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Reading List September 21, 2019

“Listen to the Science”

Are scientists more virtuous than the rest of us? Can religion and science be happily reconciled?
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In her appearance before Congress this week, sixteen-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg submitted the most recent scientific report of the International Panel on Climate Change in lieu of a prepared statement. Much of the subsequent hearing involved discussion about why it’s important to “listen to the science.”

Our reading list this week takes that responsibility seriously, featuring pieces that reflect on the nature of science—from its conceptual and philosophical foundations to its social and political significance.

The philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin reconsiders conventional wisdom about correlation and causation, and reflects on the perennial attempt to reestablish the authority of reason and evidence—from quantum physics to Thomas Kuhn. Two historians of science, Michael Gordin and Steven Shapin, explore the inevitably political dimensions of the practice of science and the path by which scientific thinking came to accrue cultural and intellectual authority.

We also hear from scientists themselves. The biologist Anne-Fausto Sterling calls for a new era of citizen science in an era of dwindling funding and democratic engagement, and the computer scientist Michael Nielsen considers a new age of “networked science.” The climate scientist Kerry Emanuel sums up what we know about climate change, and from our deep archive, the biologist H. Allen Orr takes a close look at the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s arguments about the relation between science and religion.

—Matt Lord


The Why of the World
by Tim Maudlin

Allured by the promise of Big Data, science has shortchanged causal explanation in favor of data-driven prediction. But ultimately we must ask why.

• • •

Is Science Political?
by Michael D. Gordin

Many take the separation between science and politics for granted, but this view of science has its own political history: it was developed, in part, as an anti-communist tool of the Cold War.

• • •

The Virtue of Scientific Thinking
by Steven Shapin

Is there something about what scientists know that makes them better people? Are scientists recruited from a section of humankind that is already better than the norm? And is there something scientists know that, were it widely shared with non-scientists, would make the rest of us better?

• • •

Democratic Science
by Anne Fausto-Sterling

“In a democracy the public has the right to question how the government allocates spending. But scientific research is often arcane and seemingly far-removed from the urgent need to promote public health and welfare.”

• • •

The Networked Era
an interview with Michael Nielsen

The Internet may well have its downsides, but it also has the potential to make us collectively smarter. Networked digital tools such as discussion boards and online marketplaces are making it easier for scientists to pool their data, share methodologies, and find far-flung collaborators.

• • •

The Defeat of Reason
by Tim Maudlin

Two recent books—one on quantum physics, one on Thomas Kuhn—seek to reestablish the authority of reason and evidence, each in its own way. But it is the most difficult of all tasks. How do you convince a whole culture that it is deluded?

• • •

Gould on God
by H. Allen Orr

Ever since Keynes revealed that Newton was a mystic, it’s been appreciated that the history of science and religion is a good deal richer than the cardboard one favored by many scientists

• • •

What We Know About Climate Change
by Kerry Emanuel

Especially in the United States, the political debate about global climate change became polarized along the conservative–liberal axis some decades ago. Although we take this for granted now, it is not entirely obvious why the chips fell the way they did.

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