Saturday, March 31, 2012

Science vs. Scientists

"Confidence in scientists has declined the most among the most educated" of America's politically active citizens, reports the Los Angeles Times, citing a report from The American Sociological Review, which noted that "discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated" voters. It is important to sort out whether it is science or scientists being questioned.

Noting that this is a change from previous years and decades, Gordon Gauchat, the report's author, indicates that scientists have become increasingly politicized. Summarizing him, the L.A. Times wrote that, in the past,

the role science played was mostly behind the scenes, creating better military equipment and sending rockets into space. But with the emergence of the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, scientists began to play a crucial and visible role in developing regulations.

The voters began to see scientists not as doing science, but as doing politics - as authoring arguments to support various political views.

The study also found that Americans with moderate political views have long been the most distrustful of scientists, but that

such distrust was now spreading to other parts of the political spectrum. The study suggests that the public sees a disconnect between science and scientists. This perception is fueled by the fact that funding for various types of research has become increasingly politicized, by the fact that an increasing percentage of this funding is from the government, and by the fact that scientists are seen as mouthpieces for political views rather than agents conducting neutral inquiries into the nature of the universe.

Scientists have come into conflict with science in recent years in the climate debate about "global warming", in the debate about embryonic stem cell research, in debates comparing different sources of energy, and in debates about whether there are genetic causes for deviant social behaviors.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

An Emotional Time

The era called the 'Renaissance' was a time of emotion - a time when logical thinking was abandoned, and introspection on one's feelings were preferred. Musicologists call the compositions of the Middle Ages 'objective' because of their mathematical and structural aspects; the tunes of the Renaissance are called 'subjective' because orderly calculation was abandoned.

The writers who lived during the Renaissance praised their own generation, calling it a time when learning flourished. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Those who seriously investigated mathematics or physics during the Renaissance were lonely souls, ridiculed by their contemporaries. Historian John H. Plumb writes:

The frequency of assassination, the perennial plots, the constant vicissitudes, encouraged superstition and a romantic view of Fate. Men felt themselves to be the prey of strange destinies and turned to astrologers and magicians to strengthen their hope, to check despair, and to help them meet the uncertain future with confidence. The stars were studied as intensely as diplomatic dispatches, as a guide to action; and superstitious dread threaded the daily course of men's lives.

A narcissistic age, filled with ambitious grasping at reputation or power, is a more accurate description of the Renaissance. Those who wrote often wrote to emote or to impress, and rarely to attempt a crystallization of truth. Historian Lynn Thorndike writes that

Italian humanism produced relatively little of scientific or philosophical importance from its investigation of the classical past: Leonardo Bruni of Arezzo said that the subtleties of arithmetic and geometry were not worthy of a cultivated mind. In any case, most available works of Greek science had already been translated into Latin before 1300.

Who was this Leonardo Bruni? He was an author who wrote about political intrigues in the city and republic of Florence; he served for a time in the Vatican as a bureaucrat and later in the government of Florence; and he translated Greek literature into Latin. He was known for having a rather artistic style in his Latin prose. The point is this: He was not a mathematician, a philosopher, or a scientist in the sense of the modern observational or natural sciences. He was more interested in political machinations than in calculating the force of gravity; he was more interested in peddling influence than in applying the quadratic equation. A man of his time, born in 1370 - a Renaissance man - he was little interested in the powers of reason. Frederick Maurice Powicke writes that modern science was

made possible by the earlier, medieval belief in the reasonableness of the world.

The underlying notion that algebra can describe the natural laws of the universe - that objects act in accord with rules which can be expressed in equations - arises from the Scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages. The medievals understood that chemistry and physics describe processes in terms of laws:

the belief in law was at the root of the new investigation into facts.

The birth of modern chemistry and physics during the Middle Ages, this "new investigation into facts," would have to wait out the Renaissance before it could resume the rationalism which it began. The scholasticism of the Middle Ages - Aquinas, Anselm, Abelard, Ockham - led to the rationalism of Descarte, Leibniz, and Spinoza - and to the modernism of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. The Renaissance constituted a pause in this development of human reason. As Thorndike writes,

The fact that Valla's treatise on novelties unknown to the ancients has not survived indicates that his age was more interested in classical antiquity than in recent inventions. Of the three inventions that used to be associated with the Renaissance, namely the mariner's compass, gunpowder, and printing with moveable types, only the last can still be ascribed to the period, since the other two are now known to date back at least to the 13th century.

Lorenzo Valla died in Italy in 1457, his best work unappreciated by his contemporaries - a man interested in technological innovations living during the Renaissance's studied ignorance of such applied science.

Although many older history textbooks still recite the fairy-tale of the Renaissance as an era of learning, scholars have seen that the main achievements of the Renaissance were taking credit for the accomplishments of the Middle Ages and publicizing itself as an era far more rational than it actually was.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ancient Laws in Modern Times

The case of a 16-year-old girl, Amina Filali, who killed herself after she was forced to marry her rapist has drawn attention Morocco's Islamic law code.

Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code allows for the "kidnapper" of a minor to marry his victim to escape prosecution, and it has been used to justify a Muslim practice of making a rapist marry his victim to preserve the honor of the woman's family.

The victim's father said in an interview with an online Moroccan newspaper that it was the court officials who suggested from the beginning the marriage option when they reported the rape. According to the CIA's World Factbook, the population of Morocco is 99% Muslim.

In Islamic societies, the loss of a woman's virginity outside of wedlock is a huge stain of honor on the family. In Muslim nations, there is a tradition whereby a rapist can escape prosecution if he marries his victim, thereby restoring her honor.

Even though Morocco updated its law code as recently as 2004, in cases of rape, the burden of proof is often on the victim and if she can't prove she was attacked, a woman risks being prosecuted for debauchery, a serious crime in Islamic law.

The Moroccan court pushed the marriage, even though the perpetrator initially refused. He only consented when faced with prosecution under Muslim law. The penalty for rape is between five and 10 years in prison, but rises to 10 to 20 in the case of a minor. Amina complained to her mother that her husband was beating her repeatedly during the five months of marriage but that her mother counseled patience.