Wednesday, June 24, 2015


[I posted the following review of Jerry Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible on Amazon last week. Like all my reviews, it is not a full-scale review but focuses on one issue. I will add a few comments at the end.]
There is no essential conflict between religion and science. There is certainly conflict between individuals, ideologues, on both sides. But to introduce this into the fields themselves is artificial. It serves those who want to promote their own power, but contains no truth beyond that.
Coyne has cherry picked his evidence, and worse yet, his definitions, especially of religion, to manufacture a controversy. He eliminates awe and wonder, experienced by many scientists, from his definition of religion (103) because it interferes with his ideology. Coyne knows very well there are many examples of science and religion getting along (e.g., the “science-friendly believer” on 64), but that does not suit his purpose. He picks out the most irrational features of religion (belief in miracles and a willingness to blind oneself to the evidence) and compares these to the best science has to offer. How is this fair?
It is as if Coyne were out to demonize religion—making it dangerous to both science and society (225). But it is only a certain type of fanatical religious thinking that is dangerous. Coyne might agree. What he misses is this: It is not in its character as religious that this thinking is harmful, but in its character as bad reasoning, and such reasoning (like ignoring evidence) is not limited to religion.
Here is a series of simple propositions which seem to make many people angry whenever I propose them: The enemy is not religion. The enemy is not science. The enemy is bad thinking wherever it occurs, no matter who does it. Scientists are just as capable of doing it. To deny that is to be guilty of a cover-up.
Professional science and science in the ideal are not the same thing. There is often a gap between the two. If we make out professional science to be sacrosanct, we create a situation as dangerous as what Coyne addresses. Religious officials once claimed for themselves the mantle of power. They falsely convinced people they had the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Most people don’t buy that anymore. The irony is that the mantle of power is now wrapped around scientists who claim to have the keys to the kingdom of truth. It is a terrible power to give anyone. Scientists are just human beings. Some will abuse their power. It is a human failing.
Good science demands constant vigilance. That vigilance is not on display in Coyne’s book, despite his admission that “venality, irrationality, and immorality” are universal human features (221). He portrays working science in too golden a light. Professional scientists need watching as much as anyone. Granting them power carte blanche is a bad idea.
Coyne acknowledges that science has done some bad things, but he blames this on individuals who have misused science, not on science itself (217-21). He is right. He just won’t allow the same defense to be raised when religion is abused. He has defined religion to make it inherently bad. This is typical of the stacked deck type of argument in this book: Let’s compare science at its best to religion at its worst. How is any of this fair?
The problem is not that religious belief blinds people to the evidence, as he frequently says. That is just one example of a deeper problem: Cultural values can hamper and skew looking at the evidence. This affects secularists as much as religionists. You can change your clothes, but the same human frailties lurk underneath.
Would it be fair if we judged science by its most egregious errors? Would it be fair if we rejected science just because Darwin and most of his fellow scientists took the wrong direction in their treatment of indigenous peoples? To the end of his days, Darwin insisted that most savage tribes were inferior to Europeans and, as a result, would gradually be exterminated. Humanity would rise higher, he said, when all the lower races were gone. Darwin had to violate his own basic tenets to maintain this. He had always insisted that natural selection acted slowly and locally. But indigenes were not endangered by changes in their local environment. Europeans had come from far away and the doom they were inflicting on natives was happening much too rapidly to be natural. This was closer to artificial selection, but Darwin never acknowledged this.
Only a handful of writers have recognized that Darwin naturalized or rationalized genocide (there was constant talk in his time of exterminating the natives). Most scholars are still in denial about this and refuse to look at the abundant evidence for this misuse of science. This twin belief in the inferiority of other races and their inevitable elimination was based on cultural ideology, not evidence. Many humanitarians of the day objected, but few paid heed. Shall we use this tremendous failure as indicative of science?
In 1898, Alfred Wallace, a more humane evolutionist than Darwin, bitterly lamented that science was being used to create weapons of mass destruction. Shall we condemn all of science for that? Wallace didn’t. Neither should we. Racism still occasionally rears its head in science. It has never entirely gone away. Shall we disparage science as a whole because of these problems and much more? Yet it is precisely this kind of unfair reasoning that Coyne arrogantly applies to religion. Whatever else Coyne’s book is, it is not an example of good science.
I can agree with a sentence here and there (e.g., about self-correction in science), but the overall effect of this book is to distort reality. Near the end, Coyne relates some horrific examples of what Christian Scientists have done to their children by withholding medical aid. Coyne implies this represents the essence of religious faith. I would despise anyone who argued that what Nazi doctors did represents science. For Coyne to indulge one argument while rightly condemning the latter is as double a standard as any I have ever come across.
The enemy is bad reasoning and failure to attend to the evidence. Remember that and eschew all ideological combat which serves only egos and not humanity.
That was the end of the review.
I feel the need to add a few words about how deceptive Coyne’s book is, and this is in addition to the fact that he employs a double standard to judge religion as a whole, not just religious extremism. Religious fanatics who defy and/or seek to undermine science are pretty out there. They make no bones about believing that their faith gives them knowledge superior to that of science. As such, I don’t consider them to be the greatest danger to science. Far more dangerous for any field of knowledge are the unconscious forces that subvert an honest look at the evidence. Coyne pays that no attention at all, and in failing to do this, he covers up the most serious problems of all.
Coyne pretends that when scientists make mistakes, it is the fault of this or that individual scientist, which of course is sometimes true. But the deeper problem is that cultural biases will influence scientific investigation. There are many examples of this in the history of science and they are often extremely difficult to correct. I gave one in the review. The scientific racism in the 19th century, which included Darwin and which continued well into the 20th, was not the error of just a few scientists. It was a huge cultural error. It infected mainstream science.
These scientists would have sworn up and down that their work was totally objective, when it was anything but. It is an extraordinary case of how mainstream science can sometimes be so blind. We are mostly over it now, but it still occasionally shows up in some scientist or other. It is a legacy that haunts us still.
When culture or any form of bias affects a scholarly field, it usually happens unconsciously. It is difficult to correct because no one likes facing and admitting that unconscious forces can take hold of us. Ignoring that is probably the most serious defect of Coyne’s book. He has created a false bogeyman so that the greater villains can escape undetected.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer