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SSiMS 2013-2014 Lectures

"Islamic structures of science and society," by Lydia Wilson, Mellon postdoctoral fellow at the Graduate Center, CUNY, December 4, 2013. This lunch is hosted by the School of Cognitive Science and by the Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS)

Abstract: I will argue that an analysis of the relationship between science and Islam can provide a fresh lens through which to look at the functioning of modern political Islam and contemporary Muslim societies. In analyzing contemporary critiques of science in the Muslim world, echoes with the situation under totalitarian regimes were hard to ignore, most obviously in: 1) treatment of dissenters; 2) other forms of political interference; 3) a creation and defense of an alternative scientific epistemology; and 4) a definition of, and attacks on, an enemy. This last gives an insight into political and social attitudes more broadly. The definition of the enemy under Soviet theory was class-based (bourgeois or capitalist); under the Nazis it was race-based (non-Aryan and in particular Jewish); in certain Islamic science discourses today it is geopolitical (Western science, often conflated with "modern"). There have been various characterizations given of "Western" science in the Muslim world, and a variety of responses, from total rejection to complete assimilation. But even within societies creating an Islamic epistemology for science, scientists play a high profile role, including within extremist movements, both violent and non-violent. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood appointed an engineer to be prime minister, and engineers are vastly over-represented in jihadist attacks in the past 20 years. This ambivalence to science can be seen as one instance of the ambivalence to Western culture more generally.

BiographyLydia Wilson is the Mellon postdoctoral fellow at CUNY Graduate Center. After completing a Ph.D. in medieval Arabic philosophy (University of Cambridge, U.K.), she shifted to the modern Middle East, building on previous journalism experience to pursue anthropological research, particularly anthropology of conflict. Lydia reviews regularly for the Times Literary Supplement, and edits the Cambridge Literary Review.

"Seeking Good Debate: Religion, Science, and Conflict in American Public Life," by Michael Evans, Neukom Institute for Computational Science and the department of film and media studies at Dartmouth College, October 30, 2013

Abstract: Why do science and religion seem to generate contentious public debate? In this talk I draw on computational linguistic analysis of over 10,000 newspaper articles, biographical research on key participants, and qualitative interviews with ordinary Americans to show that apparent conflicts in the public sphere over "science and religion" issues such as stem cell research, human origins, environmental policy, and the origins of sexuality actually result from a disconnection between the structure of elite debate in the American public sphere and the ideals of deliberative debate expected by ordinary Americans. I show how this insight helps explain several anomalies in current scholarship, such as why religious beliefs do not always impede support for science, why there is a gap between trust in science and trust in scientists, and why religious conservatives continue to dominate American public life. I also discuss the implications for science communication, particularly around issues where religion is involved.

Biographical statement: Michael Evans is an interdisciplinary scholar who uses computational and qualitative methods to study contentious debates over science and technology issues. He has written about the social sources of public conflict over science and religion, how scientific elites shape interested publics, how narratives of continuity bolster scientific credibility, the role of religion in science communication, and the deliberative preferences of ordinary Americans, among other topics. He received his Ph.D. in sociology and science studies from the University of California, San Diego.

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