Science Patriotism? Enlist Me!

While I am happy to discuss and argue dissenting viewpoints in the interpretation of data or the conclusions based on concrete evidence, I usually leave the critiquing of people’s more philosophical arguments to those better suited to it. But after reading a review of the most recent book, Nonsense on Stilts, by Massimo Pigliucci, Chair of Philosophy Department at the City University of New York-Lehman College and fellow NYCS board member, I am eager to try my hand a picking apart the arguments of the author that are so full of holes you could drive a truck through them. The review in The Chronicle of Higher Education, written by Carlin Romano, was intended to critique Massimo’s hidden bias but instead merely exposed the author’s own.

First, the low down on The Chronicle. It is a periodical whose main focus is on academic life, and primarily serves as a job board for careers at universities and colleges in all fields of study. The Chronicle mostly provides content on finding a job in academia, and what to do when you have a job in academia. It is a media source written by intellectuals for intellectuals on how to be an intellectual. Which makes the arguments made by the book reviewer that much more bizarre.

So let’s start at the top of the review. Romano accuses Massimo of “science patriotism,” a term I believe he has coined and I am happy to adopt (the etiology of patriotism suggesting that love and loyalty be directed toward a geographic feature, notwithstanding).

Standing up for science excites some intellectuals the way beautiful actresses arouse Warren Beatty…

And rightfully so! Like Warren Beatty, science has an appeal and a follow-through that warrants championing. And I was ready for a rousing discussion of why science should or should not be the crest emblazoned on the flag waved by intellectuals. But it wasn’t until the third paragraph that Romano clued you in on what he felt should be championed in place of science. His complaint is that in Nonsense on Stilts, Massimo suggests:

The idea of intelligent design in biology “has made no progress since its last serious articulation by natural theologian William Paley in 1802,” and the empirical evidence for evolution is like that for “an open-and-shut murder case.”

Thus, what I thought was going to be a discussion of the role of science in intellectualism devolved into a plea for the promotion of Intellectual Design as a valid part of the scientific endeavor. Romano goes on to set up the utterly useless argument that it is statistically unlikely that “self-conscious life” could have evolved without a designing hand. Setting aside any attempt to define “self-conscious life” for the moment, does his wording suggest that he indeed accepts the notion that “non-self-conscious” life could have arisen from a primordial organic molecule soup? Then in a thinly veiled attempt to suggest that he is not merely letting his religious views impact his understanding of the natural world, he announces that the evidence that would support ID theory would be the appearance of extra-terrestrial life and a mea culpa for kick-starting life on Earth. Which we all know simply passes the buck, moves the goal post, and places the ball back in the court of the evolution vs. supernatural intervention debate. Because if the aliens made us… WHO/WHAT MADE THE STUPID ALIENS?

Just to keep me guessing he then extols the virtues of Csicop and the Skeptical Inquirer, not for their dogged debunking of “dodgy matters” but for their inquiry into the validity of such matters with unbiased and rigorous methodology. On the one hand he is criticizing scientists like Massimo for treating such ideas as Intelligent Design as below the attention of science, while on the other praising Joe Nickell’s persistence in testing each new psychic that shows up on his doorstep with testable claims. But the trick here is that when you are speaking as a scientist (Massimo) about science (the theory of evolution) it is important to focus on the questions that will ultimately lead to answers and to yield those questions that will never be answered by science methodology. He makes the classic error of thinking about evidence and falsification as a one-step process. Does Nickell try to keep an unbiased and open mind about the specific claim of the psychic he is investigating? Sure, but if asked to weigh the full body of evidence gathered in his lifetime, you can bet Nickell would be inclined to conclude that psychic ability is highly unlikely.  By the time Romano held up the Bible as a form of evidence equal to that collected and pushing forward our understanding of evolution by natural selection, I was done.

So I guess in conclusion, Hail Science!

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