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Pop science: Scientific expertise = universal truths


Science historian Darin Hayton eloquently fumes,

Once again the internet is all excited by some scientists’ findings that solve a historical mystery. In this case, “UTA scientists use Planetarium’s advanced astronomical software to accurately date 2500 year-old lyric poem” (as the University of Texas at Arlington press announcement puts it). Unsurprisingly, UTA’s “press release” (by which I mean “propaganda”) misrepresents the article. Despite the link to the article in the “press release,” nobody at UTA—either in media relations or in the planetarium—apparently could be bothered to read the article. I shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised that most other people trafficking in this story have likewise ignored the article. While not surprised, I am disheartened to see that even purportedly reputable, pro-science sites that typically demand “evidence” and “data” expend no effort to read the original article, i.e., to base their posts on evidence. We read over and over again some variation on “astronomers date 2,500-year-old Sappho poem,” when, in fact, article does not determine nor does it claim to determine a date for Sappho’s poem (though the authors assume a particular year).[1] This episode raises three issues:

Okay, Sappho* was an ancient Greek poet (7th C BC).

UTA’s propaganda about the article and the subsequent coverage of it expose the naïve assumptions people make about a universal applicability of scientific expertise. …

“I want to emphasize how the UTA ‘press release’ as well as the reposts and other summaries are possible because they *assume* that scientific expertise is somehow universal, or at least extends unproblematically into non-scientific fields and supersedes whatever expertise is unique to that field. Scientific expertise, it seems, gets at universal truths—in this case, the Pleiades are a constellation that obey certain, known equations that describe how the universe has always worked. If you assume the superiority of some ambiguous, ill defined but all pervasive scientific methodology that uncovers to timeless laws of nature, then there is little reason to check the original article or to ask questions about it. It’s science. More.

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Hey, it’s actually worse in other fields. Evolutionary psychology is an entire genre of historical fiction about early man, based on Darwinian assumptions. It’s hard to refute psychological studies of people who have been dead for hundreds of thousands of years, who left no writings behind. But pop scinece is hardly going to be deterred by such minor setbacks.

Voracious consumers of current pop science are, counterintuitively perhaps, not usually very inquisitive people.  They are interested n science only insofar as it can be used to confirm naturalism. They would have little use for it otherwise.

Patchy Ausstechformen *Note: Sappho became associated with lesbianism, though the historical record suggests her life was a bit more complex than that:

Only a handful of details are known about the life of Sappho. She was born around 615 B.C. to an aristocratic family on the Greek island of Lesbos. Evidence suggests that she had several brothers, married a wealthy man named Cercylas, and had a daughter named Cleis. She spent most of her adult life in the city of Mytilene on Lesbos where she ran an academy for unmarried young women. Sappho’s school devoted itself to the cult of Aphrodite and Eros, and Sappho earned great prominence as a dedicated teacher and poet. A legend from Ovid suggests that she threw herself from a cliff when her heart was broken by Phaon, a young sailor, and died at an early age. Other historians posit that she died of old age around 550 B.C.

The history of her poems is as speculative as that of her biography. She was known in antiquity as a great poet: Plato called her “the tenth Muse” and her likeness appeared on coins. It is unclear whether she invented or simply refined the meter of her day, but today it is known as “Sapphic” meter.

See also: Earth is flat and childbirth SHOULD be painful?

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