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World Premiere: The Magician’s Twin

I attended the premiere of the Discovery Institute’s video The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society. It’s the first of an anticipated 3-part video series on C. S. Lewis and science.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Discovery Institute, they’re a Seattle-based think tank whose Center for Science and Culture (CSC) is dedicated to undermining public support for evolution. Though evolution wasn’t a main theme for this video, rejection of evolution will be the theme of video #2 and a positive case for Intelligent Design in video #3.

Before I review the film, about which I have some good things to say, take a look at the organization that created it. The budget of the CSC is reportedly $4 million per year. The agendas of foundations and wealthy individuals who contribute include the goal of “total integration of biblical law into our lives” and commitment to “the infallibility of the Scripture”—acceptable goals in a free society but incompatible with the scientific goal of following the facts where they lead without crippling it with an agenda.

In a reasonable world, an organization dedicated to exposing the weaknesses of biology would be staffed with, y’know, biologists—people who actually understand the science and who are capable of evaluating it. But, unsurprising to any observer of Creationism and related fields, there are very few here. There are lots of doctorates among their 40-odd fellows, but as for relevant ones, I could only find these two:

  • Michael Behe has a doctorate in biochemistry. Though he proposed the clever concept of irreducible complexity, he accepts common descent (the idea that all life has a common ancestor), a view rejected by most in the Creationism/Intelligent Design movement.
  • Jonathan Wells has a doctorate in molecular and cell biology, but Wells has made clear his agenda: “[The words of Rev. Sun Myung Moon], my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism.” (While this agenda is at odds with science, I do applaud his honesty.)

The approach of the Creationism industry is similar to what, in the computer industry, was called Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. Back in the mainframe computer days, IBM’s product was more expensive. IBM salesmen were said to soften up reluctant customers with, “Keep in mind that no one was ever fired for buying IBM.” In other words: you pay a little more and you get a reliable product, but you cut corners and you may find yourself out of a job.

The Creationist version is to acknowledge the fruits of science but then mention hoaxes (Piltdown man, the Cardiff giant) or errors (ether, geocentrism) or dangers (radioactivity, surveillance) or embarrassments (eugenics, Tuskegee syphilis experiment). Are you really sure about this whole science thing?

Creationism saying that science is valuable is a bit like Mark Antony saying, “Brutus is an honorable man.”

And that approach colored The Magician’s Twin. It was a mixture of sensible cautions against a thoughtless acceptance of all things scientific—“if it comes from science, it must be worth adopting,” or “if science says so, it must be true”—and a subtle undercutting of the credibility of science.

The word scientism was used often. I’d heard it defined as the universal application of the scientific approach to inquiry, the claim that only evidence-based knowledge has value, and/or the use of science in areas where it doesn’t apply. However, the word was expanded (beyond its normal definition, I thought) to include the demand that morals must come from or be filtered through science.

Lewis felt that science and magic are twins in three ways.

1. Science as religion. Consider the crowd of atheists that attended the national Reason Rally, science giving meaning to people’s lives, and Darwin Day celebrations.

Is that all religion is? Community, meaning, celebration? That supernatural thing seems important—no, fundamental—to religion. Indeed, this caricature of religion seems insulting to believers.

I attended the Reason Rally, and yes, that sort of community is a valuable thing. Religious people and atheists find value in community, meaning, and celebration, but they don’t share belief in the supernatural. Science is quite plainly not religion.

2. Science as credulity. Science discourages skepticism and encourages gullibility. And what is it built on? C.S. Lewis said, “If my own mind is a product of the irrational, how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about evolution?”

If evolution were true and your mind were honed by natural selection (those minds that understood reality well being more likely to survive than those that didn’t), we’d expect it to give you a fairly trustworthy account of reality.

As for skepticism and gullibility, I’ll grant that public science education is poor, science is dangerously misunderstood within society, and some politicians fall over themselves to dismiss the scientific consensus when unpleasant. Let’s work together to fix these problems, but don’t pretend that religion is on the right side of this issue.

3. Science as power. Much of science is devoted to power over nature. Unlike magic, you actually can control people with science. Eugenics, drone aircraft, bar codes, transhumanism, and surveillance cameras are some of the many technologies that have downsides.

Does science have downsides? You bet. But let’s first get clear on who does what. Science does its best to tell us what is true about nature, and policy decides what to do with this information. You don’t like eugenics? Fine, but don’t blame science for it. “We should sterilize population category X” is a policy statement, not a scientific statement. “Here’s how optics work so that a video camera will work” is from science; “We should install surveillance cameras in public places to reduce crime” is from politics.

In the Q&A afterwards, the video’s director raised concerns about groupthink within biology. Something to avoid, to be sure, but is this really a major problem? It reminded me of a powerful story Richard Dawkins told in The God Delusion about a senior lecturer in the Oxford zoology department. The professor believed that one feature of the cell was an artifact and didn’t actually exist. One day a visiting American lecturer presented evidence powerful enough to convince even this skeptic.

At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said—with passion—“My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” We clapped our hands red.

Wow—talk about a teachable moment.

The video does raise appropriate cautions about science. But how do we constrain science as a force for good without taking the nonsensical path of encouraging citizens to decide their scientific truth for themselves? My suggestions:

  • Don’t confuse the debate of scientific ideas within Science with the debate within the public. We laypeople can debate what we think of science, but we don’t decide scientific truth. Science is not a democracy, and we’re stuck with the scientific consensus. Skepticism doesn’t mean, “I get to decide my own scientific truth.”
  • Don’t confuse science (a decent approximation of what is true) with policy (what to do about it). Science is the domain of scientists; policy is the domain of politicians and the society to which they answer.
  • Understand that science can get it wrong and that its pronouncements are always provisional. Science can get railroaded by powerful interests with an agenda–corporations, grant makers, or politicians for example. To minimize this, let’s encourage transparency and motivate science in the direction that’s best for society. When a study of the safety of phosphorescent zucchini is funded by the company that wants to sell this new vegetable, that doesn’t invalidate the research, but make this funding known.
  • Demand public scrutiny of policies with downsides. The European Union puts the burden of proof that a new policy is not harmful on the proponent of that policy. This is the Precautionary Principle. Do we need to go this far? I don’t think so, but we must have our own standards that find the right balance between reckless application of new science and immobility.
  • Demand strong science education in schools and ridicule politicians who reject the scientific consensus when it is uncomfortable—for national competitiveness if not for self-respect.

Yes, it is rare that one disputant in an argument convinces another. 
Thomas Jefferson said he had never seen it happen,
but that seems too harsh. 
It happens in science all the time.
— Carl Sagan

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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