Friday, April 20, 2007

Sir Harold Kroto: Communicating Science

This is the twelfth weekend that I have spent discussing the presentations at Beyond Belief 2006.

Our next speaker at this conference is Sir Harold Kroto, 1996 co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Chairman of the Board of the Vega Science Trust, a UK educational charity that produces science programs for television.

I regret to report that I found Kroto’s presentation somewhat disjointed. I had a hard time picking out an overall theme to his presentation, let alone a coherent argument in defense of some position. That makes it difficult to comment upon.

Ultimately, if I were to characterize the presentation, Kroto’s objective was to describe and to promote “The Vega Science Trust” described as “An Independent Broadcaster of Informed Scientific Visual and Audio Media”

Making Room For Religion

However, it was clear that Kroto placed himself in the Dawkins/Harris camp with respect (or with the lack of respect) to religion. He considers religion to be the antithesis of science and wishes to encourage his fellow scientists to avoid anything that might be thought of as encouraging religion. For example, he criticized the Templeton Foundation for promoting a message that the study of science is the study of God’s design – arguing that science and religion can fit together. He is so opposed to that philosophy that he called upon fellow scientists to boycott Templeton Society grants.

In light of my previous criticism of Dawkins and Harris, I feel that I should add a clarifying comment. I do not have any objections to people condemning religion and promoting reason in its place. My objections have focused on claims made against religion that are not true, or claims made in favor of reason that are impractical. I hold that there is enough to say that is critical of religion without exaggerating its faults.

I have no objection to Kroto’s policy of rejecting relationships between religion and science. As a matter of fact, core religious claims are almost certainly false. It is absurd to demand that a scientist who thinks he has a perfectly workable theory of X to insert claims that are outside the scope of available evidence and almost certainly false is absurd. He should state his theory and be done with it. If others wish to add a divine element to his theory, let them do so on their own time.

The Campaign For and Against Science

Sir Harold Kroto was obviously concerned with the amount of money that churches drew in, and perceived this as a threat. With so much money devoted to the marketing of myth and superstition, Kroto was concerned to put something up against it. Therefore, he talked at length about using the power of the internet to promote a scientific view of the world. He spoke about his own efforts, and encouraged those attending the conference to do the same with whatever tools available.

Indeed, there is a great deal of money that is going to promote the falsehoods of religion. False beliefs, as I said in the past, stand in the way of people fulfilling their desires (including promoting that tend to fulfill other desires). These mistakes get in the way of agents obtaining that which really is good, and bring about death and suffering that could have otherwise been avoided.

So, there is good reason not only to invest in a campaign to replace false beliefs with truth. Unfortunately, Kroto is right, pathetically few resources are devoted to this activity.

However, very little is actually being invested in such a campaign. Organizations devoted to debunking paranormal behavior and promoting truth and reason are orders of magnitude smaller than campaigns on the other side that promote myth and superstition. Even if we consider per-capital expenditures of effort, there are organizations of fewer members who do a better job of getting things done. This is in spite of the fact that promoting reason is one of the best ways to get things done.

If there is one thing that will best serve all other projects not devoted to myth, regardless of what those projects are, it would be to promote a population capable of reasoning their way through these problems and inventing rational solutions. In this sense, reason is the core value providing the foundation for all attempts to bring about states that are actually, truly good.

As a result, if one is disposed to make a contribution to any charity at all, one has reason to donate to those who are seeking to promote a culture of reason and critical thinking. Every other project worth doing will benefit from such a cultural emphasis. Plus, I would argue, such a culture would have an easier time discovering which projects are worth doing, and what they are worth (as the relationships between states of affairs and desires become better known).

CSPAN for Science

In the middle of his presentation, Kroto made a remark that what we need is a “CSPAN for science”. I assume that what he had in mind was a television channel that obtained its material by covering the conventions, symposiums, and colloquia of the scientific community.

I do not think it is wise to take this idea too literally. The fact is, few people would be able to understand such a presentation. It would be like broadcasting the events on the floor of the House of Representative (as C-span does), translated into a language that only 10,000 people on the planet could understand. The rest of the population would have no reason to watch.

However, Kroto was not there to propose that method of communication as much as he sought to inform the audience that there was this thing called ‘the internet’ which was a tremendous tool for communication that all of us can use. He uses it as a mechanism for giving the best scientists the opportunity to speak on any issues that interest them. Each of us can find our own ways to contribute.

Of course, the forces of evil have access to the internet as well, and some of them know how to use it quite efficiently. Just because somebody has a microphone, this does not imply that he has something important or useful to say.

Having something useful to say takes a little extra effort.

1 comment:

olvlzl said...

First, I congratulate you on an interesting site. It's not your typical site of any kind. And, second, I'm not a great enthusiast of the Templeton type of message, "that the study of science is the study of God’s design – arguing that science and religion can fit together."

While it might be true that the study of science is the study of some kind of design, that's not science but a speculation outside of science. Science cannot be theistic. The second part, that science and religion can fit together is true, but only within an individual scientist, not as a part of science. Actually, while it is impossible for religion to inform science, it is reported by some religious believers that their religion is informed by science. Science has much stricter boundaries than other activities in life in order to protect its chance of a reliable outcome and it has to stay bounded by the generally accepted limits of science.

I do, however, think that Kroto shares the rather arrogant habit of his school, who is he to tell other people what they can believe and practice? It's that club rule thing that seems to be an increasing feature of the Dawkins-Harris cults. There isn't any reason for anyone to accept their authority, in fact it's kind of odd that people who believe themselves to be free thinkers would allow this kind of authority to spring up among them. As for him wishing "to encourage his fellow scientists to avoid anything that might be thought of as encouraging religion." that would be rather difficult for those scientists who happen to be religious themselves. And, contrary to another emerging orthodoxy, not all scientists are non-religious. Some of them are a lot more accomplished in the science than many of the loudest enforcers of this new set of rules that will lead to no good. Science isn't the exclusive property of atheists or agnostics anymore than morality is of religious people.