Thursday, July 31, 2008

Another Day, Another Hatchet Job

This time it's from Salon, under the groan-worthy heading: What's wrong with science as religion

Since PZ himself and Chris already sunk most of the arguments, I'm going to leave Karl Giberson's personal beef with PZ alone. And as tempting as might be to reiterate my thoughts on Crackergate, I'm going to try to leave that alone as well. Besides, I have bigger fish to fry: his editorial drive-by on the notion of science itself.

The distortions come out right away: Crackergate apparently damages the reputation of science.

That's right, one person's controversial opinion (controversial in the sense that a sizable chunk of the population doesn't believe that crackers are crackers) damages science as a whole. Presumably, if Myers was a math professor, the headline would read that he does "addition no favors". This is incredibly silly argument, a thinly-veiled way of telling someone to shut up.

It seems like every time an atheist (who happens to be a scientist) criticizes religion, there's always wailing and gnashing of teeth about how scientists are intolerant, fundamentalist atheist bigots (sigh), claims that science is just like religion, and accusations of scientism.

And this editorial is no different: PZ is an atheist reverend (he's also called a televangelist and an inquisitor), Dennet is an atheist preacher, and the Big Bang theory and the theory of evolution form a secular creation myth. From this dubious foundation, he insinuates that science is like religion. The inanity is breathtaking.

Oh boy, where to begin. Let's start with the basics, something Karl apparently needs a refresher course in: science is a way of gathering knowledge through empirical means - hypotheses are driven by fact. Needless to say, this is VERY different from how religions operate.

Secondly, some scientists are very vocal about their rejection of religion. Good for them. They have every right to air their opinions, just like everyone else. They shouldn't be forced into silence on the matter or maligned as atheist inquisitors simply for saying what a lot of people are already thinking - that religious claims about the nature of the universe are mistaken (and in some cases, absurd).

You'd think this would be obvious, but the Catholic leadership just sent out a statement saying that "freedom of religion means that no one has the right to attack, malign or grossly offend a faith tradition they personally do not have membership or ascribe allegiance". Clearly, some religious people are strong proponents the sit-down-and-shut-up approach.

This often gets packaged as a Science VS religion narrative, with the world's devout under siege from an unmerciful army of atheist scientists. This isn't just incredibly dishonest, it misses the point entirely - this isn't a war between science and religion. This is a war between humanity and religion. Large chunks of the populace, from astrophysicists to janitors, have serious reservations about religion. And I'm grateful that people like PZ get out there and say it in a big way.

Science itself doesn't demolish religion, it merely undercuts religion by providing a method of knowing about the world that doesn't involve divining with pig entrails. And in cases where religions make empirical claims about the world (i.e. that the world is 6,000 years old or that touching someone will cure their cancer or that prayer will bring rain), science serves to contradict our superstitions. Religious people often have trouble accepting facts that contradict their deeply-held views, but that's their own problem, and not the scientist's.

Finally, Karl gets around to to what he's really after: "In order for many of us to truly feel at home in the universe so grandly described by science, that science needs to coexist as peacefully as possible with the creation stories of our religious traditions."

Okay, so he just wants peaceful coexistence between science and religion. Except for cases where the priests say one thing and scientific discoveries say another, this already exists - few religious people are offended by algebra or physics.

But I think what's really getting his goat is that PZ, a fellow scientist, is rocking the boat by openly attacking religion. Well, that's too bad. People are going to have different opinions on matters of religion and he's just going to have to deal with it. His hatchet job certainly isn't going to silence anyone.

No comments: