After trying to raise doubts and mistrust against the vital scientific principle of falsifiability, Vox Day’s book The Irrational Atheist moves on to the definition of science. It’s a pretty good definition, taken from PZ Myers, and Vox promises to use it. Before he shows us how he intends to use it, however, he takes a few moments to insinuate that scientists are opposed to pseudoscience out of mere greed, selfishness, and lust for power.
But before proceeding, it is intriguing to at least consider the possibility that it is not the threat to science as process that so offends scientists, but rather the potential threat to science as profession that has whipped some scientists into an angry lather.
After all, scientists understand better than most how their bread gets buttered, and no one, not even the most dedicated idealist, is ever pleased with the possibility of the butter being taken away.
Naturally, this is a completely spurious ad hominem, as is shown by the fact that the efforts of the pseudoscientists are not threatening the jobs of anyone. Science teachers would still teach science even if the creationists got their way—it’s just that the science would be watered down with superstitions and supernatural “explanations.” Researchers would still be able to do research, they just wouldn’t be allowed to get government funding for projects that might explain how life arose from non-life, and would have to focus their efforts elsewhere. So the “butter” wouldn’t really get taken away, only the quality of science would be compromised. And even Vox admits that this is so.
It seems unlikely, however, that the passion of Richard Dawkins and the fervent militancy of Sam Harris in defense of science can be tied to any such fears. This would make little sense, since neither Sam Harris nor Christopher Hitchens are even scientists, Daniel C. Dennett has tenure, and the success of Richard Dawkins’s many books has surely put him well beyond any petty pecuniary concerns.
Such is the nature of slander and innuendo that it doesn’t need to be consistent with the facts. The seed is planted, and despite all evidence to the contrary, and despite Vox’s mealy-mouthed disavowals in the face of the blatantly spurious nature of his accusation, he has tagged scientists with the “possibility” that their objections have nothing to do with the quality of science at all, but are merely a selfish power grab designed to protect their own jobs. Anybody want to take a wild guess which message Vox’s conservative Christian readers are going to take away and put in the bank?
If there’s any doubt above Vox’s aims, one need only read on as he furthers his goal of trying to make scientists and science-defenders look obstinate and unreasonable.
Nor can their concerns be realistically tied to any fears for science as a body of knowledge, the occasional rhetorical sally aside. The occasional protest of a biology textbook or a nineteenth-century novel notwithstanding, no one on either side of the debate is advocating the willful destruction or even reduction of the knowledge base. As for the process, the very existence of the Intelligent Design movement is a testimony to a respect for scientific methodology and an attempt to make use of it for marketing purposes, not a desire to destroy it.
And in a sense, that’s exactly right. Creationists do not want to destroy science, they only want to subjugate it and force it to lend its credibility and authority to their religious presuppositions. The only way to “harmonize” science and creationism, however, is by neutralizing those elements of science which give it its considerable credibility and authority. What’s ironic is that Vox denies that anyone is trying to reduce the scientific knowledge base, when in practice creationists do little else but try to nay-say and deny the scientific findings of evolutionists.
“Look,” say scientists, “we’ve found a new transitional form.”
“No you haven’t,” reply the creationists.
“Look, we’ve found a new genetic process that produces evolutionary changes in organisms.”
“No you haven’t.”
“Look, we’re learning more about how life could arise spontaneously.”
“No you’re not.”
And so on. One need look no further than the iconic image of Dr. Michael Behe, surrounded by stacks of books and studies and meticulously-documented research showing the natural origins of “irreducibly complex” systems, blithely denying that any such knowledge exists because he knows it cannot exist. Intelligent Design, like creationism in general, produces no new insights into natural processes, but consists solely of denying what we do know about such processes, and trying to discredit those who have discovered them. Creationism and supernaturalism claim to be trying to add to science, but what they are really trying to do is add science (or at least scientific credibility) to their non-scientific ideas. And in order to do that, they must delete from science those things which prevent science from accepting superstitious conclusions as valid science. It is inherently and inevitably a subtractive process, as far as science itself is concerned.
So despite what Vox says, scientists do have valid, tangible reasons not just to fear that the quality of scientific knowledge might be compromised, but to actively object and oppose efforts that are already underway attempting to impair science, through subverting school boards and school curricula (as has been seen in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and a number of other states, most recently including Florida), through government meddling in scientific research (as has routinely been the case in the Bush administration, particularly in respect to such things as global warming and hazardous emissions of toxic chemicals), and through the advocacy of pseudo-scientific urban legends like the so-called vaccine-autism “link,” or abortion and breast cancer, and so on.
That’s what makes this part of TIA Chapter 2 so reprehensible. Instead of acknowledging that the conflict does exist, instead of dealing with the problems of maintaining high standards of scientific research and education, Vox tries to make it look like scientists are unreasonable, paranoid, and selfish—just the sort of people, in other words, that no reasonable person should take seriously. But all this is just a warm-up for his discussion of science and religion, as we’ll see next time.