Thursday, 20 March 2014

An unfaithful sceptic

One of the most basic tools in science is doubt. It's also one of the most fun. You get to question everything. Be sceptical, mistrust authority, find holes in arguments, nit-pick, never let go; in other words, be a dick. This of course can upset people with deeply held beliefs, especially religious ones, but that's even more fun. The more deeply and seriously a person believes something, the more entertaining their reaction when you mock them.

This was certainly one of my early motivations to become a scientist. Somewhere in that confusing fog of adolescence I saw an obvious (but now impossible to reconstruct) link between a career in science and religious mockery. As time went on, though, I began to see that my teenage glee at baiting Christians was not so much a sign of scientific integrity, as simple immaturity. I realized that I had to find a way to move on from being an immature dick, to being a thoroughly sensible, grown-up adult dick.

I was convinced that this process would become clear if I went to a public lecture by Richard Dawkins. In 1996 his book tour to promote "Climbing Mount Improbable" fortunately included New Zealand, and he gave a talk in Christchurch while I lived there. I'm sure you'll immediately realise why Dawkins would be a natural hero to my post-pubescent dork self, and a science celebrity without peer and a bona fide superstar. That's right: he's married to an actress who played one of the original Doctor Who companions. And indeed, there she was, right there in the front row of the lecture theatre, the second regeneration of Romana. Wow.

He also happens to be the author of bestselling books about evolutionary biology, and a notoriously militant atheist. He has legions of loyal fans. The man is the Colonel Kurtz of the evangelical born-again atheists, broadcasting direct from science's alleged heart of darkness. He would set me straight.

And it was indeed a stirring lecture for the strict physical materialist. He told the story of a mother who wrote to him that her little boy had read one of his books, and been devastated by the thought of what a cold and empty Universe we live in, if there is no God in it. He had responded, "That's how it is. Deal with it." Yeah, you tell 'em, Dicky boy! I was lapping it up. What a guy!

Then came question time. This was even better. A delegation of the local creationist crazies had turned up to air their views. It was pure entertainment: Christians being fed to a lion.

But then there was this question. A university academic asked, "I have a colleague in the Chemistry department who is a Christian. Is he still allowed to call himself a scientist?" Oooh. Now that was an interesting question. My atheist muscles had been strengthened by a session in the Dawkins gym, so my own answer would have taken a stern line: "To some extent, I would say No."

Such wishy-washiness wasn't enough for Dawkins. He pronounced that this charlatan could not claim to be a scientist at all. Science was the dispassionate and open-minded search for truth, while Faith represented bias and closed-mindedness at its very worst. End of story.

That was too much for me. For a moment I was stunned. Did he really think that the Science Police should be raiding the universities of the world, tracking down professors with religious beliefs and ripping off their scientist badges? (We all have little badges. We keep them hidden from the public, because they get jealous. They're very nice badges.) Probably he wouldn't go that far. At least, nobody asked him that question.

I wanted to cheer my ideological idol, but couldn't quite manage it. Yes, science as an intellectual discipline is based on hypothesis and experiment (or paradigms and falsifiability, if you prefer), and the progress of scientific discovery is most rapid if its practitioners have an open mind and are willing to disregard their prejudices and superstitions. But, regardless of the ideal, actual scientists do have prejudices and superstitions, some of which they are conscious and quite proud of, and others they are never even aware they have. Some of them believe in God, and some believe in far wackier things. And unless those beliefs stand directly in the path of the specialised topic they study, those scientists can make valuable, and even world-changing, contributions. Sometimes it's their irrational prejudices that lead to discoveries. (The most common, "I am right and you are wrong".) If this makes the science idealist squeamish, don't they deserve the same answer as Dawkins had for that dopey little boy's mother? That's how it is. Deal with it. I would love it if all scientists were shining examples to us all of clean, pure, rational thinking, and were kind and noble and honest as well, good-looking and with fresh minty breath, just as the creationists would love it if God created dinosaur fossils on one whimsical April 1st. But that's just not the way it is.

Let's not make too much of Dawkins' remark. It was an impromptu answer to a question, made almost 20 years ago. His true view might be more nuanced, or it might have changed. He also might be wrong: that happens, and that's Ok, and while on the comment board of a rant blog, that one statement might be taken as the basis for an all-caps, zero-grammar, incoherent hatchet job on the man's entire career, the rest of us can just file it away as a "teachable moment". And I'm certainly not going to needlessly incur the wrath of Dawkins' fans, chanting up there in the jungle; they would gladly hack me apart like a sacrificial cow.

And what did I learn from this teachable moment? Did I realise that, after all, we're all just trying to make sense of the world, and whether you're a scientist or a fundamentalist, your beliefs deserve respect and consideration?

Are you kidding? Of course not. I just realised that you should make fun of scientists as well.

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