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Science and Conversation:
Learning to Avoid Dismissiveness

Paul Grobstein
September 2006

Serendip is committed to the potential of a world-wide community in which all humans share in the ongoing evolution of individual and collective understandings of what it is to be human. And to the promise of the web as an mechanism to further the development of such a community (see "Theory" below).

The web cannot, however, itself bring such a community into existence. What is needed as well is a greater willingness and ability of all humans to engage widely in meaningful conversation with others, to look for and value the changes both in others and in themselves that might result from such conversation. And accordingly to develop new styles of conversation that encourage rather than inhibit the productive exchange of differing understandings.

Science has a special role to play in this evolution, both in helping to illustrate the challenges of finding better ways to converse and in encouraging ways to meet such challenges. For a variety of reasons, many people are dismissive of scientific perspectives. And, again for a variety of reasons, many scientists are dismissive of the perspectives of others. The sample of exchanges provided to the right are aimed at illustrating the problem of conversational dismissiveness and at suggesting ways to move beyond it. With regard to science ... and beyond.


Serendip is committed to the principle that

"among our greatest strengths is the differences among us"

(see also Diversity and Deviance: A Biological Perspective and How I Think and Feel is Different)

to the potential of the web to provide an arena in which

"all humans ... play an active role in world-wide cultural and intellectual interchange. This means not only that everybody's ideas/perspectives can be made available, but also that people can develop their ideas and perspectives in extensive interaction with other people"

and to the promise of an evolving more humane human culture in which

"All people [are] encouraged to think of their ideas/perspectives as "in progress": to make them available as potential contributions to the thinking of others, and to make use of the thoughts of others as of potential significance to their own thinking"

Some Illustrative Examples

"If we think that scientific laws are flexible enough to be affected by the social setting of their discovery, then some may be tempted to press scientists to discover laws that are more proletarian or feminine or ..." ... Steven Weinberg, New York Review, August 8, 1996

"It seriously pays everyone, even scientists, to listen to and and learn from others, a cause which is not well served by the rearing of imaginary bogey (wo)men in a reflex defense against any perceived critique of science" ... Two Cultures or One?

Faith, Reason, God and Other Imponderables: A Clash Between Religion and Science ... Science Times, New York Times, 1 August 2006

"A "clash" between science and religion exists only in the minds of those who prefer to see human affairs as a confrontation between good and evil. Others of us prefer to see human interactions as mutually beneficial continuing conversations among people who share with one another their own individual experiences, thoughts and ideas. For "conversationalists" like myself, the existence of diverse stories of humanity and its place in the universe is a virtue rather than a problem. The diversity has been and will always be the essential generative soil from which new useful stories emerge" ... Science/Religion Clash?

"more worrisome than a political movement against science is plain old ignorance ...Science is not storytelling" ... Lawrence Krauss, New York Times, Science Times, 15 August 2006

"Readers should know that "science is not storytelling" is Dr. Krauss's opinion, and that other scientists, myself included, believe story telling to be a key element of science, one that it is particularly important to convey as part of effective science education. Dr. Krauss has also himself violated a fundamental tenet of science: to remain both open-minded toward and skeptical of all understandings, including one's own. An unnecessarily aggressive posture toward the understandings of others makes it harder rather than easier to promote widespread scientific literacy" ... Letter to the NY Times, 22 August 2006

"Most of the critiques of Freud one reads nowadays are from people who favor a reductionistic view that equates mind and brain and views phenomenological exploration of the inner life of human beings as inherently unscientific" ... Serendip Mental Health Forum, 19 August 2006

"there are many scientists ... who ... value Freud ... Whatever the problems with the legacy of Freud and psychoanalysis ... there continue to be rich and useful insights in those historically quite significant perspectives, and anyone interested in mental health care ought to want to preserve them. The most promising route to doing so, it seems to me, is not attack other perspectives in order to defend one's own but rather to seek productive and mutually influential bridges between the psychoanalytic tradition and other potentially complementary perspectives" ... Serendip Mental Health Forum, 20 August 2006

And beyond science ...

"We are a human community, and among our greatest strengths is the differences among us. They are to be feared only when they are accompanied by estrangement ... It is a time to take the time to feel and reflect and think, to tell and listen to each others' stories, to commit ourselves anew to finding ways to tell our collective human story in a way from which no one feels estranged" ... Serendip, 12 September 2001
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