Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Secular Society and Its Enemies - Science and the Public

This weekend, I was pleased to be able to attend the conference "The Secular Society and Its Enemies" sponsored by the Center for Inquiry. I was also happy to be able to meet a couple of fellow atheist bloggers, Adam of Daylight Atheism and Shalini of Scientianatura. Adam has some good posts up on his blog about the conference, and he was fortunate enough to have attended the entire conference and to have obtained pictures of himself with many of the speakers.

As for me, unfortunately my schedule did not allow me to attend the opening of the conference on Friday evening. Part of my daddy duties for the evening included watching The Wizard of Oz with my children. Also, due to my having to commute to the conference, which was held downtown at WTC 7, I missed the first panel on Secularism Through History: from Spinoza to JFK, which started at 9:30 a.m. On Saturday mornings, it is a feat for me just to be able to wake up by 9:30!

I arrived at the conference around 10:45 and found a seat in the Spillover Room shortly after the second panel on Science and the Public had gotten started, as the main conference room where the speakers were was full. The speakers were Richard Dawkins, Ann Druyan, Victor Stenger, and my personal favorite, Neil deGrasse Tyson. What cracked me up immediately was that Dawkins and Tyson were seated next to each other, because of this exchange they had last year at the Beyond Belief conference.

In talking about how to convey the importance of science to society at large, Tyson proposed, to audience applause, that we need to rebrand science as "reality." What science does, through its rigorous process of examining evidence and putting one's conclusions to the test of peer review, is "to remove us as far as possible from the urge to delude ourselves." He reminded us that our senses can interfere with our interpretation. A strong example of this would be the once widespread belief that we lived in a geocentric universe where everything revolved around the Earth. To someone who observed the night sky, this would have been a rather logical conclusion. But as our ability to study the heavens increased with the invention of the telescope, Galileo was able to prove that we lived in a heliocentric solar system. Science, said Tyson, helps us to assess what is right so that we can make informed decisions.

Dawkins added to this, explaining to the audience that science as aesthetic benefits. He spoke of the majesty of the heavens, the geological record and its testimony to the sheer span of time the Earth has existed, and the complexity of a single cell. The methods of science have honesty built into them through the process of peer review and repeated experimentation.

Anne Druyan added that "science is the only discipline that has been able to wean us of our spiritually narcissistic need to be at the center of the universe."

The moderator, DJ Grothe, then asked the panelists to provide their opinions as to what they believed are roadblocks to the public's appreciation of science. Victor Stenger said that one problem was that science simply isn't taught well. He also observed from his own experience that many students who took his physics class were not interested in physics itself but were only in the class because they needed it for their engineering degrees.

Tyson made an important comment that if the particular problems the students have to learn in physics class (making reference to some pully thingamajig) do not seem to have practical applications in real life, just trying to figure out the problem rewires the brain in such a way that makes it applicable to solving real life problems. Tyson told Stenger that he should give himself more credit and mentioned a personal anecdote. Tyson recounted how several years earlier he gave former Clinton Administration ambassador Richard Holbrooke a personal tour of the Hayden Planetarium. During the course of the tour, Tyson was amazed at the depth of Holbrooke's questions and was surprised to learn that Holbrooke that had studied physics in college. Tyson asked Holbrooke how he applied his education in physics to his profession as a diplomat and negotiator. Holbrooke replied that he was able to tell who was "full of it" because their story was not constructed in reality.

The moderator brought up the topic of religion as an obstacle to the understanding of science. Dawkins mentioned several pertinent things. First, because of the human life span being a matter of decades, it is hard for humans to cope with the timespans of millions or billions of years, whereas the creationist belief in a 6,000 year old universe is more comprehendable. Secondly, when it comes to parts of the human anatomy, particularly the eye, our minds tend to think in terms of artifacts, hence a maker. Third, religion is a roadblock to the understanding of religion because religious fundamentalists offer a competing worldview and because they are well organized, they are actively engaged in a political process of subversion.

Druyan pointedly took issue with Dawkins methods (echoing Tyson in the Youtube link above) by saying that there is no reason to rub religious people the wrong way by telling them they are stupid. She said that "science has a better story to tell." Religious people, she said, have a part of themselves that is amenable to logic and that they can contain their internal inconstistencies. She brought up the landmark science program Cosmos, by her late husband Carl Sagan. Druyan attributed the appeal of Cosmos to the ability of Carl Sagan to bring people into the story by sharing his wonder of it rather than confronting the audience.

All of the panelists took issue with the late Stephen Jay Gould's argument that science and religion were "non overlapping magisteria." Stenger said that science does have something to tell us about the supernatural and religious claims, such as studying the efficacy of prayer. Dawkins agreed that he did not have any use for non overlapping magisteria and that a supernatural creator was something that science could study and test. In her comments following Dawkins, Druyan did a bit of fence mending with him by thanking him for "kicking open a rotten door."

Because the panel ran over its allotted time, there was time for only a couple of questions from the audience. The last question was from someone who raised the issue of the lack of representation of women in the sciences. Tyson addressed it, saying that as an African-American, his situation was comparable. He recounted how since he was a young boy he knew he wanted to become a scientist but that he encountered resistance throughout his childhood. Growing up as an African-American from the Bronx, he would be told that he would be better off going into athletics or something less challenging. I could sense the pain and anguish in Tyson's voice as he related his experiences and said with some sadness that while he had the inner drive or "fuel" to overcome these barriers, he wondered how many other children from his background had the same dreams as he did but who became discouraged and gave up.

At the end of the discussion, I went into the conference room because I wanted to meet Tyson and get him to autograph my copy of his latest book Death By Black Hole. Matthew LaClair, the New Jersey high school student who taped his history teacher proselytizing to his class was there. After a few minutes, without my having the chance to get the book signed, Tyson had to leave the panelists table because it had to be made ready for the next panel. I followed him and LaClair out to the lobby area where the two of them engaged in an animated discussion about LaClair's case and the teaching of science. I believe LaClair's presence there was being filmed as part of a documentary, as a cameraman was filming his conversation with Tyson. I was there too, though admittedly I was more of a hanger-on than an active participant in the conversation, though I did interject several comments that Tyson acknowledged and reacted to.

Tyson was visibly impressed with LaClair and thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. As their conversation concluded, LaClair got his copy of Tyson's book signed and then it was my turn. As he signed my book, I told Tyson that I was very glad that he had the inner drive to overcome the obstacles that had faced. He referred me to a chapter in his book The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist titled "Dark Matters", which I look forward to reading soon.

I am also happy to report that I was able to get Richard Dawkins to sign The Selfish Gene, which I plan to give to my co-worker Ray tomorrow. I caught him at an opportune moment, at least for me, though I have to admit that he seemed rather disinterested and made no attempt to engage me at all. I explained to him how I had lost Ray's copy that he had loaned to me and thought that it would be nice if I could replace it with a copy autographed by Dawkins himself. Dawkins cracked a bit of a smile, but when I asked him if he could signed the book "Dear Ray, please don't let Tom lose this book", he said no, that he was just going to write his name. I was a tad disappointed but understood. That being said, while Dawkins was clearly the headliner for the day's events, I felt that Tyson was not only the better communicator, but also that Tyson was a much more down to earth person who enjoyed speaking to anyone. If I had to choose which of them I would want to spend an evening with in a quiet pub, I would definitely want to hang out with Tyson.


Andrea said...

Sweet. Tyson sounds really cool, I'm going to add his books to my wishlist.

gordo said...

I watched the exchange, and I have to say that I was in total agreement with Tyson. But I can't forgive him for the damage he's done to the sport of boxing.