Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Problem of Credibility

The problem with relying solely on philosophy when it comes to discussing the 'big picture' about God and his role in the evolution of life, is that it too often gives cover to scientific stupidity.

I would much rather say ignorance instead of stupidity, believe me. But ignorance is a condition that can be remedied, assuming the ignorant party is interested in learning the truth. That is not the case with many conservatives and the journalists who pander to them.

In terms of science reporting and opinion, Tom Bethell is one example of an obdurately stupid journalist. As is Pat Buchanan. As is Ann Coulter. Note the journals they write for--they are magazines I used to find stimulating in college and afterwards. National Review, the American Spectator, for example.

Now, I could pick on any one of these aging heavyweights, but for purposes of economy--and because he so regularly supplies ample ammunition, I'll confine myself to Tom Bethell as an example of what I mean.

At the outset, I should point out that the most overtly religious of the conservative magazines today, First Things, I have to say is also the most open about science qua science. Yes, they do publish the usual swill from the Discovery Institute fellows, but they also allow Edward T. Oakes, my favorite Jesuit, to neatly deconstruct them whenever they do. But perhaps FT's true openness to both sides of the argument isn't ironic, for the very reason that the editors take their religion with all of its tradition and history more seriously than the those of the other magazines. (So there. I'm not burning any bridges with them.)

That's not to say FT always gets it right. For example, in an otherwise thoughtful piece, Cardinal Avery Dulles can't resist giving a crumb of credibility to Intelligent Design as one of three plausible reactions to what evolution tells us about the world, in spite of the fact that ID is a movement now so bankrupt in its lack of any scientific content, that it has become an embarrassment to Christians who are practicing scientists and philosophers. (Even Young Earth Creationists have had enough of the Discovery Institute's posturing.)

I'm not blaming the Cardinal, except to the extent that I think leaders of the Church are too careful sometimes, too cautious, in their weighing of urgent questions. Pope Benedict's recent assertion that the whole creationism v. evolution debate is "absurd" would have been more welcome, say, two years ago when Cardinal Schönborn signed his name to an ill-conceived attack on Darwin in the New York Times. Instead, the pope was content to wait until after the cautious, quiet seminars he felt he had to sit through before making up his mind. But at least he invited scientists to make their case--which is more than our mainstream conservative magazines do.

Another part of the problem--at least with regard to conservative journalists and how they cover science--is the narrow provincialism, born of the small social circle of people who make up the current conservative intellectual establishment, meaning, in the corridor between New York and Washington, D.C. [I'm a Red Sox fan, so shoot me.]

A friend of mine, who is also a longtime reader of National Review and the other conservative opinion journals, had some interesting comments about this a while back in an email, and I think he's right on the money: "The problem with NRO is that it's intellectually incurious. It's gotten to be dull and airless because it's not really interested in exploring new ideas and rethinking old ones in light of experience, but instead serving as a political rallying point. There is so much more to conservatism -- or to be more precise, what interests, or should interest, conservatives -- than what happens in Washington, but that's all they seem to care about."

Thus when Tom Bethell repeats his inaccurate cliches about Darwin's Theory (survival of the fittest is a tautology, dontcha know), he relies on Michael Behe and William Dembski to 'make his case'. Well, that's fine. What he does not do, however, is bother to look up any other working biologists or mathematicians who might broaden and challenge his sense of exactly what is going on (or more accurately--what is not going on) with ID.

For example, he might have ventured to query some Christians who are scientists and philosophers, ones who are not scared of Darwin. To name just a few:

Scott Carson,
Steve Matheson
Michael W. Tkacz
Kenneth Miller
Stephen Barr

But talking to anyone who might politely disprove the point is just not part of what Bethell, Gilder, Buchanan, Coulter & Co. are up to. Which is the main reason why conservative journalists have ZERO credibility with a wider educated readership when it comes to science.

There's nothing wrong, by the way, with attacking Darwinism as it is hyped as a philosophy. Bethell is certainly right that Darwin's theory is often used as a philosophy, and a tawdry one. He might also have noticed, though, that the people who most often espouse the philosophy are not the ones doing the science. And there is plenty of science behind Darwin. Bethell is just not interested in finding out what it is, in spite of his breathless proclamations of the imminent death of Darwin going on for... thirty-plus years now. (A statement like that sort of assumes that you know what the hell you're talking about.)

If he took the time to interview, for example, this man, he would learn a few recent facts that the study of Darwin's theory has inspired. Steve Matheson, by the way, is precisely the sort of young Christian that Bethell loves to tout as the future student who will supposedly dispense with Darwin's theory.

Far from dispensing with Darwin, lots of scientists like Matheson are running with him, and building even more impressive evidence for his theory.

Common ancestry in plants, for example.

Then there's Chromosome 2, the most dazzling evidence to date, in my opinion, of our direct connection to primates--all genetic evidence of Darwin's theory of descent with modification by genetic variation and natural selection, that supports the fossil record. But Bethell & Co. (if they are even aware of this) prefer to continue ranting about peppered moths. Pat Buchanan apparently thinks nothing has been discovered in the fossil record in the last 50 years. But then, Pat's still a 1950s kind of guy all around. ("I don't believe all that...I never studied it in high school.")

And speaking of peppered moths, I wonder if the science journalism A-Team is even aware of this? Unlikely.

What I would like Bethell, Buchanan, Gilder, and the other blow-hards of what passes for conservative 'science journalism' to explain, as carefully as they can, is how any sense can be made of modern biology apart from Darwin's theory? Even Michael Behe might admit that would be a tall order. But Bethell has shown that he is uninterested in speaking with anyone working in the discipline today. Why should he? It's far easier to quote-mine--out of context--long dead or retired scientists who don't even work in the field.

Speaking of Behe, when asked to explain once what he meant by the 'designer' and how "irreducibly complex" elements actually got inserted into bacterial systems wholesale, he famously told Larry Arnhart it was 'a puff of smoke'.

Waal, who would you rather have teaching your children science? Michael Behe, or Steve Matheson? William Dembski, or Jeffrey Shalit? Jonathan Wells, or Kenneth Miller? For that matter, how about the nuns at Saint Agatha's who way back in 1969 introduced this reader to the How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs and the How and Why Wonder Book of Early Man? And I don't recall Sister Helen Bernard telling me, 'By the way, Johnny, evolution is just a theory, you know.'

But as far as the current generation of gadflies posting 'science' articles to National Review and the American Spectator are concerned, if the philosophy suggested by science is intimidating or disturbing...well--by all means then, out with the baby along with the bathwater. Let's raise a generation of scientific illiterates so that they will have even fewer options to prosper in the challenging world of the future.

While I'm at it, newtonian physics, which Bethell presumably does not dispute, also bred a questionable philosophy (deism), as did Einstein's relativity (moral relativism) and quantum mechanics (don't ask, there are too many isms to list). They all fail to satisfy as philosophies in my opinion, but that doesn't mean there is no science from which they took flight. (Predictably, it hasn't prevented Bethell from making a further fool of himself by attacking Einstein in the past, although lately he has modified his reliance on pure crackpot sources when it comes to that theory, at least. I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.)

There's a deeper issue here, of course. It's the problem that many conservatives have with the very methodological basis of science--methodological naturalism. They enjoy blaming this on Darwin as well.

But it is not at all established that the old bugbear naturalism, the exclusion of supernatural explanations from scientific reasoning, is the product of Darwin and Huxley that so many conservative writers suggest. Upon closer examination, it actually goes back (at the very least) to the medieval universities--when the whole show was run by priests. In those days, atheists weren't even allowed to proclaim their skepticism, let alone teach.

Nevertheless, Jean Buridan, the cleric and philosopher of the mid 1300s whose influence on medieval science and philosophy was, for quite some time, more widespread in Europe than that of Aquinas or Albert the Great, wrote in his Quaestiones super quattuor libris de caelo et mundo, “In natural philosophy one should consider processes and causal relationships as if they always came about in some natural fashion; therefore, God is no less the cause of this world and of its order, than if this world were eternal.” [emphasis mine]

That sure sounds like methodological naturalism to me. It's also common sense. (Do you suppose when Pat Buchanan goes out to his car in the morning and finds one of the tires has gone flat he starts looking around for little gremlins?) I should add to this Aquinas' position that it is precisely a solid, stubborn, Aristotelian adherence to empirical facts about the natural order that can point beyond the natural--and not the other way around.

Okay--but isn't this all just a tempest in a teapot? Why all the bother? Why get upset because mainstream conservative magazines are so out-of-touch with science? Who cares?

Waal, as a moderate conservative, I care. And the predilection to publish boneheaded articles on science frankly suggests ...that the mainstream conservative magazines are not so mainstream anymore. When George Gilder can, because he is a veteran contributing editor of National Review, write something so utterly incoherent as this:
The failure of purely physical theories to describe or explain information reflects Shannon's concept of entropy and his measure of "news." Information is defined by its independence from physical determination: If it is determined, it is predictable and thus by definition not information. Yet Darwinian science seemed to be reducing all nature to material causes.
--and National Review's editor Rich Lowry apparently can't sit up in his office and say, "What the f%#$?" and get out his red pen, or ship it back with 'rejected', or at least send it to an expert for some comments...well, I think they're in trouble.

What a small but growing number of conservatives are concerned about, is the wholesale linking of conservatism with bogus science, whether it goes by the name of "Intelligent Design" or "Young Earth Creationism" or "Alternative Electrodynamics" or astrology for that matter (which by the way Behe also thinks passes muster as science) --and the growing discredit that this brings upon conservatism as a whole. Such a state virtually guarantees that the only new blood the movement can count on gaining in the future, is precisely derived from the credulous and the ignorant, most aptly personified by the frightened ferrets now beating the drums for the firing of this man.

Now, in fairness to National Review, perhaps the percentage of readers who are scared of Darwin is so large, the editors feel they just can't afford to educate alienate them and thus lose their subscription base and financial backing. Instead, they let John Derbyshire take the heat for being the lone voice of sanity on science. I don't know, as I don't work there.

On the other hand, I don't recall whether Bill Buckley ever fretted over lost subscriptions when he decided to unload both barrels on the John Birch Society back in the early days of NR's glory. It had to be done to maintain the magazine's credibility.

Well, it's high time for another maintenance job. Time to take an editorial stance against bogus science, no matter how much the think tanks complain.

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