The Daily Bork

August 10, 2005

Bad science

Russell is out after the creationists now, well, Bush "advocating" intelligent design teaching in schools. He covers it in a concern for science or truth or whatever, but fails pretty weakly.
Salon has an interesting interview with philosopher Michael Ruse "an ardent evolutionist who thinks creationism is claptrap," but accuses atheistic scientists like Richard Dawkins "of being as religious as born-again Bible thumpers." I think he has a point: Dawkins et al sometimes seem keener on trying to disprove God than they are on pursuing science.
Being a scientist is no guarantee against irrational behaviour. Atheistic scientists are just that, atheist, true. But it doesn't stop a fraction of them searching for a psychological replacement for whatever personal reason. Likewise some are militant atheists, more concerned with whacking believers. In that respect they are behaving in a similar manner to the creationist wingnuts.

But having begun with a comparatively rational statement, Russell does his usual trick. Find a convenient quote from some "authority" that halfway through makes a switch to an unrelated but seemingly connected point.
He thinks that creationists, both of the old-fashioned "young earth" variety and the newfangled intelligent-design model -- which President Bush said earlier this week should be taught in schools -- are spewing dangerous claptrap and are in league, consciously or not, with a sinister right-wing political agenda.

It's a two-level answer. I think creationism is dangerous because I don't think you should teach young people bad ideas. I'm a post-Enlightenment person. Inasmuch as I see creationism as a litmus test, I don't think creationism as such is dangerous. I think premillennialism is dangerous, because this inclines you to simplistic and dangerous positions. You hear echoes of this when George Bush talks about the "evildoers." I think the decision to go to war in Iraq was bound up with many different issues; Cheney just did it for the oil. But I do see it as allied to premillennial thinking, and that's even before you get to the Israel issue. Why are evangelical Christians so gung-ho in favor of Israel? Well, it's not because they like Jews. It's because of their eschatological reading of the Book of Revelation. I do think these things are very dangerous.
See the switch? Creationism isn't dangerous, but Bush believes in it (apparently). Premillenialism is dangerous, many Christians are millenialist and now we get to introduce the Jews and Iraq for free! What does Israel have to do with intelligent design? Sweet FA that's what. By this argument, if Bush believed completely in neo-Darwinism we would see that that too was dangerous because of premillenialist beliefs about Israel. The whole argument is invalid, of course Russell wouldn't want to point that out since it meshes so nicely with his "humanist" posturings.

But the guy really blew his cover with "sinister right-wing political agenda". For heaven's sake, there are plenty of right wing scientists who have no time for intelligent design. On one hand there are plenty of excellent scientists who are creationists, I had a supervisor who was a physics professor who was a "flood literalist" but was quite happy doing good work in cosmology and particle physics. On the other hand, I've known a number of scientists who were atheists and were about as useful wet paper bag.

But it gets worse, here he starts blithering about some "star" in string theory. The idea of a star in science is rather repulsive to most scientists, since it starts to reek of argument from authority which is exactly what we need to avoid. Anyway, note the star is Buddhist-Presbyterian.
String theory star Michio Kaku, profiled in the new Australian science mag Cosmos (whose editor Wilson da Silva I'm interviewing at 12.30 tomorrow on 95bFM), takes a similar view of fundamentalism, but has a surprisingly spiritual perspective on his work. He had Buddhist parents but was raised a Presbyterian and likes string theory as a marriage of the two:
With the following quote
"In Christianity, there is an instant of creation; while in Buddhism there is Nirvana, which is timeless. I am pleased that modern cosmology provides a beautiful melding of these two otherwise mutually contradictory ideas: that a continual genesis is taking place in a hyper-dimensional timeless Nirvana."
So what do we have? Yet another scientist who desperately seeks to find religious happiness in science. This is exactly where intelligent design comes from. The science has no knowledge of religions and likewise it is highly unlikely (about as likely than intelligent design is correct I'd say) that these two particular religions are in anyway inspired by the true workings of nature. What is this guy going to do if string theory turns out to be useful but ultimately incorrect? Every age of science goes through it, just look at Newton and what his mechanical view of the universe inspired. It was wrong, useful in many instances but as an inspiration to theology? Pretty useless.

Being a scientist, atheist, humanist, whatever, is no guarantee of being rational. Finding mystical inspiration in physics is highly irrational and bound to end in tears.

Meanwhile, a physicist-stand-up-comedian-screenwriter-blogger goes engagingly ballistic about President Bush's apparent endorsement of teaching "intelligent design" in American classrooms and the Vatican astronomer fires back at Cardinal Shonborn's attempt to drag the church back into the 18th century. Good.
As far as I can tell, Bush's endorsement goes as far as devolving it to a state choice while saying in a roundabout way that he likes intelligent design. So? Some pissy little physicist gets all knicker twisted about the politics of education. But the guy went "engagingly" ballistic, just like when Russell was praising George Galloway, of all people, for getting the better of a Republican senator. What is substance when you have style?

Intelligent design is a load of crap, in my opinion. But if schools are going to teach crap history, crap maths, crap literature and can't even teach basic literacy then what is a bit of bad science? Nothing, except for Russell of course as a convenient thing to whine about Bush/Republicans a bit more while in the USA it is yet another constitutional battle ground.

Here's a novel idea. Do away with state schools, let people send their kids to whichever school they like, some can even teach intelligent design. Those that turn out usefully educated people will thrive while those that don't won't. For free you get rid of bias from national government, so the President could worship the cockroach in the kitchen who personally birthed the universe and it wouldn't matter. Oh, but then you wouldn't get to teach all that rubbish history, literature, philosophy,... it isn't really about a love of science after all is it?


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