Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unscientific America: Lots of cool facts, but they all support the opposite conclusions!

I don't think I am going to finish Unscientific America. It's getting really frustrating. There are lots of interesting facts, followed by M&K baldly asserting the exact opposite of what a reasonable person might conclude from those facts.

Chapter 4, for example, is about the events that unfolded during the 1990s. M&K characterize the decade as one of contrasting gains and losses for science. On one hand, you have a pro-science president, the dot-com boom, and a proliferation of popular science books. The authors cited by Mooney as being on the forefront of those books are:

Carl Sagan... Stephen Hawking... Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennet, Jared Diamond, Richard Feynman, James Gleick, Stephen Jay Gould, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker, and E.O. Wilson

Notice anything about that list? Virtually all of them are well-known to be atheists, and the few who aren't we can mostly infer their atheism from their writing (e.g. given Jared Diamond's comments about the origin of religion in Guns, Germs, and Steel -- he basically says that religion started as a useful tool for recruiting people to fight and die for your budding nation-state, even when it yields no benefit to them -- it would be difficult to picture him having a kind view of it!). Two of the list are half of the Four Horsemen, and a few others have made openly hostile comments towards religion (e.g. Krauss, Feynman). Now you can even add Hawking to the list of those who fail Mooney's "respect" test. Only a single person on the list -- Gould -- has advocated for faith-science reconciliation.

Granted, M&K seem to acknowledge this -- the picture they paint is of these popularizing scientists becoming overconfident ("hubris" and "triumphalism" are two words that are tossed out) and that in turn causing them to make a grave error in criticizing religion. Then they assert, without any evidence that I've been able to find yet:

...there was also an occasional undercurrent of arrogance and superiority that led the movement in less constructive directions. The third culture's frequent attacks on religious belief were perhaps most damaging.

[citation needed]

Seriously, I'll take a single anecdote at this point which supports the frequent assertion that the Gnu Atheist hostility towards religion has done any damage whatsoever to science. If Mooney can track down a single religious person who says, "Well! I was all set to accept evolution as fact, but then I read The God Delusion, and since Dawkins is such a dick, I became a creationist." I have yet to hear one person make such a claim! Oh sure, I've heard plenty of third parties claim, "I am religious and believe in evolution, but Dawkins/Coyne/whoever is a real dick and that makes me sad." But where is the damage to science? I still don't see it. (A related challenge, which again I have yet to hear an answer to, is: Name one social movement, at any point in history, which was sabotaged because its advocates were too outspoken.)

On the contrary, I imagine I could mount some evidence that this controversy may have even helped science in the public eye. At the very least, I can provide anecdotes... though it is rare, people have been won over by the books of the Gnu Atheists. It is probably not a statistically significant number, but it does happen. More importantly, perhaps, can we really deny that countless hordes of people read books like The Selfish Gene only because they first became interested by the publication of The God Delusion? (I count myself among that group, FWIW) I was unable to find any direct sales data, but this Google Trends graph is revealing... a short-lived spike when The God Delusion was first announced, and then continuing unabated since its publication. Note that the search term "selfish gene" didn't even register before then.

Instead, M&K go on to cite lots of data bout how terribly creationist and anti-science Americans were during those years... but M&K had already provided a much more straightforward explanation for this not two pages earier: An anti-science Republican-dominated congress led by Newt Gingrich, and a media obsessed with UFO conspiracies and psychics. Oh fuck, but we can't blame politicians and the media! Everybody's already done that! Nope, it's the fucking scientists' fault. Has to be. Never mind that we don't have any data to support that, and our own data that we present even contradicts that. It's still the fucking scientists' fault, because we said so, and we think we can sell a book saying that.


My wife had been picking up the book and flipping through it occasionally, and she went straight to chapter 8 -- after which she said, "You're totally right, this guy is a douche." heh... So I skipped ahead to Chapter 8, and here are my thoughts.

First things first: The primary reason I got this book was to see for myself if Mooney and Kirshenbaum presented Crackergate honestly. They did. All of the relevant details were there. Sure, their spin was different than mine would be, but it was perfectly valid -- I do not feel they distorted the events at all, they simply presented them in a tone which disapproved of PZ and Cook while sympathizing with the Catholics -- and well, that's no different in principle from me employing a tone that disapproves of the Catholics, sympathizes with Cook, and praises PZ. I do not find anything worthy of criticism in their recounting of Crackergate.

Of course, as soon as they are done with the telling, M&K fall into the usual pattern: Assert that the cause of science has been irreparably damaged by these events, with no supporting evidence whatsoever. Did Catholic acceptance of evolution or general opinion of science have a sudden dip after Crackergate? Hell, fuck statistics, do M&K have a single anecdote of a Catholic saying, "I used to just LOVE science! But then that mean old PZ stabbed a cracker, and now I am a Young Earth Creationist and I am serving on the Texas School Board"? No they do not. Not even an anecdote. Just assertions that, well, it made people sad, so therefore it must have been bad for science!

I'm sure Crackergate made many Catholics very sad. And we can debate the ethical/moral/philosophical validity of PZ's protest in that light. PalMD, for instance, has said he found Crackergate "distasteful" even though he seems to agree with the basic point being made. That's a valid position to hold, and while I think the cracker-killin' was awesome, I respect PalMD's opinion as well. But M&K are trying to assert that Crackergate harms the image of science, and that's a whole other kettle of fish. That is not just a philosophical position; you need to support that with data! And they fail to do so -- or at least, if they do, it's buried in some part of the book I haven't read. Meanwhile, they've thrown lots of data at me that contradicts their position...

And once again, we can make the exposure argument. How many people "came for the godlessness, and stayed for the science?" How many people found Pharyngula because they heard about Crackergate, and then discovered an interest in evolutionary and developmental biology? Well, I know of at least one blogger who fits that description... I don't have hard numbers here, of course, but neither do Mooney and Kirshenbaum. So the question is whose speculation you find most plausible, and since M&K have failed to even posit a plausible mechanism or provide a single anecdote, I have trouble taking them seriously.

Most of the rest of Chapter 8 is your usual accomodationist claptrap, and we've heard it all before. "Faith and science must be compatible, because religious scientists do exist!" (never mind that their percentage is much lower than the genuine population, and in any case you cannot make a statistical argument in favor of a philosophical position) "Look at all these famous historical scientists" - M&K list Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Decartes, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Boyle - "who were deeply, devoutly religious!" (Never mind that every single one lived pre-Darwin, which totally doesn't count) "Scientists are out of step with the average American!" (no shit sherlock, that's what your fucking book is about! If you want to change the average, then by definition you must be out of step with it. You don't change the culture by agreeing with the status quo, idiot!)

There is one long paragraph, however, which I would like to quote in full, because it presents a novel accomodationist argument, not so much directly in favor of faith-science compatibility, but asserting that scientists are as a group less qualified to judge that alleged compatibility -- and yet I think that with a slightly different spin, it's a rather damning argument against faith-science compatibility!

Meanwhile, there's no question that America's scientific community is far more secular in outlook than the rest of the nation. A 2007 study revealed that whereas 52 percent of scientists at twenty-one leading U.S. academic institutions claimed to have no religious affiliation, that was true of just 14 percent of the broader U.S. public. And whereas 15 percent of Americans self-identify as "evangelical" or "fundamentalist," fewer than 2 percent of the surveyed scientists did. The study also revealed that far more than the general population, scientists tend to come from liberal or nonreligious family backgrounds. In fact, those scientists in the survey who professed religious beliefs tended to have grown up with them; childhood upbringing was a central factor in separating religious and non-religious scientists. The authors of the study concluded, "While the general American public may indeed have a less than desirable understanding of science, our findings reveal that academic scientists may have much less experience with religion than many outside the academy."

Well that just takes the motherfucking cake right there.

Okay, we're talking about faith-science compatibility here, right? And the study reveals that not only are scientists less religious, but that doesn't seem to be a result of abandoning science as a result of religion -- rather, it seems people who are religious are less likely to go into science in the first place. Almost as if their religious beliefs were "incompatible" with a career in science, hmm?

And the conclusion they draw is that since so few scientists were brought up religious, what would they know about faith-science compatibility?!? Wha????? What kind of bizarro world are we living in now?

By the same token, I suppose, we could observe that children who are raised in a non-smoking household are far more likely to grow up to become non-smokers than their counterparts who are raised by one or more smoking parents; therefore non-smokers on average have much less experience with childhood exposure to secondhand smoke; and so we are forced to conclude that non-smokers aren't qualified to talk about the dangers of secondhand smoke!

Oh wait, that's stupid.

Two paragraphs later, M&K make really the only statement that needs to be made on this matter:

The scientific case for rejecting [Young-Earth Creationism, etc.] is indisputable. But that doesn't make it persuasive to creationists or other religiously motivated evolution skeptics.

Correct! You are right! No matter how nicely presented the scientific arguments, no matter what "tone" is employed, they don't work. And this is why some of us have decided to attack the problem at its source: Religious motivation.

And in regards to that struggle, I would like to quote to M&K the words of a certain past acquaintance of Mooney's: You're Not Helping!

1 comment:

  1. Masochist.

    Drop me a line at sherkat@siu.edu and I'll send you my forthcoming piece on scientific literacy....