Why I am not a scientist…

September 24, 2008 | By | 5 Replies More

…but I love science anyway.

Just so you know, I’m not going to start every post with “Why I am … “. It’s an homage to famous 19th Century heretic Robert Green Ingersoll and his famous manifesto, “Why I Am An Agnostic”. This style of title has also been used by, among others, Bertrand Russell in “Why I Am Not A Christian” and Ibn Warraq in “Why I Am Not A Muslim”. This is a slightly-edited duplicate of the original over at Ethics Gradient (rest assured, not all my work well be reposts either). Enjoy!

Why I am not a scientist…

Well, simply, it’s because I don’t have the patience, attention to detail or academic skills – or even the desire – to study it in any formal way. Biology was one of my favourite subjects at school and my understanding of it was helped by my father, himself a senior biology teacher (at a different high school), both through his direct assistance and indirectly through his large collection of scientific books, class materials & magazines, most of them dealing with natural history in some way. However, for many reasons I was not a good student (let’s face facts, I sucked) and my marks in no way reflected my true understanding of the material.

But you don’t have to be a scientist in order to know that science works. The results are all around you, from the breathtaking photos and information given us by the Hubble telescope (and the insane mathematics & engineering that designed, built and launched the thing) to the technology I’m using to write and publish this post; the tram & train that will take me home tonight; the medical technology that’s more than once quite literally saved my life and the lives of some of my friends and family (more than likely yours too) to the mobile phone that’s next to me with Puzzle Bobble installed on it that’s ringing and being ignored. You don’t have to have faith that it works because it’s right there in front of you, working the way it’s designed to, proving itself time and time again, billions of times a day, every day of our lives.

Some people accuse others of worshipping science as a replacement for God; some, oxymoronically, call it a “secular religion” or an “atheist religion”. Science is not a religion, a belief system or even a philosophy. It doesn’t necessarily lead to non-belief (as many think it does) as it doesn’t prescribe a worldview. Science is a tool. It is a method of gaining understanding of something you’re looking at which you can’t as yet understand. You can then test & confirm your new knowledge and explain it to others, not only showing what you know, but – more importantly – how you know it. This exposes your methods & data to testing & critical evaluation by others: they should be able to duplicate your results by following your methods – but if your methods are flawed, it may well be that your data will be equally flawed. The function of peer-review is to allow others to replicate your method then verify or falsify your claims. This is science. Not blind faith in inherited dogma or unfounded, ingrained, habitual belief but verifiable fact, testable truth, and real knowledge of our universe.

Scienctific enquiry is a tool as much as a pen or a chisel is a tool and, contrary to the beliefs of people like Ben “science leads you to killing people” Stein (I won’t link to his idiocy), doesn’t dictate the user’s morality. With a pen you can write Don Giovanni or Mein Kampf; with a chisel you can carve marble into David or stab someone in the head. With science you can inform the world as to the origin of species or the age of the universe, you can treat cancer or you can design an atomic bomb or nerve gas or napalm. Form & function do not & can not dictate the intent or morality of the user; in fact the products of scientific enquiry are entirely dependent on the individual morality of the scientist (furthermore, the actual employment of such products is often not at all up to the scientist who created them). So it goes with religion: it can be a force for good, inspiring people to great charity, love and self-sacrifice; it can also be the bane of man, inspiring oppression of sexual, political or artistic natures; sectarianism and associated violence & murder; blind faith in superstition and suspicion of scientific knowledge; distrust of any who ask difficult questions and double standards & hypocrisy when it comes to free speech and public discourse.

Some religious people even cry and protest when a new scientific discovery is made, rather than celebrate a new brick in the temple of combined human knowledge. Creationists, for example, continually demand transitional fossils or forms to show evidence for evolution & speciation. However, when they’re discovered (Tiktaalik being a great example), they invariably insist that it’s not transitional enough, or in some other way doesn’t meet their stringent criteria (which in fact seem to change according to the nature of whatever discovery they’re protesting, curiously and coincidentally in such a way as to always, without fail, render the new discovery illegitimate in their eyes).

It used to be (in the modern era anyway, let’s not forget that “heretic” Galileo) that creationists would limit their protestations to the earthly sciences too; particularly anything to do with the age of the earth and divergence of lifeforms, including but not limited to biology, geology, archaeology and palaeontology. In recent times though, I’ve noticed a lot of religious commenters on scientific blogs & websites attempting to disprove or debunk the physics of astronomy and cosmology itself by using scripture or, more often, simply cherry-picking whatever other existing science seems to agree with their biblical worldview and ignoring the rest of the body of knowledge (which, unsurprisingly, roundly contradicts that same worldview). A prime example is the comment thread at this old post from The Angry Astronomer, which got itself hijacked by an obvious creationist (named, as usual, “Anonymous”) whose ham-fisted, ignorant attempts to disprove Angry’s science using – hmmmm – well, other science are really quite laughable. Although I’m an astronomical layman I hooked into Anon myself quite a bit – can’t resist sometimes – and some of the smackdowns he received from Angry and other astronomers (including The Bad One himself, Phil Plait) are pure awesomnity. Anon’s stone-age ignorance of the topic is on display for all to see in high definition and this breathtaking ignorance of the topic he assumes he’s an expert in is only eclipsed by the steady, unceasing ignorance of his own damnable ignorance!

Creationists using science to debunk science – using tiny bits of a body of knowledge, completely out of context, to undermine the rest of the body of knowledge. Will wonders never cease?

It’s just so damn troubling, counter-intuitive and arse-backwards. Science and the scientific method are self-regulating tools for discovery & explanation; for verifiable (and falsifiable) results; for reliable methodology and for logical, rational, reasonable and impartial knowledge of the processes and phenomena of our world and its surrounding universe. How is it possible that in the 21st century there are still biblical literalists shouting down every new discovery as lies or heresy? How can anyone take their claims of scientific conspiracies to kill religion or suppress religion-supporting facts seriously? How can these people keep a straight face as they attempt to use science (well, the bits of it they think gel with their interpretation of ancient fables, anyway – much as they sift through their bibles for grains of wisdom) to debunk science?

 

 

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Category: Culture, ignorance, Religion, Science

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Hank was born of bird-watching bushwalking music-loving parents from whom he gained his love of nature, the universe & bicycles. Today he's a musician, non-profit aid worker, beagle keeper and fair & balanced internet commentator - but that just means he has a chip on each shoulder.

Comments (5)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Hank: Thanks for your thought-provoking post. You raise some good questions that I often ask myself and you admit to much frustration that I often feel.

    How can fundamentalists feel fulfilled when they must know that they are taking isolated bits of scientifically gleaned knowledge out of context and using it solely to deconstruct a meticulously and painstakingly assembled fabric of understanding? Why don’t they, while dabbling in science, catch true science fever and let the scientific method guide the entire inquiry?

    Certainly, some fundies have fallen in love with the scientific method, causing them to abandon their fundamentalist ways. Two of my heroes are of that ilk. They were both died in the wool fundamentalists, but they got too close to the fire of skepticism. You’ll probably recognize their names and accomplishments: Bible scholar Bart Ehrman and Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine.

    Therefore, it truly can happen that a fundamentalist tries to usurp (and distort) a scientific finding, but becomes enamored by the scientific method itself. What can we do to make this happen more than it does? After blogging at this site for more than two years, I have no answer, but I do have a gut feeling.

    For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Therefore, when I directly attack the clearly self-contradictory holdings of a fundie, I’m merely setting up a conflict. That conflict will almost always (I believe) drive the fundie further into Fundie-land, where he/she will retrench, returning with handfuls of allegedly scientific drivel that no self-respecting scientist would entertain. It’s just like the example you raised. The fundies want a transitional life form? OK, you do what Neil Shubin did and present them with Tiktaalik (I wrote about that phenomenal fossil), but they reject Tiktaalik as a solution. They argue that there are now two gaps where used to be one! They then demand a pre-Tiktaalik and a post-Tiktaalik transitional fossil. You often can’t win.

    As I mentioned above (and this is only my gut opinion) you almost for sure won’t convince a fundie of the beauty of the scientific method if you directly attack their cherished beliefs. For a recent example, consider what happened when Mark Tiedemann carefully pointed out to the irrepressible commenter “Erik B” that there are two conflicting Biblical genealogies leading up to Joseph. This obvious disparity presented no problem for Erik B, who simply ignored this contradiction, and steered the conversation back to God and the Bible. Mark and I have seen this behavior before at this site, yet it so often catches us by surprise. Why can't these people see the obvious???

    The same thing happens with supporters of Sarah Palin. How many of them think that Palin lied about the “bridge to nowhere”? No many. You see, we all have a powerful filter that protects us from information that is inconsistent with our beliefs. It’s called the confirmation bias. It is truly powerful. It works on both fundies and skeptics. Skeptic have an antidote that fundies lack, however. It’s called the scientific method.

    I’m pondering many angles to this problem with fundies. Once they cut off their willingness to deeply consider any belief that conflicts with their current belief system, it seems like a waste of time to even talk with them. I think there is hope, though, and I think that it’s along the lines offered by Jonathan Haidt. Frontal attacks don’t work. Instead, empathy is probably a much better approach. Instead of mocking the claim that the Bible is without contradiction, try this: ask the true believer what’s important to him or her and listen carefully and at length. Try to engage in a discussion of what matters to the Believer. Maybe (and this will still only happen on a rare day), you can even talk a bit about science, but don’t call it “science.” When the Believer talks about religion, don’t call it “religion.” When he or she says something about “the need to accept Jesus,” don’t wince; don’t mock. Just try to get back to talking about the world. Talk about what IS, without spinning it or labeling it.

    When there is a bit of trust (and this might take months or years), you might be able to talk about the branches of science that don’t directly touch hot button issues. Hint: don’t discuss evolution or the age of the universe. Maybe discuss physics or chemistry. Move really slowly to something like cell function or neuro-science. Cognitive science offers some fascinating experiments regarding attention, emotions, or categorization that all display the beauty of the scientific method.

    Maybe that’s all you can do. Once I get preachy, it’s all over. It’s happened to me dozens of times when I got impatient. We can teach fundamentalists of all stripes, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy at all, because most fundamentalists are convinced that a mere feeling or a conviction is a form of knowledge. We skeptics know that conviction is wrong as often as it is right. We know, for instance, that real explanations are far more than things that make members of our in-group smile.

    Finally, in addition to being careful to not preach, and having loads of patience, we must admit some humility to make some progress. I found a good illustration of the power of that humility.

    Sorry this comment got so long. I suppose that the length of this comment is an admission that I don’t have any sure-fire way to cope with fundamentalist critiques of science.

    We skeptics and science-lovers can bring the fundamentalists to the water but we can make them drink. They have to want it themselves. They have to decides that they are willing to take a huge chance and give skepticism and the scientific method a chance. They have to be willing to make this emotional move even though they realize that science doesn't really replace what they are giving up. They will feel vulnerable and traitorous. Based on the statistics, dropping one's fundamentalist ways is extremely difficult. It must be akin to an alcoholic giving up drinking. That's how I think of it. That's how I deal with the frustration of explaining, so thoroughly and so carefully, that Darwin didn't say that we are descended from monkeys and then hearing: "God loves you."

  2. Hank says:

    In Erik B's case it's pretty pointless I must admit (see "Expelled Redux"). I'll have a reasonable chat with anyone but think I know a lost cause when I see one.

    I must admit I'm not averse to throwing kerosene on the fires lit by trolls & pigeons. Sometimes, the whole content of a response from a fundamentalist is ridiculous half or non-truths or almost purposeful misunderstandings and I simply can't abide such wilful ignorance or dishonesty – let's not even mention the pity-prayers and evangelising and wrath and rule-changing behaviour and projection. Where does it say "thou shalt ignore the actual content of that with which scripture (and therefore yourself) disagrees but thou shalt argue against it anyway" or "thou shalt project thine beliefs onto others regardless of whether they share them"? Perhaps I'm being unreasonable, merely expecting people to be reasonable. I do try not to be the guy who "fires first", as it were, but some people really burn my cannoli!

    It's so very difficult, as you say, even when soberly explaining your position or carefully laying out exactly what a theory says. You can so patiently explain something and avoid being inflammatory, but it's like some people have a filter which converts any scientific explanation of *anything* into "your god is nonsense and I want to destroy you". The persecution complex of some religious people, especially in the US, is mindboggling.

    Your comment reminds me of a conversation I had, while studying a few years back, when the subject of evolution came up in one of our lab classes. We were making cultures of E.coli in petri dishes and a devout Christian friend of mine asked "how can that blob of cells turn into a human? Or even a fish? Or anything? It doesn't seem possible!" She wasn't combative – I think she was genuinely curious and had obviously never actually had evolution explained to her properly. I started off, clumsily, and our lecturer, happy to be distracted from the lesson plan, jumped in and did a great job of explaining simply about speciation, natural selection & the other aspects of the theory (including the very important "millions and billions of years of incremental change" part). I saw my friend's eyes light up with understanding and she said she'd go and read up on it. I don't think my friend was a full-on creationist though; I think she was misinformed – or just under-informed. But remembering that little half-hour, I totally see what you're getting at. I could've just torn into her for being so naive, but as she was so genuinely interested and not out to pick a fight, clearly the best approach was to be calm and informative. It worked, too – and she's still as devout and still as active in her church as she was before. Understanding doesn't necessarily have to lead to renouncing your cherished beliefs! However, if her response to the explanation was to label us all a pack of heathen monkey-worshipping Nazis deserving her simultaneous wrath & pity-prayers, I don't know if I could've held my forked tongue …

    Your approach makes a lot of sense and I'll endeavour to employ it when the opportunity arises: the examples that you cite (Ehrman and Shermer) and my memory of my friend in that microbiology lab give me hope that science itself can be its own best weapon.

    Yes, I do mean "weapon" metaphorically 🙂

  3. The only regret I have with regards to Erik B is that I lost my temper. It's a trait I got from my dad, who had less patience than I do for someone who won't look at something for what it is.

    But we all fell into a little bit of letting him set the rules of engagement. His whole rant on homosexuality, for instance. So many of jumped right in there with the "but they have no choice, they're born that way," as if that were any kind of legitimate response to bigotry. In truth, the proper response should have been "So what? If I feel like getting it on with a man instead of a woman, who are you to say that's wrong?" Instead with became apologists.

    Likewise with all the biblical stuff. The only reason any of it makes a case for the existence of god is if you already believe in god. God the magician must make an appearance. But we argued as if the god of the bible were, in some sense, real and had just made a bunch of mistakes by letting hapless humans transcribe the message (and fuck it up). Joshua did not stop the sun. It was not a historical event. Why didn't he stop the sun? Because the Magician ain't there. But we probably would have attempted to find an alternate explanation rather than stick with the "it's Hebrew propaganda–iow, bullshit."

    People like Erik challenge the proselyte in us. We want to convince them almost as much as they wish to convince us. It's an itch that we can't scratch.

  4. Erik Brewer says:

    Hank

    Oh, you are upset because I will not give up my reasoning abilities and join your wrong way of thinking (if that is being a lost cause then so be it). The whole “if I cannot win the argument then I will attack the person” tactic (typical of liberals/free thinkers/atheists). Come up with something a little more creative for a change.

    When you speak of half and non-truths please look in the mirror or address your liberal/free thinking/atheist friends.

    You are the one who fires first when you attack the Bible so getting attacked back with the Truth should not be a shock to you. The shock comes from the fact that you loose the argument against the Bible every time (I know that it hurts your pride).

    You filter what you want to filter from the Word of God and take things out of context to try and prove your distorted point of view (that is not very original on your part). You come from an assembly line of so called skeptics (all cut from the same mold with the same useless anti-Biblical arguments).

    Mark Tiedemann

    God can and will help us control our temper. I used to have a ferocious temper and I would loose it at the drop of a hat but after I repented and became a follower of Jesus Christ all of that changed. The temper always wants to rear its ugly head but God gives me the ability/virtue of self-control (part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit) and I overcome my temper. You could have that same ability if you would come to God and ask for His help.

    Here we go with the name calling again. I am not against homosexuals (people). I am against the sin that they live in and promote. There is a huge difference between the 2 things. Yet you guys insist on name calling (childish tactic).

    You can choose to do whatever you want whenever you want but remember that there are always consequences to your actions. As you know sexual sin is not something that is done with one person (except for masturbation). We live in society so sexual sin affects those around you. Also when you promote immorality you become a danger to society (like promoting murder or illegal drug use).

    God has given us many proofs of His existence but the culmination is in His Word. We see God’s existence in nature, human beings, conscience, desire for laws and morality, in Jesus Christ, and the Bible. There is so much evidence for the existence of God that it is hard not to believe in Him. But because we are tainted with sin we are so easily deceived. God has made an appearance in the person of Jesus Christ (fulfilling all the OT prophecies of His first coming, death, burial, resurrection) and He explained who He was. People had the same problem then as they do now; ignorance to the Word of God and tainted by sin so most rejected Him as they still do today (you for example). Again, I came to the site because I read a misrepresentation of the Word of God so I corrected it. You guys took the ball from there. I have argued against one mistaken quote or attack on the Bible after another.

    Just like the temper God can also help you with your vulgar language (He did that with me as well).

    [Admin's note: Several long passages of this comment constitute "preaching." These paragraphs are attempts to announce what "God" thinks or what "God" wants, as though there is no alternative viewpoint. In my opinion, such presentations are distracting to our discussions, which (though such comments might well be motivated by a commenter's religious beliefs) should be based on what commenter's themselves think. Such comments seem to invite an endless and unproductive back and forth focused on the authenticity of such claims. Further discussion of what is starkly presented as "God's" opinion, or any quotation to any passages from any religion's Sacred Literature, to the extent that those passages are intended to be unquestionable on any ground, are subject to pruning pursuant to the commenting guidelines regarding "preaching"].

  5. Mobius 1 says:

    True enough, I shouldn't have been so incendiary. But he, and people like him, incite a frustrated response, because of their well fortified straw house. If the facts matched the book, then I'd be at a loss. But it's just not so, and the evidence supports the non-mystical side.

    I think that the evangelicals are childish, really. Remember way back, in 2nd grade or so, when the kids who had everything they ever could want would taunt others, touting their toys? Always with the saying "I'm better than you, because I have this!" I can't help but draw parallels between schoolyard kids and today's evangelicals and 'true believers'. So convinced, they are, that they have god, 'or toys', on their side, and that everyone else is inferior because they don't have what he or she has. The same principle can be applied to god.

    Woe are the poor (atheists), because they don't have kickass toys (god). We must share, or get them to have the same stuff, so they can be like us.

    Sorry, my friend tangent showed up. We had a few shots, I posted while he talked, and we all had a good laugh.

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