Google Reader brings me a serendipitous, or perhaps providential, sequence of articles.
First up is Douglas Starr’s Discovery article, “Spark of Truth: Can Science Bring Justice to Arson Trials?”
At laboratories throughout the United States — some large enough to contain a three-story house — researchers have been lighting rooms and houses on fire and analyzing the results with the kind of scientific scrutiny that has upended several deeply entrenched misconceptions about how fires behave. The upheaval is more than academic. For generations, arson inspectors have used outmoded theories to help indict and incarcerate many suspects. But as new science is brought to bear on old cases, it is becoming clear that over the past several decades, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people have been convicted of arson based on scant research and misguided beliefs. Many of those people are still in jail, hoping that someone will take up their cause.
“A lot of bad science has been applied to arson investigation,” says John Lentini, a renowned fire expert who has given exculpatory testimony in at least 40 arson cases since 2000. His most recent case, now under review, involves a Massachusetts man convicted of arson by Molotov cocktail, even though not a single glass fragment from the supposed bottle bomb was found at the scene.
“I shudder to think how many wrongful convictions there are,” says Richard Roby, president and technical director of Combustion Science and Engineering, a fire- protection engineering firm based in Columbia, Maryland. Roby has testified for several men charged with arson. One, named Michael Ledford, could not have been at the scene when the fire that killed his son was allegedly set, according to Roby’s calculations, yet he is now serving a 50-year sentence. “It’s amazing to think how long it takes for basic science to be accepted,” Roby says. “I lose sleep over this every week.”
The stories of injustice and wrongful conviction are horrendous. But the new science is only slowly gaining a hearing due to how deeply entrenched the old, bad science “based on scant research and misguided beliefs” remains and how invested in it so many people still are. Their mistaken folklore of arson investigation is counter-factual and scientifically indefensible, but it has become an essential part of their identity, so they’re unwilling to abandon it even when it has been proven not to be true.
Next up in my reader is Al Mohler’s latest variation on his one and only theme. This time he’s denouncing Karl Giberson for being a physicist and Randall J. Stephens for being a historian:
They level their attack on figures like James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and Ken Ham, founder of the Answers in Genesis ministry. Their main accusation is that these leaders, along with others, simply embarrass evangelicalism before the watching world by refusing to accept what Giberson and Stephens call “secular knowledge.” …
That’s an odd formulation: “what Giberson and Stephens call ‘secular knowledge.'” What else would you call it? It isn’t sectarian knowledge.
The atomic number of radium is 88. That’s true whether you’re a Southern Baptist, like Al Mohler, or a Presbyterian, Hindu, Mormon, atheist or Jew. It’s a fact, knowledge. And that knowledge is secular and wholly independent from and indifferent to the sectarian loyalties or perspectives of any given observer.
Mohler’s standard shtick is to cast himself as the righteous defender of “absolute truth” while those he disagrees with he always accuses of abandoning that truth. That’s once again the kicker for this column, in which he faux-laments the sorry state of Giberson and Stephens, shedding a smarmy tear over “the consequences of the evangelical surrender of truth.”
Mohler condemns Giberson for writing, “I am happy to concede that science does indeed trump religious truth about the natural world.” That, Mohler says, is a rejection of the Bible. “Giberson has already made his view of the Bible clear,” Mohler sneers, “It is simply ‘trumped’ by science when describing the natural world.”
Mohler’s trademark combination of ignorance and condescension can be grating, but he’s generally less irksome than most of the culture warriors of the religious right because he’s not primarily interested in partisan politicking. He’s primarily interested in defending the faith.
And by “defending the faith” I mean defending his faith, which is a fragile construct he has come to believe requires the affirmation of several extrabiblical claims that have been thoroughly and devastatingly refuted by “secular knowledge.” Specifically, Mohler believes that if evolution is true then the Bible is a lie and there is no God, Christ is not risen, we are still dead in our sins and we are of all people most to be pitied.
And unfortunately for Mohler, evolution is, in fact, true.
So what we find in this column is what we find in nearly every Al Mohler column — him clinging white-knuckled to religious “truth” that he conflates with the Bible while shouting his refusal to accept nonsectarian truths that stubbornly refuse to care what he thinks.
While that gives me a measure of sympathy for Mohler and his perpetual crisis of faith, I also think it means he should never be allowed to serve on a jury in a case where someone stands accused of arson. Justice requires that verdicts be based on facts and evidence, on what Mohler would call, pejoratively, “secular knowledge.” For those who do not accept the legitimacy of such knowledge, there can be no such thing as justice and no such thing as truth.
The next item in my Google Reader comes from Ethan Siegel, the theoretical astrophysicist and educator who blogs at Starts With a Bang! Siegel’s post is simply titled “I Am a Scientist,” and it offers a patient and lucid explanation of what that entails, and why, for everything from gravity to evolution to climate change.
We’re all free to follow Al Mohler’s example and reject the secular knowledge Siegel lays out in favor of some sectarian claim, but that’s a recipe for a self-inflicted perpetual crisis of faith. So if you make that choice know what you’re getting yourself into: A lifetime of churning out desperate columns for outlets like The Christian Post.
Reality: If you lived here, you’d be home by now.