How to Think About Science

Promothinkaboutsciencesm(Post updated below with more on later shows and a response to a comment.)

I’ve been listening to the excellent "How to think about science" series from CBC Radio’s Ideas show.  The basic premise of the show:

If science is neither cookery, nor angelic virtuosity, then what is it?
Modern societies have tended to take science for granted as a way of
knowing, ordering and controlling the world. Everything was subject to
science, but science itself largely escaped scrutiny. This situation
has changed dramatically in recent years. Historians, sociologists,
philosophers and sometimes scientists themselves have begun to ask
fundamental questions about how the institution of science is
structured and how it knows what it knows. David Cayley talks to some of the leading lights of this new field of study.

Link: How To Think About Science.  (That link has the shows in Real Audio format.  For MP3 format go to the podcast archive.  It’s also listed on the iTunes store.)

I’ve listened to the first six shows so far.  The first two, featuring interviews with Simon Schaffer and Lorraine Daston, are particularly good.  What strikes me about this series (and, to a lesser extent, anything I read from historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science) is, first, how old-hat this stuff is to specialists — to them the "science wars" are over and we’re now living with a more realistic, less mystical understanding of how science really happens, thanks to the sociologists and others who hashed it out in the 80s and 90s.

The second thing that strikes me is that, from an everyday person’s point of view, this stuff is still completely new.  Most people (and scientists) know nothing of the fabled science wars, and still think of science as "received truth" and scientists as infallible.  Furthermore, many people are still threatened by any effort to simply describe scientific practice and are quick to label it as "anti-science." 

The response to this radio series itself gives an indication of how
threatening this type of discussion still is.  A discussion at the
"Center for Inquiry," some sort of online forum about science, labels
the series "anti-science," "pseudo-intellectual BS," and one commenter
calls for a letter writing campaign against the CBC!  One only needs to
listen to the show to realize how bizarre and ironic this reaction is.

A frequent refrain in these interviews is the difficulty these thinkers have had in trying to make it clear that they do not intend to undermine or debunk science, but merely to understand how it works, and in some sense to apply the principles of scientific scrutiny to science itself.  What’s also apparent in this show is that there is no monolithic sociological critique of science, and how these thinkers themselves have been fallible and mistaken.  What emerges is a picture of the variety of approaches to understanding science and the need for dialog.

Update, March 31 — I’m now caught up with the series (the first 15 episodes anyway) and I think I can understand now where the hostile reactions are coming from, though I still disagree with them.  Jim Royal writes in the comments:

If you’re only six episodes into the series so far, you’ve heard the
reasonable parts of the series. Starting around episodes 7, 8 and 9,
things start getting weird. I think my favorite bit is where the host
asserts without a shred of evidence that many scientists "feel they
know when they are being looked at, think their dogs are telepathic,
experience premonitions, doubt the world is all in their heads."

This is episode 9 with Rupert Sheldrake.  He has done controversial research, to be sure, but I think the point of the show was mostly to tell his story and not to push his theories.  According to him the "sense of being stared at" is real (among everyday people — I don’t believe he tested scientists) and can be reliably measured.  I’m skeptical but I don’t have any problem with scientists doing and publishing that research.  He claimed that he couldn’t get it published, despite the fact that others repeated and validated his experiments.  I think that’s an interesting situation — why are others so unwilling to permit that kind of research?  The Ideas show dug into this issue and, while it was sympathetic to Sheldrake, I don’t think it was trying to present his theories as truth.  Surely this issue crops up elsewhere in scientific practice, though maybe not to such extremes.

Again from Jim:

That particular episode ended with the assertion that scientific
results are all the same everywhere in the world, regardless of local
customs, cultures, or religions because scientists collude with each
other to keep out ideas that would upset their world view.

The series moved from examining the boundaries of science to entertaining crackpots to outright paranoia.

I don’t remember that assertion, or at least not stated in quite that way, but I agree that it’s an caricature.

Some of the other episodes didn’t do much for me:  I like some of Wendell Berry’s writing but I thought a whole episode about farming and local knowledge seemed like too much (similarly with the Dean Bavington episode about cod fisheries).  Sajay Samuel said some interesting things but his approach is a bit too abstract for me.  David Abram was rather disappointing: repetitive and a bit too new-agey for my taste.

On the other hand, I’m glad that they’re going for diverse viewpoints and I don’t expect to agree with or appreciate all of them equally.  And I don’t think the trajectory is strictly downhill — the last two episodes, with Evelyn Fox Keller in the first and Barbara Duden and Silya Samerski in the second, were very good.

Ethics and Climate Change

Philosopher and writer Nigel Warburton interviewed James Garvey about his new book The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World.  An excerpt from the interview:

Nigel: Why did you write this book? What is its main message?

James: I wrote the book to help people into thinking about the
ethical dimension of reflection on climate change.  There’s a great
deal written concerning action on climate change, but often it’s from a
scientific or economic or political point of view.  All of that
matters, but climate change presents us with a host of moral problems.
Getting those in plain sight is part of the point of the book.  What we
do about our changing planet depends a lot on what we value, on what we
think is morally right.


Nigel: Despite the bleak factual picture you paint in your first
chapter, you end the book on an optimistic note. Isn’t this

James: There is a lot of unnecessary suffering ahead if we fail to take action
now.  I’m not sure that governments and businesses will do what’s
right, but I surprise myself sometimes with the thought that the rest
of us will.  According to a BBC World Service poll of 22,000 people in
21 countries, large majorities of people all over the world believe
that human activity causes climate change and that strong action must
be taken, sooner rather than later.  Human beings eventually do the
right thing, and that gives me a little hope.  There’s nothing
inconsistent in worrying about our future, all the while hoping that we
do the right thing in the time we still have.

Link: James Garvey Interviewed on the Ethics of Climate Change (, Nigel Warburton’s blog).

I really like that last sentence.

James Garvey writes at the Philosopher’s Magazine’s blog and has a short post about his book there: New Book: The Ethics of Climate Change.