There’s More to Life (and Life Sciences) Than What the Textbooks Say, Composing, 01/08/2013

I got such good readership numbers (relatively speaking) and positive feedback on my last post about the nature of sophists and philosophical anoraks, that I got a little mild performance anxiety about today. But the nice thing about daily updates is that not every one needs to hit it out of the park. In fact, if I manage a well-written, popular, remarkably insightful post every two/three weeks, as I’ve done so far, I think that’s pretty good performance.

Yesterday, most of my philosophical work was spent on my post-doc proposal again, working out the best way to pitch this problem in evolutionary biology that I’d work on. It’s an unorthodox take on a philosophical problem in the field, but also one that involves some of what I’ve learned in the last two years I’ve spent working with the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. This is a collection of scholars from several different disciplines who have a shared interest in the social dimensions of knowledge. From my perspective and for my work on the subject, it examines how philosophical concepts are shaped by the public constitution of knowledge, the social aspects of thought. 

Essentially, one of my nagging questions about the discipline of evolutionary biology is why the general public seems completely unaware of any of its subtle principles. I think it’s a problem of communication and context. Within a discipline, practitioners rarely think of PR. And outside a discipline, general science education rarely gets into much of the detail of a science where the disputes and varieties of interpretations tend to arise. Most people learn science from pop-sci books and textbooks. The former tend to oversimplify complex concepts for a reading public presumed unable to understand complexity. The latter present everything in a discipline as a readymade set of facts. 

Both forms are horribly inaccurate as to the actual state of any scientific discipline. And I think the textbook layout of knowledge is especially harmful to evolutionary biology, thanks to the political controversy that always arises around evolution. If someone learns that science as a set of facts laid out in a textbook as if they were straight dogma, and doesn’t explain any of the processes by which those scientific principles are discovered, articulated, and refined, then science is treated as just another set of dogmas in textbooks. So intelligent design advocates treat science as one more set of dogmas like theirs. Intelligent design people think genuine knowledge is clearly certain facts beyond all dispute. But that’s poppycock. Genuine knowledge is complex, subject to dispute and reinterpretation. And until we can figure out how to communicate this to the general public, science will be entangled in these ridiculous disputes for a long time.

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