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May 29 2008

The end of god-20: Science and scientific language

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous three posts in this series, we saw the failure of attempts to raise religious beliefs to be on a par with science. The second line of defense taken by the new apologists against the attacks of the new atheists is to try and lower science to the level of religion.

This attempt mostly uses plays on words. Apologists have tried to take advantage of the fact that words can have multiple meanings and nuances depending on the context. What they have done is, whenever scientists use certain words in the scientific context, to interpret that statement using an alternative interpretation that is advantageous to their cause.

The most obvious example is the word ‘theory’. When the scientific community labels something as a theory, say the theory of evolution or the theory of gravity, they are actually paying it a huge compliment. They are saying that this knowledge encompasses a wide array of phenomena, has a powerful explanatory structure, and has been subject to some testing. The theory of gravity and the theory of relativity are powerful bodies of knowledge. A theory in the scientific context is not a guess or hypothesis but it is in the latter senses that this word is used by lay people. Religious apologists who dislike some particular scientific theory use the lay meaning to imply that such a theory has no merit.

This argument is, of course, purely semantic and has been countered so much and so often and so thoroughly, and the use of the word theory in science has been explained with such care, that anyone who still continues to use this argument to discredit a scientific theory they dislike (like some religious people do with the theory of evolution) can justly be accused of being either deeply ignorant or willfully deceptive.

But that hasn’t stopped religious apologists from still trotting out this old chestnut. But in Florida recently, that attempt boomeranged badly. What happened is that in February of 2008, that state revised its science standards and for the first time actually included the word evolution in it, a century and a half after Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s theory took its bow. Of course, this made the religious people in Florida upset and they adopted the usual strategy of demanding that the word evolution always be prefaced by the word ‘theory’, thus in their minds making it seem less credible. But in a clever countermove, the pro-science forces agreed to this provided that evolution be referred to as ‘the scientific theory of evolution’ and that for the sake of consistency, every scientific consensus theory also carry the same preamble. So now the standards refer to ‘the scientific theory of electromagnetism’, ‘the scientific theory of gravity’, etc. as well as ‘the scientific theory of evolution’.

The religious opponents of teaching evolution did not seem to realize that they have not only strengthened public awareness of the power of the word theory in science, they have also conceded that evolution is a scientific theory and put evolution on a par with other well-established scientific theories, something that they have been strenuously opposing all this time. Their strategy had been to argue that the theory of evolution was a bad theory, not worthy of inclusion alongside the ‘good’ theories of science, but the exact opposite has now happened, at least in Florida.

Other words that have been exploited by religious people to imply that scientists secretly do believe in god are ‘design’ , ‘create’, and ‘believe’.

Scientists are partly responsible for this confusion. Scientists use words that seem to imply external intelligence and intentionality to things, even though they don’t believe it, because it makes for livelier language. For example, they will say things like “a bird’s wings are designed to enable it to fly” or “a gene wants to propagate itself” or “the electron tries to move towards the positive nucleus”.

For example, in the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan writes:

The existential challenge facing grasses in all but the most arid regions is how to successfully compete against trees for territory and sunlight. The evolutionary strategy they hit upon was to make their leaves nourishing and tasty to animals who in turn are nourishing and tasty to us, the big-brained creature best equipped to vanquish the trees on their behalf. (p. 129)

Language like this gives the impression that grasses have minds and will, although the author believes no such thing and is merely indulging in a rhetorical flight of fancy. But there is a danger when people use language like this because it can be wrongfully interpreted to imply that these things have human-like intelligence and agency and that there is some purpose behind their actions, or worse, have an external intelligence or agent acting on their behalf. Of course, scientists speaking this way do not intend any such thing. For them, this is just a convenient shorthand language and if necessary the same ideas can be expressed in more accurate but verbose intentionality-free language that removes the hint of a designer.

In his wonderful book The Selfish Gene (1989), Richard Dawkins repeatedly shows how to translate such metaphorical language into a more precise scientific one. For example, it is well known that cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. When the baby cuckoos hatch, they chirp very loudly, enough to attract the attention of dangerous predators. Therefore the foster mother bird gives the baby cuckoo more food than it gives her own chicks in order to keep it quiet and not attract predators that might attack her own chicks. Biologists speak of the baby cuckoo ‘blackmailing’ its foster mother with the threat of revealing the location of its nest to predators in order to get more than its fair share of food. But that description, although vivid and memorable, seems to ascribe all kinds of human-like thoughts and motives to birds.

Dawkins shows how to translate this loose talk into respectable, scientific language.

Cuckoo genes for screaming loudly became more numerous in the cuckoo gene pool because the loud screams increased the probability that the foster parents would feed the baby cuckoos. The reason the foster parents responded to the screams in this way was that genes for responding to the screams in this way had spread through the gene pool of the foster-species. The reason these genes spread was that individual foster parents who did not feed the cuckoos extra food, reared fewer of their own children – fewer than rival parents who did feed their cuckoos extra. This was because predators were attracted to the nest by the cuckoo cries. Although cuckoo genes for not screaming were less likely to end up in the bellies of predators than screaming genes, the non-screaming paid the greater penalty of not being fed extra rations. Therefore the screaming gene spread in the cuckoo gene pool. (p. 132)

You can see that being scientifically precise takes more words, is less vivid, and is much harder to sustain all the time. As a result, scientists tend to use the looser style whenever possible although they can, and should be able to, translate between metaphorical and scientific descriptions of any phenomena.

But religious people sometimes take the metaphorical language literally, and from there it is a short step to envisaging some intelligence acting in nature, and seeing intentional design and causation to what are merely the results of the working out of the laws of probability and natural selection.

POST SCRIPT: We are all atheists about many things

In this short video clip, Richard Dawkins makes a simple but important point.

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