Thus Spake Zuska

Can We Talk About Science? I Mean, Really?

You should never, ever criticize something a New Atheist says about science and religion. Never tell them maybe it’s not the best idea in the world to just go on about science/evolution + religion in whatever way, at whatever time, in whatever manner, for whatever reasons. In fact, you cannot criticize the speech of New Atheists even if your goal is not to tell them to shut up, but to suggest that they might get their message across better and more effectively if they tried delivering it in a different manner than the one they’ve been using, because suggestions like that are CENSORSHIP and it is telling them to SHUT UP and that is WRONG and MEAN.

If you have no idea what I am talking about just Google any of the following in combination: Mooney, Kirshenbaum, PZ Myers, Unscientific America. Be warned, it is not for the faint of heart.

On the other hand, if you are not a New Atheist, and you want to speak about Science and Religion, you might want to choose your words pretty carefully. People might question why in the world you have been allowed to blog on ScienceBlogs. They might question your scientific credentials. They might call you a word-twisting intellectually dishonest buffoon. They will offer nuanced critiques of your writing such as: pathetically wrong and mind-numbingly boring.

I am amused at the outrage caused by one of my newest Sciblings, David Sloan Wilson, who writes the blog Evolution for Everyone. The dude’s not shy – he launched himself at Scienceblogs with a post on Science as a Religion that Worships Truth as its God. What’s behind all the sputtering anger? I mean, this dude is not the first person ever to posit such notions. Why are everybody’s knickers in such a knot? C’mon, you can’t pretend that idea isn’t out there and doesn’t have some serious resonance. And I’m talking about more than “high school debate team” level, as one of his commenters complained. Let’s review.

Here’s the kernel of Wilson’s post:

In short, the truth is regarded as sacred within science, more than within public life, with all the obedience commanded by the word sacred in religious life. Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.

Here are some insights that emerge from viewing science as a religion that worships truth as its god. First, being a scientist is not natural. We evolved to adopt beliefs when they are useful, not when then they are true, so being a scientist requires resisting temptation, just as religious believers must resist temptation to achieve the ideals of their faiths. Second, the ideals of science can only be achieved by an entire cultural system. Simply exhorting people to respect the truth is not good enough, just as exhorting people to do unto others isn’t good enough. Third, science as practiced often falls short of the goals of science as idealized, just as religions as practiced fall short of the goals of religions as idealized.

I really fail to see what is so fantastically radical about any of that. It is a freaking metaphorical analysis of science as a system. Are we not allowed to think about, talk about, science as science? Are we not allowed to analyze what it is we do in those laboratories all week long as a cultural practice? Are we not allowed to compare and contrast cultural systems? Well, boo hoo, too bad, that’s how I make my living as a feminist scientist/engineer blogger.

Wilson wasn’t saying science IS a religion in the sense that there’s no real underlying objective reality, everything’s all taken on faith, and we all get together and worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster at Friday seminar. But Jesus Christ, I was a grad student once, and I’ll be damned if there weren’t aspects of that experience that weren’t more than a little bit like being indoctrinated into some sort of crazy cult worship. There was a brilliant Chronicle piece some years ago by Thomas Benton analyzing the correspondence between grad school and religious cults. He was speaking about humanities students but, as I recall, it was all the rage with science and engineering students as well. Read it and see if you don’t find it chillingly applicable. My point is: what we do at the lab bench is Science. What we do socially, to each other, when we are not at the lab bench (and sometimes even when we are) can sometimes take on characteristics that very much feel like Science as a Form of Religion.

A thousand years ago, when I was a graduate student, we often used to grumble and joke amongst ourselves about the “sacred priesthood of science”. How you basically had to give up your whole life (including sex, because when did you have time for that?), and take a vow of poverty, to pursue your work. How you had to demonstrate your undying devotion to Science above all other things. And, of course, for us women, the sacred priesthood joke had special resonance, because damn, there were just so doggone many priests running the show and precious few priestesses to be found anywhere in the temples.

Imagine my surprise and amusement, some years later, to discover that our long-running joke had real roots in the way that Western science itself grew out of the ascetic tradition of the medieval Latin church – see: David Noble, A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science. There I was in grad school, joking about being inducted into the sacred priesthood of science – and here came David Noble to explain how Western science was shaped by and formed on a monastic model, designed in part specifically to exclude women.

Noble goes beyond this thesis of science as a religious calling in The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention.

For social historian Noble…Western culture’s persistent enchantment with technology finds its roots in religious imagination. Despite their varied guises and pursuits, science and technology suggest nothing more than our “enduring, other-worldly quest for transcendence and salvation.” The pearl of great value is Noble’s contention that science and technology aren’t guilty of amorality: that was never the intent. Rather, he claims, new technologies aren’t about meeting human need; they transcend it. Salvation through technology “has become the unspoken orthodoxy.” Such is the new Gnosticism. This is a dense, fascinating study of technology and Christianity. Not satisfied with easy equivalencies, Noble challenges the idea of post-Enlightenment science as a secular brave new world and quietly offers that what we’re really hoping for is our reentry into Eden.

Noble is hardly the first historian of science to delve into the ways in which science functions as a religion (though no in the way those crazy Intelligent Designers like to think). But I particularly love what he does in exploring how the ways in which Western science’s birth in the monastic tradition has had long-lasting effects for women’s participation in science.

There are many reasonable, sound, scholarly bases for examining the idea of how science might function as a religion functions, or how it might work to meet needs and fill roles that are in other cases met and filled by what we more normally think of as religions. It might seem scary to ask those sorts of questions in a time where people who have decidedly, virulently anti-science agendas (and deep pockets to help carry them out) wish to put forth their own poisonous notion that science is just another religion so that they can pour their religion into science classrooms and control the agenda of science. But I’d like to think that at least amongst scientists, we can have a conversation about science as science, as cultural practice, as an institution. That we can step back and critically examine what it is we do day in and day out.

If you think the concept of science as a religion is just sooooooo unbearably stupid, high school debate, not-worthy of ScienceBlogs, it may not be the concept that’s ignorant. Just possibly, there’s a whole wealth of information out there to ponder that you are completely unaware of.

Comments

  1. #1 Evil Monkey
    November 6, 2009

    It’s like saying that people can’t be Jewish and atheist at the same time!!!!

    Oh wait, most Jews I know openly follow the religion for social reasons only. Nevermind.

  2. #2 Oran Kelley
    November 6, 2009

    An interesting post. Thanks.

  3. #3 DrugMonkey
    November 6, 2009

    Yes. This. Exactly …

  4. #4 becca
    November 6, 2009

    “Wilson wasn’t saying science IS a religion in the sense that there’s no real underlying objective reality, everything’s all taken on faith, and we all get together and worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster at Friday seminar.”
    And that’s the problem, as I see it.
    If you want to tear down science as only an approximation of Ultimate Reality ™, you have to make a persuasive case as to why science is a better metaphysical system than religion. I feel like Wilson just expects his audience to take your word for it that science is better. Of course, in my estimation, it is. But that doesn’t mean he’s could convince anyone.
    But then, I’m probably chained away in a cave anyway. *makes FSM shadow puppets on the cave wall*
    Personally, I think science can best claim superiority on practical grounds, and even then not as much as I’d like.

    Asides:
    “But Jesus Christ, I was a grad student once, and I’ll be damned if there weren’t aspects of that experience that weren’t more than a little bit like being indoctrinated into some sort of crazy cult worship.”
    LMAO. Yes. Oh yes.

    “Western science was shaped by and formed on a monastic model, designed in part specifically to exclude women. “
    Screw Mendel and the peapods he rode in on.

  5. #5 multipath
    November 6, 2009

    You’ve got a somewhat interesting post marred by an irrelevant and even hypocritical title. This will probably bring some traffic your way, though.

  6. #6 Dr. Free-Ride
    November 6, 2009

    I’m probably chained away in a cave anyway. *makes FSM shadow puppets on the cave wall*

    I hereby request a transfer from the cave I currently inhabit to the one Becca is in. It sounds like they have better wall-shadows.

  7. #7 EMJ
    November 6, 2009

    I too was irritated with the New Atheist assault on Unscientific America, especially since there were so many other legitimate critiques to be made (some of which I pointed out). However, I think there are very real differences of opinion on how best to have this debate between science and religion (only some of whom in the latter category feel a debate even exists). Reason and accommodation has been attempted for two decades. The creationist rejection of science only continued. Many now feel that a more robust critique is the best strategy. It at least hasn’t yet been tried.

    Personally, I think utilizing both the accommodationist and robust approach is the best strategy. I think this could work in a similar way to how Martin Luther King was viewed as a more appealing choice by white racists than was Malcolm X or Bobby Seale. But without the robust critique from the latter, the accommodationist approach would never have been effective.

    But I think you mischaracterize what irritated some people about Wilson’s metaphor. I’m a huge fan of Wilson’s work and wrote about his blog before he moved from the Huffington Post. I continue to be a huge fan of his now. However, what Henry Gee and I were irritated about (and neither of us adopt the label “New Atheist”) was his view that there was a single Truth out there for scientists to find and that this is what science is all about. The very process of science is to quantify doubt. By reducing error we’re better able to understand how the universe may work. But any such findings are provisional and can be replaced by subsequent research. However, considering that he dropped his metaphor with his subsequent post it either wasn’t that important to him or he saw that it was problematic.

  8. #8 PalMD
    November 6, 2009

    Brilliant. Just brilliant.

    Oh, and multipath…wtf?

  9. #9 idlemind
    November 6, 2009

    How is the title irrelevant or hypocritical, multipath? Why can’t we can’t talk about capital-S “Science” as a belief system? As a set of traditions?

    The attitude toward this sort of discussion is often extraordinarily dismissive, which leaves a strong sense of defensiveness. What, pray tell, are you afraid to discuss?

  10. #10 amajal
    November 6, 2009

    THANK YOU.

  11. #11 becca
    November 6, 2009

    Dr. Freeride- I would be honored to have you stay in my cave. But ’tis not for the faint of heart, it’s really…quite…odd?

    multipath… multipath… hey, you aren’t the phorumer multipath, are you?

  12. #12 inverse_agonist
    November 6, 2009

    The problems with this metaphor are that (1) it’s wrong and (2) it muddles the public discourse about science and religion by adopting religious people’s deliberately misleading rhetoric.

    Yes, aspects of science are unnatural, scientific practice requires cultural institutions, and science can fall short of its own ideals. It’s also true that these are features of religion. The problem is that these same features are shared by the legal system and professional figure skating, among other things. These features are in no way unique to religion. Comparing science to figure skating in this way isn’t very interesting, and neither is comparing it to religion in this way.

    What this comparison DOES do is promote a false equivalence between science and religion. The subtext is that a person can choose to be a Jew, a Christian, or a Scientist, and that these are equivalent choices, “alternaive ways of knowing.” Therefore evolutionary biologists and whoever leads the evangelicals these days have equal credibility when talking about, say, what was going on in the world 6000 years ago. Talking this way elevates religion to a position it doesn’t deserve, much like covering “both sides” of the global warming debate gives the deniers too much credit.

    I can see how conflating science and religion makes people feel like Jacques Derrida, deconstructing binary oppositions and resisting the hegemony and whatnot. However, even a “New Atheist” like Dennett isn’t opposed to asking questions like “what are religious feelings and why do we have them?” There’s nothing wrong with studying a psychological need and how it’s met. There IS something wrong with sloppily giving ammunition to the people fighting night and day to keep our children ignorant.

  13. #13 DrugMonkey
    November 6, 2009

    And who is handing over the ammo invie? Are you sure it isn’t those NA fanatics?

  14. #14 kevin gallagher
    November 6, 2009

    are you fucking kidding me?! You sound like a religious apologist that’s naming a few decent scientists to try and profligate the idea that BEING a religious apologist should gain some kind of merit. Your dressing up religion in some bullshit that is beyond me. Frankly i don’t care if you want to talk shit, but when your trying to bring scientists and bloggers such as pz myers, dawkins ets etc into disrepute i find it fucking well insulting. I was linked to this post via facebook, you call this science? I call it apologetic bullshit.

  15. #15 EMJ
    November 6, 2009

    @DrugMonkey: This religious attack on science has been going on far longer than the so-called New Atheists have been around and you know that. The confrontational approach adopted by Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens was in response to the high level of influence that creationists had attained. Mooney and Kirshenbaum highlighted this when quoting Carl Sagan’s fear about the ever growing influence of the religious right. To say that atheists are responsible for antipathy towards science or the religious right’s motivation is to invert history and attribute a false correlation. If anything the New Atheists are distracting the religious right from going after what they would have without them present.

  16. #16 Elf
    November 6, 2009

    Beautiful post, fantastic to see some common sense in these parts.

    I think PZ Meyers/Dawkins/Christians/Muslims/whatever are all just peas on a pod, all beholden to *something*, whatever that is.

    Burn the scared cows.

  17. #17 Bob
    November 6, 2009

    “New” Atheism is merely a cultural mutation. If it does not work, it will die out, if it does work, it is a beneficial mutation, and will become the reigning type of atheism. Considering that I was turned from semi-religious/agnostic to atheist by the arguments posited by the “New” Atheists and not the accommodating atheists/agnostics, from my point of view the tactics of the ‘new’ atheists works quite well in propagating more of them, so they’ll be around for a while, methinks.

    I say wait it out. No point in spazzing and worrying about something that could easily come to naught and dissipate quite quickly.

  18. #18 Mandamus
    November 6, 2009

    You are wrong. I think this “science is JUST like a religion” thing is how people with limited experiences think of it. You see this big complicated system and instead of delving into it to try and understand it, you just examine it cursorily and compare it to the other big complex system that you are familiar with, religion. There’s so much more there that you’re missing. the structure is vastly different, the end goals are different, the support mechanisms are different. The only real thing the two systems have in common is that they are big.

    This whole “science is a religion” thing makes me think of all those religions that “the church” co-opted and took over through the years, and the methods they used. First, make them look like you. change something here, tweak something there, and voila, their adherents are now your adherents, and now they’re trying it with science. and they’ve got you. Hook, line, and sinker.

  19. #19 EMJ
    November 6, 2009

    @Mandamus: I’d be careful about claiming that Zuska has “limited experience” if I were you.

  20. #20 G.D.
    November 7, 2009

    You’re running an argument from analogy here, but the few scattered common features between science and religion doesn’t that are mentioned hear are far from sufficient to carry that analogy. To point out one obvious thing: the fact that communities of scientists sometimes behave as a priesthood doesn’t make it the case that science is like a religion – it just makes it the case that practicers of science are (at least sometimes) like practicers of religion. I think most, if not all, of your points seem to point in that direction. The differences between science and scientific method (the falsification ideal, the hypothetico-deductive method, honing of the tools to overcome confirmation bias etc) is far away from religious dogma. Your points about discrimination, for instance, seems to concern the practice of scientists, not the practice of science. And I think it is actually a little dangerous to gloss the two (although I realize that it is often done in public debates, especially by creationists).

    Furthermore, I’ve always been curious about what identifies the “New Atheists”. Reading some history there seems to be nothing, apart from new arguments, distinguishing atheists (like myself) from atheists 60 years ago (reading Russell, for instance). It looks to me like the elements of a strawman here.

    To finish up with a point of irritation: your first paragraph is pretty thoroughly unfair to Myers and other critics of Mooney and Kirshenbaum, and the links you support to back it up are pretty selective. You don’t substantiate your criticisms any further either. If you are right about the level of the debate, then you are sure as hell not raising it to a more sophisticated level with that one.

  21. #21 Zuska
    November 7, 2009

    Kevin Gallagher: How, exactly, does one “profligate” an idea? Inquiring minds want to know!

    Can we agree that there are (at least) two different things possibly being discussed here in the comments? One is the science vs. religion debate (and the ongoing debate over what is the proper, or should I say, most effective, way for for scientists to engage in that debate). The other is the idea Wilson put forth that the practice of science can be understood and analyzed, in part, metaphorically speaking, as a religion. This idea is NOT the same thing as what the IDers mean or claim when they say “science is just another religion”, to borrow Mandamus’s knickers-in-a-knot phrasing. By the way, Mandamus, I have to wonder what you read before typing your comment and hitting “post”. Really, the ONLY thing science and religion have in common is that they are big? Do they even have that in common? What does it mean to say religion is “big”, when most people experience it in their daily lives as members of local churches and congregations, and there are numerous types of religion, denominations, and factions? What does it mean to say science is big, when there are numerous branches of science, and it’s practiced differently in government labs, industry, and academia, the latter of which also varies greatly by institutional type and location…oh darn it, I’m starting to draw parallels. I’d better stop. Heh. Just messin’ with you, d00d. But seriously. Did you read the post? You know, the whole “Western science came from the monastic tradition and this has implications for women’s participation” bit? No? Weren’t paying attention for that part ’cause it just didn’t interest you? Thought so.

    For the easily confused, I’d like to remind readers that the “just” in “science is just like a religion” was inserted by Mandamus. Readers with better reading comprehension skills will have noted that my blog post does not make this assertion, dealing as it does with a slightly more complex issue that seems to have evaded Mandamus’s grasp for the time being.

    You may return to your comment skirmishing now.

  22. #22 Zuska
    November 7, 2009

    G.D.: it appears to me you may have skipped over this bit of my post:

    My point is: what we do at the lab bench is Science. What we do socially, to each other, when we are not at the lab bench (and sometimes even when we are) can sometimes take on characteristics that very much feel like Science as a Form of Religion.

    Regarding the issues of “pretty selective” links to “back up” what I said about Mooney, Kirshenbaum, Myers, and UA, your accusation is way off base. I did not bother to supply any links at all, instead encouraging the interested reader to Google their own way through the whole sordid mess. If you really feel I am doing it wrong, there are always other options.

  23. #23 yogi-one
    November 7, 2009

    The analogy is of limited use, except perhaps in a wider antropological exploration of what features you might find common in all of western (or even human) social organizations.

    The features of having high-level ‘experts’ be viewed as leaders in the profession may be a feature of lots of social organizations, from corporations to churches, even the military, but these tendencies are likely the product of human social evolution, strategies to accomodate human social needs, not anything that is caused by science or religion per se.

    You make some nice arguments, but that seems to me because you are good at making arguments due to your training, and not because the premise is correct.

    Actually, I think your arguments, particularly the ones about women in science, are apt if the point being made was that western society tends to treat any socially important institution in certain characteristic ways. The arguments certainly support that contention.

    But I don’t think they say a lot about science itself, or don’t give much firepower to the comparison of science and religion.

    I think a better point to make would be that human social needs and human nature itself can dilute the pursuit of science just as it compromises politics, economics, and other disciplines.

    Then you could draw out how all the disciplines are affected by humans trying to fulfill social needs inside the institutions that have been created around the various professions.

    So it seems to me you have valid arguments that are being compromised because the original contention they are supposed to support is not very deep.

  24. #24 Bob
    November 7, 2009

    Also, considering the general disdain PZ has for Mooney and Kirsehbaum, and vice versa, I highly doubt blanketing them under one label is all that wise. granted, this is true of many things, but generalizations are not good bases for arguments.

  25. #25 Mandamus
    November 7, 2009

    “Western science came from the monastic tradition and this has implications for women’s participation”

    I did read that bit, and quite frankly that added to my opinion of you in a less than favorable way. Western science most certainly did not come from monastic tradition. If anything it came in spite of it. Monastic “tradition” is what kept things static for 700 years through the dark ages. Monastic tradition tells you to spend your spare time in prayer instead of in introspective or analytical thought.
    Introspective or analytical thought being necessary for the advancement of science and technology. Analytical thought is what created the plowshare and doubled the crop yields in the hard earth of northern europe. Analytical thought brought about the advancements in mathematics and geometry that led to ballistics. Analytical thought led to the discovery of single celled organisms and the creation of vaccines. Analytical thought helps us advance. Monastic tradition tells us to stay right where we are. the two are diametrically opposed to each other. To say that one derives from the other is disingenuous at best.

    And women’s participation in science? really?
    Women have taken part in science, Marie Curie for example. It is social values that have kept women from being involved more, even today women take part less in science then do men because science does not appeal to them. Why this is has been explored. and it’s late and I can’t remember why. But I do know it has very little to do with the comparison to the priesthood that you’re trying to indicate here.

    And of course there are going to be striations in the make up of large organizations like science and religion, any large organizations will have that. Are you going to throw government or sports organizations into the mix as well?

    Then there’s the biggest difference. Each religion has one single source of authority, their “pope”, they all represent the high priest role. What he says goes. Whereas science has no single leader, even in a single discipline there are many voices. Dissension and disagreement are what drive science forward. If everyone thought the same thing then there would be no drive to discover new things.

    You are what I like to refer to as a pseudo intellectual. You spent some time thinking about something and you think you know it all. while completely missing HUGE swaths of what actually is going on. You like to draw parallels because having everything placed neatly in its own little box appeals to you. Well, spend a little more time, and read a few other sources, preferably ones that don’t link to each other, and you might get a better idea of what’s actually going on.

  26. #26 MissPrism
    November 7, 2009

    even today women take part less in science then do men because science does not appeal to them. Why this is has been explored. and it’s late and I can’t remember why.

    Ha ha ha ha! Alone, I’d take this as trollery, but nope, it seems he’s serious. Congratulations, Mandamus, you have attained what may be the pinnacle of mansplaining.
    Have you read Noble’s book to which Zuska refers? Have you read any scholarly work about gender and science at all? I’d lay money the answer’s no. Zuska, on the other hand, has been thinking and writing about the history, sociology and gender issues in science for years. It is you, O Clueless D00d, who needs to stfu and read in the corner for a while before you should join the conversation.

  27. #27 Isis the Scientist
    November 7, 2009

    And women’s participation in science? really?
    Women have taken part in science, Marie Curie for example. It is social values that have kept women from being involved more, even today women take part less in science then do men because science does not appeal to them. Why this is has been explored. and it’s late and I can’t remember why. But I do know it has very little to do with the comparison to the priesthood that you’re trying to indicate here.

    Bingo, Mandamus. Bingo.

  28. #28 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    November 7, 2009

    I had a hard time reading past your opening paragraph, Zuska, but I am glad that I did. But the reason that I nearly stopped and moved to another post is that the sarcasm in it completely misrepresents the position of Coyne and Myers, and especially wrt the way that Mooney and Kirshenbaum approached Myers and the Cracker. They gave the incident no context and led people unfamiliar to believe that he is a wild animal ripping through sacristies to get his hands on sanctified hosts so he can mock Catholics.

    Also, they are not claiming Censorship when people tell them to “play nice” with religion or shut up, they are saying that the faithiests ignore the fact that there are far larger problems in accepting science than what happens in the blogosphere, that faithests are not making a serious case that if atheists sit down and shut up that it will make a bit of difference on the acceptance and encouragement of science.

    I am not disagreeing with the remainder of the post, but the opener, man, just way off. I looked at it like this: When Mooney started working with Matthew Nisbet on Framing, and they were spreading the message that The New Atheists were “hurting the cause” by poking at religion, they had no sense of irony that it followed close on the heels of Mooney’s attack on Republicans. No one had told Chris “Hey, lay off the conservatives, We need to appease them in order to get people to accept the facts of Global Warming and evolution.” It was a highly praised book, by nearly all sectors of the liberal science blogosphere and pop-sci writing.

    Considering that Anti-Science is as turning out to be as much a function of American conservatism as it has been a function of religious objection to what they call “modernism,” we didn’t see groups like the NCSE making statements that “Many scientists are also conservative…”

    You know, if Greg Laden would stop making fun of Michelle Bachman, then maybe conservatives would accept global warming, right? But there is an especially concerted effort to “otherize” the New Atheists when it comes to framing science. It’s okay to dismiss Dawkins and Coyne as the Noise Machine, and to tell them to go “back to the lab and leaving the talking to us” and to call them nasty people because they carry over into religion the same sort of mockery that is approved in relations to politics.

    There’s too much hypocrisy there. So, they criticized Wilson’s post. They can do that, you know.

  29. #29 becca
    November 7, 2009

    “Your dressing up religion in some bullshit”
    False. We’re pointing out that the Emperor of Science has no clothes. Nobody gets to be dressed up.

    DM- “I know you are but what am I?”

    On topic- the most important conversation I ever had in my development as a scientist was on the nature of models… and how they weren’t always supposed to be recapitulations of Reality. If a model helps someone understand something, it’s useful. Analogies aren’t wrong (or right). If science as religion has no utility for you to understand science, bully for you. But the grad school as cult bit is hilARious… in that “comedy is an exact depiction of real life” sort of way.

    “The features of having high-level ‘experts’ be viewed as leaders in the profession may be a feature of lots of social organizations, from corporations to churches, even the military, but these tendencies are likely the product of human social evolution, strategies to accomodate human social needs, not anything that is caused by science or religion per se.”
    An alternate view: the features of having high-level ‘experts’ be viewed as leaders is a feature of many social organizations in male dominated cultures, and stems from men’s chronic need to establish a hierarchy and fight amongst themselves to obtain obvious status, to keep them from worrying about the size of their package.
    Historically, from a woman’s point of view, science and religion are both ‘boys only’ clubs that pretend to have the Answers to Everything that Must be Heeded. Have any of you really thought about that?
    (at Mandamus- Try to at least act like a scientist. Or at least an intelligent troll)

  30. #30 Laura
    November 7, 2009

    In fact, you cannot criticize the speech of New Atheists even if your goal is not to tell them to shut up, but to suggest that they might get their message across better and more effectively if they tried delivering it in a different manner than the one they’ve been using, because suggestions like that are CENSORSHIP and it is telling them to SHUT UP and that is WRONG and MEAN.

    I agree with the meat of your post, but this part stood out to me because it sounds a lot like the classic “You are damaging your cause by being angry” derailment. People attack feminists for their tone, and feminists rightly tell them that tone is not the issue; oppression is the issue. Atheism and feminism are different things, of course, but atheists are also a minority group, they do suffer from some forms of oppression, and they do have the right to approach atheist issues in a more radical manner, even if that alienates some people.

    Personally, I feel that there is a distinction between the tone used by feminist bloggers and some of the vitriol seen in Unscientific America-gate, but I can’t quite articulate the difference to myself. Some of it may be that, in the context of the science blogosphere, freethinkers/atheists are quite common, while women scientists and feminists are still in the minority. Just wondering if you have any thoughts on this.

  31. #31 Marcus Ranum
    November 7, 2009

    We’re pointing out that the Emperor of Science has no clothes.

    You shouldn’t use a computer to do that. Try using illuminated manuscript instead.

  32. #32 J. J. Ramsey
    November 7, 2009

    Mandamus: “Monastic tradition tells you to spend your spare time in prayer instead of in introspective or analytical thought.”

    So that’s why the monk Mendel was always praying instead of doing something useful like studying plant genetics!

    Oh, wait …

  33. #33 Janus
    November 7, 2009

    They might call you a word-twisting intellectually dishonest buffoon.

    Aww man, I finally get quoted on a science blog, and it had to be Zuska’s! How depressing.

  34. #34 J. J. Ramsey
    November 7, 2009

    Laura: “I agree with the meat of your post, but this part stood out to me because it sounds a lot like the classic ‘You are damaging your cause by being angry’ derailment.”

    One catch I see is this. Feminists generally are not in the business of demonizing men. Contrary to what Rush Limbaugh would like us to believe, feminism isn’t about man-hating or portraying men as stupid or crazy. Correcting men’s misconceptions about women? Making people aware of cultural assumptions about men and women that are so pervasive as to be invisible? Getting people not to do all the thousands of niggling things that mount up and lead to reinforcing screwed-up gender norms? Yes, feminism is about those things, and that’s hardly an exhaustive list. But conveying the message “TEH D00DS R STOOPIDUR!!!”, not so much.

    Atheist activism, though, sometimes sinks to the sorts of lows that feminists are accused of doing. Take, for example, PhysioProf’s claim that “religion indoctrinates people into a mode of magical fantasy-based thinking that deludes people into thinking that reality shit in general simply isn’t important.” Take the blog title “God Is For Suckers!” (Would that it were that simple.) Take Dawkins speaking half-truthfully of “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads” who are “immune to argument.” All too often, atheists go beyond simply arguing that religion is incorrect and move into “othering” religious people in the way that too many people “other” them, and often this is justified as playing “bad cop” or merely as being tough on religion.

  35. #35 Catharine
    November 7, 2009

    Well said, Zuska. (As usual!)

  36. #36 idlemind
    November 7, 2009

    My reading of Zuska’s original post is that it can be useful to examine science in terms of those aspects and influences it shares from religion. And even if one dismisses “monastic tradition” as being too remote to have any actual influence on science as practiced today, I think it’s useful to note some of the parallels between the two, whatever the origin. Such examination could well help push science in a more egalitarian and productive direction (which isn’t to say that it lacks any measure of these qualities).

    The same goes with some of the belief system that drives science. There are very good reasons to assume the invariance of certain physical laws, the need for falsifiability before accepting evidence, and so forth, but these are, in fact, beliefs. And I think by explaining the beliefs behind science we’re more likely to gain converts [yes, I used that word -- sue me]. You might feel that pointing out that someone’s belief in “sky fairies” and “magic crackers” are silly will somehow engender their interest in science, but I beg to differ.

    Wilson’s “truth is science’s god” may be ham-handed and naive (I mean, what religion doesn’t claim “truth” at its core?). But at least it sounds like an attempt to establish a dialog, to at least speak in common terms — which is a lot better than some of the hard-liners commenting here.

  37. #37 wjts
    November 7, 2009

    I think what I object to in Wilson’s analogy is touched on in the blurb for Noble’s book: Wilson makes a series of “easy equivalencies” that don’t seem to provide much insight into the nature of science-as-a-social-phenomenon. We can and should talk about science-as-science and about its cultural roots, but that doesn’t mean that any given metaphor is going to be a good one.

    That said, I’d like to read Noble’s book. I suspect his thesis may be overly broad (I’m curious to see how/if he considers “science’s” pre-Christian, Classical roots), but it’s an idea worth considering. Certainly when some other grad students printed up departmental sweatshirts for us, my thought was “Oh, good. A distinctive hooded garment to go with our de facto vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.”

  38. #38 Brandon
    November 8, 2009

    Zuska, you disagree with the most popular blogger. That automatically makes you wrong.

    I think that’s how logic works, right?

    I didn’t know you were an engineer. What kind of engineering do you do?

  39. #39 Chris
    November 8, 2009

    The idea that “truth” is the god of science (other religions would might say that god is “truth”) is strange, but you don’t need a god to have a religion.

  40. #40 DJ
    November 8, 2009

    At the start of your post you touch on the accomodationist/atheist drama drummed up by the admitted misrepresentation of the “Cracker” incident and the fervent response to it. I’m not sure I see the cries of censorship, wrongness or meanness with regard to accomodating fairytales or “…to suggest that they might get their message across better and more effectively if they tried delivering it in a different manner than the one they’ve been using…” (which when suggested on feminist blogs regarding dealing with d00ds draws similar explosive responses). At least not from the parties directly involved. I just can’t back you up on your take of that. I think you are mistaken.

    With regard to David Sloan Wilson’s post I think I agree with inverse_agonist here when he says “What this comparison DOES do is promote a false equivalence between science and religion.” I also echo the sentiment that analagous comparisons can be made for lots of institutions. The reality seems to me to be that even though we can relate aspects of science and religion that doesn’t mean that it is useful or helpful in resolving the problems inherent in comparing the two. And to be honest, if we just want to analyse what it is we do in the scientific community on a daily basis, I think maybe we could find a more healthy comparison than something which enables ignorance.

  41. #41 Bob Lane
    November 8, 2009

    Religion = TRUTH and FAITH

    Science = truth and faith

    The difference is all in the capital letters!

  42. #42 DJ
    November 8, 2009

    #40… that’s got to be a joke right? I sure hope so.

  43. #43 Chris
    November 8, 2009

    DJ, it goes back long before the cracker incident. When your primary method of dealing with dissent among your ranks is to compare dissenters to the people who failed to stop Hitler before it was too late, yelling “censorship” anytime someone suggests you might be going about things wrong just seems absurd.

  44. #44 DJ
    November 8, 2009

    Who are you suggesting is doing that Chris? Because I haven’t found examples when I read about the whole saga. Just a bunch of people pissed off at the misrepresentation of what “crackergate” was, and a lot more upset at the “call for civility” implied by their accommodationist stance.

    Sure, there are other ways of approaching the discussion and I’m sure the “New Atheists” (whatever that means), are well aware of them. Suggesting that they are making a mistake by objecting to a call for civility or accommodationism is pretty messed up.

    It could be that I am not understanding what Z is saying here. I may have it all wrong. Without links to direct evidence all I can do is look for myself and I see nothing wrong in what PZ and “New Atheist” minions are saying in defense of their position. Why should they be civil when the ideologues on the other side have and continue to give them no respect and the accommodationist crowd puts the blame on them?

  45. #45 Chris
    November 8, 2009

    Your focus on crackergate, silly attention-grabbing nonsense that it was, is your problrm. Crackergate was just juveniles yelling provocing juveniles.

    Do you know who Neville Chamberlain was? Do you know why that label, and the subsequent term “accomodationists,” came to be used by fundamentalist atheists to refer to non-fundamentalist atheists?

  46. #46 Katkinkate
    November 8, 2009

    Science is a religion like the earth is a living organism. (A simile of metaphors)

  47. #47 DJ
    November 8, 2009

    Ok, so I brought the reaction to crackergate up because it was relevant to the position that PZ et al took on the book mentioned in the blog post….Hello, not focusing on it at all. The subsequent paragraphs were not directly related to it. Also, yes I am familiar with the terms:
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/04/fraggin_frickin_frackin_oh_tha.php#comment-408779
    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2009/07/accommodationists_and_new_athe.php

    Anyway, who aside from random commenters on a blog a couple years ago, are you suggesting is doing that? Or are you equating the current use of “accommodationist” to calling someone a Neville Chamberlain atheist? I do not see the equivalence in meaning or implied meaning. Maybe I’m missing it.

    I sure would appreciate less baiting and more real conversation. Like maybe an honest attempt at answering my earnest inquiry.

  48. #48 daedalus4u@yahoo.com
    November 8, 2009

    People are missing the point. The problem with elements of religious-like thinking in science is not because science is like religion, it isn’t. The reason there are elements of religious-like thinking in science is because it is humans that are doing that science and all humans are prone to religious-like thinking.

    That is why we have things like peer review and why we talk to other scientists about our work, our ideas, our hypotheses and stuff. That way if one of us has a religious-type idea, someone else can catch it and tell us about it and then we can change how we are thinking. When that process breaks down and people get into pissing matches, that is when what they are doing becomes more religion-like.

    Everyone has religious-type thinking. Just like everyone has privilege. You have to be aware of your privilege and your religious-type thinking to be able to compensate for it. Some of us are more aware of religious-type thinking, just as some of us are more aware of our privilege. Being more aware of it allows us to compensate better. That makes us better scientists and better behaved human beings.

    When you treat a “scientist” as an “authority”, who makes “proclamations” based on his/her “expertise”, then you are behaving in a religion-like manner. This is true even if you are the “scientist” who thinks they are an “authority” and so makes “proclamations” based on what they think is their “expertise” and not based on facts (that would be data) and valid logic.

    All the exploitation of underlings is more religion-like than it is science-like. The attempted emulation of icons of science is more religion-like than science-like. Cutthroat competition is more religion-like than science-like. Most of the bad stuff in science is due to humans behaving in more religion-like ways than in science-like ways.

  49. #49 Kaleberg
    November 8, 2009

    I can’t argue with you that science, like organized religion, is a social enterprise. They do share a lot that way, as do many other social enterprises. If nothing else, women tend to get the short end of the stick with regards to power and resources when any men are around. On the other hand, science and religion are quite different, and they are different in important ways.

    At the crux is the nature of truth. Scientific truth is very different from religious truth, or corporate truth, or street truth, or almost any other truth. Yes, the scientific establishment’s current consensus as to the truth may not be the ultimate truth, but it is usually the best version accessible at the time. That’s why we are still doing science after all these years. If religion is about talking to gods, science is about listening to them.

    Encouraging, or even accepting without comment, the belief that science and religion have a great deal in common belittles the great difference between the two of them. A religious argument can only be resolved by an appeal to authority or an appeal to faith. A scientific argument can only be resolved by experiment and observation. That’s why that distinction is extremely important when one is a member of a minority group. Religious thought is one’s great enemy, and it is only experiment and observation that can set one free. As a feminist friend of mine often says, “Count my teeth, asshole.” (She has great teeth, and more than Aristotle gave her credit for.)

  50. #50 J. J. Ramsey
    November 9, 2009

    DJ:

    Or are you equating the current use of “accommodationist” to calling someone a Neville Chamberlain atheist? I do not see the equivalence in meaning or implied meaning.

    If you look at the quotes from Larry Moran in Orac’s post, “The Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists, revisited one (hopefully) last time,” one can see that the label “accommodationist” came to be used as a replacement for the label “Chamberlain atheist” that Orac had mocked into a well-deserved oblivion. So, yes, the meanings of “accommodationist” and “Neville Chamberlain atheist” are fairly similar.

  51. #51 DJ
    November 9, 2009

    So there is an implied equivalence. I can see that. In reality accommodationist /= Neville Chamberlain atheist. Though I can see that those classified under the latter now fit in the former.

    Either way, that is completely tangental to what I was trying to say. Which is that calling for calm/permissive/civil interaction between those two groups might benefit better by confronting people who write books into fully disclosing information, instead of asking the injured party of their skewed recollection to accommodate the accommodationists.
    Quite a run on sentence there. ugh

  52. #52 David Marjanović
    November 10, 2009

    questions like “what are religious feelings and why do we have them?”

    Or rather “why does it seem that some of us have religious feelings but others don’t?”

    At the crux is the nature of truth. Scientific truth is very different from religious truth, or corporate truth, or street truth, or almost any other truth.

    I’d go so far as to claim that science doesn’t care about ultimate truths at all.

    Suppose we discover the truth. How can we find out that what we’ve discovered is indeed the truth? By comparing it to the truth, which we don’t have?

    Science is not a search for truth, it’s a search for falsehood. It searches for everything that’s false. It makes up speculation after speculation and throws them against… averages of (preferably repeated) measurements of reality to see if they survive that.

    In order to be feasible, science does not require physical reality to be the same as ultimate truth. All it requires is that reality is reasonably consistent: that, if you drop stuff, it’ll fall down, as opposed to falling sometimes down, sometimes up, sometimes forward in spirals, sometimes not at all, and that at percentages which vary in unpredictable intervals.

    The funny thing is that even this single prerequisite need not be held on faith. It is itself a scientific hypothesis: it is testable, and it is being tested in every single observation.

    Sure, if I’m the solipsist (an unfalsifiable proposition as far as I can tell!), I could argue science is rather pointless, just another fantasy I do for my entertainment. But it would still work.

    So, “science as a religion that worships doubt as its god” is much, much better than “that worships truth as its god”, but it’s still not a good metaphor.

    Disclaimer: all this is rather idealist. I’m not talking here about science as an enterprise, the culture of science, the percentage of female full professors at Austria’s universities that has recently doubled from 7 to 14, the existence of professors who believe they’re god-emperors (I know one), or the like.

    (…Though… Mandamus… who knows, maybe there is such a gender discrepancy in that science appeals to men more. After all, Asperger’s “syndrome” is… at least diagnosed more often in men, and so on and so forth. Maybe the discrepancy is 60 : 40. Maybe it’s even 70 : 30. But 86 : 14? That would rather surprise me. Especially considering the fact that the percentage of female first-semester students at Austria’s universities went from 52 to 58 during the same time.)

  53. #53 Azkyroth
    November 10, 2009

    Zuska, what you’re attacking here is a reckless misrepresentation of PZ’s stance and statements and you’re smart enough to know it.

    Don’t you care about ANYTHING other than “scoring points?”

  54. #54 Zuska
    November 12, 2009

    No, no, nothing but scoring points. I think I have ELEVENTY!!!! now. yay!

    Oh, you sweet little Pharyngulites. I realize PZ is sun at the center of your solar system, but really, there are (a) more New Atheists in the world than just PZ and (b) contrary to all your poor injured airs, my post is not about PZ. Read it again and try, try, try with all your might to figure out what I am talking about.

    I understand the impulse to make everything about your beloved leader, and to treat everything someone says as if it had somehow maligned the purity of said beloved leader, thus requiring a vigorous defense – I hear some of the religious types go in for that sort of thing, too.

    So, okay, unless you think that David Noble wrote his books just for the express purpose of facilitating my misrepresenting PZ, maybe you’ll want to take another swing through the post and try, try, try to stop thinking about how much you love PZ for one minute and instead, just for a sec, try to think about what someone else is saying about science and religion.

  55. #55 bug_girl
    January 3, 2010

    It’s posts like this that make me:
    A) very happy Zuska exists and keeps writing what I’m thinking
    B) very happy that ScienceBlogs never let me in the club when I asked.

  56. #56 Zuska
    January 6, 2010

    Bug Girl, thanks for your comment, and I am sorry it got trapped in my spam filter. I have no idea why. Just liberated it today. Sorry for the long wait. I really need to check that thing more often…

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.