The Heptagrammaton

This story in The Independent caught my eye over the weekend. For our transatlantic readers, I should point out that fracking is as unpopular in the UK as GM crops, firstly because we’re so highly populated that it is perceived to be likely to affect back gardens rather than distant wildernesses, which we do not possess. But there was also an unfortunate incident in which a pilot project caused a small earthquake, which has shaken the public confidence more than the bedrock itself.

As usual, the headline presents a misleading impression that our Chief Scientific Adviser is agin all such meddling with Nature, but the article itself is actually quite good, showing that he is merely advocating a judicious application of caution and adequate research.

What was interesting to me was the language used, both in the article and the Chief Scientific Adviser’s quotations.

“History presents plenty of examples of innovation trajectories that later proved to be problematic — for instance involving asbestos, benzene, thalidomide, dioxins, lead in petrol, tobacco, many pesticides, mercury, chlorine and endocrine-disrupting compounds, as well as CFCs, high-sulphur fuels and fossil fuels in general.”

Throughout the piece, in decribing the unforeseen disasters of our past and present, the word “innovation” crops up several times, as does the word “technology.” It’s clear that he is not primarily blaming greedy capitalists or politicians, but (in retrospect) insufficient research. But despite the Chief Adviser being officially Scientific, the word “science” doesn’t get a mention at all. Granted, fracking is primarily a technology rather than a scientific innovation, though it does rely on what the science of geology has discovered. But pretty well all the other examples on the list, Sir Walter Raleigh’s “legal high” excepted, were applications of cutting-edge chemistry, more applied science than mere technology.

Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but it sounds a bit like those criticisms of absolute monarchies in which the infallible king never makes mistakes, but is let down by his ministers or by traitors in our midst.

Inadequate science was never to blame for these problems, it seems, but the barely competent “technology” and the reckless assistant, “innovation”. That seems more likely than another alternative, which is that the word SCIENCE is just too sacred to be uttered, and “innovation” and “technology” are placeholders for the divine Name in the way that “Adonai” and “Heaven” were for 1st century Jews.

That may all be mere paranoia, though we’ve frequently discussed the role of science in our culture as the Infallible Truth, against which all else must be judged. So it might be interesting to keep an eye out for how the word “science” is used in other discussions of our current problems with global warming, holes in the ozone layer and so on. It’s frequently held up as the Saviour combating the vested interests of global corporations and ignorant denial, but how often do we see it being described, from within or without, as attempting to clear up its own past mistakes?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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18 Responses to The Heptagrammaton

  1. Lou Jost says:

    Well, I’ll have to vote for “paranoia” here. Science is value-neutral. It’s a way of finding out things, for bad or for good.

    • Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

      “Science is value-neutral.”

      … or might be; if the whole enterprise could be separated from human beings.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Yep. It’s a tool, like a knife. Can be used for good or bad, quite effective for either purpose.

        • Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

          Except that a knife can have an existence apart from human beings, although we could argue about whether the object so-called retains anything of intrinsic “knifeness” if it was just laying on the ground and all humanity had ceased to exist. But with science, there is no possibility of it existing apart from humans. If we all go, science goes too. So while a knife may retain something of an independent existence, science has no chance of that; and thus the question of any value-neutrality is merely rhetorical.

          • Lou Jost says:

            I don’t see that, Merv. How about math? Is that value-laden? Yet doing math requires humans.

            • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


              Merv is the mathematician, and definitely not I! But the idea that maths is value-free is heavily contested in philosophy of maths, and the issues are discussed in this paper.

              So it’s definitely not done-and-dusted, unless one is prepared to pull an E O Wilson and say that philosophy is bunk… in which case maths, like science, will be said to be objective without making any argument to support it (for that would be philosphical). And nothing could be more human than a mere assertion.

              • Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

                Math does indeed require human beings as well, and as such becomes value-laden, I think. I know at least one Christian math-teacher colleague who I think would vehemently disagree with me on this, though I’ve never fleshed out the argument with him.

                I’m not sure I would go so far as the sociologist in Jon’s linked article goes, but that may be more a reflection of their deeper engagement with this question specifically than my own engagement as merely a math teacher. My reflections will probably be closer to the “man on the street” than to doctoral dissertations on the subject. That said, even I can reflect on my (or anybody’s) inability to teach math in a vacuum. We can focus on what appear to be value-free factoids like 2+2=4. But we never just teach those, especially at upper levels. If we take the oft-expressed question: “where will we ever use this?” and wrest it out of its typical context where it really means: “I don’t like doing this hard work” and take it instead as a real question: “no really — how is this used?”; in that honest and commendable curiosity we encounter our refusal to leave math in some distant ethereal context and our desire to transplant it into our own reality where it will be expected to pull its own weight like all the other subjects we are learning.

                So not only will I be teaching my students that 2+2=4 (analogous to the more advanced concepts taught at higher levels) but I will also be teaching them a context for that information (cue the word problems!).

                Example: Why, here in the U.S., do we have increasing emphasis on subjects like probability and statistics at nearly all levels of math education? Hopefully my students won’t be gambling away their future wealth in casinos, and yet here I am in class teaching probabilities with coins, cards, other concepts. Some of that will be because I and others know the gambling culture we all live in, from insurance to lottery ticket purchases, and we may be able to arm our students with knowledge to be intelligent consumers (or non-consumers!) in appropriate ways. How’s that for value-laden?

                You may respond that applied math should be distinguished from pure math. Perhaps so. I’m not sure I actually disagree with you on that, so I won’t be dogmatic over it all. But I do think there will never be any such thing as a math teacher (or even theorem!) that could really be said to be completely devoid of cultural (and therefore value) context. We have no access to any of this “pure” concept except through our fortunately value-laden minds.

                All this said, I appreciated (as I suspect you would too, Lou) thisthis cartoon despite my disagreement with the simplistic reductionism it assumes. It is nonetheless a fun sentiment for math enthusiasts to indulge in.

              • Lou Jost says:

                Yep, nice cartoon! I don’t disagree that math has an essentially human component; indeed, my argument depends on it. But I don’t see how anything mentioned in these last comments, or in the paper cited by Jon, supports the idea that math itself can be described as evil or good, any more than a knife can be. One can apply existing math or develop new math either for evil purposes or for good; this does not reflect on the math but on the mathematician,

  2. GD GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    I have spent most of my time as a senior research scientist working on ways to use fossil fuels in an environmentally responsible (and clean manner). I can say without hesitation that the dirtiest options have (and even to this day some still are) been chosen by scientists and engineers who spent the bulk of their time avoiding sound science, and seeking ways to convince industry executives and governments to provide them with huge amounts of funding.

    The matter is not one of paranoia, but I guess of human nature at its worst. Closer analysis will show that decision makers are more impressed with what we sometimes call “used car salesmen” who have degrees in science and engineering, who “simplify” it all for these somewhat illiterate business executives – I cannot count the number of times I have heard them tell me, “give me a half page summary” on one of the most difficult problem facing us. On the other side of this is the fact that scientists and non-scientists have provided me with fantastic support, willingly risking their time and expertise to perform sound science – and the response on a world-wide scale has also been most welcomed.

    Much of science and technology has brought us misfortunes, and an analysis of the causes include the veneration of science by some, the exaggerated claims (and expectations) made for science from others, and the impact of unethical scientists and non-scientists on commercial outcomes. On science, it is how it is used and practiced that is problematic, and instead of value-neutral, it is instead easily used and abused by unscrupulous people. It is not enough to call for more money for more research – it is important to be able differentiate scientists who are excellent at their science, from the con-artists who spend their time understanding the politics of funding and persuasion. This area is very, very, poor in science, and the values (or absence of values) is with human beings.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      GD, it’s wise to remember that separating science from human sin is as unrealistic as separating it from the human mind. But I had in mind less moral corruption, than unrealised ignorance linked to he exercise of power.

      Science as purely an investigative technique, separated conceptually from the application to good or bad, ignores the whole Baconian concept of science. He wrote:

      It is not the pleasure of curiosity, nor the quiet of resolution, nor the raising of the spirit, nor victory of wit, nor faculty of speech … that are the true ends of knowledge … but it is a restitution and reinvesting, in great part, of man to the sovereignty and power, for whensoever he shall be able to call the creatures by their true names, he shall again command them.

      Now his writings reveal a call to piety, charity, seeking of human welfare and circumspection, bur it’s still the language of power – a return to Eden through experimental science, which is a big ambition. And that makes the dangers of ignorance, as well as the benefits of knowledge, science’s own responibility.

      • GD GD says:

        Jon, The role of science within community is a very important subject for discussion – science has placed unprecedented power in the hands of humans. As a result I have taken science within a communal setting, a subject for serious reflection – responsibility is central to such an exercise. Yet the subject matter is huge, and I think ethics, sociology, and aspects related to how power is obtained and used, are areas that must form part of such reflection.

        An example may be useful – I am impressed with the results of a survey by the Economist – their question was, “what do you think is the greatest contribution of science to humanity”. The answer seemed to surprise some who made comments – but people from around the world, of various backgrounds responded, and the significant majority identified production of food. I too was surprised by the result, because this area includes pesticides, degradation of the soil, unprecedented pollution, just to name a few problems that are the result of using chemicals on a huge scale.

        The answer to the result of the survey however, was understood when figures for population growth were considered, leading to famine on a huge scale, and the corresponding wars and suffering that would have occurred.

        If science did not add to the world’s capacity for greater food production, it may have been held responsible for suffering on a huge scale – when it did however, it is held responsible for many problems that are the result of using such potent chemicals.

        Other statement can be made, such as wars where science has given us the ability to inflict death and suffering on a huge scale, and many other matters, such as climate change. We scientists can easily fool ourselves by invoking piety and charity, seeking the welfare of humanity and the planet. Nonetheless, the answers to such problems eventually (if we can find them) will be found imo in human agency and human beliefs.

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Reply to Merv above (new nest!)

    Can I add a probably misguided 2 pennorth? As far as pure maths goes, the issue of mathematical truth is one of logical consistency, is it not? That’s perceived by the mathematician’s intellect, so is only as good as our reason +/- imagination have been created/evolved to be, I guess.

    Maths nevertheless might indeed correspond to a reality “out there”, but if so, where? Dirac quipped about God being a very advanced mathematician in his creation, apparently speaking as as an atheist, but certainly his thought would be a rational explanation of the “immaterial” nature of maths, if God exists and does maths as we do (that’s a subset of the idea I’ve been playing with for many weeks that God’s idea of reality is the one we’re intended to share, with “physical reality” being the rather inchoate medium between those two conceptual worlds).

    But connecting maths to scientific reality is another matter from considering it as some platonic truth. Correct maths may fit the physical world, or it may not. A prime example is string theory, where I gather there are large numbers of possible mathematical versions, only one of which (at most) can fit reality. So in what sense would all the other valid string theories have existence independent from the human mind? It would seem that God chose one mathematical truth from a shelf full of possibilities, and if not God, then “Nature”.

    At the more conceivable level, mathematical relationships in science would seem often to to be approximations fitting limited cases. Newton’s laws don’t apply relativistically, Boyle’s law breaks down at extremes of pressure, and so on. Is the maths more real than the world, then? And as we discussed recently about Rupert Sheldrake’s essay, the variations and errors in actual measurement of data make such mathematical relationships an ideal that we can’t, finally, prove.

    I suspect that’s what Maxwell and others were getting at when they viewed partial differential equations as just a more precise version of a physical theory about billiard balls or plum puddings. It’s hard to produce a strong argument that either type of theory has an existence independent of the human mind.

    So it would seem the scientist has found or created a mathematical pattern that “happens” to fit the data well enough to predict reality for some (humanly conceived) purpose. But we still haven’t really made any suggestion about where the mathematical truth “lives” in a materialist reality, any more than anyone’s been able to suggest where scientific laws “live” in such a reality.

  4. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    You won’t get any argument out of me about all such things (consistency, theorems, etc.) all being in our heads. But I will be a bit parochial (should we say “folk-math”?) in my adherence to a faith that there must be some objective significance out there that enables some at least partially independent convergence on perceived mathematical truths -and beyond that even on how some parts of reality work.

    And I offer no answer at all for the awe-inspiring (even if idealized) matching between math-theory and science-observation. I know nothing about how that truth exists in our minds or why God should select one set of apparently-good theorems over another. I only know that it seems to work well enough, and so I embrace it pragmatically. That is where I think more like the man-on-the-street than the ivory-tower philosopher. Not that I judge the philosopher to be wrong (how would I know?) — but rather I just fail to follow (through shortage of intellect/training or allocation of time/effort or likely both) the intricacies of all such critique.

  5. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Reply to Lou’s last post up above that appears (at least on my browser) to have been truncated. But responding to your comments as they show…

    I agree with you, Lou, that evil or good do not reside in objects be they knives or theorems. The point I still press (I think along with Jon as well) is that it is impossible for us to get away from those things (good, evil, and all manner of cultural heritage) inside ourselves as we use, study, or teach these objects, be they knives or theorems.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Too right Merv. In the context of the OP, Lou’s point is also fair – science is not “evil” or “good”. But neither is technology (the knife) or innovation. I was simply noting that the science adviser was happier to apply value-talk to the latter two than the first in apportioning error.

      Others, of course, have been wont to give unwarranted positive value to science (it gets us to the moon, cures diseases, gives us mobile phones etc), whilst pleading that it’s value-free if anyone mentions ICBMs, napalm or bugging devices.

      The question of its inseparability from human thought is, of course, a deeper but more significant philosophicval issue, and a surprising one in the case of maths, for the reasons the paper I cited makes clear: it’s even more cunningly disguised as objective truth than science tends to be.

  6. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    “Cunningly disguised” is an interesting and challenging choice of words. One could probably provide good reason to think that we can approach closer to actual objectivity on the mathematical front than, say, in various sciences. But I agree with you that the appearance of such may make an unwarranted conviction all the more seductive. Not seductive in that we mis-attribute any objectivity at all to mathematics or even confer some superior objectivity to it; but seductive perhaps in the extent of such an attribution if we wish to see it as supreme. Bertrand Russell pursued that dream at least for a while.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Don’t read too much accusation hidden motivation into that phrase, Merv – it was just an allusion to the observation in the paper that the human aspect of maths is better hidden than that of science because it’s a language we’ve been speaking in common for several millennia.

      It’s analogous to the point in another post (from another author) that our “theory” of classes of solid objects like chairs arises so early in life, and so universally, that it takes effort and education to realise we’re doing it and that we’re imposing a specific meaning on reality.

  7. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    An apposite couple of paragraphs (regarding mathematics and knowledge) from an excellent essay by Stephem Talbott:

    The physicist has not, as so often claimed, succeeded in presenting us with a world of pure objectivity or outwardness — a “disenchanted” or “disensouled” world. He has only tried to restrict the enchantment to the sphere of mathematics. But mathematical relations or concepts are still ideas, not things, and the universe is, if nothing else, startlingly enchanted by these ideas. The question, “Who is the enchantress?” may be beyond our ken at this time, but this does not remove the facts that provoke the question. Oddly, physicists seem far ahead of biologists in their occasional and explicit openness to these facts. When an astrophysicist wrote an essay in Nature entitled “The Mental Universe”, it produced hardly a murmur of surprise from his peers (Henry 2005).

    The mathematical order, however, does tell us that there must be other principles of order. For mathematics alone doesn’t give us any things or phenomena at all; numbers are not things. Whatever the things may be to which our mathematical formulations refer, they either have a qualitative character that we can consciously apprehend in a conceptually ordered way, or they must remain unknown and outside our science. And that qualitative conceptual ordering cannot be predicted from the mathematics. Rather, the qualitative order is the fuller reality that determines whatever we abstract from it, including mathematical relationships.

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