[extropy-chat] FWD (SK) When Sentiment and Fear Trump Reason and Reality

Terry W. Colvin fortean1 at mindspring.com
Sat Apr 2 21:37:48 UTC 2005

The New York Times

          March 29, 2005


    When Sentiment and Fear Trump Reason and Reality


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 Buddha.

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 physicist.

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.


"Only a zit on the wart on the heinie of progress." Copyright 1992, Frank Rice

Terry W. Colvin, Sierra Vista, Arizona (USA) < fortean1 at mindspring.com >
     Alternate: < fortean1 at msn.com >
Home Page: < http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Stargate/8958/index.html >
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