A plagiodox view

Recently, Michael Reiss lost his position as Director of Education for the Royal Society because of how people reacted to what some people in the press said about what he said at a recent conference. I think I have that straight.

I have read the document that he prepared and submitted ahead of time. Assuming he said orally something pretty close to what he wrote, it is clear to me that his comments were a pretext for the precipitation of the conflict, rather than a reason. “Let’s you and him fight!” is the name of that game. Given that the media makes its living, in part, by reporting on fights, their actions are understandable, if unfortunate.

Conflict is, of course, part of the living experience of any organism that lives in a social relationship based on dominance hierarchies. Every individual spends some energy working on dominance relationships as well as cooperative relationships. And every individual draws a unique balance between these two activities, cooperation vs. dominance.

The tension between “science” and “religion” draws some very intense interest in parts of the population today. That tension provokes conflict between individuals, who take up different sides in the metaphorical struggle. Whether or not the conflict will ultimately be productive is unclear.

To me, the struggle is, in part, internal and personal. And I have been a human being long enough to be convinced that all metaphorical struggles are partly projections of internal and personal struggles. The dimensions of the struggle are expressed, at least in part, by how one responds to two problems:

  • What is true vs. what is not true.
  • What might work vs. what we can be certain wont work.

Science is much better at answering questions in the negative. As I have said before (Not…), we can say with much greater certainty that the Earth is not flat than we can say what precise shape it actually has. It seems to me that if we take falsification seriously as a working rule of science, we have to admit that science is much more attuned to saying what is not true than saying what is true. By the same reasoning, we can say with greater certainty in any new problem situation what wont work than what will work.

In the reality of life, one is confronted with problems. It is very nice to be able to sort the possible solutions into two piles: those we are sure wont work, and all the rest. But how do we choose between the alternatives in “all the rest”?

You try to find the alternative that, if it fails and catasrophe follows, you can reconcile yourself to the consequences. That, of course, requires an inward search. And humility.

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