Sunday, September 18, 2011

Noticing the Community Trust

While on your morning constitutional, you notice in a shop window a home-made sign which suggests that if you ring the number (apparently that of a mobile phone), you will be given assistance with all your computing troubles. You know that your laptop has been a bit slow lately, and defragging doesn't seem to do the trick. The question is: do you ring the number and get the assistance?

Chances are you would not; you would feel uncomfortable about contacting someone whom you had never met, whose credentials you had never seen, to fiddle around with your laptop when you don't quite know what you are doing? How do you know he won't put on some malware that will give him access to your sensitive information? Would you have had a different opinion if the sign had possessed a professional letterhead, or had was representative of a recognised computer repairs chain?

How would you react if the sign had been handwritten and said, "Carefull, door brocken!"

Faith and trust do not seem to be in great supply these days. There seem to be many people who do not trust the Governments scheme of cutting spending. Certain conspiracies such as the unusual circumstances of the death of Dr David Kelly have some very serious adherents. There seems to be no faith in the Roman Catholic Church leadership in Ireland following the Abuse scandal. Trusting what scientists say is also not gaining any ground. There are people who doubt that science can tell them how to live.

Actually, there are very good reasons for these cases of mistrust, people have good grounds for believing all of these institutions to be untrustworthy. With regard to the cuts in public spending, does anyone trust a minister who says, "We're all in this together and you must sacrifice a third of your pension to contribute to our plan of putting this right"? One might be more sympathetic to this view if the loss of a third of a pension were truly unilateral and that the minister himself was going sustain a comparable cut in pension.

With regard to Dr Kelly, given that the then Government was using much underhand propaganda and spin to convince Parliament and the country of the necessity of the invasion of Iraq and that Dr Kelly stood against this, one might be forgiven for doubting that his death was indeed the suicide as proclaimed in the media.

When bishops and archbishops do indeed try to hide the details of abuse by clergy and move the offending clergy on to places where they abuse again, then it is not surprising that this damages not only the trust in the parish priest, but also in the bishops that support them. It all looks like an inside job.

Who can trust Science to tell you how to live when one week eggs are bad for you and the next they're not only good for you but essential. The recent "discovery" that drinking lots of water can in fact be bad for you does seem to indicate that Science doesn't know what it's talking about sometimes. What is not often apparent is that Science is deeply divided about the nature of the origins of the Universe. While that might make for some exciting research, it doesn't exactly fill one with faith when discoveries made one week are shown to be false or out-of-date the next.

All in all, the levels of trust in society are falling. I've hear several people say, "I don't trust anybody now. Just myself." One can see that people are no longer in respect of their superiors to make good judgments on the basis that they believe previous judgments to be flawed. Marriage is no longer the uncompromising commitment that it used to be. Pre-nuptial agreements are now common fare in case of divorce.

For me, this represents the breakdown of community. People are becoming increasingly wary of commitment in case it all falls through and causes much in the way of pain. In order to be convinced that a commitment is worthwhile, credentials have to be presented and, in some cases, the credentials of those who give the credentials are being checked too. When does one become satisfied in trusting another?

It seems to me that the lack of trust in people is because of a growing materialism and relativism. For the Moral Relativist, there can be no real trust, no faith in people, because their moral standards are necessarily different. We cannot trust David Beckham to score a goal if the goalie picks up the goal post and moves it out of the way. Yet this would be perfectly consistent with the relativist's rules. Materialism demands evidence of reliability - credentials, certificates, references, bibliographies. This evidence is, however, necessarily inductive, i.e. based on a posteriori likelihood rather than a priori proof. We all do that, but are we coming to a point where this is not even enough?

I find materialism completely untrustworthy because it begs its own question. Where is the evidence that materialism is true? What is the scientific evidence to suggest that scientific evidence is enough to describe reality accurately? Herein lies the death of verificationalism.

In an episode of last year's Doctor Who, there was a rather fascinating conversation between the Doctor and Amy Pond:




The Doctor: Amy. You need to start trusting me. It's never been more important.
Amy: But you don't always tell me the truth.
The Doctor: If I always told you the truth I wouldn't need you to trust me.

I find this rather telling. Despite the fact that the Doctor doesn't always tell Amy the truth, he still asks her to trust him and it turns she does. Of course, this trust is due mainly because she has become increasingly familiar of the Doctor. Of course, this may well be part of the Time Lord charm which we humans lack, But it does raise the question, what does it take for a person to become trustworthy in our eyes? Do we have a personal criterion for deeming a person trustworthy? If we do, can we speak it?

If we're going to learn to trust again, then we are going to have to recognise our communities again. This needs to start locally. Of course, there are people that we know we cannot trust, but there needs to come a point where we set forward some way of trusting them again. I believe that this comes through cultivating our faith in God.

I trust God when He says that He exists and from that I trust Him when He says that He is truly good, almighty and all-knowing, though I cannot pretend to fathom what He means. One might call me a fool. Perhaps I am, but I have here the foundation on which I can live and learn to trust people and to give them a way of earning my greater trust. I recognise that human beings fail and fail badly, me included, but I have faith that God will not let me down. This comes from my belief that God is good. That sounds as if I believe that God exists in order that I can live. I assure you that my reasons for believing in God are more substantial that that, but you'll have to trust me on that!

Faith in God means that we have a binding influence, an inherent commonality with our neighbour whoever they are. This means that because I am commanded to love my neighbour, then I have to have an initial respect for them, a basis on which my trust can build. If someone else professes belief in the same God, then that trust can feedback into the system. Thus the Church, when done properly, can present a community of trusting, yet fallible, individuals. By trusting God, we are presented with the necessity of trusting our superiors to guide the way. Yes, of course, breaches of trust - even gross breaches of trust - will probably still happen, but if we are following the Commandments of God and not changing their sense through relativistic capitulations to a materialistic society, then we can begin to help that materialistic society to grow and heal, and maybe even see the God in Whom we have faith. That might be a better advert than a tatty home-made one in the shop window.

6 comments:

Nicholas Jackson said...

"Who can trust Science to tell you how to live when one week eggs are bad for you and the next they're not only good for you but essential. The recent "discovery" that drinking lots of water can in fact be bad for you does seem to indicate that Science doesn't know what it's talking about sometimes."

What you're doing there is conflating the shockingly bad media reporting of science with science itself. It's an easy mistake to make, but one that we should avoid. Read Ben Goldacre's excellent book (and blog) "Bad Science" for an entertaining and well-written analysis of this sort of thing.

What the scientists generally do is publish a carefully-researched paper drawing fellow researchers' attention to data which appears to indicate a weak statistical correlation between, say, a predominantly egg-based diet and slightly heightened longevity in a small population of laboratory rats. In almost all cases, the primary motive for this is to say "hey, we think we've seen some sort of effect happening which might be worth studying further in case there's actually something there".

(In much rarer cases, perhaps the "scientist" in question has less pure motives for writing the paper - see the dreadful case of Andrew Wakefield and the MMR vaccine hoax for example.)

Then, what tends to happen is that the university's press office finds out about this and then issues some sort of press release giving a one- or two-sentence oversimplification of the research in question. It's unfortunate, but this is the sort of thing that happens if you insist that universities "compete" in the "global marketplace" rather than just letting them concentrate on teaching and research.

Some hack journalist at a disreputable tabloid then gets hold of the press release, and because they've got no scientific training beyond a bit of GCSE physics or biology they didn't really pay attention to twenty years ago, they just type up a lightly-edited version of the press release, making it a bit more interesting, and fire it off to the sub-editor, who sexes it up further and slaps a sensational headline on it.

So in two short steps (neither of which are usually the fault of the scientists involved) we get from a carefully and cautiously written journal article called something like "Statistical analysis of lecithin consumption in rodents and effects on longevity" to some tawdry tabloid headline like "EGGCELLENT! Boffins prove eggs are good for you - and that's official!"

Further examples of this sort of misreporting can be found at the Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project, which details the Daily Mail's ongoing apparent attempt to classify all inanimate objects, substances or abstract nouns in terms of whether they cause or cure cancer.

Warwickensis said...

"Who can trust Science to tell you how to live when one week eggs are bad for you and the next they're not only good for you but essential. The recent "discovery" that drinking lots of water can in fact be bad for you does seem to indicate that Science doesn't know what it's talking about sometimes."

What you're doing there is conflating the shockingly bad media reporting of science with science itself. It's an easy mistake to make, but one that we should avoid. Read Ben Goldacre's excellent book (and blog) "Bad Science" for an entertaining and well-written analysis of this sort of thing.


I’m not just performing such a conflation. Scientists themselves are setting things up in such a way as to present theories as facts and they do it even in their own vox pops on Science programmes like Horizon. The most notable example of this is the Scientists broadcasting Dinosaur Planet who are behind the production and advising the content. While there may be some artistic license involved, it still doesn’t explain some of the back-tracking that they’ve done since walking with dinosaurs. If scientists are trying to communicate their ideas then they are not making their ideas readily communicable. Indeed, some of their ideas are no less as rarefied and incommunicable as Anglo-Catholic Doctrine has been described.

Science is constantly being touted as the great explanation for everything by Scientists themselves and yet their explanations are just as hazy and unrigorous as they claim the “explanations” from Religion to be. It’s this double standard that gets me cross. Science also goes through fashions and fads: Twistor Theory, Quantum Gravity, TQFTs, M-Theory. These are all fascinating in themselves, but as soon as one goes out of fashion, it seems that the experts are left out to dry or forced to change discipline. How many gauge theorists are there now at Warwick?

As for Goldacre’s book, I’ve read it and bought it as a prize for winners of my Thinking Skills Course. It’s a good book and I wish more people would read it.

Nicholas Jackson said...

I haven't seen any of Dinosaur Planet, so I can't really comment on that specific example. There has been, however, a noticeable decline in the quality of science documentaries in recent year, and I don't think it's fair or accurate to use that as evidence of widespread fundamental problems with the scientific community or its methodology, nor is it fair to lay the blame for this malaise completely at the feet of the scientists themselves. There is a problem, certainly, but I think it arises mainly from the conflict between the accurate and accessible reporting of scientific research.

Several decades ago we went beyond the point where an educated amateur or nonspecialist could fully understand all the details of the latest scientific theories. A lot of modern science is conceptually very difficult, and in order to even partly explain it to an interested nonspecialist you're going to have to gloss over some of the technical details. Where the problems occur, I think, is when the tv producers get a bit carried away with this process and end up oversimplifying things to the point where they give a misleading or downright wrong picture of the available facts, data and hypotheses.

For example: in order to properly explain string theory to someone, you're going to have to spend a few years getting them up to speed with a lot of pure mathematics and mathematical physics (including many hours explaining what a Calabi-Yau manifold is). That's just not remotely feasible, so you have to simplify it all and probably use some flashy computer graphics, and try your best not to mislead people along the way.

It's not perfect, and it's not working as well as I'd like at the moment, but it's the best we can realistically do in the circumstances. There are people who are better than others at hitting the right balance. Patrick Moore, for example, is brilliant - he explains astronomy in a calm and informative way without dumbing anything down or glossing over any important details. Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre are also very good at communicating science to nonspecialists. I'm less convinced by Marcus du Sautoy - he definitely knows his stuff, but I sometimes feel his enthusiasm causes him to oversimplify things a bit too much.

Nicholas Jackson said...

"Science is constantly being touted as the great explanation for everything by Scientists themselves and yet their explanations are just as hazy and unrigorous as they claim the “explanations” from Religion to be. It’s this double standard that gets me cross."

I also don't think it's any more sensible to say "Scientists think X" than it is to say "Christians think X". There are wide differences of opinion within both camps (and indeed people who consider themselves to be both scientists and Christians). Both are, at their best, an iterative process seeking to make sense of the universe around us.

My impression is that you view Anglo-Catholicism as laudable because it's in some way eternal and unchanging - it's already got the answers to the questions that you consider most important, and those answers haven't fundamentally changed for a good few centuries. I can certainly see the appeal of such a worldview, although I'm unconvinced by this particular one.

Science, of course, doesn't behave like that, and nor should it - the point of science is that you construct a model of how you think the universe works, and you compare it with observational data (which is a fancy way of saying "look at what actually happens"). If the model fits the data then you keep it for the time being; if it doesn't then you either tweak it (eg Newtonian gravitation vs relativity theory) or discard it entirely (eg Kelvin's theory of vortex atoms) and think up something new that works better.

After a while, you hopefully end up with a model that fits all the available data and has so far resisted all attempts to disprove it. At this stage, I think we can forgive scientists for regarding these as "great explanations" or "laws of nature", although I agree that this isn't always helpful, and can certainly lead to unnecessary conflict.

I don't see this as a double standard. What science is, ultimately, is a toolkit for making sense of the universe, and if used correctly it's extremely good at what it does. Ian Stewart once said that it's "our best defence against believing just what we feel like" and I think that's a very good way of putting it.

Yesterday evening I went to a fascinating talk about medical quackery - homeopathy, chiropractic therapy, traditional Chinese medicine (most of which was made up in the 1950s), Hopi ear candles (which have nothing to do with the Hopi tribe, and they'd like the company that makes them to stop pretending they do) and other pseudoscientific craziness. Where these things differ from proper science is that proper science is (or at least should be) generally willing to engage with new data and revise its theories accordingly, whereas the pseudoscientists tend not to be - in fact in many cases they tend to resort to legal action instead (qv the British Chiropractic Association's disingenuous libel suit against Simon Singh).

Nicholas Jackson said...

"Science also goes through fashions and fads: Twistor Theory, Quantum Gravity, TQFTs, M-Theory. These are all fascinating in themselves, but as soon as one goes out of fashion, it seems that the experts are left out to dry or forced to change discipline. How many gauge theorists are there now at Warwick?"

It's certainly true that there's a constantly-shifting consensus within the scientific community about what topics are "interesting", and I don't think that this is in itself indicative of any kind of lack of integrity. Sometimes this shift happens as a result of some kind of strange internal politics - scientists aren't immune from worldly temptations any more than politicians, priests or any other humans are.

But in most cases it's due to a variety of other factors. Sometimes a particular topic turns out not to be as interesting or relevant as originally thought; for example catastrophe theory or braid group cryptography. There's a bit of a backlash against string theory at the moment within some parts of the mathematical physics community, because although it's mathematically quite interesting, it's so far failed to provide any concrete, testable predictions about the way the universe works, and while this isn't anything to be ashamed of in pure mathematics, many people feel that it is a bit of a requirement for a physical scientific theory.

Sometimes most of the big, interesting questions in a given field get answered, and some of the people who were working in that field move on to something different, either of their own volition or because the finite amount of available funding has been reprioritised in a different direction.

None of this is in itself a bad thing, or indicative of some fundamental problem with science in general, it's just the way things happen. In fact, I'd say that it's probably an unavoidable side-effect of the way science is supposed to work.

edpacht1 said...

There is a difference between science, properly so called (which is a truly elegant way of asking questions, presenting tentative (eve if very probable) conclusions and asking that both observations and conclusions be severely challenged) and whit I call "scientism" (a form of dogmatism presenting propositions which one can be ridiculed for questioning). Even reputable scientists fall into this kind of dogmatism. I'm afraid that the bad media reporting of science is all too often a symptom of that kind of unscientific viepoint and that presentation of science for the general public almost always put forth "science" as an ultimate authority. It isn't and was never intended to be. Science does not "say" anything. Science asks and puts forth theories and even laws as questions - something to work with until the prove (as they certaunly shall prove) to be inadequate.

"Who can trust Science to tell you how to live ... ?"

I certainly can't. I can perhaps take the current findings and opinions of science as a tool to help me make decisions, but always with the certsinty that these findings are, at best, partially correct, and therefore must be implemented with great care.

ed