Diversity in the Social Sciences

The reason America needs more political diversity in the social sciences is not because moderates and conservatives in academia need an affirmative action-style spoils system. Rather, it’s because the knowledge-creation process—the system by which scientists create knowledge and that knowledge is disseminated to the public and incorporated into political decisions—functions better if there is disagreement and debate among the scientists. Findings are more robust if they have been repeatedly challenged and refined over time.

Conservatives upset with the state of academic research have often emphasized the way non-progressives are discriminated against [and] suppressed in many fields. And that may be true. But a more productive approach may be to highlight the way that their absence undermines the integrity of science itself—and, in the long run, the quality of public policy decisions. [source]

YES! 

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Science: Literature Changes Your Brain

Recently, some pioneering work in neuroscience has begun to suggest what English teachers have long known: that the power of literature is the power of alterity, creating the possibility of encountering the other in a form not easily recuperable, not easily assimilable to the self. “Imaginative sympathy,” we used to call it. To read literature well is to be challenged, and to emerge changed.

–“Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities

 

One Thing Matters, In Science and Religion

As the world continues to scrutinize the LDS Church during this election season, there are plenty of would-be experts ready to share some weird and scary nuggets of what Mormons “really” believe.  Besides almost always being bizarre, disingenuous distortions, these “shocking secrets” never seem to be considered by those who “reveal” them—or by those who reads them—with the only important question in mind: are they true or not?

Secular America prides itself on being scientific, a bastion of the reason bestowed by the Enlightenment; only an extreme irony can account for this myopia.  Yes, a lot of the supposed facts out there about Mormons are, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “weird and sinister.”

But why stop at pointing that out?  Plenty of things that are weird and sinister are also true (any number of strange historical occurrences and scientific findings).  If those who would criticize the LDS Church have any real intellectual honesty, why not definitively expose the errors in its claims?  Or, more objectively, investigate those claims to see if they’re true or not?

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A Universal Mission Statement

For believers or skeptics, atheists or theists of all stripes, might this function as a call to arms that everybody could support?

Discern the nature of reality as accurately as possible and, as far as any facts have practical applications, bring ourselves into alignment with them and exercise them habitually.  

Sure, that’s just a draft, but I think it gets at the point clearly: we all just want to learn things that are true, and act on them accordingly, to the benefit of ourselves and the larger world, whether those things are secular or spiritual, artistic or scientific, or all of the above.

Reviewed: Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces

For years, I’ve wanted to read Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, the beginning of his famous lectures on physics at MIT.  It looked like such a great review of the high school science I didn’t pay attention to at the time, and I’d heard so much about what a great teacher Feynman was.

Now that I have, I’m disappointed.  Feynman’s teaching is good, but hardly legendary.  He throws in a few good quips and analogies; clearly, he wants to be accessible, but his presentation still feels typical.  Maybe it was more refreshing at the time.

But half a century after these lectures were given, I can’t recommend them as the introduction they’re meant to be.

In the first chapter, Feynman complains that his illustrations of atomic particles must be restricted to two-dimensional drawings.  So I went on YouTube and found the video below, including the series that follows it (in fact, the whole “Best of Science” channel is excellent—there’s a great source for some basic science intros).

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Daily Beast Praises Mormons For Embracing Science

Excellent.  Today, the Daily Beast recognizes Romney and Huntsman’s uniquely pro-science stances in this presidential campaign as reflecting the nature of their faith.

One of many great quotes:

From the very founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its leaders have allowed scientific thought to coexist with their teachings, sometimes in ways that were radical for their time. Modern Mormon scientists, for instance, are quick to quote Brigham Young, who said in 1871, “In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular… whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or as many millions of years.”

Recommended Viewing: The Blue Planet: The Deep

“We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the abyssal floor.”  –from the narration by David Attenborough

The abyssal floor being the bottom of the ocean, that flat desert prairie that covers, again according to this fine documentary, a third of the planet’s surface area.  It’s about three miles below the surface, and most of this film takes place down there, pictured from a state-of-the art submersible that can withstand the incredible pressure and temperatures at that depth.

Temperatures?  That’s right: the extreme cold and heat, the latter courtesy of large jets of steam that shoot up from under the surface of the ocean.  The life forms that cluster along such areas are truly alien, and surprisingly colorful.

That’s the major attraction of this documentary for me: the dizzying array of movement, color, and form represented along the ocean floor is far more fantastic than anything any fantasy artist ever envisioned, and it’s only been visible to us for about the last thirty years or so.  And this must be the best view of it we’ve had yet. 

Going off on a slight tangent, has anybody else felt the mild disorientation that occurs when you find that our understanding of the world, so confidently explained to us as children, has since evolved?  I’m thinking specifically of a trip my wife and I made to an excellent dinosaur museum in Utah a few years ago, which had plenty of awe-inspiring exhibits whose accompanying plaques explained that they were discoveries of the late 90’s, which presented us with entire new species, and reversed some of the ideas we used to be so comfortable with about dinosaurs.  Remember all those stegosaurus and brontosaurus figures you saw in everything from Fantasia to The Land Before Time?  All wrong.  Weird. 

Back to the ocean floor, the same thing is underway.  Twice, the narrator impresses us that less than 1% of the ocean floor has been explored, and new species are being found every ten days.  Truly, this world of ours is still young and has more than enough mystery and excitement to keep us busy for a lifetime.  Perhaps it’s time to make Indiana Jones and the Monsters of the Mariana Trench

 

We’re living in a golden ago of documentaries, and even if we restrict ourselves to the science ones, we have a great library to draw upon.  Watching The Blue Planet reminded me of another of my favorite such documentaries, The Best of Nature: 25 Years.  You know a clip show highlighting 25 years of award-winning reporting is going to be good.  Maybe your local PBS station will play it during the next pledge week.  That’s when I taped my copy.

I love science.  I’m not a tech geek or especially literate in the hard sciences, sadly, but I have great respect for the massive power and beauty of the natural world, a realm that will forever dwarf our ability to understand it.  A thousand years from now, awe-inspiring discoveries will still be around the next corner.  As much as I try to see as many good science shows, books, and web sites as I can, I caught my first glance of the world’s largest mountain range this morning on The Blue Planet.  It’s under water.  So cool.

Besides these two shows, might I also recommend three related web sites?  SciTechDaily and Science News keep me up to date on the latest research and discoveries, and Astronomy Picture of the Day has been my family’s traditional window into God’s cosmic art for years now.

Here’s today’s picture: