[Paleopsych] NYT: When Sentiment and Fear Trump Reason and Reality

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The New York Times > Science > Commentary: When Sentiment and Fear
Trump Reason and Reality
March 29, 2005


    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
    scientific method.

    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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