A crisis for popular science

Photo credit: tk-link / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Tania Lombrozo, cognitive scientist and regular contributor to NPR’s 13.7 science blog, recently asked a thought provoking question: “Is There Existential Meaning Beyond Religion?”   It turns out her post asks readers to click through and comment on another article of her’s in the Boston Review, which the editors captioned, “Can Science Deliver the Benefits of Religion?”  The way this discourse is set up seems to be a prime example of the serious, self-inflicted challenge that contemporary science popularizers and educators face.

Dr. Lombrozo’s piece in the Review is perfectly intelligble but structurally incoherent.  In the first half, she presents various explanations as to why 43 percent of Americans surveyed reject human evolution in favor of a “creationist” account.  Then, in the second half, she examines whether affirmations of faith in science can be as psychologically beneficial as affirmations of religious faith.  The two tasks the author undertakes aren’t necessarily related.  From a literary stand point, we have to ask, what is meaning of the piece as a unified whole?

If we to try identify the intent behind the first half of Lombrozo’s piece, we could choose to consider it as a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism.  Alternately, it is simply an account from her own experience as a scientist who explains how people arrive at explanations.  Here’s how she sums her explanations in one sentence:

It may be that assorted mental dispositions and shortcomings—a preference for teleology, hyperactive agency detection, anxiety concerning death, psychological essentialism, a preference for order and control, an unhealthy fascination with human uniqueness, and the naturalistic fallacy all wed to what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”—are enough to explain people’s rejection of human evolution in favor of some form of creationism.

Taking the author’s collection of explanations as evidence for the falsity of creationism would beget one giant genetic fallacy.  Offering six, seven, or a million explanations for how someone came to hold a belief does not falsify the belief itself.  Further, with a little tweaking, these same explanations could be applied to the explainer!  I am not defending the type of creationist belief Lombrozo wants to explain away.  Rather, I’m asking what those explanations have to do with the latter part of her article, which explores where existential satisfaction comes from.

In the privately published Boston Review, which caters to a specific political leaning and cultural outlook, it would make sense for Lombrozo to attribute mental shortcomings to those she disagrees with.  But Lombrozo has shared her musings on 13.7, a blog hosted by publicly sponsored NPR.  Why would she submit what amounts to a naturalistic pep rally, or a scientistic preaching to the choir, to this broader forum?

If the contributors at 13.7 are civic-minded proponents who advocate greater public understanding and acceptance of science–as at least one of them seems to be–they would do better not to assume their readers share their metaphysical prejudices.  As a thoughtful Christian and curious human being, I peruse 13.7 to see how the scientific community engages robust concepts and challenges from the humanities, philosophy, and culture.  In the many posts I’ve read now, I find the writers ardent in their defense of scientific integrity, but fairly sloppy or else standoffish as they steer around any logically plausible indicators of supernatural reality.  The dead zone where Lombrozo and her colleagues fear to tread inclines me to believe that these freethinkers operate a sort of faith-based church for mystical naturalists.

If a cohort of elite academics is going to muse on “Cosmos and Culture,” wouldn’t we all be better served by more frequent and  deeper interactions with rational, if non-naturalistic epistemologies and bodies of knowledge?  I know of a couple good places (here and here) where they could start.

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Much Ado About Fox

This past Thanksgiving, giddy media liberals parroted the fallacious conclusions of a Farleigh Dickinson University study.  Daily Kos crowed: “New public study: Watching Fox News makes you dumber.”  But it’s clear the poll was rigged merely to be smear fodder against America’s most viewed news channel.

The FDU researchers titled their press release “Some News Leaves People Knowing Less.”  In their misleading parlance, a news source (mostly Fox) “leads,” “leaves,” and “makes” the study participant dumber or less knowledgeable.  The language gives the impression that some active force shapes news consumers’ responses.  From this, one might conclude that Sean Hannity and Megyn Kelly emit brain cell-killing radiation when they appear on screen.  But this is not some lab rat experiment with tightly-controlled variables. The researchers stacked the deck against Fox from the onset.

Consider how the study collects data from its telephone respondents.  If one receives any news information from a given source over the past week, his responses count in favor of or against that source.  Now Fox News is a 24/7 telvision operation.  Any channel-surfing couch potato can tune into five minutes of “Fox and Friends” and per the pollster instructions report they got some news from Fox.  Meanwhile, NPR’s reporting, restricted to the commute hours and the less accessable radio format, is shield against association with casual news consumers.  Such people might even tune in during jazz hour and correctly report they had received no news from NPR.

Media Partition in the Age of Obama

Media Partition in the Age of Obama

On top of this selection bias, the FDU researchers share a liberal outlook with their favored media outlets.  As can be seen from the wording in poll question two, they place a premium on foreign news over domestic happenings.  Mainstream media like TIME and NPR devote inordinate amounts of time fawning over the “Arab Spring,” but conservative-friendly media like Fox tend to dispense with the rose-colored glasses.  Their viewers, having a vague awareness of continuing Egyptian upheaval, are not marinated in the feel-good pieces that liberal journalists keep producing.  This disadvantage magnifies when the pollsters fail to mention Mubarak by name in asking whether his regime was toppled.  For all we know, they are asking about the military transitional council!

Then, when the questions roll on to domestic news, the poll fumbles by asking who is the Republican front runner.  This is an especially murky proposition given the fluid nature of the field.  The results vary depending on when and by who the poll was taken.

All told, FDU stacked the deck against Fox, and packaged their study results a little too neatly for Kos, Arianna, and the rest of their progressive news friends.

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