Some Light Reading for Saturday

Over at HuffPo, Jeff Schweitzer serves up a cri de couer against religion. He writes:

Many factors have brought us to this sad state of affairs, but we can no longer ignore the 600 pound gorilla and trumpeting elephants in the room: religion is killing us. While our kids are being taught that god created gravity, children in Zaire are learning about Newton and Einstein. As children in Lichtenstein are being taught about the warping of space-time, American kids are learning that "people who do not believe in god" are incapable of understanding gravity.

Preach it!

American religiosity has become an existential threat, undermining the foundation of our future prosperity by contaminating our educational system with superstition, fable and myth. We see this with evolution, vaccines, climate change, energy policy and a host of critical issues that should be based in science but instead are hijacked by ignorance. We are 17th in the world in science, but instead of improving our education, we continue to fight battles more appropriate to the 16th century. Let's look at a few specific and tragic examples in which religion has triumphed at the expense of our educational system and with great harm to society.

Amen, brother!

Oddly, many accept the link between autism and vaccinations with no proof, but when it comes to climate change, the demand for proof is never satisfied no matter how convincing such proof may be. Many accept the existence of ghosts with no evidence, but deny the reality of a changing climate with proof before their eyes. This differential deference to evidence is clear indicator that much of the American public lacks the tools to evaluate issues rationally. Without science, reality becomes just an option to be rejected whenever the real world gives us inconvenient truths. In this frightening environment in which fiction becomes fact, the conclusions from years of careful research, scrutinized by competing scientists and published in peer reviewed journals now carry no more weight with the public than the random thoughts of a bloated pundit. Talking heads with no training now have the same authority as highly qualified experts. So global warming is dismissed as a liberal hoax in spite of a preponderance of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Climate and weather are mistakenly thought to be the same. So with every cold snap in winter we hear, “See, it snowed - I told you climate change was a joke.”

Now we're cooking with gas!

Riveting stuff, but I'm less sure about this:

And let's be brutally honest; we can lay the death of every child who dies of this preventable disease directly at the feet of all the parents who chose not to vaccinate their children. Unlike most diseases that require only 85% vaccination to create herd immunity, Whooping Cough, and measles, requires 94% immunization to protect the public. Ignorance, the willingness to dismiss hard evidence when inconvenient, or inversely the readiness to reach a conclusion in the complete absence of evidence are all symptoms of scientific illiteracy growing in the nutritive soup of religiosity.

Religion is certainly a contributing factor behind anti-vaccination hysteria, but it is hardly the only one. There's a fair amount of crunchy, New Agey, left-wingery going on too. And the libertarians sometimes chime in, outraged that the government would require the to get a shot.

Schweitzer is identified as a “Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology.” I'm assuming that was the Obama White House. If I'm right, then my opinion of Obama just went up.

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"As children in Lichtenstein are being taught ...."
Must I assume that in the USA aren't taught that the country is named Liechtenstein?

"We are 17th in the world in science"
Source? Because this surprises me. The USA still have some of the best educational institutes in the world.

He was V.P. Albert Gore's science & technology advisor. He was never employed by the current White House staff.

By Explicit Atheist (not verified) on 07 Dec 2013 #permalink

MNb: It's like the man who drowned wading across a river with an average depth of 1 foot :). The US is a big, diverse place. The average is not all that high, but the dispersion is large.

MNb: The Unites States is still home to many top-notch post-secondary educational institutes, so the kids who get to attend one of those institutes do quite well. But before they go there they have to get through secondary school, where the quality of education depends quite strongly on your street address. Some are fortunate to live in school districts with low poverty rates that are not in areas where religious maniacs are politically dominant. Those kids still do well, although not as well as they should, because the religious nuts still affect what goes in the textbooks. But many states (particularly in the South and the Great Plains) have been taken over by religious nuts, and many rural and core urban (in most of the US, unlike most other countries, well-off people live in suburbs and poor people live in the urban cores) school districts lack the resources to do the job right. So although many American kids do well at science, many more do not.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 07 Dec 2013 #permalink

I'm skeptical of the author's claim that religion is the source of these anti-science attitudes. Certainly I can see the argument that certain strains of Evangelical Protestant Christianity are a major driver of anti-evolution/creationism, and that those sects and Catholicism are a major force behind efforts to curb access and research into reproductive healthcare.

But I'm not so sure that religion plays much of a role in climate change denialism or in anti-vax hysteria. One could even point to the anti-GMO pseudoscience that has become the basis for the EU's agricultural policies as an example of how a far less religious polity can still be scientifically illiterate.

Ultimately the author sets up a false dichotomy between science and religion. The scientific method and empirical research is clearly the most effective means that humans have developed for learning about the world around us. But the scientific method itself was developed in large part due to the recognition that humans are not very good at making empirical judgements, ignoring biases and other confounding factors, or correctly applying logical principles. We are very very good at fooling ourselves, which is why rational empiricism and peer review and statistical analysis and all those other things are necessary.

So I don't think that religion is to blame. Certainly there have been people like Maimonides and Mendel who were capable of both theological studies and scientific observation. The problem is that humans, in general, are not very good at proper scientific reasoning, at least not without very good education and training.

"The scientific method and empirical research is clearly the most effective means"
Which means this: as soon as a claim founded on religion contradicts science than religion loses. That happens very, very often. The only way for religion to escape this is using NOMA and building a belief system that's untestable. An example is pastafarianism. This means though that theists have to give up claims they are very fond of. I'm not only thinking of fundies, but also of philosophers of religion like Plantinga and Craig (who don't like evolution) and Feser (who can't accept the shortcomings of causality).
In all these case their particular religious ideas are very much to blame indeed.

In my experience many folks who deny the science of climate change do so out of a belief that God would never allow the planet to deteriorate under their feet. If their idea is based on such a sacred belief, it is impossible to convince them with scientific facts.

Regarding evolution the deniers are almost 90% bible believers.

On the other hand, most anti-vaccinationists and folks who are anti-GMO are of a different ilk. They can be progressive in most areas, not bible fundamentalists, but still be science ignorant regarding vaccines and GMO crops.

By Jerry Hodge (not verified) on 09 Dec 2013 #permalink