Saturday, January 27, 2007

Lawrence Krauss: Selling Science

This is a second of a series of commentary on presentations given at Beyond Belief 2006. It concerns the second presentation given at that conference.

That presentation was given by Lawrence Krauss, Director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University. On the conflict between religion and science, Krauss argued that there were some things that science cannot show – that science cannot prove that God does not exist. When it comes to teaching science, scientists should recognize that people have no natural interest in their product. Scientists need to sell science, and a good salesman does not insult and denigrate his customers.

The biggest mistake any teacher makes is assuming that their students are interested in what they have to say.

Krauss tells us that anybody who wants to teach has to learn salesmanship. He said:

You have to sell. Teaching is selling. And science is selling. In fact, it’s seduction. If you want to educate people, you have to go to where they are and reach out to where they are coming from. And if you want to educate people, attacking them is not going to educate them at all. And I think most of us here . . . what we want to do is educate. We want to explain to people the wonders of nature. If we want to make them receptive to it we have to understand where they are coming from.

As far as selling goes, this makes sense. If you want to sell somebody a car, then what you need to do is to find out where they are coming from in order to explain to them how buying a car (from you) is a good choice for them to make. A car salesperson is not advised to attack potential customers. Given any two salesperson – an attack salesperson and a welcoming salesperson, it is the latter that will more likely make salesperson of the month. If we are interested in selling science, these are things that we should keep in mind.

However, let us look at a different model. Instead of comparing the selling of science to the selling of cars, let us compare it to the selling of abolitionism (of slavery) instead.

Let us imagine Dr. Krauss attending an abolitionist convention, telling the participants that if they want to “educate” people on the wrongness of slavery, that “you have to go to where they are and reach out to where they are coming from. If you want to make them receptive to it we have to understand where they are coming from.”

Unfortunately, one of the problems with slavery rests entirely on where the slave owner is coming from. He is “coming from” a place that no person has the right to be. To reach out to where such a person is coming from is to give that place some measure of legitimacy. It says, “There is no fault at you being at that particular location. What we are going to try to do is to sell the abolition of slavery to you, even while we insist that there is nothing about being a slave owner that deserves being attacked.”

Krauss’s argument is fine if the selling of science is like selling a car, but it fails if the selling of science is like selling the abolition of slavery. The car salesperson makes no assumptions about the value of where his customer is coming from. Recognizing the difficulty in changing a customer’s desires, he tries instead to package the car as a product that will fulfill those desires (often, it seems, even if he has to lie to do so). On the other hand, it is written into the very nature of a moral good such as the abolition of slavery that those who do not purchase this product are immoral. It is very much the case that there is something wrong with where the slave owner is coming from.

This, then, invites us to ask whether the selling of science is like the selling of cars, or the selling of abolitionism.

We can answer this question by asking, “What happens when people refuse to buy the product? Specifically, is there reason to believe that the type of person who would refuse to purchase this product becomes a threat to others?”

The person who refuses to buy a used car is no threat to others. Or, at least, there is nothing about refusing to buy a car that is seriously linked to the conclusion that he is a threat to others. On the other hand, the person who refuses to buy abolition is a threat to others. He will stand in the defense of actions in which others are harmed. In other words, the car shopper has a moral permission not to purchase the product that the seller is trying to sell. The abolition shopper has no moral permission to refuse this product; those who refuse to buy are, by definition, evil and worthy of contempt.

One of the points that Krauss made, that Dr. Steven Weinberg (who had made the earlier presentation) agreed to, is that science cannot prove that God does not exist. Krauss asserted that his study of cosmology shows no evidence of design, but that he cannot go from this to conclude that there is no design. Quoting Carl Sagan, he asserted the maxim, “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Weingerg’s response was that science cannot disprove the existence of fairies in the garden, but that does not give us reason to take seriously those who say that such fairies exist.

As it turns out, there are an infinite number of things that science cannot disprove. As such, if somebody picks one of these and says, “This is true,” that person has picked one out of an infinite set. His chance of being right, then, are 1/infinity.

Some approach this with the attitude that if there are only two options, then there is a 50/50 chance of each being right. Either God exists, or God does not exist. Neither can be disproved, so there is a 50% chance that God exists.

The logic is flawed, however. If somebody were to roll a die 10,000 times and sum the results, we could say that the total is either 60,000 or it is not 60,000. However, it does not follow that “60,000” is as likely as “Not 60,000”. In fact, “Not 60,000” is extremely likely. The odds that a God whose existence cannot be disproved, but for which there is no evidence is extremely unlikely.

Krauss attempted to argue that science and religion need not be thought of as “in conflict”. He attempted to suggest that science can be viewed as informing and refining faith. Science cannot tell us what is right, he said. However, science can tell us what is wrong. Science can, for example, tell us that those whose religion requires that the Earth is 6,000 years old need to rethink their religion.

He also suggested that science can have something to say about the idea that homosexuality is an abomination. He said that science can show that homosexuality exists in nature, so it is not an abomination in nature. Furthermore, science can require consistency. Consistency, in turn, requires that those who hold that homosexuality is an abomination on the basis of scripture also, “…have to accept the fact that you are allowed to kill your children if they disobey you”.

I want to quickly add that one cannot morally defend an action by showing that it occurs in nature. Male lions kill their stepchildren. Cannibalism is common. In fact, nature invented the roles of ‘predator’, ‘prey’, ‘parasite’ and ‘host’. From these, we should be able to conclude that murder of stepchildren, cannibalism, and predatory and parasitic behavior are not abominations either. If we accept Krauss’s second command that it is all or nothing, then somebody who gets their morality according to what happens in nature has as much of a problem as somebody who gets their morality from scripture.

However, this does not refute the more general claim that the scientist can command consistency – only that this demand gives us as much reason to reject “what happens in nature” as it does to reject “what happens in scripture” as moral standards. In fact, what I wrote in the previous paragraph uses the more general rule of demanding consistency against the ‘what happens in nature is not wrong” theorist. It does not reject the use of that principle.

Yet, this same type of argument – a demand to make logical sense – points to the conclusion that somebody who adopts a belief merely on the basis that “nobody can disprove it” has a 1/infinity chance of being right. This is one of the ways that science can inform faith. I am uncertain whether Krauss would be comfortable with science informing faith in this way.

In the past, I have written against the idea of condemning all religion. Instead, I have argued for focusing on religious beliefs that are directly linked to behavior that is harmful to others – terrorist attacks, the condemnation of stem-cell research, the condemnation of homosexuality, coerced participation in religious events by making them a part of civil ceremonies, the demand to feed false information to children in public schools, prohibitions on providing women with any education at all. Where we have harm, we have reason to condemn those who cause harm. If there is no harm, then we can treat the refutation of those beliefs as a casual academic exercise.

Still, it is not morally appropriate to approach those whose beliefs lead them to act in ways harmful to others by “reaching out” and “understanding where they are coming from”. They are coming from a position that makes them a threat to others. As such, “where they are coming from” is a position that we have many and strong 'reasons for action' to condemn. There is no heaven or hell. The very real harm that these people do to very real people cannot be “made up for” in the afterlife. The destruction they cause is permanent. For the sake of those being harmed, it is quite reasonable to condemn those who cause harm for no good reason at all.

1 comment:

Turtle said...

Alonzo - I've been reading your blog every day for the last several months. Mentally, it's a breath of fresh air in the mist of chaos. Even on the (few) days when I disagree with what you have to say, I always get something out it.

I have to disagree with you, though, on the following:

Still, it is not morally appropriate to approach those whose beliefs lead them to act in ways harmful to others by “reaching out” and “understanding where they are coming from”. They are coming from a position that makes them a threat to others. As such, “where they are coming from” is a position that we have many and strong 'reasons for action' to condemn.

I agree with you that Christianists have beliefs that lead them to go out and harm others, or at the very least not care about harm being done by others in support of those beliefs. The desire to hurt others, and/or the lack of desire that others not be harmed, represents a defect of moral character and is worthy of condemnation, often in the strongest of terms.

I disagree, however, that actually issuing the moral condemnation is the wisest course of action. The purpose of moral condemnation is to change the behavior of the person receiving the condemnation. If the attempt at moral condemnation fails to work, then the most likely outcome is contempt for the person issuing the condemnation. Given that condemnation tends not to work when the recipient has no respect for the giver, or no reason to *fear* the giver, condemnation of the Christianist by an atheist or a gay person (or someone like me who is both) is not only likely to be met with failure, but it risks making the recipient less likely to respond to condemnation in the future.

Our goal needs to be to change their behavior. If moral condemnation isn't going to work, then we need to try something else. Why not reach out to the Christianist, if we have reason to believe that it might be successful? Particularly in cases where the Christianist has already made some progress toward right behavior - still being personally against gay marriage, for example, but being unwilling to vote for an amendment banning gay marriage - using moral condemnation against them may spur them to retaliate by deciding that showing any kind of charity towards gays isn't such a good idea after all.

Reaching out to the Christianist does *not* necessarily legitimitize their behavior, any more than a doctor trying to understand why an anorexic refuses to eat legitimitizes anorexia, or a doctor trying to understand why a patient of his despises exercise legitimitizes obesity. Reaching out potentially accomplishes three things: it gives us information as to how we might be able to modify their behavior, it forces them to acknowlege us as a *person*, and most importantly it helps them develop a sense of comfort around us that will allow us to make them feel *uncomfortable* when we tell them how much their behavior is hurting us.

I agree with you. We *have* to make them uncomfortable if we want to get them to change. Doing that, though, requires that they see us as a real person, and not simply as the physical embodiment of something they despise. Make them *too* uncomfortable, and they will continue to respond as they always have - by repressing anyone with whom they disagree to the point that they no longer *have* to listen.

Getting them to change their behavior will require some finesse, in other words.

Anyway, my two cents' worth. Keep up the good work!