Planet Earth

Blaming the Scientists for Anti-Science Sentiments

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJan 23, 2006 11:27 PM


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The latest attempt to create sparks over science and religion came on Sunday in the New York Times book review. There, Judith Shulevitz wrote a subtle but ultimately very troubling piece that largely points the finger at scientists themselves for spurring on the evolution conflict. John Rennie goes to town on the article here, and he does a more extensive job than I plan on doing. Still, I was bothered by certain aspects of Shulevitz's article, and I'd like to explain further why. If I had to guess, I'd say that Shulevitz is writing in what I like to call "counterintuitive mode." This is where journalists, who are trying to find something novel or clever or surprising to say, try to turn conventional wisdom on its head, or to attack their own presumed allies. Essentially, it's what the sophists in ancient Athens were so good at (and, often, so disliked for).

In this case, Shulevitz's counterintuitivity prompts her to charge scientists with fanning the anti-evolutionist flames through their ignorance of what kind of beast it is that they're actually dealing with:

Could something as trivial as scientists' lack of self-awareness help explain why, nearly 150 years after Darwin, creationism in its various forms has become the most popular critique of science? Well, consider how scientists tend to respond to the attack on evolution. Rather than trying to understand creationism as a culturally meaningful phenomenon - as, say, a peculiarly American objection to the way elites talk about evolution - they generally approach it as a set of ludicrous claims easily dismantled by science.

Creationism is a set of ludicrous claims easily dismantled by science, and scientists are uniquely equipped to perform said dismantling. Creationism is also a uniquely American social movement, and historians like Edward Larson and Ronald Numbers have done a great job of explaining where it comes from. It's a nice division of labor, no? The scientists are well equipped to debunk the scientific claims (and do so), the historians and sociologists and political scientists are well equipped to explain the social and religious movement (and do so). What exactly is wrong with this?

More generally, the notion that scientists ought to be blamed for not being adequately philosophical--rather than that creationists ought to be blamed for prosecuting a decades-long war on American scientific education--is ridiculous. Sillier still is the notion that if scientists were better sociologists and more self-reflective, creationists would go away. Granted, and as I'll discuss, Shulevitz is right that there are some tactical shortcomings on the scientist side, but let's not forget which side we're on. The creationists are the bad guys here.

In any case, all of this might be forgiveable. But Shulevitz then proceeds to criticize scientists even further, and, I think, even more unfairly. Scientists are smuggling a religio-philosophical agenda, she contends, known as "evolutionism." Think of it as evolution-plus-atheism. Drawing upon Michael Ruse, Shulevitz writes:

In other words, evolutionism - the conviction that evolution explains life's meaning and tells us how to deal with the future - remains as powerful a cultural force as ever. But what should we do about it? Ruse calls for "a more informed and self-aware approach to the issues," a suggestion that's commendable but won't do much to tone down those people convinced that evolution has large social and theological (or anti-theological) implications. Besides, those people may well be right. I'd suggest something else: Teach evolution in biology class and evolutionism in religion class, along with creationism, deism and all the other cosmologies that float unexamined through our lives. Religion class is just the place for a fight about religion.

Teaching something called "evolutionism" in religion class is a woefully bad idea, and one that's sure to backfire. Atheism and agnosticism ought to be taught in religion class--definitely. But "evolutionism" seems to yoke together atheism with evolution, which isn't defensible at all (though the conjunction certainly would please the anti-evolutionists).

Sure, many atheists are evolutionists, and vice-versa. But--and we've been through this before--there is nothing inherent to the theory of evolution that necessarily entails atheism. Some Christians are evolutionists too. So are some Muslims, Buddhists, and so on.

Evolution isn't inherently a religious doctrine. It's a widely accepted scientific theory that explains a vast array of observations, and that is accordingly accepted by people of many varying faiths, as well as by many of no faith at all. So evolution certainly shouldn't be yoked to any particular faith doctrine (or anti-faith doctrine) in the context of a religion class. That's would simply heighten our science-religion tensions even further.

If there's a kernel of truth to Shulevitz's piece, it lies in the fact that scientists have not always been the best strategists when it comes to defending evolution. First, too many have ignored the battle as if it would somehow go away, rather than fighting back or trying to explain what they know to the public. That's been a tragic miscalculation. Second, too many scientists themselves confuse "evolutionism" with evolution--promoting atheism and evolution at the same time. This lends credence to the incorrect notion that the two are necessarily linked--they're not--and lends ammunition to the creationists at the same time.

But this doesn't mean that scientists are themselves the source of the conflict, or that science itself is peddling atheism to the public disguised as evolution. At worst, scientists are politically naive, lacking in strategy, far too disengaged, and gulity of taking actions that backfire. But they're not the bad guys here. Let's keep a sense of perspective, huh?

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