Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Unscientific (and a whole lot else) America

There is a big hullaballoo going on in the blogosphere between P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula and Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum of The Intersection over Mooney’s and Kirshenbaum’s (M&K) new book Unscientific America. At issue are M&K’s perception of the so-called “New Atheists,” and especially the tone of Professor Myers’ blog and those that comment there. M&K’s main thesis regarding the outspokenly godless is that they are making reaching out to believers that are not already hostile to science that much harder. Of course, those reading this blog can pretty much guess who I think has the better points.

America is indeed deeply mired in scientific illiteracy, but that is not what the “new” atheism, as a cultural phenomenon, is really about. If one had to pick a date to mark the beginning of the outspoken criticism of religious belief, it would have to be September 11, 2001 when it was made clear to many just how destructive dogmatic religious certainty was. Richard Dawkins said, as only he could, what was on the minds of many in an essay entitled “Time to Stand Up,” saying:

My respect for the Abrahamic religions went up in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th. The last vestige of respect for the taboo disappeared as I watched the "Day of Prayer" in Washington Cathedral, where people of mutually incompatible faiths united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place: religion.

Before 9/11, our god-soaked president (Bush II), certain of the ensoulment of blastocysts in Petri dishes, banned the derivation of any new lines of embryonic stem cells, setting back a number of investigations of promising therapies for a myriad of terrible ailments. Following 9/11, President Bush persuaded the American public to support an ill-considered war in Iraq, just as certain in the righteousness of his cause (and just blind to any disconfirming evidence as to whether or not Iraq actually had WMD’s) as the 9/11 hijackers were in theirs.

This new criticism of religious belief was not solely focused (quite rightly in my view) on only the most fundamentalist of believers, but also on the “moderates” (the very people M&K are courting) who provide cover for their more dangerous and fanatical co-religionists. Science is only one of the tools that are now deployed in dismantling the dangerously muddled thinking of the religious. In addition to science, there is history, sociology, ethics, and psychology. It is only because the religious make empirical claims about discernable, objective reality, that, if true for one, is true for all (i.e. souls, an afterlife, parthenogenesis, water into wine, the cessation of planetary revolution, and parting seas, at least when not walking on them) that science and the scientific method have little that is flattering or consoling to say to believers.

On the other hand, I have been a science geek longer than I have been a non-believer and the problem of science literacy (actually, the profound lack of it) is a problem. There is strong undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in this country, a distrust of ‘book lernin’ that is, in some ways, unique to the United States. To many Americans, the idea that due to education or expertise, someone else’s opinion might be more worthy of thoughtful consideration than theirs is deeply offensive to their egalitarian ideals. As Joe the Plumber might say, “Experts, schmexperts, what do they know? Their guess is no better than mine.” Such things can also be seen in expressions like “they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like me.”

This anti-intellectualism is related to, but not the same thing as religious certainty; but they can form a mutually reinforcing feedback loop. Ken Miller, in his book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul, touched on this anti-authority, anti-expert, “cowboy” mentality that relies on “gut instinct” as the primary means of “baloney detection,” as one of the reasons that Americans overwhelmingly reject evolution. While I think much of Miller’s thinking is clouded by his Catholic faith, on this point he is, I believe, onto something.

This tendency to “think with our gut,” especially on complex issues, is widespread. As human beings, our intuitive grasp of probability and statistics is shaky at best. A creationist that denies the possibility of chemical evolution in some “primordial soup” leading to the formation of the first replicators, and subsequently life, is making the same errors in probabilistic thinking as an old lady in Vegas who is sure that “her” slot machine is “due” to pay out big today. When in doubt, and absent self-discipline and training in skeptical thinking, humans invariably go with their gut feelings. Religion did not invent this kind of thinking, but as Daniel Dennet might say, religion certainly saw that it was a “good trick” and co-opted it for its own purposes as belief systems evolved.

This is perhaps why otherwise scientifically literate believers (i.e. “moderates”), who may have no problem with evolution or the big bang, so frustrate non-believers and are often the hardest to persuade–scientific rationality has made it about as far as it can go with them. They want to have their cake and eat it too and to avoid the cognitive dissonance and potential embarrassment created thereby, insist, if not demand, that religious beliefs not be criticized, because if we criticize the fundies beliefs, moderates may be forced to confront the bankruptcy of their own beliefs. Were theistic religions to disappear overnight, humanity would still have to contend with hoards of incurious, credulous individuals who prefer to think with their gut. That is why different approaches are needed. We need the outspoken, militant (in a rhetorical and intellectual sense) atheists because the organized religions are so capable of organized carnage “in defense of the faith.” A child called to the blackboard in class when they have not done their homework should feel embarrassed and stupid; in fact, that is the purpose of the exercise–to demonstrate that the best way to avoid looking like a fool is to be prepared and have their “ducks in a row.”

An analogy…in order for a fire to start, there needs to be three things: a source of fuel, a source of ignition, and oxygen. The most effective means of preventing fires is to go after two of the three simultaneously. There is surely an asymptotic limit to reducing human irrationality, and no one is immune; I frequently fish from the same spot on the same lake merely because I have had some very productive days of fishing from that spot; is that entirely rational? Not really. Perhaps the most effective strategy to combating the idiocy of faith is to:
  1. Heap scorn and derision on the claims of organized religion, which the newly vocal atheists are doing very effectively to judge by the increasing numbers of those willing to self-identify as “unaffiliated”, "agnostic," or "atheist" in recent polls. It ought to be as embarrassing to spout religious nonsense in public (outside of a place of worship) as it currently is to admit to making financial investments using astrology.

  2. While doing #1, keep in mind, when dealing with individuals, all the ways thinking can go wrong. Cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology is making great strides in teasing out these things.
Religious faith, whether extreme or moderate, is a parasite that has successfully hijacked common and fundamental thinking errors for its own nefarious purposes and now imperils the whole of humanity. Fighting the pernicious meme of supernatural religion requires that the pathways it uses to infect both individuals and societies be understood and fought on both levels. By coming at the problem from multiple directions, perhaps some headway can be made. In the case of M&K, they ought to be embarrassed because they should know better.