Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Limits of Scientific Civility

In having an array of conversations with many different people, my observations suggest that scientists remain quite civil until someone breaches the subjects of politics or religion. For most scientists, such conversations do not happen on a regular basis with an exception granted for the political dimensions of grant funding. Yet I do not think it is accurate to suggest that science functions as an inherently different sphere than politics and religion with absolutely no overlap.

Western modern science tends to be a zone of transient facts. "We used to think x but then we did experiments, so now we think y." Western modern science seems to function as a way to get people to change their beliefs through experimental inquiry. As such, it seems that for some a particular canon of scientific thought becomes more important than the process of experimental inquiry. The writings of Sandra Harding are particularly interesting as she explores questions such as "Is Science Multicultural?" and "Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?"

And I've seen some very interesting things in the name of scientific orthodoxy. One of my favorite stories to this end occurred while proctoring a biology exam in a Christian-affiliated school with one of the most diverse populations of students I have ever seen. The teacher asked the following True-False question: "If humans could somehow reproduce asexually, would it be possible for a virgin woman to give birth to a male child?" If the intent of the question is to solicit that women typically have XX chromosomes while men have XY chromosomes and there's no way for an XX woman to pass a Y chromosome to a male child, why not ask for an explanation? A genetic variation among chromosomes suggest that some women have a set of chromosomes of XXY leading to the possibility of a true answer given the caveat of the asexual reproduction. But why frame this question in terms of humans anyway?

The interesting thing to me is that no one doubts the presence of a scientific canon but when I frame the concept, people recoil. But if there wasn't such a canon, then why are we very concerned with helping students "adopt a Newtonian worldview?" For my part, I would like to empower students to make observations about their physical world but I would never insist on calling Newtonian mechanics a worldview. At a certain stage, Newtonian mechanics work very well; at other stages, quantum mechanics seem to model the systems much more accurately.

Within the political sphere, I am always amazed at how many scientists operate from a position of unreserved benefit from technology, suggesting that science and technology are somehow value-free. "Oh the technology itself is not bad but it can be used for immoral purposes." Moreover, "it's not my job to determine how the technology will be misused." So we hide behind the idea of "scientific objectivity" and do everything we can to remove ourselves from social and political consequences.

My experience in such conversations seems to yield two sorts of people: a) those willing to listen to have a meaningful conversation and b) those who accuse me of not being a scientist utilizing coarse language. A more equitable science would have more people in the first camp even though it means questioning their understanding of how science fits into society at multiple venues.


Dr. T and the Men said...

Hey guess who! That was interesting point you raise about the immaculate conception. (Physically impossible in more ways than one.) Namely that females can't reproduce males via parthogenesis. (Check for types of whiptail lizards.) Your example of Klinefelter's syndrome, (47,XXY or XXY syndrome) doesn't provide you with a strong arguement to allow for Mary being pregnant considering that it only occurs in males. The Y-chromosome is only transmitted by males. But I like the point you make that those disorders challenge our concepts of biology. Heck some insects have inverse sex chromosomes (ZW sex-determination).

How do we as teachers tell our students:
1. There are exceptions to all rules
2. We will never know Truth (big-T), but we consistantly seek out and build our world around truth (little t)

Amanda@Lady Scientist said...

I left you an award at my place.