Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Primum Non Nocere - Part III

Was reading Laelaps recently and came across the following entry entitled Paleontological Profiles : Robert Bakker. It's a good read, at least from my perspective, and an excellent interview conducted by Mr. Brian Switek. Personally, I know I grew up loving dinosaurs, my favorite exhibit "Of All Time" being the dinosaur exhibit in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Heck, I fell in love with the place the minute I saw their T. rex on display. I still look at their virtual tours from time to time.

At any rate, the interview seemed to be standard-fare except for the very end when Dr. Bakker dropped what could only be described as a bombshell for most of the ScienceBlogger audience. This part of the interview went as follows:
[Switek] Finally, as someone who works with the "bones of contention" and the fossil record, what do you think about the current controversy surrounding evolution in the United States? How can we do a better job of communicating science to the public?

[Bakker] We dino-scientists have a great responsibility: our subject matter attracts kids better than any other, except rocket-science. What's the greatest enemy of science education in the U.S.?

Militant Creationism?

No way. It's the loud, strident, elitist anti-creationists. The likes of Richard Dawkins and his colleagues.

These shrill uber-Darwinists come across as insultingly dismissive of any and all religious traditions. If you're not an atheist, then you must be illiterate or stupid and, possibly, a danger to yourself and others.

As many commentators have noted, in televised debates, these Darwinists seem devoid of joy or humor, except a haughty delight in looking down their noses. Dawkinsian screeds are sermons to the choir; the message pleases only those already convinced. Dawkins wins no converts from the majority of U.S. parents who still honor a Biblical tradition. Hitchcock is a far better model. He had his battles with skepticism. He did worry that the discovery of Deep Time would upset the good people of his congregation. But Hitchcock could view three thousand years of scriptural tradition and see much of value - and much concordance with Jurassic geology.
Shit storm ensued. While a few agreed with his comments, a whole heck of a lot did not.

Mr. Switek, in response to the hullabaloo, wrote back to Dr. Bakker and received a reply which he recently posted.

Personally, I commend Dr. Bakker. I think he's done a good job summarizing everything I think is wrong with how the vocal minority go about the defense of science. Once again, there were a few who definitely were not happy (Though, in this blog entry PZ Myers goes after both the original interview, approximately a month after it occurred, and the latest reply). Yet again, his readership froths at the mouth. This gem here by Etha Williams is one of my favorites.
Well, what other option is available for a theistic scientist? Either you have to distort reality and logic (creationists) or just compartmentalize and ignore reality and logic when thinking about religion (Bakker, Ken Miller, etc). Or you could just stop wasting mental energy trying to defend indefensible notions....
I like the false dichotomy she puts forth. Either you fully accept the truth and become an atheist, with the implication that you can then become a good scientist, or you're faced with two options. You can either ignore logic if you're a creationist, or you can compartmentalize. Either way, I believe the implication is there that theists really don't make good scientists. Her comment wasn't the first along that line in the comment section of that blog entry, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Religion As A Litmus Test?

Etha Williams boneheaded comments are typical of what you see in the commentary section of Pharyngula. She's even been bestowed an award by PZ Myers for her "excellent commentary" on his blog entries (which I think is more of an indictment of his blog than it is a testament). I don't know if I should be relieved that a lot of these comments seem to be made by people who don't have advanced degrees in the sciences (which appears to include the excitable Ms. Williams), or if that should concern me. At least under these circumstances we can attribute them to ignorance and the indiscretions of youth. However I do believe these reactionary diatribes do not bode well for future discussion between scientists and the laity. If this is what is to be expected, I'd say it's an alarming trend. It is also exactly this sort of "militant atheism" which Dr. Bakker was talking about. Nevermind that Dr. Bakker has probably done more for the advancement of science than Etha Williams and her ilk have done, or may ever do. The fact that he dared criticize them, and the fact that he's Christian, was enough to set off a series of shotgun blasts in the direction of religion in general. There were few criticisms of Dr. Bakker, there were more criticisms of religion in general. How the two must be inextricably intertwined is beyond me.

Nevermind the fact that since science never sets out to prove the existence (or non-existence) of a God or gods, one has to wonder exactly who is defending indefensible positions. Religion is a matter of faith. If you don't have that faith you're probably at a minimum an agnostic, or an atheist. If you do have that faith, you're probably at a minimum a deist, or more likely a theist. That faith however, is pretty much inconsequential when it comes to the proper practice of science. I believe Stephen J. Gould's Nonoverlapping Magesteria is in effect. For those wishing to get their heads out of their asses on these matters, I would recommend the National Academy of Sciences 1999 publication entitled Science and Creationism.

But what do we have instead? We have Creationists claiming that evolution is a farce, and instead of science claiming that evolution really doesn't have anything to say about the Bible, we have a few loud and vocal members of the community (who happen to be atheists) saying that people who adhere to religion are stupid. So much for addressing the actual issue head on folks! To make matters even better, some go so far as to say that religion should be eliminated. And then we wonder why Creationists have essentially waged war on evolution specifically, and on science in general? It's because some members of the scientific community developed verbal diarrhea and their vacuous clones ran off at the mouth as well.

Not only is this indicative of the lost opportunities that science has had to discuss matters with non-scientists, it is also a lost opportunity for those who have come under criticism to reassess their approach. Instead of taking Dr. Bakker's comments under consideration, they were summarily dismissed and the man was attacked instead. What a waste, what a shame. If members of the scientific community can't be expected to keep a level head in the face of opposition (whether that be data, ideas or opinions) who can we expect to keep a level head?


Anonymous said...

And then we wonder why Creationists have essentially waged war on evolution specifically, and on science in general? It's because some members of the scientific community developed verbal diarrhea and their vacuous clones ran off at the mouth as well.

I don't think that's defensible. Militant atheism is indeed a useful PR foil. But Savonarola was a nut long before he saw a Botticelli.

Tom said...

Funnily enough, Savonarola was policed by the Catholic Church (his "own" kind), which could lead one to say that self-policing would be the best approach. If that's the case, militant atheists should keep their noses out of it completely.

Secondly, the fact that militant atheists are a "useful PR foil" to begin with means that they've probably stuck their nose someplace they would have been best served not sticking it.

I'm not wanting to blame the entire fiasco on atheism. I don't know how the percentages play out ... whether most are vocal dia-tribers of the Myers ilk, or most are respectful individuals of the Gould mold. I just know that, from my own anecdotal POV, you have a constant goading of Creationists which isn't productive. It doesn't really matter who started it, what matters is who is behaving badly here and now (at least as far as I am concerned). Before we can get any sort of reconciliation, both sides need to drop the rhetoric and address real issues.

Tom said...

BTW: Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the comments. If my hypothesis is wrong, I'd like to be able to reassess and correct it. :)

Anonymous said...

No, really, it's an great essay and a needed corrective to .

I can't make a brief for militant atheism; I agree they're shooting themselves in the foot. The PR benefit for creationists isn't in reinforcing their own beliefs. It's in convincing the mainstream that creationism deserves a fair hearing in science class.

I do think you're contradicting yourself when you say that creationist belief is based on faith yet somehow amenable to rational argument.

My mother used to be a fanatical fundamentalist. She boycotted school dances (against the pleading of her own Southern Baptist mother to get a life). She picketed a television station in protest of the Mickey Mouse Club, which she believed led children to Satan (and because she thought Annette Funicello was a harlot).

She chose to attend an all-female Baptist Bible College in Missouri to become a Sunday School teacher. I vividly recall the felt-lined easel and cut-out characters she used to demonstrate scenes from Leviticus. It's a miracle she ever got married, really.

One day in the early 80s, she heard a Michael Jackson song. Oddly enough, I think it was "Human Nature." You won't believe this (I witnessed it, and I still don't), but it was like a switch went on. She fell utterly and completely in love with the King of Pop, buying all his albums and a Walkman to listen to him while making pork chops and folding laundry.

She argued with her fellow church ladies about the transcendence of Thriller. When they didn't come around, she got really, really pissed off. She didn't just stop haranguing me to go to church, she stopped going herself and hasn't attended since. She started swearing like a sailor. And she still dances to Michael Jackson in the garden with her IPod. But she still loves God.

I don't think fundamentalism of that sort really has anything to do with faith. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's a defense mechanism for maintaining a peculiar Weltanschauung in which not only God, but the a very literal kind of belief in God are infallible. There's no leap of faith - and therefore no faith - because there's absolutely no reckoning with the fact that your belief might be wrong.

As Milan Kundera explains beautifully in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, fundamentalist religion is not about the transcendent. It's the polar opposite - a brutal reductionism that attempts to eliminate all doubt and all ugly Earthly realities: "a complete denial of shit." True faith is a Yin/Yang thing. Kierkegaard noted this paradox: doubting one's faith makes one a sinner, but without doubt one cannot have faith.

Anyway, all this is to say that I highly doubt (heh heh) that PZ Myers and his ilk are creating (heh heh heh) fundamentalists or even keeping them in the fold. My mama's hermetically sealed sense of morality was completely impervious to both reason and irrationality. Only the sublimity of the great Gloved One could break through.

Tom said...

Sonofagun. Lost my reply. I'll repost it when I get a chance.