Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy

Today's NYT features this excellent defense of science by Dennis Overbye. My favorite part:

The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war.
Einstein seemed to echo this thought when he said, “I have never obtained any ethical values from my scientific work.” Science teaches facts, not values, the story goes.

Worse, not only does it not provide any values of its own, say its detractors, it also undermines the ones we already have, devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.
So the story goes.
But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.
That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.
It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.
And indeed there is no leader, no grand plan, for this hive. It is in many ways utopian anarchy, a virtual community that lives as much on the Internet and in airport coffee shops as in any one place or time. Or at least it is as utopian as any community largely dependent on government and corporate financing can be.
Arguably science is the most successful human activity of all time. Which is not to say that life within it is always utopian, as several of my colleagues have pointed out in articles about pharmaceutical industry payments to medical researchers.
But nobody was ever sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant. There is always room for more data to argue over.
So if you’re going to get gooey about something, that’s not so bad.
It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins."
Odd as it may seem coming from a proud participant of this "utopian anarchy", I couldn't agree more! The entire essay is well worth reading.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

A graphic novel in time for the bicentennial

Now this might be something to get the kids really excited about:



Doesn't he look dashing, that young field biologist? Says Simon Gurr, the illustrator:



Less than a week now until the printers deliver Darwin: A Graphic Biography, the latest 100-page comic book from Eugene Byrne and me. I’ve seen the proofs and can’t wait to hold the book itself in my hands. The big launch is on 30th Jan, stay tuned for more details and to find out how to get hold of a copy.



And now I can't wait for this week to end...


{Hat-tip: Joe@ForbiddenPlanet]


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A short course on Darwin, his science, and his legacy

Andy Shriver pointed out this University of California Museum of Paleontology short course:



Darwin: the man, his science, and his legacydarwin2009.gif


Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. His birthday is an opportunity to celebrate his contribution to science and its influence in such diverse academic fields as biology, anthropology, and medicine. To kick off the multiple celebrations that will be taking place in the Bay Area, UCMP offers you the opportunity to join historians and evolutionary biologists as they discuss the extraordinary life of Charles Darwin, his contributions, his legacy, and our current understandings of evolutionary theory. Speakers will include Keith Thomson, Kipling Will, Kevin Padian, and Eugenie Scott.


Saturday, February 7, 2009


2050 Valley Life Sciences Building, UC Berkeley


9:00 am to 4:00 pm (registration opens at 8:15 am)


As an added bonus, a teacher workshop on evolution presented by UCMP, California Academy of Sciences, Human Evolution Research Center, KQED QUEST, SETI, and the National Center for Science Education will be held the following day on Sunday, February 8, 9:30 am to 3:00 pm (registration opens at 9:00 am). The workshop, held in 2063 VLSB, will include behind-the-scenes tours of the Human Evolution Research Center and lunch. More information is available here.


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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Science: the metaphysical party-pooper!

And we now have a president who likes to have this designated driver along? Should be fun times at the upcoming parties...


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