12 May 2007

The Science Delusion

All is not well in the House of Science. It is increasingly evident that some of the research reported in the popular press, and even some of that published in peer-reviewed journals, has been bought and paid for by corporate interests with the aim of promoting their own products. The result is what we might call vulgar science, a debased imitation aiming to sell something by capitalizing on the authority granted to science in the mass media and the popular mind.

The most obvious example is (or was) the ‘research’ purporting to show that climate change is not occurring, or that human activity has not been a significant cause of it. Until a year or two ago, this was taken as a reasonable, evidence-based position by many people, perhaps a majority. This example is obvious because that position is now discredited in the public mind; another (older) example is the ‘research’ funded by tobacco companies on the effects of smoking. Less obvious—and therefore still effective—are other examples, such as ‘research’ and publicity about genetically modified organisms funded by the likes of Monsanto. The gullible public are still taken in by this kind of vulgar science.

Yes, there's always a minority who are capable of critical thinking, and thus can discriminate between real and bogus science. But there is no hope that the majority will ever reach this level. We can only conclude that the whole scientific enterprise is beyond redemption, and refuse to consider seriously anything presented in the name of science. It's time to expose, once and for all, the Science Delusion.

Now, some will question the wisdom of this proposal. At least, i hope so! The logic of it boils down to this: Debased and vulgar science is a reality, therefore science itself is a vulgar delusion. The strange thing is that when the same logic is applied to religion—the God Delusion, as Richard Dawkins calls it—some otherwise reasonable people are inclined to take it seriously. Some apparently think it worthwhile to debunk the most vulgar uses and expressions of religious belief. Watching such a zealous crusader carry out this kind of secular jihad is a bit embarrassing, like watching people shoot fish in a barrel and call it sport. It's even more embarrassing than listening to the self-appointed prophets and gurus who think they know the Answer to all the world's problems. Those gurus may be deficient in critical thinking, but at least they offer us something worth criticizing.

Besides, sometimes prophets offer advice that holds up well under critical scrutiny and passes every pragmatic test. For instance: Cast out first the beam from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to cast out the mote from your brother's eye.

11 May 2007

Ripping up religion

Recently there's been a spate of attempts to criticize religion from a ‘scientific’ viewpoint. Many of these are little better than ‘hack work’ compared to genuine social criticism. The authors often express contempt for ‘literal’ readings of scripture without recognizing that the job has already been done (with more skill) within religious communities themselves. A reader investing great value in a scripture has far more motivation (and capacity) to reveal the shortcomings of a ‘literal’ reading than a cynical observer who doesn't care what the scripture means. This kind of critic, barking at religion just as dogs bark at the unfamiliar, generally indulges in attacking straw men while ignoring both the differences and the similarities between religious and scientific readings. Some even claim that any non-literal reading of a scripture is dishonest, on the ground that most members of the religious community take it literally. But a straw man is still a straw man regardless of how many crows are scared by it, and rending it limb from limb remains a rather childish exercise.

In the Buddhist idiom, grasping is the great mistake. Dogmatic acceptance of an idea is one way of ‘clinging’ or ‘grasping’; dogmatic rejection of it is another.