Tuesday 18 January 2011

Some thoughts on Steve Fuller's "If you're pro-science, what are you pro?"

As you’re probably aware, Steve Fuller dropped by Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub last week to do his talk “If you’re pro-science, What should you be pro?”.  It was a lively and confrontational talk and is well worth a listen, it is available here in full.  Here are some thoughts from Birmingham Skeptics regular Tulpesh Patel on the talk.

Last Wednesday, Steve Fuller spoke to the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub, asking the question ‘If you are pro-science, what are you pro?’. Unfortunately, I missed the first couple of minutes, but I’m glad I made it to the talk because he certainly made for an entertaining evening.

Despite the title, much of Steve’s talk was not actually about science, but rather about the definition of skepticism and why, with regards to everyone in the pub attending a SITP meeting, it was a misnomer. Steve’s interpretation of the historical definition of ‘skepticism’ was built around the Socratic notion that ‘the only thing I know is that I know nothing’ and a ‘suspension of belief’ which involves removing oneself from the argument and into a position of ambivalence that requires others to battle out the problems.

Steve obviously knew that this definition bore no relation to the definition of scepticism that everyone in the room would give, leading him to question what we were really about (other than ‘cheerleaders for Darwinism’), and why we’d bother to call ourselves skeptics when we are in fact nothing of the sort. He largely ignored protests from the audience that historical definitions were essentially irrelevant to the common principles of most modern skeptics. Instead, Steve argued that modern skeptics are in fact ‘critics’, as critics have a vested interest in making whatever they are criticising better. By that definition it is hard to argue that skeptics are not critics. We criticise science reporting, libel laws, the actions of homeopathy peddlers – all with the hope that things will get better.  Perhaps if Steve had just read the intro page to the excellent skeptic.com, he might have saved himself a lot of trouble, and cut his talk down to the 20 minutes or so in which he actually dealt with the question posed in his talk’s title. To quote: “The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” scepticism [which is an interpretation of the classical sense that Fuller suggests is the only true meaning of the term] and “anything goes” credulity [which is the camp I think, based on the rest of his talk, Steve pitches his tent in].”

However, I’m not sure that it would actually make any difference to Steve, skeptics, or anyone else if we decided to call ourselves critics, cynics or cucumbers instead. A skeptic by any other name would be the same ‘polite, angry person’ (one of a handful of admittedly delightful, pithy comments that peppered Steve’s talk), who would be just as curious, quizzical and distrusting of claims with no evidence to back them up. I’m sure I was as frustrated as most of the people in the room with Steve’s fixation on a definition of scepticism that science historians such as himself would be happy with.  Aside from squabbles over definitions, Steve’s talk was a barrage of ideas and provocations, with a rather scattergun, and not always sensible, approach to deconstructing concepts of science.

Two arguments that Steve raised were that all experimental science lacks ecological validity (i.e. can never tell us anything about the real world), and that as induction does not work backwards, we do have not direct access to the past science and therefore have nothing to say about it. For example, according to Steve we will never know how old the universe is (although it is perhaps 13.73 +/- .12 billion years old).

Steve never explicitly stated that actively he supported the Intelligent Design ‘theory’, (it was always ‘my involvement in the intelligent design debate’), but rather pitched himself as challenging the establishment view, standing up for the unfairly silenced voice.  It was only really towards the end of his talk that Steve’s position became a little clearer as he wrapped himself back up in the warm, comforting blanket that is the argument from incredulity: “Do you really believe we came to be this sentient and amazing and better than every other animal on this planet just by chance?!”

Steve argued that he supports ‘democratised view of knowledge production’, where everyone, particularly scientists, have the opportunity to speak their minds. The insinuation is that science, as it stands, is somehow undemocratic, and this paved the way for Steve to suggest that scientists with non-naturalistic (substitute, religious) leanings actively self-censor. Worse still, he suggested that there is a conspiracy within the scientific community, particularly with regards to scientific journals, to maintain a status quo by actively quashing publications which undermine Darwinian theory and naturalistic explanations for the origins and workings of the universe. Rightly so, scientists are always encouraged in their discussion of the evidence to never go beyond what that evidence is capable of telling them. According to Steve, however, it means that people who think their evidence points to God, or divine intervention, are not given the opportunity to say so.

Allowing everyone and anyone to speak his or her mind is, of course, a basic free speech issue, which no one of sounds mind should have any objection to, but Steve’s ideas bring to mind a relativism that a lot of skeptics and scientists are struggling against. One single instance where I found myself agreeing with Steve was regarding his comment on the role of public debates – the intention should never be to change the opposition’s mind (which is not likely to happen), but rather to engage the audience with the issue to let them decide based upon the weight of the arguments. However, the major complication is confusing democratisation and free speech with equality of standing.  This is something that came up at David Gregory’s skeptics talk a while back and is a critical issue underpinning many of the problems with public engagement with science: giving two opposing people equal time in a news report or discussion (particularly with science-related issues) ignores the fact that one side is typically backed up with a stack of evidence and the other is just the reactionary position of small group of vocal (sometimes, but not always crackpot) individuals.

In the process of writing about Steve’s talk I came across his spat with AC Grayling over Grayling’s mauling of his 2008 book Dissent over Descent. The opening line of review could just has well be about this SITP talk: “It is sometimes hard to know whether books that strike one as silly and irresponsible, like Dissent over Descent, the latest book from Steve Fuller, are the product of a desire to strike a pose and appear outrageous (the John Gray syndrome), or really do represent that cancer of the contemporary intellect, post-modernism”.

According to Steve, we’re skeptics who are not really sceptics and if we are pro-science were are supporters of a narrow-minded, authoritarian establishment view, which cannot and has no business answering questions about the world around us. His talk was a veritable circus of semantic juggling and rhetorical gymnastics, and ultimately, he struck me as someone who just really revels in intellectual bear-baiting.

You can listen to Steve Fuller talk to Birmingham SITP’s Patrick Redmond here: http://www.ipadio.com/phlogs/SitP/2010/05/25/Birmingham-Skeptics-in-the-Pub-Steve-Fuller-Interview

Tulpesh Patel
is a Neuroscience PhD student at Birmingham's Aston University. He is founder and Chair of the Aston Humanist Society. You can find his blog here: http://scicommbobulate.blogspot.com/


Ockams Laser said...

I have to say that science is not democratic at all, which is one of its' strengths. What is determined as 'true' in science is not public opinion, but rather evidence and the strength of corresponding theories. Just because a majority wishes, or chooses, something to be true does not make it so.

Si said...

Nice write-up Tulpesh - it probably summarises how many of the audience felt about the talk. The linguistic argument over the historical definition of skeptic was a little irrelevant. However; despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed his talk even though I agreed with very little that he spoke about. I thought he was quite an interesting / entertaining speaker and it made a change to have a speaker with views that are opposite to the skeptic take on things. I particularly like his "Richard Dawkins . . . what's that about" rant - bonkers!

Tulpesh said...

Amen to both comments. I agree that it was nice to hear from someone with a challenging take on things, and his rant on Dawkins ('PR guy for Darwin'; brilliant!) was fun, but I don't think anyone stood much to gain from his gratuitously contrarian style, which was as much about goading the audience as anything. I know that he riled a few people in the audience and I did end up with two versions of my review. I deleted the one that would have gotten me into trouble.

Patrick (@paddyrex) said...

A great write up of the night. It's always good to be challenged but there was a real sense that Steve was totally enjoying his confrontational stance in a room full of skeptics. Too much was about definition and whilst asking what we might be pro it was hard to identify his own position.

Elaine said...

That was a brilliant personal account of the talk - thanks, Tulpesh. Yes, the whole focus on definitions thing was bizarre and led Steve to take us to some spectacularly ridiculous places such as "Why are you "skeptics" invariably all Darwinists?" It was certainly an entertaining evening!

Andy said...

Excellent analysis, Tulpesh. I agree wholeheartedly with your views. One point that Steve raised that I thought was noteworthy was about how we couldn't definitely assert that the universal physical constants that we observe today have always been that way and that they have always had those values (i.e. your point about induction). I've seen that "weakness" used as a loophole for vastly changing estimates for the age of the Earth by young-Earth creationists, in an attempt to transform their arguments into a similarly impossible-to-absolutely-refute theory such as the existence of god. I'm hopeful that one day physics will understand why and how these universal constants are determined and block off that line of attack.

Brilliant stuff, as ever... :)