Thursday, April 24, 2014

Scientific Orthodoxy: John Durant – Authorized Belief

Image by C.F. Payne via The Weekly Standard
By John Durant

On February 4, 2014, a much discussed live exchange took place between Bill Nye, a science educator and comedian best known for his long-running TV show Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Ken Ham, the President/Founder of the leading Young-Earth-Creationist (YEC) organization Answers in Genesis (AIG), in Ham’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. As of 12 Noon on April 5, 2014, the 2 hour 45 minute YouTube video of the debate – around the question “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” – had been accessed 2,717,985 times. The debate took place as a result of an invitation issued to Bill Nye by Ken Ham, in response to an interview Nye gave about creationism in August 2012, in which he argued for the importance of not allowing the nation’s children to be indoctrinated with creationist ideas. From the moment that the Creation Museum announced it, this was a high profile, highly polarizing event. The evangelical Christian News heralded what they called “The Debate of the Decade”: “The highly-anticipated debate next month...has generated so much interest that tickets for the event sold out in two minutes.”

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Scientific Orthodoxy: Mary-Jane Rubenstein – How to Avoid the G-Word

 Image from Flickr via theqspeaks

By Mary-Jane Rubenstein

For many physicists and philosophers, one of the most attractive features of “multiverse” cosmologies is that they render “God” unnecessary. If there is only one universe, then we have to ask why it has the specific properties it has—especially insofar as these values seem “fine-tuned” to condition the existence of planets, stars and eventually, life. In the face of such a single, biophilic cosmos, one might say the only satisfying explanation is that there is an intelligent, benevolent creator outside the universe who sets the controls “just right” so that life might emerge within it. If, on the other hand, there are an infinite number of worlds that take on all possible parameters throughout infinite time (a rough sketch of the most popular multiverse scenario), then like Shakespeare tumbling from monkeys at typewriters, our elegant universe was bound to emerge eventually.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Scientific Orthodoxy: Stephanie Dick – The Pirate Bay

By Stephanie Dick

On April 17, 2009, four men were found guilty in a Swedish court of law for aiding and abetting violation of the Swedish Copyright Act. They were charged because, in 2003, they set up a BitTorrent tracking website called The Pirate Bay which is currently employed by millions of users around the world to share digital files, many of which contain copyrighted materials. This case is an example of how the character of mens rea (guilty mind) and actus reus (guilty act) – the orthodox underpinning of western legal traditions – is at stake in the context of large-scale computer-networked activities.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Scientific Orthodoxy: Introduction

This week and next, we are partnering with a newly launched blog Science and Religion, from the Program for Science, Religion and Culture at Harvard Divinity School for a series called "Scientific Orthodoxy." The editor-in-chief of the blog, Myrna Perez Sheldon introduces us to the series: 

The phrase “scientific orthodoxy” sounds like an oxymoron. Many don’t think that the words science and orthodoxy make any kind of sense together. Orthodoxy is “right knowledge”—knowledge that is authorized, allowable, and stable. In contrast, the popular image of science is that it is open to new facts, always looking to the next horizon, and pushing forward towards novel discoveries.

Friday, January 3, 2014

What-I-Will-Call-ics Anonymous: Some Current Trends in Science and, Especially, Technology Studies, Part 3

This is the third in a series of three posts, which examine some current trends in science and technology studies, focusing especially on the latter.

In the last post, I described what I see as some of the key current trends in technology studies. These trends fit a general pattern I described in the first post, where younger scholars are moving away from a certain mode of theorizing focused on jargon-creation and moving both towards a different notion of theory, a more traditional one perhaps, and towards valuing deep empirical research. In this final post, I will do two things. First, I will show that shift I have described holds for other locales in science and technology studies as well and is not simply an idiosyncratic phenomenon in the study of technology. Second, I will conclude by suggesting both that we have to pitch a certain mental model of what constitutes exciting thought and that we must more actively foster the development of this new intellectual movement. 

I should have said this earlier, but I want to emphasize that the views in these posts are solely my own and do not represent the thoughts of my blog teammates. In fact, if experience holds, Hank and Lukas will be swooping in at any moment to give me a good beating. I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

What-I-Will-Call-ics Anonymous: Some Current Trends in Science and, Especially, Technology Studies, Part 2

This is the second of three posts on current trends in science and technology studies, focusing especially on the latter. 

In the last post, I tried to describe a shift currently underway in science and technology studies. Part of my claim there was that, if the shift is happening, then some people might be looking in the wrong direction for exciting developments. This misdirection of perception—and outmoded criteria of excellence—could lead one to worry about "intellectual vitality." But our fretful colleagues should chill. There is great and exciting work being done today; it's just not being done where the worried ones are looking. In this post, I outline what I see as the most promising trends in technology studies today. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

What-I-Will-Call-ics Anonymous: Some Current Trends in Science and, Especially, Technology Studies

In the spirit of New Year's Day, as people are setting resolutions, pondering the fresh and the new, thinking about what this year will bring (and fighting off hangovers), I wanted to put up this series of posts, which consider some current trends in science and technology studies and even suggest some paths for the future. I will be publishing three posts over the next three days. 

First, I should probably give some context for what I've written here. And I should also give a warning. The posts in this series are long, as my posts usually are, but in this case, I feel less ashamed. This series is really an essay on the state of a field, and its form fits that ambition. So, as for the context . . . 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Problem of the One and the Many in Gun Control

Over the past several months, I've become obsessed by what you might describe as the problem of the one and the many. It surfaces for any collective in which the interests of individuals diverge from those of the whole. I'm currently writing an essay about the way this problem manifested itself in debates at the turn of the 20th century about the evolution of multi-cellularity or super-organisms like insect societies. I also wrote a post on this blog recently arguing that people's misgivings about the Affordable Care Act ought to be seen as a manifestation of the same problem. Today, on the one-year anniversary of the tragic Sandy Hook school shooting, I would like to suggest that current debates about gun control can be seen in the same light.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Can Contributors Change Journals?

We asked Melinda Baldwin, who specializes in the history of scientific journals, to offer some thoughts on Randy Schekman's recent editorial in the Guardian. Melinda is currently finishing a book, Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal, to be published by the University of Chicago Press. You can learn more about her work here.

On Tuesday, Nobel Prize-winning biologist Randy Schekman made a startling announcement: he intends to boycott three top scientific journals—Science, Nature, and Cell—that published much of his Nobel-winning research. According to Schekman, these “luxury journals” are “damaging” and “distorting” science. As researchers, funding bodies, and tenure committees have focused on brand names and impact factors, the quality of papers—and of science—has declined. 

Top Journals Science, Nature, and Cell (Image Source)
Schekman’s editorial naturally sparked my interest—I am currently finishing a book about the history of Nature—and made me think about journal prestige in the twenty-first century. The three “luxury journals” certainly don’t lament their status as the world’s most sought-after scientific publications. In Nature’s case, this level of prestige is (as I argue in my book) partly the result of a conscious effort by several Nature editors to attract interesting papers and make Nature a desirable place to publish new research.* But it is also bottom-up: for decades, researchers have chosen to publish in Nature, and it is this role of contributors I want to explore today.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Epimemetics and the "Selfish Gene"

"Die, Selfish Gene, Die."

That's the title of a controversial new article by David Dobbs. In it, he argues that the "selfish gene" (coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976) represents an outdated gene-centric approach to evolution. Instead, he says we need to focus on things like gene expression and genetic accommodation — things the "selfish gene" covers up and under-emphasizes.

Dobbs has been criticized for his biology (e.g. here and here and especially here), and he's responded in an interesting way: "my challenge," he writes in a follow-up post, "was less to an [sic] technical account of nature than to a metaphor and story used to describe those technicalities." He's against the "selfish gene" not for what it represents, but for its power as a "selfish meme."

Comments on a post by the Editor-in-Chief of io9

While some have pointed out that Dobbs is having it both ways — and, to a certain extent, Dobbs acknowledges this — I want to take seriously his claim that what matters is less the selfish gene itself (or The Selfish Gene the book) and more the "selfish gene" the meme. Below, I'll suggest why "meme" is an inappropriate way to frame the issue, and how history might provide another path.