Monday, February 9, 2009

The First Annual *Convoy of Euclid Dump Trucks Award*

Note: this post's formatting got massacred when I switched over to the new Blogger. I'll fix it one day when I have the time... meanwhile, désolé...

Awarded to the "scientific skeptic" essay with the greatest number of gigantic holes in its argument. This year's prize goes to ... Jerry Coyne's peerlessly blockheaded "Seeing and Believing"! Before we summarize our winner's accomplishments, let's review an excerpt from the criteria:

Essays should strive for that mingling of ennui and passion born of absolute certainty of one's place within the materialist ideological bubble and the frustrations of examining complex cultural phenomena from within that bubble. A winning essay need not necessarily advance an objectionable or false thesis and may even contain threads of cogency, but is distinguished in the main by bold, consistent, and self-defeating departures from the realms of evidence and logic. An exemplar might be Martin Gardner's foreword to Magick in Theory and Practice, in which the author thoroughly and unflaggingly combines sensational, inaccurate secondary sources with obtuse readings of primary sources to buttress his opinion about a book he has not read.

With that, on to the dump truck rally.

Coyne has written a review essay in which he discusses two recent books on the conflict between evolutionary biology and certain know-nothing Christian sects. Loyal readers will forgive the reminder that, to paraphrase a recent writer on the creation/evolution "debate," I put evolutionary theory on the level of atomic theory. It's true, and it's so woven into my (mystical) cosmology it's like butter in French cuisine. Let's get that out of the way, along with any questions about scripture and "revelation." I treat the former like recipes, to continue the gastronomic metaphor: if the result doesn't look like the picture, I either screwed up or the instructions weren't worth following, and a passable spiritual diary will soon settle the matter. About the latter, I'm with Tom Paine, who pointed out "It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other." To quote yet another writer, the one slander'd by Gardner above, it is thus up to every seeker "to cut his own way through the jungle." We do this best when we critically compare our experiences with the findings of previous journeyers-- in other words, when we are in possession of the sharpest tools.

And this is where our winner comes in, in all his dullness, all his devotion to received wisdom, all his credulous acceptance of rigid cognitive categories. Coyne fancies himself to stand atop a peak in Darien when in fact he's perched on a traffic median in the suburbs of Culture Wars, USA. Here are Coyne's revelations, not ones imparted to him from the clouds but the ones he wishes to impart to us-- to sober us, to edify us, to steel us for the battle against superstitious barbarism, to establish once and for all that science is science and religion is religion, and never the twain shall meet:

  • "Charles Darwin was born ... the same day as Abraham Lincoln"
  • "If a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus appeared to the residents of New York City, as he supposedly did to the evangelist Oral Roberts in Oklahoma, and this apparition were convincingly documented, most scientists would fall on their knees with hosannas."
  • "[Intellgent Design] is abysmal failure as science." [Stop the presses!]
  • "while 74 percent of Americans believe that angels exist, only 25 percent believe that we evolved from apelike ancestors." [hardly mutually exclusive opinions :)]
  • "90 percent of Americans believe in a personal God who interacts with the world, 79 percent believe in miracles, 75 percent in heaven, and 72 percent in the divinity of Jesus."
  • "more than 60 percent of Americans believe in miracles, the virgin birth of Jesus, his divinity and resurrection... the survival of the soul after death, and the existence of Hell and Satan."
  • "A meaningful effort to reconcile science and faith must start by recognizing them as they are actually understood and practiced by human beings."

I guess I'm supposed to be shocked, mortified, depressed, outraged, etc., by the statistics, but I've lived in the United States nearly 45 years and am used to ignorance and wishful thinking by now. These are the same people who gave us eight years of Bush, after all, and seven years (so far) of American Idol. I don't know what I'm supposed to do with Darwin's and Lincoln's birthday; the believer in me is no more moved than the skeptic-- someone had to be born that day. Doubtless many were. Do the great men's star charts predict unusual eloquence or that they'll drop some unwelcome but ultimately liberating information on their contemporaries?

Anyway, let's look at the last revelation listed above, a vision worthy of John the Divine, and see what Coyne does with it. Annoyed that smart people believe in God, he summarily excludes theologians and scholars of religion from any "meaningful" dialogue between religion and science, since their subtleties don't jibe with the homelier creed of the masses. Hell, he apparently doesn't even consider religious experts "human beings." (And no, Coyne does not, for the sake of dialogue, propose that we throw out trained scientists and their expertise in favor of popular ideas about biology.)

With this attempted sleight of hand-- the substitution of middle-American churchianity for religion in all times and places-- Coyne tries to duck the charges of religious and historical illiteracy that are so easy to level at him, as they are easy to level at DawkinsDennettetal. The grand plan goes: If we forget the great spiritual writers and artists and fabricate a straw "religion" that promotes biblical literalism and museum dioramas of "Triceratops wearing a saddle!" then we can topple the straw effigy, eliminate religion from all rational discourse, and move on to the goldene medina where no one "pick[s] and choose[s] what they believe."

This is intellectual utopianism on the scale of Dr. Pangloss, perfectly suited for the age of the vanishing individual. Activities as dangerous as working out one's own relationship with religious traditions or seeking common ground between religion and [gasp] science might lead to inconsistency or, worse, ambiguity. Unacceptable-- since, as we all know, Leibniz's "A = A" is the foundation of physical matter, electromagnetism, space-time, and academic departments. I agree with Coyne that it is impertinent to argue that scientists "see... science as a religion" (I agree with him about a lot-- maybe that's what's frustrating), but does he have to open himself so fully to the accusation? Coyne is so enamored of fixed categories, of A = A, that he can't imagine a world-view that doesn't arise from attempts to explain physical phenomena. Thus all religion is failed science; thus Vedic legends of Vishnu and Brahma become "empirical claims about the world."

Aside from all that, I just don't care about "religion as it is lived and practiced by real people," if by "real people" Coyne means "most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus .... most Americans." The mass is never interesting and, in a very real epistemological sense, it does not exist. Pew Research Center surveys can never limn the lived experience, the inner worlds, of millions of individuals or of one.

All of us geeks and honor grads and Ph.D.s take our turns at defending reason, because reason butters our bread and cushions our worried heads. But reason isn't defended by foolishness, and science can't be advanced by deductive fallacies, creationist or otherwise. Coyne's greatest gaffe is surprisingly enough a scientific one: the mystifying, astonishingly reductive remark that "Yes, the average complexity of all species has increased over the three-and-a-half billion years of evolution, but that is because life started out as a simple replicating molecule, and the only way to go from there is to become more complex." As if sperm whales and Dalai Lamas were ordained by the axiom of algae... now that's Euclidean!

Coyne can't mean this the way it sounds-- he's probably just too lazy (or has too little confidence in his readers) to summarize or allude to the play of order and chaos that has branched the tree of life. A brilliant post on Pharyngula outlines this dance; the concept of maximum entropy production may be the music behind it. But sancta simplicitas might be Coyne's "only way to go." When science takes up the banner of the Truth Society, when it evolves (as perhaps it must) into a War on Ignorance, it necessarily incorporates rhetorical DNA that both simplifies its arguments and appeals to transcendent, non-falsifiable ideals. I have no intention of gloating over the irony, for in the end I applaud Coyne for what he's trying to do: keep people from fooling themselves. He quotes Richard Feynman: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."

The problem is, whether you're trying to pull them out of the Dark Ages or save their souls and take them to the Dark Ages with you, other people don't hold those irritating beliefs just because someone persuaded them to, or out-argued them, or sold them their beliefs like a flood-damaged Kia Sorento. The issue, finally, isn't argument or misinformation or erroneous facts. We attach ourselves to beliefs because they explain our worlds. On some level the New Atheists sense this, and the awareness at least partially explains their bludgeoning petulance, as does the fact that the converts just aren't coming forward. For those who would enlighten the savages, there are better models than Cortez.

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