The Creation of American Ignorance

Over on BCC, Steve P has posted a nice summary of an article in New Scientist which attributes the decline in scientific literacy in the US to three factors:  relativism in the academy, unserious journalism, and the illiteracy of Congress.

Amen to the third one!  In fact, amen to all of them!   However, speaking as someone who has taught both science and religion at the undergraduate level, there is at least one discipline in which student ignorance exceeds that of science:  religion.  Just sayin’ that when we’re passin’ round the cryin’ towels, I want one…  Not really.  I get paid for this, and I quite like it, except when I have to grade essay questions.

Anyway, as I prepping for my science and religion class next week, it occurred to me that some rejection of science arises specifically from religious venues and if Steve’s article mentioned that, he didn’t bring it up.  Unfortunately, some scientists must themselves accept some level of responsibility for the ease with which their results can be ignored or downplayed by those who do not wish to engage them in a meaningful manner.

Sir Arthur S. Eddington, a British astrophysicist and philosopher of science, once told a story about an ichthyologist who specialized in deep sea marine life.  After spending a significant amount of time and money looking for new specimens from the deepest levels of the ocean, the gentleman published his conclusions, indicating that no fish smaller than three inches could survive at depth.

Incidentally, the net used by the ichthyologist had a three-inch mesh.

Eddington’s point was the obvious one, and it is no news to scientists.  When scientists overstate their results, their specific results are discredited among their peers.   However, there are circumstances where damage to the “scientific reputation” is much more widespread, such as in cases in which scientists make philosophical claims based on the extension of their physics into their metaphysics, so to speak.  This inevitably lights a fire under America’s pulpits, which can apparently burn on almost forever and without oxygen!

Overstatement when it comes to the intersection of science and religion ends up causing significant angst.  Galileo made a bit of a misstep by saying we should accept the literal reading of scripture over a scientific theory unless we can irrefutably demonstrate the truth of the theory, which he couldn’t do at the time.  A more recent example might be found in Richard Dawkins’ River Out of Eden (133):

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.  The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

Here Dawkins simply assumes that if science finds no purpose in the universe then there is no purpose.  Daniel Dennett makes a similar assertion, saying that acceptance of evolution requires rejection of theism because chance and necessity are philosophically incompatible with purpose and design.

Biblical literalists are not fundamentally insane, in fact, they reason quite adequately except in cases where the absolute authority of the Bible is at stake.  And students, who are almost uniformly young people, do not always have what it takes to thread the needed sewing device in order to create a coherent mental tapestry that includes both science and religion.  When students feel forced by either scientists or religious leaders to make a choice between science and religion, that is, when they know of no options for science and religion other than the conflict model, both science and religion suffer.



Note:  Obviously, religions leaders do the same thing, and with equally or perhaps more significant damage.  Speaking as a Mormon, I think I could have gone pretty much forever without Man:  His Origin and Destiny. And for a nearby example of how both religion and science suffer, see the infamous “No Death Before the Fall” blog here on the MoArch.  For my part, religion and science are not in conflict.  Religion is probably best conceived of as a commitment to a way of life rather than a substitute for scientific research.

  • SteveP

    Mogs, Thanks for this. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve done battle with some of the evangelical atheists like Dennett and Dawkins and their misunderstanding of religion is just as much egregious as the antiscience crowd’s lack of understanding of science, and the thing is they misunderstand science fairly when they make metaphysical claims beyond the reach of science’s purview. I’m glad you brought this out, because it is a very important point. I especially like your final comment. It is right on the money.

  • Casey

    I think my favorite irony is how folks like R.Gary and Dawkins are basically flip sides of the same coin. A few years ago in school I helped produce a podcast on science, religion, and evolution, in which I took on the role of a Dawkinsian neo-Darwinian and another student got to be…basically R.Gary (and unfortunately our Michael Behe-influnced ID advocate came off like the reasonable, centered one, which is what happens when that kind of polarization defines the mainstream debate). So yeah, I realized how absolutism and overstatement can close off minds regardless of the direction it’s coming from, especially when it seems to demand that we choose sides immediately and permanently.

    Shameless self-promotion: The podcast is Mormon Stories #163 if any passing reader feels like listening. I think it’s pretty good :)

  • Jeff G

    I’m sorry, but when did Dennett say that? I know he says that evolution makes a belief in god unnecessary, but that’s not that strong of a claim.