Category Archives: Religion

Preaching to the choir


I got this video from Orac’s blog where an interesting comment thread is developing. This also goes against those who lament the “echo chambers” but those tend to be the same people who write HeSaidSheSaid articles every day – they live in a binary world where only “who wins the two-horse horserace” matters and anything more sophisticated than that is ‘elitist’ and to be ignored as ‘outside of mainstream’ which – the mainstream – they, the savvy Villagers with nice hairdos on TV, get to define.

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All Science vs. Religion Conflicts are Essentially and Primarily Political Conflicts

In a recent post, my SciBling Jason Rosenhouse with whom I usually agree on these matters, voices a strong disagreement with this quote (from Thomas Dixon’s book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 2008):

Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge.

Jason counters that Galileo affair, as well as the more modern Creationist wars, are primarily and perhaps entirely science vs. religion wars, not political. He writes:

Afficionados of science/religion disputes will recognize in this a standard gambit of the genre. Specifically, the attempt to recast situations that are obviously conflicts between science and religion into conflicts about something else.

Another SciBling, Mike Dunford, disagrees with Jason on the Creationism wars:

The conflict arises when creationists attempt to force their religious views onto the children of other people, who do not necessarily share those views. That’s not a dispute over what the most authoritative source of knowledge is; that’s a dispute over the exercise of secular authority. In other words, it’s a political conflict.

The commenters on both posts then lose the sight of forest for the trees and get bogged down in the historical minutiae about the Gallileo affair. Not very constructive. Let me cut through all that and come out strongly on the Thomas Dixon side. Step by step. This way:
1) Every conflict is about power. Ergo, every conflict is essentially a political conflict. Who gets to be the boss. Who gets the money. Who gets first dibs at the pretty peasant girls from the village that feeds the nobles in the castle. Who gets to kill whom. Who gets to invade whom. Who gets the territory.
2) Conflicts require troops. Better the troops are motivated, more likely the positive outcome will be for the power-hungry leader. In many conflicts, the leaders motivate the troops by recasting the conflict in terms of “You are wrong, we are right, thus you die”. Those are conflicts over facts: who has the better facts. If those facts relate to the way the world works, then those facts are amenable to empirical testing.
3) Throughout history, including today, the conflicts over facts have been conflicts over religious facts. While the core reason for the conflict is power for the ruling class, religion serves wonderfully to unite the troops around a common idea, common symbols, a shared destiny. Religion probably evolved to aid group cohesion in early human societies and can be wonderfully used to aid group cohesion when a battle needs to be waged, even today.
4) Most of these fact-based conflicts pit one set of religious “facts” with another set of religious “facts”. We call these conflicts “religious wars” despite religion being just an excuse for a power-grab or invasion or civil war. Both sides’ facts fail the empirical tests, but the “You are wrong, we are right, thus you die” is still the battle cry for both sides.
5) In some, more recent conflicts, facts of one side actually pass the empirical test. These are wars between reason and superstition. We like to call them wars between Science and Religion. Often they are not waged with real weapons, but with other political means: battles over control of the classrooms, the goverment, the military, etc. Clearly, religion is a troup-motivator for one side, but the goal is obviously political power. In the USA, the two sides have over the past three decades or so clearly aligned with the two major political parties. Democrats are generally realistic and ignore the pseudoscientific extremists from the far left who have zero influence on policy. Republicans are anti-scientific and anti-reality at the core – that is what defines their party, their platform and their conservative ideology – the most extreme anti-science forces from the far right ARE the party leaders, their members in Congress, and their most visible representatives in the public eye. It is them who write the policy, while the realistic conservatives are marginalized or kicked out of the party.
6) Creationism is just one of many weapons in a unified anti-reality political platform of the Right. Some Creationists are just indoctrinated, scared folks who provide ground troops in this conflict. Other Creationists are part of the power-hungry elite of the party who use Creationism as a motivator for a particular segments of their ground-troops (other populations are motivated in other ways, with other tools, e.g., greed, or fear of terrorists, etc.). The Science vs. Religion aspect of the conflict is just window-dressing – the essence of the conflict is political: it is all about Power.
To summarize:
Every conflict is a political conflict.
Some conflicts are also superficially about facts about the world.
Some of these conflicts happen to pit correct facts against incorrect facts.
Creationist wars, just like all Science vs. Religious wars, are thus a subset of a subset of a subset of all conflicts. And they are all essentially and profoundly political conflicts. Which is why I wrote this dissertation-long post the other day – read it.

What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?

If a publisher offered me a contract to write a book under a title that would be something like “Unscientific America”, how would I go about it?
I would definitely be SUCH a scientist! But, being such a scientist does not mean indulging in Sesquipedalian Obscurantism. Being such a scientist means being dilligent, thorough and systematic in one’s reasearch. And then being excited about presenting the findings, while being honest about the degree of confidence one can have in each piece of information.
I was not offered a book contract, and I do not have the resources and nine or twelve months to write such a book. But in the next couple of hours days I will write a blog post (this one, I am just starting) thinking through the methodology I would use for such a project, musing about difficulties, jotting down notes and – this being a blog – asking readers for links to information that can either reinforce or challenge my hypotheses. So please follow me under the fold…..

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Cholesterol will kill you earlier than you think

Notice the Darwin drum in the background….

Essentialism beyond just animals

How religion generates social conservatism:

You could make a reasonable case that pencils have a purpose, but pencil shavings just exist. But what about elephants? Religious people and children are, of course, more likely than non-religious adults to say that animals exist for a purpose. But what about men and women? Black people and whites? Rich and poor? Arab and Jew? Do these exist for a purpose? And is it possible for one to become another? Gil Diesdendruck and Lital Haber of Bar-Ilan University in Israel decided to find out what children think.

Attenborough makes sense (video)

What is science’s rightful place?

In our heads, of course. All of our heads.
But Seed is asking, so let me elaborate briefly.
As I said before, science is not just active participation in research. Science is a mindset.
We are all born scientists, exploring the world around us and experimenting with it. When we grow up, we continue being scientists in our day-to-day lives.
If you walk into a room and flip a switch and the light does not come on, what do you do? I doubt that you throw yourself on the floor in fear, speaking in tongues, praying, blaming the Aliens or asking the Government to help you. You calmly go about dissecting the problem into pieces: is there electricity in the house? If not, did you pay the bill? If yes, should the fuse be flipped or replaced? If not, perhaps the light bulb burned out: replace and see what happens. If that does not work, perhaps replacing the socket will work. If not, checking the wiring may help. You go through the problem systematically, testing each element, until you find the problem and fix it. You do the same if water is dripping in your kitchen sink, or your car is running funny.
But when it comes to bigger problems that affect the broader society, some adults forget their inherent scientific mindset and let indoctrination and ideology take over. As the problems become more complex, and the science behind it more difficult to understand, other social influences tend to take precedence. See: global warming denialists, HIV/AIDS denialists, anti-vaccination crowd, Creationists of all stripes, New Age proponents, medical quackery believers, animal rightists, and so on. Faced with complexity that goes against the dogma received by parents, teachers, priests and media, people shut off their natural scientific mindset and go with what “feels” right to them, instead of with reality.

“I’m not a fan of facts. You see, the facts can change, but my opinion will never change, no matter what the facts are.” – Stephen Colbert

[Thanks to Tamara Lackey for the quote]
This, of course, translates into politics and policy. I may disagree with Obama on some things. I may not like some of the people he hired to work for him. But what I like, and what he said many times including in his inaugural address, is that he will use the scientific method in all policy decisions.
Identify the problem.
Gather all available empricial information about the way the world really works in respect to that problem.
Fund the additional research to come up with missing data if needed.
Come up with a rational plan to solve the problem.
Implement it, test it and monitor if it works as planned.
Modify if needed, until the problem is solved.
I hope that this approach spreads into the broader national psyche – making decisions from the head, not the gut. Basing policy on data, not emotions. I feel that Obama won primarily because of his pragmatism and rationality as he is so non-ideological (heck, I wish he was more ideological!). People are tired of policy based on wishful thinking and fairy tales.
If this happens, it will be much easier to defeat the anti-rationality movements and to teach the kids how to apply their natural scientific mindset to all aspects of their lives as they grow into adults.
It’s not just research. It’s not just specific science education. It is about making rational thinking the respectable norm, and emotion/ideology-based thinking a laughing-stock.
That’s the science’s rightful place.