Monday, June 04, 2007


Hanging Out

I have not taken much interest in the "framing" debate that has been going on between scientists and communications professionals. As an attorney, rhetoric of the good sort is a valuable tool and professionally self-evident. Among the things that I believe go into the proper use of rhetoric are: good logical structure; clarity of language without sacrificing an appropriate dose of style and grace; an understanding of your audience and concern for their level of understanding; a grasp of exactly what you want to demonstrate and the elimination of the extraneous; and an open and vigorous advocacy for your position without dishonesty or dissembling. All jokes about lawyers aside, the ones who manage to display those skills are the most successful.

Leonard Susskind, the Felix Bloch Professor of theoretical physics at Stanford University, has an article in Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement (2006) on this subject that sounds about right to me. Entitled "The Good Fight," Susskind's article notes the current "culture battle" and asks why there has been a recent upsurge in passionate antiscientific sentiment. He opines that "the anger, fear, frustration, and humiliation suffered ... by the losers in the culture wars," as women, minorities and gays have gained greater status, is part of the cause. He also cites religiosity founded on the evolutionarily-based "deep and terrible universal fear of old age and death" and tendency to divide the world into 'Us' and 'Them' and then dehumanize 'Them.'"

But I don't believe these emotions, by themselves, could have created the antiscientific backlash of recent years. The fault may well lie in the ease with which these emotions can be cynically manipulated. It is pretty clear that the battle was engineered by provocateurs who may not even have wanted to win the battles they provoked ... [but instead] want to lose the battles and ... keep the anger and humiliation at fever pitch.
Assuming this is the case ...

How then do we -- especially scientists -- deal with the current mess without aggravating it? I believe we have no choice but to defend and protect the integrity and objectivity of science. That means building a broad consensus for the separation of religion and science (and religion and science education) ... But to achieve this goal ... we have to regain the goodwill of the public. Pressing the biological hot buttons of that 90 percent is a no-win game, a game we need to avoid. But it is equally important not to allow our own biological buttons to be pushed. Our-overreaction is precisely the goal of the provocateurs.
Susskind then tells the story of his own encounter with a couple of Christian students from one of his undergraduate physics courses. Concerned with what they perceived as anti-ID aspects in the course, they asked for an opportunity to express their views. Those of us who have been at it for a while can well imagine how it went. The students started off with claims that Darwinian mechanisms could not explain complex feature as the eye and, when Susskind laid out a plausible sequence of transitions from a light-sensitive patch to a genuine eye, they switched to the flagellum.

Unfortunately, at this point, I overreacted. Getting up on my bully pulpit, I insisted that modem science had provided complete explanations for everything and that furthermore the laws of chemistry, physics, and statistics had completely eliminated the supernatural from the evolution of life and the origin of the cosmos. My message was "Get real! Accept reality!"

The result was completely predictable: recriminations, and two students hostile to science. They had touched my buttons and I had hit theirs with a sledgehammer. The worst part was that when I thought about it, I felt I had not been 100 percent intellectually honest. I was not so sure that science really could explain everything. Certainly I could not prove it.
Susskind then describes a more recent encounter concerning a book he was writing that had as a subtitle "String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design" where he felt he redeemed himself:

Not only was my approach more effective but I am also much more satisfied that it was intellectually honest. I began by remarking that Darwinian evolution (not the topic of my book) had been very successful at explaining many things, and that biologists did not see any insurmountable obstruction in evolving complex life from simple microorganisms. I told them that there certainly were gaps in the story of evolution, but that the rules of the science game were to attempt to fill those gaps with natural explanations. The evolution of the eye came up again, and again I explained it.

But I also told them something else: that there were things that science didn't, and might never, fully understand ...
Quoting from that book, he went on to tell the students:

The laws of gravity, quantum mechanics, and a rich landscape together with the laws of large numbers are all that's needed to explain the friendliness of our patch of the universe.

But on the other hand, neither does anything in this book diminish the likelihood that an intelligent agent created the universe for some purpose. The ultimate existential question, "Why is there Something rather than Nothing?" has no more or less of an answer than before anyone had ever heard of string theory.
Asked by one of the students is he believes in God, he replied:

"No, I personally don't. But I have numerous friends -- eminent scientists -- who do believe that an intelligence must have been involved in creation." Then I added, "However, all of us do science in the same way. We all take it for granted that science is the attempt to explain as much of the world as we can by natural mechanisms."
He felt that, in this encounter, he had avoided punching buttons and, while no one was converted to atheism, neither were they converted to anti-scientism ... for the moment, at least.

My final advice is to forget arguing with those benighted zealots who would prefer that intellectual history had ended in the fifteenth century. There is no point in trying to convince the hard-core creationists-or, for that matter, the masters of manipulation. The real challenge is to reach out to the majority, to those sensible people who have been jerked around by conflicting ideologies and don't know what to think.
Helping people to understand sounds like the right "frame" to me.

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