Friday, November 5, 2010

Scientific Claptrap

Every now and then my attention gets captured by disaster porn. Admit it--you also get sucked in by the occasional disaster porn too. The general narrative is that the world is going to end and people expose their true humanity (or true inhumanity). Awhile back my attention was grabbed by some tweets talking about a "methane bubble" that was going to destroy the world. 

Trying to live up to my doctoral degree, I made some attempts to be a good consumer of science. I did some research to see if there was any actual scientific evidence suggesting that the world indeed was going to blow up. I came across this lovely article by Deborah Blum about the need for their to be Warriors Against Claptrap. I loved the article then and I love it now. It's a nice antidote to the growing anti-scientific mood in our political discourse. 

Deborah writes that the term scientific claptrap
...derives from the work of a U.K. charitable trust, Sense About Science,which has the mission of promoting "good science and evidence for the public." Scientists affiliated with this program have publicly entered controversial discussions about everything from vaccines to climate change. The claptrap session was organized by the trust's wonderfully activist program Voice of Young Science, which bands together smart, articulate and dedicated researchers early in their careers - often a time when scientists tend to be extremely cautious - who wish to make a difference in public perception of science.
This brings me to my annoyance d'jour: Should Apes Have Rights?

I first read the article, my mouth fell open, I was annoyed, I tweeted about it, I moved on. The problem is that I kept on coming back to this article and I kept on getting annoyed by it. I sent off a comment to the article. I figured that would help me move on to whatever is going to annoy me next. No such luck. I'm still annoyed, my mouth is still hanging open, and clearly I'm going to have to do something more here. We wouldn't want me to catch any flies with  my mouth open (did your mother's used to say that to you, too?).

So what is it that has gotten under my skin about Helene Guldberg's article? Helene presents an argument that is radically different than my own. I believe that animals have complex methods of communication. I believe that animals develop their own version of society. I believe that every animal has a place in our shared global community and every species lost is a loss to all the rest.

As a little sidebar, have you ever thought of what would happen if the common honeybee went extinct? First off, none of us would need to worry about getting stung by one. That's nice for me, especially since I swell up when I am stung. Einstein is quoted as saying that if honey bees become extinct humankind would only likely live for another four years. That's problematic. I've heard a few programs about the plight of the honeybee. It's kind of scary. They have become fragile and their populations are declining. Without them, there are going to be be some serious problems.

See, we all live within an interdependent ecosystem. That's science. There is evidence based information out there that can show how we are interconnected and dependent on each other.

Back to apes.  Plain and simple, Guldberg's article is scientific claptrap. There isn't any evidence cited. She does not draw upon the rich scientific literature in comparative psychology, animal behavior, primatology, or any other similar field. Guldberg instead relies about an age old trick used to persuade people: she presents her opinion that is hidden under the guise of science. That's shameful--that's wrong--and that's scientific claptrap.

I learned as a dissertation student (thanks, Susan Hawes!) to peer deeply in the background of the texts I was reading. I clicked around a little and learned a good deal about Guldberg. She writes an awful lot about apes. I'm not sure what that means but I'm left with the interpretation that she has some sort of personal investment in this argument that apes aren't human. I wish that she might share what that personal investment is: it would make it easier to understand where she is coming from and what context she is building her opinion out of. 

Beyond the claptrap, there is another more important point here. I might even get to that point.

It's obvious, of course, that humans are not apes. We are different creatures. That's not rocket science and neither Guldberg or myself needs to write a lot to demonstrate that. Under the guise of science, Goldberg is making a moral argument that humans are more important than animals. Her opinion, while not one I share, is not wrong. It's her opinion. What is wrong is that she obfuscates that opinion under the guise of science. She uses the imagery of science to lead her readers to believe that her opinion is somehow more important, valid, or worth than the opinion of another.

Did I mention that's wrong?

I wish Guldberg would have written about why she has this opinion. How has she come to the belief that humans are more important? Why is that important to her? What kind of reasoning does she use? It would be a rich dialogue to engage in with her. 

What's my opinion? Guldberg presents a human centered morality where humans presumably put themselves first. She talks about humans as a whole but I really see it as a hyper-individual approach. I see this as a failed system of morality. An individual self-centered approach (using our world for our own personal benefit) has unleashed destruction about our species, our environment, and all those plants and creatures that inhabit this planet. 

In many ways, I've been grappling with this question for a long time. During the oral defense of my dissertation my chair had asked me whether all morals are contextual or if there were something things that were just absolutely right or absolutely wrong. This was the most difficult question my chair had ever asked me. She essentially was asking me if I believed in moral relativism or not--and if not, how do I make decisions about what is moral and what is not. I still have nightmares about that question (thanks, Susan). I'm still trying to formulate my answer.

All of this is to say, please don't bother asking me what my opinion is. I'm stalling. I'm stalling because I don't know.  I know that what Guldberg presents doesn't work for me. It doesn't seem to work for anyone. We cannot have a system in which we put ourselves first and use up everyone around us without regard.

Do I don't know. I might never know. However, I do know that you should check back in to see if I ever do have an opinion. I know that these are the sorts of things that have captured my attention for years and will continue to do so for a long time to come. The answer however isn't all that important--it's the process that I'm going through thinking about it that really matters.

What about you? Do you have answers? Do you need them? Care to join me in the process of discovery? How do you decide what is moral and what is not? Why?

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