The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘dogma’

The Self-Correcting Nature of Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 29, 2013

Often I get asked what I think is so special about science. Many times people criticize my science-oriented worldview by saying that “science is just one view” or that “science is only ‘one way’ of knowing” and so on; it goes without saying that most often I hear this criticism of science and its methodology from those who are running counter to that methodology, usually in an effort to promote some brand of pseudoscience or similar nonsense.

Well, the purpose of this post is to point out one of the most valuable aspects of science: that particular aspect of its methodology which displays the self-correcting nature of science.

First, allow me to admit, right up front, that science isn’t necessarily about finding “Truth” with a capital “T”; as much as I and my fellow scientists support science, we must acknowledge that it, at best, offers us a kind of provisional truth. That is, the “truth” (note the lower-case “t”) that science offers us is always open to revision based upon new information, and this is – contrary to what some might think – one of its greatest strengths. And, as such, what science can do is approach, however slowly and asymptotically, a more and more accurate view of the world around us as a result.

This ability of science to be open to new information, to be capable of being revised, to be self-correcting, is precisely in opposition to the kind of dogmatism which is offered by so many other modes of thought. Too often, other modes of thought, whether they be grounded in religion or some kind of rigid ideology, start with the “Truth” (capital “T”) and work from there; I like to reference the following cartoon in order to illustrate the difference…

creationism vs science

Of course, the example of creationist pseudoscience is but one example, but I think my point is made.

Something which should be added to this discussion is the fact that, just as in any human endeavor, science is prone to making mistakes. In fact, the history of science is full of errors, failed experiments, and even outright fraud; but the self-correcting nature of modern science once again comes to bear as a great strength in these cases.

For example, it was scientists who discovered the fraud behind the cold fusion fiasco in the late 1980s, wherein a pair of researchers publicly claimed (fraudulently) that they had produced fusion in a chemical reaction on a lab bench; it was careful and persistent application of scientific methodology which pointed out the errors in the claims that “faster-than-light” neutrinos had indeed gone superluminal (it ended up, at least in part, being a mistake in the experimental design); and this process continues to this day with doubts raised (yes, by scientists) about recent claims of stem-cell cloning.

This self-correcting, self-policing nature of science to peer into its own processes, methodology, and motivation is more than admirable, in my opinion; it is vitally necessary to have a mode of thought that incorporates this kind of inquiry in our world. That is because all too often when we convince ourselves of some kind of “Truth” (note that capital “T” again), it leads to the shutting down of inquiry, doubt, and analysis so necessary to see whether or not the “Truth” is just a lie.

Give me that kind of humility over the smug, self-assuring claim to “Truth” any day.

Posted in scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Hypocrisy of the Creationist “Teach All Views” Argument

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 27, 2011

In my time tracking & critiquing the creationist movement, I have spent much time and many electrons typing articles pointing out the flaws in their various arguments.  I will continue to do so, but every now and then something seems to come along which puts it into perspective.  For example, I recently saw the following headline about a pastor who was fired from his church for not teaching “the correct” view on the afterlife…

Pastor loses job after questioning hell’s existence

Image: Rev. Chad Holtz poses for a photo in Durham, N.C. Holtz

Sara D. Davis  /  AP file — Chad Holtz was fired from his position as pastor of a church in Henderson, N.C., after posting on his Facebook page a defense of a forthcoming book by megachurch pastor Rob Bell, in which Bell challenges millions of Christians’ understanding of the afterlife.

DURHAM, N.C. — When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job.

The pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.

Two days later, Holtz was told complaints from church members prompted his dismissal from Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson.

“I think justice comes and judgment will happen, but I don’t think that means an eternity of torment,” Holtz said. “But I can understand why people in my church aren’t ready to leave that behind. It’s something I’m still grappling with myself.”

The debate over Bell’s new book “Love Wins” has quickly spread across the evangelical precincts of the Internet, in part because of an eye-catching promotional video posted on YouTube. …

So what?  What if some church decides to can their pastor because they don’t like the religious message he’s sending?  I normally might not care myself, except I’m going to guess that the reason why Mr. Holtz is now unemployed is because he was the pastor of a more traditional, conservative congregation which wasn’t receptive to his more moderate view on the afterlife.

In addition, couple this with the fact that many of the more conservative Christian churches in the United States also seem to be rather supportive of the teaching of creationism in public science classes.  How many times have we been subjected to the “teach all views” or “teach the controversy” argument espoused by creationists as they try to wedge their non-scientific, purely religious ideas into the science curriculum?

And therein lies the problem.  You see, the inherent hypocrisy of the creationist movement favored by these conservative, more fundamentalist Christian churches is laid bare when they attempt to make the “teach all views” argument.  After all, look what has happened to Mr. Holtz and those like him who try to teach a different view of heaven & hell in church: they get fired.  In another ironic example, think about how intelligent design proponent William Dembski got himself into trouble when he openly questioned his institution’s account of Noah’s Flood.  Why?  What’s wrong with “teaching all views” in church or at a religious institution?

Of course, I am being quite sarcastic, but I’m doing so to make a particular point.  I don’t honestly care one way or the other if Mr. Holtz’s church or Dembski’s religious school threatens to fire them or actually fires them.  It is the prerogative of those institutions to act in a manner in accordance with their particular religious faith.  On the questions of religious faith, the nature of heaven & hell, and the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, I am perfectly content to let the theologians in their various seminaries continually run in circles, threatening each other with eternal damnation because someone else believes something different than they do.  In fact, I’m quite amused by the show they put on in the process :)

And while the theologians like to have their (in my view) useless arguments, in the real world it is the prerogative of the scientific community to dictate what is & isn’t science by virtue of the scientific process which has steadily evolved over the last 400 years or so.  Thus, professional scientists rightly have the knowledge & power to dictate the proper and established science that should be taught in public school science classes.  They also have the know-how to point at pseudoscientific notions such as creationism and label them as not suitable for the science curriculum.

So, the next time you hear a creationist say “we should teach all views in the science classroom”, accept their argument.  But only so long as they’re willing to “teach all views” or “teach the controversy” in their church first.

Posted in creationism, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

ID-Creationist William Dembski is Almost Expelled… by Other Creationists!

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 16, 2010

If you’ve been following the evolution-creationism battles over the last few years, then you no doubt heard about the “Expelled” propaganda campaign by creationists. The entire purpose of the “Expelled” campaign, and subsequent movie which it widely advertised, was to give the impression to an unsuspecting public that scientific institutions were overly dogmatic and squashing dissent on the topic of evolution, going so far as to make loony claims of vast conspiracies and even trying to argue that Darwinian evolution was a major cause of the Holocaust!

Well, the movie failed badly, mostly because those people who were not already convinced that Evil-ution is, well, evil rightly concluded that it was a bunch of hooey.  Score one for the pro-science side :)

And, in an incredible twist of irony, here is a rather interesting fact: one of the leading thinkers in the Intelligent Design creationist movement, William Dembski, was nearly fired from his theological institution for daring to publicly disagree with them on the age of the universe and details regarding Noah’s Flood as written in the Bible!  Really folks, you can’t make this stuff up…

In the Creationist Universe, Religious Dogma Trumps Scientific Inquiry

… William Dembski, one of the main proponents of intelligent design, has recanted his scientific views in an attempt to keep his job. As philosopher Michael Ruse has said, explaining but not condoning Dembski’s actions, “here he is with a wife and kids to support and the threat of the sack.”

The issue is as clear as any could be and demonstrates the kind of litmus test that proponents of religious fundamentalism impose on their adherents — even on their stars. And make no mistake about it, William Dembski is a first order star in the intelligent design firmament. He is a prolific author who has earned both a Ph.D. in mathematics as well as a Masters of Divinity degree. He is a fellow of the Discovery Institute and a professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Indeed, you can’t read anything about intelligent design without encountering Dembski’s arguments in support of this version of creationism.

And yet, according to an article in Florida Baptist Witness, even his stellar creationist credentials were not enough to keep the inquisitors from his door. As the article describes it, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, called Dembski into his office along with “several high-ranking administrators at the seminary.”

At issue were two of Dembski’s beliefs, as expressed in his latest book The End of Christianity and elsewhere: that the earth is 4.5 billion years old and the universe 14 billion years, and that Noah’s flood was regional rather than worldwide.

Again, according to the article in Florida Baptist Witness, “At that meeting, Dembski was quick to admit that he was wrong about the flood, Patterson said.”

Patterson went on to say, “Had I had any inkling that Dr. Dembski was actually denying the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible, then that would have, of course, ended his relationship with the school.” [emphasis added]…

The blatant hypocrisy here is so thick you could cut it with a knife: the ID-creationists spent a huge amount of money & resources on their “Expelled” campaign in an effort to convince the public that the scientific institutions were being overly dogmatic & squashing free inquiry (despite the fact that some pro-ID scientists, like Dr. Michael Behe, still retain their positions at respected universities as they push their crackpot ideas).  Yet, on the other side you have the creationists (not the scientists!) actively seeking to purge their ranks of those who do not march lock-step with the “true interpretation of the Bible”.

The interesting thing here is that I think this whole fiasco proves many of these creationists just don’t get it when it comes down to how science is done.  They think that science is rigid and dogmatic, because they come from a rigid & dogmatic worldview based upon their interpretation of the Bible, and so they naturally conclude that all worldviews (including one based upon science) must also be equally rigid & dogmatic.  To them it seems to be a matter of getting on board with the “true” or “good” system of dogma, and then subsequently recognizing all over systems as “false” or “evil”.  They simply haven’t the capacity to see how fundamentally different science is in the process of how it is done and by the manner in which scientists interact with each other.

Posted in creationism, free inquiry | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal, Papal “Infallibility”, and Free Inquiry

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 31, 2010

In the last week, a storm of controversy has raged concerning the Roman Catholic Church and its ongoing sexual abuse scandal. For almost a decade this controversy has gone on, taking up space on newspaper pages here and there.  But now the whole sordid affair has taken on a new dimension with the revelation that Vatican officials, including the current Pope Benedict XVI (whom I call, with good reason, the “Rat in the Hat”), not only knew about such systemic & widespread abuse but also actively worked to cover it up.  According to a recent New York Times article…

Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys

Top Vatican officials — including the future Pope Benedict XVI — did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit.

The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal.

The documents emerge as Pope Benedict is facing other accusations that he and direct subordinates often did not alert civilian authorities or discipline priests involved in sexual abuse when he served as an archbishop in Germany and as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer.

What is almost as horrifying as these revelations of the systemic sexual abuse of children by pedophile priests and the effort on the part of Church officials to cover it up, apparently going all the way to the upper echelons of the Vatican, is the reaction from the Vatican in the last week.  Specifically, I am referring to the absolutely staggering level of cognitive dissonance being displayed by the Vatican regarding any responsibility their institution has in this scandal.

Consider, if you will, the various reactions from the Vatican as it attempts to spin its way out of this mess, outlined by this NYTimes Op-Ed…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in free inquiry, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

 
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