“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom
of it too?” —Douglas Adams
People often write heartfelt pieces about the personal history of a certain belief of theirs. Virginia Heffernan recently attempted just that on her blog, when she felt an urge to explain to the world why she happens to be a creationist.
However, the insight she shared into her intellectual shortcomings when trying to grasp science and evolution came across as an incoherent rant, riddled with bizarre reasoning gaps. Her description of scientists as “super-skeptical types who can be counted on to denigrate religion, fear climate change and think most people … are dopey sheep who believe in angels” would be almost insulting to anyone engaged in science, if it wasn’t such a blatant fallacy.
Ultimately, one person’s failing to grasp such basic tenets of rationality as hypothesis, observation and scientific method is no big deal. If they want to telegraph that to the world and be criticised for it, that’s fine too.
However, Heffernan’s column is a curious and outspoken example of a wider attitude that unfortunately rears its ugly head even in a highly educated society, and at least in part stems from terribly misguided postmodernist relativism. As Carl Zimmer summarised it: “I have my belief, and you have yours. We can all get along in our own little belief bubbles. Even when it comes to science.”
Other people have lamented this attitude, too. As James Gilbert recently wrote on The Conversation: “High profile debates over HIV, passive smoking and, latterly, climate change, have increasingly questioned the social context of science as well as the facts. They gained momentum during the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s which popularized the idea of scientific findings as socially constructed, inseparable from the people producing them.”
Time and time again, scientifically literate people have to keep reminding people with postmodernist attitudes, like Heffernan, that science is not a belief system, it is not an opinion. Science is about observations and facts. We have no better method to discover facts about the world than the self-correcting process of science. Yes, along the way scientists might make contradicting claims, but that is part and parcel of the method. And it’s still better than just-so stories.
If one reads a scientific book such as Darwin’s Origin of Species as “enchantingly arid English” literature, doesn’t understand the scientific arguments and then skips over decades of archaeological, biological, genetic and other research to claim that the Biblical story of life on Earth is just as plausible, science has not failed there. The individual and their education has.
There is one last claim emerging from Heffernan’s column that I would like to address, probably the easiest to refute, and yet so persistent. Some people, hampered by their understanding of how science works, arrive at a feeling that science is not magical, it is not moving and amusing. Now that is an attitude that I find most difficult to empathise with.
Have they never looked up at the night sky, wondering about the distant stars and galaxies, about other possible civilisations out there? I guess they can’t have ever felt that indescribable tingle of pure awe when one learns that every single atom in our world and in ourselves was once a part of some distant star in the universe. Every single atom. And what about the DNA that all known living organisms on our planet share? Isn’t that something… wonderous?
If you need to be swayed by beauty to find a scientific fact convincing, there is immense beauty in the natural world, and no shortage of stories revelling in it. I think a great place for Heffernan to start would be the new TV series Wonders of Life by Professor Brian Cox.
But I need not go on, because Carl Sagan probably said it best, as always:
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”