Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sunday Secularism Blogging: religion, science and the limits of democracy

One of my favorite theists, Fred Clark at slacktivist, has pointed out a disturbing example of lunatic religious extremism infecting our political process.

The story so far: lunatic Christian anti-intellectual writes books (and sets up a website) arguing that the Copernican Revolution was all based on lies, and that the Earth is the unmoving center of the universe, as he apparently believes that the Bible says. I'm not sure why even the most literal reading of the Bible would require this but not require a Flat Earth (given the references to its "corners"), but apparently this is his view. He also believes, variously, that the world is run by a dark conspiracy of secular Jewish financiers and that modern biology is a hoax propagated by this conspiracy to lure the True Believers into the waiting arms of Satan.

All this so far is garden-variety psychosis, and hardly worth mentioning. The story gets more interesting, though, when one of the lunatic's arguments--that Darwinian biology is really a religious movement, and hence that its establishment in public school curricula violates the establishment clause of the Constitution--starts to get real play among Republican politicians. Fred Clark examines how this has happened and explains why we should find it troubling, and I agree with his take entirely.

I am less interested in this case for its specifics than I am in the general principles involved. Only a few actual politicians--and none higher than a State Representative--actually signed off on any of this, and I doubt it will go much further, since its inherent absurdity is so obvious. The whole thing set me to wonder, though: what would happen, and what ought we to do, if it were to go much further?

In our political system, the structure and content of public school education--as well as a sizable portion of funding for basic scientific research--is dependent on a political process. Since this process is (at least nominally) democratic, this means that people who know absolutely nothing about science have exactly as much of a say in what gets taught in science classes as actual scientists and professional educators. In principle, it's entirely possible that a mass movement of "fixed earthers" could force a catastrophic change in our educational system through mounting campaigns to get real scientists thrown out of their jobs, to defund basic research that goes against their "Biblical" principles, to install True Believers in administrative positions, etc.

To a certain extent, we've experienced this phenomenon already, even on a national scale, with the Bush Administration's manipulation of science for political ends. (Read Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science. Now!) But thus far, our scientific and educational institutions have proven to be very resilient and resistant to right-wing pressure. The pressure the Administration has put on climatologists has adversely affected national climate change policy, but, thankfully, it hasn't actually silenced the climatologists. The pressure put on reproductive health science has adversely affected the way sex ed is taught in public schools, and the FDA's policies on abortificant drugs, the HPV vaccine, etc., but hasn't actually silenced the scientists and doctors. But since our educational system is utterly dependent on democratic political processes, nothing prevents such a silencing from taking place.

My question: Is this a structural problem? Would a proper solution involve changing our political system to make science and education entirely separate (or as separate as possible) from politics? Or is this a battle that will always have to be fought in the political realm?

I am of two minds about this.

I do not think that anyone has the right to foist their psychotic and demonstrably false ideas upon the rest of us, even if those ideas are held by a majority of the population. The basic human right to a voice in politics does not encompass a right to obscure the truth through ignorance, malice or twisted ideology. We have the right to live in ignorance and darkness ourselves if we so choose, of course, but not the right to cut other people off from the light.

The trouble with this line of reasoning is that it cuts both ways. "Fixed earthers" would say, in almost the exact same words, that the dastardly Jewish Darwinists don't have the right to cut other people off from the light of (their bizarre version of) Biblical Truth. The fixed-earthers are wrong: their ideas are stupid and insane. But that is neither here nor there; whether they or the reality-based win out depends upon persuasion, not truth.

Our political system is, in this sense, truth-neutral. Whether an idea is true, as an independent variable, has absolutely nothing to do with what happens politically. The truth of an idea only contributes to its persuasiveness to the extent that people are rational. Now, I can't help but consider this a problem. Whether something is true ought to matter, and demonstrable falsehoods should never be able to beat out truths. Our political system should not be truth-neutral.

The problem with abandoning truth-neutrality is that it's unclear how it could be done without establishing some kind of tyranny, by, say, enshrining (some) scientists as infallible, which would surely be undesirable, and probably detrimental to the progress of science itself. Tyrannies of this form tend--like the semi-tyranny of Scholastic philosophers in late medieval times--to ossify intellectual practice into a set of irrational dogmas.

There is no obvious way of establishing truth as a political value and a principle of government without thereby establishing some particular person or group as the recognized Voice of Truth, which is always and everywhere dangerous. Having something recognized as true because it is spoken by the Voice of Truth is no better than having it recognized as truth because it is (merely) persuasive. We want people to recognize things as true because they're true, not for some reason external to their truth. But how can this be accomplished?

The only solution I can see is to work to make people and society more rational. (Through improving education, etc.) For now at least, unfortunately, this has to be a political fight as much as an intellectual one.


Kilgore Trout said...

"The earth is not moving" is hilarious, its even funnier when you realize the guy really means it.

I like how you laid out the problem we need the truth to matter, but we can't force people not to pay attention. Democracy is a tough system, sometimes its great but it can be a real bitch too.

"majority rule doesn't work in mental institutions"
- NOFX, the idiots are taking over

good song, great band.

There was an interesting point I saw some time ago arguing that if we want to increase understanding of evolution then we should "teach the controversy" teach ID and Evolution side by side. Let the students talk about both. That way there would be good conversations about evolution instead of a quick overview that no one pays attention to. They sited some group (college I think) that followed two teachers one only taught Evolution the other taught both. I can't recall the numbers but they showed that a large number of students gave up on ID and learned Evo in the class that taught both. I know this is an odd view point and I'm not sure how I feel about it but its an interesting point that if the right wing gets their way and get religion taught as science they could lose more young people to the ways of reason. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

ellis said...

The problem with the idea of "teaching the controversy" over ID vs. Evolution, to my mind, is that there isn't really a controversy. No serious scientists, or at least practically none, take ID seriously. We can't teach something as if there's a controversy when there really isn't one among the people who actually know what they're talking about. Should we teach in public schools that there's a controversy about whether the earth is moving because a few crazy people think it isn't? Surely not.

I think you're right that teaching the subject in this way wouldn't necessarily be all that harmful, since most people confronted with the real evidence for both sides would surely take the side of reason, but it's still a problematic approach.

(I should say that I think it's fine to "teach the controversy" in a religion class, or perhaps a social studies class. But teach evolution as controversial in a science class would be a mistake. As science, evolution simply isn't controversial.)