Lynn Margulis has sent the opening statement for her blog tour below. You should feel free to respond to it, raise other questions of any relevant sort, or say whatever you want in the comments; she’ll be along later today to respond to those that interest her. I will be policing the comments, so trolls, please don’t bother; serious comments only, and keep in mind that she’s only going to respond to a limited subset, so make ’em good.
In addition, she’ll be available later today in the Pharyngula chat room (channel #pharyngula on irc.zirc.org; if you don’t have an IRC client, that link will let you use your browser to join in) from 12:00-1:30pm ET. Dive in there for a more interactive give-and-take with Dr Margulis.
What a pleasure to write openly for Pharyngula even though, in principle, I am leery, even with this blog, of any internet participation. The haste and style online by its very breezy nature generates misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Nothing online written about me is entirely accurate, except perhaps my address at the University of Massachusetts.
Although misunderstanding permeates all human communication, the internet amplifies these tendencies. Sound bite-hype is far more useful to those who assert religious truths and would banish authentic science from the public sphere than to the scholar or scientist. Science itself, and even more so, science writing, ever cautious, ever tentative and ever questioning is permeated with boring hesitancies and stuttering qualifications. Most readers simply ignore it since they find it incomprehensible. The more accurate the scientific description, the more daunting the language to any outsider. The more clear the expression of a scientific idea is, the more specialized the terminology. The clearest scientific ideas are mathematical equations opaque to all but the specialist.
So, when reporters and popular writers attempt to communicate real science the plagues of distortion, misunderstanding and misrepresentation are inevitable. Any statement outside the immediate purview of the detailed science tends to be “translated” into common language. To express new ideas that challenge the paradigm in which the scientist works new language is required. If the language is too new neither the scientist nor the science popularizer is understood. Especially when one’s work is heterodox to the prevailing trend -it is easy to be dismissed as a “crank” or “on the fringe.” Or, even more likely, to be ignored. The convenient fiction, created by marketers and politicians, that “consensus” plays a major role in original science, helps to generate confusion in the lay public about the vast difference between established scientific fact and ideologically-driven nonsense.
Scientists seek evidence. Eclipses could not be predicted, calendars could not be distributed, tide tables could not be published, airplanes could not be built to fly, food plants not grown, bridges nor buildings built, in the absence of precise knowledge of celestial mechanics, gravity, air flow, soil nutrients, flowering plant sexuality, metal compression and tensional strengths, etc. Scientific facts, scientists know, lie in the details. Explanatory power, falsifiable prediction, reproducible experimental results underlie all scientific theory. Within the detailed framework there are no “scientific controversies”. Theories explain, hypotheses make precise predictions either verifiable or not, results are either reproducible or they aren’t. The most serious communication problem is that specialized knowledge, an arcane literature and years of specialized training are required for participation in any science and all science by its very nature is severely limited to its objects of study. No botanist can participate meaningfully in nuclear physics nor can physicists analyse genetic data. Science communicators, even the very best, and there many (e,g, those who write for Science News, Nature, Science and the New York Times Tuesday pages, National Public Radio and the like) can not comprehensibly describe anything without bias and oversimplification, ever. No writing, if it is to be widely understood, can be without bias. I believe that no meaningful distinction or description of anything, science included, can be made without an historical, including natural-historical, context. Yet most scientists live in the “now”; they tend to lack a long view and any knowledge outside the limits of their own specialized field. Sometimes their “field” is more a budget constraint or a whim of a dead scholar than a natural science. Some “fields”, clearly are not natural science, like the field called “cancer”. This implies that science writing too unavoidably displays bias, prejudice, nationalism, profound ignorance, incompleteness and other manifestations of “slanted truths”.
Scientists too often know little about the cultural and historical context of their ideas. Neo-Darwinians biologists, for example, really believe that “evolution” is a subfield of biology, especially zoology. Hence they ignore the non-zoological components of evolutionary science (e.g., all of historical geology including especially paleontology; environmental science, ecology, atmospheric chemistry, microbiology, etc.) They rarely acknowledge that their theoretical frames derive from an Anglophone-capitalist model, and inevitably carry the prejudices, assumptions and philosophical orientations of our milieu. Because most people interested in evolution live in an Anglophone-capitalist culture, assumptions of neo-Darwinians are unstated. Concepts such as the validity of “cost-benefit” and “competition vs. co-operation” terminology or the superiority of mathematical analysis are uncritically assumed. Many unstated assumptions are made because of the bias of the “evolutionary biologists”, the majority of whom have animal biology/zoological training who share our cultural orientation. There is, in fact, paltry evidence for the neo-Darwinian “thought-style”. The staunch neo-Darwinist claims have become less and less valid as information from other fields (e.g., molecular biology and the fossil record) has increased. It is not unusual, especially in the science of evolution, that theories contradictory to the neo-Darwinian “thought-style” are ignored or rejected, not on the basis of their claims, or proof of those claims, but on the, often unconscious, grounds that they do not agree with our biases. Read Ludwik Fleck.
So here we have an opportunity for open discussion – to listen to nature, to perceive the nature of nature, to reveal scientifically-documented facts beyond prejudices. We attempt, with civil dialogue based on sound science, to achieve, in good faith, an understanding of each other and the world. Science is limited, what is known for sure is miniscule in contrast to the great unknown, but the deliberate faith-based distortion of what really is known is despicable. We will avoid the cant, rant and desperate attempt to distort so common on both sides in the so-called “religion-vs science” debate. Whiteheadian philosophers, many Unitarian and Buddhist scholars, all true scientists agree with David Bohm’s sentiment that “science is the search for truth” whether or not we like that truth. And Emily Dickinson’s sentiment, from her poem “Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant ” is even more compelling:
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind–
Mar 10, 2007