A crisis for popular science
August 22, 2013 6 Comments
Tania Lombrozo, cognitive scientist and regular contributor to NPR’s 13.7 science blog, recently asked a thought provoking question: “Is There Existential Meaning Beyond Religion?” It turns out her post asks readers to click through and comment on another article of her’s in the Boston Review, which the editors captioned, “Can Science Deliver the Benefits of Religion?” The way this discourse is set up seems to be a prime example of the serious, self-inflicted challenge that contemporary science popularizers and educators face.
Dr. Lombrozo’s piece in the Review is perfectly intelligble but structurally incoherent. In the first half, she presents various explanations as to why 43 percent of Americans surveyed reject human evolution in favor of a “creationist” account. Then, in the second half, she examines whether affirmations of faith in science can be as psychologically beneficial as affirmations of religious faith. The two tasks the author undertakes aren’t necessarily related. From a literary stand point, we have to ask, what is meaning of the piece as a unified whole?
If we to try identify the intent behind the first half of Lombrozo’s piece, we could choose to consider it as a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism. Alternately, it is simply an account from her own experience as a scientist who explains how people arrive at explanations. Here’s how she sums her explanations in one sentence:
It may be that assorted mental dispositions and shortcomings—a preference for teleology, hyperactive agency detection, anxiety concerning death, psychological essentialism, a preference for order and control, an unhealthy fascination with human uniqueness, and the naturalistic fallacy all wed to what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”—are enough to explain people’s rejection of human evolution in favor of some form of creationism.
Taking the author’s collection of explanations as evidence for the falsity of creationism would beget one giant genetic fallacy. Offering six, seven, or a million explanations for how someone came to hold a belief does not falsify the belief itself. Further, with a little tweaking, these same explanations could be applied to the explainer! I am not defending the type of creationist belief Lombrozo wants to explain away. Rather, I’m asking what those explanations have to do with the latter part of her article, which explores where existential satisfaction comes from.
In the privately published Boston Review, which caters to a specific political leaning and cultural outlook, it would make sense for Lombrozo to attribute mental shortcomings to those she disagrees with. But Lombrozo has shared her musings on 13.7, a blog hosted by publicly sponsored NPR. Why would she submit what amounts to a naturalistic pep rally, or a scientistic preaching to the choir, to this broader forum?
If the contributors at 13.7 are civic-minded proponents who advocate greater public understanding and acceptance of science–as at least one of them seems to be–they would do better not to assume their readers share their metaphysical prejudices. As a thoughtful Christian and curious human being, I peruse 13.7 to see how the scientific community engages robust concepts and challenges from the humanities, philosophy, and culture. In the many posts I’ve read now, I find the writers ardent in their defense of scientific integrity, but fairly sloppy or else standoffish as they steer around any logically plausible indicators of supernatural reality. The dead zone where Lombrozo and her colleagues fear to tread inclines me to believe that these freethinkers operate a sort of faith-based church for mystical naturalists.
If a cohort of elite academics is going to muse on “Cosmos and Culture,” wouldn’t we all be better served by more frequent and deeper interactions with rational, if non-naturalistic epistemologies and bodies of knowledge? I know of a couple good places (here and here) where they could start.