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Topic: Science and Culture

The relation between science and culture generally is a matter of concern to both scientists and nonscientists. This forum is open to everyone for discussion of thoughts arising from and extending materials in Serendip's Science and Culture section. Comments entered here will be automatically posted. Comments not meant to be posted can be sent by Serendip.

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Year: - Current Postings - 2000/2001 - 1998/1999 - 1997 - 1996

Name: Paul Grobstein
Subject: Welcome
Date: Fri Aug 30 11:30:28 EDT 1996
Science is often thought of as a powerful but highly specialized activity, influencing everybody but accessible to only a very few. A clearer and more encompassing picture of the relation between science and the rest of human culture is important for everyone, and needs scientists and non-scientists alike to properly paint. Welcome, and please feel free to join in, whoever you are. Let's see if we can collectively construct a less wrong picture.
Name: Daniel Muijs
Date: Thu Sep 5 09:42:49 EDT 1996
I believ the main thing in this debate is to counter the extremists at both sides.I agree with Grobstein and Bliss that Weinstein's comments on objectivity and the uncovering of some kind of eternal truths are not realistic scientific goals, and am convinced that science is indeed shaped by culture, which acts as a sort of guide and constraint to what kind of scientific questions can be asked and what answers given, relativity can also be taken too far. Some cultural studies experts seem to totally deny the existence of any external reality, and I do agree with Sokal that a lot of work in cultural studies represents sloppy science disguised in wordplay, analogy and self-invented jargon. It seems to me that both sides in this debate should take a more balanced view. I personally believe that much of the gap between the humanities and science is caused by a lack of understanfding and knowledge of the other's work. A possible solution for this would be guest lectures of practitioners from science disciplines at humanities faculties and vice versa introducing their discipline.
Name: Steve George
Subject: Science as "getting it less wrong"
Date: Thu Sep 19 11:04:37 EDT 1996
I'm not sure this is directly responsive to Paul Grobstein's very interesting letter to John Bemis, but I think it is relevant to the desire that people - such as many of our students - have for "right" answers. Behind the wish for right answers is the notion that some things are a certain way, independent of what anyone perceives, desires, or believes, i.e. some things are "facts." The wind feels cold to you and hot to me, but when it comes to the fact of its temperature, the temperature just _is_ the average kinetic energy of air molecules, however cold or hot it feels to any individual person. And if the temperature is a fact, shouldn't we be able to be certain about it, to feel sure about the fact in a way that we wouldn't claim to be sure how the wind feels to someone else? Can't we consult an expert with a super-accurate thermometer who will give us definite, certain knowledge of the fact? Thus it's tempting to equate "fact" with "feeling absolutely sure." However, the exact opposite is true, and I think science is the recognition of this. If something is a fact, independent of anyone's belief or desire, then one can never legitimately feel absolutely sure about it. This is because, if facts are those things that are independent of what goes on in our mind, then no state of our mind - no strength of belief or feeling of certainty - can guarantee that we have it "right." It is that slight tincture of uncertainty, that attitude of "liberating doubt" (Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chap. 15) that distinguishes science - and western philosophy, which I think science just puts into practice - from other systems of belief. That attitude is ultimately what drives scientific investigation and makes scientific progress possible. Of course we scientists don't always act as if we held to the above idea of science. "Evolution is a fact, and therefore it must be taught as such - as definite, certain truth - in public schools!" My latest research hypothesis about ion channel activation has GOT to be right - I'm just SURE of it! That enthusiasm will probably help motivate me to work to test the idea. In teaching, we may emphasize impressive knowledge claims rather than the attitude that arguably gave rise to the knowledge. But somehow, especially in teaching science, it would be good to get "back to our roots" and recognize that science is like what Bertrand Russell wrote about philosophy in the chapter mentioned above: "While diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect."
Name: chas.
Subject: Less wrong/More right
Date: Sun Sep 29 21:52:00 EDT 1996
Science is based on ordering principles called theories. When anomolies arise theories must be reconsidered, modified, tweaked, or scraped. The nature of scientific knowledge, perhaps all human knowledge, is somewhat tentative. However, scientific knowledge has come a long way towards establishing some pretty safe bets. Culture is based on ordering principles called laws. The purpose of culture (sic. society) is to provide some modicum of safety in numbers. The urge of culture is to find absolute answers to the vagaries of life, thereby providing safety for its members. Science is utilized by culture,but every so often science "oversteps" its function and threatens the culture. This is because science is continually looking for answers, while culture is looking to sustain itself. To say there has to be some absolute right answer maybe some sort of imper- ative for science and culture alike. The source of friction occurs when culture gets in the way of science. For it is culture which is far more compelled by the need for absolutes...
Name: JT
Subject: life on Mars
Date: Sun Oct 13 16:58:08 EDT 1996
I belive that millions of years ago that life may have florishised on Mars but due to some unknown circumstances they had to seek a new habitat - possibly earth. The unknown circumstances, such as a nuclear war could have affected their brains. This theory would also prove why there is no water on Mars and yet large river like trenches, because the water probaly would have been evaporated by a large scale nuclear war. We can find no trace of nuclear activity because mars has had plenty of time to "cool down". Also with the introduction of the new human race to the earth some other earth native species (such as dinosaurs) could have died out. The Earth bound humans probably would have landed in the Middle East thus explaining the Pyramids (and fulfilling theories about how they were built by aleins). Please respond to this Idea.
Name: SN
Username: N/A
Subject: Re: Life on Mars
Date: Sat Oct 26 19:40:23 EDT 1996
The main problem with your idea is time. The dinosaurs died out roughly 65 million years ago. The earliest humans showed up around 6 million years ago. Obviously, the latter could not have caused the former. Also, if mammals came from Mars it would be very hard to explain why there's evolutionary residue of animals developed on Earth before 65 mya. I would guess if life had come from Mars it would have been to start life here on Earth, about 4.5 bya., by spores on a decent sized rock. Any comments?

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