Monday, 13 June 2011

PZ Myers & Richard Dawkins, London

source: BHA bulletin 13th June 2011


Science matters

Last week around 1000 people turned out for our event at the Institute of Education to witness an armchair discussion between author and BHA vice-president Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, American biology professor and the author of the blockbuster science blog Pharyngula.

This was a rare opportunity in the UK to see two leaders in their field pose questions to each other and informally discuss the topics about which they are so articulate and knowledgeable.

When the conversation turned to what evidence the speakers would need to be able to believe in the existence of a god, we felt like conspirators as Myers suggested that if he were to discover something that seems like a god, the scientist in him would want to cut it up and do research to
test it.

The evening ended on a very positive note, with Dawkins being asked how to ensure that young children are able to fully understand the wonder of biology and how we can ensure that they learn about it and be inspired. The conversation which ensued emphasised that we should ensure that children are able to experience all subjects, find the things that they feel passionate about, and be led by their own curiosity.

The whole talk is available as a podcast via BHA partners The Pod Delusion and footage will be made available via the BHA YouTube channel.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

'What science will never know', Reith Lecture 2010 by Martin Rees

source: Reith Lectures 2010 website - audio 'What we'll never know'.

Robots in outer space, transhumanists - post human era, probes to Mars, one way tickets for humans to the moon?,  Giordano Bruno was burned at stake in 1600 for believing that stars are other suns with planets with complex life. How did life start on earth?, More...

Martin Rees says human brains may be limited just like chimps brains who are baffled by Einsteins' work. We may never (23') know about consciousness or a unified theory of physics.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Review of Sam Harris's "The Moral Landscape"

Review of  Sam Harris's "The Moral Landscape" 

Sam Harris sets out his goal in the introduction to the Moral Landscape which is to argue that “human knowledge and human values can no longer be kept apart. The world of measurement and the world of meaning must eventually be reconciled. And science and religion—being antithetical ways of thinking about the same reality—will never come to terms.” This is a huge task for such a small book but it is an entertaining introduction to these themes nontheless.

I am going to focus on Harris’s moral view which can be broken down into three components.

A)    A theory of value – this translates into the well being of conscious creatures.

B)    A theory of morality – this translates into actions that that increase the well being of conscious creatures being right and wrong in so far as they diminish them.

C)    A claim about the role of science in morality – this translates into the claim that since the well being of conscious creatures is realized in the brain states of conscious creatures it is amenable to being measured scientifically.  As such science can help determine what actions best increase the overall well being and so help determine what actions are right or wrong. *Harris also uses the term “science” more widely to refer to any empirical investigation into the world.

There are a few reviews of Harris that object to the view that science can tell us what sort of things are of value (A) or what sort of actions are right (B). Yet, Harris informs us that the claims of A and B are made on “first principles”. Harris does not point to any scientific results that support A or B. Instead he asks us to imagine a world without any conscious life. In such a world there is little sense to speak of things being better or worse for anything. Such a world appears to lack any value. Once we introduce conscious creatures to this scenario it makes sense to talk about creatures with states of positive and negative value, where things can go better or worse for them. Even the main religious traditions recognize basic human values and use them as motivators for moral behavior e.g. positive (eternal bliss) and negative states (eternal suffering). So with conscious creatures we have a world of value and without them we do not.

If questions about values are questions about the well being of conscious creatures then it seems plausible, at least for many cases, to hold that morally right actions are those that increase what is of value, and morally wrong actions are those that decrease what is of value. Hence it will be right to give a child about to undergo an operation an anaesthetic, wrong to confine animals to factory farms and so forth.

If facts about value are facts about well being then all conscious creatures that can be said to have some kind of well-being or engage in some kind of suffering must have moral standing because they have states of value and disvalue as we do.  However, it is important to note that Harris does not treat all conscious creatures as being of equal value and he marks this difference as being due to differences in the capacity for well being and suffering in the different creatures. This much squares with our current understanding of morality.

However, the extent to how well the well being of conscious creatures can be scientifically understood is more difficult. Harris often refers to what the effects of specific laws and social institutions have on human relationships, and the relationship between neurophysiology and happiness and suffering. So the so called ‘soft sciences’ such as psychology and sociology will be involved as much as neuroscience in finding out the conditions that best contribute to the well-being of conscious creatures.

Harris goes on to explain that some of the most important facts about what constitutes well being and what causes well being will be facts that are universal and transcend culture just as facts about physical and mental health are universal and transcend culture.  So it would be wrong to put cholera in the water as this would negatively impact not only on people’s health but also on people’s well being and it would be right to eradicate malaria for the same reasons. We can say that climate change is likley to be the greatest threat to human life and so we have a moral duty to take steps to reduce carbon emissions without any need for a divine law giver to make this claim objectiviely true according to this view.

There will also be many different types of right/wrong action, or right and wrong political policies, and ways of organizing social life depending on how they relate to well-being, just as there are many different ways of playing good moves in chess that relate to winning the game. Even so there are still objectively better or worse actions/policies just as there are still better or worse moves to make in a game relative to the overall objective.

The metaphor of the “Moral Landscape” is invoked in order to capture the relationship between morality and well-being. Harris describes this as a space of "real and potential outcomes" whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being for everyone and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering for everyone. "Different ways of thinking and behaving—different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc.—will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing."

This view allows for there to be many different peaks and troughs (or variables) that constitute better or worse states of affairs in different societies depending on how they relate to the flourishing of conscious creatures. So some societies may be better in terms of income equity and education opportunities, whist others do better in terms of job opportunities and housing. It is possible for societies to be structured differently in terms of these variables without one being worse than another, but it is still possible to rank these different societies as being better or worse places to live.

However, according to Harris, it is important to maintain that there are objectively better and worse states of affairs or better or worse forms of living arrangements within our own and different societies. In philosophical terms this view makes Harris a ‘moral realist’ since it is whether actions, policies, governments improve the well being of conscious creatures that determine whether it is a right or wrong action not the beliefs of any individual or group of individuals making moral judgments.

Moral realism, moral subjectivism, and moral relativism.

The Moral Landscape aims to give us an account of objective morality that does not require a divine law giver or collapse into moral nihilism, moral subjectivism, or moral relativism. Religious leaders often charge the non-religious with being unable to have any moral values without religion and societies that are undergoing a transition from being predominantly religious to non-religious are said to be living on the cultural capital of the waning religion. Harris thinks there is no need for such pessimism.

On the consequentialist picture that Harris has outlined we should think of right and wrong action (or perhaps better and worse actions) in terms of how they impact on the well being of conscious creatures then this will provide a framework for an objective account of morality. It won’t be objective in the sense of being mind-independent for it relies on the positive and negative states of conscious creatures as the data for what is of value, but it will be objective in the sense that any individual can be mistaken about whether their actions are actually improving the lives of both themselves and others or making them worse off.

Harris illustrates this by asking us to consider Jeffrey Dahmer's idea of a life well lived which consisted in killing young men and having sex with their corpses. We can explain why these actions were not morally good by reference to the simple fact that killing young men did not contribute to their well being, instead it deprived them of all of their future goals and pleasures. We might want to add that if Dahmer’s pleasures are held to have any value then the suffering and lost pleasures of all his victims must also be of value and these will surely outweigh his own bizarre desires. So on consequentialist reasoning he is not contributing to the sum total of well being but detracting from it through acting in this way and hence is actions are wrong.  But there is more to this, for Harris holds that moral deviants like psychopaths are often unable to live as fulfilling lives as others. [This incidentally was also true for Dahmer who felt compelled to act in this way even though it made him deeply unhappy].

Whilst few people would be willing to claim that killing and having sex with corpses constitute morally good actions and would feel confident in saying this,  Harris notes a peculiar trend in modern western cultures whereby people feel unable to criticize the practices of other cultures even when such practices lead to a loss of well-being.  The strange logic of relativism is nicely captured in a passage where Harris quotes the Anthropologist Donald Symons saying:

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes "culture," and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible..

The puzzle here is to explain why a single act of genital mutilation is deemed wrong, it can be made permissible when large numbers of people engage in the practice, or why it should be considered wrong in one location but permissible in another.The thinking of cultural relativism appears strangely ad hoc or arbitrary, after all how can harming others become right when it is practiced enmass and the harm multiplied?

This is another theme that Harris picks up on during his arguments against relativism. He claims that we are prone to double standards when discussing moral issues as contrasted with when discussing religious or scientific issues. For instance when we are discussing human evolution we do not take the widespread disagreement that is generated by those who hold religious beliefs are a reason for thinking that there is no fact of the matter as to the origins and nature of human evolution. In contrast when there is disagreement from those who hold religious or superstitious beliefs people often take this as a reason for thinking that there is no fact of the matter as to what the right action is and so it seems everyone’s opinion counts equally.  Of course this difference is most likely due to a fairly widespread belief that that there is a fact of the matter to be discovered about the origin of humans whereas there is a fairly widespread belief that there is no fact of the matter to be discovered about what actions are right or wrong. Instead we have to invent different moral codes and laws in order to live together. This line of thinking draws us back into relativism and subjective ways of thinking about morality but if we think of morality as an invention that is for some end (ways of living together) then we can talk about morality as being an invention whilst still applying standards that rank the inventions as better or worse.

Every society has institutions and norms that channel behavior in certain ways, to reduce conflict, encourage co-operation, and settle disputes, and it seems plausible to say that there are better or worse ways to do this in terms of how they relate to the well-being of those societies inhabitants. Within different societies there are commonalities. For instance moral justification is not like expressing preferences e.g. I like this, but instead it has to appeal to a set of values that we share in common with others. As such framing morality in terms of the well being of conscious creatures is one of the most impartial ways of doing this that will have widespread appeal. It may be the best of the available options.

Value realism.
Not only is there a form of moral objectivism on the table but Harris presents a form of objectivism about subjective wellbeing. If there are certain courses of action that would better contribute to my own well being than others and it is possible for these to be independent of my beliefs and my present motivation then there will be objective facts about what best contributes to my own subjective well being. On this account it must be possible to value the wrong things i.e. to be mistaken about what is valuable for you. This is because we are not always well placed to know what is in our own interests but also because we may mistakenly rank what we take to be of importance to us in making us happy. For instance Harris claims that we are liable to rank factors such as "wealth, health, age, marital status," as extremely important and so make our most important life decisions on them when such assumptions are inaccurate in terms of how they will impact on our future well being. We are also prone to make mistakes with regard to remembering how bad, previous painful events were and also in predicting how good future events will be (we tend to focus on the event to the exclusion of how events at the periphery affect us. Hence, as Harris muses, "It seems little wonder, therefore, that we are so often unfulfilled."

Criticism of the theory of value (A).

Harris seems to confuse a necessary condition of anything valuing something with the sorts of thing that can be valued in the above. For instance someone in terrible pain with a terminable illness might value non-existence as contrasted with prolonged pain. But a person's non-existence is anything but a form of consciousness or well-being.  It might be conceded that a person only finds non-existence valuable in light of their current conscious state of suffering, and so the value of non-existence is derived from these states but even so it would still follow that there is more to value than conscious states or well-being. Further, conscious creatures value truth, but truth can consist in a relationship between our beliefs and the world rather than a form of consciousness. In fact the value of truth can conflict with the value of well-being as some people may prefer to know the truth even if it 'hurts' them.

The concern here is that the well-being of conscious creatures may then be too narrow to capture everything that is of value.

Criticism of consequentialism (B).
The standard criticism of consequentialist thinking is to invoke a scenario whereby the consequences result in an increase in whatever has value but there our intuitions tell us that the action is wrong or that we are not morally obligated to produce such an act. For instance non-consequentialist such as deontologists hold that some acts are right/wrong in themselves, typical examples of such actions include promise breaking, killing innocent people, lying. The idea here is that we should not lie, kill innocent people, or torture anyone. These prohibitions constrain us in what we may do, even in pursuit of good ends.

Consider the practice of water-boarding and torture at Guantanamo Bay (or one could equally consider the practice of unmanned drones over Afghanistan). Many people are kept without trial and subject to torture on the basis of being suspected of being involved in terrorism. Out of these people we can reliably predict that some, perhaps most, will be innocent of any involvement with terrorism. The question then arises whether it is right to maintain such practices with the knowledge that innocent people will be tortured even if such a practice causes a reduction in terrorism.

We also consider ourselves to have special obligations to our friends and family that we do not have with strangers, such that where I have promised to take my friend on holiday, even though I could bring about a greater good (in terms of happiness) by taking someone from a deprived family on holiday, or by giving the money to a charity for third world children I do no wrong in taking my friend on holiday. If consequentialism is right then I have done something wrong each time I spend time and money on my friends instead of those more in need whereas we ordinarily do not think that this is so.

There is likely to be a threshold whereby the consequences of keeping a promise are likely to cause serious suffering to others that it would be wrong to keep the promise and right to break it e.g., I may not turn up to an appointment that I promised to attend because on the way I came across someone at an accident that needed help. But this does not mitigate against the wide spread intuition that some actions are right/wrong not in terms of their consequences but in terms of the types of actions that they are.

Criticism of the role of science
Many reviewers of Harris have criticized the emphasis he puts on science resolving moral problems. It is certainly difficult to see how neuroscience (which is Harris’s specialist field) can play much of a role in determining answers to moral disputes. It is also difficult to see how science in general can play a role in resolving such disputes. Take a classical moral topic like abortion. If I think that abortions are morally wrong and ought not to be made easily accessible because I think the value of future human life outweighs personal preferences and another person thinks that abortions are morally permissible because there is no harm to any conscious human being, how does Harris think that science is, even in principle, going to resolve this dispute?  Perhaps we can point to countries with prohibitions on abortions and look at the effects on those people who live in such countries as compared to others but this will likely lead back to the question of whether actions that generate the most happiness are the right actions to take.

Criticism of the role of well-being
Given that the concept of well-being has such a prominent role in Harris’s book it is surprising that there is relatively little analysis of what it consists in. Sometimes it feels like Harris is talking about happiness and when he talks about neuroscience it is the pleasures and pains that we experience that he seems to be talking about. However happiness typically gets broken down into three components:

1: The pleasures and pains that we experience in our life

2: Our happiness at achieving some standard that we set ourselves e.g. not cutting ourselves whilst shaving today, running a marathon, writing a book review.

3: Our overall satisfaction with the way our life is going or has gone.

CF: Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile,  by David Nettle

It is the pleasures and pains that we experience that are amenable to the science of brain scanning, but the other forms of well being would be more amenable to study by the methods of social psychology and permit a far greater variation.

It must be admitted that Harris shovels aside a great many objections to the consequentialist programme that treats moral matters in terms of increasing well being. Is it better to have an aggregate level of well being for everyone or does the total well being even if such well being is distributed unevenly matter more? How reliable are our predictions about the sorts of actions that generate well being? What sort of procedure is available for solving conflicts of interest between radically different sorts of values e.g. truth and autonomy?

On the plus side Harris's goal is to remind us that that science already plays an important role in determining moral issues that reflect our shared values such as how to live longer and healthier. He is calling for this to be extended into other areas that deal with how we organize society. How can we best alleviate homelessness in our own society? Which societies are best to live in and why? These are questions that have answers to in principle even if these questions are difficult to answer at present.

The book is written in Harris's usual witty and sharp style. It is wide ranging, covering topics from the nature of belief, determinism and free-will, the role of religion in morality, and of course moral realism and relativism. It is an introduction to these themes and does not contain the tightest reasoning but it makes up for rigour in terms of its engaging prose. It is also, I feel, broadly correct in its analysis.


Sunday, 5 June 2011

Simon Blackburn reviews 'The Moral Landscape' by Sam Harris

source: via

My highlights from Simon Blackburn (Vice President BHA) review of Sam Harris book "The Moral Landscape" in Prospect Magazine.
My comments indented in blue italics.
Reference: Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, 2010, Bantam Press, London (Amazon hardback)
.... tact does not much trouble Sam Harris, a knockabout atheist. He holds that “questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.” His idea is that with sufficient knowledge, and generous help from neuroscience, we can learn to gauge “wellbeing” and then it is just a technical question of how to maximise it. Not only religion, but moral philosophy with its dilemmas and conflicts, is unnecessary, now that we can observe and calculate. On the dust-jacket, Richard Dawkins enthusiastically endorses the same triumphalist line.
Is Blackburn setting up Dawkins as a 'straw man'? On the dust jacket of The Moral Landscape, Richard Dawkins, does not say that moral philosophy is unnecessary. What Dawkins actually says is 'I was one of  those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. Moral philosophers, too, will find their world exhilaratingly turned upside down, as they discover a need to learn some neuroscience. As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.' View the debate between Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, (chaired by Stephen Law), April 2011.
It is one thing to say that behaving well requires knowledge. It clearly does, and the more we know about the world the better (and worse) we can behave in it. But it is quite another thing to think of “science” as taking over the entire domain of morality, and that there is a reason that it cannot do so. While it is one thing to know the empirical facts, it is another to select and prioritise and campaign and sacrifice to promote some and diminish others.
The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509,
showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right).
Click image for source.
Aristotle himself thought that ethics concerned wellbeing. But he appreciated, as Harris does not, the twists and turns involved in that simple sounding idea. According to Aristotle, wellbeing is the state of living well, in favourable relationships with the world around one. My successes and failures, knowledge, social relations, memories, hopes, fears and loves make up my wellbeing. This could not be indexed by a brain scanner, which would be insensitive to the difference between a person in a fool’s paradise, largely deceived about his relations with the world, and a person who has got them right.
Aristotle - Eudaimonia: The wikipedia link says '..well being is attainment of excellence in reason.'s active ..Eudaimonia depends on virtue. ..While emphasizing the importance of the rational aspect of the psyche, he does not ignore the importance of other ‘goods’ such as friends, wealth, and power in a life that is eudaimonic. ..He doubts the likelihood of being eudaimonic if one lacks certain external goods such as ‘good birth, good children, and beauty’. ..So, a person who is hideously ugly or has “lost children or good friends through death”, or who is isolated, is unlikely to be eudaimon. In this way, "dumb luck" (chance) can preempt one's attainment of eudaimonia.'
In The Moral Landscape, Introduction note 9, page 195, Sam Harris explains that he relies heavily on philosophers William Casebeer and Owen Flanagan (2007 Kindle book or paperback extract) who have resurrected Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia, but he does not pay any attention to Aristotles' Nichomachean Ethics (complete book here or Kindle book) itself, which Harris relies to much on 'knowing how' rather than on 'knowing that'. For example, knowing that the muslim veil, which is compulsorily worn by women in Afghanistan; immiserates them and  leads to a new generation of puritanical, misogynistic men. This minimises well being, therefore is wrong. It's a truth claim, which is either right or wrong, say Harris. 

click image for source
Harris’s view of wellbeing is nearer to that of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, who saw it as a simple balance of pleasure over pain. Perhaps sufficient knowledge of the state of someone’s brain could help to measure this ratio, and it would no doubt be quite high for the citizens in Brave New World. But in spite of Dawkins’s enthusiasm, that does not really help, for if Bentham’s hedonist is in one brain state and Aristotle’s active subject is in another, as no doubt they would be, it is a moral, not an empirical, problem to say which is to be preferred. Even if this were solved, how are we to balance my right to pursue my wellbeing against the demand to help maximise that of everyone? Striving to maximise the sum of human wellbeing is making oneself a servant of the world, and it cannot be science that tells me to do that, nor how to solve the conflict, which was central, for instance, to the utilitarian thinking of Henry Sidgwick. Harris considers none of all this, and thereby joins the prodigious ranks of those whose claim to have transcended philosophy is just an instance of their doing it very badly.
I agree with Simon Blackburn.
Peter Singer: well-being of all
sentient creatures is important
Religionists often try to claim meaning and morality as their own private property. The standard secularist will reply that this is so far from the truth that religion cannot even claim a proper share of them. For example, if religion’s contribution to morality is, at base, a matter of bribing us to behave well for fear of supernatural consequences, then it is only a poor substitute for the real thing—like Kant’s shopkeeper giving the right change only because he was afraid of being caught cheating. Such action may accord with a principle of honesty, but he is not acting from that principle, which is what the properly moral person does. I help my child with his homework because he needs help, not to obey the dictates of a supernatural commandant.
The sophisticated religionist will reply that it is not like this: God’s schedule of rewards and punishments is for teaching purposes, “leading strings” as Kant called them, pulling the child, say, towards concern for the helpless. The end-product is the love of others, and the love of principle and justice. Perhaps so, but in that case religious hopes and terrors have nothing essential to do with the motives of morality, any more than parental admonitions, even if they too were accompanied with threats of hellfire.

With meaning we have the same opposition. Faced with the night sky, Darwin’s entangled bank, or the newborn baby, the secularist’s feelings of awe or wonder are directed where they should be: at the sky, the bank, or the baby. His attention does not stray to thinking about his own soul, or the purposes of providence, although he may entertain thoughts about our small place in the vast deserts of space and time. If someone cannot find meaning in the baby’s smile because it is so small in comparison with the cosmos, or because it is not going to last forever, then he is to be pitied, not admired as especially spiritual.
'Spirituality ' is what Richard Green of AtheismUK calls, a 'weasel word'. Here Green talk at Atheist Ireland conference 2010.
Morality is a natural phenomenon. Its roots lie in our needs and our capacities for sympathetically imagining the feelings of others, for inventing co-operative principles, for being able to take an impersonal view of our own doings. We have what Adam Smith called a “man within the breast” monitoring our feelings and actions in the name of those with whom we live. Imagining their admiration, we feel pride; imagining their anger, guilt, their contempt, shame. In his essay “Disenchantment—Reenchantment” in The Joy of Secularism, the philosopher Charles Taylor says that this does not explain what he calls “strong evaluations,” which are cases in which we feel that there is a truth about the matter, or that in valuing something we are not simply projecting attitude and desire, but are getting something right.

The Grand Canyon: ageless, implacable, indifferent and sublime,
says Simon Blackburn, and more worthy of our admiration than gods (who are man-made!)
The phenomenon is real enough, but it is naturally explicable. Some concerns are nearer to our cores than others. If I prefer strawberry ice cream to chocolate, I would not think less well of you if you prefer the opposite. Nor would I be distressed to learn that one day I might change my mind.

But if we visit the Grand Canyon and I am overawed by its grandeur, while you see it just as a good place for tourist concessions, then I may well think less of you. And if I learn that one day I shall become like you, I would be depressed and ashamed, just as I would if I learned that one day I might lose my love of my children, or my concern for truth. I may voice this by saying that the canyon demands the reaction of wonder. But of course it doesn’t issue any demands— indeed its ageless, implacable, indifferent silence is part of what makes it sublime. It is we who demand these reactions from ourselves and others, and rightly so. Admiring the canyon is better than admiring gods, for they, being human creations, suffer from all kinds of nasty traits, where it does not.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

What geeks can learn from gays - Mark Stevenson argues for intolerance of pseudoscience


In the British Science Association, June 2011 issue of 'People & Science', Mark Stevenson argues for intolerance of pseudoscience citing John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Advisor, remarks '‘We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] antihomosexuality... We are not – and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this – grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method.’ (source: bengoldacre blog).

'You don’t have to be gay to care that society enshrines equal rights regardless of sexuality, and you don’t have to do science to be concerned that our society is evidence-based.'

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

How Discourse About Homeopathy Was Affected By The 10:23 Campaign: A Case Study In Public Engagement by David Waldock



A campaign led by skeptical amateurs aimed to change the way the public thinks about homeopathy by participating in a mass “overdose” event. Mainstream press media, blogs and tweets from timeframes around that event were analysed to identify how the campaign, plus other events, changed public discourse on homeopathy.
It is noted that there was a shift from technical discourse to political discourse calling for changes in public policy on homeopathy. I conclude that skeptics have great potential to act as agents for citizen engagement with science, but that professional support is essential for pro-am programs to be effective.

What is a Sceptic? David Waldock


Analysis by David Waldock of what a skeptic is.

BIS/Ipsos MORI: Learning From Public Attitudes to Science 2011

Home Page || Full Report (pdf) - Public Attitudes to Science || Tables || PAS BlogBIS/Ipsos MORI: Learning From Public Attitudes to Science 2011
View more presentations from Marilyn Booth

Transcription here:

Slide 32) The Concerned
  • Characteristics
  • Religion tends to play more important role in their lives
  • Have strong views on the limitations of science and less convinced about the economic benefits of investing in it
  • Reservations about the intentions of scientists and whether the Government can control them
  • Around one in four (23%) of the population
  • Tend to be women aged 16-24 , less affluent (C2DEs) and from BME communities
  • Implications
  • Want to hear more about the intentions of scientists, especially those working in controversial areas such as stem cell research or synthetic biology
  • Want to know how individual scientists and scientific professional bodies , as well as Government, are responding to the public’s concerns

Slide 38: From the qualitative work… Participants didn’t know the process of doing science – how funding works and how science gets out into the world… … but they loved talking to scientists!

Slide 21: The kind of formalised process people want to see is often in place, but not known about If I knew that the findings had been formally reviewed by other scientists If I heard the same thing from a number of different sources If they had been published in a scientific journal If they fitted in with other things I know already If I could see the original study for myself If I saw them on a TV programme If the research had been done in the UK If I read them in a broadsheet newspaper If I had heard of the place where the research was done If I saw them on the internet Q Which of these, if any, would make you more likely to believe the findings of scientific studies? Base: 2,103 UK adults aged 16+ Fieldwork dates: 11 October-19 December 2010 Top ten mentions

This suggests to me that Process of Peer Review should be better understood by humanists