I have to preface this with the comment that I like Eugenie Scott, I think she does a wonderful job, and she’s trying to accomplish the difficult task of treading the line between being a representative of science and building an interface with culture and politics. I couldn’t do that job. I’d be inspiring rioting mobs outside the office window. However, I also think she’s wrong, and that she’s working too hard to pander to public superstition to be effective at communicating science.
Jon Voisey took notes on her recent lecture in Kansas. Much of what she said I can go along with, although I think sometimes she’s failing to go the step further necessary to make the fundamental point. Like this:
Yet despite this, science is a limited way of knowing. The reason for this is that science can only explain the natural world, the universe of matter an energy, and as such, it can only use natural causes.
It’s all well and good to say science is limited…to understanding the entire freaking universe. This kind of admission is making a tacit nod to the unfounded claims of the superstitious, that there is something more than matter and energy and time and information and this whole grand collection of dust and stars and galaxies that we live in. Why? If someone wants to claim there’s something more, let them explain it and show some kind of evidence that it is worth considering.
Jon and the Lawrence Journal-World report that she also talked a bit about religion, to tell us that scientists shouldn’t talk about religion…while talking about religion herself, of course. I think what that means is that we should talk about religion only when we are giving aid and comfort to the irrational prejudices of the public; when we make people uncomfortable, we’re supposed to throw up our hands and say we don’t have any authority on this matter. It doesn’t sound quite fair to me. Why should the tool that has proven itself most effective at dealing with questions of matter and energy be automatically stripped from us when trying to address the beliefs of beings of matter and energy who think they’re being affected by some mysterious something?
In the ongoing battle between evolution and intelligent design, Scott told a Kansas University audience Thursday night, science as a discipline shouldn’t be part of the battle’s landscape.
Rather, Scott said, science’s only concern is with the empirical observation, testing and recording of the ways of the natural world.
If there is a fight to be waged, she said, it should be between those who believe some nonmaterial force helps shape the world — including intelligent design proponents — and those who philosophize the purity of the natural, observable world.
No, Dr Scott, I reject your attempt to deny the applicability of science to the affairs of us material beings in this one claim. If someone wants to argue about the outcome of a wrestling match between angels, I’ll agree and step out of it (except, perhaps, to mock the debaters over the unknowable). When someone wants to argue that the angels are wrestling with me, or you, or the entire population of Pakistan, though, I do have a dog in that fight, and I say that science is the appropriate method to address the claim.
Jon reproduced a table she used to distinguish science and religion. I depart from the Scott camp at the point in this table where she claims science can offer no opinion.
Characteristic Religion Science Logic YES YES Revelation YES NO Mystical/Personal States of being YES NO Supernatural Powers YES Assume NO Belief in non-material world YES NO OPINION Belief in supernatural beings YES NO OPINION Belief in afterlife YES NO OPINION Concern with Evil YES NO Sense of Awe YES NO OPINION
Wait a minute…what about belief in a non-material world that affects ours, or in meddlesome supernatural beings who affect our lives? Are we supposed to pretend that people are not making claims of an influence on our universe—and a rather acute and personal affect on almost every aspect of our personal lives, from what we eat and how we dress to who we should have sex with and what the entire purpose of our lives might be? That’s disingenuous. It is absurd. It is an adoption of the excuses of the superstitious, and it denies the realities of religious belief.
Perhaps there are other things that should be added to that table. Apparently, we should have no opinion on “Belief that the position of Venus in the sky at the time of our birth affects our love life.”
We should also have no opinion on “Belief that a chi substance flows through channels in our body to affect our health.”
Some people, the Breatharians, believe you don’t need food—if you are in the proper state of mind, you can live on air and sunlight. Science can have no opinion on this.
If our president says God personally talks with him and has told him to nuke Iran, scientists shouldn’t even blink—we should consider the possibility of non-physical entities sending magic messages to the skull-meat of our leader an event just as likely as that he has gone insane.
Science does have a position on those issues: until there is evidence provided for the claims, they are bullshit. And naively pretending that science has no position is mollycoddling bullshit.
Scientists think this is terrible–the public’s bizarre underappreciation of one of science’s great and unshakable discoveries [evolution], how we and all we see came to be–and they’re right. Yet I can’t help feeling tetchy about the limits most of them put on their complaints. You see, they want to augment this particular figure–the number of people who believe in evolution–without bothering to confront a few other salient statistics that pollsters have revealed about America’s religious cosmogony. Few scientists, for example, worry about the 77 percent of Americans who insist that Jesus was born to a virgin, an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction. Nor do the researchers wring their hands over the 80 percent who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the laws of thermodynamics be damned. …
So, on the issue of mainstream monotheistic religions and the irrationality behind many of religion’s core tenets, scientists often set aside their skewers, their snark, and their impatient demand for proof, and instead don the calming cardigan of a a kiddie-show host on public television. They reassure the public that religion and science are not at odds with one another, but rather that they represent separate “magisteria,” in the words of the formerly alive and even more formerly scrappy Stephen Jay Gould. Nobody is going to ask people to give up their faith, their belief in an everlasting soul accompanied by an immortal memory of every soccer game their kids won, every moment they spent playing fetch with the dog. Nobody is going to mock you for your religious beliefs. Well, we might if you base your life decisions on the advice of a Ouija board; but if you want to believe that someday you’ll be seated at a celestial banquet with your long-dead father to your right and Jane Austen to your left-and that she’ll want to talk to you for another hundred million years or more–that’s your private reliquary, and we’re not here to jimmy the lock.
Take off the comfy cardigan, Dr Scott. Scientists have a role to play in our culture, and it’s not as the pleasant, soothing flim-flam artists, mumbling consolation and excuses in return for a donation on the offering plate. We’re supposed to be clear-eyed and critical, even when it’s easier to play the priest and lie. I think you’re doing a bang-up job of accommodating the American citizenry to the fluff and nonsense of woolly religious thinking, but that’s not a job that needs to be done, and it’s not your job.
Maybe you could try channeling the ka of Natalie Angier (I know she’s not dead yet, but heck, why limit ourselves to mere temporalities, as long as we’re conjuring up ætheric intelligences?) next time you’re talking to the public about religion and creationism? It might help. It might actually focus the debate on the root causes of the problem. I also found Angier’s article much more interesting and informative than the accounts of your talk—it’s something to aspire to, at any rate.