Does Philosophy Have Value in an age of Science?

I’m not a trained philosopher, nor am I a trained scientist.  And yet, I can see the benefits and worth of both enterprises.  They are formal means of inquiry to resolve questions raised by human curiosity about the world and form of the natural world.  I took four classes in philosophy as an undergrad (“never grad”) and several classes in science fields while floundering around and trying to make a career decision.

I have a basic grasp of the common scientific methods from studying statistics.  The more commonly taught in secondary and post-secondary education is the “Not Disproving of the Null Hypothesis.”  Here are the steps in designing and processing an experiment, from Science Buddies:

Basic Scientific Method

Even though there are much more advanced scientific frameworks for generation of data and then study and then analysis, flow-chart is a helpful illustration of the concept of science.  It’s formal, and conclusions are not easily accepted.  If the investigator discovers new explanations for phenomena and present it to other scientists and investigators, prior to acceptance they will subject the data and method to their own analysis. If they find fault, they will reject the conclusions.  If they don’t find fault, then they will accept the conclusions, conditionally.

The analysis of the data is subject to rigorous review.  Where is the justification for such analysis and review?  Who decides what can be accepted as valid science, science that in fact answers the question?

Neil Degrasse Tyson is one of the most popular science presenters in our media.  Many see him as the successor to Carl Sagan, who he credits as a mentor.  He produced an updated version of Cosmos for Fox and it was very well done and enjoyable.  He travels and speaks and does radio and television interviews. He appears on panels at skeptic events. He hosts his own podcast, Star Talk, and I am a subscriber.

He obviously values the enterprise of science. He says so in his words and deeds. I was disturbed, then, to read of this exchange on a skeptical podcast:

dGT: How do you define clapping? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that. [Note to the reader: I, like Neil, live and work in Manhattan, and I can assure you that I am quite adept at crossing the perilous streets of the metropolis.]

This was followed by an exchange between Massimo Pigliucci and Tyson on the value of philosophy.  The answer was not settled between them.  Pigliucci is a biologist and a philosopher, with PhD’s in each and he has the background to discuss the issue.  His reply is linked to from Vox in the above link.  I encourage you to read it.

Tyson is not the only scientist to be dismissive of science.  And this disturbs me because they use philosophy in their work.  It is embedded in the process of science.  Philosophy is the framework used by science to assign meaning, to answer questions and definitions of probability thresholds on when a causative phenomenon leads to a dependent phenomenon.  Scientists ask these questions of definition in their work on a continual basis.

When I started this post, I had intended to state that philosophy is the parent of science; but as I thought this through, I think that a more true analogy is that science is a symbiote of philosophy generated by budding from within.  There is no definable, clear, distinct break between science and philosophy.  They feed each other. New discoveries in the lab, or from the telescopes, or in the field,  need to be verified and tested against defined methods developed by asking deep questions.  Science needs philosophy to ask the questions, determine if their work has answered said questions, and to decide if the question and answers have any value.  Philosophy needs science in order to understand the question based on tested data.

The disturbing element to this dismissal by Tyson of philosophy is that we are moving into an era in which people are being taught that opinions are more important than facts.  We are seeing that the United States are being divided in large part because we don’t agree on what the facts may be regarding politics, health care, economics and the public policy of science.  Human thought is a combination of perceptions based on sensations filtered through analysis.  We determine the likelihood of facts, using thought processed shaped by our education.  Critical thinking is a vital skill that is being devalued, in order to enable propaganda.

It’s not just Trump winning by being an ass to his enemies during the campaign.  There is a deep and abiding and growing mistrust of education and critical thought emerging in the United States and lawmakers are writing bills that attack the teaching of the concepts of critical thought on race and gender.

We need critical thought in order to process and determine the courses of action suggested by science and yet, we have scientists trying to undermine the value of critical thought by dismissing philosophy.  How do we determine what is “fake news?”  If the president-elect can simply define it by fiat, what are we to do when we watch CNN and it is critical of Trump?  Are we to accept Breitbart as real news?

I was sadly amused that Tyson recently stated that we need to have a government based on “Reason.”  Here is a paste of his tweet from July 29, 2016:

Earth needs a virtual country: , with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence


I read this and I wondered how will he propose that we determine what is rational if we don’t respect philosophy, which is the basis of reason.

Greg Laden and I are going to ask Dan Fincke, a trained philosopher, about the relationship between science and philosophy and the potential costs of dismissing the framework of “knowing.”  We will be recording the next episode of Ikonokast on Tuesday, January 18th and have it ready for listening shortly after.

Neil, just to let you know, Philosophy is how you discuss “ideas.”

Planned Parenthood: 4 FAQS


4 FAQs That Show the Devastating Cost of “Defunding” Planned Parenthood

In Texas, one study found that pregnancy-related deaths doubled after the state stopped reimbursing Planned Parenthood and imposed stringent funding cuts for women’s health — and 54% fewer patients in the state received care. In Wisconsin, fewer women could access lifesaving cancer screenings following the closure of Planned Parenthood health centers.

We also know that people will be hurt if Planned Parenthood health centers are forced to close their doors because so many people depend on Planned Parenthood for health care. Think about it: An estimated one in five American women visits Planned Parenthood health centers during her lifetime. Without Planned Parenthood’s approximately 650 health centers across the country, many patients would not have timely access to basic preventive health care services.

It is ludicrous to claim that being anti-abortion is being pro-life if taking the health care away from women is your means to achieve a reduction in abortions.


David Brauer on Fake News

David Brauer is an independent journalist in Minneapolis/St. Paul and the Hennepin County Library asked him to write on how to protect yourself from falling for “fake news.”  Here’s the post on Facebook:

How to Defeat Fake News by guest blogger David Brauer:
Fake news is an intentional, premeditated lie, designed to mislead. Writers make honest mistakes (they’re human) or even make poor arguments, but fake news is fundamentally bad faith, a Trojan Horse filled with blatant falsehoods in the guise of credibility.Like any shiny object, fake news is hard to resist.
How can you fight it?

The Quandary of the Trump Age


Social separation based on political leanings.

They can be hazardous, because if we maintain our news sources and our information based on what our friends share, our perspective on reality will be altered further in the direction of our left/right or authoritarian/libertarian scalars.

The Social Bubble Protects Me


Ideally, we need to engage in discussion with people on the subjects of politics and events and actions that can and should be taken.  Healthy, robust, discussion broadens our minds and expands our options for solutions.  That’s the conventional wisdom and has applied for most of my life.

If I may throw “Free Will” into the post, I would like to say that for anyone, their political leanings are not necessarily of their choosing.  People tend to think that where they lay on the grid politically is based on logical reasoning, of course. Any position that we hold is based on our own interpretation of facts and trends and how they intersect with our values.  Our values are based on our upbringing, on our teachings, on our view of where we fit within the Hobbes-Locke-Rousseau philosophies on governance.  What we think is based on a variety of factors and perception is skewed by our realities and social interactions.

This does not mean that there are multiple realities, of course, but multiple interpretations of reality.  This is why those answers that are obvious to me are whack to you.  This is what makes cross-spectrum discussions difficult and the larger problem is the sourcing of facts.

My difficulty is in choosing whether or not to engage with people who don’t source their facts.  I am deeply interested in discussions with  conservatives who share the same respect for sourced and reliable facts. I am impatient and unable to have reasoned discussions with people who choose to source their facts based on conspiratorial or slanted news sites.

An alarming number of people are choosing their media based on their political persuasions; sites that fit their own narratives and in place of the mainstream media.  The mainstream media are hated and mistrusted as being slanted either right or left and not reporting The Truth to The Sheeple.  We use conspiracy sources because they feed our egos, help us to believe that “We are Woke” to reality that few others can see.

Quite honestly, the media have been complicit in this mistrust and I would admit that it is only fair to accept that the print and internet based web media are up against harsh economic realities.  Making money and profit are serious challenges for the media and they are relying on outside sources for their reportage.  The news services such as Reuters and the Associated Press are replacing local reporters.  In the national news our television media and cable media are failing spectacularly.  They are reporting and broadcasting opinion in place of investigative reporting.  CNN and Fox are competing for the same audience, it seems.  They are looking to attract the white conservative Trump voter.

During the election cycle, the networks invited ever expanding panels of Trump surrogates and liberal journalists to offset the conservatives (less so on Fox, of course.)  People talked over each other on how to interpret the news, yet the networks presented very little reporting on the issues that should have been used to help people decide.  There was non-stop coverage of Clinton’s email and the Clinton Foundation as “how to interpret,” but very little actual reporting on the facts.  There was very little investigation into Trump’s many conflicts of interest that would destroy the political careers of any other presidential candidate.  The media surrendered in this election and provided what the people wanted in order to maintain their ratings (and pay the bills.)

We were excited, at least, during the first week in November, that the election would soon be over and the news would return to normal.  Normal being a relative function of reality, of course.  We expected that Fox would continue beating its Clinton drum against the new president-elect, but for the rest of it we thought that we would be able to discuss issues with friends again and let the rancor of the election be behind us.

We didn’t expect that Trump would win.  We thought that people would see through him in the states such as Florida, Ohio, Michigan and perhaps even in Arizona, clearly enough that even conservatives would not be able to vote for him.

Trump won and nothing has changed.  We are still at each other’s throats.  Democrats are blaming each other, and there are even those who are admonishing the Democrats for “not speaking to the white working class.”  It’s not a good situation.

Here’s the quandary:

We can’t solve the rancorous problem if we remain in our bubbles, but it is very difficult to step outside of them realizing that we are going to argue based on facts gathered from biased sources.  I don’t mean “slanted.”  I mean biased, that the actual news are not factual.  I don’t know how to talk to or discuss the situation with a person who treats The Drudge Report, or Breitbart News Network, or Alex Jones, or Wikileaks, or Glenn Greenwald,c or Polticususa or Alternet as trusted sources of news from whence they can take the facts as reported.

How can I have a reasonable discussion with a person who thinks that Trump actually won the popular vote as well as the electoral college?  How can I have a reasonable discussion with someone who thinks that Hillary Clinton was the most corrupt individual to have ever run for president?  How can I share sourced facts with someone as the basis of discussion when they dismiss videos of Donald Trump calling for violent treatment of protesters as “liberal media lies?”

I find that I can’t do it civilly.  I don’t like being mean to people, but I lack the resources to remain civil to people whose reality is shaped by what to me is obvious garbage.  To not be someone that I don’t like, I avoid those discussions.

And I find my “bubble” shrinking.

On the Watchlist

A conservative group put UM historian Tobin Miller Shearer on ‘Professor Watchlist.’ To Shearer, the threat sounds awfully familiar.

Shearer shares his story of being targeted:

So what do you do when a conservative group with white supremacy connections paints a target on your back? The first thing is to point out the target to as many people as possible. That way, if anyone takes aim, there are a lot of people paying attention and poised to intervene. The next morning I sent a note to my dean, the provost and the president alerting them that I and one other professor at UM had been put on the list. The administrators responded positively. In less than 48 hours President Engstrom sent out a message reiterating the university’s support of academic freedom. Oddly enough, between the time of the watchlist’s release and President Engstrom’s statement, the other professor’s name had been removed from the list. As that professor later noted, Turning Point’s ability to add or remove names at will emphasized the impunity of its actions.

This is exactly how prior attempts at watchlisting have unfolded. As historian Ellen Wolf Schrecker has pointed out, McCarthy-era professorial “blacklists”a racially problematic term from the Red Scare of the 1950shad two phases. In the first, an official organization identified the so-called subversive faculty. In the subsequent phase, the professors were fired or received economic sanction.

The Legitimacy of the President

Paula Poundstone included a joke about GHWBush when he was the president, so you know this goes back a long time.  She said “He’s not my president and I don’t have to do what he says.”  In retrospect, reviewing the recent presidents of my lifetime, GHWBush is really not among the worst. I have lived through Ronald Reagan, GWBush, Nixon and Ford and even Johnson and Kennedy.

Here I am, trying unsuccessfully to realize that the next president of the United States will be that buffoon, that bully, that asshole with the big bucks, that pussygrabber who is proud of sexual assault, that man they call Donald J Trump.  I thought that his candidacy was a joke, that people would realize it and stop voting for him in the primaries and that one of the other conservative Republicans would be the candidate.

06trumpletter-hp-facebookjumboI believed, even in the general campaign, that voters would look at the rude fool who kicked a black man out of a rally because he was black and looked like a troublemaker, who offered to pay legal fees for ruffians, who made fun of a handicapped reporter, who did all these things that we would not allow in our children; would look at that guy and say “That is not who we want to see in our White House, representing us to the world.”

They voted for him after all.  Not all of us voted for him, of course.  Not even a majority of us.  Only enough people, in a few key states, voted for him in slightly larger numbers than for Hillary Clinton.  And, barring a coming to Jesus that would make sense of the Electoral College, he is set to be named the President of the United States.

Important note as of Inauguration Day: “He’s not my president and I don’t have to do what he says.”

I don’t see this next presidency as being legitimate, and yet if it is allowed to go through the electoral college, it will have disastrous effects. Trump is in that office for self-aggrandizement and to make himself even wealthier.  With Donald at the Wheel, the Congress will have a rubber stamp to do whatever they want for the next two years and he will sign it, while Trump is in his Tower Paul Ryan will get rid of Social Security and Medicare.   They will continue to pass laws that attack womens’ right to choose through religious freedom restoration acts for pharmacists and doctors, and those same laws will be used to justify discrimination against lesbians and gays.c

This is not normal.  He is not my president, yet.  Nor will he be after he is inaugurated.

Trump and Science with Shawn Otto

A new release of the Ikonokast Podcast


With the surprising election results in the United States, we wanted to explore for this episode, how the scientific community will be able to respond to the presidency of Donald Trump. In his statements regarding science, he has wavered between hostility to science and acceptance of science. He may even be indifferent to science, depending on the business expediency that he is analyzing at any given moment. Certainly, his positions on science are likely to be unpredictable during his term. He will be working with a congress that is led by conservative Republicans in both the House and the Senate. Science funding and yes, even the concept of science being consulted for decisions on public policy, is sure to take a beating for the next few years.


To gain perspective on how we, as a nation came to this juncture, we asked Shawn Lawrence Otto to join us for this podcast. Shawn has authored the book “The War on Science: Who’s waging it, why it matters, what we can do about it.” He is also a co-founder and director of ScienceDebate, an organization that has been working to elevate science’s importance in political discourse during presidential elections. Shawn’s ability to analyze the landscape of both politics and science sheds light on how we arrived at this election result, where knowledge and power interlock and intertwine and how we survive the bleak time ahead with hope on the horizon (come on millennials, you can rise up!) We will also call out the role of the media and how they have failed to deliver on their mission.


We hope you enjoy this episode, which is more political than our usual fare, but we also hope that you take heart the message and the call to action to stem the tide of anti-science politics.

Not So Optimistic About the Future

As a country we have held out hope that the racists and conservatives were aging out and would be replaced by millenials and younger people who will be more liberal and socially driven towards liberty.  But, according to this post at the Wonk Blog, we are more likely in for something else entirely:

It’s tempting to explain these findings away. For example, it seems likely that younger citizens are less sanguine about democracy in part because they lack the direct experience of living under, or fighting against, authoritarian regimes like fascism or communism. But that need not be a comforting explanation. After all, the very same reasons may lead younger people to vote for extreme candidates who would erode key elements of liberal democracy.

In fact, there is reasonably strong evidence that younger citizens are not only more skeptical of democracy than they once were but also more drawn to political extremes than in the past. Since the early 1990s, the proportion of young respondents (with “young” defined as age 14-35) who self-identify as either radical left (“1” on a 10-point left-right political spectrum) or radical right (“10” on the left-right scale) has increased in many countries, and at both ends of the scale.

By Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa


Nehemiah Scudder

Nehemiah Scudder

Nehemiah Scudder was a character in the Future History timeline Robert Heinlein used to unify his science fiction. He was a backwoods preacher who was elected president of the United States in 2012.  As a dictator, he cancelled the elections of 2016, and the United States were no longer a free nation.  It became a theocracy.  Scudder was first introduced in the story “If This Goes On.”

Heinlein was an atheist, and a libertarian.  He was also a secularist.  His fiction warned about ways in which a nation could willingly surrender its liberties.  While during the Cold War, we feared that the Soviets would either invade and enslave us or they would nuke us. The fear of the Soviets, or the Comcmunist Chinese, kept us in line as good Americans.  But, Heinlein wanted to illustrate in his fiction, how easy it would be for us to vote away our freedom.

And he was right about that. The Soviets didn’t invade, their system crumbled and Russia was a democracy for a while.  China decided that their aims were better achieved by trade than by war.  The threats to our freedom changed, but not in the direction that was expected.  The threats are internal, of course.  The threats are theocratic.  Heinlein was correct about that.

He was incorrect about how the Theocrats were going to gain control.  They couldn’t do so by electing a straight up religious demagogue such as Scudder.  They figured out that the best way was to get behind a man who was not known to be a Theocrat, but someone who would appeal to a larger electorate.  A television superstar.  A super wealthy businessman.  Someone who would know how to cut costs and get things done!

The Theocrats got behind Donald Trump.  Ted Cruz must have been baffled and flabbergasted to be losing in the race to such a lout, a crude man who won by hurling childish insults at his opponents and their spouses.  He rambled in his speeches during the campaign, mouthing petty jealousies and talking about current events like he was our uncle at dinner time (the one who everyone just wanted to tell to shut the fuck up.)  He was openly racist and encouraged violence.  He pretended to get saved and the theocrats pretended to believe him, even when he was discovered on tape to have bragged about sexual assault.The goals of the Theocrats are simple.  They are ready to make us all live as though we were believers, even if we are not.  They are ready to make women move back into their “proper place,” barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen.  They are ready to make homosexuality a mental illness again, subjecting anyone who is gay, lesbian or transgender to the hideous torture the call “conversion therapy.”  They are ready to feed our taxes into the churches so we are supporting them.  They are ready to make science mushy with creationism, destroying any value that it may have.  They are ready to take away social programs that enable the losers in a capitalistic system to survive without having to beg on the streets. The Theocrats are ready to be thought police, too, using “political correctness” claims as a blunt tool to squash debate.

They are ready to usher in the Dominion.

But, they couldn’t have done it with Cruz.  That would have been too obvious.  They needed Trump.  Trump used them and they used him to get what each other wants. He is going to be in the Oval Office making deals, using the leverage he will have as the President of the United States.  He will tweet and cause stocks owned by companies who criticize him to fall. 

He won’t be the one to institute the transition to theocracy.  That job will go to Mike Pence.  Mike Pence is a serious theocrat, and will be in charge of “Domestic and Foreign Policy,” while Trump goes to make America Great.

They didn’t need a Nehemiah Scudder.