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A Passion for Science and Reason

by Bruno Van de Casteele

February 1, 2015

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Donate This Monday, well-known science advocates and atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss came to Belgium. As far as I know, this was the first time either of them visited the country for a public event. The setting was a screening of a film in which they both are featured, The Unbelievers, followed by a discussion moderated by Julia Galef, a science writer and co-host of the podcast Rationally Speaking.

Interest in the event was extremely high. The City Theater of Antwerp was sold out, meaning 2,000 seats. The evening was titled "A Passion for Science and Reason," and it made me quite happy that so many people came out on a cold Monday evening to listen to such dry topics as science and reason.

Not that the evening was boring! The film itself, which I saw for the first time, focused more, in my opinion, on the (admittedly deserved) "rock star" status of both men and could have benefitted from a bit more content. Luckily, the discussion afterwards made up for that. It wasn't really a discussion in the sense that the two men did not disagree a lot. Luckily, Galef made a very good effort to bring up an interesting variety of topics. I can only report here on a small subset, otherwise this article would become a book.

Circumstances currently are such that it is important to speak about science and reason. From a recent advertising campaign for a homeopathic curative here in Belgium (news flash: there's no medicine in it), to the terroristic attacks in France and another barely avoided one in Belgium, it shows that there is a need to speak about the awesomeness of the natural world. Krauss mentioned that all kids start out like that but that "It gets beaten out [of them]." Dawkins reflected upon the astounding fact that we are lucky to exist and have brains to understand why we are here and to understand this magnificent world.

This lead to a discussion about morality. Krauss reflected upon morality's link with science. It is so much more interesting to choose what matters and be able to make mistakes. Dawkins took the subject in a slightly more philosophical direction, urging people to not be scared of this ability to choose. Instead, it is the opportunity to design our own morality, "taking back the term Intelligent Design." They also talked briefly about Stephen Pinker's thesis about the improvement of morals. I think it is important to stress this, as recent events might give the impression that it goes the other way around. When you take a bigger picture though, kind and moral behavior is indeed increasing, though sadly not overall.

Steered in another direction by Galef, Dawkins then talked about how science (and rationalism) can help you remain honest (e.g. double blind studies to avoid fooling yourself). Krauss agreed, but also noted that scientists are humans, too. He also made a comment on how too "science-y" types can appear less sympathetic (Star Trek's Mr. Spock, for instance), but was also very positive about the science-y characters in The Big Bang Theory. Even though they are stereotypes, he liked how they become also very likable, and serve as an example of a good portrayal in the media.

Krauss then returned how it's good to be wrong in science. Being wrong, or just not knowing the answer, is a great incentive to find out. Dawkins concurred, and remarked dryly that it is in fact quite the opposite in politics: admitting being wrong is absolutely not something you see being done by politicians.

The topic then turned to how science gets reported in the media. Dawkins mentioned that indeed, at the front of science there is a lot of garbage, speculation and nonsense, and that this is OK. Through the process of science, it gets filtered out, and no science teacher will (or should) teach preliminary results, only passing on significant and confirmed results. However, as Krauss admitted, journalism still reports too much and too credulously on new, extraordinary claims. They're only partially to blame, as universities and individuals are sometimes too eager to do science by press release as a means of getting attention and, consequently, a piece of the limited funding. Galef asked how one could make the distinction then between good and bad science. A couple of pointers by the gentlemen:
  • Does it seem reasonable? Be critical of what you read or hear

  • Do you want it to be true? Then it might not be

  • What is the (self) interest of the scientist or reporter?

A video question submitted by Rebecca Goldstein brought the discussion to the role of philosophy. I clearly remember Krauss being very critical to me when I told him at an event a couple of years ago that my Master's degree is in philosophy. He seemed more nuanced here—for instance when he responded that philosophers are not the ones doing the discoveries (I agree). He also (probably incorrectly) stated that there is no place for philosophy in physics, because that science has moved beyond all that. However, it could be important in other fields to analyze reasoning and reflect on empirical knowledge by framing the question. The answers still have to come from science and by using the scientific method, and it's science that is in the lead. Even though I don't agree fully, I think that is a reasonable position. Krauss talked longer (actually, he talked the most during the evening), so Dawkins only made a short intervention on this point about moral philosophy, and how scientific results might also need to ethical questions on justice. I would have loved to see him go into more detail on this.

On a question from the audience solicited "advice for science teacher." Dawkins jokingly called this "the dreaded question." Both speakers agreed that it is important to remain skeptical, but most of all to never lose one's sense of wonder. Krauss also mentioned that science teachers are on the "front lines," and must convey enthusiasm and explain why they are interested in science. The fact that science and education are important was again underlined by both. They consider that education and social welfare undermine fanaticism and can make the world better. The fact that Krauss entered the theater with the post-attack issue of Charlie Hebdo prominently in view underlined that point only too well. He also added that when we no longer practice science, education, or free speech because of the fear for violence, we will have lost already. Wise words on grave matters, but also with great hope for the future.

Thanks to my good friend Helmut for accompanying me and providing feedback on these topics before, during, and after the event.

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by Bruno Van de Casteele

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