I love science, and I will always consider myself to be an active scientist. But there are some things going on in certain scientific areas of enquiry that trouble me. I have seen some people (most of them not actually scientists) claim that “science tells us” things that in fact are speculative, not well established, and sometimes quite wrong. The venerable name of science is being used quite often to persuade people of the truth of assertions that are not based on science but on various agendas.
In some cases, such distortions are clear and evident. Arguments by the powerful anti-vaccination or vegetarian lobbies often quote the scientific literature, usually misunderstanding or misrepresenting the actual findings. The entire anti-GMO movement is based on non-science, although again, the advocates are not shy about quoting (usually misquoting) the literature. Appeals to pseudo-scientific arguments to advance philosophical and political agendas is probably familiar to most, and it is nothing new. From eugenics to Lysenkoism to “scientific” racism, the name of science has been misused to cloak controversial ideas in a mantle of unassailable truth.
Recently an entirely new paradigm of faulty science has made an appearance, but this one is not related to kooks or crazies. It has grown up among a group of scientists and science supporters, many of them quite respectable and worthy scholars. The development of this paradigm, which has made strong inroads in physics, biology, and cosmology is, I believe, related to a noble cause – namely, the defense of science against attack from religious fundamentalism and political expediency. The problem is that, like many movements that started as defending worthy goals, this one has gone too far and seems to be out of control.
When the teaching of creation science, and later Intelligent Design, was being proposed as an alternative to Darwinian evolution, biologists and other scientists were rightly worried and angered. A strong campaign to bolster the teaching of evolution as the only valid scientific explanation for biological diversity was mounted by many popular figures in science and science communication, including Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Bill Nye, Kenneth Miller, and others.
At some point during this effort, things began to get complicated. One group of thinkers, led by Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris — all militant atheists – began to equate all religious belief (and thus all believers) with an anti-science attitude. It didn’t matter to them that many scientists who had always been on the side of evolution and science as the best path to understanding nature were also Christians (Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, John Polkinghorne, and many others). These atheists began to strongly influence various fields of science, which became hostile not only to the idea of faith, but to any theory, finding or supposition that could possibly be connected with religion.
There are many examples of this throughout science, and I will write about them in coming posts. One of the most prevalent and insidious (to me) is what I call the Theory of Human Mediocrity, which claims that science has found that human beings are not really as special or unusual as we used to think we were. There are many subthemes to this overall meme, including studies in animal behavior, neuroscience and consciousness studies, anthropology and human origins research. Even some areas of astronomy have joined in. I recently saw an internet meme which showed a tiny speck surrounded by an immense sea of stars and objects, with an arrow pointing to the speck labeled “Earth. You are here”. The caption read “Doesn’t this make you feel small?”
Here are some of the scientific and what I consider to be pseudo-scientific ideas that have become popular recently. All of them are based on the same anti-theistic (often specifically anti-Christian) philosophy that has taken strong root thanks to the efforts of the new Anti Theists. I will be posting separate essays on each of these. My goals are to show where the actual science is either nonexistent or misleading, and to trace the objectives and fundamental points of each to the overall paradigm of anti- theism.
Human Mediocrity (and Human Evil)
Intelligent Life on Other Planets
The Sixth Great Extinction
The Upper Paleolithic Revolution Debunked
Atheism and Science
The Logic of Science
I am planning this series as a warning to non-scientists not to believe everything they hear as being “scientific”. Think of it as science myth busting. But please remember: I AM NOT ATTACKING SCIENCE. I would never do that. What I will be attacking are the hidden anti- religious agendas behind the speculations, inferences, hypotheses, and subjective interpretations that too many scientists in too many fields are perpetrating on science and the public. In the long run, such behavior is bound to be counterproductive, because it is absolutely true that in science the truth will always eventually come out.
Years ago, I read an article on the Scopes Trial that profoundly contradicted the narrative that most of us are familiar with. Rather than being unsophisticated backwater hicks, it appears that the good people of Dayton, Tennessee, were media-savvy hustlers who knew how to put on a show. There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that John Scopes was a major player in initiating the trial.
But aside from that, I was amazed at how well William Jennings Bryan understood the political and social forces of his time.
The popular narrative is that the Scopes Trial was a clash between Fundamentalist and Modern forces and it was to some extent, but a better understanding of it would be a conflict between an immature modernist movement and a morally mature religion. In 1925, the modern world had yet to grasp the horror of Fascism, the brutality of Communism – both of which were tightly bound to modernism.
Bryan was well ahead of his time as a pacifist, an anti-imperialist, an anti-trust activist – but most of all, an ardent opponent of social Darwinism which he saw as the primary driver behind nationalism, materialism, and militarism.
Perhaps if he had lived longer, he would have helped reconcile modernism and science with Christianity, but he died in 1925, the same year Hitler published the first volume of Mein Kampf,
That is a very interesting perspective, Greg. I hadnt thought of Bryan in that way, but what you are saying does make sense. I always wondered how a man like him could have been the rube portrayed in “Inherit the Wind”. Thanks for the comment.
He was anything but a rube. Bryan read Nietzsche and understood the implications of what the philosopher was saying better than the man did himself.
It is what bothers me about so many militant atheists. They remind me of the brat in a department store at Christmas who shouts, “Santa is not real” as if it were a profound truth – and I am sure to a child it might seem so.
I would be so much more impressed if the child were to shout, “There is no Santa – but let me open a window deeper into the human soul. Let me tell you about the love of family, the binding power of gift giving, the power of myth and the social mechanism that weld cultures together.” Now that would be interesting.
I won’t dispute Bryan’s grasp of modernism, but his grasp of the philosophy of science was quite tenuous. It evidently never occurred to him that there are ways to interpret Scripture, going back to early fathers like Augustine, that could reconcile Scripture and evolution. His unfortunate insistence that Biblical truth was unequivocally anti-evolution and that evolution was unequivocally anti-Christian helped set back the dialogue between science and Scripture for generations.
I like Bryan. His “cross of gold” speech is a fantastic work that every disciple of Ayn Rand should stop and read, today. But I must respectfully disagree with the notion that Bryan was on the right path when he went to Dayton, Tennessee.
I won’t dispute Bryan’s grasp of modernist philosophy, but his grasp of the philosophy of science and the history of theology was quite tenuous. He seems not to have considered the possibility that evolution does not necessarily lead to “social Darwinism,” and in fact can be harmonized with non-literal interpretations of Genesis that go back to early fathers of the church like Augustine.
I hate saying this, because in Bryan was admirable in so many ways. Every American should read his “cross of gold” speech, for example. But he empowered the idea that fidelity to Scripture was at war with modern science, and we have not yet recovered from the aftermath.
Yes, it would be. Its even interesting when a mature adult says it. I always admired your humor, Greg. Now I am seeing a whole nother aspect of you. Thanks for that. It all goes to prove one of my two favorite axioms about life . “Funny people are smart people”. The other is “smart women are more attractive than dumb ones”. (I guess I need a third one. “Never generalize”.)
I love reading Dawkins on science, but reading him on religion is so frustrating.
I feel exactly the same way, Sheila. I have actually communicated with Dawkins, and he mentions me in one of his books. I think he has a unique grasp of evolutionary biology (though I dont agree on certain issues). But his arrogance at addressing theology, when he knows nothing about the subject, is indeed hard to take.
Actually, I agree with you that he was on the wrong path. My point was that Bryan was extremely sophisticated and had a profound understanding of the implications of modernism. I am not so much defending his position as I am saying that he was profoundly misunderstood. We can safely say that he took a wrong turn on the science – but his critique of the role of modernism in the rise of totalitarianism was spot on.
In the end, he was an activist who followed a cause rather than the truth.
I really like this for what it implies with regard to the influence of ignorance in the ways in which humans approach “certainty”. Superficially at least, it’s easy to argue that those inclined toward logical epistemological approaches probably tend to be more accurate in their evaluations. But all that really implies is that problematic beliefs emerge from poor evaluations of evidence. So how do we, as a practical matter, evaluate evidence?
You may already know this, but my early graduate work addressed a “high-value” problem that had been abandoned for years due to faulty research. Regardless, I simply benefited from exposure to a mathematical approach that had become fashionable at the time, and that permitted seeing the problem from a different perspective. It’s really only possible to approach relative certainty about that for which we have the resources and the information from which to make accurate evaluations.
Beyond that, an honest person must admit ignorance. And most of an ordinary life is filled with just such ignorance… the day’s weather forecast, the safety of my drinking-water, the degree of exploitation of the person who picked the beans for my morning coffee, even the accuracy of the news I read while I drink it. Much less, what it means to be here at all while having the amazing experience of drinking my morning coffee! Consequently, “evidence” often becomes clothed in the evaluations of others whom we come to trust for their insights – accurate, or otherwise.
So I think what’s really fair to say here is that it’s best to remain critical of those from whom we accept declarations of insight to special, proprietary, or inscrutable forms of knowledge, and not simply assume that even well-intentioned assessments are necessarily accurate.
Great comment, Kumi. Thank you