David Berlinski! Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. He appeared on Fox News last night, with his standard air of disaffected ennui to explain science to Mark Levin. It was a series of own goals.
He has little regard for science — they’re all shallow thinkers. That’s why they’re all atheists, who regard 5,000 year old religious traditions with contempt. He explains what he knows about the academy, which isn’t much, and portrays us all as people who go around sneering at religion. Well, I do…but I’m not at all representative. If I were to interrupt a committee meeting with complaints about the pervasive religiosity of the community I live in, that would be discouraged — we’re supposed to be reality-based, so the question would be about how we can adapt to the reality of our situation, how can we get along with our neighbors, and generally getting specific about our opinions on religion while carrying on our academic business is considered a faux pas. That goes for someone promoting a religion as well as for someone promoting no religion.
Berlinski then accuses scientists, and especially atheist scientists, of being shallow thinkers. That, I think, is generally true of everyone: we work in our little niche, and sometimes some of us poke our heads out and try to explore other ideas more broadly, but we each have our domains of expertise and tend to focus on those. But Berlinski goes further, and wants to proclaim the facts of science as inadequate because they aren’t wrapped up in enough philosophical baggage. For example, he says that
the hypothesis that we are nothing but cosmic accidents has been widely accepted by the scientific community, and that is true — people have been looking for a teleological cause for centuries, and failing, while stochastic explanations for physics, chemistry, and biology have been succeeding wonderfully. In the absence of a cosmic plan, we have to accept that we are cosmic accidents.
I think that has significant social and moral and psychological explanations that ought to be explored further. Most scientists don’t worry about it; their job is to accurately describe reality, now let others figure out what it means. That’s not shallowness — science requires a great depth of knowledge — but only specialization. The thing is, if you’re going to claim scientists haven’t done a great job of fitting their answers to the greater puzzle of culture, neither have those advocates for 5,000 year old religious traditions. And the religious advocates have a more challenging job of propping up ideas that are demonstrably wrong and fly in the face of the observed facts.
Berlinski also can’t avoid elitism and lying about the science. Levin makes a mind-bogglingly stupid comment about climate change:
they can’t tell us the temperature next week within ten degrees but they can tell us within a degree what it will be in a century, which is a goofy way of confusing local weather with global climate. Berlinski has a unique way of addressing the evidence of climate change: well, the “top physicists” aren’t studying climate change. Berlinski dismisses studies of the climate with
I’m talking about top physicists, to get to climate change we all have to go down that ladder all the way down to the bottom. Then he claims that all those petty little substandard physicists who call themselves climatologists are all squabbling with one another with inconsistent results.
Then he gets to what Levin calls “Darwinianism”.
Here’s Berlinski’s arguments: he invents a series of just-so stories.
Why did the giraffe develop a long neck? Because he wanted to reach leaves at the top of the trees. (That, by the way, is no element of any modern evolutionary explanation — he seems to be reaching back to vague memories from grade school of 18th century explanations).
Why aren’t women born with tails like cats? Women don’t seem to need them, even though it would make them more alluring. He expresses every bit of biological diversity as a matter of whim and personal preference. He explains the problem:
the anecdotes pile on interminably, and there’s no fundamental leading principle. Oh, nonsense. Berlinski invents anecdotes, and then uses his ignorance of the mathematical principles underlying, for example, population genetics to claim that population geneticists are just sitting around inventing myths.
He’s an annoying and pretentious kind of fool. He needs to fly back to France and disappear again, because he’s too out of touch to be able to contribute anything to any discussion except for his cultivated air of superciliousness. Which, I will admit, he has honed to razor sharpness. Too bad there’s no substance at all behind it, and that he is such a shallow thinker.