My truth is truer than your truth

Richard Dawkins disses cultural relativism (amongst other things), in the Times Literary Supplement:

[…]
A scientist arrogantly asserts that thunder is not the triumphal sound of God’s balls banging together, nor is it Thor’s hammer. It is, instead, the reverberating echoes from the electrical discharges that we see as lightning. Poetic (or at least stirring) as those tribal myths may be, they are not actually true.
But now a certain kind of anthropologist can be relied on to jump up and say something like the following: Who are you to elevate scientific “truth” so? The tribal beliefs are true in the sense that they hang together in a meshwork of consistency with the rest of the tribe’s world view. Scientific “truth” is only one kind (“Western” truth, the anthropologist may call it, or even “patriarchal”). Like tribal truths, yours merely hang together with the world view that you happen to hold, which you call scientific. An extreme version of this viewpoint (I have actually encountered this) goes so far as to say that logic and evidence themselves are nothing more than instruments of masculine oppression over the “intuitive mind”.
Listen, anthropologist. Just as you entrust your travel to a Boeing 747 rather than a magic carpet or a broomstick; just as you take your tumour to the best surgeon available, rather than a shaman or a mundu mugu, so you will find that the scientific version of truth works. You can use it to navigate through the real world. Science predicts, with complete certainty unless the end of the world intervenes, that the city of Shanghai will experience a total eclipse of the sun on July 22, 2009. Theories about the moon god devouring the sun god may be poetic, and they may cohere with other aspects of a tribe’s world view, but they won’t predict the date, time and place of an eclipse. Science will, and with an accuracy you could set your watch by. Science gets you to the moon and back…

Read on and guess what? Evolution is scientifically true too, as demonstrated by Jerry Coyne.
Mr Hawkins also writes this…

…The Guardian reported that, in February 2006, “Muslim medical students in London distributed leaflets that dismissed Darwin’s theories as false”. The Muslim leaflets were produced by the Al-Nasr Trust, a registered charity with tax-free status. The British taxpayer, that is to say, is subsidizing the systematic distribution of scientific falsehood to educational institutions. Science teachers across Britain will confirm that they are coming under slight, but growing, pressure from creationist lobbies, usually inspired by American or Islamic sources.

Indeed. From Damian:

Darwin’s next fight
[…]
A sociological experiment: keep an eye on how many people who (rightly) sneer at creationism start making excuses for it, if it becomes a “Muslim” thing…

Mark C.

Advertisements

31 thoughts on “My truth is truer than your truth

  1. ‘Whatever you believe to be true is true.’ – it’s amazing to see what happens when we stuff too many billions into ‘education’, it attracts all kinds, even the very stupid. Or especially the very stupid.

  2. Yet the Mayan calendar predicted eclipses. Dawkins, once again, is being silly and dismissive, imagining that only one set of metaphors is “right.” Whether it’s sky gods or Sirius and Alpha Vulpeculae, it’s still possible to make accurate observations and predictions. Dawkins’ absurd anthropologist straw man indicates, at least to me, that he should stick to speaking about his own field.

  3. I’m not a creationist myself, but I have to wonder: if Dawkins and his reductionist ilk are right and we are indeed random and accidental byproducts of the evolutionary process doomed to ultimate extinction in a universe that is also doomed, what the hell difference does it make what we believe?

  4. “Yet the Mayan calendar predicted eclipses.”
    And just what has this to do with the price of fish? The Mayans were fascinated with numbers and mathematics to the point of obsession which yielded an extremely accurate calendar. If my memory is correct, the Mayans (along with Hindu mathematicians) invented the concept of zero.
    As with Eratosthenes remarkably accurate calculation of the earth’s circumference in the third century BC, the Mayans’ accurate calendar wasn’t based upon the entrails of birds, rather it was observation and reasoning. Nothing here contradicts Dawkins.

  5. I can’t help but notice that Dawkins fails to mention in all his happy burbling about gene science that the laws of genetics were discovered by Gregor Mendel — a Christian monk.

  6. What Dawkins overlooks is that myth structures evolve in response to experience in the ways that genetic code evolves. The myths can therefore become adaptive, without qualifying as science. For example, in Bali where rice was grown in terraced patties in the mountains, water goddess myths and rites evolved over generations in a way that embedded a system of water use, water conservation and property right allocation that was efficient for growing rice and sustaining the eco-culture. When the “green revolution” introduced modern rice varieties and agricultural practices, rice production fell drmatically. There was thus embedded wisdom because the religion was flexible enough (being oral and not written and dogmatic) to adapt its memes and myths in response to experience. Science does the same with its myths and metaphors (“atoms” “quarks” “genes” etc.), but is obviously more rigorous, systematic, reliable and successful in adapting quickly. As per usual, Dawkins throws out the baby with the bath water. That said, anthropologists have been apologists for a lot of bath water.

  7. Yay! A Stephen Lansing reader! That’s my favourite counter-example when folks start talking about “primitivism” and “superstition.”
    John B.:
    The price of fish?
    “A scientist arrogantly asserts that thunder is not the triumphal sound of God’s balls banging together, nor is it Thor’s hammer. It is, instead, the reverberating echoes from the electrical discharges that we see as lightning. Poetic (or at least stirring) as those tribal myths may be, they are not actually true.”
    No matter what set of metaphors one uses, none preclude accurate observation and tests of empirical adequacy.

  8. Dr. Dawg, how about Michel Serres? I found his insights into the use of background myth in science to be illuminating. Science tends to prefer hypotheses and paradigms that are consistent with background myths reflecting the dominant technology of the era. Newtonian forces were like sail riggings, sail power being the dominant economic driver of the time. Recently, computational metaphors have most influenced whether hypotheses seem “plausible.” Again, science is plainly more systematic and successful than less self-conscious systems of learning–but the distinction is one of degree. Ultimately scientists too draw on myths.

  9. “The price of fish?”
    Apparently it’s a Newfoundland expression although I’ve heard of prairie variants as in “the price of wheat”.

  10. Dawg,
    “Whether it’s sky gods or Sirius and Alpha Vulpeculae, it’s still possible to make accurate observations and predictions.”
    Possible, but not probable.
    You can search through all the myths and pick and chose, with the advantage of our 21st century hindsight, which ones stand up to reason and logic.
    What you can’t do is make a case that these myths and rituals represent a sound means of making decisions. To do that, you’d have to look at the percentages, and if you gather up all of the primitive mythologies and judge them as a group rather than as individual examples, the failure rate would be enormous.
    For every water god promoting conservation there were thousands of thirsty societies pouring water into the desert sand as a sacrifice because 10 years prior someone had spilled a jug of water on the day before it rained.
    murray,
    “Newtonian forces were like sail riggings, sail power being the dominant economic driver of the time. ”
    The myth structure can be useful in explaining scientific concepts to the uneducated, but don’t confuse the explanation with the science.
    Isaac Newton was not a man obsessed with sailing, but with math. Newtonian physics were a marginal byproduct of his mathematical efforts which encompassed everything from mechanics to optics.
    Ellie,
    I think you need to study biology.

  11. Dara:
    How many more examples do you require? There was the calendar, the water temples, various herbals, acupuncture, agricultural techniques, Inuit land skills…
    We don’t recognize scientific language as metaphorical, but indeed it is.

  12. Dawg,
    I already told you. I need ALL of the examples and then we’ll do a final count of success and failure.
    You’re picking and choosing and then generalizing that specific result. That’s not scientific.
    Of all the times where agricultural practices based on superstition have succeeded, how many people have died of starvation praying to a wheat god.
    Of all of the times where a herb has been prescribed to cure a specific ailment, how often has that ailment been cured?
    This is still a good question to ask of “herbalists” today. Between them and the acupuncturists, you’re better off with magical sugar pills. Don’t even get me started on that reiki BS.
    “We don’t recognize scientific language as metaphorical, but indeed it is.”
    Who is this “we”? I suspect it’s a subset created by people who need metaphor to understand scientific language. The opinion of these people w.r.t. science isn’t worth the arts degree it’s based on.

  13. Dara, you miss important nuances in your drive-by shootings. All culturally embedded mythic structures (that are not fixed in writing and dogmatic) evolve in response to experience. Plainly many do better than others. The difference with science is that the adpative process has become self-conscious. It is very much like the shift from the “blind watchmaker” evolution to selective breeding then genetic engineering, which are self-consciously directed evolution. Common law, incidently, evolves the same way. Oliver Wendell Holmes recognized that the legal concepts are mere metaphors to organize behaviour. Sir Francis Bacon, after all, was Chief Justice of England when he published Novum Organun, which is a major work in the development of modern scientific method.
    You misconstrue Serres’ point on metaphor in science. It is not that Newton used sail riggings to derive his relationships of planetary forces, it is that what he found intuitively promising in developing mathematical models reflected his intuitively favourable disposition toward the most successful technology driving commerce of his age. Newton, recall, was warden of the Royal Mint, not just some clositered academic. (We need not even get into his fascination with the occult and alchemy–lots of sources for metaphoric hypothesis formation). Later, the rise of internal combustion would give credence to the metaphors of thermodynamics.

  14. If it can be measured with precision, I’d have to climb on board Dara’s train. That boy does enjoy things technological…:)
    Ellie; “…doomed to ultimate extinction in a universe that is also doomed, what the hell difference does it make what we believe?”
    Welcome to the dark side! 😉

  15. At this point, I can only say, “We’re here, aren’t we?” with suitable gestures of exasperation. All that praying to wheat gods and so on was also accompanied by hard work and intelligence. But the process and products of that hard work and intelligence was described in other than scientific language. Once God spoke; now it’s a few claiming privileged access to the “objective.”
    I take murray’s point that science is self-conscious, but I’m not in agreement that this is some kind of evolution. My point is that there has always been science–in the sense of observations, hypotheses, testing, empirical adequacy–or we simply wouldn’t have survived.
    You can’t logically argue that the Mayans produced their sophisticated calendar–using god-talk every step of the way–but that most other things they did were foolish superstition that led nowhere. Ditto with the water-priests of Bali, who managed to ensure that everyone got some of the available water, whose agricultural methods were superior to those imposed by the Green Revolution, and who have now cheerfully worked computers into the mix, without giving up their belief in the Water Goddess. Ditto with Inuit landsmen, with spectacular skills, who now use GPS not to replace, but to enhance those skills.
    If one of those keen-minded folks prescribed a local plant to cure one of the local diseases, I’d take it, whether they prayed to a plant god at some point or not.

  16. What I find fascinating is the image of some professor writing a postmodern article about how science is just another narrative with no particular claim to truth.
    And writing this on a computer and sending it across the continuent to an associate for review in a few seconds with a few clicks of a mouse.
    The irony and perversity of it is staggering.

  17. It really is quite curious how the Inuit have adapted to snowmobiles and high-powered rifles (products of engineering science), and rather seem to have abandoned in most cases their “traditional” alternatives. Indeed “replace” them. What would they say should they be urged to go without?
    Mark
    Ottawa

  18. Mark:
    No one is urging any such thing, any more than I am urging you to return to homespun and washing-tubs. Who’s saying different?

  19. Mark:
    I missed your first bit–about “abandoning” traditions and implicitly moving forward.
    To be charitable, that is immensely smug. Yes, of course high-powered rifles and skidoos are an improvement over dogs and spears, and thank goodness some culture or other gave us the concept of zero, while the Romans gave the benighted Britons an alphabet. There’s nothing new about cultural diffusion, although I hate the term.
    The point is that all cultures change–ours, the Inuit one–and we take the good stuff wherever we find it. But you also need to know, at least in the case of Nunavut, that semi-enforced sedentarization in the 1950s has created unprecedented social problems, including a suicide rate 9 times the national average, widespread alcoholism and domestic abuse, and the need for microphones in schoolrooms because up to 50% of the kids suffer from some form of deafness.
    I’m glad they’re making full use of GPS. Now, if only I could wander onto the “featureless” tundra and find something I left there two decades ago under a blanket of snow. Seems to me that learning is a cultural two-way street.

  20. With science the process is not “self-conscious”, it’s a recursive process whereby anything stated can be traced back to the original findings and either shown to be true or false. Nothing is added that isn’t objectively true, and nothing is removed that isn’t objectively false.
    “Once God spoke; now it’s a few claiming privileged access to the “objective.” ”
    It’s not privileged access. It’s available for anyone to learn, you just have to pick up a book (after picking up all of the prerequisites).
    Anyone can determine for themselves the universal gravitational constant or they can test Newton’s third law on an air hockey table. It is an intrinsic part of the process that any part of any theory or discovery can be independently confirmed.
    The Mayan calendar, for example, was scientific. It was based on observations of the sun and the moon that any Mayan could have made. From there though, the priests were making predictions about the future based on how the numbers lined up. That’s just stupid and primitive, nearly as stupid and primitive as their human sacrifices which were also part of their traditions and myths.
    You can make a clear demarcation between science and stupid.

  21. Predictions–like solar and lunar eclipses. Stupid, primitive. One of the Mayan calendars, the Tzolk’in, made its calculations based upon the Great Year. Dumb.
    One needs more than vulgar positivism to understand the world and ourselves.

  22. No Dawg,
    The stupid part was how they thought that their objective knowledge of the heavens could be used to determine the course of events on earth. Like when it was most suitable to perform a primitive bloodletting ritual.
    In other words, astrology. Another form of organized stupidity which has lasted the ages.
    One of the alleged features of the tzolkin was to enable a Mayan to know which number shrine he should sacrifice at on a particular day to get the desired results.
    “But this is what got us here”
    No, I think we got here in spite of primitive stupidity and now that we are here, we can use our knowledge to banish this stupidity from our lives.
    But don’t think I’m beating up on the Mayans just because they’re gone. Most people today are stupid primitives, but I think that they could be saved from that fuzzy existence with proper education. Hopefully before they ritually harm their children or blow all of their money on magic beans.
    Dan,
    With the financial situation as it stands, you have to wonder.
    At least the finance guys, bad as they are at math, don’t recommend buying stock during the full moon because it went up the last time there was a full moon. They at least try to map out the chain of cause and effect, for what it’s worth (which is steadily declining).

  23. (My comments keep disappearing.)
    Dara:
    We don’t do much blood-sacrifice in my neck of the woods, but we still look forward to Saturn’s Day and hope that our new car was built on Woden’s day.
    I’m not being trivial. Science is a procedure that generates information. (I’ll leave the concept of “information” in parentheses at the moment.) But what folks do with that information is another thing entirely. The miracle of transistors gave us Hee Haw re-runs. Personally, I’ll take the blood-sacrifices. 🙂

  24. “But what folks do with that information is another thing entirely. The miracle of transistors gave us Hee Haw re-runs.”
    Again, you’re confusing science with the dissemination of science. Your “folks” aren’t doing anything scientific. Just because they’re using something created by science doesn’t mean that they are participating.
    The *hard work* that led to transistors led to an article in a journal, that article led to a study on applications, that study led to a feasibility study, that feasibility study led to design work, that design work yielded a design, that led to a production study, which led to a production process, which led to a consumer product.
    *END SCIENCE*
    Then some mouth breather picks it up at Best Buy, reads the owners manual, and films a poorly lit documentary on bigfoot.

  25. Dara,
    It’s no use. Dawg is often the mirror image of a religious conservative. The latter’s filter is right-wing fundamentalism and Dawg’s ideal “science” (an oxymoron, to be sure) is one in which “left-wing” causes (my scare quotes; the liberal principles I learned would never include apologizing for theocrats) readily trump empirical data. The notion that there is just one set of facts for everyone — and that they are independent of, indeed, often contrary to religion or received politics — is anathema to the axe-grinders.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s