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Naturalism and science are incompatible Ken Perrott Oct 07

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Well, that’s what the Christian apologist philosopher Alvin Plantinga claims. And he has written a book to “prove” it - Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Apparently its required reading for students of theology and the philosophy of religion. Probably because he declares there is a “deep concord between science and theistic belief,  . . . .  and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” The book concludes with:

“there is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That’s where the conflict really lies”

Personally, I think Plantinga uses motivated reasoning, logical possibilities, cherry-picked “science” (he quotes Michael Behe for example) and a naive understanding of adaptive selection to come to his conclusions. On top of that he usually acknowledges that each step is only logically “possible” – he preserves deniability all the way through. But nevertheless comes to firm conclusions! This must be very satisfying for him and some of his mates but I don’t think many scientists have even noticed his book.

I certainly haven’t noticed a sudden change in the way we do science, or the scientific theories we formulate.

I won’t review or comment further on his book here (although I have sort of promised to discuss one or two of Plantinga’s arguments in future articles). I recommend that anyone interested should read Maarten Boudry’s excellent review -Where the Conflict Lies, Really: Are Science and Theism Best Friends?  (I commented briefly on this in The paradoxes of theological gullibility). And I certainly don’t support Plantinga’s conclusions.

But I do agree with the statement that “Naturalism and science are incompatible.”

Before you go and quote me out of context I also agree with statements like “Theism and science are incompatible,” “atheism and science are incompatible,” “Marxism-Leninism and science are incompatible,” “Maoism and science are incompatible,” etc. You get the picture. I am saying that all philosophies or ideologies are incompatible with science in the sense that science does not, and should not, a priori, include any of these ideological/philosophical presumptions.

The conflict is not just between science and religion, but between science and all ideologies.

What about “methodological naturalism?”

OK, some people may now be revising their knee jerk reaction that the long-expected senility had finally struck. But what about “methodological naturalism” some would say – isn’t that a normal part of the scientific process. In fact, in a recent discussion a student assured me that “methodological naturalism” . .  is an assumption of science!”

Bloody hell, is this a new part of science training? I was never told during my university years that I should make such assumptions in my research. And I never went into any of my research projects with that or any other similar “assumption.” No colleagues mentioned such assumptions to me either. That claim may be coming from theology and philosophy of religion professors, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be coming from working scientists.

In fact, I have always been told, and always accepted, that we should make as few assumptions as possible in research. OK, perhaps reality exists, and perhaps we can assume that it is possible to investigate and understand at least part of that reality. But that is all. (Well, perhaps there was a strong preference for accepting the laws of thermodynamics – but even then there was a realisation that a Nobel Prize awaited anyone who disproved them.) But, on the whole, an open mind is essential for creative research.

Who is promoting this story?

So what’s all this palava about “naturalism” – and especially this “methodological naturalism” we are all supposed to assume? While such terms are not bandied about by scientists day-to-day they are used by a few philosophers and politicians. In fact this student could well have been mislead by a body no less august than the US National Academy of Sciences. In their booklet “Teaching about evolution and the nature of science” they say:

“Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance.”

This view was endorsed by philosopher of religion John Haught (“By its very nature, science is obliged to leave out any appeal to the supernatural, and so its explanations will always sound naturalistic and purely physicalist”) and  Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, who is also an atheist (“Science is a way of knowing that attempts to explain the natural world using natural causes. It is agnostic toward the supernatural – it neither confirms nor rejects it.”).

There are no shortage of atheist philosophers of science like Michael Ruse and Barbara Forrest who also provide quotes for the enthusiastic Christian apologist to cherry pick and throw at me when I discuss the subject with them. Of course these same apologists ignore philosophers and scientists, like Victor Stenger, who reject this characterisation of how we do science.

Accommodation in science

There are scientists and philosophers who argue the characterisation presented by the US National Academy of Sciences is just political opportunism. That the Academy is trying to placate religious critics by retaining a place for religion. By declaring that science had not found their god because of its own (science’s) limitations. Science is not capable of finding gods or other “supernatural” things – “Your god is safe from us.” A similar motivation is behind  similar comments from scientists and philosophers. Effectively that approach is a tactic which tries to neutralise attacks on science, and particularly evolutionary science, by ring-fencing certain issues. Making them out-of-bounds for science.

Some scientists describe the approach as “accommodation” and firmly criticise it. They see this political tactic as placing the defence of evolutionary science above science itself. The independence of science, the true lack of ideological assumptions within science, and the scientific ethos of searching for truth, are sacrificed just to get those troublesome theists off the backs of evolutionary scientists. And the political tactic fails because it allows theists to place, or attempt to place, arbitrary limitations on science, agrees to the ring-fencing of aspects of reality to exclude science, etc., just to appease the enemies of science.

This tactic also hands juicy quotes to religious apologists who cherry pick them to tell scientists how they should really do research. They can also use these quotes as an excuse for the continued lack of credible evidence for their preferred stories about life and the universe. Even, as Plantinga attempts, to try to discredit science and or leading scientists.

The philosopher Maarten Boudry has an interesting paper explaining the problems with the accomodationist approach of the US Academy of Science – How not to attack intelligent design creationism : philosophical misconceptions about methodological naturalism. I guess as a philosopher he must use the terms used by those he critiques. But he explains the problems and inadequacies of terms like “methodological naturalism,” and attempts to introduce amendments to make them more realistic.

Personally, as a scientist and not a philosopher, I feel we should just declare these terms irrelevant. They don’t describe how we do research and do encourage misunderstanding by non-scientists.

What the hell is “supernatural”?

People use this word a lot but no-one bothers with a tight definition – perhaps because that is not really possible. My dictionary describes the adjective as attributing a phenomenon or event to “some force beyond scientific understanding, or the laws of nature.” So, was lightning and thunder “supernatural” several centuries ago but not now? Is some phenomena we have recorded and do not understand “supernatural” now – even though it may become “natural” tomorrow when we do understand it? If this really means forever beyond potential understanding – how could we possibly know? Isn’t this whole thing circular? Theologians tend to define “natural” as “relating to earthly human or physical nature as distinct from the spiritual or supernatural realm.”

Surely it’s just simpler to say “I don’t know”  when we come across something we do not understand, that seems to conflict with the current state of knowledge (which the “laws of nature” represent). If we must give it a name call it something like “dark matter” or “dark energy” – place-holders acknowledging we are trumped for the moment but not preventing us from investigating the phenomenon. To call it “supernatural” has unfortunate consequences – it is usually interpreted to mean beyond scientific understanding. Such labels are of no help because they are science stoppers, preventing the progress of understanding.

I have discussed “natural” and “supernatural” before in Science and the “supernatural”, Can the “supernatural” be of any use?, The “supernatural” and dogmatism in science, Scientific method and the “supernatural”, Defining natural and supernatural and elsewhere.

And I should also make the usual qualifier here. I am by no means claiming that everything is understandable by the human mind, or even that we can detect everything. Nor am I suggesting that our mental and technological abilities are potentially unlimited. We may just not be able to ever investigate some things or understand them when we do. That doesn’t stop us from being a very curious species which will continue to investigate things far into the future.

We shouldn’t be setting “limits” to science or ring-fencing parts of reality to place them out-of-bounds for science – just to satisfy adherents of ancient mythical beliefs.

Scientific knowledge is counter-intuitive

And that’s a strong reason to expel any idea that scientists should make assumptions before the undertake research. For example, exclusion of ideas considered “supernatural” would have prevented progress in our understanding of gravity (action at a distance was considered as introducing an occult force in Newton’s time), relativity (how counter-intuitive is that?), quantum mechanics (“spooky action at a distance), and field theories of matter. Excluding the “supernatural” when it is used to mean something we don’t understand or don’t think possible) would just prevent scientific progress. And we don’t.

Of course, those who advocate most strongly for inclusion of the supernatural in science don’t really mean that. They mean the automatic inclusion of their god into scientific theories, as an explanation of observed facts, without any evidence. When these people criticise “naturalism” they are really criticising the requirements for evidence, testing and validation in science. But remove those and we no longer have science.

The god hypothesis

However, on the question of gods and similar beings – science does not exclude these, providing the requirements of evidence and testing are fulfilled. In fact scientists, whatever their personal beliefs, should not exclude such beings. After all there could well be a god, or gods. We might well find evidence for that. A god hypothesis may well survive testing and be incorporated into our scientific theories. That may sound mad to some – but personally I think a few hundred years ago gravitational forces, relativity and time dilation, quantum indeterminacy entanglement would have been considered a lot weirder than a god hypothesis

Personally I don’t believe there are gods, but as one grows older one gets used to having to adjust beliefs as we learn more about reality. One thing I am pretty sure of though – if a god or gods do exist they won’t be anything like the gods humanity has invented over the years.

A last point on god hypotheses. As science has progressed we have found less and less room for gods. Scientific theories these days don’t include gods. Not through any presumptions by science or biases in scientists beliefs but because we just don’t have any supporting evidence. Another problem is that there is no agreed, clear, structured god hypothesis that can be tested. In fact, as our knowledge has progressed and the lack of evidence has become obvious theologians and philosophers of religion have progressively redefined their gods to be less and less testable. I think they have effectively redefined their gods out of existence. Or maybe in the process of making their god undetectable they have also made it impossible for her to interact with reality. Impossible to have an influence. Which is basically the same as non-existent.

Being open-minded

I said before than an open mind is essential for creative scientific research. Some critics assert science is not open-minded because it doesn’t automatically include their (the critics) gods in scientific theories. That concept of an open mind means inclusion of any old idea, without evidence and validation, and no matter how vague. That is not science – it’s silliness.

The explanatory power of science comes from its interaction with reality. Creative research must be open to new ideas and speculations but they don’t throw away evidence and validation against reality. They are not so open-minded that their brains fall out.

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Rational morality Ken Perrott Nov 03

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Here’s a great video. It’s not short (31 mins) but its well worth watching right through – or downloading and watching later. Even watching several times, the speaker is so eloquent and precise with his language.

In it Scott Clifton gives a thorough critique of the Christian apologetics understanding of morality. He also gives a good outline of secular morality – a rational, objectively-based morality.

Treatise on Morality. – YouTube.

Clifton stress morality is important because it determines how we behave and how we interact with others. In the video he sets out to answer four questions:

  1. What do we specifically mean by words like “right,” “wrong,” “moral,” “immoral,” etc.?
  2. Why our definitions are useful and applicable and why they represent how the vast majority of people see these words, whether they realise it or not?
  3. How can we objectively determine what is “right” and what is “wrong” without appealing to personal taste or subjective opinion?
  4. Why we ought to do right and ought not to do wrong?

He answers the first question by defining “right” as that which promotes the health, happiness and well-being of humans. Or minimises unnecessary human pain or suffering. And “wrong” of course is the converse.

Immediately I know many readers will reject his definitions. But if you do, you should hear him out. Watch the video. Listen to his arguments.

I suspect you might find that you do in the end agree. I do.

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Concern over William Lane Craig’s justification of biblical genocide Ken Perrott Oct 30

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Genocide is good if your god commands it!

William Lane Craig went ahead with his “empty chair for Dawkins” stunt in his Oxford appearance. While many of his fans loved the trick, Craig didn’t get off unharmed by his stalking of Richard Dawkins. Obviously some of Craig’s fans are concerned about Dawkins’ reference to Craig’s justification of biblical genocide. So he was forced to confront the issue during question time.

While most of Craig’s fans applauded his answer, others were rather shocked. Here’s how one reporter at the event described it (see William Lane Craig vs. Chair of Dawkins ):

“However, ultimately one question exposed Craig’s alarmingly questionable moral principles: ’Dawkins has refused to debate you because (he says) you think genocide could be acceptable in some contexts. Have you ever said anything which warrants this view, and what do you actually think?’ He started with the straightforward denial that we expected — ’I have not in any way ever said that God commanded, or could command, human genocide’. However, the following ten minute explanation of Numbers 33:50-54 (look it up) did not involve a justification of genocide, merely a justification of the mass displacement of an ethnic group; the kicker at the end was his summary that if this forced displacement did involve killing some Canaanites, well the adults deserved it because they were sinful, and it’s alright because the children went straight to heaven. Seriously?”

“The widespread applause this statement extracted from the audience was possibly more alarming than the statement itself. Somewhere up in the wings a lone voice was shouting ’Boo’; the news editor and I stared gormlessly; the rest of the spectators seemed to find this little speech all fine and dandy. I am a religious person, and as a person of faith (not in spite of it) I was morally repulsed by this analysis, and deeply concerned about the intellectual and moral fibre of the believers who found it commendable.”

“The only benefit of the doubt that I can possibly extend to Craig (and I am scraping the barrel) is that under pressure he grasped at the nearest explanation for Biblical injustices which came to mind, and would — hopefully will — qualify his extraordinary comments at some later date. I shan’t hold my breath.”

And from another report of the same event ( see Craig strikes back at genocide smear):

“However, in a question and answer session near the end of the debate, Craig’s response to the accusation that he approves of Biblical genocide provoked murmurs of disapproval from parts of the audience, and a loud boo from the upper wings.

’There was no racial war here, no command to kill them all,’ he initially said, referring to extermination of the Canaanites in the Old Testament, ’the command was to drive them out.’

Then Craig said: ’But, how could God command that the children be killed, as they are innocent?’

’I would say that God has the right to give and take life as he sees fit. Children die all the time! If you believe in the salvation, as I do, of children, who die, what that meant is that the death of these children meant their salvation. People look at this [genocide] and think life ends at the grave but in fact this was the salvation of these children, who were far better dead…than being raised in this Canaanite culture. ’

One attendee, who wished not be named, called Craig’s argument ’alarming’: ’I’m a Christian who generally agrees with Craig’s ideas but what he said for the last question was simply disturbing. He completely contradicted himself, one minute saying that, effectively, no children were killed in the genocide, only to say later on that it was OK that children died, that it was God’s will, and that they were saved from a debauched culture.’

He added: ’I believe in a benevolent God, but that didn’t sound very benevolent at all.’

I suspect Craig will come to regret the way he has approached this problem. He has the habit of inventing explanations for things and sticking to them. even declaring his opponents are dishonest or illogical if they don’t accept his arguments.

But when it comes to strong moral issues like genocide more and more of his fans will come to see these arguments as disingenuous. Especially if he repeats his justifications ad nauseam. A habit of his.

Credit: Photo by Apolgetics 315. Yes the photo is doctored – but not by me.

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Galileo’s revolutionary contribution Ken Perrott Jun 23

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A good primary source

In An interesting question Thony C at The Renaissance Mathematicus responded to a comment at my post, Early history of science, with his own blog article. While it  mainly discusses the nature of censorship I would like to respond to some comments he made about the Galileo affair.

I will leave aside his/her tactic of blaming the victim — which seems quite fashionable among religious apologists writing on this issue today. For example Thony C claims:

’Nobody had been really bothered by the potential conflict until Galileo and Foscarini had made it into a real conflict by suggesting a theological solution thus creating a real problem for the Church;’ ’In his unconsidered and over hasty actions Galileo had forced the Church to ban the heliocentric theory.’

There is something unpleasant about excusing all the actions of a huge institution like the Catholic Church and its Inquisition and putting all the blame on an individual. Moreover an individual who is threatened with torture and sentenced to imprisonment! Soviet apologists no doubt blamed Andrei Sakharov for his confinement to the city of Gorky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for his expulsion from the country. That’s the trouble with apologists — their loyalties.

However, I would like to deal here with the so-called ’theological solution’ which Thony C presents as the real problem. Unfortunately this ’crime’ is usually not discussed in detail, yet apologists often wish to use it to divert attention away from the scientific issues. Was the theological problem simply non-acceptance of a geocentric model which was supposedly made factual by its presentation in the Christian bible? Was it just a matter of semantics, the hubris of including scientific questions within the domain of theology?

Thony C gives a clearer idea in his comment:

’The crime the these two men committed in the Church’s eyes was not that they propagated heliocentrism, which they did, but that they told the Church how to interpret the Bible and that was definitely a no, no.’

So was it a matter of interpretation, or more correctly who should do the interpreting and how?

Galileo’s sentence

Firstly, let’s be clear how the Inquisition saw Galileo’s ’crimes’ by looking at this extract from his sentence (my emphasis – in this post I am quoting from The Essential Galileo — a very useful source of primary documents):

’We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the abovementioned Galileo, because of the things deduced in the trial and confessed by you as above, have rendered yourself according to this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture: that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and the earth moves and is not the center of the world, and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture. Consequently you have incurred all the censures and penalties imposed and promulgated by the sacred canons and all particular and general laws against such delinquents. We are willing to absolve you from them provided that first, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, in front of us you abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned errors and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Church, in the manner and form we will prescribe to you. Furthermore, so that this serious and pernicious error and transgression of yours does not remain completely unpunished, and so that you will be more cautious in the future and an example for others to abstain from similar crimes, we order that the book Dialogue by Galileo Galilei be prohibited by public edict. We condemn you to formal imprisonment in this Holy Office at our pleasure. As a salutary penance we impose on you to recite the seven penitential Psalms once a week for the next three years. And we reserve the authority to moderate, change, or condone wholly or in part the above-mentioned penalties and penances. This we say, pronounce, sentence, declare, order, and reserve by this or any other better manner or form that we reasonably can or shall think of.’

So clearly the specific point of issue was that of heliocentricism. But included in this is that the church had proclaimed geocentricism a ’fact’ because it (in their opinion) is revealed by ’Holy Scripture.’ So the issue becomes one of epistemology rather than a scientific theory. Do you derive your understanding of nature from ’Holy Scripture’ or from the evidence of nature? No doubt seen by the Inquisition as a ’theological’ issue but really an important philosophical one.

Epistemology the real issue?

It’s important to see the key role of different epistemologies here because apologists will often make an issue of the difference between hypothesis and truth, or should I say ’Truth.’ That Galileo and Kepler, for example, had not been able to get supporting evidence from parallax measurements (they didn’t have the technology/accuracy). But again that is a diversion — apologists concentrate on the degree of empirical confirmation for heliocentricism (and ignore the lack of empirical confirmation for geocentrism), while purposely ignoring what the Inquisition and Church understood as the ’Truth.’

And Truth, of course, was that laid down by ’Holy Scripture’ — really interpretation of that Scripture by the Church authorities. Or a select few of those ’authorities,’ in this case, as the interpretation was so dubious and varied. The ’Holy Scriptures’ did not even name the planets, let alone give a model for their arrangement.

And the Inquisition’s claim that the geocentric model was a fact had not required the sort of real evidence they were demanding for the Copernican model.

So, on the one hand the church or theological ’authorities’ claimed the sole right to interpret ’Holy Scripture’, and thus determine ’Truth.’ They determined by this shonky revelation that the geocentric model was ’true’- the fact. Anyone else who attempted their own ’interpretation’, or suggested a different epistemology like relying on evidence, was committing a crime.

Perhaps the theologians could be pragmatic. Some documents imply their ’interpretation’ would change once the empirical evidence was overwhelming. (A strange admission that revelation is a lousy epistemological method). A Catch-22 bureaucratic situation given that Galileo, and other natural philosophers, had been urged in 1616 to:

’abandon completely the above-mentioned opinion that the sun is the center of the world and the earth moves, nor henceforth hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, orally or in writing; otherwise the Holy Office would start proceedings against him.’

As for these ’proceedings’ — well, 16 years before Bruno had been burned at the stake for heresy!

Thony C suggests that Galileo and others told the Church how to interpret the Bible.’ Its worth actually understanding what Galileo said about interpretation.

He did actually offer, as an aside, a different interpretation to the then accepted one of the Joshua story where the sun stood still to enable a battle to be won.  He suggested that the story could not be ’explained’ by the Ptolemaic geocentric model, but could be by the Copernican heliocentric one. Or more correctly that the Copernican model enabled a more literal interpretation of the scripture.

However, his general comments on scriptural interpretation are of more value.

Scriptural interpretation

Galileo was a devout Catholic so did in fact accept scripture as ’Holy’ and ’correct.’ But:

’Scripture cannot err, nevertheless some of its interpreters and expositors can sometimes err in various ways. One of these would be very serious and very frequent, namely, to want to limit oneself always to the literal meaning of the words’

Moreover interpretation was required because by necessity the ’holy ghost’ had to adapt its dictated language to the culture and prejudices of the time:

’in order to adapt it­self to the understanding of all people, it was appropriate for Scripture to say many things which are different from absolute truth in appearance and in regard to the meaning of the words.’

In contrast, no ’interpretation” is required for natural situations:

’nature is inexorable and immutable, and she does not care at all whether or not her recondite reasons and modes of operations are revealed to human understanding, and so she never transgresses the terms of the laws imposed on her’

As a devout Catholic he saw it this way:

’Holy Scripture and nature both equally derive from the divine Word, the former as the dictation of the Holy Spirit, the latter as the most obedient executrix of God’s commands.’

But while ’interpretation’ of ’Holy scripture’ was required, even demanded, our perception of, and ideas about, the real world must be derived from evidence.

’therefore, whatever sensory experience places before our eyes or necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural effects should not in any way be called into question on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning, since not every statement of Scripture is bound to obligations as severely as each effect of nature.”

A necessary requirement for the scientific revolution

I doubt that Galileo was the only Catholic who saw this. And imagine it was part of the theological debates of the time. However, I think it also should really be seen as part of the general philosophical debates. What Galileo was suggesting was a very necessary step in scienctific evolution.

For science to progress, for it even to return to its earlier power, the struggle between two different epistemologies had to be resolved. In effect the breaking away of science from the old theology and philosophy of revelation was a necessary requirement for the scientific revolution.

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Problems with philosophers and theologians Ken Perrott Apr 20

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This looks like an interesting book: The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. He delivered this year’s Science and Democracy Lecture at Havard University’s School of Design (see Learning to love the irrational mind | Harvard Gazette).

The other day, in , I referred to a problem some philosophers have with understanding human morality. So these quotes from the report of the lecture appealed to me:

“In a wide-ranging talk, Brooks laid out the conclusions he found while searching for an explanation for ’this amputation of human nature’ in politics and everyday life. What he found, he said, is that scientists who study the mind, rather than theologians or philosophers, are yielding the most interesting answers to questions of what constitutes character, ethics, and virtue.”

And, according to Brooks:

’If we base policy on a shallow view of human nature … we will design policies that are not fit for actual human beings,’ he said. ’We will have child-rearing techniques which continue to underemphasize the most important things in life. And we will have moral discussions that will remain vague and inarticulate.’

Definitely another book I will have to read.

Circular theological arguments

Local Christian apologists have tried to outdo each other with their partisan reviews of the recent debates between their hero, WL Craig, and Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris. Interesting that they feel the need to debate scientists to justify their god beliefs.

However, Matt Flannagan, from the blog MandM, provided a nice little example of the sort of circular arguments theologians get into in their attempts to offer a divine foundation for human morality. He wrote:

“Goodness is best understood in terms of an exemplar, that good is identified with the perfect paradigm of a good person and that the goodness of everything else is measured by its resemblance to this paradigm. An analogy to this idea is the official ’metre stick’ that exists in France today. The metre stick is exactly one metre long, and the length in metres of every other length is determined by comparison with it. In the same way, God is both perfectly good and is the standard of goodness for everything else. . . . To claim God is good is to claim that he is truthful, benevolent, loving, gracious, merciful and just, and that he is opposed to certain actions such as murder, rape, torturing people for fun and so on.”

So humans have designated a standard metre. At one period this was defined by the distance between two lines on the International Prototype Metre kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris, France. In 1960  the metre was redefined in terms of the wavelength of light emitted by the krypton-86 isotope. And then in 1983 in terms of the speed of light. (I wonder if theologians have bothered updating their god as the standard of goodness over the years?)

Just as the International Prototype Metre was defined as the standard for a useful measurement unit by humans  our theologian has defined his god as a standard defined by humans for useful human moral values. This theologian has, along with most people, concluded that honesty, benevolence, mercy and opposition to murder, rape and torture are good human values. So he has invented an artificial “person”, an “International Prototype Good Person,”  to enable calibration!

But notice – this theologian knew these human values were good well before he constructed his prototype. The same  the rest of us know these values are good – because they are based on  human nature. As I said in Foundations of human morality humans are effectively wired for The Golden Rule.

For the life of me, though, I can’t see why this theologian needs to define an “International Prototype Good Person.” Values are qualitative, not quantitative. It’s not as if we have to transfer a measurement from one person to another. Morals are not like height or girth.

If we already know what is good, and use that knowledge to define a fictional good person, so that we can then use that fictional character to find out what is good aren’t we needlessly creating a middle man? And don’t all middlemen exploit the rest of us by clipping tickets, taking a percentage or a tithe?

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Foundations of human morality. Ken Perrott Apr 11

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How did he know it was the right thing to do?

Sam Harris caused a bit of a stir with his recent book The Moral Landscape.’ While it upset religious apologists (gods didn’t come into his argument) it also caused debate among philosophers, scientists and fellow atheists.  Clearly his contribution was welcome and useful — but not all agreed with his ideas.

Most, but not all, of the criticisms relate to the question of a foundation or basis for human morality. I will leave aside, for the moment, the Christian apologist positions – which were recently re-rehearsed by WL Craig in a debate Is Good From God? — this caused a flurry amongst apologists who approach all of Craig’s debates like bigoted and vocal fans at a boxing match. This position relies on a naïve dogma that their god provides a ’sound foundation for objective moral values and duties’ — an axiomatic assumption which is never proven and is problematic even for many Christians.

Human flourishing as moral foundation?

Sam Harris appears to argue that one does have a basis for human morality, and determining right from wrong, in human flourishing or maximizing human well-being. And he provides clear examples where one can determine good situations from bad situations using that criteria. ’The ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban’ in Afghanistan is obviously a bad one.

But many critics feel this is inadequate. Possibly because terms like ’flourishing’ and ’well-being’ seem hedonistic. That good is all about pleasure.  People feel that good is more than that. It involves some abstract, high thinking, concepts — more than pleasure and pain. There also seems to be a common feeling that human flourishing is too arbitrary. That different people might define this in different ways. That right and wrong are concepts more absolute than that. Harris himself says of his use of the words ’flourishing’ and ’well-being’ ’I don’t know of any better terms with which to signify the most positive states of being to which we can aspire.’

One can argue that a moral logic can arrive at a more ’absolute’ or ’objective’ morality. That morality can be seen as something moral absolute because it can be arrived at logically. Perhaps moral laws are a bit like arithmetic?

Moral assumptions as ’brute facts’?

And there has been the position that some moral positions just have to be assumed, accepted, as basic. They can’t be proved.  Erik J. Wielenberg, for example, argues that ’objective morality rests on a foundation composed of brute ethical facts.’ These have ’have no explanation outside of themselves’ They just are. ’They need not be inferred from other things that we know.’ This strikes me as a bit like a Clayton’s morality — the god-like foundation for morality you have when you don’t have a god. It is basically as good as, or as bad as, the moral foundation advanced by the Christian apologist, because it is assumed and unproven by logic or evidence.

I believe one has onlyhalf the picture if discussion is limited to philosophy and logic. Gods don’t add anything — except to provide a justification which, being “holy” or “divine,”  can’t be questioned. Sam goes one better by at least providing an easily understood foundation. Perhaps if we use different words, get away from limitations of pleasure and pain, bring is some higher ideal, this will be more acceptable.

To me this still suffers from ignoring the real world. It ignores the facts staring us in our face – the nature of humans and how they evolved. And the nature of human morality in practice and its evolution. I think we should go beyond philosophical and logical consideration of human morality to a more scientific discussion of the subject. One which seeks a foundation for human morality in humans themselves and in our relationship to reality.

We need to recognize that human morality is intimately tied up with human nature. Morality is more than a philosophical or logical question for us. It is an emotional one. Our intuitions and subconscious are involved, perhaps more so in most situations than our intelligence, reasoning and logic.

Moral intuitions

Humans have very strong moral intuitions. We react reflexively to situations – we have to. There is not enough time to go through logical exercises of reasoning when lives may depend on our reactions. Sure, we may try to explain our behavior after the event but research shows this is more rationalization of our actions than a replay of the processes that went in our brain. Processes which we don’t usually have access to anyway.

Our moral intuitions are adaptive and incorporate out adaptive intuitions. Feelings of purity, disgust, fear, guilt, etc. Perhaps the strongest intuitions we have are intuitions of right and wrong. We may not know why something is wrong but we have extremely strong feelings that it is. These intuitions of right and wrong are so strong that it is understandable that some might see them as somehow inviolate, absolute – objective even. The sort of thing one hands over to a god if you think that way. Or even personalises in a little imp (our consciounce) who sits on our shoulder warning and encouraging.

But, the last 500 years or so of experience of the progress of science surely tell us ’god did it’ (or little imps) explanations get us nowhere. The old creation myths don’t explain our origins or the origin of the earth and the universe. Neither do they explain the origins of, or offer a foundation for, our morality.

So, with this picture we have concepts of right and wrong – intuitively extremely strong concepts. Ones we might even feel as objective or absolute, although they are part of our own human nature.  Rather than being absolute or objective — they just feel that way. For very good evolutionary reasons.

My critics may argue that this still does not explain good human behaviour. That people could have intuitions which bias them to bad behaviour as much as good behaviour. I just don’t think that accords with the facts of our evolution or nature of our brain.

Brain mapping produces empathy

Our species has evolved as a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic species. This has consequences for the physiology of our brain and its interaction with our body, the external world and other humans.

How does this work? Our brain is continually mapping ’images’ (visual, audio, memories, feelings, sensory, etc.). These reflect inputs from external objects and internally, from our body and coded memories from other parts of our brain. We have continually mapped images related to emotions and feelings, to our movements and our perceptions. But as an intelligent and conscious animal these also relate to memories and plans as well as each other. Consequently we also map imaginary things. Plans, memories and speculations.

These in themselves, because of connections to visceral and moral inputs and actions, also cause emotional and physical responses.  We can feel and emote when we rehearse a real memory, imagine a possible sad event and read a sad story. We can train our motor responses by imagining an exercise or physical action — something professional athletes, and sports psychiatrists, are well aware of.

This mapping and interaction with feelings, body responses and imagination also operates for events and situations we see. Our mapped imagination is similar to our mapped observation.  Consequently we feel another’s embarrassment, pain and happiness. It really is as if we were in their shoes when we see or hear about the experiences.  This provides a physiological basis for empathy. We literally can feel for others, even if the sensations may be reduced somewhat from a direct experience.

Golden rule wired in, foundational

Humans are literally wired for the Golden Rule — to treat others as we wish to be treated. It’s built in. It’s all part of being a social and empathetic animal. We evolved to be like this. I can’t actually imagine how a conscious, intelligent creature like humans, living in an extended society and interacting continuously with others, could be anything but empathetic. Unless of course there were pathological reasons — as there will be for some people.

All this means that we are empathetic moral creatures by nature. Our morality is inbuilt — it doesn’t come from an external source. We don’t rely on an ’objective’ or ’absolute’ morality exisiting somewhere out there in the void or in the hands of a mythical supernatural creature.

Some might object that this explains what goes on in our brain but it doesn’t guarantee that our moral decisions are ’correct.’ I agree, but it does offer a foundation for applying reason and logic to situations. In principle we can logically determine what is ’correct,’ based on our subjective feelings of empathy, our wired in ’Golden Rule.’ We don’t have to rely on an axiomatic ’human flourishing’ (or a god) foundation. We have a built-in human empathy foundation. And this can encompass higher feelings and thoughts than basic hedonistic ones like personal pleasure and pain.

Because most of the body’s management occurs at the unconscious level our morality largely operates at that level too. Morally we operate in the camera’s equivalent of ’auto’ mode.  Of course we can switch to ’manual’ mode. This would be no good for the day-to-day automatic reflex actions we have to accommodate. But for the consideration of ’what if’ situations, debating possible laws or social rules, or considering new and intriguing moral dilemmas we may face, the ’manual,’ conscious, mode would switch in. We would consciously deliberate on the issues.

Moral education and zeitgeist

I think there is an important inter-relationship between our ’auto’ and ’manual’ modes. Between our unconscious reflex actions and our intelligent, reasoned consideration of specific moral situations. These are not separated from each other — they influence each other. Obviously our ’auto’ mode may well interfere with our reasoning, may bring in prejudice or bias. This is inevitable for any such consideration — its part of being human. Decision making by group interaction can help to ensure more objective decisions.

But this relationship also works in the other direction. Our reasoned, rational deliberations can also lead to changes in our unconscious responses. The conscious, reasoned deliberations could, as it were, lead to re-wring of our subconscious. When we learn to ride a bike the deliberate conscious attention to learning is similar to the reasoning and deliberation of the ’manual’ moral mode. Thereafter the bike riding skill becomes incorporated into our subconscious. If by chance we have to update that skill (change from a ’penny farthing’ to a bicycle or old bicycle to a ten-speed or mountain bike) the conscious learning updates our subconscious skill.

Overt cultural learning

This updating of unconscious moral skills, or learning of new ones, is not restricted to our own internal mental deliberations. There are also less overt cultural influences. As social attitudes change they get reflected in cultural presentations, film, TV, books, etc. These in turn overtly ’update’ the moral skill of the viewer or reader, of members of society.

So we can get changes on the moral views of society both through the conscious deliberations and debates of the more socially active members of society. But also through the unconscious assimilation of these new moral skills by the less active majority who unconsciously acquire these from the cultural exposures.

That is why there is a moral zeitgeist. A continual upgrading of our moral skills in modern developing societies.

While the trending moral zeitgeist is not conscious for most members of society it is influenced by the conscious moral deliberations and logic of the more active people. These include the artists, writers, and directors as well as the natural and social scientists.

Examples

Consider some examples familiar to my generation. In the 1950s a common moral attitude in this country was that it was wrong for married women to work. Especially women with children. In this decade women very often feel it is wrong not to work, even when they have children.

In the old days sex outside marriage was morally wrong. Everyone did it – but this created a lot of guilt because it was wrong. And those caught out by pregnancy were considered social outcasts. There were “shotgun” weddings, unhappy marriages. Young women were quietly sent to the countryside to give birth, children were secretly adopted, etc.

Nowadays it is perfectly normal for couples to live together without marriage. It is not wrong.

In the old days homosexuality was abhorrent. It was definitely wrong and evoked feelings of disgust. Nowadays this is completely different. Most people do not see it as wrong. Different sexual orientations are accepted in society without judgment.

In the old days everyone (almost everyone) stood for the Queen in theatres before the film. I can remember the strong hostility directed at me and my mates who refused to stand. We were considered wrong. Nowadays we just don’t get that indignity imposed on us when we attend the cinema.

I am sure readers can think of plenty of other examples.

The “god did it’ foundation

The arguments presented by Craig and other religious apologists for a god-based moral foundation may not be logical. They may not even be very applicable to many Christians. But the do lead to justifications and dogmatism on moral issues.

Believers will always debate which particular moral instruction from popes, ministers, imams, Rabbis and holy books, must be obeyed. This is one of the driving forces for the existence of so many religions. But the fact that such instructions are considered ’holy’ and infallible, that the represent ’divine commands,’ leads to justification of moral codes which are completely out of step with reason, logic and evidence.

So the idea of a divine foundation for morality provides religion with a way of resisting the moral zeitgeist, refusing to consider evidence and reason. This explains why religions on the whole are morally conservative. Advancing ancient, often discredited, ideas of morality and resisting modern thinking. Just consider issues like women’s rights, acceptance of different sexual orientations, etc.

It can also mean that people growing up ain a strong religious environment, particularly a cult, do not learn to be morally autonomous. Instead of developing a morality based on themselves they rely on the diktat and instruction of their leaders and “holy” books. Mature adults can then have problems operating by themselves in the real world and society. In a sense they are morally immature.

Finally, because a morality imposed by instruction and justified by ’divine commands’ and ’holy’ scriptures and leaders, can be divorced completely from evidence, reason and rational consideration it can end up being arbitrary. Rather than have an objective basis in human nature and the facts of real situations, it may depend purely on religious whim. ’Right and wrong is what our god says it is. And he says what we want him to.’

The model I have described above may not satisfy those who wish for an absolute completely objective morality. But it is at least consistent, improving and logically supportable. It is objectivley based. In contrast any old moral positions can be supported by ’divine commands.” Such justifications can sometimes lead to the worst sort of moral relativism.

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The Galileo myths Ken Perrott Mar 30

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Dr Marc Crislip

For a while there I had wondered if I was the only one who noticed the current attempts of theistically motivated historians and philosophers to rewrite the history of the Galileo affair. But no, greater minds have come to a similar conclusions. I picked up this quote from Marc Crislip on the most recent podcast of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe:

“Galileo was a man of science oppressed by the irrational and superstitious. Today, he is used by the irrational and the superstitious who say they are being oppressed by science. So 1984.”

So true.

Last year was the International Year of Astronomy, celebrating in part Galileo’s original use of a telescope to observe heavenly bodies. An important celebration for science.

But it was also taken up by Christian apologists, historians and philosophers. A number of books were published rewriting the history in a way more sympathetic to the church. Opinion pieces were written and the apologist blogs eagerly leaped on the bandwagon. An all too common atmosphere of martyrdom was spread. George Sim Johnston, wrote recently on the Catholic Education Resource Centre blog that “the Galileo case is one of the historical bludgeons that are used to beat on the Church.”

Galileo and Sakharov

Andrei Sakharov – credit Wikipedia

So there you are – the Church was the victim in the Galileo affair! Bloody hell – that’s like say the Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev was being persecuted by Andrei Sakharov when this great scientist and Nobel peace Prize winner (Sakharov) was exiled to the city of Gorky for criticising the Soviet government. And that history should be rewritten to reflect that interpretation!

So the honest history of the Galileo affair offends the church. It must be rewritten? The orders have gone out. Faithful historians, opinion piece writers and bloggers have followed their commands.

So we get claims that actually “Galileo was wrong!” That because of Einsteinian relativity one cannot detect a difference between a heliocentric and geocentric solar system! (That will have Einstein spinning in his grave.)

That Galileo was wrong about his support for heliocentricism because his detailed attempt to explain the tides was incorrect (so was everyone elses – gravitational theory had yet to appear).

Galileo was wrong because somebody thinks that an experiment he referred to using the leaning tower of Pisa may have been done by student or been a “thought experiment.”

Or that genuine historians are persecuting the church because they are perpetuating a myth that the church had tortured Galileo and imprisoned him.

A Clayton’s myth

This later myth is really a “Clayton’s myth.*” A myth you have when you don’t have a myth. Because no-one of any understanding promotes it yet those who wish to present themselves as victims claim it is being used as a bludgeon.

Maurice A. Finocchiaro puts this myth into context. He has investigated the available documents thoroughly and in his chapter of the book with the same name,  ’Myth 8: That Galileo was imprisoned and tortured for advocating Copernicanism,’ he concludes:

“We should keep in mind, however, that for 150 years after the trial the publicly available evidence indicated that Galileo had been imprisoned, and for 250 years the evidence indicated that he had been tortured. The myths of Galileo’s torture and imprisonment are thus genuine myths: ideas that are in fact false but once seemed true–and continue to be accepted as true by poorly educated persons and careless scholars.’

That is this myth gained traction initially because the only document available was the Inquisition’s sentence which implied torture had at least been threatened if not used and that he was to be imprisoned. Many years later, with our access to more material, no serious historian appears to be perpetuating the myth.

But apologists are perpetuating their own myth that they are the victims of misrepresentation.

The basic question

There is a sense in which popular understanding of the Galileo affair is not quite right or incomplete. When one peruses the documents we find that the real issue was not a conflict between Galileo’s support for  a heliocentric solar system and the Catholic Church’s insistence on a geocentric solar system. It was actually more basic than this.

Galileo’s crime in the eyes of the church was his temerity in holding a belief which the church had decreed he should not. They saw this as an intrusion into theology, and in arguments strikingly similar to those being used today against some atheist scientists, they charged that Galileo was intruding into forbidden territory. He should have left theology to the theologians. Sound familiar?

Galileo had effectively been arguing, as a faithful Christian himself, that when there was a conflict between evidence based ideas and scripture the evidence based ideas should be held as correct. Scripture being far more abstract required interpretation and these conflicts just meant that more interpretation of the scripture was required.

The predominance he gave to evidence and testing ideas against reality rather than scripture was a necessary step in the scientific revolution leading to modern science. This makes the history of the Galileo affair important for our appreciation of scientific progress today. It is this basic aspect, rather than Galileo’s’ support for Copernicanism, which needs more historical research and presentation.

And none of this is helped by religious apologists promoting their own myth – that they are the victims and the truth about the affair is being used as a bludgeon to beat on them.


* A local saying derived from the advertising campaign for a non-alcoholic drink – “the drink you have when you’re not having a drink”.

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Theistic science? No such thing Ken Perrott Mar 14

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I came across this interesting observation in Elaine  Howard Eckland’s book  Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think:

“believers did not consider their traditions and beliefs influential on how they conducted their research. None of the religious scientists I talked to supported the theory of intelligent design”

This conclusion is based on her extensive survey of academic scientists in the USA.

It’s interesting because it confirms that those theologians and “philosophers of religion” who advocate abandonment of “materialism” or “naturalism” by scientists are barking up the wrong tree. Even scientists who have strong god beliefs don’t allow these to interfere with the way they do their science. In fact, if they did they would no longer be doing science.

Mind you, the conclusion is not at all surprising to anyone working in a scientific environment. We know from experience that religious scientists don’t change their methodology because of their ideological beliefs or world view.

A theistic science – the Wedge Strategy

The argument against “materialism” and “naturalism” in science is most clearly put in the Discovery Institute’s Wedge Strategy Document (see Wedge Strategy: Center for Renewal of Science and Culture):

Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.”

And:

“However, we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism. This is precisely our strategy. If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a “wedge” that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points. The very beginning of this strategy, the “thin edge of the wedge,” was Phillip ]ohnson’s critique of Darwinism begun in 1991 in Darwinism on Trial, and continued in Reason in the Balance and Defeatng Darwinism by Opening Minds. Michael Behe’s highly successful Darwin’s Black Box followed Johnson’s work. We are building on this momentum, broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID). Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

So, Eckland’s survey shows that even in the USA where the Discovery Institute’s Wedge strategy has been targeted, there has been no success in replacing modern science “with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

While this criticism of science, even attack on science, comes mainly from Christian apologists and “philosophers of religion” it does get a hearing from others. I can understand how many religious people feel disappointed that science does not support their beliefs. They easily fall victim to the argument that this is because “it does not accept ‘supernatural’ explanations.” But, unfortunately, even some non-religious philosophers and sociologists are also be influenced by the argument. Especially those with a post-modernistic bent.

Science requires evidence and validation against reality

But, in the end science is not about “natural”, “supernatural” or “materialism.” It is about evidence and checking ideas against reality.Those who argue for “a science consonant with christian and theistic convictions” are really arguing for a “science” stripped of this need for evidence and validation against reality. Of course that would no longer be science – it would be religion.

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Climate change deniers live in glass buildings Ken Perrott Nov 30

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There seems to be a big mobilisation of climate change deniers at the moment. Someone on Twitter described selective use of stolen emails, “Climategate”, as pre-Copenhagen smears. They added a quote from Churchill which I think is very apt: “A lie is halfway round the world before the truth can get its pants on.”

Most of the local media seems to be taking a relatively balanced approach to the Climategate email issue (see for example A climate scandal, or is it just hot air?). However, we now have  a “controversy” manufactured by the local Climate Science Coalition an Climate Conversation Group. A group of climate change deniers, none of them climate scientists themselves, who attempt to cast doubt on the science produced by real climate scientists. This started with a press release (Are we feeling warmer yet?). picked up and promoted by Ian Wishart (a local conspiracy theorist and climate change denier) and some local conservative and religious apologist blogs (see for example I confess I now believe in manmade Global Warming, Climate scientists caught lying and New Zealand not warming?).

Basically, it was a manipulation of raw data from NZ weather stations to support their preconceived claim of no temperature change over time. Accompanied by a claim that NIWA has dishonestly adjusted the same data to produce a temperature change.

The issues, and the scientific facts, are well covered by Garth at Hot Topic (NZ sceptics lie about temp records, try to smear top scientist) and items at the NIWA web site. I recommend reading these.

Nature of the distortions

The scientific issues involved, and the distortions made by the deniers, are an interesting example of how scientific data can be manipulated dishonestly. The issues are well illustrated by these graphs from NIWA. The figure shows the raw temperature data from three stations in Wellington. The main Kelburn station data (green) shows what is most probably a significant increase of temperature over time. This data is consistent, taken from the same site since 1930.

However there was also data available from before 1930 from a separate station at Thorndon site (blue). This site was much closer to sea level and understandably gave higher readings.

In essence, what the climate change deniers did was combine the data from these two stations without any corrections. it produced the result they wanted because the combined raw data was skewed by the higher temperatures at the Thorndon site and hence removed the temperature trend. They simply attached the blue plot to the green one!

The figure illustrates how climate scientists deal with these sort of problems. Unfortunately there was no overlapping data for the two stations. But there were concurrent data (red) for the Airport station (at approximately the same elevation as the Thorndon station was) and the Kelburn station. This enable determination of an adjustment factor which could reasonably be applied to the raw Thorndon data.

The resulting graph after proper combination of the data from the three stations is shown in the next figure. (Here, the red and blue data have been adjusted by the factor determined fror the red and green data).

Now, of course,  the complete data made available by NIWA, and their graphical presentation of NZ temperature trends over time, are more complex than this. They contain information from more met stations. But, I think, the consideration of the Wellington station data clearly presents the issues involved.

It also clearly demonstrates the deception attempted by the NZ Climate Science Coalition.

(Sure, I am going to get deniers who wish to talk about the non-Wellington data – a tactic for prolonging the attack and divert attention away from the dishonesty of the Climate Science Coalition and the Climate Conversation Group).

Attack to divert attention

Some of the deniers have partly acknowledge their deception. Richard Treadgold, who collated the information in the press release has acknowledged that they purposely avoided proper adjustment for site differences. However, he still attempts to shift the criticism by claiming NIWA hadn’t provided details on adjustment method.  NIWA claims that they had made the Coalition aware of methodology several years ago.

But you can see the tactic. The best defense is attack – accusation of more cover ups! Similar to the way creationists react to discovery of fossils of transitional forms – by then claiming there are two “missing gaps” instead of one! Anything to prevent attention turning back to the deception of the Climate Change Coalition the Climate Conversation Group. And the climate change denial blogs have quickly taken up that chorus.

But the real question for those bloggers was asked by US blogger Deltoid: “I wonder how many of the folks accusing NIWA of cooking their data will correct their posts?” (See New Zealand Climate Science Coalition caught lying about temperature trends).

My concern about the attacks on reason, on science. While some people have been concerned about the implications of the “Climategate” emails others have resorted to extreme and emotional  attacks on integrity of scientists involved. Some are even attacking the very idea of science! Peter Griffin from the NZ Science Media Centre described it this way a few days ago: “The comment sections of some blogs have become particularly grubby places to congregate” (see Climategate brought out the worst in us).

Mind you – it would be interesting, wouldn’t it, if somebody hacked into the servers used by the Climate Change Coalition and the Climate Conversation Group. Just imagine the exchanges which probably took place over how this data should be massaged and presented. Over who could be used to release the “report.” And what blogs and newspapers could be trusted to carry their message uncritically.

Just imagine the “Deniergate” that could result!

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Those ’climategate’ emails Ken Perrott Nov 24

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The current “scandal” erupting around the hacking of servers at the University of East Anglias’ Climate Research Centre is rather predictable. The public release of stolen emails has been seized on by climate change deniers as evidence for their claims of manipulated data and faulty peer-review. Even more dishonestly they have been used to attack the integrity of science, and scientists, in general – quite apart form any climate change issue (see for example WarmingGate, The scientific community and self-criticism, Climate scientists caught lying and How the Global Warming Scientists Really Work at four local religious apologetics blogs). On the other hand, researchers and many newspaper commentators say the emails show nothing more than frank discussion between scientists around the world and details of their collaboration on research projects and journal articles.

Domestic debris and media comments

Anyone interested in the boredom of trawling through such domestic debris can access the stolen emails at Alleged CRU Emails. For some more balanced news media coverage have a look at:
This climate email -hacking episode is generating more heat than light
Global warming rigged? Here’s the email I’d need to see
Climate change email hacking to be looked into by University of East Anglia
Leaked emails mark dangerous shift in climate denial strategy
Climate change champion and sceptic both call for inquiry into leaked emails
Leaked email climate smear was a PR disaster for UEA

And a rather humorous take on “climategate” is available here: Newtongate: the final nail in the coffin of Renaissance and Enlightenment ‘thinking’

Predictably only the most apparently damning emails have been quoted in the media. While I think some of the language in the emails is disappointing I don’t think it is surprising for informal private communications.  The scientific institutes  involved may well  be adivsed to investigate specific comments, if only to reinforce their scientific integrity in the public mind. But I will be surprised if these comments indicate any real scientific fraud.

The NZ Science Media Centre has released a summary of reactions from UK-based scientists. It originates from their sister organisation, the Science Media Centre in London.

Dr Chris Huntingford, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), said:

“Using the very comprehensive set of temperature measurements available to us, we do know that there has been significant warming over the last hundred years. These datasets have been compiled by independent research laboratories in both the UK and the USA.”Computer model descriptions of the climate system are increasing in their predictive skill, and there are now very good reasons to believe that their output is accurate and can be trusted. These simulations provide compelling evidence of the link between global warming and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to the burning of fossil fuels.

“Such state-of-the-art computer models of how the climate functions do also account for natural cycles in the Earth system. However, when the additional influence of humans is not considered, they are unable to explain the rapid rate of warming that has been observed over the last Century. The implication is that to a very high level of certainty, the warming observed in the last Century is not part of a natural cycle.

“Almost all current scientific understanding of how the climate system operates suggests that humankind is having an influence on our climate system.”

Professor John Burrows, Director of the Biogeochemistry Programme, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), said:

“The peer review scientific process was created to try to avoid conspiracies from any side on an issue. Despite the adverse reaction in some quarters the current discussion is a perfect example that whilst it doesn’t always look perfect, an open debate, backed up by peer review,  is what science is all about.

“Whilst not ignoring “emailgate” we should not inadvertently move the public attention from the established scientific consensus to the attempt at character assassination being made by these climate change sceptics.

“The basic physics of global climate change has been known since Arrhenius at the end of the 19th century if not before. The four Assessment Reports from the IPCC are consistent, however, the data since 1990 seems to follow worst case scenarios. To me this is evidence that the scientific community is behaving responsibly and rather cautiously with respect to the science of climate change.”

Professor Piers Forster, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, said:

“Scientists at the Climate Research Unit are leading experts in the world’s temperature record. They do an amazingly hard job of collecting data from lots of counties, looking at errors and putting the different datasets together. They have been under increasing pressure from a few individuals to respond to multiple FOI calls. Like all us scientists they are short of man-power and stretch their resources to the maximum to do as much new science as possible. The need to respond to FOI requests are often too large to make them feasibly achievable and whilst some of the emails show scientists to be all too human, nothing I have read makes me doubt the veracity of the peer review process or the general warming trend in the global temperature record. I know that when errors in their global temperature product have previously been found (e.g. Thomson et al., 2008, Nature), they responded as all scientists should, researching the source of the error with true scientific enthusiasm.”

Dr Stephan Harrison, Associate Professor in Quaternary Science, School of Geography, University of Exeter, said:

“The emails from the Climatic Research Unit which have been published on the internet have been seized upon by climate change sceptics as evidence that scientists are involved in a global warming conspiracy, suppression of dissenting voices and making data up to support a global warming agenda.  We shouldn’t get too carried away, however. Irrespective of what may or may not have been said in some private emails, this doesn’t change the physical properties of carbon dioxide, and doesn’t change the fact that human activity is warming the planet.  There’s a lot of politics in all of this debate, but it is the science that has to drive policy.”

Kathy Maskell, Spokesperson, & Professor Rowan Sutton, Walker Institute, University of Reading, said:

“Throughout the Earth’s history there have been natural changes in climate caused by many factors, including variations in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, volcanic eruptions, and changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. The scientific evidence now shows that people are changing the global climate.

“Climate scientists look at both natural factors that cause climate to change and they look at the effect that people are having on climate. There is no doubt that human activity, such as burning fossil fuels and agriculture, is increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This increase in greenhouse gases is causing the globe to warm.

“The current warmth is unusual in the context of the last 1000 years (at least) and is not just part of a natural cycle. Past changes are also thought to have occurred much more slowly than the warming over the 20th century.

“The majority of scientists agree that much of the warming since the mid-20th century is very likely due to increasing greenhouse gases being produced by human activity. Scientists have looked at different possible causes for the warming. Natural changes (like changes in the Sun’s output) cannot explain 20th century warming. The only way to reproduce the warming over the 20th century is to include the effects that people are having on the climate.

“Over the 20th century as a whole there has been a warming trend of 0.7 degrees centigrade and the warming has accelerated since the mid-20th century. The warming has not been steady and there have been periods of cooling. This is exactly what climate scientists would expect. As well as increasing greenhouse gases, natural factors (such as volcanic eruptions and changes in sea surface temeprature in the Pacific called El Nino) are also affecting global temperature. So scientists would expect there to be short periods where there is less warming and even cooling, but overall the trend is towards higher global temperatures.”


Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

Once appropriate action has been taken over the hacking, there has to be some process to assess the substance of the e-mail messages as well. The selective disclosure and dissemination of the messages has created the impression of impropriety, and the only way of clearing the air now would be through a rigorous investigation. I have sympathy for the climate researchers at the University of East Anglia and other institutions who have been the target of an aggressive campaign by so-called ’sceptics’ over a number of years. But I fear that only a thorough investigation could now clear their names.

“There needs to be an assurance that these e-mail messages have not revealed inappropriate conduct in the preparation of journal articles and in dealing with requests from other researchers for access to data. This will probably require investigations both by the host institutions and by the relevant journals. There may also be a role for the UK Office of Research Integrity to advise on any investigation.

“The e-mail messages I have seen posted on ’sceptics” websites do not cast doubt on the basic physical fact that the Earth is warming in response to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. ‘Sceptics’ may seek to wrongly portray these e-mail messages as a smoking gun from a worldwide conspiracy to create a global warming hoax, but that is simply a ridiculous fantasy.”

Dr Andy Challinor, lecturer in Climate Change Modelling, University of Leeds, said:

“Scientists are frequently faced with choices about methods of presenting data. The aim is to represent the underlying facts clearly, and there is rarely a single correct way of doing this. The mechanisms for anthropogenic climate change are established science that is well-understood. The idea that the many scientists across the globe working on climate change could collude in misrepresenting the fundamentals of the science is ludicrous, since it would be both counter-cultural to science and logistically impossible.”

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, Industrial Fellow, University of Cambridge BP Institute, said:

“The evidence base for climate change continues to be debated. However, what is disappointing is that there is less debate about what we should be doing morally regardless of the strength of the case for or against climate change being driven by mankind. Even if some people want to dismiss the evidence base, what do they think we should do as responsible citizens? Clearly we should be seeking ways of reducing our impact on the planet – this is irrefutable.

“Improving energy efficiency and switching to non/low-carbon energy sources are vital. In the case of improved energy efficiency, there are strong economic arguments today as to why this should be done now. In the case of switching to non/low carbon energy sources, the economic arguments are longer-term and may involve consideration of the cost of climate change as per the Stern report. In summary, I fail to understand why people want to debate the evidence base for climate change rather than debate what we should be doing anyway to reduce our impact on the planet. The technological advances in energy efficiency need to be adopted by more people, and more quickly, before we invest more time debating climate change! “

(Further Information: To talk to any of the experts quoted above contact the Science Media Centre on tel: 04 499 5476 or email: )

I realise these comments will have no influence on the more adamant climate change deniers or those who wish to sneeringly smear and attack science and scientists for their own ideological or religious reasons. But hopefully more reasonable people will be able to see through such attacks and recognise that these stolen emails don’t indicate any widespread conspiracy to deceive.
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