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Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology

  • Liza Gross
  • Published: April 18, 2006
  • DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040167

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The concept of scientific literacy in Liza Gross' article is, in my opinion, distorted.

Posted by plosbiology on 07 May 2009 at 22:13 GMT

Author: Frank Leavitt
Position: Chairman, The Centre for Asian and International Bioethics
Institution: Ben Gurion University of the Negev
E-mail: yeruham.l@gmail.com
Submitted Date: June 08, 2006
Published Date: June 8, 2006
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

She quotes, apparently favourably, Jon D. Miller as saying: "If you don't know what DNA is, you can't follow the stem-cell debate." I am not a biologist or a physician, but a philosopher by education. I have been teaching bioethics in a medical faculty for over fifteen years, and have read and discussed with professionals a large (for a layman) quantity of material about DNA. But I still lack fundamental concepts in chemistry and physics. So I cannot say that I know what DNA is, although I might be able to deceive some scientists into thinking that I do. I don't think even this level of understanding need be demanded of people in order to recognize their right to participate in the stem-cell debate. If someone thinks of DNA simply as an inherited chemical substance in the cell which determines to a large extent how our bodies develop and can (but may not always) affect our health, physical appearance etc, this should be enough for an intelligent discussion.

So far as the stem cell debate is concerned I think that someone who has a rough idea of a cell line, and understands that (unless more progress is made with stem cells from sources other than embryos) you have to kill an embryo in order to get what you need to start a new stem cell line, is already onto an important part of the debate.

The article goes on to say: "Confusion [about evolution] has increased considerably, with those expressing uncertainty increasing from 7% in 1985 to 21% in 2005." It adds: "Only 14% expressed unequivocal support for evolution??a result Miller calls "shocking."

I fail to understand why uncertainty about a scientific issue should be called "confusion". That evolution, through the natural selection of the fit, sometimes takes place, such as in the development of antibiotic resistant pathogens, is probably true. But this is a long way from being able to say that there is conclusive proof that humans evolved from other species of animals. And even if this were "conclusively proved", the history of science is full of doctrines which were once thought of as "conclusively proved" (such as that planets follow perfectly circular orbits at a uniform rate of speed throughout the orbit, or that Whitehead and Russell proved that all of mathematics is deducible from a rather small number of logical axioms), and which were later shown to be wrong. I am uncertain about much of Darwin. And I do not think I am confused. And why should it be "shocking" that only 14% expressed unequivocal support? To be scientific is not to support unequivocally certain doctrines or dogmas. To be scientific is to think scientifically. And this includes an open, enquiring mind which refuses to accept doctrines on the mere basis that they are considered to be "scientific".

What ever happened to critical thinking? Shouldn't it cut both ways? If we are supposed to think critically about religion, why shouldn't we be allowed to think critically about science? I would even go so far as to say that someone who cannot think critically about science cannot be a scientist. He or she might at best get to be a technician.

The article goes on to say: "[Miller] thinks scientists need to learn more about how the political process works. They need to be willing to run for the school board, write $500 or even $5,000 checks to support moderate candidates, and defeat Christian right-wing candidates."

I find this statement of Miller's very strange in the light of the quotation from Senator John Danforth earlier in the article. Senator Danforth is referred to as having pointed out: "for the first time in American history a political party has become an arm of a religious organization". Are we being asked to accept that while it is bad for political parties to champion religious organizations, it is good for scientists to become political fundraisers, run for political office and battle for the good of anti-religious movements? Dogmatic anti-religiosity, with no free and open debate, is a pernicious form of fundamentalism in itself.

I should add that I am not a Christian but a Jew. Jews have always been more open than many Christians are to scientific revolution. When the Inquisition was threatening Galileo with death for saying that the earth revolves around the sun, Jews had no problem with the Copernican doctrine. We have been used to non-literal interpretations of the Bible since Talmudic times. Although some Jews - influenced by Christianity -- believe that our faith requires us to oppose evolution, it would not bother my faith in the slightest if Darwin were to be proved to be absolutely right. I believe that God is big enough that if He wanted to create the world by means of natural selection He could have done so easily. Indeed Darwin corresponded with a rabbi, Naphtali Lewy, who wrote a book arguing that "that Hebrew word choices in the Torah favored evolution, as did some passages in the Midrash Rabbah and the Talmud." ( See Edward O. Dodson, Toldot Adam: A Little-Known Chapter in the History of Darwinism, available at www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/200.... I thank Prof Sylvain Cappell for the reference.) But although evolution is consistent with my faith, that doesn't make it true. Anti-evolution is also consistent with my faith. But I believe in non-dogmatic enquiry in the spirit of true science.

No competing interests declared.

RE: The concept of scientific literacy in Liza Gross' article is, in my opinion, distorted.

peterholtzman replied to plosbiology on 18 Jul 2012 at 22:06 GMT

I find this comment troubling. It illustrates a lack of understanding of science at its core.

Science and mathematics are two separate realms. Whitehead and Russell's work on the foundations of mathematics is NOT Science but Mathematics. Mathematicians do not consider axioms like the more recent ZFC as either correct or incorrect. Unlike in Gallileo's time, modern mathematics does not claim to correspond to physical reality. Mathematics claims to be logically consistent. Mathematics explores the Logical consequences of assumed logical relationships.

As far as science goes, science is the presentation of what is know about the natural universe from our current experience with it, and ability to measure it. This evolves as our experience is enlarged and our capacity to measure improves.

The idea that nothing is "conclusively proved" and even if it is "conclusively proved" it may not remain "conclusively proved" is essentially the rejection of all science. I believe this statement comes with confusing "proof" as used in mathematics (and perhaps in philosophy) which consists of logical deduction, with "proof" as used in science which consists of consistency with know facts and experience with nature within the accuracy of our current ability to measure, and the limitations of errors due to other factors not under consideration. So Gallilleo's theory of gravity is correct (ignoring things like air resistance) near the surface of the earth for most measurements (artillery guidance), and Newton's theory of gravity is correct to the extent that NASA uses it to guide missions to MARS, and Einsten's general theory of relativity (a gravity theory) is correct and needed to support GPS.

No competing interests declared.

RE: RE: The concept of scientific literacy in Liza Gross' article is, in my opinion, distorted.

yeruham replied to peterholtzman on 03 Jul 2013 at 12:33 GMT

RESPONSE TO HOLTZMAN
by
Dr Frank Leavitt (Yeruham)
Senior Lecturer Emeritus
Faculty of Health Sciences,
Ben Gurion University
Beer Sheva, ISRAEL;

Visiting Scholar,
Gene Research Centre,
Tsukuba University,
Tsukuba, Ibaraki, JAPAN
<yeruham.l@gmail.com>

Holtzman finds fault with my use of the words "science" and "mathematics".(1) So I shall begin my response by referring to some examples of the use of these words in historical sources.
Words get used in different ways over the years, and sometimes people can fix onto one of these uses and claim that this is the right one. That the word "science" is currently used by learned people with respect to mathematics, can be confirmed by tapping "mathematics is science" into Google. But the use is so old that one finds it in Thomas Aquinas' (1225-1274) Latin. (2)
Much of what is called "science" today was once called "philosophy". When I was a student at Edinburgh in the 1960s the Department of Physics was called the Department of Natural Philosophy. Even today people who write doctoral theses in the sciences receive the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. The word "mathematics" has also had many uses. One of the titles of Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos, a book of astrology, is: "Mathematical Treatise in Four Books". Even today the Oxford English Dictionary does not separate mathematics from science, and defines "mathematics" as "Originally: (a collective term for) geometry, arithmetic, and certain physical sciences involving geometrical reasoning, such as astronomy and optics; spec. the disciplines of the quadrivium collectively. In later use: the science of space, number, quantity, and arrangemen…."(3)
Russell's Principles of Mathematics (1903) says: "Geometry is the science of series of two or more dimensions".
I do not deny Holtzman's accusation of, "a lack of understanding of science at its core". But please do not try to prove my lack on the basis of my use of the words "mathematics" and "science".(4)
Holtzman makes some further remarks which call for comment. He says: "Unlike in Gallileo's time, modern mathematics does not claim to correspond to physical reality." But the question whether our space is Euclidian was still a live issue as recently as 1915.(5) And now that Holtzman has encouraged me to think about this a little more, I recall using Pythagoras to calculate the length of the boards which I cut to build a triangular chicken coop. I agree with Hume's claim that we should not look for the "utmost precision and exactness" in geometry.(6) But my boards fit together, for all that, and made a nice chicken coop. There is clearly some kind of correspondence of mathematics to physical reality here. This raises what is still a serious philosophical question: what kind of "correspondence" is this, and how can we be so sure that it exists?
When Holtzman says that, "…'proof' as used in science… consists of consistency with know[n] facts and experience with nature within the accuracy of our current ability to measure, and the limitations of errors due to other factors", I do not see that he is saying anything different from what I meant by, "the history of science is full of doctrines which were once thought of as 'conclusively proved'… and which were later shown to be wrong". I was only trying to emphasize that uncertainty about scientific issues is not necessarily a sign of confusion or ignorance.
1. Holtzman P. RE: The concept of scientific literacy in Liza Gross' article is, in my opinion, distorted. PLoS Biology. http://www.plosone.org/an... (Consulted 1st July 2013.)
2. Aquinas' In Librum Boetii de Trinitate Expositio [Latin and English facing.] Cogan M. tr. Question 5, Article 1. http://www4.desales.edu/~... (consulted, 30th June 2013)
3. Online Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/view/E... (Consulted 1st July 2013)
4. Russell B. Principles of Mathematics (1903) VI, XLIV, 352. http://fair-use.org/bertr... (Consulted 30th June 2013)
5. Broad CD. What do we mean by the queston: is our space Euclidean? Mind (1915) XXIV (4): 464-480. http://mind.oxfordjournal... (Consulted, 1st July 2013)
6. David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature. I,II,IV. http://www.gutenberg.org/... (Consulted 1 July 2013)

No competing interests declared.