Sunday, November 22, 2009
It had crossed my mind to stop posting and hand over this blog to the commenters. They seem to be doing a better job than me. But perhaps I'd better straighten a few things out. Please note that at the end of this post P.Z.Myers will still be a jerk and I still won't be.
I was in the middle of writing on Friday when I noticed, as if for the first time, a habit of mine. For pace and economy I often set up a point of view without reservation or comment from me. Thus, for example, 'Hitler was right. Arnold Bonkers says....'. This seems to confuse people. Furthermore, I tend to write hybrid pieces - typically about 20 per cent column and 80 per cent news feature. The latter involves transmission of information, but not for the purpose of illustrating my own approval of disapproval of something or other. This further confuses people. On top of that, I had to shorten the Darwin piece that all this fuss was about by about 40 per cent at the last minute. It happens. This required me to tighten up my economy and pace habit even further. This definitely confuses people.
To be clear: I have no problem with the plausibility and coherence of a Darwinian explanation of the development of the eye. Indeed, to be honest, I don't care one way or another: it's not on my agenda or within my realm of competence, though I do regard myself as free to report the views of those who do find it unconvincing. On the other hand, I think Darwinism has become, in some hands, unhealthily imperious. It is presented as explaining everything. Evolutionary psychology, for example, is always said to be true because it must be. But, since we have no clear idea of how the mind supervenes on the brain, this, for the moment, is an assumption too far.
Ten years ago, had I raised questions about Darwinism I might have been amiably dismissed by Darwinians as wrong or, perhaps, a touch eccentric. Indeed, I dimly recall an episode of Friends from that period in which sweet, scatty Phoebe challenges pompous, irritating Ross on the subject of evolution. Ross, in the end, retreats and Phoebe gets on with her sweet, scatty life, convinced she has won. It was Ross that was being satirised. Our sympathies were entirely with Phoebe. Doubtless today the swivel-eyed Myers mob would be firing off bile-laden letters of protest.
The big point is that, since that episode, ideology has migrated from politics to religion and science. This is bad for religion and very bad for science.
The minor reason it's bad for science is it generates public confusion and mistrust. So, for example, mention intelligent design and the likes of Myers will be hurling abuse. But I gather from reading John Gribbin's superb exposition In Search of the Multiverse that ID is, in fact, a perfectly respectable hypothesis among some physicists - the designer would not be a deity but a more technically advanced civilisation. So the world is 'designed' then? 'No!' howls Myers; 'Maybe,' murmur the physicists
But there's a bigger reason than that. Treating science as an ideology, an occasion for polemic and abuse, and anathematising those who dissent is profoundly unscientific. It is an attitude that will, in the end, damage not just science itself but science as a public institution. Science is, as Thomas Nagel put it, a 'view from nowhere', it is a method, not a posture towards the world. It assumes - and, indeed, attains - the possibility of a superhuman perspective. As such, it is a profoundly admirable and magnificent achievement of the human intellect. But it is only one such achievement. When science aspires to be anything else - ideology, for example - it is prone to delusion, fantasy and intolerance.
That is where we now are, a dangerous place where people set up web sites that abandon mere explanation and promote science as an ideology, as, in effect, an opinion held with such ferocity that all dissent must be crushed. This phase, I hope, will pass. But I am beginning to have my doubts.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 9:20 am