just saying that how you think about things influences how you understand and investigate things.

    And, of course, the fact that science focused so much on these particular topics is a product of culture.

  28. BillyJoe7on 15 Oct 2016 at 4:02 pm

    FM,

    I have already agreed several times that there is a cultural element to practice of science. My point is that the scientific method is a way to neutralise bias – any type of bias. It would be the height of stupidity to wipe the slate clean and start again with cultural biases built in as the speaker in the video is suggesting. I have a hard time understanding why anyone is defending that speaker. Is it because the speaker happens to be black and a woman? Is it because universities are now “safe places” where the free exchange of ideas are conditional upon them not upsetting anyone’s feelings.

  29. BillyJoe7on 15 Oct 2016 at 4:09 pm

    I think it was Spinoza who said that the worse way to find anything out is science but that it is better than all the other ways. Science is full of errors, u-turns, and dead ends, but it slowly, inexorably progresses our knowledge base and understanding of the world and the universe. And there is simply no alternative. Arts, humanities, and culture may improve your enjoyment of life but they have no truth value.

  30. DeanSAon 15 Oct 2016 at 5:40 pm

    @CDSham

    Most people are only viewing it “out of context” and what she states makes no sense in any context whatsoever. And that is as close to a Model C accent as one can get – she is not battling on any interpretation; she is hopping on the feesmustfall bandwagon.

    I’ve taught at university and have seen the effects of poor secondary education. But there are a number of private institutions, universities and even the Department of Science which are trying to spread science-based education. When the teachers at these severely disadvantaged schools stop selling principal post through their massively corrupt union (SADTU) and actually do their job, then maybe we won’t have to fill quota university positions with people like her and can get deserving previously disadvantaged students the proper tertiary education they deserve!

  31. daedalus2uon 15 Oct 2016 at 7:07 pm

    Gorilla, there is no such thing as a “scientific fact”.

    There is “data”; measurements of things happening in the universe, and “interpretations” of those measurements.

    There are no “scientific facts” that state that blacks are “subhuman” compared to whites.

    There is abundant data that skin color is mostly irrelevant in all “important” human characteristics (other than skin reflectivity), and that there is only one human species, with no subspecies. Claiming that blacks are subhuman is simply and demonstrably wrong.

    The interpretations that blacks are somehow inferior to whites is demonstrably false. When some individuals pretend that there is a valid interpretation that blacks are somehow inferior, that is either bad science, or fraud, or both.

    You can’t fault science because some individuals misuse it and lie about their misuse.

  32. Maj-Majon 15 Oct 2016 at 8:11 pm

    Steven,
    One of the best articles in a while – and they are all interesting.

    I frankly think the disagreements above are largely on semantics.

    No sane commenters here are likely to disagree that Gravity as a force of Nature *is* a feature of the Universe- not of Western culture.

    The most sophisticated objections here are from people nervous about equating ‘Gravity as feature of the Universe’ with ‘Gravity as a theory to explain it’.

    The former is *not* cultural – as in ‘jump from the balcony if you disagree.’

    The latter is cultural in the sense that there’s a planet in the Galaxy where they got to Relativity, or whatever may supersede Relativity, without having to go through Newton. There is no universal necessity in the sequence Newton/Einstein/Zefram Cochrane – this sequence is a cultural contingency and a historical accident; but spaghettification and balconies are not.

    Ironically, the contingency of the *history* of science is a central point of the epistemological approaches that are arguably the friendliest to science and skepticism. The popperian method is essentially a way to discount the historical accidents and keep sailing. In a sense, nothing is more skeptical than that this – we may never climb on top of all our biases, but it’s still the most valuable of all the climbs.

    A problem arises when this point gets misunderstood, sometimes on purpose, by the various breeds of “it’s just a theory” folks: since it’s “cultural” then screw Einstein, it can as well be our God of Blood and Thunder that moves all the stuff around.

    To be clear: none of the dissenters above seem in that league. Alas, sometimes when one brings their arguments to such level of sophistication, they risk unwittingly feeding postmodernists, creationists, and the Deepak Chopras of this world. That makes others, including myself, nervous.

    The solution, as I believe dr.Novella eloquently pointed out in the past, is to never tire to stress that there *IS* a crucial thing called “less wrong”.

    It’s not “the truth” to say that Earth is spherical, but it’s definitely “less wrong” than saying that it’s flat. How do you judge that a spherical Earth is less wrong than a flat one? Because you can do 99% of useful cartography based on the assumption that Earth is spherical. Try using flat Earth cartography instead, and see how far you get.

    A newtonian model of the world is deeply flawed, and Einstein is evidently not the final solution to all the flaws. Fortunately for us all, those models are *less wrong* than the God of Blood and Thunder, because the God of Blood and Thunder Shan’t Predict Eclipses.

    I think the concept of ‘less wrong’ is a very useful one. It does not need philosophical acrobatics, it’s powerful, easy to explain, and everybody can agree on it if they have their mind in the right place.

  33. BillyJoe7on 15 Oct 2016 at 10:03 pm

    d2u,

    “…there is no such thing as a “scientific fact””

    I empathise with you but, in fact, there ARE scientific facts.

    Scientific facts are observations that have been repeatedly confirmed over long periods of time and for which there is no discomfirming evidence so that it would be obtuse not to accept it as a fact. For example, evolution is a fact. Oddly, scientific facts can be discarded or modified if such discomfirming evidence is ever found.

  34. maxblanckeon 15 Oct 2016 at 11:36 pm

    I am not a South African teacher, but I have been working in Africa, including South Africa, for a couple of decades. I am not going to defend any of the colonialist excesses in SA or Rhodesia or anywhere else. I have been watching as they slowly become failed states. I think a big part of the rage that the speaker was trying to express comes from a frustration with her country and the world in general. As an anti-colonialist, she only knows how to express her anger in those terms. She may actually believe the lightning thing. I have worked with many people there who were competent, well spoken, yet held some very strange beliefs about the world. There is at least a component of Dunning/Kruger in play. That, and willfully not seeing the real problem.

  35. BillyJoe7on 16 Oct 2016 at 12:37 am

    Fuzzy Marmot,

    The following reference explains in more detail the cultural influences on the practice of science and how science neutralises (their word is “balances”) the effect of cultural bias. It puts a positive slant on cultural diversity. Whilst looking at the same question from many different perspectives influenced by cultural diversity helps in finding a solution, the actual solution represents a balance between these cultural influences, in effect neutralising them. Despite their biases, scientists strive for objectivity, and if they fail, they are corrected by other scientists with different biases also striving for objectivity.

    It’s from a link provided in the thread “bacteria evolving resistance”.
    Scroll down to part V: “The Social side of Science: A Human and Community Endeavour”

    http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/%3C?%20echo%20$baseURL;%20?%3E_0_0/us101contents_01

  36. andybloson 16 Oct 2016 at 12:53 am

    While the practices and directions of science are influenced by culture, the stuff it finds out about the world is not. This wouldn’t be so if there wasn’t a real world out there, independent of our various historical representations of it – but there is. Two scientists from different backgrounds can (and time and again do!) uncover the same features of this reality. Some might argue the philosophy of science is somehow ‘anti-culture’ ala the scientific method I’m not sure this is a rock solid position – the main reason science is anti-culture’ isn’t because of it’s philosophy, it’s because the universe happens to be deeply explicable.

  37. FuzzyMarmoton 16 Oct 2016 at 1:44 am

    BillyJoe7,

    Thanks for the link– that website does a great job of explaining the benefits of diversity in the scientific community. I think science needs more diversity, precisely for the reasons described on the website. To that end, we should work to make science more inclusive and accessible. That will entail acknowledging that science, as an institution, still carries many biases that are barriers to underrepresented groups. I think that the reaction to this video really shows how difficult it is for these groups to have a voice in science. Perhaps scientists (and the heckler in the video) need to be better listeners.

  38. Flip Raathon 16 Oct 2016 at 4:41 am

    You should measure your arguments against what Charles Darwin said.

  39. BillyJoe7on 16 Oct 2016 at 8:35 am

    You’re welcome, but I can’t let your mischaracterisation of the video pass without comment.
    I’m all for giving representation to everyone provided they have something worth saying, but the person in the video had nothing to say worth listening to.

  40. michaelegnoron 16 Oct 2016 at 10:10 am

    [There is no Western science, or African science, or Asian science, or Native American science, or any modified science. There is only science.]

    Let me clear up this conceptual confusion.

    Of course there is “Western science, African science, Asian science”, etc. African and Asian cultures have been trying to figure out the world for millennia.

    It’s just that Western science is the only science that works.

    “Western science” is imprecise. “Christian science” is the accurate term. Accurate science only arose once, in fervently Christian culture over the past 500 years, and accurate science depends on Christian theological and philosophical presumptions– nature is created by Intelligence and nature manifests the intelligence of its Creator, in Whose image we are created and thereby have access to His thoughts, and that it is good to pursue His plan in nature, etc.

    Only Christianity has given us good science. So science is most certainly cultural–theological to be exact–and Christian science has given us unprecedented insight into the natural world we all share.

    There is no good science without either fervent Christianity, or a heritage of fervent Christianity (either locally– secular Europe or imported–some universities in India, etc modeled on Christian European universities.)

    Good science–in the sense of theories about the natural world (not engineering)–has only arisen in Christian culture. Admit it and deal with the implications.

  41. daedalus2uon 16 Oct 2016 at 10:32 am

    BJ7, I understand what you mean.

    The term “fact” with the definition: “a thing that is indisputably the case”

    does not apply in science.

    The term “scientific fact” has the common definition: “any observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and accepted as true; any scientific observation that has not been refuted”

    does not have the connotation of something that is “indisputably the case”. Attaching a label of “scientific fact” to something doesn’t mean it is correct. There are many things that people generally accept as true, which are actually false.

    Data or ideas do not acquire any special importance in Science if a number of people accept them as true, other than that a number of people accept them as true.

    In Gorilla’s statement that there were “scientific facts” about black people being inferior in a number of ways to white people, were ideas that had “been repeatedly confirmed and accepted as true” by some people who claimed they were scientists.

    That supposed “scientific fact” is something we now know to be false. There is no reliable data, and no valid interpretation of reliable data that confirms in any way, shape, or form the idea that black people are inferior to white people. There is abundant data that trivially falsifies that premise.

    Scientists don’t deal with “facts”, Scientists deal with data and interpretations of data.

    I consider the term “scientific fact” to be an oxymoron; a contradiction in terms.

    I understand that some well meaning science promoters wanted to have a term that was “stronger” than “data” or “interpretation of data” but which didn’t have the baggage of “Truth” as used by religion. Adopting the term “scientific fact” is not helpful to scientists. It may be a rhetorical device that may be useful in arguments with YECs and other religious absolutists, but we scientists should not weaken our scientific structure to win rhetorical points against non-scientists by adopting their sloppy thinking and sloppy terminology.

    There are lots of things which are “generally accepted” which are actually wrong. The idea that type 2 diabetes is “insulin resistance”, or that “insulin resistance” is an actual symptom of something is simply not correct, even though it is “generally accepted”.

  42. ccbowerson 16 Oct 2016 at 11:04 am

    “…but the person in the video had nothing to say worth listening to.”

    That is only the case if you think this is a one-off perspective. If this perspective is not rare, it should be heard, then engaged. The person is coming at the issue from a perspective that ‘may’ be informed in the cultural and political dynamics around her, but was clearly not educated in science, or about science, as she does not understand the process of science. It may be even more than uniformed, but she may be misinformed about science. Science did progress in various cultural and political environments, but not in the very top-down way she seems to think. Newton did not invent gravity and impose it on the universe, but discovered a greater understanding of it. If she understood science as an uncovering and understanding process, she would not characterize it as she did.

    On the other hand, I think it is too easy for some people decades older to shake their heads at younger people in their process of education. It is easy to retrofit your current understanding of the world on your younger self, and not appreciate how you would view your own arguments from when you were 19-20. Regardless of how good of a student you think you were, some of the things you said would (should) make you cringe. Then think about the other people in your class, and in other classes. There was just no Youtube to display those discussions, but I suspect there were at least as many bad arguments as good ones.

    So I try to withhold judgments about the bigger picture (i.e. try not to over-extrapolate a video like this to education in universities in general), while still engaging the merits of the particular arguments, like the ones in this video.

  43. Fair Persuasionon 16 Oct 2016 at 12:53 pm

    Would you want to interrupt a panel of comedians with reality? The audience and panel are having a good laugh at the expense of science and folks who are not part of their inner circle of friends in the room. It is obviously possible to go through university without fulfilling a science requirement.

  44. a stray caton 16 Oct 2016 at 12:59 pm

    Steve, I think you’re missing the “safe space”, and the way the video was cut. I wouldn’t agree with your characterization of the moderator as shaming the interrupter for presenting that pro science view. They clearly have a system for responses which the interrupter was breaching, as understandable as it was. How do you know his point wasn’t addressed again afterwards? Also, the audience seemed to be in support of the interrupter. What we’re seeing then is simply the view of someone who doesn’t understand science expressing her minority opinion, taken out of context and spread around the web.

    As an American who lived in Kenya and studied in a Kenyan university for a few years, I think I have a useful perspective on the issues raised.

    Africa is in a rapid transition from rural to urban, and in universities like this, there is a huge diversity of people along that transition. Having visited some villages, I can say there is a fundamental difference in how many of these village people think and reason, especially about authority and authenticity. Seeing is believing, and disconnected authorities are to be distrusted. That’s an understandable position considering their position and their history. There is also a huge diversity of ethnicity, race, and religion, with different stereotypes and general power dynamics among them. You can’t really compare this to the diversity in the US; many of these people come from fairly homogeneous communities where things like witchcraft or other woo are actually believed by the majority. Thus, a simply dismissive attitude towards them will not help them change their views. I don’t think ridicule is helpful when the wrongness of your view isn’t totally obvious (in that culture). When actual ethnic/racial violence is something many have seen, and in-group/out-group thinking is common, it’s not surprising that universities holding events like this will treat these and related subjects very carefully, erring on the side of non-confrontation and safe spaces.

    There is a huge diversity of languages spoken, and most people speak English as a second or third language. I can tell you from experience that the result is much more ambiguity and imprecision in everyday communication than we see in the US. I can imagine how that is problematic in the teaching and understanding of science, as well as in forums like the one in the video. I’ve talked to many people who might describe gravity or some science the way this person did, “x person invented this force”, or “scientist made up this rule which we all agree with now”. When I’d point out the error, they might see it as an error in speaking, but some actually would see it that way. People also misspeak in presentations, but it would be resolved in discussion afterward. This is another reason why I think they would be so hostile to interruptions like this. I’ve seen similar forums where the pace of argument and rebuttal is agonizingly slow (in my view), but eventually gets there.

    Science literacy is generally very low. Lower education seems focused a lot more on testable rote learning of facts than I remember of my own education. I think there could easily be too much emphasis on who discovered x than why he believed x, or what how x actually works. I’ve heard that using Western textbooks with examples Africans can’t relate to is also a major problem. I never came across such “decolonizing science” initiatives, but I can certainly see why it could be needed, not in regard to the methods and discoveries of science, but in science education. Hopefully, that is the focus of the larger organization.

  45. ccbowerson 16 Oct 2016 at 3:47 pm

    “Would you want to interrupt a panel of comedians with reality? The audience and panel are having a good laugh at the expense of science and folks who are not part of their inner circle of friends in the room.”

    You don’t seem to understand the setting in which this is taking place. These are not a collection of friends laughing at science. This is a Q/A session within a university setting, in which students and faculty are addressing various problems in their education system. This is one person’s (under-informed) rant, which was cropped from a larger discussion and posted.

  46. BillyJoe7on 16 Oct 2016 at 4:16 pm

    d2u,

    As I said, I find it odd that, by definition, a scientific fact is not something set in stone. But the definition of a scientific fact is as you stated “any observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and accepted as true; any scientific observation that has not been refuted” though you left out the part where it says that a scientific fact can be discarded or altered in the light of new observations.

    However, I’m not going to argue with scientists over their definition of “fact”, just as I’m not going to argue with them about their definition of “theory” which, as you know, is quite different from the public’s understanding of the term.

  47. BillyJoe7on 16 Oct 2016 at 4:24 pm

    “accurate science depends on Christian theological and philosophical presumptions– nature is created by Intelligence and nature manifests the intelligence of its Creator, in Whose image we are created and thereby have access to His thoughts, and that it is good to pursue His plan in nature”

    How embarrassing!
    Some people never grow up.

    Do you also have faeries in the bottom of your garden?
    Do you ask Father Christmas to give you a bike for christmas for being a good boy?
    Does the Easter Bunny still leave chocolate eggs scattered around your lawn at Easter?

  48. Teaseron 16 Oct 2016 at 5:06 pm

    From the Bible:
    “Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    God doesn’t see races or skin color or nationalities like we tend to do. God sees no difference in the Jews or the Gentiles or in the males or the females and even in Paul’s day, there was no difference to God for the slave or the freeman. If we have repented and trusted in Christ, we are all one in Him and that’s all that really matters.”

    Steven Novella says:
    “There is no Western science, or African science, or Asian science, or Native American science, or any modified science. There is only science.”

  49. ccbowerson 16 Oct 2016 at 5:16 pm

    “Accurate science only arose once, in fervently Christian culture over the past 500 years”

    Your time frame coincides well with the decline of the coercive Christian influence on the politics and societies in those parts of Europe you reference. This time frame also coincides with the rise of humanistic ideas within Western Europe that largely rejected the Christian dogma you tout as source of scientific progress, and as a result, resulted in a decline in the influence of those ideas. I’m not saying that the reactionary response of the Renaissance to the Middle ages was always an improvement, but overall it was helpful in removing certain constraints to progress that the politics of Christianity provided.

    It is ironic how your narrative ignores the important point that science progressed the most as the influence of Christianity declined. If your characterization were correct, then we would have seen the opposite trend and science would have stalled in the Renaissance. But we all know you are so motivated by your religious commitments you will do all sorts of mental acrobatics maintain your religious perspective.

  50. Steve Crosson 16 Oct 2016 at 8:14 pm

    michaelegnor,

    Clearly, you are an expert scientist who understands the importance of logical thinking and evidence. And, of course, you’ve been able to use the copious evidence in support of Christianity to convince the many thousands of competing, incompatible religions that yours is the one and only true faith.

    Oh, wait …

  51. NotAMarsupialon 16 Oct 2016 at 8:23 pm

    ccbowers, thank you for describing my thoughts with more clarity thank I could’ve done.

    Egnor reminds me of a Catholic man that I worked with as an archeologist with the National Park Service. Our park had a large pueblo structure surrounding a cathedral. His description, to visitors, was that the natives willfully accepted the newly arrived Spanish monks’ faith and as a result were more than happy to build an extravagant place of worship for someone else’s god in a region with VERY limited resources. In spite of all available evidence, he found a way to make his tribe the good guys.

  52. BillyJoe7on 17 Oct 2016 at 4:46 am

    “God doesn’t see races or skin color or nationalities like we tend to do. God sees no difference in the Jews or the Gentiles or in the males or the females and even in Paul’s day, there was no difference to God for the slave or the freeman. If we have repented and trusted in Christ, we are all one in Him and that’s all that really matters”

    Another grown man not yet out of nappies. 🙁

  53. Maj-Majon 17 Oct 2016 at 10:08 am

    Michaelegnor,

    With respect and kindness, rarely have I seen such a mind-bogglingly distortion of 500 years of human history.

    You are simply factually wrong on so many accounts that I have to stare in awe at your paragraphs, marveling at how it is even possible to cram this amount of wrongness in just a few words.

    I may not have your talent for synthesis.

    1) Science did not arose _because_ of Christianity – it arose _despite_ Christianity. Medieval Christianity, which largely meant Catholicism, engaged in a 1000 years long battle to gag anything that did not conform with their reading of the Bible.

    2) You know, I would presume, the word that was used to label anything that did not conform to their reading of the Bible. The word was _heresy_

    3) Heresy included things like looking at the skies and conceiving different cosmologies, other than the one and only cosmology officially based on the Bible – which happened to have the Earth as the immovable center of the Universe.

    4) Galileo, Giordano Bruno, among others, were deemed heretics for questioning this official cosmology. The former was condemned to imprisonment for life; the latter was not so lucky, and was burned at the stake on February 17, 1600, at the center of a square in Rome.

    5) Incidentally, such square has today a bronze statue of Giordano Bruno: look it up, and tell me if in good conscience you can repeat your statements about Middle Ages, Christianity and Science while at the same time staring at the statue of Giordano Bruno, erected in the place where he was burned at the stake.

    6) Now, a popular gambit to deny that Middle-Ages Church was anti-science, is to mention that Giordano Bruno was a monk himself, as were many other contributors to science at the time. That is roughly like looking at Germany in 1939, notice that many good-willed people working in hospitals had to carry a badge with a swastika – and therefore conclude that Nazism was quite a philanthropic movement. (After all, *not every single one* of those good-willed people ended up in concentration camps.)

    That’s just the *historical* gist of it.

    As an aside, evidence shows that it’s quite possible to hold Christian beliefs and still be a committed scientist. I suppose it’s cognitive dissonance for a good cause – I will refrain to judge it too harshly.

    But taking this cognitive dissonance to the point where science actually “depends on Christian theological and philosophical presumptions” requires a new and improved model of blindfold.

    I have no reason to doubt that you are expressing this view because you believe in it.

    If you do, I am genuinely curious to better understand what mental path leads a learned man to essentially flatly deny the history of the world.

  54. Fair Persuasionon 17 Oct 2016 at 11:07 am

    @ccbowers Thank you for informing me that there were faculty with students present at the University of Cape Town. The panel discussion was very informal. The shared African heritage creates a strong bond. If you choose to see no friendships between the participants, then this is an artifact of your educational background and system of learning.

  55. BillyJoe7on 17 Oct 2016 at 1:55 pm

    Maj-Maj,

    Excellent rebuttal, but I have to correct two misunderstandings:
    Michael Egnor is not “a committed scientist”, and he is not “a learned man”.

  56. BillyJoe7on 17 Oct 2016 at 4:55 pm

    Andybos,

    “While the practices and directions of science are influenced by culture, the stuff it finds out about the world is not”

    Thanks. That’s half the argument in a nut shell.

    The other half is that the cultural influences are diverse. Scientists from all over the world contribute to science so that essentially, the cultural influences are balanced out. If these African students believe that the cultural influence of their culture is missing from the mix, then they’d better get cracking and make a contribution. As it is, they’re engaged in a misguided attempt to tear down science itself. It certainly doesn’t help that their culture is rooted in superstition. And it won’t do anyone any good if we ignore that fact as some commentators here seem to be doing.

  57. FuzzyMarmoton 17 Oct 2016 at 5:44 pm

    andyblos and BillyJoe7,

    “While the practices and directions of science are influenced by culture, the stuff it finds out about the world is not”

    I completely agree with this. We have common ground here. The “directions” part is important, because what we choose to reserach is influenced by culture.

    BillyJoe7 asserts that “Scientists from all over the world contribute to science so that essentially, the cultural influences are balanced out.” I would replace the word “essentially” with “ideally”. We agree that diversity makes science better. I think we disagree about how to acheive diversity. I think it is counterproductive to take the attitude “come join our system. We have all the rules and norms worked out. You are free to participate, but you have to assimilate to our institution”. Instead, I think we should take the approach “we want to hear your prespective. We have a system that we think works well, but we acknowledge that you have ideas and approaches that will improve it. Let’s share our ideas and see what we can learn from each other.”

  58. Maj-Majon 17 Oct 2016 at 6:44 pm

    FuzzyMarmot,

    > Instead, I think we should take the approach “we want to hear your prespective. We have a system that we think works well, but we acknowledge that you have ideas and approaches that will improve”

    .. But isn’t this by and large how it works already?
    Let’s say Person X has an idea on how to improve whatever aspect of the scientific method, research topic or research organization.

    If the idea is any good, I don’t see anyone in the scientific community objecting on the basis of where is X born, what is her nationality, cultural background, soccer team or friends of friends.

    Honestly, if the idea of X is any good, I can’t imagine researchers in most fields even paying attention to who the heck X is, other than possibly to offer her praise, prizes and posts in case the idea is really good.

    I see a parallel here with the case for “native medicines”.
    If a treatment shows it can cure herpes or cancer in a randomized controlled trial, there is no need to make any special native case for it. If you need to make a native cultural special case for it, it’s therefore probably bogus.

  59. Charonon 18 Oct 2016 at 12:00 am

    FuzzyMarmot:

    Cultural aspects of quantum mechanics: Do you see describe it using the Heisenberg representation? The Path integral formulation? Using C* algebras? What you learn depends on who your teachers are and what textbooks you encounter.

    Aren’t you helping make the point that the important attributes of science are actually independent of culture? Because all these methods of dealing with quantum mechanics give the same answers. They are all describing the same physics, albeit in different ways. Absolutely the order of discoveries and the language and mathematics used to describe them are historical and human things. But there is a very real way in which the results are not.

    Which topics science focuses on are also culturally dependent, but you’re picking a very odd example of that by talking about QM/fundamental physics. This topic is… everything. This is perhaps the single topic of study that’s not culturally dependent. (Although it’s hard for me to come up with an example of something that’s not being studied by some scientist somewhere… can you? If so, want to co-author the paper with me?)

  60. Charonon 18 Oct 2016 at 12:09 am

    I find it useful to think of scientific theories (and measurements!) on a particular topic as a converging sequence. How fast it converges, and exactly how far from the limit we currently are to some extent contingent things, but that’s not important. “Science” just describes how to make the sequence converge. The more people and the more approaches we have the faster it will do so, but that it’s converging has nothing to do with history or culture or diversity or any of that. It is thus true in an important way that science is independent of culture, even if a snapshot of our current results is not.

  61. Charonon 18 Oct 2016 at 12:15 am

    And I apologize for initially missing people near the end here saying some similar things – I was skipping over michaelegnor and skipped too much.

    FuzzyMarmot, I’m still curious what areas you think no one is researching. I mean, it’s obviously true that resources are allocated to “exciting” problems, exciting for some particular group in charge of money, but I still can’t really conceive of some topic no one is studying.

    But do we spend more researching diseases affecting affluent Americans than those affecting poor sub-Saharan Africans? Yes. All the more reason to have Africans expand their own real science, then, and not listen to people talking about magic.

  62. FuzzyMarmoton 18 Oct 2016 at 2:09 am

    Charon,

    Thanks for the thoughtful responses. I like the converging sequence metaphor. I think another useful metaphor is to think of science as an archaeological dig. Where you dig and the excavation procedures are subject to bias. The stuff you unearth is the truth (the scientific truth, not Paul Pierce). Two people using two different excavation methods at the same spot will find the same thing. It’s important to have a diversity of perspectives, so that you don’t end up just digging one very deep hole. You don’t want to insist that everyone use the same shovels, because arbitrary rules might make people reluctant to participate.

    As far as unexplored avenues of research, those are the unknown unknowns. What if Bayesian approaches had dominated in early statistics instead of frequentist approaches? What if the first successful application of mathematics had been in biology or the social sciences instead of physics and astronomy? What if disciplinary boundaries were originally conceived entirely differently?

    On different formalisms in physics and QM– you are right, this is probably the worst possible field to use as an example. I chose it because a previous commenter had used it as an example. I take your point that all of the different formalisms uncover the same truths, but they can still influence research directions and be barriers to communication. All this is to say that we should be sensitive to the fact that there are many roads to the same destination, so scientists should be humble and receptive listeners.

  63. SteveAon 18 Oct 2016 at 7:30 am

    FM: “You don’t want to insist that everyone use the same shovels, because arbitrary rules might make people reluctant to participate.”

    The ‘rules’ of science aren’t arbitrary, no-one imposes them, they’re whatever currently works best. There are only so many ways of mixing two reagents then determining what’s been produced, some are better than others depending on what you want to measure.

    “What if the first successful application of mathematics had been in biology or the social sciences instead of physics and astronomy? What if disciplinary boundaries were originally conceived entirely differently?”

    What boundaries? Do you think we don’t use maths in Biology? Or didn’t, until some great ‘arbitrator’ fired a starting gun?

  64. ccbowerson 18 Oct 2016 at 9:51 am

    “Thank you for informing me that there were faculty with students present at the University of Cape Town. The panel discussion was very informal. The shared African heritage creates a strong bond. If you choose to see no friendships between the participants, then this is an artifact of your educational background and system of learning.”

    HUh? Uh thanks? I don’t understand your last point. That is a stretch and I am being generous with that. I never said that there was no “bond” between the perspectives among the communities of students, but was pointing out that your original characterization was not correct. I was not commenting on the relationship between the people at all. You were.

    So you thank me for the correction and then pull out that strawman and cite my education and learning? You don’t have to balance admitting you are wrong with trying to drag someone down with you. We all make mistakes.

  65. ccbowerson 18 Oct 2016 at 10:06 am

    “The ‘rules’ of science aren’t arbitrary, no-one imposes them, they’re whatever currently works best.”

    I did not read that last comment as saying that the rules of science are arbitrary, but that there is some arbitrariness to the extent that things could progress in one way or another. The progression of science is influenced and constrained by culture, politics ($), what is intellectually fashionable at any given time, etc. To the extent that these influences are arbitrary, they can interfere with doing what ‘works best.’

    For those advocating a greater diversity of approaches, it would have to be in a rigorous process that still maintains the standards of what science it trying to acheive. When it is done this way, science thrives. CAM practitioners are trying a modified version in which the standards themselves are changed, in order to their wedge nonsense in. This is not the same thing.

  66. Steven Novellaon 18 Oct 2016 at 3:02 pm

    CDsham – I have now watched the rest of the panel discussion, and read several other commentaries. I completely stand by my original interpretation. I think it is absolutely clear that this student was speaking of striking off science and starting from an African perspective to accommodate African beliefs.

    The fact that other supporters of the movement have other opinions is interesting, but irrelevant to the interpretation of what that one student was saying.

    Even people in the movement do not argue that her words were misinterpreted. Here is an article on the same Facebook page saying that this student was wrong, and that is just an example of bad science education. http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2016-10-16-in-the-fall-decolonisation-and-the-rejuvenation-of-the-academic-project-in-south-africa/#.WAZxg_krKUm

    The page also argues that other people expressed other opinions – but even her defenders are not saying that she was taken out of context.

  67. Steven Novellaon 18 Oct 2016 at 3:07 pm

    I think a good way to summarize the situation is this:
    Scientists are cultural. The institutions of science are cultural. And therefore the practice of science is embedded in culture.

    But, what defines science and scientific methodology is not cultural, and is specifically designed to weed out cultural influences and other biases. When this is done sufficiently, science can arrive at conclusions about the universe that are independent of culture and bias. The fact that science has discovered things against the prevailing beliefs of the culture that produced them is good evidence of this.

    It is perfectly fine to address cultural biases in the institutions of science, to weed out racism, colonialism, sexism, etc. – but do not confuse this with the findings of science. That was the student’s mistake. It is the same mistake that post-modernists make. That is primarily what I was pointing out in my article.

  68. FuzzyMarmoton 18 Oct 2016 at 6:57 pm

    Thank you for the thoughtful comments, Dr. Novella. Your blog post sparked a lot of very interesting dialogue. Your work on Neurologica is a wonderful service to the public understanding of science. The time you put into this is greatly appreciated!

  69. esselteon 19 Oct 2016 at 3:58 am

    “The response of the moderator was illuminating, in my opinion. She stood up, shamed the audience member, lectured him about the fact that he violated their safe space that is supposed to be free of antagonism, and then forced him to apologize.”

    I’m curious whether Dr Novella or any of the commentators here can see the substantive parallels between what is quoted above and the NESS’s recent “de-platforming” of Richard Dawkins?

    “The process of science has been subverted in order to pursue cultural and ideological ends….”

    Indeed! These ideological ends worm their way in to everything, no scientist or sceptic is safe… hmmm, Dr N?

  70. Steven Novellaon 19 Oct 2016 at 11:15 am

    That is a false equivalency. I discussed the issue at length on the SGU. If you are interested, listen to that discussion. http://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcast/sgu/555

  71. Andreason 22 Oct 2016 at 4:27 am

    For an historical example of conflating culture/politics (of the worst kind) with science, look up “Aryan Physics” in Wikipedia. Historically, if you dismiss knowledge for ideological reasons you usually end of on the losing side. On a smaller scale, this is the “not invented here” principle and institutions that are under its sway don’t do well in the long term.

    It is an interesting question why the scientific method spread rapidly in Europe from the late medieval period (thereby ultimately contributing to Europe’s colonial expansion). Key factors were (1) it works, (2) infrastructure for rapid diffusion of knowledge and (3) intense competition among a large number of regional powers that made the adoption and exploitation of knowledge paramount to success. The geographical disposition of Europe was very conducive to (2) and (3) as explained in great detail in “Guns, Germs and Steel”, the book by J. Diamond that Steve alludes to. From that perspective, it’s not that Europeans should take credit for “Western science”, they got lucky!

  72. Weatherwaxon 26 Oct 2016 at 11:30 pm

    This isn’t a new viewpoint. I heard the same opinion expressed by some of the student groups when I was at Humboldt State U some 15 years ago. Also, the more extreme feminist groups argued that science was a patriarchal system developed by and for men, and therefore was oppressive to and not usable by women. Because men know things scientifically where as women know things intuitively.

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