In one of my first couple of years as a physics professor at Vanderbilt, fellow astronomer David Weintraub introduced me to another faculty member we ran into at lunch. He was from one of the humanities departments— I forget which. When David introduced me as somebody who worked on measuring the expansion rate of the Universe, this other fellow’s immediate response was that the only reason we astronomers believed in the Big Bang theory was because of our Judeo-Christian cultural bias that there was a moment of beginning.
I was quite taken aback. I tried to talk about the Cosmic Microwave Background, light element ratios, and so forth, but he waved them all off. I mentioned that his assertion wasn’t even historically correct: earlier in the 20th century, the steady-state model (the Universe has always been as it is now) was if anything the dominant cosmological model. His response to hearing the postcard description of the Steady State Universe: “I like that one better.” Scientific evidence be damned….
It was really quite an eye opener. I had run into a living stereotype of the post-modernist deconstructionist, who believes that absolutely everything is a social construction. He had quickly judged the intellectual output of a field of study he was ignorant about based on his own bias and methodology. While I suspect that scientists have overreacted to post-modern deconstructionism, this fellow showed me that at least some of what we overreact to is real. There are those who have convinced themselves that absolutely everything is a social construction. Thus, the only people who are studying what really matters is those who deconstruct said social constructions; everybody else is ultimately fooling themselves and playing around with their “science” and so forth while ultimately being trapped by their cultural blinders. Of course, this is a load of hogwash, and I am led to understand it’s not even really what most post-modern deconstructionist types really believe.
Why do I mention this? Because I see a lot of those who call themselves skeptics making exactly the same mistake— judging another field of intellectual inquiry on what they believe to be the one true way of reason. They dismiss things as trivial or childish based on criteria that fail to be relevant to the field of human intellectual activity they’re trivializing. Specifically, there are a lot of people out there who will imply, or state, that the only form of knowledge that really can be called knowledge is scientific knowledge; that if it is not knowledge gained through the scientific method, it’s ultimately all crap.
When I was in first or second grade, I wrote a story about a boy named Tom Tosels who found a living dinosaur. It was very exciting. It was also, well, a story written by a 7-year old, and not one who was particularly literarily talented. Now, from a purely scientific basis, it’s difficult to distinguish this story from the poetry of Robert Frost. It’s words, written on a page, out of the imagination of a person (a person named Robert, even), telling a fictional story. What makes Robert Frost so much more important to human culture than the stories I wrote when I was 7? It’s not a scientific question, but it is a question that is trivially obvious to those who study literature, culture, and history. And, yet, using my 7-year-old story to dismiss all of literature as crap makes as much sense as using the notion of believing in a teapot between Earth and Mars as a means of dismissing all of religion.
If you cannot see the difference between Russell’s teapot and the great world religions, then you’re no more qualified to talk about religion than the fellow who thinks that cultural bias is the only reason any of us believe in the Big Bang is qualified to talk about cosmology.
Phil Plait has written three blog posts on his famous “Don’t Be a Dick” speech to TAM, a meeting of skeptics. (The posts are here, including a video of the talk, and here, including links to bloggy reactions to the talk, and here, including personal reactions to the talk.) Some of the comments on the posts— including, ironically, many of those who accuse Phil of being too vague and denying the effect he discusses really exists— are excellent illustrations of what he’s talking about. Some of these comments (and even some comments that are supportive of his general message) illustrate the philosophical blinders that you find on many in the skeptic movement. In the third post, there is a picture of Phil hugging Pamela Gay, a prominent pro-science speaker, a leading light of the skeptic movement… and a Christian. There are a number of responses that express the sentiment of commenter Mattias:
When will we see Phil hugging a medium — calling for us to include them in our mutual skepticism about moon-hoaxers, homeopathy or, lets say, dogmatic religion?
There are quite a number of skeptics who openly say that they cannot see the difference between religion and belief in UFOs, Homeopathy, or any of the rest of the laundry list of woo that exists in modern culture. Even those who agree that ridiculing people for their beliefs is not only counter-productive, but just bad behavior, often don’t seem to think there’s any difference between the brand of religion practiced by Pamela Gay (or by myself, for that matter) and Creationism, or even things like UFOs, mystical powers of crystals, psychic powers, and so forth. The assertion is that being religious is a sign of a deep intellectual flaw, that these people are not thinking rationally, not applying reason.
It’s fine to believe this, just as it’s fine to believe that the Big Bang theory is a self-delusional social construction of a Judeo-Christian culture. But it’s also wrong. Take as a hint the fact that major universities have religious studies and even sometimes theology departments (or associated theology schools, as is the case with Vanderbilt). Now, obviously, just because somebody at a university studies something, it doesn’t mean that that thing is intellectually rigorous. After all Cold Fusion was briefly studied at universities, and ultimately it was shown that there was basically nothing to it. But it should at the very least give you pause. The fact that these studies have continued for centuries should suggest to you that indeed there must be something there worth studying.
Creationism is wrong. We know that. But the vast majority of intellectual theologians out there would tell you that creationism is based on a facile reading of Genesis, a reading that theology has left as far behind as physics has left behind the world-view of Aristotle.
Astrology is bunk, because it makes predictions about the world that have been shown to be false. Likewise, Creationism is bunk, because it makes statements about the history of the world and the Universe that have been shown to be false. But religion in general, or a specific instance of one of the great world religions in particular, are not the same thing. It is true that lots of people use religion as a basis for antiscience. But there are also lots of people like Pamela and myself who are religious, and yet fully accept everything modern science has taught us. There are people— theists— who study those religions whose studies are based on reason and intellectual rigor that does not begin with the scientific method. Yes, there is absolutely no scientific reason to believe in a God or in anything spiritual beyond the real world that we can see and measure with science. But that does not mean that those who do believe in some of those things can’t be every bit as much a skeptic who wants people to understand solid scientific reasoning as a card-carrying atheist. Pamela Gay is a grand example of this.
Don’t be like the post-modernist so blinded by how compelling his own mode of thought is, that you come to believe that the only people who are intellectualy rigorous and not fooling themselves are those who use exactly that and only that mode of thought.