Tag Archives: anti-intellectualism

Telegraph story on research funding does nothing to advance Australian journalism

The Conversation

Ben Eltham, Deakin University

The Daily Telegraph breached its own code of conduct in its coverage of the Australian Research Council (ARC) this week.

On Monday, the News Corp Australia tabloid splashed with a story by Natasha Bita entitled:

Taxpayer dollars wasted on ‘absurd’ studies that do nothing to advance Australian research

The article was highly critical of a number of research projects funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in recent rounds. It began:

Millions of taxpayer dollars destined for vital research have been handed to arty academics for social engineering projects ranging from Tibetan philosophy to office gossip and warfare in ancient Tonga.

The Daily Telegraph did not approach many of the researchers whose projects it ridiculed for comment. And while Bita approached and received comment from the ARC for her story, she did not run its comments in her report. The ARC’s chief executive, Professor Aiden Byrne, wrote in an email:

The ARC was contacted by Natasha Bita about The Daily Telegraph article prior to publishing. The ARC provided a response to Natasha, but this was not used in the article.

Daily Telegraph front page, August 22.
News Corp Australia

The Daily Telegraph’s code of conduct clearly says “facts must be reported impartially, accurately and with integrity”, and reports should “try always to tell all sides of the story in any kind of dispute. Every effort must be made to contact all relevant parties.”

However, despite gathering comment from the ARC, The Daily Telegraph elected not to tell the ARC’s side of the story. The deliberate decision to refuse the ARC and academic researchers a right of reply appears to be a straightforward breach of the News Corp Australia code of conduct and, more broadly, of basic journalistic principles of balance and accuracy.

In a public statement, Byrne defended research in the humanities. He wrote:

It is misleading to judge the short titles or brief descriptions of research projects and infer that they are not useful research without looking at the detail of the project, which is extensively considered by the ARC expert assessors in determining its worthiness for funding.

Ridiculed researchers not contacted

The Conversation has contacted all the chief investigators of the projects mentioned in Bita’s article. None of the researchers we have spoken to were contacted by The Daily Telegraph before the article was published.

Professor John Powers, of the Australian National University, is a co-chief investigator on the research project about Tibetan philosophy ridiculed by Ray Hadley on 2GB, who read about it in Bita’s article. “No, no-one contacted me about the article,” he told me in an email, adding that Buddhist studies were important for Australia’s relationship with Asia.

He continued:

There are hundreds of millions of Buddhists in Asia and around the world. Better understanding of their worldviews helps in many intangible ways, and if our leaders and policymakers had better insight into these things they’d probably be more effective in their diplomacy and in their interactions with Asian counterparts.

Associate Professor Hannah Lewi, of the University of Melbourne, is a co-chief investigator on a project examining post-war Australian universities, also attacked in Bita’s article. She confirmed The Daily Telegraph had not contacted the researchers. “No, no-one consulted us before these articles,” she wrote in an email.

We are, I guess, used to the annual research-bashing articles that come out in the press about politicians calling out waste-of-money ARC-funded research. It feels like whacking day for the humanities.

Monash University’s Andrew Benjamin shares an ARC Discovery Award with Jeffrey Malpas which “proposes a new philosophical vision of what it means to be human”. Benjamin told me bluntly:

I was not contacted, and that I think is a betrayal of journalistic standards.

Like many other academics that I spoke to, Benjamin was profoundly disappointed that The Daily Telegraph had not even bothered to let him explain the merit of the project for which he had received funding. He found the article especially frustrating, he told me, as he argues that “it’s the job of philosophy to provide criteria for social judgment”.

Monash University scholar Shane Homan’s project on Australian contemporary music also featured in the article. “I can confirm that I was not contacted by anyone from News Corp about the article,” he said.

The article ignores the precepts of good journalism. Good analysis ensures that the reader has context – to let rip simply on the basis of grant abstracts is lazy, Homer Simpson journalism.

I reached Discovery Early Career Researcher Award recipient Lucas Ihlein on the road, as he travelled to Queensland to research his project on the social engagement of art in the complex environmental dilemma of the Great Barrier Reef. He said:

No-one got in touch with me. The first I heard about it [was when] the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at Wollongong Uni sent me a message to say ‘we’re very sorry about it and we hope you’re okay’. There was no attempt [to contact me] whatsoever.

Ihlein argued his research would benefit the farming communities of central Queensland. He wrote in a Facebook post:

The desire to make changes is coming from within the farming community itself, which has begun to recognise that traditional farming methods using chemical fertilisers and pesticides are no longer financially viable, nor are they environmentally responsible.

Instead of contacting academics, or running the comment she gathered from the ARC, Bita went shopping for an expert to buttress her report. Her article cites Michael Potter at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), a neoliberal think-tank, as its only expert source.

The CIS did not put out a publication or media release about ARC funding results, and Potter is not an economist known for his work in research policy. His publications for the CIS have all been about tax and superannuation. The Conversation understands the CIS did not pitch any remarks about research policy, but rather that Bita contacted the CIS seeking comment for her story.

The CIS refused an interview with Potter on Thursday and Friday, claiming he was “unavailable”. A spokesperson would not comment on questions about Potter’s scholarly credentials in research policy or higher education, instead issuing a statement from Potter reiterating his remarks. “I stand by my comments,” he wrote.

I contacted a number of leading economists with research profiles in research policy and innovation. None would endorse Potter as a scholar with any record in research policy.

The University of Queensland’s highly cited innovation scholar Mark Dogdson told me:

I’ve never heard of Michael Potter, but he appears not to know that societies advance more when knowledge is pursued for its own sake, rather than for instrumental reasons, and no-one can ever predict what knowledge will be useful.

University of Queensland economist John Quiggin, author of Zombie Economics, lamented the decline of the CIS as a serious think-tank:

In the 1980s and 1990s, the CIS was at the forefront of policy debate, pushing an intellectually bold and coherent argument for free-market policies. But I haven’t seen a new idea from them in years. This tired rehash of a theme that was done to death by the late US senator William Proxmire 40 years ago, and by his Australian imitators under the Howard government, is sad evidence of this.

In a phone interview, Professor Susan Dodds, president of the Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, attacked the journalistic ethics of Bita and The Daily Telegraph. She said:

To simply pluck things from the ARC website and to question whether that’s a valid use of taxpayers’ resources without contacting the researchers is just a distortion. It’s a cheap move, a populist move, and it smacks of a certain type of anti-intellectualism.

The Queensland University of Technology’s Stuart Cunningham has written extensively on research and innovation policy. “As a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, I endorse the Academy President Professor John Fitzgerald’s response to The Daily Telegraph attack,” he wrote in an email. He continued:

Science and technology can’t go it alone. Tackling today’s global challenges requires deep knowledge of people, societies and cultures that underpin, fuel or react to these challenges.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the ARC controversy is that no media outlet has mentioned the federal government’s latest Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements, handed down last November. Carried out by Ian Watt, a former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the report was largely supportive of the quality of federally funded academic research. Its very first line reads:

The overall quality of the Australian research sector is high by OECD standards.

Political ripples

Bita’s Daily Telegraph article was politically significant. It was taken up by radio host Ray Hadley, who lampooned many of the projects cited in the article on his 2GB show that day.

Hadley directly attacked the ARC, claiming its funding was “piddling up against the wall”, and used his weekly interview with Treasurer Scott Morrison to call for a “pub test” for federal research funding.

After a lukewarm defence of ARC-funded work on snail infestations, Morrison agreed with Hadley about the need for ARC decisions to enjoy “public support”. He said:

It’s a fair point, Ray, and I think it shouldn’t be lost on those who make these decisions, and it’s certainly not lost on us, and we expect them to take into account public support for these types of activities.

Those who make those decisions, whether they’re bureaucrats or ultimately politicians, you need to be mindful of that.

Morrison’s comments were then widely and shared on social media and reported by other media outlets, including an article by Jared Owens in The Australian.

Scott Morrison later discussed the research funding story with 2GB’s Ray Hadley. AAP/Sam Mooy

I made repeated efforts to contact The Daily Telegraph about this article. I emailed, tweeted and called journalist Bita – a Walkley Award winner – and The Daily Telegraph’s editor, Chris Dore, putting a series of questions to them in regard to this story.

In particular, I asked them whether the researchers working on the projects mentioned in the article had been contacted, whether the ARC had been contacted, and whether the article represented a breach of The Daily Telegraph’s code of conduct.

At the time of writing, no response had been received.

The ConversationBen Eltham, Research Fellow, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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If you’re going to ridicule research, do your homework

The Conversation

Rob Brooks, UNSW Australia

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph is suffering one of their frequent relapses into frothy-mouthed panic about government wastage on research grants. Poking at layabout academics for ‘wasting’ tax dollars on seemingly frivolous projects reminds me of nothing more than the schoolyard bully who secretly knows he peaked in year 9. Today, the Tele flattered me by holding up one of my own projects for ridicule, ironically illustrating their point that rusted-on ideology, and patronage provide the most direct route possible to mediocrity.

In an ‘Exclusive’ Natasha Bita goes beyond the tried-and-true formula of simply spouting big school words culled from the titles and summaries of grant proposals, and giggling “what does that even mean?”. She pits a handful of phrases from grant summaries against more urgent priorities, quoting Michael Potter of the Centre for Independent Studies:

Would it not be a better investment to fund research into cures for disease, major social problems, and ways to boost the Australian economy?

Quite. Presumably we can leave it to the Tele and the CIS to decide on which research is most beneficial? Without the need for all that grant writing and peer review?

Trying to isolate researchers by painting some research as valuable and the rest as claptrap is a clever strategy. But devoutly as we all may wish for an end to cancer, even cancer researchers, hell even some cancer patients think there are other priorities too.

Sexual conflict and the taxpayer

The Australian Research Council no longer publishes the titles of grants in its funding announcements. I’m not sure what the official line is, but the impression among my colleagues is they seek to present a small target to exactly this kind of pillory, which becomes annual sport when the likes of Andrew Bolt tire of their regular targets of faux-outrage.

Now the ARC publish only summaries of the projects or their likely benefits. Never mind, those can be cherry-picked too. That’s how I found my project mentioned in today’s paper. A NewsCorp blogger named Tim Blair picked up on a project of mine, in which I collaborate with economists Pauline Grosjean and Paul Seabright, that was funded in last year’s round.

Surely a government that genuinely believes we have serious debt and deficit issues wouldn’t give more than $500,000 to the University of NSW for a project that “intends to address how the evolutionary phenomena of intra-sexual competition and intersexual conflict interact with economic circumstances to shape gendered behaviour and attitudes”.

And here’s the bit that convinces me “Tim Blair” isn’t just a poorly programmed bot:

It’s difficult to tell what’s meant by “intersexual conflict interacting with economic circumstances” but it’s probably something to do with taxpayers getting screwed.

See what he did there? If it doesn’t snare the Walkley, it’ll definitely have the boys down the pub chuckling into their schooners.

The bit that Mr Blair quoted selectively was from the description of our project On the origins and persistence of gender: Combining evolutionary and economic approaches to study sex differences and cultural variation. You won’t find that title on the ARC website, but you will find the full project description.

This project intends to address how the evolutionary phenomena of intra-sexual competition and inter-sexual conflict interact with economic circumstances to shape gendered behaviour and attitudes. These phenomena are important in evolution, economics, psychology and sociology, with implications for the economy and for the welfare of women and men. The project predicts that gender-related culture arises, partially, out of mating market dynamics. The research crosses traditional boundaries between biology and economics to investigate the forces giving rise to gendered behaviour and resulting patterns of marriages, violence, political preferences and occupational choices. The project may provide new insights into the links between gender and violence, within-family conflicts, and gender roles in the home and workplace.

In 18 years of applying for research support, I have never yet proposed a project with more pressing or important consequences. It contains so many of the things that conservatives fulminate over: declining marriage rates, rising violent and non-violent crime, and changing gender roles. If our project can provide new insights into intimate partner violence, or why young men take risks with their lives, or the reasons behind declining marriage rates, I would expect the likes of Bita, Potter and Blair to show at least the minimum humane curiosity.

Curiosity, it seems, is a limited commodity at Telegraph HQ. As is the capacity to do even the most cursory research. Shonkily researched assertions are okay if you enjoy the safe patronage of a major news organisation. You would never get away with such abject laziness, or such contempt for professional disinterest, in a grant proposal to a federal funding body.

“#PubTest”

Ray Hadley picked up the Telegraph’s baton in an interview with the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, demanding that the ARC justify its funding decision in the front bar of a Western Sydney or North Brisbane pub.

Yes, after the forlorn cries for better funding of research rang through Science Week last week, and as the ARC sits in Canberra to decide the outcomes of this year’s biggest schemes, the pro-ignorance side of the culture wars has decided to play their favourite game. Their attempts to paint researchers as out-of-touch layabouts draining the public purse are, if you read the comments on Blair’s blog, playing well with the patrons of those very pubs.

Our ideas are already well pub-tested, Mr Treasurer. Many a research project is hatched in a bar-room conversation. Many of us still have the scrawled-on beer coasters to prove it (#putoutyourcoasters?), and receipts to show we spent our own money to buy the booze. And there seems no end of “Research in the Pubevenings in which academics explain their research and discuss ideas with members of the curious – drinking – public.

And the fewer than 20 percent of projects that succeed in gaining funding have passed a trial by fire more intense than any front-bar witch hunt Messers Hadley or Morrison could confect. Indeed the real scandal here is how much of Australia’s top-notch intellectual effort is wasted by only funding a small proportion of the many deserving projects. If the treasurer is as worried about waste as he professes, then perhaps he should find the money to fund universities and research in line with the kinds of country Australia should hope one day to become.

Research shows that it would be an economically sound investment.

This is what the peer-review process on my latest grant looked like.

The ConversationRob Brooks, Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Our ancestors were carnivorous super-predators, so do we really have a choice about eating meat?

The Conversation

Darren Curnoe, UNSW Australia

The internet abounds with ‘expert advice’ on what we should or shouldn’t eat. High carb or low carb diets? Grains or gluten free eating? Meat eating or veganism?

Most of it promotes our food choices as a simple binary decision – eat this don’t eat that; this is good for you, that’s bad.

Yet, the decisions we make about what to eat are a complicated affair. They’re never a simple case of eat what’s best for your health or what naturally suits our physiology.

Cultural mores, religious practices, ethical concerns, gender, stage of life and state of health, geographic location, economics and family and individual preferences all play a role in the selections we make.

One of the most confusing choices people face is whether to eat meat or not, and opinions are very strong on both sides of the debate. But is it natural to do so?

Our ancestors evolved to be super-predators with meat eating and sharing a key survival strategy for our kind for millions of years. So, do we really have a choice to eat meat today?

Things to eat and avoid

Culture is a ubiquitous force when it comes to making choices about food. All human societies, from hunter-gatherer to post-industrial ones like our own, have food preferences and fads, or restrictions and taboos.

We eat things because they taste good, even if they are bad for us. Other things we avoid have proven health benefits, but maybe they’re simply not as tasty or palatable.

Sometimes food taboos exist for good reason – such as to prevent overuse of an important resource or to reduce the risk of food poisoning at an important stage of life.

But just as often we find dietary preferences are culturally patterned behaviours, such as women changing their diet at varying times in their menstrual cycle, despite the practice having negative health consequences.

On top of this, certain nutrients like sugar activate reward pathways in the brain similar to those associated with cocaine use, making them highly sought after, and potentially addictive.

Much of the dietary advice found on the internet might be well meaning, but a substantial amount of it is misleading and frequently smacks of anti-intellectualism.

Bowls full of bullshit

More often than not though the ease with which we can post our opinions online has led to a glut of dietary advice that can only be described as ‘bullshit’.

Bullshit is defined by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt to mean something espoused by someone who pretends to know a lot about it but actually knows very little.

It’s rife on the internet and fuels both anti-intellectualism and a deep mistrust of scientific authority.

The debate about meat, and whether we humans have evolved to eat it, has to be one of the best examples of bullshit seen on the web.

It has largely lost all sense of the complex reality of food choice behaviours, and far too often tries to rewrite our evolutionary history by invoking pseudoscience.

Some pro-vegetarian or vegan promoting websites mistakenly claim that humans shouldn’t eat meat because we evolved to be herbivores.

The substance of their arguments is often traceable back to the influential but pseudoscientific views of vegan physician Milton R. Mills.

Some vegan sites even claim support from anthropology for their anti-meat agenda.

We also find bogus arguments like these promoted in the mainstream media where some columnists push an anti-intellectual agenda by misrepresenting the views of scientists themselves such as fellow anthropologist Richard Leakey.

For the record, here’s what he has actually written about meat eating and human evolution.

But if you love a good steak, don’t take the moral high ground just yet. There’s plenty of bullshit in the pro-meat camp as well.

One need only read internet debates on the subject of meat eating to see barnyards full of it on both sides.

As an interesting aside, social anthropologists have found meat to be the one food that’s subject to food taboos across a large number of cultures.

So, there might be a much deeper (genetic?) origin to our varying opinions towards meat, with some people loving it, and others repulsed by it, across the world.

Humans evolved as super-predators

No matter what the most militant of vegans or vegetarians would like to think, there’s an abundance of scientific evidence that we humans evolved to be predator apes.

Our ancestors were highly skilled hunters and meat was widely eaten and highly prized.

While hunter-gatherers varied considerably in terms of how much meat they consumed, none of them was vegan, and such diets simply wouldn’t have been available or viable options for them anyway.

Our human ecological and life history strategy evolved around acquiring and sharing hard to catch, but large pay-off, foods such as big mammals and fish.

We humans rely on culture for everything we do, whether it be the values and shared ideas we have about the world, social relationships, or the methods and tools we use to aid with the catching and processing food.

The earliest examples of stone tools used for acquiring and processing food have been found in Africa and date to around 3.3 million years old.

Butchered and defleshed bones from around the same time indicate clearly that early humans were butchering large bodied mammals for food.

Fire was probably used in an at least an ad hoc way from around 1.6 million years ago – probably much earlier – but became a regular tool for pre-modern humans from at least 400,000 years ago.

Cooking played a major role in making both meat and starchy foods palatable and digestible, providing our ancestors with a huge survival advantage.

Food cooking, especially of meat, may even have contributed to the evolution of our large brains.

Endurance running, persistence hunting

Humans are the only living primate adapted for running – particularly endurance running, and during the hottest time of the day. This seems also to be a universal pattern among the species belonging to the human genus Homo; all dozen or more of us.

The organs of balance – our vestibular system – are designed to help keep the head stable because of its tendency to pitch forward when running.

Humans possess a nuchal ligament to connect the base of the skull to the spinal column and help keep the head balanced as we run.

We have long lower limbs and a narrow trunk and pelvis. Our rib-cage is barrel shaped rather than shaped like a funnel with a bulging gut, like chimpanzees.

The muscles of our shoulder are decoupled from those of our neck because they aren’t used for climbing, aiding the need to counterbalance the legs and reduce rotation of the head when running.

Many of our lower limb muscles and their tendons – like the gluteus maximus, iliotibial tract and Achilles tendon– are also adapted for running.

We have large ankle bones, arches across two directions of the foot, and the ligaments of the foot absorb energy when we run releasing it during toe-off.

Our big toe has been brought into line with the other toes, losing its branch grasping abilities.

Humans have sparse and short body hair and between 5 and 12 million appocrine sweat glands that can produce up to 12 litres of water a day to help prevent hyperthermia.

The only other African mammals that are active during the heat of the day, running long distances, are dogs and hyenas.

Our species also has uniformly pigmented skin – the exception being people living at high latitude who probably lost their skin colour very recently.

Pigmentation protects the outer layers of the skin against sun damage and ultimately skin cancer, so is vital for a mammal that has sparse body hair and is active in the heat of the day.

All of this points to hunting, and a particular style called the persistence hunt. It would have been widespread prior to the invention of weapons like bows and arrows around 60,000 years ago.

David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals series has some wonderfully engaging footage of San men undertaking a persistence hunt. It’s well worth a look.

A gutsy move

To claim we shouldn’t eat meat because we aren’t anatomically identical to carnivores demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of how evolution has worked.

Humans and carnivores, like dogs and hyenas, are very different kinds of mammals, separated by around 100 million years of evolutionary history.

We are primates, and our basic body plan is constrained genetically by our primate heritage. You can’t turn an ape into a wolf in just 3 million years!

While much has been made of our sacculated colon, this is a feature common to all apes, and is the result of common evolutionary inheritance.

We have all evolved from plant eating apes regardless of what we eat today. A sacculated colon in no way suggests we are herbivores.

Besides, humans do eat a lot more than just meat and clearly require a wide range of foods for a balanced diet. For example, no apes can synthesise vitamin C in their bodies so it must be acquired from plant food sources.

However, the human gut differs substantially from other apes in a couple of key respects: first, we have a small total gut for our body size, and second, our greatest gut volume lies in the small intestine, while in other apes it lies in the colon.

A bigger small intestine indicates we absorb most of our nutrients there, and that we obtain them from high quality, nutrient dense, sources like meat and starchy foods.

While a large colon, as seen in all other apes, fits with their strongly plant based diet (87-99% of foods) and the need to ferment it. Humans simply can’t survive on the type of diet we see chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans or gibbons eating.

Another disturbing piece of evidence worth noting is tapeworms. Each year millions of people around the world are infected with them through eating under-cooked or raw meat.

And here’s the rub: without infecting a human host, at least four species of tapeworm would be unable to reproduce. Humans are a definitive host for them.

The only other mammals to be definitive hosts for tapeworms are carnivores like lions and hyenas.

Molecular clocks suggest human tapeworms evolved about the time our ancestors began to hunt.

Briefly, two other human features need mentioning because they have been widely used to mislead people on the issue of meat eating.

Our teeth are very similar to those of other apes in terms of the size, shape and number we posses – all apes and Old World monkeys have 32.

But there’s one important difference: we humans have small canine teeth.

The canine teeth of apes are not used for catching prey or chewing food. Instead they are for display and are used by males to battle it out for dominance in a social hierarchy or for access to mates.

A small canine tooth evolved in human evolution sometime after 5 million years ago and represents a shift in the social structure and mating behaviour of our ancestors.

It shows us that male-to-male conflict had reduced. Perhaps because males were sharing food with females and each other. Males and females may even have been monogamous at this time.

Lastly, humans have nails instead of claws because we are primates. No primates have claws. So to claim that our lack of claws shows we shouldn’t eat meat again indicates a clear lack of familiarity with our biology.

Besides, early human hunters used tools, their big brains and understanding of their environment and cooperative tendencies to catch food, not their brawn.

Making informed choices

There is a danger in taking our evolutionary history as fate. We are no longer hunter-gatherers and our lifestyle is about as far removed from that of our ancestors as can be imagined.

We need to adapt to our changing circumstances and find a diet that healthily supports it, like we have always done as a species.

Whether we choose to eat meat or not is not just a question of biology. It involves a complex set of cultural, social, ethical, health, personal and economic factors as well. It is not binary.

The best guide for most people on how to eat comes from science itself, for example, as presented in guidelines like those from the Australian Government.

But many millions of people today survive on low or no meat diets, by choice, or otherwise. In this sense, vegetarianism or veganism is like any other culturally situated dietary choice.

It should be both understood and respected as such and can’t be explained away or justified by appealing to a particular narrative of our evolutionary past.

In the end, my gripe is not with vegetarians or vegans or with those people who choose to eat animal food. My beef is with people who set out to promote their beliefs by appealing to anti-intellectualism.

Dishonest people who eschew the evidence and contestability of ideas that lie at the heart of science for personal, political or financial gain.

Those self-appointed experts who set out to deliberately deceive us by using pseudoscience or plain old bullshit to construct their own version of our past.

The ConversationDarren Curnoe, ARC Future Fellow and Director of the Palaeontology, Geobiology and Earth Archives Research Centre (PANGEA), UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Isaac Asimov on ignorance

 

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Why we need to listen to the real experts in science

The Conversation

By Michael Clarke, La Trobe University and Susan Lawler, La Trobe University

If we want to use scientific thinking to solve problems, we need people to appreciate evidence and heed expert advice.

But the Australian suspicion of authority extends to experts, and this public cynicism can be manipulated to shift the tone and direction of debates. We have seen this happen in arguments about climate change.

This goes beyond the tall poppy syndrome. Disregard for experts who have spent years studying critical issues is a dangerous default position. The ability of our society to make decisions in the public interest is handicapped when evidence and thoughtfully presented arguments are ignored.

Anyone can claim to be an expert these days. Flickr/Alan Cleaver , CC BY

Anyone can claim to be an expert these days. Flickr/Alan Cleaver , CC BY

So why is science not used more effectively to address critical questions? We think there are several contributing factors including the rise of Google experts and the limited skills set of scientists themselves. We think we need non-scientists to help us communicate with and serve the public better.

At a public meeting recently, when a well-informed and feisty elderly participant asked a question that referred to some research, a senior public servant replied: “Oh, everyone has a scientific study to justify their position, there is no end to the studies you could cite, I am sure, to support your point of view.”

This is a cynical statement, where there are no absolute truths and everyone’s opinion must be treated as equally valid. In this intellectual framework, the findings of science can be easily dismissed as one of many conflicting views of reality.

Such a viewpoint is dangerous from our point of view.

When scientists disagree with one another, as they must to ensure progress in their field, it is easy to argue that it is not possible to distinguish between conflicting hypotheses. But scientists always agree that critical thinking done well eventually leads to a better understanding and superior solutions. All opinions are not equal.

If you are flying in an airplane at 30,000 feet, you will not be content with just any scientific study about whether the wing will stay on the plane. Most people will want to put their trust in the calculations of an expert aeronautical engineer who understands the physics of stresses on the wing.

So why do we not want to trust experts in bushfire management, or climate change? Because most people are happier with experts whose conclusions fit their own ideas.

This encourages people to express their opinions, and the internet allows those opinions to get a wide viewing. This makes for interesting times, but not always effective solutions.

Google experts

The internet is filled with information and ideas. Everyone can quickly find “answers”, and this means that everyone is an “expert”.

But using Google to find the answer to Trivial Pursuit questions is not the same as researching a complex question. Experts do have skills and one of those is the ability to use high quality sources, up to date theoretical frameworks, and critical thinking based on their experience in a particular field. This is why an expert’s answers are going to be more accurate and more nuanced than a novice.

For example, people who use Dr Google to diagnose their symptoms before visiting an actual doctor, sometimes ask to be tested for diseases they do not have, or waste time seeking a second opinion because they are convinced that their “research” has led them to a correct diagnosis. If it were really that easy, would doctors have to spend all those years in medical school?

There is another problem called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which states that “people who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact”.

In other words, people who think all answers can be found on Google are likely to be unaware of the effort involved in solving complex problems, or why years of specialist training might help.

This is almost more dangerous than complete ignorance, because unlike Donald Rumsfeld, they don’t even know what they don’t know.

Easy access to huge volumes of confusing information sits very comfortably in a post-modern world. Unfortunately, the outcome is that most people are reluctant to do the intellectual hard work of sifting through competing hypotheses. So how are we to engage in robust scientific debates in such a public arena?

Science is not enough

It has been said many times that scientists need to communicate their research more broadly. The challenges are well known – peer reviewed scientific publications are necessary for our careers and time spent engaging with the public is time away from the field, our computers and laboratory benches.

Nevertheless, if we hope to influence government policy we cannot assume that the implications of our research will be understood by those who most need to know what we are doing.

Reaching out to busy bureaucrats and politicians is not something that comes naturally to scientists. To turn science into policy we need a diverse team of people with different but complementary skills who share a commitment to the task.

Skills that are not commonly found in scientists may be found in political scientists, lawyers, sociologists, public relations companies, the arts community and the media.

Forming relationships with people who can translate our findings into something that cannot be ignored may be critical to success.

Consider what we are up against, lobby groups with deep pockets have come up with brilliant assaults on the thoughtful management of our environment.

“Cutting Green Tape” or “No fuels, no fire” – these clever bits of spin threaten decades of rigorous research and policy development. This is not a failure of science, but a triumph of imagination. We have been dramatically out-manoeuvred, shown to be amateurs, in the world of presenting competing ideas.

At a recent fire forum we learned that current policy is: “Based on science, but driven by values.” This means that despite the best evidence, the values of our current society will decide when to act. This introduces another definition of truth seeking, based on who made the best argument in a political or legal process.

Science is meant to be done dispassionately and objectively, so scientists are not well equipped to participate in debates about values. This is the realm of ethicists, philosophers, artists and theologians.

But if we are passionate about applying the lessons learned from our research, we will need marketers, lobbyists, communication experts, accountants and economists. A multi-disciplinary team is required to convince society to change.

Perhaps the people with these complementary skills will be able to help break down the anti-intellectualism we face, for the benefit of all.


This is based on an address delivered by Professor Michael Clarke at the 2nd Biodiversity Forum held at the Royal Society of Victoria, Melbourne in 2014.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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Is Philosophy Dead?

Philosophy Professors Daniel Kaufman & Massimo Pigliucci discuss the value of philosophy in light of recent attacks from a few well-known scientists. They argue that such attacks on philosophy are expressions of sheer ignorance, and result in a certain kind of anti-intellectualism.

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December 24, 2014 · 5:15 pm

Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex

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I don’t know what’s the matter with physicists these days. It used to be that they were an intellectually sophisticated bunch, with the likes of Einstein and Bohr doing not only brilliant scientific research, but also interested, respectful of, and conversant in other branches of knowledge, particularly philosophy. These days it is much more likely to encounter physicists like Steven Weinberg or Stephen Hawking, who merrily go about dismissing philosophy for the wrong reasons, and quite obviously out of a combination of profound ignorance and hubris (the two often go together, as I’m sure Plato would happily point out). The latest such bore is Lawrence Krauss, of Arizona State University.I have been ignoring Krauss’ nonsense about philosophy for a while, even though it had occasionally appeared on my Twitter or G+ radars. But the other day my friend Michael De Dora pointed me to this interview Krauss just did with The Atlantic, and now I feel obliged to comment, for the little good that it may do. And before I continue, kudos to Ross Andersen, who conducted the interview, for pressing Krauss on several of his non sequiturs. Let’s take a look, shall we?

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Krauss is proud (if a bit coy) of the fact that Richard Dawkins referred to his latest book, entitled “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing,” as comparable to Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” on the grounds that it upends the “last trump card of the theologian.” Well, leave it to Dawkins to engage in that sort of silly hyperbolic rhetoric. (Dawkins still appears to be convinced that religion will be defeated by rationality alone. Were that the case, David Hume would have sufficed.) The fact is, Krauss’s book is aimed at a general audience, popularizing other people’s (as well as his own) work, and is not the kind of revelation of novel scientific findings that Darwin put out in his opus, and that makes all the difference.

Krauss’s volume was much praised when it got out in January, but more recently has been slammed by David Albert in the New York Times:

“The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields… they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.”

That’s harsh, and Krauss understandably doesn’t like what Albert wrote. Still, I wonder if Krauss is justified in referring to Albert as a “moronic philosopher,” considering that the latter is not only a highly respected philosopher of physics at Columbia University, but also holds a PhD in theoretical physics. I didn’t think Rockefeller University (where Albert got his degree) gave out PhD’s to morons, but I could be wrong.

Nonetheless, let’s get to the core of Krauss’ attack on philosophy. He says: “Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.” This clearly shows two things: first, that Krauss does not understand what the business of philosophy is (it is not to advance science, as I explain here); second, that Krauss doesn’t mind playing armchair psychologist, despite the dearth of evidence for his pop psychological “explanation.” Okay, others can play the same game too, so I’m going to put forth the hypothesis that the reason physicists such as Weinberg, Hawking and Krauss keep bashing philosophy is because they suffer from an intellectual version of the Oedipus Complex (you know, philosophy was the mother of science and all that… you can work out the details of the inherent sexual frustrations from there).

Here is another gem from this brilliant (as a physicist) moron: “Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.’ And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever. … they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”

Okay, to begin with, it is fair to point out that the only people who read works in theoretical physics are theoretical physicists, so by Krauss’ own reasoning both fields are largely irrelevant to everybody else (they aren’t, of course). Second, once again, the business of philosophy (of science, in particular) is not to solve scientific problems — we’ve got science for that (Julia and I explain what philosophers of science do here). To see how absurd Krauss’ complaint is just think of what it would sound like if he had said that historians of science haven’t solved a single puzzle in theoretical physics. That’s because historians do history, not science. When was the last time a theoretical physicist solved a problem in history, pray?

And then of course there is the old time favorite theme of philosophy not making progress. I have debunked that one too, but the crucial point is that progress in philosophy is not and should not be measured by the standards of science, just like the word “progress” has to be interpreted in any field according to that field’s issues and methods, not according to science’s issues and methods. (And incidentally, how’s progress on that string theory thingy going, Lawrence? It has been 25 years and counting, and still no empirical evidence…)

Andersen, at this point in the interview, must have been a bit fed up with Krauss’ ego, so he pointed out that actually philosophers have contributed to a number of science or science-related fields, and mentions computer science and its intimate connection with logic. He even names Bertrand Russell as a pivotal figure in this context. Ah, says Krauss, but really, logic is a branch of mathematics (it’s actually the other way around), so philosophy can’t get credit. And at any rate, Russell was a mathematician (actually, he was largely a logician with an interest in the philosophy of math). Krauss also claims that Wittgenstein was “very mathematical,” as if it is somehow surprising to find a philosopher who is conversant in logic and math. Nonetheless, Witty’s major contributions are in the philosophy of language.

Andersen isn’t moved and insists: “certainly philosophers like John Rawls have been immensely influential in fields like political science and public policy. Do you view those as legitimate achievements?” And here Krauss is forced to reveal his anti-intellectualism, and even — if you allow me gentle reader — his intellectual dishonesty: “Well, yeah, I mean, look I was being provocative, as I tend to do every now and then in order to get people’s attention.” Oh really? This from someone who later on in the same interview claims that “if you’re writing for the public, the one thing you can’t do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you.” Indeed people are going to believe you, Prof. Krauss, and that’s a shame, at least when you talk about philosophy.

Krauss also has a naively optimistic view of the business of science, as it turns out. For instance, he claims that “the difference [between scientists and philosophers] is that scientists are really happy when they get it wrong, because it means that there’s more to learn.” Seriously? I’ve practiced science for more than two decades, and I’ve never seen anyone happy to be shown wrong, or who didn’t react as defensively (or even offensively) as possible to any claim that he might be wrong. Indeed, as physicist Max Plank famously put it, “Science progresses funeral by funeral,” because often the old generation has to retire and die before new ideas really take hold. Lawrence, scientists are just human beings, and like all human beings they are interested in mundane things like sex, fame and money (and yes, the pursuit of knowledge). Science is a wonderful and wonderfully successful activity (despite the more than occasional blunder), but there is no reason to try to make its practitioners look like some sort of intellectual saints that they certainly are not (witness also the alarming increase in science fraud, for instance).

Finally, on the issue of whether Albert the “moronic” philosopher has a point in criticizing Krauss’ book, Andersen points out: “it sounds like you’re arguing that ‘nothing’ is really a quantum vacuum, and that a quantum vacuum is unstable in such a way as to make the production of matter and space inevitable. But a quantum vacuum has properties. For one, it is subject to the equations of quantum field theory. Why should we think of it as nothing?” Maybe it was just me, but at this point in my mind’s eye I saw Krauss engaging in a more and more frantic exercise of handwaving, retracting and qualifying: “I don’t think I argued that physics has definitively shown how something could come from nothing [so why the book’s title?]; physics has shown how plausible physical mechanisms might cause this to happen. … I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality. And if the ‘nothing’ of reality is full of stuff [a nothing full of stuff? Fascinating], then I’ll go with that.”

But, insists Andersen, “when I read the title of your book, I read it as ‘questions about origins are over.’” To which Krauss responds: “Well, if that hook gets you into the book that’s great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. … If I’d just titled the book ‘A Marvelous Universe,’ not as many people would have been attracted to it.”

In all seriousness, Prof. Krauss, you ought (moral) to take your own advice and be honest with your readers. Claim what you wish to claim, not what you think is going to sell more copies of your book, essentially playing a bait and switch with your readers, and then bitterly complain when “moronic” philosophers dare to point that out.

Lee Smolin, in his “The Trouble with Physics” laments the loss of a generation for theoretical physics, the first one since the late 19th century to pass without a major theoretical breakthrough that has been empirically verified. Smolin blames this sorry state of affairs on a variety of factors, including the sociology of a discipline where funding and hiring priorities are set by a small number of intellectually inbred practitioners. Ironically, one of Smolin’s culprit is the dearth of interest in and appreciation of philosophy among contemporary physicists. This quote is from Smolin’s book:

“I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” (Albert Einstein)

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Postscript: As people have pointed out, Krauss has issued an apology of sorts, apparently forced by Dan Dennett. He still seems not to have learned much though. He confuses theology with philosophy (in part), keeps hammering at a single reviewer who apparently really annoyed him (in the New York Times), and more importantly just doesn’t get the idea that philosophy of science is NOT in the business of answering scientific questions (we’ve got, ahem, science for that!). It aims, instead, at understanding how science works. Really, is that so difficult to understand, Prof. Krauss?

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