Thursday, May 22, 2014

Whatever Works Is Right

Science historian Joseph Martin agonizes like Hamlet over the question of whether it is proper to lie in order to persuade people to accept one's scientific views. The question arises because the recent Cosmos series with Neil de Grasse Tyson has been less than honest in presenting the role of religion in the history of science, and though Martin recognizes this, he wonders whether the lies may be justified in order to promote a "larger truth":
I've been watching with interest as the history of science community, particularly on Twitter, has reacted with consternation to the historical components of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos reboot.

To a large extent I agree with these criticisms. It is troubling that the forums in which the public gets the most exposure to history of science also tend to be those in which it is the least responsibly represented.

But part of me also wants to play devil's advocate. First, Cosmos is a fantastic artifact of scientific myth making and as such provides a superb teaching tool when paired with more responsible historical presentations and perhaps some anthropological treatments of similar issues like Sharon Traweeks Beamtimes and Lifetimes.

Second, I don't know that we, as a community, have adequately made the case that the scholarly view of history we advance is, in fact, more useful for current cultural and political discourse than the naïve view scientists advance. One thing we often see in our research, and parallel work in philosophy of science, is that "right" is often not the same thing as "useful." I'm interested in generating some discussion in why and how, if at all, we can make the case that "useful" and "right" are and should be the same thing in this case for reasons other than internal professional ones.
In other words, if lying is useful in persuading people to believe the currently fashionable stories promoted by scientists then lying is right. By all means, then, let's not hesitate to mislead those benighted rubes watching our glitzy science shows if it'll convince them that we're right. He makes it clear in the comments that this is a live option for him:
If we [grant] Cosmos the artistic license to lie, the question is then whether doing so [is] in service of a greater truth and if so, what is it? And what does it mean for us if it turns out that Cosmos and the history community are simply going after different truths?

For the record, I myself am still very much on the fence about this issue, but if I were tasked with mounting a defense of Cosmos as it stands, one of the things I'd say is that the stakes of scientific authority are very high right now, especially in the United States. Perhaps the greater truth here is that we do need to promote greater public trust in science if we are going to tackle some of the frankly quite terrifying challenges ahead and maybe a touch of taradiddle in that direction isn't the worst thing.
If Martin thinks that a little "taradiddle" will actually promote public trust in what scientists tell us he should be working for the Obama administration where "taradiddle" is served to the public daily with the morning coffee. Has dissembling strengthened public trust in Mr. Obama's governance?

Would Martin agree that if global warming skeptics or creationists are convinced that they're correct then it'd be right for them to lie, too? Does he think it's okay for politicians to lie if they believe, like Plato, that a "noble lie" may be necessary to get the public to go along with a particular policy? Perhaps Martin also thinks it'd be acceptable for popes and prelates to lie about having witnessed miracles if it gets people into the church, which they would certainly see as a good thing.

Is it any mystery that so many people, to the chagrin of much of the scientific community, simply don't trust scientists when they tell us their stories about naturalistic human evolution and global warming. It was bad enough when people thought the scientists were probably just mistaken. Now, if they heed scholars like Mr. Martin, they have good reason to think that scientists are actually deliberately trying to deceive them about such things.

It's certainly an odd way to go about building public trust and confidence.

Casey Luskin at ENV has much more to say on this here.