Thursday, September 14, 2006

Scientific Moronican

If you've been a regular reader of Scientific American for more than about 15 years you will have noticed that the editorial stance has become not merely increasingly politicized over the years, but increasingly leftist in orientation. In general one can avoid this by skipping over much of the front matter, but of late this ideological orientation has been affecting the articles that get printed as well as the editorials that get written. In a general way I don't particularly care about this--why should I get my knickers in a twist about one more popular publication going the way of the Zeitgeist when there are plenty of other reliable places to get unbiased writing about science?--but in the October 2006 issue there appeared an editorial that immediately caught my eye as potentially interesting.

The editors of Scientific American often lament the influence of "non-science" on the public face of scientific research, most notably in the case of the argument over creationism and intelligent design. I confess that I can't help but agree that both creationism and intelligent design are ideas that have little, if anything, to do with science, but there's just something about the snide condescension in the editorial stance that's enough to make you think "with friends like these...." The editors point out, correctly, that these ideas are not scientific and so they have no place in science. Many of the defenders of these ideas are also not scientists (though there are some exceptions to this general rule), and the editors make it clear that it is better to be a scientist than not if one is to draw inferences about the nature of science.

Into this generally acceptable state of affairs comes an editorial called "Let There Be Light", in which the editors aver as to how they think that science and religion are separate domains that ought not to be taken as overlapping in such a way that accepting the validity of the one will exclude the possibility of the validity of the other. This took me by surprise, because some scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, and some philosophers of science, such as Robert Brandon, think that the success of science precludes the possibility of the truth of religion. So to hear the editors of Scientific American admit that the domains are independent was a salutary experience. Some such admissions can be more difficult to make than others for certain people. There was an episode of Happy Days (yes, yes, I watched it, OK? Geez, I was only 13) in which the Fonz was persuaded by Ritchie to admit to one of the other guys that he had misjudged him, but instead of saying "I was wrong", all the Fonz could force from his mouth was "I was wr...I was wr...", but that was enough, apparently, to satisfy those who knew that he couldn't go farther. The Scientific American editorial starts off with
It is practically a rite of passage that scientists who reach a certain level of eminence feel compelled to publicly announce and explain their religious beliefs.
They "feel compelled". What a sad spectacle that must be for the editors of Scientific American. But since these folks have reached "a certain level of eminence" it would be rather difficult for the editors to make too much fun of them, since they spill most of their editorial ink these days extolling the virtues of listening to the views of scientists who have reached a certain level of eminence, especially when it comes to the formation of public policy. It must irk them no end that some of these recalcitrant fellows insist on venting their religious views as well as their political views. How embarrassing for them. Or, as the editors themselves put it: "Why this enduring fascination [with God]?"

This is all very droll, but the best part comes at the end of the editorial:
...most of the debates that are commonly depicted as religion versus science are really not questions of science at all; they are disagreements among various systems of beliefs and morals [my emphasis]. The policy fight over embryonic stem cells, for example, centers on when and how one segment of a pluralistic society should curtail the behaviors of those who hold different values. Our attention should focus not on the illusory fault line between science and religion but on a political system that too often fails to engage with the real issues.
There is a certain element of desperation in this peroration. On the one hand, the editors don't like it when non-specialists, non-scientists, presume to speak with any authority in specialized subjects--don't listen to the creationist when he criticizes evolutionary theory, because creationism isn't science and the creationist isn't a scientist. On the other hand, when it comes to stepping outside the domain of science and into the domain of philosophy, the editors don't hesitate for a second to speak where they have no expertise. For them, it is an easy matter to dismiss certain objections to stem cell research as mere disputes over values rather than genuine scientific disagreements. If you happen to value fetuses in a way that the rest of us don't value them, well, you have no right to "curtail the behaviors of those [of us] who hold different values", because this is merely a matter of morals, not a matter of objective truth, which is what science deals in.

This positivist view of science, combined with the utterly intellectually bankrupt view of the distinction between science and morality, while quaint in its way, is nevertheless a good example of the sort of pathetic pontificating that one grows so tired of in certain kinds of science writers who probably hold degrees in, if anything, science writing or maybe even--gasp!--journalism. It's not all that unusual, of course, for journalists to preach in condescending ways to anyone and everyone who will listen to them--and of course there is a market for their blathering or else magazines like Scientific American would go out of business. But it is tiresome nonetheless, and I think I will continue to skip the front matter of this particular little rag.

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