Up a steep hill

Steve Jones wrote about denial of science in the Telegraph the other day.

Anyone, of course, is free to believe whatever they wish. But why train to become a biologist, or a doctor, when you deny the very foundations of your subject? For a biology student to refuse to accept the fact of evolution is equivalent to choosing to do a degree in English without believing in grammar, or in physics with a rooted objection to gravity: it makes no sense at all. The same is true for doctors. How can you put a body right with no idea as to why it is liable to go wrong?

I suppose the idea is that you do it by following the instructions, with no need for actual understanding. Lots of people apparently don’t care all that much about real understanding…though that could be just because they haven’t learned to care about it. It can be taught, after all.

The problem is not with any particular belief system but with belief itself.

Belief understood as “faith”; not reasoned belief but belief as obedience; not belief based on understanding but belief in what you’ve been told by authorities.

I sometimes wonder how many of those who pour their inane opinions about creationism into their young pupils’ ears ever consider the damage they are doing; not to my science, but to their religion. Why, when a student begins to learn the simple and convincing facts, rather than the fantasies, about how life emerged, should he believe anything else that his pastor, his rabbi or his imam has told him? Why build a philosophy based on fixed untruths, when we have so many truths, and so many things still to find out?

The growing tide of fact‑denial is a statement of failure, not by students but by their teachers, up to and including those at university level. We do our best, I think, but faced with schools or faith groups that get their   ignorance in first, we seem to be fighting a losing battle.

And the schools and faith groups in question think it’s a virtue to get their ignorance in first, which is why the battle is so hard to win.


  1. Jeff Sherry says

    And the churches know this well, give us the young minds and have the children come unto us.

  2. says

    And the schools and faith groups in question think it’s a virtue to get their ignorance in first, which is why the battle is so hard to win.

    And in Britain* the gov’t is very generous in helping them to get their ignorance in first by funding faith based schools, therefore becoming complicit in the teaching of that ignorance to impressionable children.

    Now doesn’t that just make you wanna pound your head against your desk sometimes?

    * In the part of Canada where I reside catholic schools are also gov’t funded. Now, their form of ignorance isn’t based in evolution denial. Oh no. Their more evolved than that, you see. Instead they won’t permit students to organize gay-straight alliances in an effort to support their bullied GLBT classmates. And I’ve been told that some schools won’t allow kids to wear costumes on Halloween because it’s all a pagan superstitious practice. They’re particularly opposed to zombie costumes, apparently. I kid you not.


  3. Pteryxx says

    I suppose the idea is that you do it by following the instructions, with no need for actual understanding.

    That’s exactly what “teaching to the test” education reform has done to formal learning in general. I’ve seen college students gang up on professors for daring to give them exam questions requiring actual thought. The thought of cultural synergy between ignorance and religion … scares me.

  4. Josh Slocum says

    And the schools and faith groups in question think it’s a virtue to get their ignorance in first, which is why the battle is so hard to win.

    Just as bad, maybe worse: the “liberal” politicians and media commentators think it’s a virtue to tolerate all of this in the name of progressive multi-culturalism (I shouldn’t have to insert the standard disclaimers that I am, in fact, a liberal, and I do support multi-culturalism in the weak sense, but consider them inserted). They see it as a secular sin to be seen to be criticizing a statement for not being true, if that statement is made with an appeal to culture, religion, or my-identity-my-culture-my-people-my-religion.

    We would not be witnessing regressivism making progress in public schools and political discourse in the US and the UK if not for the putative leftists that bite their lips until blood runs down their face rather than say “you’re wrong, and that’s dangerous, and it doesn’t matter if believing it as an article of your faith-community-mom-god-prophet-culture.”

  5. Chris Lawson says


    I’ve been a self-identified liberal my whole life and I have never, even as an iconoclastic teenager, been drawn to the “all truth is relative” malarkey. You seem to be mashing together the post-structuralist left with liberalism. There is some overlap there in political positioning, but they’re poles apart in fundamental philosophy (Alan Sokal undertook his hoax in order to protect the territory of liberal leftists from post-structuralist leftists).

  6. Dave says

    No, what Josh is saying is that it is politically unacceptable to be heard making comments about the factual plausibility or otherwise of any belief that ‘belongs’ to a ‘minority’ culture. Which is just true – the substance of what you might say immediately disappears under the coverage of the ‘outrage’ you have caused…

    This is in fact a ‘weak’ multiculturalism, that lacks the strength to insist that people should be free to navigate between and amongst cultures at will, and insists that each culture gets to establish itself as a no-go zone for external criticism. A strong multiculturalism would demand that every culture whose members desire peaceful coexistence must consider how its tenets appear to others, and explore the means to establish open borders with them. But that will never happen, so we will be stuck with the Balkanised version, or civil war…

  7. Rieux says

    Josh did put “liberal” in scare quotes, Chris. He called that attitude “liberal,” not “liberal.”

  8. julian says

    @Josh Slocum

    I’m a little sympathetic to those politicians and can understand their hesitance. After all, anything they try to do will uniquely impact these minority communities over those more established and more well represented in business and government. That should give any liberal pause.

    Unfortunately what it has resulted in is elevating the demands of a minority within the minority above the safety, health and well being of the rest because this group supposedly represents the ‘true’ culture of these people.

    And that’s absurd. The concept of ‘true’ culture (as I think has been pointed out here before) is complete gibberish. Cultures are dynamic. They change over time mixing with whatever new customs and traditions might be introduced and in response to their living situation.

    Then there’s the fact there’s no good reason to hold onto discriminatory practices like gender roles, caste systems and the like. They should be done away with. A Muslim woman is not so fundamentally different than a secular woman that she should be denied basic rights. Nor is a Muslim man so fundamentally different from a secular man that he should be allowed to beat his wives and force them to wear veils.

  9. Ken Pidcock says

    Why build a philosophy based on fixed untruths, when we have so many truths, and so many things still to find out?

    I don’t want to find things out, and you can’t make me.

  10. Brad says

    That’s a good point, regarding the damage done to faith when the facts of science become clear.

    I’ve even had people try to “resolve” the two (literal biblical creation vs evidence of age) by seriously proposing that God created the world with dinosaur bones already in the ground, or created the universe with starlight already on its way to Earth.

    To me this not only calls God a liar, but is also indistinguishable from “Last Thursday-ism”, the idea that God created the world last Thursday (or any arbitrary day in the past), with our memories of “past” events implanted in our brains.

  11. Josh Slocum says

    Chris, I’m sorry, but it’s simply true that what is commonly called a “liberal” attitude in many quarters has become synonymous with refusal to call a spade a spade. I resent it not because I want to impugn liberals, but because I am a liberal and I want to protect that position from the de-spining it’s been given. There is no reason to be upset with me or to say “But my liberal friends aren’t like that.” I know that. Neither are mine. But I’m not aiming at you, I’m aiming at something that you, too, disagree with.

    It’s not just the academy. It’s the liberal religious in the US who equate the statement “that’s not true” with perpetrating a human rights violation. It’s the “liberal” attitude that “cultures” have rights and that if we try to protect women or gays from “cultural” practices that we’re “hurting minorities.” This relativistic, anti-humanistic dreck has most definitely infiltrated the real world and mainstream culture. You should be troubled by that, but I’m baffled why you seem to want to be more troubled by me pointing it out.

  12. Sastra says

    Josh Slocum #13 wrote:

    There is no reason to be upset with me or to say “But my liberal friends aren’t like that.” I know that. Neither are mine.

    Mine are. At least, many of them seem to fit your description. It’s not a straw man.

  13. Josh Slocum says

    Sastra, you pull back the cloak on my motivations! 🙂 I was bending over backwards not to push any emotional/in-group buttons with Chris (these are on a hair trigger for most people who identify strongly with a political or philosophical position, and I’m not exempting myself). But yes, I do know too many people like that and no, it’s not a straw man. Liberals who care about real issues need to face up to this rather than waste time feeling unfairly maligned. It’s the spineless who are the problem, not we who point it out.

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