[Paleopsych] NYT: When Sentiment and Fear Trump Reason and Reality
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Wed Mar 30 19:25:46 UTC 2005
The New York Times > Science > Commentary: When Sentiment and Fear
Trump Reason and Reality
March 29, 2005
By LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS
I have recently begun to wonder whether I am completely out of touch
with the mainstream, and if so, what that implies.
When I was a young student it became clear to me that the remarkable
success of the scientific method, which changed the world beyond
belief in the four centuries since Galileo, made the power and
efficacy of that method evident. Moreover, scientific ideas are not
only powerful but so beautiful that they are on par with the most
spectacular legacies of civilization in art, architecture, literature,
music and philosophy.
This is what makes the current times so disconcerting. We like to
think that spectacular intellectual developments bring progress, so
that future generations may benefit from what has come before. But
this is often an illusion.
I remember the shock wave generated four years ago when the Taliban
government in Afghanistan destroyed thousands of statues, including
two priceless and awe-inspiring archaeological artifacts, the world's
largest standing statues of Buddha, created almost 2,000 years ago.
The Taliban claimed that Islamic law prohibited the creation of
idolatrous images of human faces that might be used for worship.
I remember sharing the feeling of incredible sadness to know that the
world had forever lost a precious part of its intellectual heritage.
It was difficult to believe that in the 21st century such a return to
the dark ages could happen anywhere.
Those images came to mind again as I followed recent news of incidents
in the United States in which fundamentalist dogma and its fear of the
intellectual progress that comes from understanding nature has trumped
the scientific method. These actions attack intellectual pillars of
our civilization that are every bit as real as monumental statues of
The "reality-based community," as one White House insider so
poetically referred to it recently, is losing the fight for hearts and
minds throughout the country to a well-orchestrated marketing program
that plays on sentiment and fear.
The open intrusion of religious dogma into the highest levels of
government is stunning. Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court
speaks of "the fact that government derives its authority from God"
(during oral arguments before the court about displays of the Ten
Commandments) while the president of the United States has argued that
evolution is a theory not a fact.
The effort to blur the huge distinction between faith and science,
between empirically falsifiable facts and beliefs, was on display
again this month in two very different contexts.
Congressional leaders ignored the conclusions of the doctors who have
actually examined Terri Schiavo and judges who have listened to the
evidence. Senator Bill Frist, previously a heart surgeon who must have
once known better, shunned the conclusions of these doctors and,
without ever having examined Ms. Schiavo himself, stated his "belief"
that she was not in a vegetative state.
Meanwhile, on a much less emotionally tragic but no less
intellectually puzzling front, the Templeton Foundation continued with
its program to sponsor the notion that science can somehow ultimately
reveal the existence of God by once again awarding its annual
Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion not to a theologian, but to a
Dr. Charles Townes, the winner, is a Nobel laureate whose scientific
work has been of impeccable distinction; his prime contribution to
religion appears to be his proudly proclaiming his belief in God as
revealed through the beauty of nature.
I confess that my immediate reaction was the same as it has been to
all of Templeton's recent awards to scientists. If this is the most
significant progress in religious thought, beating out the work of
distinguished theologians throughout the world, then it is a sad
reflection on such progress. Of course, I rather believe that it
reflects on the foundation's misguided goals and methods.
Nature's beauty inspires religious fervor in some scientists. For
others, like the Nobel laureate Dr. Steven Weinberg, it merely
reinforces their belief that God is irrelevant.
The point here, which should be obvious, is that science and religion
are separate entities: science is a predictive discipline based on
empirically falsifiable facts; religion is a hopeful discipline based
on inner faith.
Theologians as ancient as St. Augustine and Moses Maimonides
recognized that science, not religion, was the appropriate and
reliable method to try to understand the physical world. Yet it is
precisely this ancient wisdom that is now under attack.
Foes of evolution and the Big Bang in this country do not operate with
the direct and brutal actions of the Taliban. They have marketing
skills. Openly condemning evolution as blasphemous might play well to
the fundamentalist true believers, but it wouldn't play well in the
heartland, which is the real target. Thus the spurious argument is
created that evolution isn't good science.
This "fact" is established by fiat. The Discovery Institute in Seattle
supports the work of several Ph.D.'s who then write books (and op-ed
articles) decrying the fallacy of evolution. They don't write
scientific articles, however, because the claims they make - either
that cellular structures are too complex to have evolved or that
evolution itself is improbable - have either failed to stand up to
detailed scrutiny or involve no falsifiable predictions.
What is being obscured in this manufactured debate is that the
underlying intent has little to do with evolution, or the age of the
earth. The fundamentalist attack is on the basic premise that physical
phenomena have physical causes that can be revealed by use of the
Because science does not explicitly incorporate a deity in its
considerations, some fundamentalists believe that it undermines our
moral order, just as the Buddha statues presented a threat to the
fundamentalist Islamic moral order.
The pillar of our humanity that is most under attack is our remarkable
ability to understand nature. We claim that in places like Afghanistan
the enemies of truth are the enemies of freedom and democracy. If the
scientific method is out of the mainstream in our country it is time
to take a stronger stand against the effort to undermine empirical
reality in favor of dogma.
Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss is chairman of the physics department at Case
Western Reserve University. His new book, "Hiding in the Mirror," will
appear this fall.
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