Saturday, February 5, 2011

How much science do you need to be rational? Science and skepticism.

I've been absent from skepticism for the last few years.

There have been several reasons for this. Job, career and educational needs have taken priority, as well as a general sense of "skeptics burn-out." But there's been another factor too. Often I've felt as if I didn't know enough science to really be an advocate for science, reason and the scientific method.

In graduate school at Cornell, I took some courses that touched on the history and theory of science. This was in an attempt to build up the background to better understand the history of Western science in China. As historians of Chinese and global history know, much of what has happened in China over the last two hundred years of so has been an attempt by Chinese to grapple with the basic issue of "Our civilization doesn't seem to be working as well it used to." As the Chinese found themselves unable to resist the West and Western technology, they grappled with the issue of how much and in what ways would Chinese civilization and society have to compete with this change in the world order.

This issue was debated periodically and I've been reading lately about the debates in the China in the 1920s over science and its applicability to improving and modernizing China. (More on these debates later.)

It's a funny thing about science. The more you know about science, the more you realize you don't completely understand it. And sometimes in skepticism it's not uncommon for people with only a basic understanding of science to be its greatest defenders.

I do not think, for instance, that it's any coincidence that in the 1990's I found myself, for instance, once sharing a radio show on WRPI where Joe Nickell, a CSICOP spokesman, and myself vociferously defended science, rationality and reason against all who chose call in the show and argue and attack science. Now at the time I had a bacherlor's degree in liberal arts and had barely met my science requirements to meet it. Most of what I "knew" about science came from a smattering of Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov's non-fiction essays and the usual reading list of a serious Skeptical Inquirer reader, but it sounded good and logical and overwhelmingly simple and it made me both feel and appear smart by contrast.

Joe Nickell, by contrast, had a PhD in English literature and was known for doing investigations of paranormal and supernatural claims where he would find a rational-sounding explanation and announce the case "solved." Then he'd publish the results in the "Skeptical Inquirer," a non-peer review journal that often published me at this time, and we'd both be met with an eager audience.

Now people who've met Joe Nickell in person will tell you he's not known for being terribly rational or logical and although most of his investigations cannot really be proven one way or another to a definitive conclusion, at least two of those that can be have been shown to be wrong. Oh well. His defenders tell me that his poetry, honestly, is quite moving and beautiful, so he can't be all bad. As for me passing myself off as a paradigm of science, reason, scientific knowledge and rationality, all I've got to say, is, "Who did I think I was kidding?"

After years of involvement in skepticism, I'm not gonna say that skeptics were bad people but it'd be a far cry to say that they were universally rational, reasonable or scientific. But at least, like me, they tried.

And don't get me started on the alleged rationality of engineers. I grew up in Schenectady, New York, the city that once lit and hauled the world, and discovered at an early age that somehow the rationality of engineers always brings itself right back to wherever their emotions want it to. The conservatively political find Anne Coulter to be rational. The liberals instead prefer to cite Michael Moore as a voice of sanity and reason. Each asserts that this is a sane, rational, sensible and logical conclusion.

But how about a real scientist? Real scientists are rational right? Real, working scientists surely understand science and rationality, right?

Well, these days I've returned to my study of the history of science in China and the Peking Man paleontological digs in particular. I've been reading with great interest a biography of a man named Ding Wenjiang (also known as "Ting Wen-chiang" or "V.K. Ting" depending on the time and source.) Ding was China's first foreign trained geologist and founder of China's Geological Survey and head of Beijing University's geology department in much of the early twentieth century. In Charlotte Furth's excellent biography, "Ting Wen-Chiang, Science and China's New Culture," (1970, Harvard University Press)

Ding was a firm believer in science and its ability to improve not just China but the state of man in general. He was quite interested, for instance, in applying science to social and societal problems. (Like many of his time, both East and West, he did, for instance, do some writing on eugenics and how its application might lead to a healthier, better society.) Although, after receiving a degree in Scotland, he returned to China and began working in his field in 1911, prior to the outbreak of the first world war. In the 1920s, following the tragedy and horrors of the first world war, many in China did not think they wished to adapt Western science and its methods. Ding became involved in the debate.

According to Furth, his biographer, however, he often showed a superficial understanding of science when he explained it and attempted to show examples of how the scientific method was not alien to China at all. According to Furth, his definition of science was little more than inductive reason, empiricism and applied logic. The use of non-empirical fundamental theories was neglected in his writings because they have little place in his field of geology although they are important in physics and chemistry.

I asked a friend about this, a retired Ivy League physics professor who now writes hard science fiction, and asked what sort of time frame it takes to develop an understanding of science where such a melange of certainty and uncertainty become combined into a scientific whole. He said it was neither simple to understand nor simple to explain and that he was only somewhat able to understand my question. But he did try to answer. And I did my best to understand but I'm sure there was much misunderstanding on my side. Apparently as one digs deeper into scientific theory one sometimes gets the sense that there are layers. And as one pierces these layers one goes from a sense of certainty to uncertainty and then back again. The world becomes clearer and then it suddenly becomes fuzzy again only to later become clearer again.

Which come to think of it, sounds a lot like growing up. There's a long process of "knowing the world" with great certainty and then becoming confused again as one ages. As many know, I part with many skeptics over the issue of atheism. I just think it's both unnecessary and irrational to speak of the universe and its vast unknowable secrets with what often appears to be such adolescent certainty. I was, I've said more than once, an atheist at one time but that was "when I was eighteen and knew everything about everything. Now I'm more confused."

Which in a long rambling fashion sounds almost like a paean to unknowingness. Can one ever know anything? Can one dismiss any knowledge?

Well sometimes only a little bit of knowledge of science, reason and rational thinking is all you need. Let me offer the following example.

I was recently approached by someone in an electronic forum who felt we had a shared interest in Chinese history and culture. They were American yet claimed to be part Manchu. That sounded interesting. Then they added further details saying that their ancestor was of Manchu nobility and had been exiled to San Francisco prior to the opium war. At this point my "skeptic alarm" went off. (I'm sure geneologists have a similar alarm that goes off when they hear the terms "noble blood" and an exotic, glamorous ethnic group in the same phrase. "My ancestor was a Cherokee Princess," is particularly common I've been told.)

There were several problems with the claim. In short, either their ancestor did not exist at all or else their ancestor was of considerable importance in our understanding of the history of the Chinese in America. For instance, the opium war broke out in 1838 and there is no record of any Chinese in North America prior to 1848, ten years later. And those were Cantonese work people, not Manchus. Not to mention the issue of inter-marriage and the unimportance of San Francisco at the time. (For a quick check, you can see my book "Tongs, Gangs and Triads," page 69. I don't claim this as a definitive source, in fact, some day I hope to update it, but it's appeal is obvious to me.)

I asked for verifiable proof. Here was the response.:

"Do you know anything personally about Chinese immigration to American during the 1820-1850s, Peter? I mean, what is your educational background? I have a Bachelors in Asian history and actually have learned a bit about the early Asian american experience. Oh and do not forget that I have this extreme habit of incarnating along one particular bloodline. And I am a Seer and Empath.

Publically verifiable would require that a particular group, you know, actually WRITES RECORDS DOWN in the first place, right?

Do you have any idea how arrogant you sound to me?"

Okay, three things seem obvious here.
1) this person's sources are not scientifically admissible and their claims are not to be used by any scholar who expects to be taken seriously by their peers.
2)they don't know how to access or find the many documents from the period that might help solve this and will claim instead that such documents don't exist. Clearly they'd benefit from watching a few episodes of the PBS show "History Detectives."
3)they think I'm an asshole. Okay, join the club.

Arguably, if they wish to announce they are a descendant of Manchu nobility, a Cherokee princess, a Gypsy caravan leader or, for that matter, a Klingon warlord (Qapla!) in a past-life, that's their business. Of course, if they are using these as a credential to advance their status among their peers and recruit for a religious group that they lead, then this is a social-justice issue and could be potentially predatory. Some will argue that if a person believes in such things as a reincarnation claims and sorcerous divination without proof, as is often the case in Pagan circles, then they should expect to get swindled and are so stupid as to deserve it, but something about that attitude just sounds a bit sociopathic. (Social Darwinism anyone? This was, in fact, one of the issues debated by Ding in the 1920s. Did belief in the scientific method and its value inevitably lead to a belief in a dog-eat-dog morality?)

However, just a tiny, little, little, little bit of logical thought, rationalism and critical thinking will prevent the whole issue from being relevant. There is no evidence worth mentioning for this claim and therefore a person with some skepticism should avoid it. Sometimes, a little bit of skepticism will go a long way and prevent a lot of problems.

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