“What’s Next?” Popular Science and the Narrative

Max Brockman, a literary agent at Brockman, Inc., which also represents such familiar names as Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker, recently published a collection of essays by an assortment of young scientific worthies addressing the question of how developments in their respective fields are likely to have “long-term and fundamental effects on the way we live.” Brockman also works with the Edge Foundation, which maintains a website that’s worth a visit. According to the site’s “About” blurb, “The mandate of Edge Foundation is to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.” To the extent that they actually promote genuine inquiry and discussion, I wish them well.

In this post, I will look at the first two essays, and, perhaps, take up some of the rest as we go along. They are both interesting artifacts of the interaction of contemporary scientific research and the prevailing academic ideological narrative, which, at this point in our history, is the narrative of the left. As one might expect, the narrative plays a greater or lesser role depending on the social and political implications of research in a given field. For example, its influence is much greater in the environmental and behavioral sciences than in physics. As it happens these are the fields addressed in the first two essays.

The first essay, by Laurence C. Smith, entitled “Will We Decamp for the Northern Rim?” considers the potential impact of global warming on future population shifts. According to Smith,

“Here is what we know currently: First, the warming is just revving up. It is 90 percent certain that continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above the current rates will induce far greater climate change in the twenty-first century than we’ve yet experienced. In every plausible population-growth or greenhouse-gas-emission scenario for the next century (barring some as-yet-undiscovered nonlinearity in the climate system), basic physics dictates that Earth’s climate must continue to warm, with global average temperatures rising between 1.8° C and 4.0°C by the end of this century.”

I agree that, based on what we know, it is probable that the above comment is true. However, the idea that “basic physics dictates” that it will be true “in every plausible population –growth or greenhouse-gas-emission scenario” is pure poppycock. Who decides what is “plausible?” What “basic physics” is Smith referring to? Global climate is a highly nonlinear system with literally billions of degrees of freedom. The computer models currently available do not even approach the level of having a deterministic predictive capability. The data we have to feed into them is both noisy and insufficient. The idea that they could “dictate” anything is palpably absurd.

Why the unscientific lack of error bars in Smith’s dogmatic claim about what “physics dictates?” He tells us that, “In my home state of California, Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asserted, ‘The [climate] debate is over’ – and from a scientific and public-opinion standpoint, he was right.” Again, in my opinion it is probable that Smith’s conclusions about global warming are correct, but the claim that “the debate is over… from a scientific and public-opinion standpoint” implies the nonexistent and scientifically insupportable right of a majority of scientists to dictate to the rest their conclusion that “the debate is over,” and assumes that the only public-opinion that matters is that on the ideological left. Again, what Smith is asserting is an ideological dogma, not a scientific fact. He doesn’t leave us guessing about which side of the political isle he stands on, noting that “If you saw An Inconvenient Truth or read climate-change stories in the press, you already know most of this bad news.” It seems to me that neither Al Gore’s movie nor stories in the press represent a scientific gold standard that could serve as a reliable basis for “knowing” anything. Smith’s implication that they do speaks more to the ideological slant we can expect in his essay than to the intrinsic accuracy of his sources.

In a word, I wouldn’t discount the essay’s contention that the economic significance of the “northern rim” is likely to increase, nor would I stand in the way of those who take Smith’s advice to buy land, not “in Labrador, but maybe in Michigan.” However, his comments regarding the status of the global warming debate seem better calculated to stifle and marginalize ideological opponents than to promote healthy, unconstrained scientific discussion. The goal of popular scientific writing should be to inform, not to indoctrinate.

The second article, by Christian Keysers, is entitled “Mirror Neurons: are we Ethical by Nature?” Thirty or forty years ago, the very suggestion would have landed the author in the doghouse of the ideological left, likely attracting accusations of “fascism” and related political sins in the bargain. No doubt we should consider the fact that he can now not only dare to use such a title, but actually seems unaware that it could even be controversial a sign of scientific “progress.” Indeed, not only does Keysers no longer bump up against any shibboleths of the modern leftist ideological narrative, he actually fits comfortably within it.

The topic of the essay, mirror neurons, is certainly worth writing about. These are neurons that are active during particular actions and sensations, but also respond to the sight and even sound of similar actions or sensations in others. For example, Keysers cites the case of neurons in a monkey that were found to be active when the animal grasped a peanut. In his words, “The surprise came when one of the experimenters grasped a peanut to give it to the monkey. The very same neuron that had responded when the monkey grasped a peanut also responded when the monkey simply saw someone else perform the same action.” He goes on to point out that the phenomenon is not restricted to physical movement, but to feelings and sensations as well. He maintains that the phenomena may not only promote our ability to learn from others, but may be associated with the creation of what he refers to as an “ethical instinct.”

Here, again, we can detect a gradual shift in the terms of the narrative over time. Once upon a time, the very use of the term “instinct” in connection with humans was anathema, and evidence of moral turpitude at best, and connection with the political right at worst. Anyone daring to even venture out on such thin ideological ice chose his words very carefully, preferring “innate predisposition” to “instinct,” and even then running the risk of denunciation as a “pop ethologist” unless the term was carefully hedged about with all the appropriate caveats. The young author seems blithely unaware of these once weighty distinctions. Instead, after announcing the “ethical instinct,” he suggests that the shared circuits associated with mirror neurons promote a strong feeling of empathy. In his words, “Since the same brain areas are active whether we are feeling our own pain or witnessing that of others, this means that the vicarious sharing of others’ feelings is not an abstract consideration but a toned-down equivalent of our own.” He then suggests how this might result in sharing a limited supply of food; “If I eat all the food, I will not only witness but also share my companion’s suffering, whereas if I divide the food I will share his joy and thankfulness. My decision is no longer guided only by my hunger but also by the real pain and pleasure my companion’s pain and pleasure will give me… I believe that the brain mechanisms that make us share the pain and joy of others are the neural bases that intuitively predispose us according to this maxim. Our brain is ethical by design.”

Here, of course, as readers of my previous posts will note, the author commits the common fallacy of assigning a real, objective existence to what he refers to as “ethics,” citing as an example the Golden Rule. There is also no mention of the Amity – Enmity Complex we have discussed earlier, and the author seems unaware of the very existence of the idea. He is, at least aware, of certain related incongruities in the application of his theory posed, for example, by the existence of war. The ideological provenance of the arguments he uses to finesse the issue should be transparent to those who haven’t been asleep during the debates over the Iraq War. In Keysers’ words, “In the military, the distance that separates the generals from the human suffering their armies cause minimizes their empathy and favors self-interested decisions. At the same time, the chain of command strips moral responsibility from the soldiers who do directly witness the suffering. In such a way, empathy can be bypassed in the service of efficiency. The development of weapons that kill at a distance has a similar effect. Insights into the biology of our empathy help us to realize the risk of such distancing and point us toward ways to build the natural mechanisms of empathy into our institutions.”

Before indulging yourself in any amused snorts at Prof. Keysers’ naiveté, gentle reader, allow me to remind you that his essay represents real progress. He admits a genetic basis for ethical behavior, and states very clearly that, “Humans are the result of evolution, and evolution favors individuals who will leave more offspring…” He does close with the comment that, “Mirror neurons – and their gift of insight into the emotions of others – enable us to manipulate other individuals but also prompt us to use this understanding for good and not for evil,” apparently blithely unaware that good and evil are evolutionary constructs themselves. Nevertheless, he is pursuing a line of research that holds forth the promise of eventually leading us to the truth. May we find that truth before our minds are once again closed by new dogmas.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

Leave a Reply