Recently I was listening to the great biotech podcast Future in Biotech episode 77 when they were interviewing the great Susan Lindquist and her postdoc Daniel Jarosz about a paper just published. I will not go through the paper here (go to the link, great interview), but the gist is that they discovered another layer of subtle control on the expression of proteins by a cell, that can be tweaked depending on the environmental conditions. As I was listening to the interview, I was trying to construct a mental model of all the control mechanisms that a cell has, and it simply overwhelmed my imagination.
At that point, I suddenly remembered a post by PZ Myers in the very popular Pharyngula where he starts the article with one of the best phrases ever: "Most of you don't understand evolution". Then he proceeded to destroy the general bad assumptions that most of us (non evolutionary biologists) have about evolution. I am not talking about creationism stuff, just about the fact that the basic idea that we have about evolution is structurally wrong. PZ concentrated in the fact that most people think that evolution is for individual beings and simple genes while it is actually about population of beings and networks of genes, but I am sure that there are a bunch of other similar misconceptions that the general scientific public has (and let's not even mention the general non-scientific public as seen here).
Then I came back to something that I had been discussing recently in another forum (It's Science, you wouldn't understand ) where I discussed about how much intervention the general (non scientific) public should have in deciding the agenda for Scientific institutions. I don't think I did a great job explaining my position (yes to explain the general principles and yes to deciding the general directions, no to every other intervention), but I think both the FiB episode and PZ's article point towards the same direction.
People tend to confuse the map with the territory.
It is not because you have a basic understanding of a scientific theory that you actually know about it. There is a reason why there are so few postdocs in every specific topic, as it takes a long time to acquire the expertise to avoid confusing the map/metaphor with the territory/reality. And just as you can't jump into a map and arrive to a destination, you can't use you basic understanding of a scientific issue to take decisions about that issue. You have to walk the pathway to arrive to the territory.
Science is hard. But it is so good.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Sunday, June 5, 2011
Recently, the new blog Skepticism and ethics asked for submissions. You can see the winner here . Clearly well deserved. I did submit something, and clearly it was inferior to the winner. But as this is my blog, then I can put it here. Well, it's call "Learning to think", not "I know how to think already".
Oh, and goodness, I am a pompous writer...I have to work on that too.
Oh, and goodness, I am a pompous writer...I have to work on that too.
Ethics and skepticism
Why to be a skeptic? Is it a matter of being right? Of debunking preternatural claims? Of laughing at poor reasoning and swear that we will never do the same?
And while we are at it, how do we apply our skepticism? Are we armchair skeptics that blast against the perceived overall decrease in rationality of our society, but do nothing to affect it? Or should we stridently shout our convictions to our interlocutor faces, telling them how subhuman they are because they are not able to reach similar conclusion to us when faced to similar facts? Maybe meeting with friends in a pub to discuss the skeptical topic du jour around drinks is the right approach to it.
I don’t know. And I don’t drink alcohol, which makes these questions harder, as I can’t disolve them with spirits.
It is not only that I don’t know. I doubt my own capacity to answer these questions. Which feels ridiculous, because they are part of the philosophical basis of a position that I have identified as mine. Skepticism. But feeling ridiculous do not make the doubts disappear. Maybe I should fall into philosophical skepticism, and believe that knowledge is not possible. But I’ve always felt that position is lazy, so as a good biased human I solve this position by ignoring it because I don’t like it.
So how do I answer these questions? Well, here is where Ethics come into play. If you look up what the Oxford English Dictionary says about ethics, you will find this definition:
“Moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity”
That seems exactly what I am looking for! Well, then let me elucidate this as I tend to do in this day and age. With a quick internet search. Sadly, either due to my poor searching technique, or to the lack of baseline material, I don’t find anything besides the post for the essay contest, and the excellent (but preliminary) post by Daniel Loxton in Skeptiblog. So no easy way out for me.
I know what to do. Steal and borrow from philosophers. Not money, they don’t seem to have much. Moral theories they do have. “All” I have to do is just check the main ethic theories and see if there is one that fits better with skepticism than the others. Should be simple.
So I start with Virtue Ethics. The four classic virtues seem to apply very well to the ideal skeptic. Temperance to make sure that we don’t rush into a conclusion and that we take a look at the evidence around the topic. Prudence to use our practical decisions in favor of our skeptical goals. Fortitude to defend our positions even though they may not be popular or easily chewed up into “soundbites”. And obviously Justice, to be able to give a position the appropriate value that it has due to the evidence, even if we don’t like it.
But Virtue ethics is very much centered in “me”. In my qualities, that I may or may not have, that I may improve or not. In my mind Skepticism has also the interaction component, with other people (skeptics or not), and other social entities, which doesn’t fit with Virtue Ethics.
I follow with Utilitarianism. I saw that it is the complete opposite to Virtue ethics in regard of the interaction part. As Utilitarianim looks at the consequences of our actions, it directly deals with the interactions we have with the other people. And is that aspect that is both the strength and the weakness of this theory when applied to Skepticism. To obtain the best results for a particular situation, the skeptic may have to bend some of his principles. Why to explain the situation completely, when a nice quote will do much more to turn believers into skeptics? Lots of explanations with the risk/benefit ratio laid down in front of the people may bring either boredom or panic. This may affect the adherence of the “masses” to our positions as skeptics. So lets NOT do it.
ut this goes against the prototypical skeptic, that is characterized for his/her resistance to be pulled into a particular direction only because it gives better results (the “herding cats” meme, etc).
So I have the Deontological ethics to go. And how fast I go through it by realizing that Skepticism can never be separated of its rationalist roots. And these roots would be intoxicated by an ethical approach that only cares about the characteristic of our action, but not the result. Because rationalism should always win! Not because there is a rule (which deontologists love) that says that, but because by definition if you were rational, you should have chosen the path that would have given you the best outcome.
At this time then, I am confused. I am in the dark, and I can’t find the keys to solve the problem.
So I do as I should do, and look where the light is. And my keys are named David Couzens Hoy. So I find him. These keys are tortuous, and quite hard to understand and at least half of it is way over my head. But the most popular parts are not.
He defines ethics as obligations that present themselves as necessarily to be fulfilled but are neither forced on one or are enforceable. These obligations are due to the ethical resistance of what he calls the “powerless ones” to our ability to exert our power over them. This definition intrinsically has the relationship between the skeptics and the “believers” in it.
And it has our attitude and responsibility also integrated. The “believers” are powerless against the forces of ignorance/irrationality. That is why they ended up believing them. We support them, because their lack of power makes them unable to resist to these forces, making it necessary for us, that have some power against these forces, to use it in favor of the powerless. Complicated much. Yeah, I agree with you. Let me put it from another point of view.
The obligations can’t be forced on them or us, as this would place the obligations outside of the realm of ethics(ought to be like this), and it would put it on the realm of law(it is like this). An example of it is how we don’t discuss the ethics of raping women or children, because it’s integrated in the social structure of society, but we discuss the ethics of the use of placebo, because there is no law structured prohibiting it. And because the ”believers” have no power, they can’t enforce them on us.
But even Hoy does not solve the largest problem of all. How to do it? I would say that, as any other complex problem in nature, the response is multi-factorial. We will have to realize that our basic neurology has some concepts of “virtues” intrinsic to it, and that we will have to temper their influence by internalizing that the outcomes we consider important will be affected if we don’t. All of this under the framework of rules established by either us or society in general, which may or not be optimal for the satisfaction of our endpoints or our idealized representations of ourselves.
Bashing myths and misconceptions is fun, but at the end of the day, we have to remember our obligation to the powerless that are in the grasp of these fallacies. Because they will not remind us, as they can’t get out without help.
I have met the helpers, and he is us