We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment to materialism. We cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
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The social scientist is in a difficult, if not impossible position. On the one hand there is the temptation to see all of society as one's autobiography writ large, surely not the path to general truth. On the other hand, there is the attempt to be general and objective by pretending that one knows nothing about the experience of being human, forcing the investigator to pretend that people usually know and tell the truth about important issues, when we all know from our own lives how impossible that is.
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My general impression about people like Steve Gould and Carl Sagan and so on is that when they disappear as individuals and are no longer appearing on the stage and they are no longer writing, that their lifetime of acknowledgement by the general reading public is not very long.There were many people in the 19th century who were equally famous people who gave working man's lectures, supporters of Darwin, we as scholars know their names but the general public never heard of them.
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With respect to phenomena like mass extinction, somebody might say why worry about it because in a geological perspective mass extinctions aren't so bad, they wipe out some things and then 10 million years down the road we get new and interesting objects.But I tell you mass extinctions are really awful for folks caught in the midst of them.
There are a whole other range of sciences that must deal with the narrative reconstruction of the inordinately complex events of history that can occur but once in their detailed glory. And for those kinds of sciences, be it cosmology, or evolutionary biology, or geology, or palaeontology, the experimental methods, simplification, quantification, prediction and repetition of the experimental sciences don't always work. You have to go with the narrative, the descriptive methods of what? Of historians.
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I am a taxonomist, I work in the descriptive, narrative sciences of natural history. Unfortunately there is this status ordering from physics, the queen of the sciences up on top, down through a bunch of squishy subjects, ending up with sociology and psychology on the bottom. Palaeontologists are not much above that in their conventional ordering.
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If I ask you who is the most famous scientist who ever lived, or the greatest scientist who ever lived you'll say either Einstein or Newton or something like that because their claims were supposed to apply universally. But the claim of somebody who is studying a particular feature of the evolutionary process like whether it's very fast or very slow, or occurs in steps and so on, that's not a universal claim, that's a rather specialised claim and so you can't claim to great fame and great success.
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Evolutionists ... have a prior commitment, a commitment to naturalism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door
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I assume the same problem exists in Australia as in America of back-biting and jealousy and parochialism among disciplines - there are the scientists, and there are the humanities people, and there are chemists and the physicists and everybody snipes at everybody else and inter-disciplinary communication is rare. But it's very precious and necessary.
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The general public doesn't know and probably doesn't care about punctuated equilibria nor indeed should they, or the greenhouse effect on some other planet - they barely have the ability to cope with the greenhouse effect on their own planet. So I think you have to distinguish between the broad visibility of a scientist when he or she is speaking to a general public and trying to address general issues and the continued position that a scientist may have into the history of a particular subject.
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History has got a lot to do with unique circumstances under certain particular cases and grand theories will always find counter cases. I don't think that people whose expertise lies in one thing should try to make grand theories about something (a) where it's very hard to get the evidence to prove that you're right and (b) where it's much too easy to make up stories that seem right.
An ecosystem, you can always intervene and change something in it, but there's no way of knowing what all the downstream effects will be or how it might affect the environment. We have such a miserably poor understanding of how the organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don't get one rude shock after another.
If I put myself on the side of those who see the world as warming up in a bad way, who see the general march of industrial culture as something undesirable, the one thing I must be beware of doing and which my colleagues on that side don't beware of doing, we must beware of saying we've got to stop changing the environment. There is no 'the' environment which we can change, the world is changing all the time.
As an American I must say I haven't been very encouraged by the way in which the people who run the government in the United States have been listening to those contrary voices. And so long as the power to run the world lies in the hands of people who are quite happy to see it get warmer, or fuel be used more, then would those people who oppose it are crying in the wilderness - that's the real problem.
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People who have various kinds of politics for whom it is congenial for their apriority politics to say yes, things are getting much worse. They are opposed by people who also have a priori politics saying that this is the best of all possible worlds, capitalism is the greatest thing since sliced bread and you're just alarmists and so on and they can massage the data so it fits them.
Scientists are educated from a very early time and a very early age to believe that the greater scientist is the scientist who makes discoveries or theories that apply to the greatest ambit of things in the world. And if you've only made a very good theory about snails, or a very good theory about some planets but not about the universe as a whole, or about all the history of humankind, then you have in some sense accepted a lower position in the hierarchy of the fame of science as it's taught to you as a young student.
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The primary problem is not to provide the public with the knowledge of how far it is to the nearest star and what genes are made of .. Rather, the problem is to get them to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.
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