Anti-Science in Academia?

There is a phenomena I came across again: anti-science.

I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it again, though, if it didn’t frustrate me so much. The reason I feel frustrated in this moment is because of three different interactions I’ve had this past week or so. What stood out to me is that these interactions weren’t entirely typical in that it demonstrated how widely spread this problem is.

I should first explain that the issue frustrating me isn’t precisely an anti-scientific attitude, but something that nearly approximates it in specific contexts.

Several interactions I had were all well-educated people who have spent much time in academia. I know at least some of them have worked in the capacity of teaching. All of them are typical intellectual types who are well informed about the world and are certainly way above average in IQ. Also, they also seem like people who are more than capable of independent thinking and rational analysis. Basically, they aren’t anti-intellectual and, of course, wouldn’t think of themselves that way. Nonetheless, the doubts they express about certain scientific issues is so strong that it comes close to the doubts expressed by people who are more obviously anti-intellectual.

One commonality is that all of them have spent time outside of the country of their birth, at least one of them having lived significant part of his life in another country. A couple of them even speak another language besides English. So, these are relatively worldly people.

Besides the commonalities, my attention was caught by the fact that they are ideologically and academically quite diverse. Between them all: They run the entire ideological spectrum from left to right. And they include a diversity of academic knowledge and experience. They are even diverse in their religious proclivities or lack thereof.

I should point out that all of these people are intellectually respectable. In fact, I personally respect them for their intellects. It’s because of their general knowledgeablity and rationality that I enjoy discussing issues with them on occasion, although only one of them did I meet directly through such a discussion.

It is for this reason I felt so disheartened by my feeling the need to defend science against people who should know better… or maybe that isn’t quite the right way of saying it. It’s not that I think all of them are wrong in their views per se, except for one of them who I think is obviously wrong about the data. More basically, it’s just frustration at trying to communicate. Science is one of those topics that brings up a lot of ideological baggage which gets in the way, myself included. It seems odd to me that science is so often one of the most polarizing of issues. It makes me aware of how much views on science can diverge when even well educated people can disagree so widely. On top of that, it has become clear to me how much we are divided simply because of the powerful role of media.

These interactions involved a variety of scientific issues, all related to research: psychology of ideologies, IQ testing, global warming, etc. Fundamentally, all of these people felt some variation of mistrust about potential bias in various aspects: the researchers themselves, the limitations of research, the agendas of scientific institutions, how data was being interpreted or reported, etc.

The specifics aren’t all that important. In some cases, the doubts they shared were to some degree within reason. What didn’t seem reasonable to me was how strongly they held onto those doubts, how resistant they were to treat as trustworthy the scientific method and scientific community. Of course, my own biased opinions about science played into my own sense of conflict and frustration. It’s hard to discuss neutrally many of these kinds of issues, especially when they seem very important in how they touch upon many other issues (global warming being a particularly clear example of this).

It seemed to me that they didn’t want give scientists their due. Despite their being well educated, they were all speaking about science as laypeople. As a layperson myself, I tend to want to put more trust in scientific experts until I discover very good reasons to doubt; for certain, I feel annoyed when an entire scientific field is dismissed or devalued without any seeming good reason besides the consensus of that field not fitting the person’s worldview.

More specifically, it seemed that they didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that scientists are more aware of and careful about such potential problems than anyone outside of the scientific fields. I would point out some of these scientific researchers (specifically the soccial scientists) are experts in bias and in some cases experts in the biases of science itself. If you want to know what are the reasonable doubts to have about science, you just need to ask scientists. Science works by trial and error. If there is bias or limitiation to some type of testing, scientists will be the first to point it out and fix the problem. The scientific method is a self-correcting system.

Doubt within the scientific method is essential and necessary. But doubt about the scientific method itself is a direct attack on the very ideal that puts knowledge above belief or opinion. That said, I’m sure none of these people meant to attack such an ideal and probably would see themselves defending it in their own way. It’s  just that it felt like their criticisms weren’t all that helpful coming from the sidelines of science.

Here is my response to all of this:

If we can’t trust that the best experts on bias can deal with potential problems of bias, then we lesser mortals are beyond any hope of non-scientifically dealing with biases. Attempting to dismiss or discredit a particular field of science is the opposite of helpful. As long as even well-educated intellecuals end up undermining science and the scientific method, whether intentionally anti-scientific or not, we are going to have a hard time advancing as a society. Considering the possibility of losing our collective faith in the ideal of knowledge, do most people realize what we would be giving up?

These interactions demonstrate the apparent failure of the non-scientific fields of academia… or maybe just failure of science education in general (I know the science education I received from the public school system was probably a bit lacking). I would imagine that even many of those working in higher education need to be better educated about science. Our entire society needs to be better educated all around, and I have no doubt that the people I speak of would agree with me on that.

My emotional response to these interactions might have less to do with the interactions themselves. Instead, it might just be that these interactions helped clarify my sense of the problem we face. My perception of science being undermined not only saddens me, it makes me fear for our future. This isn’t about any individual person or any individual doubt. We could argue about the specifics endlessly. What I’m pointing out is much more insidious, the undermining of scientific authority itself where any doubt almost automatically trumps even the vast knowledge accumulated by decades of experts, where scientific peer-review and consensus becomes a reason for doubt of expertise instead of a reason for trust… worst still, where the science itself and the scientists who do it seem to get lost in the cloud of conflict and the whole media charade, where we no longer even have a shared set of facts to work from, much less a shared set of values.

The line between questioning doubt and nihilistic denialism may be thinner than many realize. It’s a line that might be easy to cross. As individuals ocassionally going a little too far over the line isn’t necessarily problematic, but if such a crossing is done on a society-wide scale it may not be easily undone. Nothing good can come of this. We seem to be livng in a an era ruled by mistrust that dangerously verges on collective cynicism. We should tread very carefully.

Fundies vs Atheists, Agnostics, and Mythicists

I had an interesting discussion about the messianic concept in Judaism and Christianity.  It was interesting partly because I was talking to a Jew who was fairly knowledgeable about Judaism.  I gained some new understandings or maybe just some new info.

The problem was that he was a convert from Christianity and converts are often a bit on the zealous side (btw this can include converts to atheism as well).  He seemed fairly open-minded, but there was this aspect of him that was as annoying as a Christian Fundamentalist… defensive and righteous, a very bad combination especially when you throw in a slight victim complex.  He quite likely used to be a Christian Fundamentalist and seems to have this distorted view of what all Christianity is.  I’m sorry he had such a bad experience with Christianity, but I have no desire to help him work through his issues. 

This guy seems to think of himself as a representative of Judaism… which, I must say, is unfortunate for Judaism.  The Jews should be more careful about who they convert.

The discussion mostly went well, but after a while it felt like walking across a minefield as he was so touchy about so many things.  He had a lot of emotional baggage.  The issue for me isn’t the emotional baggage.  Rather, the issue is that a person like him who is always projecting their problems onto others.  I have a lot of psychological problems of my own, but I try my best and (hopefully) am somewhat succesful at separating my problems from my interactions. 

Anyways, that discussion put the nail in the coffin for that particular forum.  I give up on trying to have intelligent discussions with people in online forums.  Why are there so many mentally disturbed people online?  I’ll save that question for another day.

Well… water under the bridge.  All of that isn’t what I wanted to talk about, not exactly at least.  The topic of this blog post is religion.  I’m attracted to religion and I enjoy discussing it, but religion can be such a depressing subject.  When I study some aspects of religious history, I start thinking that religion itself can even be the problem.  Religion can inspire people to do great and wonderful things, but it also can justify the psychotic (if not homicidal) delusions of various kinds of nutjobs.  The history of Christianity can particularly depress me.  The first thousand years of Christianity was almost and endless spree of destruction.

And then there are people who leave Christianity because of its history of bigotry and hatred only to join another religion that isn’t any better.  To pick a random example (wink wink), Judaism is in some ways worse than Christianity.  At least, Christians were going against their own scripture when persecuting and killing various peoples.  The Jewish history as recorded in their scriptures is utterly horrific.  The Jewish God even commands the Jews to commit genocide, rape, and enslavement. 

Talk about depressing.  And this whole Judeo-Christian tradition is the foundation of Western civilization.  It about makes me want to kill myself to consider that this is my cultural heritage.

This is a major issue that religious people never consider seriously.  Some religious people would respond that athiests commit horrible things as well.  Yes, this is true to an extent.  Humans in general have great capacity for cruelty.  However, the point of religion is supposed to be to help humanity strive towards higher ideals.  The evidence, unfortunately, is to the contrary.

I’m not dismissing religion.  As I see it, religion is something like the scientific knowledge of the atom.  Scientists can make atomic energy and scientists can make an atomic bomb.  Now consider what happens if some religious nut gets hold of an atomic bomb.  Forget about 9/11.  The real fun has yet to start.

I should point out that that Fundamentalism as we know it is actually a modern invention.  Fundamentalism is a response to modernity.  For instance, the extreme forms of literalism came into existence in response to modern understanding of objective reality.  In the past, people had less sense of distinction between subjective and objective realities, between myth and history.  It wasn’t even that imporant for ancient people to make such distinctions.  Literalism is the attempt of religion to retain its authority in the face of science and the secular academia in general.

So, Fundamentalism isn’t fundamental, ie., isn’t original to religion.  However, the awareness of literalism as opposed to allegorical thinking did start to develop thousands of years ago.  This was a distinction that Greek philosophers were starting to consider.  Even though literalism didn’t clearly and fully manifest until modernity, its been there from the beginning of religions such as Christianity and Islam. 

For example, some early Christians were aware of and even open to the allegorical interpretation of scripture.  Christianity, in fact, developed out of the milieu that included a growing trend of allegorical thinking.  But this was still a very new way of thinking for the human species.  The new mentality arose all of  a sudden during the Axial Age; and then, within the centuries after Christianity began, the new mentality was disappearing again.  The former Roman Empire was lost in the Dark Ages. 

It took Europe another thousand years or so to remember these ancient ideas.  The re-introduction of Greek thought (strangely enough, from Islamic culture) helped to jumpstart the Renaissance, but to balance out the Renaissance was the Reformation.  The Reformation set the groundwork for modern Fundamentalism.

Okay, all of that is basic enough.  Here we all are in the wake of modernity.  The Fundamentalists are on the defense and they become ever more dangerous as they become cornered into their own dogmatic righteousness.  In the US, we shouldn’t worry about the Islamic Fundamentalists from the Middle East.  We should be worrying about our homegrown Christian Fundamentalists.  Right now, our Fundamentalists are fat and contented by American wealth and power.  But throw in enough dissatisfaction (such as if this economic downturn lasts long enough), and we’ll start to see a new breed of American Fundamentalists.

The Fundamentalists, in the past, at least had control of the Biblical studies in academia.  However, they’re losing their grip and their apologetics is becoming obvious for what it is.  A battle is going on right now even though many people are unaware of it and of it’s greater significance.  The battle is occurring on multiple fronts.  The Fundamentalists have three mortal enemies. 

Christian theologians/apologists essentially created the Atheist movement (by creating the term) as a way of containing secularism.  They defined the terms of battle and many Atheists have been happy to play their pre-designed part.  This battle gets a lot of public attention, but its just a front for a more complex battle.

Agnostics are even more dangerous to the Fundamentalists.  Agnostics refuse to play by the rules that the apologists are familiar with.  Many Agnostics are even Christian.  Fundamentalists simply don’t understand this opponent even if they happen to notice him.  Agnosticism is more like a cancer than an enemy that can be fought.  The Agnostics are the Aikido masters.  And, to mix in another metaphor, they fly below the radar… which is to say they don’t get much publicity.  Being an Agnostic just isn’t sexy.  To think of it another way, Agnostics are like Martin Luther King Jr during the race riots.  King once said that the only reason white people listened to him was because there was an angry young black man behind him with a molotov cocktail.  In this manner, the Agnostic slips in and seems quite moderate in comparison to the raving Atheists.

Related to the Agnostics, is a new faction of Christians.  The Agnostics have been an agitating force within Christianity.  Many believers have felt a need to resolve this unsettling sense that something isn’t quite right within Christianity.  The seeds of doubt have were planted and a call of a renewal of faith has been sent out: Spong, Harpur, etc.  Christianity is not only being forced to take academia seriously, but also other religions as well.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Christians to live in isolation from the larger world.

So, the first two groups (Atheists and Agnostics) are the one-two punch, and the latter group (the new Christians) are the knock out.  Christianity won’t be left behind in the cultural transformation going on… even though that is what many Atheists would like.  What is happening is that Christianity (along with all the other religions) is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

This is what I’m actually interested in.  There is change in the air, but its hard to know what exactly it is or where it’s heading.  Starting with the Theosophists, there has been a lineage of proponents of allegorical thinking: Theosophists to Jung to Campbell to the present Mythicists (G.A. Wells, D.M. Murdock, Tom Harpur, Freke and Gandy).  What recently brought this to the greater public attention is the movie Zeitgeist (the first part to be specific).  Many great thinkers had pointed out these mythical parallels to Christianity long before, but nobody was listening.  Zeitgeist had the advantage of being able to bypass the media censors and went straight to the internet where it went, as they say, viral.

The Fundamnetalists thought they had forced the mythicist movement permanently underground back in the 1800s.  The Apologists gained control of Biblical studies (especially in the US) and held that control for the last hundred years or so.  The internet has turned out to be the Apologists undoing despite their heavy use of it in their proseletyzing.  The Tektonics website is no match for the Mythicists.

Part of the reason is that mythology is now cool.  Movies such as Star Wars and the Matrix have given a foothold for comparative mythology to break into mainstream culture.  The imagination of Western Culture has been awoken.  Even Apologists have been forced to use these movies to reach a younger generation, but in doing so they’ve created  a foothold for comparative mythology to enter Christianity.  They can’t win for losing because they chose the wrong battle in the first place.

Movies have had this power because special effects have improved vastly in recent decades (and, of course, technology will continue to improve).  As a culture, we can create (in fiction) anything we can imagine.  This is more profound than many people realize.  And the internet has brought to the masses this ability to imaginatively create.  The collective imagination has been democratized.  Our society isn’t prepared for what will be the results of this.  A generation is being raised with all of this and they’re going to utterly transform society.  The generation growing up right now is bigger than the Baby Boomers.  The Boomers are retiring, and (because Gen X is a small generation) the Millennials will flood the job market.

I have no idea what this will mean, but it’s going to big.  To put it into the terms of Strauss and Howe, we are in the Fourth Turning.

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