Why is it OK to be ignorant?

13 09 2010

Why, in the 21st century, is it still socially acceptable to be ignorant about science?

Recently, on BBC Radio 4’s flagship programme Today, I heard a piece explaining why genes inherited along the maternal line might promote selfishness. The scientist responsible for the research under discussion explained his findings clearly and in a way that was easily understood.

All human bodies are carriers of genes. One might imagine that genes will always cause the bodies which house them to act selfishly in order that the genes are protected and then transmitted to future generations via reproduction.  Altruistic behaviour might be beneficial if it promotes the survival of copies of the genes held in other bodies, ie the bodies of those to whom we’re related.  JBS Haldane in his discussion of Kin Selection famously explained that, “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins”

It would seem that in our distant past that it was the women who dispersed when finding mates and tended to live in family groups with the fathers family. The woman, therefore, was not related to anyone else in that family group; shared no genes with the group. Selfish attributes in genes carried by women may have proliferated under these circumstances in the maternal line.

Now, this is a fascinating idea and not difficult to understand, is it?

The interviewer on the Today programme reduced debate to “Ha Ha, blame your mother” There was no attempt to  understand and explain the findings – just a rush to the ‘amusing’ punch line – blame your mother.

It was perfectly acceptable for the well educated journalist to show a complete ignorance of science – to take the “if it’s too hard I wont understand it” approach. It should not be acceptable to be proud of such ignorance. Imagine had a scholar come onto the programme to talk about Shakespeare or Michelangelo. You can be sure that not only would the radio presenters have spoken to the expert in hushed, reverential tones, they would have been keen to show off their own knowledge of the arts.

It would not have been acceptable to be unaware that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel and created the sculpture of David sited outside The Ufizzi in Florence.  But it is OK not to have the vaguest idea of the laws of science that allow the universe to exist. It is socially unacceptable to be unfamiliar with the novels of Dickens but perfectly acceptable if you cannot recite Newtons Law of Motion. And further, such ignorance of science is often a badge worn with pride – as if it is beneath the dignity of artists to sully their intellect with base technological knowledge.

It is not good enough and it should not be allowed to persist.

I am a scientist and am well read. I am proud that I have a broad knowledge. It enriches my life.  Journalists, and the rest, who refuse to engage with science should be ashamed of the gaps in their knowledge and not feel able to flout their ignorance.

It is important that this is not allowed to persist.

While young people are still getting the message that maths is hard, science is dull, chemistry boring, then we as a society will continue to struggle to get enough people to take science at university and to consider a career in technology.  The economy will suffer in the increasingly technology driven 21st century if we do not produce enough scientists and enough lay folk with a pride in the understanding of science.

For this reason it is important that we do not allow ignorance of science to be a badge of honour.

What we know and what we think we know

20 05 2010

To say that I am not a fan of Donald Rumsfeld would be to dramatically understate the case. But I do find his description of knowns, unknowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns compelling.

The realm of what is known and what us unknown is ever changing. As we learn new things more becomes known, clearly, but things that we know can change too. Look at thecareas if healthy eating. A couple of years ago I knew that I could only eat a couple if eggs a week as they contained the wrong type of cholesterol. Now it seems I can eat as many as I like. My earlier knowledge has now been surplanted by new information.

I was thinking about this while listening to Womans Hour on my way down to Edinburgh during a piece where a neuroscientist tried to explain the concept of evidential gap that exists between neuroscience research that shows that brains of boys develop differently to those of girls to an educationalist who asserted that this must mean that they should be taught differently.

What we know from research in one field cannot simply be transposed onto a new one without filling that evidential gap. Don’t get me started on the number of alternative therapists who insist that quantum level uncetainty proves that their particular quakery had foundations in science.

But on reading two articles in the New Statesman of 17th May I must question what I think I know on two levels.

Firstly, I know that in order to reduce global warming we must reduce carbon emissions and that means carbon dioxide. But, according to Oliver Tickell, we are missing the bigger picture. Black carbon – soot to me and you – plays a huge role in climate change. He claims that a typical tonne of soot spends about 2 weeks in the atmosphere and causes the same amount of warming as 1600 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 20 years.

This has particular resonance for me as I collect wood to burn on my open fire, thinking that I was being environmentally responsible as I did so.
What I thought I knew I now do not.

And then to Michael Brookes article discussing the first Reith Lecture given by Michael Rees which looked at how confident we can be in the claims made by scientists as they uncover Rumsfeld’s known unknowns.

For example, did you know that in re-runs of published health studies the results were only replicated 5% of the time?

As a student I relied on the term ‘statistically significant ‘ a great deal. Essentially a result is deemed to be significant if there is only a 5% chance that it was generated by random chance. But this only holds true when examining a single variable. If you look at lots of things at once or only decide what it is we are looking for after the data has been collected then any conclusions drawn are unreliable.

This is often why so many published studies reach conclusions diametrically opposed to one another. The world is a very complex place and it is often virtually impossible to isolate a single variable and reach totally sound conclusions.

So even a time served rationalist like me has to accept that scientific evidence may not be all that it appears to be – that what we know, what we have shown to be true, may be unknowable. Maybe everything is an unknown known!

A non overlapping magesteria

1 05 2010

The whole point of belief is that it exists beyond evidence. If there was real evidence for the existence of God then we would not need a belief system that supports a diety.

So science and belief operate in completely separate spheres with no possible overlap. We can proove something to be true and if there is no proof then we can still believe something to be true. As Stephen J. Gould puts it, science and belief are “none overlapping magesteria”

If a belief is dispelled it doesn’t move into an intermediate zone or move into the realm of science, it simply disappears. It is dispelled

The grey area exists where people believe in things that science can show to be untrue. Such a revelation should dispel that belief but believers stubbornly hold on to ideas that are demonstrably untrue.

Should science continue to make direct arguaments against religious beliefs and if so are full frontal attacks like those from Richard dawkins likely to work or just annoy the faithful into a position where they are prepared to defend what they know to be indefensible.

Religion has a long history. Evidence of belief in a practical realm exist across archeological time and across all human societies. Pascal Boyer in his excellent book ‘religion explained’ discusses in detail the evolutionary psychology of belief and it’s place in our psyche.

Religious belief is rooted in our need to make sense of the world around us. Ancient peoples were not unreasonable on supposing that the sun died and was reborn each day. Scientific exploration of the solar system has shown this not to be the case and now there are no belief systems based on this supposition.

Christians all now accept the position of the earth in relation to the sun and stars when not so very long ago the church insisted on placing the earth at the centre of the universe and persecuted all those that expressed a view to the contrary.

So religious belifes can and do change in the face of scientific evidence. Even great faiths like Christianity can change their belief systems. It used to amuse me as a child to wonder what happpened to the people in heaven when the pope changed his mind about the rules for entry. Where the Borgia popes booted out when celibacy became a new condition for acceptance on high? Will they be allowed back on when the Catholic church is forced to acknowledge that some normal human interaction by it’s priests in relationships and family life may be the best way to prevent them abusing the most vulnerable in their societies?

But I digress.

Why is it so important to dispel belief in a diety (or dieties)? Should we continue to try to dissuade believers from their beliefs? Surely as long as believers don’t believe in something as patently ludicrous as creationism we should leave them this belief in God?

I don’t think so.

Over and above the philosophical desire for the truth to be known and understood, anyone who prays is asking God to intervene in the material world.  This challenges the idea that science and belief should occupy separate spheres. In addition it removes the imperative to solve the problems ourselves.  We are shifting responsibility beyond ourselves for problems that we created and that ours to solve.

It is by putting church law above the state that generations of priests were allowed to abuse and go on abusing without admonition. Suicide bombers do so in the name of God.

So the belief in God is not always a benign affectation, a personal comfort blanket. More often believers congregate around that belief, creating organised religion, which is all too often used to corrupt and control.