Now Kleiman digs his hole a little deeper; normally, this would warrant a reply in the comments, but I’m afraid his site doesn’t allow commenting. Basically, all he has done is make an invalid analogy and make a gross error in interpreting my thinking.

Take the atomic theory of matter, for example. Most Americans no doubt “believe” that matter is made of atoms; they were told as much in school, and fortunately the Religious Right hasn’t decided to deny it as un-Biblical.

But if you ask them what an “atom” is, most of them will tell you (if they can tell you anything) that it consists of a nucleus ? a mixture of two sorts of little spheres, protons and neutrons &#8212 with still smaller spheres, electrons, whirling around that nucleus, like a miniature Solar System. That is, they’ll describe the Bohr atom, vintage about 1925.

Now that model of the atom is false. The math doesn’t work. It doesn’t agree with the experiments. No one who knows any actual physics believes in it.

On Myers’s reasoning, that would discredit the atomic theory; sure, a few egghead professors have sensible ideas about the constitution of matter, but the atomic theory as an actual belief of large numbers of people is arrant nonsense, and we should therefore describe believers in atoms as “ignorant, deluded, and foolish” (somehow “wicked” and “oppressed” don’t seem to apply), and atomic theory as a superstition imposed on the populace.

First, you might be surprised: most people wouldn’t have a clue what an electron, proton, and neutron are, or how they fit into the atom at all. But OK, let’s go with the flow — they’d be woefully out of date, at the very least.

Then, this isn’t a counterargument to my assertion that all those people are ignorant, deluded, misinformed, etc., at all. If people have a poor grasp of physics, my response would be to say they have a poor grasp of physics, and hey, maybe we ought to correct their misinterpretations. Mr Kleiman’s attitude seems to be that we ought not to challenge their misunderstandings. That doesn’t make any sense. That they are echoing a faded version of a valid theory doesn’t mean they aren’t wrong.

Where the analogy breaks down further is that in the case of religion they don’t have an echo of a valid theory at all: they have a bad version of an invalid guess. He is saying that people have a flawed knowledge of the atom, but we have empirical and theoretical support for the existence of the atom, therefore you can’t throw out the atom concept, which is perfectly correct. But what he can’t do is form a parallel construction: people have a flawed knowledge of god, but we have empirical and theoretical support for the existence of god, therefore you can’t throw out the god concept. Without that middle statement, the logic doesn’t work. I am saying precisely that belief in god is wrong because there is no empirical or theoretical support for it; there is a concatenation of myths leavened with post-hoc justifications for them, which is not the same thing.

And no, on my reasoning, you don’t discredit ideas because lots of people don’t understand them. I’m saying 1) that the bad rationalizations of the majority are no worse than the bad rationalizations of the theologians, and two falsehoods don’t make a truth, 2) that there are no bases for belief at any level, either on the popular side or that lofty hypothetical metaphorical side he touts, and 3) the problem with religion isn’t obscure abstractions invented by theologians, but that popular form of religion that actually has real world effects, shapes elections, colors prejudices, etc. If a fad of building home nuclear reactors swept the nation and people were collecting radioactive materials and storing them in their basements, then I’d also say that the popular misapprehensions about atomic physics were a pressing problem that needed immediate correction, and there’d be professional physicists damning those dangerous idiot amateurs on their blogs and in books and on TV and radio. You don’t get to argue, “Well, physicists agree that there are atoms, therefore Joe Sixpack is right that he can build his own nuclear reactors.”


  1. #1 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 19, 2007

    Speaking optimistically, a person who says that atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons “like a miniature Solar System” is less wrong than a person who says that atoms are featureless spheres, and the second person is less wrong than somebody who says that atoms don’t exist at all. The concept of atoms as featureless spheres is, in fact, a useful approximation in many circumstances. Just as we don’t have to consider the rotation of the Earth when studying the collision of billiard balls on a table, we can model atoms as featureless spheres if the conditions do not force us to consider their inner constituents. Sometimes, all you have to know is that atoms fly through empty space and bounce off one another. This is the domain of the kinetic theory of gases.

    Furthermore, when atoms do behave like something more complicated than featureless spheres, we can still often put their quantum complexity into a “black box” and make progress with a simpler model. “Ball-and-stick chemistry” is one such endeavor.

    Kleiman makes a historical mistake in addition to his conceptual ones. It was Rutherford’s model of the atom, proposed in 1911, which described the atom as a positively charged lump surrounded by orbiting electrons. The Bohr model was its successor, first proposed in 1913, and the Bohr model already incorporated non-classical notions of physics, namely the quantization of orbital angular momentum.

    In addition, the neutron was not discovered until 1932, by James Chadwick (who won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Physics for it). By this point, quantum mechanics was already established, thanks to Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Born, Jordan and others. So, Kleiman’s names and dates are all wrong.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 19, 2007

    The essay to which Glen D. links is quite interesting. Apparently, nothing written by Newton about astrology has ever been found, and out of the more than 1700 books in Newton’s library, only four were about astrology, one of which was critical of it. Also, the oft-quoted anecdote about Edmund Halley disparaging astrology and Newton replying, “I have studied the matter, you have not!” turns out to be a distortion. According to the English physicist David Brewster (1781–1868),

    … when Dr. Halley ventured to say anything disrespectful to religion, he [Newton] invariably checked him, with the remark, “I have studied these things — you have not”.

    Was Isaac Newton an early advocate of the Courtier’s Reply?

  3. #3 Brownian
    July 19, 2007

    I would like to hear Mr. Kleiman’s thoughts on the rich, ancient traditions of Hinduism and the Indus River civilisations. I wonder how his soul stirs when he views the relief sculptures of Kukulcan at Teotihuacán. I’d love to hear his musings on the wisdom of Confucius, or his experiences with Tuareg divination.

    Obviously, since he’s got so much respect for these ancient traditions, I’m sure he’s got a lot to say about what we can learn from these people.

    From now on, the next time someone accuses atheists of disdaining religious traditions, I’m going to demand to see their (presumably dog-eared) copy of Frazer’s Golden Bough.

  4. #4 Brownian
    July 19, 2007

    That was some lesson, eh Jon H? As I recall, Professor Flytrap managed to slip that one in under the two-minute wire.

  5. #5 Ichthyic
    July 20, 2007

    He’s getting better but he still does make a few ignorant assumptions about PZ’s biblical knowledge.

    funny, Mark posts his rants on a site with the strong header:

    The Reality-Based Community:
    Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

    well, i guess Mark can use his own facts so long as it props up his argument?

    maybe the clarification was too long to make into a header for the site?

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