Sunday, August 08, 2010

Deciding What Science Is

Recently, someone at a major newspaper wrote an article about science blogging that is perhaps best described as trolling. This article, penned by Virginia Heffernan, has already led to many pixels being spilt over its careless dismissal of the state of science blogging. See, for instance, PZ Myers' post on the matter wherein he dispatches her arguments quite handily. I don't wish to add to this issue, as too much has already been said about her article.

Rather, I want to address one of the more poisonous and wrong attitudes upon which her article seems to have been predicated. This attitude is far from limited to Heffernan's flamebaiting, and has been reflected in much of the writing that has followed. For instance, one blogger writing on "Christian faith, society, science and culture" had this to say:
One of my chief complaints about many science blogs is that there really isn’t much science to be found there. Many of the most popular consist primarily of diatribes about various political issues (gay marriage, immigration, the tea party, etc) and the personal religious beliefs of the blogger (who is more often than not an evangelistic New Atheist). What one will find very little discussion of science, as in information about current research, particular papers, or the state of various scientific fields. [emphasis in original]
The author, Jack Hudson, has implicitly made the same kind of error that so many face when discussion science: he has decided a priori what is and is not within the realms of what can be discussed as science. Let's take gay marriage, for instance, since Hudson seems to think that this issue has no place on a blog about science. It also serves as a very timely example to pick at, seeing as how the fate of the anti-gay marriage amendment Proposition 8 was just found to be unconstitutional in the decision Perry v. Schwarzenegger. Much of the decision came down to deciding if the law had any rational basis, and thus involved a substantive discussion of material claims made by anti-gay advocates. These claims were found to be wanting, as they were not grounded in scientific fact. Thus, we see that the final decision in the case came down to a scientific question: is gay marriage at all quantitatively different from heterosexual marriage?

Gay marriage, then, is a perfect example of something within the purview of science, as in deciding, we must apply the ideals of rationality upon which science ultimately rests. Advocating against gay marriage is simply not rational from any standpoint with which we should find acceptable in society, and so any blogger advocating for the public role of science has not only the right, but the responsibility to speak out against anti-gay actions like Prop 8. If science bloggers stick had by and large stayed out of the issue, then they would have been complicit in the further separation of science and society.

The trouble that Heffernan, Hudson and other writers run into, then, is that they don't get to set aside some issues as being outside of science. Deciding what science is and is not is not so trivial as to be settled by consulting with one's political positions. We cannot appease the Hudsons of the world by shying away from "whining about creationists," but will only further weaken how science is seen and accepted in society at large.

P. S.: I have to point out that Hudson filed his article under the "Atheist Contradictions" category, begging the question of what exactly is so contradictory here.

No comments: