Saturday, February 17, 2007

Rational and irrational

John Lynch has a short post up that mentions a symposium on "Science Literacy and Pseudoscience" held in San Francisco. Although he was unable to attend the symposium, he quotes the news coverage of it and has a short comment of his own on the significance of the topic.

First the coverage:
People in the U.S. know more about basic science today than they did two decades ago, good news that researchers say is tempered by an unsettling growth in the belief in pseudoscience such as astrology and visits by extraterrestrial aliens.

In 1988 only about 10 percent knew enough about science to understand reports in major newspapers, a figure that grew to 28 percent by 2005, according to Jon D. Miller, a Michigan State University professor. He presented his findings Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


A panel of researchers expressed concern that people are giving increasing credence to pseudoscience such as the visits of space aliens, lucky numbers and horoscopes.

In addition, these researchers noted an increase in college students who report they are "unsure" about creationism as compared with evolution.

And now Lynch:
So, science literacy is clearly increasing ... but at the same time pseudoscientific beliefs are also increasing. It strikes me that this may be a problem for us as educators in that we might be teaching students (and thus the public) scientific facts but not teaching them how to think scientifically.

While Lynch's concerns might be well placed, they might not be. The article he quotes simply does not give us enough information to make a judgment. Science literacy is on the rise as measured by understanding of newspaper science articles. There is no measure of the quality or quantity of those articles. If one science topic gets intense coverage, and dominates newspaper science writing, most people will be able to say they have a basic understanding of "science writing." On the other hand, if a wide variety of topics are covered and most readers only understand one or two of those topics, then they will not be able to say they understand most science writing they encounter. By the same token, if most science writers were writing in depth articles on an early date and broad surveys at a later date, then most readers will claim a better understanding of science reporting on that later date, even though their understanding of science is no better than before.

I don't know if either of these actually is the case in the surveys mentioned in this article; the writer doesn't give us enough information to know what was being measured. While the science side of the equation is bad, the pseudoscience side of the equation is immeasurably worse (really, you can't measure it).

The AP article mentions a couple of pseudosciences and provides some data that belief in then is widespread and perhaps on the rise. While the article is able to provide an overall measure for understanding of "science," it's not able to provide a comprehensive definition of "pseudoscience," let alone a measure of its influence.

This is the problem with unorthodox beliefs. They have not generally been regarded as a fit subject for study. When a group of scholars began to study Jewish history in the last third of the nineteenth century, they created one of the first fields of non-national history. They defined Judaism as a rational social phenomenon. It would be almost a half-century before a scholar, Gershom Scholem, would manage to get a serious hearing for a history of the mystical--the non-rational--side of the Jewish experience. He essentially had to create a new field of study to pursue his interests.

What Scholem saw was that a movement toward the rational is often balanced by an equal movement toward the irrational. This is not true only in Jewish history, it is true, at least, in all Western history. The artistic rationalism of the Renaissance was accompanied by witch hunts and the growth of the inquisition. The scientific revolution in the seventeenth century also saw the birth of Rosecrusianism. The secularism of the French Revolution arrived at the same time as the birth of modern conspiratorialism centered on the Illuminati and other Freemasons. Finally, the triumph of scientific rationalism and bourgeois secularism in the second half of the nineteenth century was accompanied by spiritualism, Theosophy, and fundamentalism.

The theoretically inclined might call on Hegel at this point: every new synthesis is supposed to generate its own new antithesis for a new dialectic. I'm not prepared to say whether this is an iron law of history or merely a clever observation of how things have worked lately. In any case, it is true that a stong tradition of irrationalism has accompanied rationalism for the last three or four centuries. The problem is that historians and sociologists have focused more on the history of rational thought than they have on the history of irrational thought to the extent that we don't really even have the data to make a comparison of their basic strengths.

These days, I like to think of myself as a historian of the irrational. I hope that my small contribution to these debates will be to help provide a basic understanding of the question itself. If I can't do that, I, at least, want to make sure that some ripping good stories aren't lost.

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