New book calls science a "Priesthood"

Discussion in 'Science & Society' started by rpenner, Dec 24, 2011.

  1. rpenner Fully Wired Valued Senior Member

    This opinion article by a recent author of a book on cranks, along with their editorial bias towards claims of the eminent demise of General Relativity and the Standard Model, has got to be a large part of the reason that New Scientist is associated with crankdom.

    Science is a priesthood? This is a claim arising from nothing more than psychological projection from the cargo-cult of wannabes. If science were a priesthood, there would be organized worship rather than the disorganized affections of groupies and the unasked-for flattery of imitations of those that ape science's form without benefit. If science were a priesthood, there would be an initiation into its mysteries rather than open access journals and public libraries of books.

    Mathematics is an obstacle? No, you dunderheads! The human brain with its grossly circuitous and inefficient function of thinking and understanding implemented in story-telling meat is the obstacle. That the thinking meat of cranks are of the opinion that untutored meat should have equal chances of discovery as the meat of scientists who attempt to work in with reliable abstractions of logic, math and evidence is without basis. Naive egalitarianism in this case is simple arrogance.

    Science has to be a precise, useful and communicable description of nature. That the most precise and most useful descriptions are necessarily communicated in mathematics is not a bug, but a feature.

    This post has been copied from my social media post. If you are subscribed to New Scientist you have my permission to repost on the comment thread there.

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    Existing comments seem to share my opinion:

    Reviews of the book:
    Michael Shermer in Wall Street Journal
    John Horgan for Scientific American blogs
    Peter Woit
    Last edited: Dec 24, 2011
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  3. wellwisher Banned Banned

    Science as a priesthood may be farfetched, since science is dependent and beholden on business, government and other special interest for funding. A priesthood would seek the truth first even if that means trying all things new. But since this might create a conflict of interest, for those holding the purse, science often default into mercenary mode. If you are an employee, you have to abide by the rules of employment. If you worked for a cigarette company, you can't do the opposite and still get paid.

    If science was totally self sufficient in terms of resources, with no obligation except to the truth, a science priesthood would be possible. But if science is leveraged with a job paid by someone outside science, loss of prestige or funding hangs in the balance, so it is easier to be a mercenary.

    How many scientists would support themselves to seek the truth? How many would prefer the comfort of a good job even if you need to jump some hoops? Dawkings is not a priest of science but more of hired gun who is in it for the prestige and fame.

    For science to evolve a priesthood, it would need to be set up like a church, where it collects tax free donations for science. But small donations so there is no leverage.

    In current mode, if government wanted the sky to be green and was willing to supply $100B in resources to do this, there would be many takers of this money, mercenaries, trying to make it green. The priesthood, would say save the money, it is blue.
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  5. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    I assume that the term 'priesthood' is being used metaphorically. The term certainly highlights some features of how science fits into broader culture and about how scientists and the lay public often seem to relate and interact. There's nothing new or revolutionary about using the word in this context.

    I have yet to read the 'New Scientist' piece, but the idea behind the 'priesthood' analogy is typically that lay people often perceive scientists (and scientists sometimes perceive themselves) as gnostics, as people who are seeking and have to some extent found what we might call higher knowledge of what the universe ultimately is and how it truly functions at its deepest level of being. This is transformative knowledge and the scientists (aided by their associates the physicians and engineers) are able to transform their gnosis into magic, into amazing wonders like huge steel aircraft leaving contrails across the sky and carrying these higher sorts of human all the way to the Moon.

    Of course it is. To the majority of people advanced mathematics is little more than magical hieroglyphics, whose deep and hidden secrets are only perceivable by those initiated as PhDs.

    I think that it's true that human brains are optimized by evolution to process natural language and to interact socially with other human beings. Thinking about the highly abstract world of mathematics is kind of a brand new direction for human cognition, one that it has only embarked on recently. We still aren't as good at mathematics as we are at hanging out socially with our friends.
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  7. keith1 Guest

    The whole rational point I can see for a priesthood mentality is in the frugal disciplines of it's initiates--the meekness of accepting of the smaller paycheck garnered.
    In this respect, plumbers, lawyers, all business admins, doctors, congressmen, etc., should all be of a priesthood.
    Get thee to a nunnery, penner!!:thumbsup:

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  8. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

    Well, I'd agree with Wertheim that an organization as large as the NPA should at least be as interesting to the applicable social sciences as any remote tribe of the past or other subcultural developments / trends in the contemporary world. However, while the human part of me has likewise indolently scorned some of these types as "cranks" in the past, that's not much reason to blacklist them or deprecate tentative efforts to study them. If such groups also happen to be critics of physics, or they are devotees of some "para-science" operation. As this kind of reaction would be the very essence of petty emotional response and self-defensive posturing of "grossly inefficient .... meat".

    Imagine if, decades ago, anthropological researchers (and members of physical sciences that learned of this) got upset over critical remarks that bushmen made (about how their traditional beliefs trumped the new conclusions of science) if bushmen could have blogged opinions, published papers, and had conventions back then. Such a very human departure from a methodological process supposedly above passion and personal grudges, gives the appearance of legitimacy to such attacks being indeed from a rival with a potent alternative view. Rather than merely being another socio-cultural object of an indifferent study, conducted by mainstream scientists.
  9. Trooper Secular Sanity Valued Senior Member

    Alternatively, he could say the sky is violet but only appears blue, due to the limitations of our eyes.
    What would you call this, quack apologetics? Maybe she’s shooting for the Sagnac Award. I liked her crochet coral reefs, though. I’ll have to read the book but I don’t understand why Shermer and Horgan were so easy on her. John Horgan wrote that article about the Templeton Foundation that I liked. Blurring the line between science and almost anything does seem to increase book sales.

    Templeton Funding-Science and the Big Questions
  10. rpenner Fully Wired Valued Senior Member

    I would define a (metaphorical) priesthood as an organization accepted as an unquestionable authority on a realm of questions ("mysteries"), whose membership is self-regulated, and that access to the "mysteries" is to be gated exclusively by fully initiated members of the organization. Worship of the "mysteries" is encouraged by the priesthood to enhance the priesthood's authority.

    The profession of scientist -- one who does science -- is less regulated than many professions including lawyers, engineers and actual priests. In all jurisdictions, anyone may call themselves a scientist while impersonating a lawyer or engineer or priest may bring civil and criminal penalties. Organizations of scientists operation more like social networking sites to facilitate communications of common interest than as controlling bodies.

    Science is all about testing supposed answers to questions. Any authority that science has in society is based on its track record of providing reliable and precise answers when being correct matters. Worship of science or its practitioners is not a symptom of the nature of science, but of the nature of humans; even those unconnected with answering questions like singers and athletes and politicians have fans, groupies and flatterers.

    I do not think it is a good idea for science to strive to become more like a priesthood. Nor do I think it is evolving in that direction.

    I reject that scientific knowledge is "gnostic" -- because nothing distinguishes knowledge gained from scientific research from knowledge gained in any other human activity. I am not an excellent welder -- is this because professional welders are a priesthood? No, the fault lies with myself and the choices I made.

    Priesthood is not necessarily defined by frugality and humility. A practical reason for scientists to be humble is that ego gets in the way of communicating reliably or testing ones own ideas.

    C_C, it's unnecessary to blacklist cranks because they aren't actually doing science. Many of them build castles in the air and then defend those castles in a manner incompatible with science. Others set fire to their own reputations in other non-scientific ways. And the thing about blacklisting is there has to be an actual blacklist. Never have I seen a scientist thank another scientist for passing on a crackpots name. All too often the crackpots own work is passed on without comment. Also, I am not slighting Margaret Wertheim for studying crankdom, but for commending it.
  11. rpenner Fully Wired Valued Senior Member

  12. RichW9090 Evolutionist Registered Senior Member

    Apparently it hasn't worked very well for him, since you don't even know his correct name.......
  13. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

    I wasn't referring to a figurative blacklisting of them as proper "scientists". Wertheim considers the NPA to be "sociologically significant", which suggests her book is at least some tentative consideration of them as a socio-cultural phenomenon that should be further studied [Footnote below]. The reaction to this, however, seems to be misconstrued focus upon whether or not their agenda and "alternative view" is valid, etc. Which in additional "does not follow fashion" generates the ironic appearance of treating them as legitimate rivals that must be undermined or defeated, rather than something to be examined.

    It's like providing grounds for a further study of Mormons, to be conducted by applicable social sciences, but then the response is all about the "bunk" of Mormon beliefs. As if they should be blacklisted in regard to being candidates for such research because their "backward and traditional opinions" rub some scientists in other fields or their advocates the wrong way. A scientist studying the bushmen of decades ago would document their beliefs as one part of the endeavor, but hardly enter the situation giving a flip about wasting time on a personal passion of refuting their "outlandish" traditional beliefs (even without today's political correctness or respect of other cultures being in vogue).

    Footnote: Add to this Wertheim's concluding comment: "While we may not agree with the answers outsiders give, none of us should be sanguine when some of the greatest fruits of science are unavailable to most of humankind." I.e., studying such groups might provide more insight into why science alienates the majority of people, if a department requires some bloody applied justification for research rather than merely the purist acquisition of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, whether it is useful or not.
  14. Trooper Secular Sanity Valued Senior Member

    Why? Because in the end, truth will win out? Will it?
    Debating is part of the scientific process, but it’s done internally through the peer review process, where people are trained to examine evidence. A debate elevates pseudoscience to another level and does lend to its credibility, which can leave the public with the impression that science is merely an opinion.

    On the other hand, when left unchecked it spreads quickly. This report shows that the belief in pseudoscience is rampant in America. The media’s misrepresentation combined with the public’s lack of knowledge in the scientific method, could lead to less government support for research, greater public susceptibility to scams, and public risk perceptions, e.g., global warming.
    Last edited: Dec 25, 2011
  15. Pincho Paxton Banned Banned

    Ah but will this thread be censored?

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  16. Aqueous Id flat Earth skeptic Valued Senior Member

    There are those among us who more than once regarded the payment garnered as evoking not a sense of the priesthood but... that oldest of professions.
  17. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

    So we should be worried about bushmen beliefs dominating institutional and educational processes even though science supposedly has the truth? Just how certain and effective would the latter be (this "truth") if one could be concerned about bushmen kicking scientist butt? And social scientists would still somehow achieve an objective understanding or unbiased account of bushmen culture, while at the same time viewing them as a threat, or being at war with them as a competitor? Such a pessimistic outlook seems to suggest that science has no privileged position, but is just another POV for a methodological approach, battling for dear life with scores of others. We'd be living in a circumstance similar to Nietsche's perspectivism.
  18. Crunchy Cat F-in' *meow* baby!!! Valued Senior Member

    I read the article and here are the takeaways:

    * Cranks reject mainstream science.
    * Cranks don't like math.
    * Cranks have not yet contributed to science.
    * Cranks are organizing themselves into a unified force of... um... cranks.

    Cranks are positioning themselves for psychological study but will still be systematically separated from science until they start performing real science. This would of course entail taking the time to get a real education.
  19. Trooper Secular Sanity Valued Senior Member

    However, perspectivism does not mean that all perspectives are equally valid, now does it? If she is commending pseudoscience as RP stated, then that's messed up, right?

    Everyone likes to sit back and complain about pseudoscience, but I feel that it should be confronted. Just because scientists are able to discern between the two, doesn’t necessarily mean that the general public is capable of making the judgment. People can easily be manipulated if they are unacquainted with logic and the scientific process.

    Let’s take a look at a David Hilster, who designed the Sagnac Award for the NPA, and who also, continues to ask for donations.

    Does philosophy have some sort of veto power over science? Does philosophy have the right to reject scientific evidence? I think not.

    “It's not surprising science would want to distance itself from philosophy. The historical relationship between science and philosophy has not been a friendly one. Philosophers like to start with their conclusions, and work to prove them. When it came to trying to figure out what the world was like, philosophers tended to argue about what the world should be like. Science was born as a rejection of this method. Its goal was to figure out what the world was really all about, and its primary tool was actual experimentation.”~ Joseph Rowlands
    Last edited: Dec 25, 2011
  20. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    It would be more scientific to say that color is entirely subjective. Cats have fewer types of photoreceptors than our three, and they have fewer color-discerning cones and more night-vision rods than we do, so to them everything is shades of grey with a slight pastel wash.

    Most birds have more types of photoreceptors than we do and they have almost no rods, so to them the universe is a riot of color. They can see ultraviolet so the color of the sky is certainly different to them. (This is how they can so mysteriously distinguish males from females: ultraviolet pigmentation in their feathers.)
  21. Trooper Secular Sanity Valued Senior Member

    Yes, you’re absolutely right. Thanks, Fraggle.

    BTW, I checked out your profile. The (+) just means that you’re on his contact list because you didn’t reject it, only ignored it.
  22. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    These days, to the average American even basic arithmetic is voodoo. They can't make change for a dollar without a calculator.

    The first generation of these completely innumerate Americans has grown up and risen into managerial positions. This explains the current state of our economy. Even bankers believed their own bullshit about the subprime mortgage being a perfectly reasonable transaction. My wife has a degree in English but even she figured that out.
    The speech center in the brain was identified quite a while ago. It's possible that Neanderthals had one too (although obviously there's no way to prove that), but it's unlikely that any of our ancestral species did. The technology of spoken language is almost certainly an invention of Homo sapiens and/or H. neanderthalensis.
    Most humans can look at a totally random arrangement of objects that number between one and seven and instantly know how many of them there are. A few can go as high as twelve. But it's not clear if this is an innate skill or simply learned in childhood from intensive repetition of the act of counting.

    Many primitive languages (including Proto-Indo-European) do/did not have the singular-plural numbering paradigm of most modern languages, but instead had a one/two/more-than-two paradigm. Does this mean that earlier in our development we did not have quite as good a grasp of larger numbers?

    Dogs don't seem to be able to count past two. If I train one to take two biscuits after dinner, he knows that the first one was the first one because one did not come before it, and he knows that the second one is the last one because one did come before it, so he knows he's had two. But if I try to train him to take three, once he gets to two he has no idea how many he's eaten so far, so he doesn't know when to stop expecting another one.
  23. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

    I don't feel that she's commending it, just examining NPA and possibly suggesting that others should further study it (particularly the latter if she happens to only have a background in physics, and not that of an applicable social science, too). But that's an opinion based solely on the links provided, especially her own short commentary. I haven't read her book anymore than anyone else here apparently has. And yes, the naive egalitarianism the OP referred to is more the beast that perspectivism spawned, inspired, or evolved into after the days of Nietsche. Something like Richard Rorty's neopragmatism, where "no culture gets it anymore wrong or right than any other".

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