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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Heresies in scientistry

Jerry Pournelle considers the near-phobic reaction to intelligent design and points out a few uncomfortable historical truths about relying on the wisdom of the scientific experts. I note that I raised a similar point in TIA regarding the total absurdity of worrying about science education in a school system that can't produce graduates that are both numerate and literate.

As to teaching "intelligent design" in schools, it doesn't happen often. The real question is who shall decide? Local school boards, or experts? And be very careful how you answer, because there are a number of propositions of far greater practical import, such as IQ, and phonics vs. "whole word" methods of teaching children to read English, and such like that have been imposed from above by the experts on the grounds that local bumpkins shouldn't have control since we, the experts, know what the right answers are; and we don't want public money wasted on teaching nonsense like phonics, and having children learn the addition and multiplication tables when every expert knows that The New Math, or Fuzzy Math, is a far, far better way to teach arithmetic... And that it is far more important to have diversity in history textbooks than to have very much about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Etc....

What I don't understand is the passion on suppressing intelligent design in the name of science. Some readers are convinced that the end of the Republic is at hand if one school district, anywhere, decides to mandate intelligent design as an alternative to Darwinian Evolution. Given that the entire state of California forbade the teaching of English as a phonetic language for more than a dozen years, and still has very few teachers who understand how to teach that, which is the greater danger?

A molecular biologist writes in response:

"PLEASE don't use my name or affiliation here on this topic---I learned long ago that I do not have a right to my own opinion in science! At least on this subject.

I very much appreciated your comments regarding the Intelligent Design - Aggressive Atheist battle royale. Your comments were nuanced and careful. This is not a new subject, and people like Dawkins and Dennett and Harris seem to feel that their own insights are fresh. Ah...not so much. But then, they aggressively dislike religion, so theological debates over the past thousand years are not part of their worldview!

Most of all---and this is something that both the IDers and AAs miss---you show humility about what you do not know. In fact, you show it regarding what humans *can* know.

The ID/fundamentalists only posit a Creator who acts in ways that make sense to people, with human motivations (and yes, some folks like Hoyle---RIP, a great man---did not fit into this category). I'm back with Greg Benford about that: "The thing about aliens is, they're alien." The same thing holds true for deities. We *cannot* understand the universe from quanta to quasars, genes to galaxies. At least not now.

The AAs fit the same mold. I know better than Dawkins about the limitations of evolutionary thought on a molecular level (he is not a molecular biologist, as I am). Yet his pride shows in every syllable. The Greeks had a word for this: hubris.

None of this is new, and you have a great deal to contend with at present. All I am saying is that both "sides" miss the point: we should be humble about ourselves and our place in the universe. We cannot *know* if a Creator exists. We can only *believe* if one exists, or does not. And we should definitely be humble about our own tools to probe the universe---they are sparse and primitive.

The Fundamentalists who say the most ignorant things about evolution are wrong on their side. And Dawkins and Myers and their ilk, who dare to call people of faith "stupid" (while their own atheism requires as much faith as any snake handling fundamentalist), revolt me.... All that being said, no scientist dares write what I just did above without serious consequences."


The thing that most people don't realize about Dawkins and Myers - to say nothing of their ilk, who are no match for the Dread Ilk, by whom they are significantly outgunned in most literal sense - is that the two men simply aren't particularly intelligent. Seriously, the odds are very, very slim that either of them have an IQ deviating more than 2SD from the norm and both are demonstrably historical ignoramuses. By the time we finish with Thucydides here, I think I can safely promise that every single participant will know more history in far greater detail than PZ does, and while Dawkins had the benefit of a better and broader education, he clearly hasn't done any significant reading in history since he left Hogwarts. They are both nearly flawless specimens of the overspecialized academic who is almost entirely useless outside his chosen field, which is why they embarrass themselves so reliably whenever they attempt to sally forth outside it. Face it, if you can't figure out that the Dicky-D rap is a harsh slam on scientific arrogance, you're simply not that bright.

The combination of moderate intelligence with a lack of a broad knowledge base means they have no ability to argue convincingly on matters outside biology; they can do little more than preach to the godless choir and thump the pulpit while loudly shouting how stupid everyone who doesn't agree with them is. Their expressed distaste for debate and discourse isn't born of a genuine contempt for their critics, but rather, a perfectly legitimate fear of their own intellectual shortcomings being unmasked. Consider this: despite being a mere opinion columnist, I have always been completely willing to engage in direct critical discourse with those I attack, even on intellectual ground of their choosing. PZ, on the other hand, has attacked me numerous times in the past, but has never once offered anything more substantive than baseless ad hominem attacks and meaningless insults. He'd much rather complain about his inability to sneak uninvited into a movie than defend any of his numerous theses about religion, politics, the perils facing science, or anything else.

Scientistry can't reasonably be described as a religion proper, but it has certainly made a cult of itself in recent years. And like most cults, its adherents shriek like butchered pigs when their mindless assumptions are violated by questions.

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