Sunday, June 16, 2013

Is science denialism suicide? Another moral bankruptcy of faith

We live in a very technologically dependent world. Our global citizenry exceeds seven billion people and maintains an exponential growth curve. Our environment is heating up and desertifying at an alarming rate. Those two facts alone are cause for enormous concern, because the two are not compatible. People need to eat, and given the current state of affairs, we very well may need technology--the fruit of science--to survive.

I don't mean to imply that our species would die out necessarily if we are unable to come up with satisfactory scientific discoveries and technological advances to solve our environmental and population problems. Many, many will, but ours may not. We're quite clever and resourceful when we need to be. More than likely, Homo sapiens would survive, unless the intense competition for resources triggered a nuclear war or unless the outcomes of global climate change are far worse than predicted. Most of us, or our children, or theirs, though, would die. We and they would die hunger or in violence, and in tremendous suffering. This is what we should expect when we exceed the carrying capacity of our environment, and our carrying capacity is at present immensely bolstered by technological advances. Given the challenges we face, it is also dependent upon very big new ones.

Also, I don't mean to imply that science and technology will automatically save the day. In fact, I have only a little cause for concern regarding the likelihood of the necessary scientific discoveries and technological implementation being achievable to stave off disaster. What I fear is politics. We need to implement those discoveries on an intelligent, integrated, global scale with surprising rapidity to prevent some pretty bad outcomes that may, indeed, be disastrous. And that's where the problem lies with theological science denial. To implement these necessary changes successfully requires enough public trust in science to enable it, allow it, and fund it.

I think the severity of this problem is one that people are dimly aware of and yet that they strongly underestimate. It's not new, by any means, for theologians to denigrate and obstruct scientific advancement, but it has had a new resurgence in popularity lately. Many theologians in our technological world are desperate to attempt to put their faith on a level with science, and they do it by outright science denial and the undermining of public trust in science. Given the success of science, obvious in their lives and critical to their abilities to disseminate their messages far enough and wide enough to be a real problem, this issue would be laughable (because theology can't beat science in a war of ideas on their own merits). But it's not. The problem is that some of the science denial memes are highly infectious with those smart enough to get behind them, and they spread from theologian to pastor to flock with astonishing efficiency. Then, these people--who constitute a nontrivial portion of the American population, which is the group most relevant for a variety of reasons--vote.

The current popular brand of this dangerous nonsense with evangelicals is the "Pyrrhic skepticism" sort. Pyrrhic skepticism is extremely radical skepticism, like brains-in-vats, computer simulations, can't know reality exists radical. Many evangelical theologians are employing it out of desperation against the steady, reasonable informed skepticism advocated by and underpinning scientific methodology. The general flavor is that skepticism should be so skeptical that it denies that we can prove or establish anything--for example not even that the world exists or that we do in it--then arguing that everything has to be taken on "faith." Once faith is thusly "justified," in comes a cartload of faith-based nonsense.

This toxic argument is deceptively seductive, especially if the recipient has a pre-existing bias to favor faith (to protect emotionally and socially driven religious beliefs in most cases). The claim of the argument is that since "science can't prove itself, it takes as much (or more) faith to believe in science than it does," say, to believe in God. It doesn't matter that this is nonsense. It is seductive to the faithful, and it is widely accepted.

Consider this example of how this argument can feel seductive, quoting from John Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith: How To Know Which Religion Is True (See OTF, p. 107). Retired Christian professor of philosophy Mark Hanna is writing to undermine Loftus's construction, saying:
If the only thing we should trust is the sciences, then we should not trust the claim that the only thing we should trust is the sciences. The assertion itself is not a scientific one nor is it discovered or justified by any of the sciences. It is a non-scientific, mistaken philosophical judgment about knowledge and the sciences, and yet he [Loftus] trusts it. So the sciences are not the only thing he trusts. ... It is beyond dispute that the empirical sciences neither contain all knowledge nor are they the only means for gaining knowledge.
Mostly, this is a ridiculous, straw man accusation, but here we see the theologian's game. In some sense, he's right--it's not essentially something science does. The philosophy of science has already solved this problem, for all intents and purposes, noting that we aren't aiming for the kind of certainty it seems to suggest. Still, following this argument comes truckloads of others. I am not suggesting that Hanna goes to Pyrrhic skepticism, but many do, and Hanna's work misinforms them. This brand of science denial holds a lot of appeal to pastors and congregations that are too easily impressed with the pseudo-profundity of movies like The Matrix, a theme that rests in the popular culture of much of the modern world now. Right behind this nonsense, though not necessarily from Hanna in this instance, is the big claim: that scientists accept trust in the sciences based upon "faith," and so faith is "justified."

Obviously, this is utter tosh. It's a game in which a pinprick in the fabric of our model of the world is poked, and then a truckload of unsupported assumptions are driven through on a false equivalence: that all forms of "faith" are essentially equal. Science does not operate on "faith," it operates on confidences, usually statistical. In fact, science operates specifically on doubt, requiring statistics on repeated examinations to overcome that doubt. That's why it works! Philosophically, the underpinnings of science may be axiomatic constructions like in any other methodology or philosophy, but science has the undeniable advantage over others of working. It reliably produces reliable results. Planes fly. Bridges hold vehicles. Computers work with and transmit data. Medicine performs the near-impossible, the closest thing we can call to miracles. We now depend upon those results because so does agriculture.

So, the problem is that theologians are willing to make these science-denying arguments, pastors are eager to disseminate them to keep the faith strong in an increasingly technological and secular world, and believers are happy to soak them up as insulation against the attacks that they perceive against their faiths, which satisfy core psychosocial needs for them and literally define their worldviews. Then these believers, so misinformed, vote in modern democracies, and as is amply testified to at least in the United States at present, they elect to high offices scientifically illiterate, scientifically hostile, ideologically motivated imbeciles with the same drive to denigrate science anytime it threatens their core beliefs.

This is a problem. A big problem.

For what may be a very broad majority of us, we face the situation where a public science denial campaign, if effective, could literally be suicide, inviting upon ourselves suffering, violence, and deaths numbering perhaps in the billions all within the next few decades. Sadly, this is unlikely to be terribly hyperbolic--estimates of the economic damages of global warming alone exceed $180 trillion by 2050. Our challenges at present require massive innovation and massive implementation that is currently a massive political impossibility. The controls are mostly in the hands of the wrong people, and the minds of those that put them there are becoming increasingly poisoned with anti-science rhetoric and belief structures. We're already decades behind where we should be for this very reason, and the science-denial memes appear to be spreading more effectively than ever. Science denial, sufficiently successful now, could be global suicide--the slow, painful, violent, suffering kind.

To target the apologists specifically, noting that these criticisms apply to politicians and members of the public as well, from this we can draw two possible conclusions. One is that these theologians are insufficiently educated about science to make responsible statements about it and do not understand the scope and imminence of the problem. Given their sway, that's irresponsible in the extreme. Secondly, we might conclude that these theologians simply don't care. Religious faith and science are fundamentally incompatible, this fact has been exposed, and despite our dependence upon science and technology, for whatever ultimately selfish, indefensible reasons theologians are choosing to push faith directly at the expense of scientific literacy and implementation.

Thus, in either case, these theologians--and politicians and everyday folks like unto them--are desperate enough to protect their faiths by promoting science denial actually to do it. From that, we can see another aspect of the moral bankruptcy of faith: religious faith is content to watch the world burn to protect itself, blind to the imminent danger that could lead to the wonton suffering and deaths of billions of human beings.


  1. This post seems to be the fruits of the discussion had on Loftus' blog. Yet even here you seem to be dancing around the issue while also attacking strawmen.

    First, the argument is not founded upon science denial. No one here is denying either the validity or usefulness of science. What is being denied is the ability of science to answer foundational epistemological issues and so far you still have yet to demonstrate that it is capable of this.

    You're only line of argumentation is to assert over and over that science advances and works. However, this is a non-sequitur and also dodges the original argument. For the fact that science works does nothing to validate its presuppositional foundations-for these are assumed a priori and science presupposes these in order to function and therefore cannot prove them. Second, even if we were in "the matrix"-which no one here is asserting and which you have seemed to pull out of thin air-scientific investigation would still function the same and therefore the fact that it works would tell us nothing regarding our epistemology.

    1. The main problem here is you, and people like you. It doesn't matter what he says, or what anybody else says. What would it take to convince you you are wrong? What argument could be made or what evidence provided could change your mind about God's existence? It can't be done. You've decided that you're right and nothing can dissuade you. What's the point in arguing with a brick wall? Understand the deeper reasons behind why you feel compelled to believe in irrational fairy tales and do battle for them all over the Internet and then maybe we can have a productive conversation.

    2. First, nothing I am not arguing about anything related to the existence of God. The fact that you think this makes me wonder if you even understand the nature of the discussion. The discussion is about the ability of science to address epistemological issues. Therefore, what would allow me to change my mind is for someone to demonstrate how science can address epistemological issues without such an endeavor committing circular reasoning. My argument is that it cannot be done.

      Lastly, nothing in this argument amounts to any kind of science denial. I'm not in any way denying any of the progress science makes and I'm a firm believer in evolution, quantum theory etc. What is being denied is the ability of science to address epistemological issues.

    3. Actually, Steven, the discussion at present is about the ability of science to potentially save us from our worst case scenarios. You've interjected this shit about epistemology--and interjection of this shit about epistemology (from philosophers or theists who steal those arguments, I don't care) is a potentially major problem that you are contributing to with your consistent presentations of twaddle. It makes me wonder if you understood the nature of the discussion at all or if you just wanted to come on here and try to sound smart.

      What you are arguing is used consistently by theists (especially evangelical and other apologists, then the flocks that follow them) to erode public trust in science. That's the point of my essay.

  2. Still waiting on a response there James.

    1. Yes... where are my manners?
      Thank you for providing an excellent example of exactly what I'm talking about.

    2. Nice response James. Let me know when you plan on moving past assertions. Thanks.

    3. Is this the real world?
      Or is it fantasy?
      Caught in a landslide...
      No escape from reality!
      Open your eyes...
      Look up to the skies and see!
      There is no God there
      It's all a reverie!
      Because it's easy come, easy go,
      Little high, little low.
      Hit me with your wind-blows
      Doesn't really matter to me...
      To me.

    4. Perhaps I need to reiterate:let me know when you plan on moving past assertions.

    5. What? Can't hear you over the sound of how awesome this is.

    6. Alright James, let me know when you've grown up and are able to have a discussion like an adult. I won't hold my breath.

    7. Maybe you prefer this presentation? I know I do.

      On the other hand, maybe you can help me. In my little modified verse above, I wanted to use the line "I can't take you seriously," but it is off from the meter by one syllable. Any suggestions? It's clear you're much, much smarter than I am, so you've probably got this, no problem.

  3. This is an extremely important blog post. Thank you James for writing it.

    1. However, you fail to adequately address Steven's point re: foundational epistemological issues. So long as he can ask "Ya, but why?" he is able to demonstrate the limits of science and the usefulness of cults. Seriously though, great essay.

    2. If I thought it was worth my time to engage him, I would address the point. Cyrus made it plain in his response above why I did not (I've talked with Steven before). He can literally *always* say that because he's on a quest for absolute knowledge when we are forced to understand the world via confidences. There's literally nothing more to say than that. Our confidence in science is high, and we have no other methods with a demonstrably proven track record. That's enough to establish a beyond-reasonable-doubt strong case against science denial (and even for advocacy of science and science literacy).

      Thank you for your kind words.

    3. Also, it's a red herring. Who cares if science can address fundamental epistemological questions if we're not denying its usefulness? My exact point is the usefulness of science and for such philosophical (often theologically motivated) musings essentially to stop mucking up the works. Trust in science doesn't have to imply wholesale and full acceptance of every possible epistemological point that can be raised about it.

    4. No problem. Looking forward to reading your book. I've had the same conversation with Steven, and yes, it's a waste of energy.

    5. I appreciate that! I'll be putting out another one soon that touches a bit more closely to some of these kinds of epistemological points (without getting so exacting on them). It should be inexpensive; that's the plan, at any rate. It's technically about infinity, but it goes a long way into the theme of fleshing out how we use axiomatic systems to understand things.

    6. Spicy,
      My argument has nothing to do with "cults". You would think that at least one person on this blog wouldn't mischaracterize an argument. But I would be wrong.

    7. Steven, that you are consistently misunderstood in this way seems to follow you around like a shadow. Perhaps you should learn to clarify your argument and get to an actual point with it. That might help.

      Now, I'm going back to not taking you seriously because you have nothing serious to offer. This, sir, is twaddle. If you can't tell the difference, you've got a lot more work to do. Try going outside, maybe, and having this conversation with a bird or a tree. Get out in the world. Experience it. Get off this nonsense. It's making you high or something.

    8. The article addresses science denialism, a real life problem (whether you choose to acknowledge this or not) and how some attempt to use “but how do you know that you know what you know” to try sneak faith into the discussion. From there attempts are made to argue a particular brand of faith real, claiming that faith is a way of knowing. Science as a process works. Faith leads to, often irreconcilable, opinions with no reliable way to assess their veracity. “Truth” works on a spectrum with degrees of certainty; it doesn’t need to be: absolutely certain or faith. It really is a waste of energy. I’m done.

    9. Un-shun:
      Mischaracterize? A far better example of this would be your understanding of science as expressed on John’s blog.