What is evolution good for?

In one of his essays in Philosophy and Social Hope, Richard Rorty noted the tendency of scientists to assume that they are best positioned to adjudicate questions on the philosophy of science. As Rorty compelling detailed, they are not. So I was reminded when reading Can Darwinism Improve Binghamton? in NYT’s Book Review.

The author starts off this way:

My undergraduate students, especially those bound for medical school, often ask why they have to study evolution. It won’t cure disease, and really, how useful is evolution to the average person? My response is that while evolutionary biology can explain, for example, the origin of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we shouldn’t see evolution as a cure for human woes. Its value is explanatory: to tell us how, when and why we got here (by “we,” I mean “every organism”) and to show us how all species are related. In the end, evolution is the greatest tale of all, for it’s true.

This is, in my view, quite misguided. Without usefulness it soon becomes impossible to locate any measure by which to evaluate the truth of an explanation. This, to me, (and I believe to Rorty), is the point of postmodern philosophy. By accepting it we don’t have to accept all that falls under the heading of “postmodernism”; we can dodge it by embracing pragmatism. While I recommend Rorty to anyone looking to read more about science and pragmatism, I occasionally have come across succinct yet poignant statements of the subject, two of which I’d like to share here.
Economist Joseph Stiglitz put it simply but astutely in a recent paper“Prediction is the test of a scientific theory.”

It’s as simple as that. Conservative writer and entrepreneur Jim Manzi had an equally useful (get it?) take on science and pragmatism a while back.

He wrote“I claim that the purpose of science is to create useful, reliable, non-obvious predictive rules.”

We would do well to heed these words.*

*Yes, that’s circular reasoning, if you really think about it. But as Rorty might say, what’s the alternative?

More on the evolution of argument

Thanks to Edge, I posted about the new research into the evolutionary basis of reason and argument well before The New York Times picked it up. But here, as a follow-up to that NYT piece, is another post that clarifies the authors’ position. Turns out it’s right in line with what I expected. Here’s what I wrote in my previous post:

The first question that comes to mind for me is this: Why, if reasoning isn’t based at least in part on developing correct beliefs, would reasons be useful for convincing others? In other words, if I’m not using reasoning in the traditional enlightenment sense then why would I treat reasons as useful input when someone else tries to convince me? Reasons would seem to be more useful tools for convincing in a world where individuals were also using them as tools for obtaining correct beliefs.

I take that to be what the authors are saying in the NYT follow-up:

We do not claim that reasoning has nothing to do with the truth. We claim that reasoning did not evolve to allow the lone reasoner to find the truth. We think it evolved to argue. But arguing is not only about trying to convince other people; it’s also about listening to their arguments. So reasoning is two-sided. On the one hand, it is used to produce arguments. Here its goal is to convince people. Accordingly, it displays a strong confirmation bias — what people see as the “rhetoric” side of reasoning. On the other hand, reasoning is also used to evaluate arguments. Here its goal is to tease out good arguments from bad ones so as to accept warranted conclusions and, if things go well, get better beliefs and make better decisions in the end.

Also, apologies for the light blogging lately. I’ve been writing a bunch about clean energy in the last few days over at the NECEC blog, so if you’re really desperate to read stuff I’m writing, you’ll find some new stuff over there.

After the rapture

What will the response be of people like this when Judgement Day / the rapture doesn’t arrive tomorrow?

Here’s a clue:

“A MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger(PDF), in a passage that might have been referring to climate change denial—the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes. But it was too early for that—this was the 1950s—and Festinger was actually describing a famous case study in psychology.

Festinger and several of his colleagues had infiltrated the Seekers, a small Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliens—including one, “Sananda,” who they believed was the astral incarnation of Jesus Christ. The group was led by Dorothy Martin, a Dianetics devotee who transcribed the interstellar messages through automatic writing.

Through her, the aliens had given the precise date of an Earth-rending cataclysm: December 21, 1954. Some of Martin’s followers quit their jobs and sold their property, expecting to be rescued by a flying saucer when the continent split asunder and a new sea swallowed much of the United States. The disciples even went so far as to remove brassieres and rip zippers out of their trousers—the metal, they believed, would pose a danger on the spacecraft.

Festinger and his team were with the cult when the prophecy failed. First, the “boys upstairs” (as the aliens were sometimes called) did not show up and rescue the Seekers. Then December 21 arrived without incident. It was the moment Festinger had been waiting for: How would people so emotionally invested in a belief system react, now that it had been soundly refuted?

At first, the group struggled for an explanation. But then rationalization set in. A new message arrived, announcing that they’d all been spared at the last minute. Festinger summarized the extraterrestrials’ new pronouncement: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” Their willingness to believe in the prophecy had saved Earth from the prophecy!

From that day forward, the Seekers, previously shy of the press and indifferent toward evangelizing, began to proselytize. “Their sense of urgency was enormous,” wrote Festinger. The devastation of all they had believed had made them even more certain of their beliefs.

That’s from Chris Mooney’s excellent article on the science of denial.