On the edge of the city, the edge of Ambrosia… Science is culturally boring

A friend sent me an article: Artificial divisions between science and culture hinder creative dialogue and public engagement by Athene Donald.  It’s yet another in a long line of articles about how the humanities and the social scientists — and how the wider public more broadly — should make space for scientists to lay down their wisdom.

Facts are sacred and should be transmitted.

Needless to say, my friend was less than impressed with my response: scientists are philistines, and science is culturally toxic.

Continue reading

Reluctantly crouched at the starting line… Arguing for science

There are a few debates in Australia which have become rather bland and predictable.  Regardless of what happens, the same people make the same arguments with nearly the same words.

When Telstra announced, for example, that it was going to release the 4G network, the usual voices piped up to show why the National Broadband Network would be unnecessary.  In response, the usual voices pointed to physics to show why the NBN would still be necessary.  And so on and so forth.  At the time, I remember reading an article which complained about this predictability and noting that this didn’t make one of the sides incorrect.

The ancient version of this debate, I guess, is the question of division by zero.  Despite pretty much everybody agreeing that you can’t divide by zero, there’s a history of cranks who pop up to say: ‘Nope.  Everybody’s wrong and I’ve worked out how to divide by zero’.  Whenever that happens, the usual suspects go to their usual responses to show why orthodoxy is correct.  At no point do we think that we should be dismissive of them just because they’re rehashing their proven responses.

But, when it comes to public policy involving science, people seem to put on their silly boots.  ‘Bah! You just keep saying that there’s no way for light to travel that quickly!  You don’t know that the free market can’t find a way to make faster light!  If it were profitable, they could do it!  Stop rehashing your old arguments!  Broken record, &c., &c.’

We are seeing what happens when people don’t stick to the tested and proven script.  Over on ABC’s The Drum, Graham Readfern seems to think the reason why anthropogenic climate change deniers deny anthropogenic climate change is because they have links to industry.  That’s the charitable interpretation.  The other possibility is that he thinks they’re incorrect because they have links to industry.

It is common to hear the (anti-intellectual) denial of anthropogenic climate change: ‘Climate scientists are paid to agree that anthropogenic climate change is true.’  What is the actual difference between the complaint from the red necks and the complaint from Readfern?

I think we should be less worried about boring old debating scripts and more worried about promoting reasonable and sensible discussion.  Admittedly, it would help if the media stopped giving air to trolls like Readfern and Monckton.

My heart feels dead inside… but my prostate feels fine

Behind the Crikey pay wall, Melissa Sweet writes about prostate cancer.

The argument, as far as I can tell, runs like this:

  1. Peter Beattie has spoken out in favour of getting screened for prostate cancer.
  2. A doctor disagrees with him and has written a book.
  3. Wayne Swan disagrees with the doctor even though the doctor has written a book.
  4. People should make up their own minds about whether to get screened because Beattie’s message is too simplistic.

The article reads like the point of the article was edited out in a prior version.  Surely the story isn’t ‘Three people disagree, so make up your own mind about prostate screening’.  Why does the doctor disagree with prostate screening?  Why has he written a book?  Why are ‘many GPs’ changing their practices?  Given that — apparently — many GPs recommend the Atkins diet, perhaps we need a bit more of the ‘Why’ and less of the ‘He said, she said, they said’.

Perhaps she could have asked the Cancer Council for their argument.  It’s freely available here and makes for some interesting reading.

Despite the above, I’m more interested in the thrust of her article: ‘Make up your own minds about prostate screening’.

A favourite essay topic in medical ethics is the question of consent.  Given that patients don’t have degrees in medicine, to what extent can they make informed choices about their health?  In Australia, there’s a hairy bunch of case law about what constitutes consent in the medical field but it doesn’t really get to the ethical meat of the question: how can I, as a patient, consent if I don’t have the skills needed to decide? Continue reading

They made us this way for what they can never say… Descriptivist normativity in philosophy of sex

Oooooh, big words.  Fortunately, they mean something interesting.

I had a bit of a snark at Family First for their normative view of the family: children ought to have a mother and a father.  I rejected it based on the need for the ‘correct’ kind of mother and father, suggesting we should replace this with ‘Children ought to have a loving environment’.

I could have attacked the statement in a way more similar to the fashion of the time: assert that there is something fundamentally flawed about normative statements regarding lived experience.  There’s an article in the Sydney Morning Herald regarding sexual morality and why monogamous relationships are somehow the worst possible things we could do to ourselves.

Using anthropology, anatomy, archaeology and primatology. Ryan takes aim at what he calls the “standard narrative”, the idea that men and women evolved in families in which a man’s possessions and protection were exchanged for the women’s fertility and fidelity. This notion, what the anthropologist Helen Fisher calls the ”sex contract”, has long dominated our thinking about sexual evolution.

But it is a myth, according to Ryan, who points out that for 2 million years our ancestors lived in small, interdependent, highly egalitarian groups who shared everything, including sex. “Evidence suggests that our pre-agricultural ancestors would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any one time,” Ryan says. “These overlapping, intersecting sexual relationships strengthened group cohesion and could offer a measure of security in an uncertain world.”  — Source.

While it’s difficult to analyse something based on the media release (and science journalism in Australia is woeful (though there might be a reason for that) think about precisely what’s been written here.  Ryan has attacked the ‘standard narrative’ based on how our ancestors lived for 2 million years.  It’s a weird comment to make, not least because Ryan isn’t an archaeologist or anthropologist, but because hominids haven’t existed as a single, continuous species for that amount of time.  Two million years ago, there were no domesticated animals.  Therefore, is it a myth that domestication affected the evolution of dogs?  Clearly, it’s not.  Did we domesticate ourselves?  Probably.  Could that have included an evolution of monogamous relationships?  Possibly.  So ‘2 million years ago, we were different’ isn’t an argument about our current behaviour.

But also consider the assumptions behind the statement.  In describing our ancestors, Ryan is alluding to a normative framework of how we should be. Continue reading