Saturday, July 30, 2016

To non-scientists, science is something that you can believe in

A friend of mind posted the following article to their Facebook wall. 
While I understand that some scientists feel annoyed with the framing of "belief in science," I thought that the author (and many of those scientists) got so many points wrong that it required a lengthy response.
Several points. 1. The author states, "Science is not a philosophy." Patently wrong; science is a philosophy. Indeed, for a long time, it went by the name "natural philosophy," since it is a framework of knowing about the natural world.

2. "It is a methodology." If this is all that the author thinks science is, then the author has a dim view of science. Science is far more than either a single methodology or even merely methodology. It is, as I wrote above, a means of knowing the natural world.

3. "[Science] is not something you believe in." Sorry, but this is also false. For non-scientists, who are not involved in the process of collecting, assessing, and interpreting information through the various methodologies of science, there is a belief that the whole institution works; that the whole institution provides reliable answers; that the whole institution is usable for more than the purpose of navel-gazing.

4. "Of course, the word 'science' has come to represent much more than the scientific method." For someone writing an article about what science is and isn't this is so bloody obvious that it's the very first thing taught in many philosophy of science courses (which - apparently - this author never took).

5. "[Belief in science] has also become political shorthand." Yes, this is true. But the way the author addresses this point is irrelevant in terms of the acceptance of different types of science. Hillary likely doesn't really want to "believe" in the science that doesn't fit into the platform of her party, such as the carbon benefits of constructing loads of nuclear power plants. However, the 'science-as-fig-leaf' use of science in politics is neither new nor surprising to anyone who has spent even a modicum of time looking at how science has been used, abused, ignored, or highlighted during the past two decades.

6. "'The idea that you can believe your own facts is an unfortunate consequence of the whole climate denial movement.'" I would argue that both the author and Prof. Russell are right, but speaking irrelevantly, since most people are not in the business of doing science (even once or twice removed). In other words, the point of stating "belief" or "non-belief" in one field of politicized science (be it evolution or climate change) is not about scientific knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, but more an issue of identity (both personal and political). And in that framework, speaking about "belief" is far more accurate and useful than speaking about "knowledge" and "understanding," simply because people can't be bothered to spend the time to get to know the science (just like everyone has some parts of life that they just can't be bothered to learn about to have a working knowledge of, and so merely just presume it to be so, like how a GPS works or how a car operates; unless you know, you are basically just believing that everything is working as it should).

7. "But Republicans could hear her tone as mocking not their candidate, but them." Umm... if the point of stating belief or non-belief in climate science is to present political identity (which the author does acknowledge above), then any tone Hillary takes is going to be seen as mocking them, and not their candidate. This isn't about convincing the people who incorporate climate-change denial into their political identity; this is about convincing the people who are on the fence (yeah, there are people on the fence) or who do believe in/understand climate change science that Trump is not their man.

8. "People who remain unconvinced that humans are a significant contributor to climate change are not necessarily anti-science (whatever that means." True, but when given the choice of a person who supports big government programs, then the type of person the author is talking about is likely going to be highly distrustful of her, anyway. It's like the author is thinking that it's an all-or-nothing gambit.

9. "It changes the practice of science from a method for understanding into a dangerous political weapon." Yeah... it's her fault. I mean science as *never* independently categorized into "good science" and "bad science" under the Bush administration... Oh, yeah, it was. And science has *never* been used for political purposes before 2000... Oh yeah, it was. Hell, even the creation of the NSF was done for the purpose of using science to help the government. Arguably, the use of science in agencies - from NASA to USGS - all are pursued for public policy purposes, and those purposes can be changed due to political winds. (Remember how the Republicans have threatened again and again to stop payments for Earth-monitoring satellites and "reminding" NASA that their mission is not to look at Earth, but to look out at the universe?) And let's not forget about how military science progresses, if *not* for a specific and applied used of political weaponry. So let's not get lulled into this utopian idea that science and politics are two separate worlds that have never and should never mix; they have been bedfellows for decades and decades and decades.

10. "At its best and most objective, science can heal divides, answer questions, solve problems." Let's take those one at a time. If the best science can heal divides, then it *is* being used for political reasons, which the author *just said* was when science would be diminished. Seriously; pick a side here. Next, the point of science is not about answering questions; some scientists would argue that science is about learning to ask better questions. Indeed, in the context of the larger question of "what is science," many scientists (and philosophers of science) would argue that science can never prove something to be true, but only that something is false. As such, we are left with the question of whether answering what something *isn't* is actually positively answering a question, since - in order to get a positive answer out of statements of what something isn't - one must negate the infinite set of what things it isn't in order to show that it is something. Finally, the question of whether science can solve problems depends on what problems you are asking science to solve (and the frameworks of science that you are using to try and solve the problem). Wicked problems (usually those that involve society) generally are not completely amenable to science, while those problems that science is really good at solving (usually those that completely exclude society) are - by their nature - not often relevant to society. In addition, there is the "science-as-the-genie" problem (my own phrase; I can't remember what the "technical term" is for this phenomenon), where science creates a new understanding or leads to a technological breakthrough that creates a whole new paradigm in which existing social norms and laws are no longer applicable or capable of addressing the advance. In such cases, science can be seen as creating a whole host of new problems... which may require science to solve again (a commonly cited example is the splitting of the atom and the ushering in of the nuclear age). So, no: by the factors listed by the author (and also by a myriad of factors the author failed to list), this assertion is just wrong, wrong, and wrong.

In short, it seems that the author is cleaving to a very narrow (and very limited) definition of what science is in order to make a very shallow and limited argument. I would suggest that the author - and people who think much along the lines of the author - read the book Honest Broker. It explains how science is used to support (or not) various political positions by various types of actors. I would also suggest that people pick up Michael Specter's Denialism, which discusses the problems of science denialism and also touches on pseudoscience and the question of "belief" in and of science. Finally, it might help the person who agrees wholeheartedly with the fundamental miscontrual of science to read even a primer on the philosophy of science to discuss what is science (the Oxford press's short introduction to Philosophy of Science is a decent book to pick up); science is - after all - far more than methodology and facts. It is - indeed - a means of knowing of the natural world (i.e., "natural philosophy").

Monday, July 25, 2016

"Drogar" is a word in Spanish, but "evolver" doesn't exist.

One question that occasionally pops into my head is, "Why is that English word made into a Spanish word?" This normally happens when I stumble across a banally common word that is so obviously from English that it makes me wonder, "Why isn't there a word for this in Spanish?" I then check the RAE to see if it is an officially recognized word, and - if it is - I look to see if there are any handy Spanish synonyms that could have also worked. And when there are, then it makes me think the complementary question of, "Why is this English word not made into a Spanish word?"

Case in point with the word drogar. I knew already that there was the noun droga, and that it means "drug." Interestingly, I also knew that the RAE cited a very different origin for the word droga (Hispanic Arabic) than what is cited as the origin for the word "drug" (Middle French). But okay. Whatever, right? Well, not so quick: the word origin for drogar is that it's from English ("to drug"). *sigh*

But the definition for drogar translates to "to administer a drug" (administrar una droga). And this point would be less irksome to me if Spanish would have the verb bicicletear, which would do the job of the phrase andar en bicicleta, which is the most common way to say, "to bike." Well, no; it's the most common way to say, "ride on a bike," since there is no verb for "to bike" (which is what bicicletear would be, much like drogar is the verb of "to drug," which is the shortened form of the phrase administrar una droga).


Okay, so as long as I continue to be a cyclist, I will admit that this will likely remain a pet peeve of mine. But, as an ecologist, I have to find fault with another verb in Spanish, namely evolucionar, which is the verb of "to evolve." There is no verb, evolver, despite the fact that the following verbs that share the same root all exist: volver, revolver, devolver, envolover, desenvolver, and the list almost certainly goes on.

But it does not include evolver.

No, the word for "to evolve" in Spanish is, evolucionar ("to evolutionate"). And when you go to look up the etymology of evolucionar, you get that it's from evolución (which is like a big, "no duh"). But if you go an look up the etymology of evolución, you find that it comes from the Latin, "evolutio, -ōnis," which is basically what you get with the English entry for "evolution." But if you go to look up the English word, "evolve," you get, "equivalent to ē- + volvere to roll, turn." Ah-hah! "Volvere" looks a lotlike volver, and, indeed, if we look up its etymology, we find that it's from the Latin, "volvĕre."

So the Spanish word volver derives from the Latin "volvere."
The English word "evolve" derives from the Latin "e + volvere."

But Spanish doesn't have the word evolver, even though it has the term devolver. No, the term is stuck as an awkward back-tranformation from the English "evolution" to a verb of that Latin-based word.


But that's language for you, and I'm not the one to make the rules, so as much as I would love that I could write about how fish evolver and talk about how I bicicletear to work, I have to stick understanding that languages evolucionar and let that sink in while I andar en bicicleta on my way home.