Polemic: Notes On Willful Ignorance

John Scalzi went to the Creation Museum awhile ago and wrote a report that helps make it understandable to those of us who live in the real world. It begins “Imagine, if you will, a load of horseshit. And we’re not talking just your average load of horseshit; no, we’re talking colossal load of horsehit. An epic load of horseshit.” He also took a whole bunch of photos and posted them over at Flickr. At first it made me laugh, but right now I’m getting increasingly irritated.

Dinosaurs And Children In Eden

You see, the horseshit seems to be leaching into the groundwater and getting into mainstream life. It’s not just Chuck Norris endorsing bible study in schools, it’s The New York Times op-ed contributor Paul Davies totally failing to understand what science is.

He writes “All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed.” Horseshit.

I suppose he’s right that science begins with the assumption that nature is intelligible. But rational? There’s no particular reason for gravity. It’s a force. Science looks at gravity, describes how it affects apples as they fall out of trees, and makes predictions about how it will affect pears when they start dropping later in the fall. A scientist looks at the universe and sees a jumble of odds and ends interacting with each other, and tries to find the ways in which those interactions are consistent and predictable. Does a scientist ask why gravity exists? No. A scientist tries to figure out how gravity works. Why is for philosophers and priests.

When a scientist begins to say that there has to be a rationale (not merely an explanation, but a reason) behind the existence of the universe is, if you’ll pardon the repetition, horseshit. That’s not something science explains. That seems to be the problem with a lot of theoretical physicists: They bump up against the edges of the universe, poke their noses into wormholes in their areas of expertise, and end up stumbling around the philosophy department with their heads up their asses.

In Davies’ case, he’s written a column that manages to confuse scientific laws with human laws. It’s as though he thought that someone out there decided we needed gravity, got the bill through the galactic senate, and required objects with mass to be attracted to each other. Uh, no. Human laws require; scientific laws describe. You learn the difference in junior high school. The similarity is a giggle when you’re an MIT freshman with a t-shirt about how the real speed limit is a constant known as c. But to most educated adults, it’s just a quirk of language we don’t fret much over.

But Paul Davies, for some reason, either doesn’t understand or has forgotten the difference. This is a man whose facility with logic suggests that he shouldn’t have passed high-school geometry, and yet he has a Ph.D. in physics, a tenured position at the decent (if non-prestigious) Arizona State University, and a featured op-ed in the newspaper of record. I can think of very few explanations for this situation. He might, as I suggested first, have gotten lost in a wormhole and come out in the philosophy department. He might be part of a wingnut affirmative action plan that aims to make the New York times more like the Washington Times. He could also be losing his mind after years of exposure to high-energy physics experiments. Perhaps too much time staring at a particle accelerator has caused a brain tumor of some kind. Finally, someone might have stolen his identity and written the column posing as him.

In a rational world, he’d have to issue a retraction of this horseshit. But I do not expect the world to behave rationally. I’m accustomed to thinking scientifically, and I know that human behavior, while rarely predictable, is predictably irrational.

One thought on “Polemic: Notes On Willful Ignorance”

  1. Yeah, I read that piece. I was also left scratching my head to some extent. I see nothing wrong with asserting that questions of why are outside the scope of science. It looks to me that Davies has issues with Gould that are poking through between the lines. The fondness for apparent order and simplicity derives from Occam’s razor and is more heuristic than dogma. One significant point Davies neglected is that the postulates of science are bound up in epistemology. If you believe as did Plato, that the world that we perceive is all an illusion, then there’s no real point in observing it especially closely. You won’t find very many scientists taking that approach. I think most people in philosophy departments actually understand these concepts better than most scientists, few of whom ever formally study the philosophy of science.

    On an unrelated note, I think it makes some sense to teach some bits of religion (if not formal Bible study) in the context of literature. So much of literature is laden with either religious themes or scriptural references that a student who is not made aware of them is not fully able to understand the works in question. In general, this can be taught on an ad hoc basis, more or less as footnotes to various works of literature. A sufficiently broad and thorough survey of literature can easily function as a class in comparative religion.


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