Who is Who

Detecting a cultural position in debates, with focus on creationism and climate change.

  1. Classes of debate

There are different classes of debate. Some debates occur between two or more culturally defined (CD) positions, of which none are ‘correct’; all positions are simply a matter of cultural support and beliefs. An example of this class is the clash between two sides of a religious schism.

Some debates occur between evidentially defined (ED) positions where, nevertheless, the current state of knowledge is such that no resolution can yet be attained. In such a debate there is theoretically a ‘correct’ answer, despite it is not yet uncovered. An example of this class is the dark matter debate, on which the scientific method could take decades or longer to eliminate challenging uncertainties. In scenarios like this all competing positions claim evidential support, but the uncertainties are wide enough such that the total evidence cannot yet resolve candidate theories, and indeed may even include what seem to be (from a state of limited knowledge / data) complete contradictions.

Other debates are hybrids of the above cases, wherein one side is largely characterized by (an) evidential position(s) while the other side is largely characterized by a cultural position. In this ED versus CD class the ‘correct’ answer may, like the ED versus ED case above, simply be unobtainable yet. Or the correct answer may actually be available, but it is largely obscured by the cultural inertia working in opposition (and so also keeping a debate alive). Or the very process of obtaining an answer is likewise resisted and undermined by the opposing culture. An example of this class is the evolution versus creationism debate.

It should be borne in mind that for any debate that actually matters to society at large, there is never a complete absence of cultural bias. And oppositely, even strong cultural arguments may co-opt real-world evidence (albeit selectively). However, debates may be largely CD versus CD, or ED versus ED, or ED versus CD. In the first case there is no ‘correct’ answer. In the second case, no answer is yet obtainable (otherwise there would be no debate). In the third case, whether the answer is obscured or genuinely not yet available, and without any detailed knowledge on the actual subject of the debate, social analysis can nevertheless tell us who is who. That is to say it can confirm an ED versus CD scenario, and tell us which side is arguing (largely) from the cultural perspective, and which (largely) from an evidential perspective.

Note: in this context ‘evidentially defined’ by no means indicates correctness. A range of evidential positions may even include at the fringe, wacky theories. It indicates a position or range of positions that whatever their merits, are not based mainly on a cultural argument or culturally enforced consensus, but on (potentially subsets of) evidence, no matter how well or how badly that evidence has been interpreted, or indeed how complete or incomplete the total evidence available currently is. Rather than stretch ED bounds still further, i.e. to arguments from complete ignorance or arising from misinformation or emotive memes that nevertheless have not been culturally co-opted, it seems more appropriate to tag these as non-evidentially-defined (NED), the main point still being that they are not CD.

  1. The Robot from Mars

A cultural entity can be detected by its artifacts and alliances and by direct bias effects upon society, the latter of which typically form a positive feedback reinforcing the culture. Critically, culture contributes to identity, so a strong CD position will be tangled with identity; this is not the case for ED/NED positions.

A principal artifact of mature culture is a narrative text, and often physical objects too that serve the principles of this text (for instance the bible and churches). Yet when seeking to identify the presence of a culture, how would we know that it is not our own influences from culture which lead us to assume for example that the IPPC AR5 is more akin to the cultural narrative we know as the bible, or indeed more akin to, say, the evidential collection of works defining General Relativity?

A good way to address this issue when executing social analysis, is to attempt maximum objectivity by taking the view of a robot from Mars. This robot initially knows nothing about the Earth’s religions or what evolution is, nor indeed anything regarding climate change and associated science. It picks up only the most basic public expressions of these (from all sides) as it goes along. Of course we do have to grant it knowledge of social analysis, and it also knows what the general endeavor of science is about, along with other basics like what education is for. And if our robot focuses mainly upon societal effects and alliances, these can be observed more or less independently of domain knowledge (e.g. about religion or climate change), hence avoiding the need for value judgments made on specific texts or other artifacts or enterprises that may or may not be largely the product of arbitrary cultural emergence.

  1. A classic ED versus CD debate

The creationism versus evolution debate is a classic ED versus CD model that we can use to walk through our robot’s analysis method, to see whether it correctly identifies the scenario and also who is who.

WiWFig1The first big clue as to the nature of this debate comes from Figure 1, which shows that views on evolution in the US polarize with increasing science knowledge. I.e. going right on the X-axis, those leaning more to religion believe (slightly) more emphatically in creationism, and those leaning less towards religion believe (much) more emphatically in evolution. This is a sign of strong cultural influence; polarization of this kind arises because initial bias sets people upon educational paths to different knowledge, and also for the culturally influenced, the use of more knowledge to better support their cultural position. The different gradients for the two lines provides further clues (see footnote 1), but these may be too subtle for our detached robot. At this point it simply assumes strong culture is involved, but is this a CD versus CD scenario, or CD versus ED? And if the latter, which side is which?

Next page (2) for more…

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