Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Of Babies and Bathwater . . .

And now the other shoe drops. I'm unabashedly against teaching intelligent design as science in public schools, though I have endeavored with varying degrees of success to distinguish that position from my strong support for the teaching of any rigorous objections to evolutionary theories in themselves. That's science, in my view, and accepting darwinist accounts as dogma is no less, er, dogmatic than swallowing the Genesis account whole.

But now it appears the ripple effect is hitting legitimate science closer to home. The Times reports that neuroscientists are raising strident objections to the Dalai Lama's planned attendance and participation in a conference to talk about studies concerning the effect of Buddhist meditation on brain states, aimed at testing hypotheses pertaining to the degree to which compassion and related emotional states might be learned, or enhanced through various meditative practices.

The protests seem to proceed in two directions: 1) Ewww, you put religion in my science (recalling the old Reese's commercials); 2) The science is bad.

It appears to be the case that even the proponents of the studies concede that the particular research at issue is flawed and is in its infancy as an area of study. Furthermore, the study was conducted in the way that such studies are. That it requires more examination is hardly a reason to bar presentation of results, especially in a climate of open and rigorous debate. All of these things -- the acknowledgment by proponents of the data's weakness as yet; the willingness to engage honest scientific debate -- distinguish this from the debate about teaching creation science (by whatever name) in public school science classes. If it's weak science fairly discussed, it will be betrayed as such. That's what the scientific process is about, and a substantial reason conferences such as these take place to begin with.

Then there's this sort of inanity:

"Neuroscience more than other disciplines is the science at the interface between modern philosophy and science," wrote one neuroscientist on the petition, Dr. Zvani Rossetti of the University of Cagliari in Italy. He added, "No opportunity should be given to anybody to use neuroscience for supporting transcendent views of the world."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this something like saying, "Organic chemistry, more than any other discipline, is the science of the interface between carbon and other elements. No opportunity should be given to anybody to use organic chemistry for supporting views of the world involving Oxygen."

The bottom line is that scientists pursuing answers who come up with problematic results are still scientists, their work still science, and this conference is an aspect of the sort of peer review that keeps the discipline honest and sorts the wheat from the chaff. I honestly don't understand what the debate is about here. What I fear, however, is that soundbite journalism is making it harder and harder to have an intelligent debate about anything. Because if this is the sort of syllogism a public dogfight over creationism instantiates, then the pace of the advancement of human knowledge is going to slow to a crawl. That would be a shame.

(It also seems to me I've seen repeated reference, over the years, to studies claiming to tie prayer practices with various salutary effects, including decreased incidence of depression, extended lifespan, and so on. Why haven't these studies created comparable brouhahas? Consistently with what I wrote above, if such studies were rigorously conducted in accord with contemporary research protocols, I'd have no problem with their promulgation and discussion.)


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