Saturday, November 8, 2008

Just Say "No" To Quote-Mining!

Many times I have worked to create written pieces which, in one way or another, convey this basic message:
1) The scientific process, ever-moving and ever-changing, depends on contradictions for expanding and refining our knowledge of the world.
2) This is the opposite of dogma, which resists change by denying the existence of contradictions.

For some of my readers, however, my message does not get across, and that can lead to some pretty interesting exchanges.

Specifically concerning religious dogma, I've written about how scientists discover the way the world works, while at the same time, people of some faith or another deny the results because their beliefs must come first.
` Some of them go so far as to oppose the existence of gravity, preferring the explanation that the hands of God literally hold everything down onto a flat earth.

I mention this to illustrate the fact that modern technology, and all of civilization, could not do what they do without the roundness of the earth. Airplane flight paths would be far different, while satellites would be an impossibility.
` How did we know what to do in order to make them work in the first place? From scientific explanations: Explanations with a history of trial and error, that are best at predicting what would happen if someone were to do 'X' (or if 'X' were to happen naturally); these explanations are known, in technical jargon, as 'scientific theories'.

So, scientific theories are much different than the common use of the word 'theory', which usually means something like 'hypothesis' or even less.

It was but three days ago that I received an email from a reader who insists that scientific theories are not well-established but instead little more than guesses. Even more, he said that the scripture of his own faith, which has itself been changed and reinterpreted through the millennia to begin with, is every bit as reliable as actual observation and research.
` He wrote:

Who cares where the truth comes from? Truth is truth, right? You are so blind if you cannot see truth when if it is in the Bible because all you do is shun religion, you don't care about being objective as you say. Why can't you just admit that scientists don't know everything.
Believe it or not, I read in an article in the New York Times that even your astrophysicist boyfriend [huh?] Neil DeGrasse Tyson, agrees with me:

Scientists may scoff at people who fall back on explanations involving an intelligent designer, he said, but history shows that “the most brilliant people who ever walked this earth were doing the same thing.”
I quickly found this article online; the title is A Free-For-All on Science and Religion by NYT science writer George Johnson.
` To be honest, I strongly doubt this person has ever laid eyes on it. Either that, or he was not counting on me to actually check out his source, as is important in critical thinking, because what I found shows that, while the quote is from Tyson, his message was in fact the opposite of what it appears.
` I think the next few paragraphs speak for themselves (emphases mine):
When Isaac Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” failed to account for the stability of the solar system — why the planets tugging at one another’s orbits have not collapsed into the Sun — Newton proposed that propping up the mathematical mobile was “an intelligent and powerful being.”
And we found that it wasn't, now, was it? That was Tyson's real point! And he had far more to say, too:
It was left to Pierre Simon Laplace, a century later, to take the next step. Haughtily telling Napoleon that he had no need for the God hypothesis, Laplace extended Newton’s mathematics and opened the way to a purely physical theory.
You see there? Laplace and others would have been saved a lot of work if Newton hadn't given up when he did (or at least appear to).
“What concerns me now is that even if you’re as brilliant as Newton, you reach a point where you start basking in the majesty of God and then your discovery stops — it just stops,” Dr. Tyson said. “You’re no good anymore for advancing that frontier, waiting for somebody else to come behind you who doesn’t have God on the brain and who says: ‘That’s a really cool problem. I want to solve it.’ ”
In other words, a "no we can't" attitude, of any type, has no place in scientific advancement. You gotta keep going, even when it seems hopeless for anyone to crack the problem. Otherwise, you have zero chance of a deeper understanding.
` Tyson goes on, in the article:
“Science is a philosophy of discovery; intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance,” he said. “Something fundamental is going on in people’s minds when they confront things they don’t understand.”

He told of a time, more than a millennium ago, when Baghdad reigned as the intellectual center of the world, a history fossilized in the night sky. The names of the constellations are Greek and Roman, Dr. Tyson said, but two-thirds of the stars have Arabic names. The words “algebra” and “algorithm” are Arabic.

But sometime around 1100, a dark age descended. Mathematics became seen as the work of the devil, as Dr. Tyson put it. “Revelation replaced investigation,” he said, and the intellectual foundation collapsed.
There! Now we've read the rest of what Tyson had said, before this person had so rudely cut him off. That wasn't so hard, was it?
` Apparently, however, he either did not take the time to read this himself, or at least expected me to just take the quote at face value.
` Even more importantly, you can see that Tyson, in fact, agrees with me rather than him! In fact, some of what I've written in the past has been inspired by his words.

So... what the heck's going on? Does this guy honestly think he can fool me by taking a quote out of context? Especially someone I'm familiar with, though let's get one thing straight - he isn't my boyfriend:
` I only commented that I can see how he can be considered to be the World's Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive.

Because he is. In People Magazine, anyway.

So, I am sorry, dear e-mailer, but according to Tyson, we must try ideas to test their worth and discard them if they are useless, whereas dogma - and there are many types - cannot, or is not to be tried, because by definition it is to be accepted without evidence.

So, there is 'truth' - that which is to be accepted, in your opinion, because of where it was printed (your Bible) and there is 'truth' - that which is to be accepted because it happens for real (in reality).
` If you can't interpret your religion to be consistent with modern findings of cosmology, biology and human nature, I'd say it's because your understanding is outdated a couple thousand years.

There is nothing you can do to make me believe that a scientist, while speaking about what science is, and how it is important, is really saying that science can be replaced by what you personally believe in.

The moral of the story? There are at least two:

The first one might be said as, 'Resist the temptation to mine through science writing for the one quote that glitters with ambiguity, for deceiving others is wrong - "Thou shall not bear false witness" as you might say.'
` The second one is; 'Do not trust those who will say anything to make an enemy out of those with differing views - and always check their sources.'

There could also be a third: 'Do not be so eager to use mined quotes against me, for publicly exposing logical fallacies - and their relations - is something that I am even more eager to do.'


Galtron said...

Quote-mining. I like that term. So, to extend the analogy, an ambiguous quote must be like fool's gold, right?
I wouldn't buy it!

Good mini-public-exposé! Here's to many more!

Kingcover said...

I think perhaps a lot of the problem begins with the labels we attach to things. For example if we were to replace "scientific theories" as "scientific facts" after they have been proven instead of continuing with its original name misinterpretation would be removed and then people whom don't believe in scientific methods as proof for the non existence of a 'higher being' would have less wriggle room to discard it?

S E E Quine said...

Well, Galtron, I suppose ambiguity is a friend to the deceitful, no matter in what form!
` Just whipped it up off the top of my head (better stop doing that! My scalp hurts).

That's the one real counterintuitive thing about science, Gareth - a theory may be factual because it explains facts, but it can never be a fact.
` The reason why is, I think, that facts are more definite - almost, one could say, dogmatic - while theories are always being tweaked as new information comes in.

(BTW, I cleared up a few confusing typos which had weirded some of my sentences.)