Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nature editorial on Darwin through a cultural lens

Nature (Oct 29) has an excellent editorial (may require subscription) that urges scientists and policy makers to frame their arguments in way that takes value systems, cultural backdrops and local knowledge gaps into account when communicating ideas like evolution. This is not something completely new. Nisbet and Mooney wrote about Framing Science a few years ago. However, this Nature editorial uses historical cases from other cultures to provide support for their argument, and the journal plans to publish a series of articles over the coming month that will cover the international reception of Darwin's ideas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The public reception of scientific ideas depends largely on two factors: people's ability to grasp factual information and the cultural lens through which that information is filtered. The former is what scientists tend to focus on when they give popular accounts of issues such as climate change. The assumption is that if they explain things very, very clearly, everyone will understand. Unfortunately, this is an uphill battle. The general public's average capacity to weigh facts and numbers is notoriously poor — although there is encouraging evidence that probabilistic reasoning can be improved by targeted education early in life.

Even more crucial, however, are the effects of the cultural lens. Over the coming month, Nature's Opinion pages will explore particularly vivid examples of these effects in the world's widely divergent reactions to Charles Darwin's ideas about evolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
And here are some examples:

In China, Darwin's ideas were seen as supporting Confucians' belief in the perfectibility of the cosmic order. Evolutionary theory also became fodder for political movements of revolution and reform, and eventually laid the groundwork for communism. Latin American politicians initially reacted to Darwin's ideas by attempting to entice white Europeans to emigrate and intermarry with local populations, believing that this would 'improve the stock'. But after two world wars had made European culture look less impressive, Latin America began to see its racial diversity as an advantage, and moved towards a social view that favoured a homogeneous blend of cultures.

In nineteenth-century Russia, meanwhile, a tendency to distrust rabid, dog-eat-dog capitalism helped incline naturalists away from a view of evolution that emphasized competition between species. Instead they embraced a 'theory of mutual aid', an account that focused on the role of cooperation in ensuring survival in a harsh environment.

And here is the bit about framing:

The lesson for today's scientists and policy-makers is simple: they cannot assume that a public presented with 'the facts' will come to the same conclusion as themselves. They must take value systems, cultural backdrops and local knowledge gaps into account and frame their arguments accordingly. Such approaches will be crucial in facing current global challenges, from recessions to pandemics and climate change. These issues will be perceived and dealt with differently by different nations — not because they misunderstand, but because their understanding is in part locally dependent.
I think this is a crucial point. Also, remember that this framing is a supplement - not a replacement of factual information. For the Muslim world, where religion plays an enormous role in societies, it would be prudent (actually necessary) to highlight that evolution does not equal atheism and that there are a number of Muslim evolutionary biologists who are also practicing Muslims. This approach is not much different than the one adopted by the National Center for Science Education(NCSE) and should resonate with Muslims as well (with Muslim examples).

8 comments:

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

I am uncomfortable with this:

For the Muslim world, where religion plays an enormous role in societies, it would be prudent (actually necessary) to highlight that evolution does not equal atheism and that there are a number of Muslim evolutionary biologists who are also practicing Muslims.

I can see the value in this approach if the end goal is to prevent anti-evolution movements from being effective but I have my doubts about it being the kind of approach one wants public education to legitimize. What if no evolutionary biologist (or any other kind of scientist or, say, analytical philosopher) was overtly pious? What would that mean within that framework? Does one really wish to get the [necessarily large number of] members of the public education bureaucracy and hierarchy to be thinking in those terms? Do you then not create some kind of subsidized and huge bulk with considerable inertia within the society that continually warps people's perspectives and perpetuates some kind of orthodoxy?

Don said...

"Over the coming month, Nature's Opinion pages will explore particularly vivid examples of these effects in the world's widely divergent reactions to Charles Darwin's ideas about evolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries". Thanks for the tip. I am very much looking forward to this.

Salman Hameed said...

Bulent,
"What if no evolutionary biologist (or any other kind of scientist or, say, analytical philosopher) was overtly pious?"
I understand your criticism. But two things: a) In the Muslim world we are trying to change the perception that evolution is necessarily associated with atheism (as that may make, in most instances, any discussion over evolution moot to begin with). Therefore, examples of evolutionary biologists who are also practicing Muslims quite valuable in shaping this narrative.
b) There ARE evolutionary biologists who are practicing Muslims. So we are not talking about a theoretical situation.

Does it perpetuate some sort of orthodoxy? My omission on this. I think we definitely have to stress that science is and can be done for the sake of science & wonder itself. No need for a religious push. The orthodoxy bit will also slowly get diluted over time - but we have to appreciate our starting point and have to get conversations going.

I don't know if I addressed your concern. I'm slightly jet-lagged right now. :)

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Salman,

Yeah, what you've said does address some of my concerns but I suspect our points of view differ on this in several ways.

Certain kinds of religious conviction do become almost impossible to hold on to given a proper science education. Same goes for exposure to some branches of philosophy or even history etc. I sense an element of deceit in approaches that are expressly designed to conceal this. My discomfort becomes worse when the design includes some use of religion even if it is just to 'frame' things.

Then, there is the question of personnel in the educational establishment who'll need to be civil servants and possibly attached to a centralized bureaucracy. Mixing a dose of religiosity with science teaching -- even if it is for pedagogical purposes -- might prove to be transformative to the teachers personally and, worse yet, help enable the shift in the institutional culture through advancement (inside the institutional hierarchy) of members of religious organizations. I do realize the approach you have outlined is nuanced and 'safe' but I am not convinced the nuance can be kept intact once the licence to use religiosity is there. You'll no longer have the grounds to suspicious of religious talk inside the classroom once you legitimize it. (This observation is more applicable to places like Turkey where secularism got less aggressive over the years. I realize that in places like Pakistan religion is already there in the classroom.)

[continued]

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Turkey experimented with this in the mid 70's and especially after he '80 coup by including (even mandating) a dose of religion and 'morals' into the curriculum as a prophylactic against grass-roots leftist extremism and for preventing what was perceived to be 'cultural decay.' The scheme included employing teachers who are and training teachers to be 'knowledgeable in our own culture' and (perhaps tacitly) legitimizing the use of religious culture codes inside the classroom. Rather quickly we ended up with imams, cults and sects taking over sizable parts of the national education system. The approach to evolution, as far as I can see, shifted first into 'we teach it but we don't believe it' and then 'oh it is a good thing we are not made to teach much of it at all.'

Keep in mind that science teachers are not like working scientists, they do not face 'nature' (through experimentation) or other properly trained scientists who try to make sure they are thinking straight. There is no real built-in corrective mechanism in the practice of the profession for secondary education teachers. This, from my perspective, is partly why things like 'the wedge' needed to be resisted. In cultures with a far weaker tradition of monitoring what the gov't is up to, not just allowing but encouraging religious talk in the classroom probably cannot be controlled. One might end up changing the problem of ignorance of the broader population into a far worse problem of ignorance that gets perpetrated at government expense and through people who have the paperwork to prove that they are in fact not ignorant.

I realize the tie I tried to imply above is tenuous at best. But I am convinced it is there. Let me try to express it in a different way. It seems we don't want the general population to reject science and public education because they perceive it to be perpetrating godlessness. To accomplish this, we think using religious 'framing' would work. But there is another side in public education: civil servants in the hierarchy and teachers some of whom do become administrators. I assume you also want to keep certain kinds of religious individuals (and organizations) away from those jobs (and the hierarchy). One good way to indirectly accomplish that is to make the daily practice of the profession purely secular. That is you do want those who perceive science teaching as perpetrating godlessness to stay away. Once you allow religion -- even for framing -- into the science classroom you fail in your second objective as now those folks have the licence (and the comfort) to take religious points of view.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

[continued from above]

Overall, I don't (perhaps I should say 'I no longer') believe there's much value in getting the general population to say they believe evolutionary explanation for the variety and complexity of the living creatures. I am beginning suspect that's the wrong metric to worry about. So somehow getting the kids to reconcile saying that with whatever kind of faith they hold dear doesn't seem like a good goal. What I have discovered in Turkey -- partly to my horror -- was that people who obviously have the right aptitude to be scientists were getting prevented by various religious-inspired teachings (some of which are subsidized) from even understanding what scientists know and why the theories make sense. So the problem, in my mind, is no longer one of scientific literacy at large but one of lacking the infrastructure and the institutional mindset to turn the gifted or semi-gifted few into good scientists. Instead, we are turning them into very good pushers of anti-science. This, I think, is one crucial difference between the US and Turkey. Both have rather horrible (and comparable) figures for general acceptance of evolution, but science does get done and kids with the right aptitude and interest do turn into good scientists in one country but not the other. That, to me, is the more important problem to attack. I don't know how to it, but legitimizing religious arguments (albeit for framing) inside the classroom and thus legitimizing them in teaching teachers and thereby legitimizing them in colleges and universities hardly seems like the approach to take.

This is a very tough problem. We're effectively trying to find ways to import some of the values and the fruits of the enlightenment into cultures and societies that did not and do not have whatever societal/cultural dynamic that gave rise to it in the first place. Pretty much all approaches will be flawed or even dangerous in one way or another and I suppose could argue for the opposite side of this particular approach with almost equal ease. I can't claim to be jetlagged but I know I'm far from having a coherent grip/view that'd help begin to define the problem -- much less solve it.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hmpgf. One correction:

One might end up changing the problem of ignorance of the broader population into a far worse problem of ignorance that gets perpetrated at government expense and through people who have the paperwork to prove that they are in fact not ignorant.

I must have meant "perpetuated" sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

The strategies what you talking about wont work in the Muslim world. You can sell evolutionism in religious term in the Christian world, but not in Muslim countries. In Muslim world, you can NOT shut someone’s mouth by saying FLAT earth, young earth phenomenon or Galileo’s case. There is no such problem from Muslim perspective. There might be many Muslim scientists working (including me), that does not mean they believe in the fundamental of evolutionism. They are just doing job, working on science. Rationally, science should not take any thing granted, there is always room for correction. Irony, when comes to evolution, it becomes fixed and fact. If someone question evolution, Darwinists in guise of scientist say arrogantly “you are INGNORANT about science"


It is childish to think that science equates to evolutionism. Science MUST be free from any kind of presuppositions. Few more Dawkin, Hichen, Sam Harris will bring down evolution theory to the dead end.

Whatever methods you try it won’t work in any Muslim country due to immense Harun Yahya's influence. He has already proven his points. Most of the previous Muslim scholars disproved this ideology by philosophical ground. Harun Yahay does this in the light of current scientific findings. Evolution fundamentalists helped a lot in this respect. Just see the latest issue of New Humanist Magazine!

I visit this website frequently. I find that owner of this website is preaching evolution for ideological ground, NOT for purely science, just putting Muslim perspective to get attention from Darwinist world. It seems that the owner of this blog is a media mouth of Muslim evolutionism to Darwinist circle!