Monday, February 11, 2013

Science Literacy

Just when you think that poking a little fun at the media for their ideological prejudices is so easy it's hardly fun anymore someone will go where no broadcast journalist has gone before and expand the envelope of ludicrousness beyond anything one might have thought possible.

A couple of years ago some in the media were blaming earthquakes on global warming, but as geologically risible as that was, CNN news anchor Deb Feyerick has made it seem almost erudite by comparison. Feyerick, at pains to blame climate change for everything from snow storms to halitosis, evidently espies a possible cause and effect between climate change and, well, just watch:
One has to wonder whether she even knows what an asteroid is, or if she has ever taken a middle school level course in earth and space science. And what in the world is a "meteoric occasion" anyway? Alas, people like Ms Feyerick are in a position to shape the opinions of vast chunks of the American viewing public.

No wonder educators fear that we're becoming scientifically illiterate. We are - at least at CNN.

Nor is Ms Feyerick alone among our cultural elites in her abysmal understanding of basic science. Indeed, Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia would probably be mystified why anyone would think there's anything wrong with what she said. The honorable gentleman from the peach state, you might recall, once revealed himself to be under the impression that large oceanic islands are actually floating rafts of rock and may tip over if too much weight is placed on them. I know you think I'm kidding so watch for yourself:
It never gets old. Anyway, at least the congressman wasn't blaming island tipping on global warming. Nor does he shape public opinion. He just votes for the laws that the rest of us have to live under.

Do Animals Suffer?

VJ Torley alternately chides philosopher William Lane Craig for claiming in a debate that animals don't suffer as humans do and then criticizes Craig's critics for claiming that they do. The fact is, Torley argues, we simply don't know. Science cannot say that animals are self-aware or conscious nor can it tell us whether an animal's experience of pain is or is not like our own.

His article is long but interesting, especially if one's concerned with the question why a benevolent God would tolerate animal suffering. He opens his essay with three quotes to summarize his argument:
“[A]nimals like horses, dogs, and cats ... do not experience ... the awareness that one is oneself in pain… Even though your dog or your cat may be in pain, it really isn’t aware of being in pain, and therefore it doesn’t suffer as you would when you are in pain.” (Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, in a debate held 17 October 2011, in London, U.K., on the topic, “Does God Exist?”)

“[N]onhuman animals may indeed feel pain but cannot suffer in the way that we can.” ("New Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett, Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness)

“[F]rom a scientific view, we understand so little about animal consciousness (and indeed our own consciousness) that to make the claim that we do understand it, and that we now know which animals experience emotions, may not be the best way to make the case for animal welfare. Anthropomorphism (seeing animals as just like humans) and anecdote were assuming a place in the study of animal consciousness that, it seemed to me, leaves the whole area very vulnerable to being completely demolished by logical argument .... It is, perhaps, not a comfortable conclusion to come to that the only scientific view of consciousness is that we don’t understand how it arises, nor do we know for certain which animals are conscious.“ (Marian Stamp Dawkins, Professor of Animal Behavior and Mary Snow Fellow in Biological Sciences, Somerville College, Oxford University, writing in an online article entitled, Convincing the Unconvinced That Animal Welfare Matters, The Huffington Post, 8 June 2012.)
Torley also adds this from Marian Dawkins:
In her recently published book, Why Animals Matter: Animal consciousness, animal welfare, and human well-being (Oxford University Press, 2012), Marian Dawkins adds that “there is no proof either way about animal consciousness and that it does not serve animals well to claim that there is.”
He then goes on to observe that,
The quotes listed above all highlight the danger of anthropomorphism when talking about animal suffering. The authors of these quotes are all professors who have published widely in their fields: the first two are prominent philosophers, while the third is an eminent biologist. Yet the author of the first quote, despite being a devoted pet-owner, is widely scorned by secular humanists for his alleged insensitivity to animal suffering, while the authors of the second and third quotes have kept their reputations unscathed. I have to ask: what motivates this curious inconsistency?
Reasonable question, I guess, but surely the answer to it is not hard to surmise. Craig is the bete noir of atheist debaters on the existence of God and thus his opponents are quick to exploit any perceived chink in his armor that they can find.

One implication of the rest of Torley's article is that Craig's error was really not such a big deal, but that doesn't deter his antagonists, of course. When someone repeatedly makes one's own position look foolish, as Craig does in his debates with skeptics, one will hammer away at any error one discovers him making no matter how minor or trivial it might be.

The larger questions in Torley's essay, though, are the more interesting. Are animals conscious in the same sense we are? Do they feel pain as we do, or is their experience of pain somehow qualitatively different? Could animal pain be somewhat like the pain we have when we sleep - a sensation of which we are not really consciously aware but to which our bodies nevertheless respond? Are animals aware in the sense that a person with "blindsight" is aware? These are matters about which we know very little, but Torley's article nicely illuminates some of what we do know about them.