Thursday, October 7, 2004

Labeling Religion as Science

On NPR's Here and Now today was an interview with Chris Mooney, who is writing a book about conservatives and science. His recent article, "Research and Destroy," examines attempts by the religious right to apply a "veneer" of science to religious and moral beliefs, and use the result to influence public policy. They may fail in the end, but in the short term, they've been distressingly effective. The problem is that their science lacks academic rigor and peer review, and is usually blatantly contradicted by empirical research. Despite this, conservative politicians believe these "fringe" results, and act upon them, creating a ripple effect on the public at large.

Mooney also has a blog at, called The Intersection. In one of his postings, The Non-Thinking Man's President, he lists a series of open questions to / about George W. Bush from the Los Angeles Times. The rhetorical questions are designed to point out that the President tends to develop a superficial knowledge of a topic, form an opinion based on his belief system, and discard any evidence to the contrary that may later come his way. His value of being "unwavering" is another word for "inflexible," and betrays a profound lack of critical thinking on his part.

Reading through blogs like The Intersection,  Making Light, Who Cares What I Think?, Aurora Walking Vacation, and Whatever, listening to NPR and the candidates, and encountering religious right attitudes in the media and in person, I find it hard to evade the concept that proponents of conservative politics are essentially anti-intellectual, distrusting critical thinking on the grounds that it's somehow secular and immoral. This theory strikes me as unlikely in toto - it's hard to think of George Will and William F Buckley as anti-intellectual - but there does seem to be a problem here. If people confine themselves only to media outlets that support their point of view, they never have to confront and re-examine their attitudes or their knowledge of the facts.

On the other hand, it's true that I'm no better about looking at the other side of the debate than some religious conservatives are. I'm therefore grateful to Mooney for his article. It gives me a better idea about what's been happening in one part of the world of pseudoscience. It's not the only pseudoscience out there - uncritical cable shows about the paranormal come to mind - but it may be the most dangerous.




Sara made an interesting point in her comment below about evolution being a theory rather than proven fact. I'm no scientist, but I think I partly disagree, not with the premise, but the conclusion drawn.

Technically, pretty much all the models that scientists develop to explain the world are theories rather than facts. A conceptual framework is put forth that seems to fit the evidence. Experiments are carried out, and data examined. When the results come in, the theory is vindicated, tweaked, or thrown out, depending on how well the theory conforms to the evidence.

Short of time travel or a million year experiment, evolution cannot be proven to the satisfaction of all, particularly to those who don't want to believe it. However, there is a great deal of credible evidence for it based on genetics, the fossil record, and even the selective breeding of animals that humans have been doing for thousands of years. The evidence for creationism or intelligent design is not remotely as strong, and does not appear to fit that facts. It therefore does not fit the "smell test" for legitimate science. Because of this, I think that it is foolish to claim that a theory that attributes the entire fossil record to Noah's flood is more likely than natural selection.

On the other hand, there is nothing in the theory of evolution that precludes it being a mechanism used by God for his own ends. Like most of religion, this can neither be proven nor disproven. For some people, the intellectual rigor of empiricism demands the rejection of such a possibility, but even that is, in its way, an article of faith. For those of us who fall in the middle, between Biblical literalism and confirmed atheism, Darwin and Jesus need not be considered incompatible. In that, Sara is right.

Of course, if we did have time travel, we'd learn that an exploding alien spaceship caused the start of organic life on Earth and that the Cybermen accidentally caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. According to Doctor Who, anyway!  ;)



daephene said...

Well..........  trying to find a medical reason to convince someone to make the decision you believe is morally right is silly.  And Creationism isn't a science, and doesn't really belong in school.  And I didn't feel like reading the rest.  But I thought I'd make a comment on the idea that creationists want evolution taught as "Just a theory."

I grew up with people who still believe evolution is only a theory.  In the Bible belt.    
I was exposed to a LOT of evolution education in biology and psychology classes at the university level, not in the Bible belt.  Not one item of pure proof was ever submitted.  Just because it's logical, and the majority of the current population admits it's probably true, doesn't mean it's not just a theory.  It cannot be reproduced and therefore not proven by the scientific method.  Not that I'm saying it's false, just that it is no more an undeniable scientific fact than is the existence of God.

Evolution isn't always contrary to religion, though.  Even Darwin couldn't consistently talk about evolution without occasionally implying an intent.  He was not an atheist.  So I do believe that battling it with creationism in schools is a symptom of paranoia.  Your children will not automatically become atheists by being exposed to evolution in schools.

I believe evolution probably happened, through the will of the Creator.  But I'm not going to claim I can prove it, or that someone else is silly for not believing it without more proof.  Believing that "evolution is just a theory" doesn't belong right under "abortions cause breast cancer" as a stupid idea.  The latter is flying in the face of empirical evidence, while the former is denying the most logical interpretation of the fossil record.  When logic is proved to be infallible, we can assume those are the same thing, but not before.

daephene said...

Actually I never said Creationism was comparable, and I didn't grace the "flood created the fossil record" theory with any thought at all.  Nonetheless, evolution has not been and will not be proven.  Credible is not fact.  Logical is not fact.  The fact that we can breed for traits we like does not prove much, since most of what we breed for does not improve the survival of the species, but suits our personal tastes for food, companions, or furs.  Like I said, I think the most likely premise is that evolution was done by divine direction, like a slow-moving breeding program.  (The probability factors involved in random, undirected evolution are too much for me.   If there was no higher power, there was a heck of a lot of luck involved, and I'm not sure the Infinite Improbability Drive was in use at the time.)  The fossil record makes it clear that animals have existed that no longer exist, and that animals that did not exist now do, so the idea that everything was created at the same time when God first created the earth is of course suspect.   I just say we don't know how the world was created, and people should not be ridiculed for not believing in evolution.  

But really, I realize I only wrote that post because I know too many anti-Christian types, and the folks who believe that the flood created the fossil record obviously give those who simply don't accept evolution as the answer a bad name.  Just as those who have never read the "judge not" verse in their Bibles but can find every "thou shalt not" in a second flat, give all the rest of Christianity a black eye in public relations.  I just felt the need to differentiate the complete denial of fact from the non-acceptance of the probable but not proven.  And I was grumpy at the time.  And I'd have deleted the comment if I knew how.

madmanadhd said...

Thanks Karen for this link and for such a thoughtful entry. What is of great concern for me is the current administration's effort to make long lasting, high impact decisions while ignoring much of the scientific data and research out there. The amount of science that has been ignored, or worse yet subdued because it went against administration policy is of concern to many scientists. It all goes back to the method by which this administration makes decisions and policy.