The Importance of Agreement and Disagreement in Science: An Interview with Anjan Chakravartty
Every year the American Humanist Association brings humanists together for an annual conference to explore new ideas and discuss a wide variety of topics related to humanism. This year, in light of the new times we’re living in, the AHA is excited to bring you a free day-long virtual conference. “Distant but Together: A Virtual Celebration of Humanism” will take place on Saturday, August 8 from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. ET, with innovative humanist speakers from around the country—right in your own home.
One of the speakers we’re welcoming this year is Anjan Chakravartty, the Appignani Foundation Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism, and Secular Ethics, an endowed chair established at the University of Miami. As he describes it, it’s a position in which he “explores a philosophical approach that emphasizes the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy.”
Chakravartty received a BSc in biophysics and an MA in philosophy at the University of Toronto, and an MPhil and a PhD in history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge. During his studies, he spent three years working for an international development project in Kolkata, India; a United Nations World Congress on Environment and Development; a teaching fellowship at the University of Leeds; and a junior research fellowship at King’s College. He cut the fellowship short, however, to join the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto the following year, joining the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology a year later, where he received tenure in 2007 and soon became its director. In 2011, he took up a new position as professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, with a special interest in the History and Philosophy of Science Graduate Program, and became director of the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values in 2014. He joined the University of Miami faculty in 2018.
Chakravartty’s session at the virtual conference will explore the nature of scientific consensus and disagreement. He will argue that once we understand that real scientists don’t agree about everything, we see that disagreement is totally compatible with consensus about using our best science to act for the public good.
I had the opportunity to ask Chakravartty about his work and what “Distant but Together” attendees will learn from his presentation.
Meredith Thompson: Did you grow up in a particular religious tradition? What was the experience like and when did you first encounter humanism?
Anjan Chakravartty: My parents emigrated from India to Canada, where my sister and I were born. As a family we observed many of the most auspicious occasions on the Hindu calendar, often together with other expatriate families in the small town where I grew up. Not unusually, I think, the surface appearance of religious observance glossed over some very different underlying commitments (or lack thereof): my mother believing in something, if not very well defined; my father a (closet) atheist but with strong feelings of cultural affiliation; and my sister and me just having fun with our friends and not really paying any attention to all the Sanskrit in the background, none of which we understood anyway! “Humanism” was a word I didn’t encounter until much, much later. It was lovely to discover then that various convictions I had grown to feel strongly about are typically shared by humanists.
Thompson: You’ve now been the Appignani Foundation Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanist, and Secular Ethics for over two years. What has surprised you most about the position?
Chakravartty: Perhaps the biggest surprise of all has been that I haven’t really been surprised by anything—I was definitely expecting to be. The one possible exception to this was simply learning very quickly how much the very existence of this position has meant a great deal to people who are deeply committed to all of the things associated with its mandate. It’s a first, and that means something. As someone who has spent most of his life happily tucked away in studies, seminar rooms, and quiet corners of libraries, interacting regularly with a wider swath of the general public, for whom it turns out that philosophy is of genuine interest—even if they may not have realized it before we spoke because they hadn’t known that many of their concerns are actually philosophical concerns—has been exciting, touching, and extremely gratifying.
Thompson: What kinds of classes have you offered at the University of Miami?
Chakravartty: The first course I taught at UM was Science and Humanism, focusing on the many challenges that face efforts to bring science and reason to bear on making the world a better place. Given these challenges—from the ways in which scientific inquiry can be hijacked or misrepresented by those with nefarious aims, to the ways in which different systems of values can influence the production of scientific knowledge in different ways—there is a lot to consider in hopes of organizing and executing science so as to serve the common good. This year I’ll be teaching Atheism and the Meaning of Life, which focuses on different ways of understanding the feeling that our lives are meaningful, which is central to various forms of contentment we may experience in ourselves, our relationships, and our belonging in the world. Where does this meaning come from, and what is it, exactly? That’s what we’ll aim to figure out.
Thompson: What are the biggest challenges you face in your unique position?
Chakravartty: I think the biggest challenge I’ve faced is one that I welcome: determining how to fulfill, most effectively, what is (in the context of a university) an unusual role. On the one hand, I’m a professor like all the rest and with all that entails: teaching, researching, and helping to run the university. I have well-established research programs in the philosophy of science and significant experience in these other areas too, but, unusually, my position also includes an outreach component which, as I mentioned, I’ve very much enjoyed. It’s challenging because I sometimes feel that many people outside the university, who are interested in the position, would like it to be even more dedicated to public engagement. Of course, substantial work in this vein is entirely compatible with being a professor; many academics are superb public intellectuals. Admittedly, this sphere is one I’m still growing into, but it’s been fun.
Thompson: Your presentation during the virtual conference will discuss the nature of scientific consensus and disagreement. How is disagreement compatible with consensus?
Chakravartty: This is a very important issue for science education and the public understanding of science, I believe, with serious consequences for how we as a society can advocate for public policy and governance that reflect this knowledge, and how we can resist efforts by those who try to undermine scientific knowledge for their own ends. Sometimes disagreement about how to interpret a generally accepted theory or model co-exists with agreement regarding the actual, practical predictions these theories and models are used to make. Sometimes disagreement about the fine-grained details of the nature or behavior of something (a virus, a climate, etc.) masks more general agreement about how best to manipulate or intervene on that something in order to bring about good effects for people and the environment. The better the understanding we have as citizens of how science works and what it achieves, the better off we’ll be.
Thompson: How should humanists, who believe in science-based thinking, approach scientific disagreement?
Chakravartty: As in so many things, the devil is in the details, and it’s only by not oversimplifying that we can do justice to the state of knowledge at any given time. Disagreement can signify very different things in different contexts, and this is clearly the case across scientific contexts. At early stages of inquiry, we often have to do our best with small amounts of data and evidence, appreciating that there’s a lot of uncertainty—which inevitably produces disagreement—and expecting that consensus will grow as evidence grows and analysis takes its course. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that, whatever the stage of inquiry, a preponderance of expert opinion is always our best bet and guide to action, even if we know that this may shift as our best science becomes more secure over time. The recent and ongoing development of our knowledge of COVID-19 is a case in point.
Thompson: What else are you working on, and how can we learn more?
Chakravartty: I work on a number of topics in the philosophy of science concerning the nature of scientific knowledge, with special interests in certain areas of physics and biology. Much of this is related to more general issues in philosophy concerning what exists, fundamentally and otherwise, and what we can know. As you’d expect in many disciplines, most of this work is written for fellow professional philosophers, which makes it less accessible to a general audience than would be nice, I’m afraid. That said, I do intend to supplement this work in the future with more writing for a more general audience. In the meantime, some of this work will (I hope) be of interest to anyone who is curious about philosophy—and even to those who aren’t, perhaps, as an effective treatment for insomnia! You can learn more about what I spend my days and nights obsessing about at anjanchakravartty.com.
Don’t miss Anjan Chakravartty’s session at the AHA’s “Distant but Together” virtual conference on August 8, 2020. Registration is free! To secure your spot today, go to conference.americanhumanist.org, and look for more speaker profiles in the coming weeks.