Friday, April 27, 2007

Ann Druyan: Popular Science

Another weekend is upon us, so I return to the presentations at Beyond Belief 2006. Our next speaker is Ann Druyan, the CEO and co-founder of Cosmos Studios.

Druyan worked on some of the best efforts at explaining science that have been done in the past 20 years, much of it with one of the most effective science teachers – in terms of teaching science to a mass audience of television viewers – of the television era, Carl Sagan.

I grew up in a family that viewed Carl Sagan as one of the greatest people who had ever lived. My father pointed to him constantly as a role-model for his children, and he was worthy of that position. I even suspect that, for a while, he had hopes that I could grow up to be just like Carl Sagan. I had a love of science in general and astronomy in particular, and nobody doubted that I could become an astronomer.

I was immensely curious about how stars came into being and what happened when they died, how life evolved, what things were made of and how they fit together, how continents moved over time and how everything from thunderstorms to volcanoes actually worked. However, it turned out that the one thing I wanted to know more than anything else was how value worked.

The question on the table here concerns the value of science. Perhaps there is something useful that I can contribute to this conversation.

I will start with the proposition that people act so as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs, and people seek to act so as to fulfill their desires. This suggests several ways in which we can get people to pay more attention to science. The most important of these is an option that people tend to overlook, though it comes directly out of these fundamental propositions.

The Direct Value of Science

If people seek to act so as to fulfill their desires, then one way to promote science is to point out to people that science can directly fulfill some of their desires. Science is fun. Science is interesting. Science is wonderful (in the sense that it has the power to fill a person with wonder).

For many of us who follow science, even if we are not scientists, science has value for its own sake. I check the Astronomy Picture of the Day daily, read the caption, and, if I can fit it without distortion, select the day’s picture as the wall paper on my computer. While other people turn to sports news every morning to find out how their favorite team is doing, I turn to science news to determine how my favorite teams are doing. My teams, however, are teams who are trying to discover cures for disease, better ways to detect extra-solar plants, predict the future climate and prevent the worse of those effects, understand volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural forces that threaten life.

Technically, direct value is formulated as a state of affairs in which an agent has a desire that P, there is a state of affairs S, and P is true in S. This is simply a desire to know. One wants to know how volcanoes work. One wants to know about the planets that orbit far distant stars. One wants to know about the interactions of plants and animals in some part of the world or another. One want to know what human life was like 10,000 years ago. When asked why, the real answer is nothing more than, “Because I want to. Why do you eat chocolate? Do you have to have a reason other than the fact that you like to eat chocolate?”

This form of value does not help us much in our quest to promote science. This method of value suggests that the people who will be attracted to a television show or a museum exhibit are those people who are already interested in the subject. The provider gives people something that they already like.

Indirect (Instrumental) Value

Another way that science (or anything in the universe for that matter) can have value is to have indirect or instrumental value. Science, in this sense, would be a useful tool.

Science is, in fact, a very useful tool. Science provides us with the formulae that do the best job of explaining and predicting events in the real world. Being able to predict events in the real world give a person a way to manipulate the world to fulfill the agent’s desires.

Without science, my wife would have died twice – the first time when she was a young teenager with a brain tumor, and the second time last year when she became ill.

In addition, we simply do not know how often science has prevented her death, or mine. We are both immunized from a wide range of ugly diseases from small pox to polio. We drink pasteurized milk, there is iodine in our salt, and our breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins and iron. We have enough food to eat. We have warnings from storms and know how to protect ourselves from their effects.

Science also gives us options that fulfill our desires that would not have otherwise existed. All my life I have said that what I would really like to have a newspaper column where I could comment on the events of the day and apply my understanding of moral philosophy to those events. Here I am, writing a blog that gets transmitted around the world every day. Well, almost every day. Pretty darn close to every day.

Science is good because science is useful. Science provides us with the most successful formulae around for explaining and predicting real-world events. Those who ignore science are more likely to suffer consequences they do not anticipate, and they are likely to be consequences they do not want.

So, a second way to get people more interested in science is to show them how useful it is. Such a person has no reason to pursue science beyond its usefulness, but has a reason to follow science at least that far – once they are shown its usefulness.

Changing Values

The way of looking at value that I describe in this blog provides us with a third way of promoting interest in science, which is to actually change people’s desires. When we do this, we are not trying to convince them that science contains something that they already like. Nor are we trying to convince them that science is useful in bringing about something they already like. We are trying to cause them to have different likes – to acquire likes that science can then fulfill.

Many people who talk about making science popular assumes that everybody else is like them. Once others are exposed to science, it is like being exposed to cocaine. The person having the experience of science will be hooked, unable to get enough science, and unwilling to go back to the type of person they once were. All we need are shows like Cosmos and Connections to show people how wonderful science can be.

Only, people are not alike. Most people – all people – will have desires that science can fulfill directly only if others go through the effort of changing an individual’s desires.

As I have also argued in this blog, we do not change desires through reason and argument. Reason will tell a person whether a state will fulfill the desires he has, or whether it can be used to create a state that fulfills those desires. To change desires themselves – to make people love science for its own sake – we have to use other tools.

When it comes to actually promoting tools, one of the most effective tools of the past century has been the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite. This took a whole generation of individuals who had a passive interest in science, and converted many of them into people with a huge interest in science, mathematics, and engineering overnight. It is not that Sputnik suddenly made people love science. Rather, it gave science a whole new usefulness – one that would protect them and their liberties from the aggression of the Soviet Union. Whether this value was genuine or merely perceived, the belief that science had this new value motivated many people to take a look at science.

It is often the case that the things we pursue because they are useful become things that we value for their own sake. A child may behave because he wishes to avoid being yelled at by his parents. Yet, the behavior that begins as a useful tool for avoiding punishment becomes something that child likes to do for its own sake – something the child will continue to do even when the parental threat goes away. This is how parents – at least, good parents – raise children to become morally upstanding adults.

That is to say, parents influence the values of their children through praise and condemnation. People influence each other’s values using these same tools.

If you wish to promote a love of science where it does not exist, and to inhibit a love of superstition where it does exist, the best tools to use are to praise those who love science, and to condemn those who love superstition.

In the debate over whether atheists should pursue kindness as a political strategy, my position is to argue against that tactic. If we praise and coddle the love of superstition, we promote the love of superstition. Those who condemn those who love reason and use them as scapegoats for all the world’s ills promote an aversion to reason.

This is the reason why I so strongly detest the motto “In God We Trust” and the pledge to “One Nation Under God.” These can only be understood as giving national praise to those who trust in or who are under God, and they condemn and brand as inferior those who do not. This, then, has an effect on our nation’s values. It gives people a special affection for those who trust in and who are under God, while promoting hatred and contempt for those who are not. We then see these effects in national surveys of attitudes towards atheists.

There can be no progress in promoting a love of reason over superstition as long as it is our national policy, our national motto, and our national pledge, to praise superstition and condemn reason.

Action Items

So, the task is not to find ways of providing people with science that they already value. The task is to promote a love of science and a love of reason. Reason has nothing to say about or ends – our desires. Reason only has something to say about the means to the ends we already have. Influencing desires themselves requires the judicious use of the institutions of praise and condemnation.

Yet, there is a way in which the instrumental value of science can help in this regard. When those who promote superstition ignore reality, the effect will be death, suffering, and other harms. Any time these harms exist, there is an opportunity to point out how these harms could be avoided through science and reason, and are protected by those who ignore science and reason. This, in turn, justifies praise for those who accept science and reason, and justifies condemnation for those who condemn it. It justifies these results in terms of the harms prevented and the harms permitted.


Anonymous said...

Do you have empirical evidence to support your claim that the best tools to change desires are praise and condemnation? I ask this because I have not seen any scientific studies, but my personal experience is this approach is practically useless for humans beyond the age of ten.
Once people stop blindly accepting the views of others and start thinking for themselves, simple praise and condemnation lose much of their effectiveness.
You say you can only use reason to change people’s beliefs, not desires. I don’t find that a compelling argument. You distinguish between malleable desires and nonmalleable ones. I agree. But where do these malleable desires come from? I would say they are extensions of our basic desires that we develop based on our beliefs.
For example, I find solving problems rewarding. I have a nonmalleable desire to solve problems. Because I have a belief that exchanging views with Alonzo Fife could provide some useful insights that could help solve some ethical philosophical issues, I have a malleable desire for such an exchange.
I find it highly unlikely that praise or condemnation is going to change that desire, but if my belief that the exchange would be worthwhile was to change, then I could easily lose that desire.
But perhaps I am misinterpreting what you mean. Can you provide your readers with some examples of your recent desires that have changed as a consequence of praise and condemnation unrelated to any change in beliefs?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Did I say best?

I didn't say that.

It was the aliens. They follow me around. They get into my computer. They change things. Usually, I can catch them, clean up after them. But, sometimes . . . there's just too many of them!

Okay, not necessarily the best, but a highly useful way of influencing desires. How useful?

Well, yes, it works better on younger people than on older people, so moral education for the young is particularly important. That is why I strongly encourage those who value science and rationality to instill a love of these disciplines in children. This is why I particularly hate the Pledge of Allegiance - because of the effects of praising those who are "under God" to children and implicitly condemning those who are not "under God."

As for its effectiveness on adults, I think it is safe to start with at least the prima facie assumption that an adult can change his desires as efficiently as he can change his beliefs. It is not a case of perfect maleability, but it is not nothing either.

Furthermore, even the praise and condemnation of adults serves not only to affect those who are praised or condemned, but those who witness the praise or condemnation. They also learn their lessons that way.

Even a small effect from condemning a theft or a lie or any other wrong, spread across all the members of a community, can well be enough to prevent one or two other wrongs.

olvlzl said...

While I had enormous affection for Carl Sagan I never mistook him for a major figure in science or as someone who wasn't able to same some stunningly stupid things. He was, like we all are, only human.

He did promote one beief that I have always thought was not only rather badly put, but contradicted the very basis of science. In his version of Marcello Truzzi's "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof,""Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." he promotes the violation of the principle that the rules apply to all propositions, that people who find something "extraordinary" don't get to insist on other rules. Those new rules would be "extrordinary" in themselves.

To insist on that would be one of the most stunning indictments of the methods of science. If the regular rules are insufficient to dispose of bogus claims that someone found "extraordinary" then they wouldn't be any more able to produce reliable knowledge.

No, Sagan would have had a much more productive time if he hadn't gotten caught up in the cult of the pseudo-skeptics. Their "skepticism" isn't skeptical, it just insists on their predeterminied conclusions being adopted.

Anonymous said...

Atheist Observer - isn't Peer Preasure basically praise/condemnation at work? As far as I know, it is one of the best ways to get humans (including adults) to do just about anything (including, sadly, the opression and/or mass-murder of a minority). The key is that the preasure is very easily deflected if it comes from outside your peer-group, but very hard to resist if it comes from within it.

Olvlzl - from your various posts, I get the following impression of your beliefs: That the individual can know almost nothing (aside from what is internal to himself), and that what is commonly known right now to be true is in fact suspect, because it is something that you (or anyone) can not know via your definition of internal-state knowledge. This sounds like standard Solipsism to me. I reject it for the same reason I reject Solipsism.

olvlzl said...

This sounds like standard Solipsism to me. I reject it for the same reason I reject Solipsism.

You are free to reject anything. But you will notice that I am not the one who is trying to find either objectivity or proof. It is the fetish of these things that my comments from which you are trying to discern some larger philosophical position. There might be one, I don't know.

In so far as it's possible to know with anything like certainty, math is about the only intellectual field that provides that. And a lot that is known in math isn't known in its full implications. In all else all knowlege is contingent. In any area of science in which a direct observation can't be studied, measured, analyzed, the knowlege becomes strikingly contingent and fraught with the possibilities of being over turned. Sociobiology morphed into evolutionary psychology, a choice of words I've got great reservations about since I think it appropriates the real science of evolution in an attempt to keep it's speculations alive a bit longer than it's forerunner schools. I suspect that it's version of "science" which relies rather stunningly on making up stories without much in the way of physical evidence in order to come up with something like an explaination for very complex phenomena, which it assmebles into "behaviors" is a prelude to superannuation at a rate not much less rapid than it's ancestors.

No, I don't think that we should forget that very little of what we rely on has been proved and that much of it isn't able to be proved now, and much of it ever.

I hope you didn't find that too standardized.

olvlzl said...

eneasz, I've corrected my response to you and expanded it at my own blog. Before going back to the things that really got me into blogging, politics and music, I'd like to make myself as clear as I can.