I can has science?

3 07 2007

As per usual, the moment after I put down Jeff Rovin’s horrendous Fatalis, I decided that I would pick up Christopher Toumey’s God’s Own Scientists:Creationists in a Secular World. I figured that there would not be much in the book that I had not already heard, but it might give a fresh perspective on what individual creationists think when in studies/community together. As the beginning of Toumey’s book makes clear, while creationists try to employ a big-tent strategy they also have their own version of heretics that endorse beliefs like gap theory or old-earth models, so there is definitely a diversity of different beliefs within the larger field of Bible-based creationism.

I only was able to reach page 70 before I started to grow cross-eyed from fatigue, but I especially liked what Toumey writes about the American attitude towards science in that it fits a “trivial” model. The three perspectives Toumey mentions either 1) claim that revelation of the Bible and nature are parallel and complimentary ways to learn about God, 2) the secular model views the nature world in and of itself, requiring us to determine morality, and 3) the trivial model judges science only by what it can produce that is useful to us, and it much more shallow/symbolic in nature than the first two. As one of my professors once told me, science is not a belief system, yet that is what it has essentially become for many people regardless of their religious affiliation; science produces things we need and solves problems, but anything else doesn’t merit our attention. Test tubes, lab coats, microscopes, beakers, biohazard/radiation symbols, and even the structure of DNA are all symbols of science that just about anyone is familiar with, but outside of these symbols not many people are familiar with any actual research or how science proceeds as a way of understanding nature. I know I’ve mentioned it plenty of times in the past, but this reminds me of the “Who is a scientist?” exercise that I have carried out with 5th grade public schoolchildren; when asked to draw what a scientist looks like, it is always some variation on Dr. Frankenstein or Albert Einstein, an aging white male in a lab coat.

This shallow understanding of science is dangerous because it seems to work on the basis of trust or belief; we will trust the scientists to do what’s best for us, but if they make a mistake then they should not be trusted. This is exemplified (albeit in comic fashion) in a scene Mel Brooks’ film Young Frankenstein where the concerned townspeople get together to discuss what the young Dr. Fank-en-stein is doing. Says on irate villager “All those scientists–they’re all alike! They say they’re working for us, but what they really want is to rule the world!” I’ve even run into some people who are close to me who have a similar feeling about scientists; “Here I am busting my ass trying to make a living, but what are they contributing to society? Why should my tax money go to some scientist so they can study how some bug mates?” The P.C. term for this is “American Pragmatism,” but in reality it belies an overall ignorance of who scientists are and how they carry out their work, as well as an apathy towards learning more about nature if it is not economically profitable to do so. As another friend of mine said (re: creationism) “Why can’t everyone just live their lives and not think about this stuff?” I have run into so many people who say that evolution (and creationism’s opposition to it) is not important; why should we care? Of course, they’ll ally themselves with whatever side they’re most comfortable with if pushed, but they have little knowledge of the subject and aren’t very interested in learning anything more.

I will continue to share my thoughts on Toumey’s book as I work through it, but I think he’s right that the trivial science understanding in modern society has weakened science as a whole, making it possible for creationists to show up with credentials from secular universities, present themselves as scientists, and therefore gain some authority from a public that does not know the difference between actual scientific understanding and religious dogma espoused by a puzzlewit. While plenty of effort has been put into fighting creationists, how much effort has been put into providing our children (and adults) with a solid science education? We can keep fighting back and forth with creationists (and we should), but it will be an overall losing struggle for science if we don’t work even harder to better science education in public schools and elsewhere. Plenty of groups have signed papers vowing their dedication to teaching evolution, but what are those same associations doing to foster scientific understanding? If they merely put together a list or issued a statement, then their efforts are close to being worthless, just paying lip-service to the most important idea in biology without actually doing anything about it.

[Side Note: Both volumes of Walker’s Mammals of the World 6th Edition arrived, and I have set up a little bit of a system for myself. Every day I will read the entry for at least one mammal, starting from the 1st (Short-Nosed Echidna) and going all the way to the end. It will take a long time, and I may do more than one in a day, but this isn’t the kind of book that you read from cover to cover in a marathon, so I’ll probably get more out of it by learning it in bits than trying to fit it into my brain as a whole.]


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3 responses

4 07 2007
Cory Tucholski

On the subject of the public not really understanding what science does–and more importantly, how it is relevant to us–I couldn’t agree more. A brief illustrative story:

My ex and I watched the movie Chain Reaction with Morgan Freeman and the guy from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure whose first name I can’t spell. My ex wanted to know exactly what the big deal was about cold fusion. I told her that fusion is the single greatest source of renewable energy–the output is greater than fission (standard nuclear power), cleaner, and safer. I pointed to the stars, which use fusion to shine, as an example, adding that we all know what a star up close can do.

She asked me how we would know that, since all the stars are so far away.

I reminded her about the sun. She tried to argue with me that the sun wasn’t a star.

Then I told the people at work that story, thinking that it would give them as much amusement as I got. Unfortunately, I just started another argument that the sun was no star, this time the size differences were pointed out as evidence: “The sun is huge, and the stars are so tiny!”

I mean, how many people don’t actually understand the title Third Rock from the Sun?

Anyway, Phil Johnson, in a book that I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, wrote a chapter about turning up your “baloney detector.” I don’t think that, as a society, very many people actually have a baloney detector. People swallow almost anything that they are fed by so-called experts. I say “so-called” because people remain largely ignorant of what makes an expert an expert. I’ve noticed that a significant number of refutations on both sides of the creation/evolution debate start by pointing out that the person making the assertion has not the credentials to make the assertion in the first place.

Anyway, I’ll stop now because, as a creationist and amateur theologian, to you, I probably lack a finely tuned baloney detector. 🙂

4 07 2007
Cory Tucholski

Boy, I really screwed up above… I’m sorry I forgot to close just a bunch of tags. 😦

4 07 2007
laelaps

FIxed the tags, no problem Cory.

You’re right that I’m not a Phil Johnson fan at all, but I have had some of his work thrust upon me, which I then read with all deliberate speed. Many people don’t have a good B.S. detector, but then again what is a good B.S. detector? Johnson is a creationist and believes that AIDS is not caused by HIV, so I would say that his B.S. detector isn’t working. I actually think Carl Sagan gets closer to the problem in The Demon-Haunted World and The Varieties of Scientific Experience, and Toumey has done an excellent explanation in God’s Own Scientists; science is more symbolic than anything else for most people, and modern creationism seems to stem from Baconian logic and “Common Sense” philosophy. In a way, it’s almost like super-parsimony but with an illogic twist; “If I can simply explain it in common language (or if I think the Bible does), then that must be true.” Everything must go through this common-sense/religious filter, and information that doesn’t match is discarded.

You obviously have some background in science, so I’m not trying to call you out, but as far as most creationists I encounter most hide behind the argument of “Well, I’m just an amateur with an interest so I don’t study this full time.” I have got the works of Johnson, Behe, Wells, Ham, etc. constantly given to me to “open my eyes,” but I have read them all (I actually prefer 19th century theologians like Paley to the overall weak arguments of today’s creationists). I spend nearly as much time becoming familiar with creationist arguments as I do reading science books because ecology & evolution is my field of study, but how many books about evolution do they read? I doubt they go to the same trouble to track down and read the “classics” like G.G. Simpson’s “Tempo and Mode in Evolution” and E.O. Wilson’s “Theory of Island Biogeography.” I’m not trying to make a “holier than thou” argument, but it seems that whenever I try to explain evolution in detail to someone who doesn’t “believe” in it, they all-too-often claim that their interest is just a “hobby” and they can’t really follow me.

What is wonderful about Toumey’s book (I highly reccomend it, it’s in the sidebar to the right) is that he connects creationist to the fears of modern-day Protestants, who feel that secular humanists have kicked God out of schools and stripped their religion of its public power. In truth, Protestant religions unfairly suppressed Jews, Catholics, Agnostics, Amish, etc. through the first half of the 20th century and most suits brought against Protestants that removed them from their power were brought by other religions.

The big aim of creationism is to show that secular humanism = the polar opposite of Christianity, therefore being inherently evil (supporting everything from incest to alcoholism to homosexuality). Once people are scared enough to actually believe this, then they identify atheists/agnostics as mere charicatures and evolution is their “creation story,” so creationism really is a reaction to Protestant fear about the change in culture, a change that actually stems from religious equality. Even if we forget this for a moment, evolutionary science is relatively young, and people did not murder, rape, get high, etc. because of evolution throughout history; evolution did not make Eve take the apple and share it with Adam. The Old Testament makes it clear that even when God was among the Jewish people, right there as a pillar of fire or smoke, they still sinned and didn’t get it; even David and Solomon screwed up big time in their own separate ways. Are we supposed to say that “evolution made them do it”?

Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough, but one last point; lots of people have credentials, but just because someone has a PhD doesn’t mean they’re always right or view the world as it is. What matters more is what they’ve done, what they’ve studied, and their honest about their intentions/thoughts, and I honestly don’t think that all creationists are being honest with themselves or their adherents. Why is the turnover rate for creationist ministries so high? There seems to be a lot of internal struggle, back-biting, and in-fighting amongst people who all claim that they’re “good Christians” who just want to defend their faith (i.e. how Ken Ham fleeced the AiG Australia ministry big-time). In speaking with some creationist speakers who didn’t know who I was, they have all confided in me that they don’t really care about the science, they’re concerned with saving souls. Are they, then, being honest when they claim a huge amount of authority when it comes to science? I don’t think so.

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