The name “Richard Gallagher” may be familiar to some readers. Gallagher is the editor of The Scientist, and last year, somewhat naively suggested that the evolution/creation “debate” was actually a good thing (you can find the text of his editorial at this site). Both PZ and Jason Rosenhouse took him to task for the editorial (and Gallagher replied, and PZ shot back). The next month, The Scientist then published a number of letters responding to the editorial, and Gallagher also wrote a reply (republished here by the Discovery Institute). Gallagher ended that piece with this quote:
Critical thinking has no place in science class? Really? That bodes incredibly poorly for the future of science teaching. We’re shelving our best weapon against intelligent design, and I find it incredibly sad that scientists who support evolution so strongly would have us shield growing young minds from the “dangers” of critical thinking.
If that’s not dogma, I don’t know what is.
…which of course doesn’t really address the arguments PZ and Jason had put forth–no one wants to “shield minds” from critical thinking at all.
So, of course it’s a bit depressing to see an editor of a life science magazine make strawman mischaracterizations of his fellow scientists who approach the issue differently (and, perhaps, have spent a bit more time in the trenches than Gallagher has). But Gallagher’s editorial in the July issue (“Zealots for Science”) makes me think that, maybe, hopefully, he’s starting to get it.
Gallagher comments on an excerpt from Lee Silver’s book, Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life, which was printed in The Scientist:
Silver focuses on the widespread concept of Mother Nature as a benevolent super-system that nurtures and shelters all life forms. He points out the dangerous mindset that secretly takes root from this seemingly harmless belief: If Mother Nature is always good – attaching “good” and “bad” notions to it at all is symptomatic of the problem – then human interference is bad. And more subtly and as misguided, anything “natural” must be good. What I come up against are the practical spinoffs of this belief, among them a devotion to all things organic, an embracing of holistic therapies, and support for rights equal to those of humans for all animals.
These ideas are invariably presented in an open, friendly, unthreatening way, and they have an immediate easygoing appeal that is lacking in the sterner, more rigid religions. There’s an invented tradition, as well, to back up every belief so new recruits gain a sense of history and place as well as of well-being.
But don’t get the impression that these budding New Agers are a soft touch. There’s a flinty core to this fluffy ball of spiritualism. While your spiritualist acquaintance is more than happy to hear about ecosystem research on the robustness of multicrop farming, mention equally well-established ideas about the advantages and safety of genetic modification and you will be met with disbelief. Describe the potential of genetically modified foods to secure the world’s food supply and you’ll be derided for being so easily fooled by corporations. The bottom line: If you buy into Mother Earth it’s to the exclusion of other possibilities, there’s no place for evidence, rationality, or skepticism. And that raises a big red flag.
Gallagher gives two examples of this “mother earth sensibility” that threaten biomedicine. First is the use of “alternative” medicines that 1) haven’t been shown to be effective, and 2) may cause patients to delay or forgo mainstream treatments, thereby worsening their condition. Second, he mentions that this type of thinking is also behind the “animal rights” movement, to “do away with animal experiments, and even animal experimenters.”
The threat to science from what Silver calls the spiritual left may already have overtaken the threat from the religious right. Life scientists are quick to jump on maneuvers by the right to replace scientific ideas with religious ideas in teaching. Reaction is well coordinated and the arguments (e.g., against intelligent design) are compelling.
Now it’s time to apply our collective energy to counter the rise in mysticism and fall of skeptical inquiry. The first step: Find out how many in your circle of acquaintances, including your students, are already operating in this mindset. As a second step you could do worse than to proffer copies of Silver’s book. Once the core weakness of the spiritual-left mindset is exposed, a more rational viewpoint might ensue.
This affects us all: We need to be zealots in hunting out this contagious and pernicious viewpoint, labeling it as such, and addressing it wherever and whenever it is encountered.
And while I agree with many of his points, I still think he’s being a bit naive and overly optimistic. In his intelligent design editorial, he urged a “level playing field” and expressed “little doubt that the open-minded students of the heart of America will see the strength of evolution as a theory.” I think he should have been more bold in that editorial, labeleing anti-evolution views also as “contagious and pernicious;” perhaps then he’d better see PZ and Jason’s points of view. In this new editorial, he doesn’t suggest any kind of level field, but I still think it will take a lot more than a book “exposing” the spiritual left mindset in order to get most of these people to change.
I’ll note here that I’ve not read Silver’s book. It may be great, it may not be. The excerpt included in The Scientist is interesting background, but being such a small sliver of the book, it doesn’t give me a lot to go on. But from dealing with some who seem to espouse this mindset here and elsewhere, I don’t know how much stock they’d put in a book written by a molecular biologist (which Silver is, at Princeton). As some of you have probably noticed, there’s a lot of “I don’t trust any scientists” type of thinking in the “spiritual left.” They claim that scientists lie to them about AIDS, vaccines, cancer treatments, and essentially all of biomedicine is flawed and faulty; that we’re somehow all working in collusion to eliminate “threats” to the income of pharmaceutical companies; that we won’t allow studies that “prove” how vitamins or herbal remedies are miracle cures to be published, and on and on. The whole mindset is distrustful of science and scientists, and are unlikely to be swayed by a book by one of “us,” no matter how good the arguments may seem.
Still, this time, I agree with a lot of his editorial. I think it’s important to address these types of things, even if they may sound totally loony to many of us with a science background; even if we get accused of all kinds of things, and insulted in 20 different new and creative ways (or, just old and boring ones) from those whose beliefs we challenge. But I don’t expect it to change a lot of minds, because many of those who hold to these “alternative” viewpoints don’t do so because it’s rational, be they on the left or right side of the political spectrum. Even in Silver’s characterization, it’s there: the “spiritual left.” Nothing rational about it. What I hope to do with some of these posts here, and what I hope others who take up Gallagher’s call will be able to do, is educate the fence-sitters; those people who may have heard in passing about how “genetically modified food is so terrible,” or how “vaccines are poison,” or that “evolution is a theory in crisis,” etc., but haven’t taken the time to investigate those claims. So many out there just don’t realize how many of our friends, our neighbors, our family, have “…a world-view rather at odds” with the findings of science. Having a discussion with them, or passing along a book or two, may not always work, but it’s a start.