Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Scientific Sciolism

Oh, look it up.

I talked about syncretism last time, and I don't think anyone can deny that at least in the West, having "science" on one's side pretty much guarantees intellectual respectability and superiority. This is why most of the global warming debate hinges on who is actually scientific, the believers or deniers, and why some people think they must have a scientific basis for accepting Genesis. Not having a scientific basis for one's views is intellectually untenable.

But together with this deification of "science" (often misunderstood and incorrectly identified) we have normal human sciolism: the tendency to think we know it all (or at least enough to pontificate) based on only a shallow acquaintance with a topic. So in the global warming debate we see people on both sides who are merely parroting arguments and putative facts they agree with but probably don't understand. I was amazed and impressed a while back when a columnist for a local newspaper admitted that he hadn't done enough research on the topic to have a worthwhile opinion--and he also claimed that such research would amount to setting aside a few years to master the topic. Reading a few blogs and newspaper articles isn't enough.

Years ago, there was a man named Immanuel Velikovsky who tried to explain various historical and legendary events (including some from the Exodus) by invoking a kind of celestial pinball game in which the earth got nailed a few times. Back in the sixties and seventies there was a noticeable Velikovskyist contingent in the Creation Science ranks, because he believed in catastrophism and was ostracized from mainline scientific circles, much like the Creation Science crowd itself.

But the interesting point is that Velikovsky was a psychiatrist, not a physicist, astronomer, biologist, or archeologist: he was pontificating well outside his field of competence, and doing so quite convincingly. An astronomer and a biologist read Worlds in Collision and came to opposite conclusions: the astronomer thought the astronomy was nonsense but the biochemistry brilliant, while the biologist laughed at the biochemistry but found the astronomy impressive.

Sciolism times three: an author who was out of his depth yet persuasive, and two men who were safe from the hoax in their respective areas of expertise but gullible elsewhere. If you've ever read Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, you get the impression that there were few pseudoscientific scams of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that did not snooker at least one of the Huxleys--a very intelligent and well-educated group. But they, too, were willing to gamble on their sometimes shallow knowledge--and sometimes they lost.

The relevant moral here involves a point I've made before concerning what I call "scientific apologetics": we read a book (or several) making a number of scientific claims we haven't the background to appraise intelligently and feel that we understand more about the topic than those who do have the requisite background.

This is why I largely ignore the putative science of Creation Science: I don't have the background required to assess it. In the same way, evolution is a sprawling concern, touching a number of different fields. I strongly doubt anyone knows enough about it to understand it and assess it, pro or con. I certainly don't. I can, however, comment on the philosophical and theological implications of Creation Science, just as I can spot an evolutionist with a scientific background going outside his field to pontificate on theology or philosophy.

Avoid sciolists lest you become one yourself.

I'll conclude this series next time with a post about how sciolism and scientism combine to corrupt popular theology.

No comments:

Powered by WebRing.