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The Fragility Of Science

Some sobering thoughts, and a warning to Daniel Dennett, from John Derbyshire:

Science is...a fragile thing, and might easily be lost. (The same applies to math. Readers of, ahem, my forthcoming book will learn about a key development in mathematical thinking that was discovered in ancient Alexandria, then lost, then rediscovered 1300 years later.) It is my belief in this fact that makes me so defensive of science, and so hostile to obscurantist thinking, under which heading I include both Left Creationists like Wieseltier and Right Creationists like the "intelligent design" crowd. They are playing with fire. So, by their absurd provocations, are the village atheists like Dennett. If we lose science (again?), we shall be plunged back into a world far less comfortable, far darker and crueller, than this one. If the LCs and the RCs join forces, they might just possibly bring on that world... if the Islamofascists don't beat them to it.

The natural tendency of human beings is to think religiously. Science and math are deeply unnatural activities, favored by only a scant few, who could easily be rounded up and dispatched by a mob of more normal human beings. Scientistic triumphalism of the Dennett variety is therefore foolish. An attitude of respectful humility by the more-scientifically inclined towards the more-religiously inclined is not only intellectually proper (at any rate to those of us non-Dennettians who think that religious belief is intellectually respectable, and that the reality of human nature should be faced honestly), it is prudent.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 26, 2006 01:46 PM
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There is truth to what the Derb says. However, I would not make much of it since science works and religion doesn't (except as a psychological salve). Also, science and technology is useful for making people feel good and that will always be popular.

Posted by Kurt at February 26, 2006 03:08 PM

So in Derbland, writing a book (Dennett's offense) is an "absurd provocation." Apparently the option of simply not reading the book, and thus not being provoked, is off the table. Are you signing on to that? And if so, how does one distinguish it from the "obscurantist thinking" he claims to oppose..?

Posted by Monte Davis at February 26, 2006 03:34 PM, I've never seen anything to indicate that Derb thinks that writing books, per se, is a provocation. But certainly it's possible to have contents of a book that are. Books are meant, after all, to be read, Monte.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 26, 2006 03:52 PM

The danger to science today comes mainly from secularists who think that it's okay to lie with your data/statistics/computer models) if it's for a good cause. (e.g. Global warming/second hand smoke) Bringing up the religious boogy man (creationists!) obsures the real fox in the hen house.

For 100 years, science has thrived in the midst of the Christian culture, because even if they were agnostic, scientists grew up in an environment where truth was considered a virtue.

Posted by K at February 26, 2006 05:49 PM

If one considers this from a survival of the fittest point of view, then religion obviously works much better than science, but of course, few fervent evolutionists would consider such a thing.

Posted by Pete at February 26, 2006 05:52 PM

"An attitude of respectful humility by the more-scientifically inclined... is prudent."


"That's a nice head you've got there. Be a *real* shame if anything happened to it...

Don't publish any cartoons of the Prophet, don't publish anything criticizing Creationism, and you'll be okay...

...for now."

What flavor of religious fascism would you like, vanilla or strawberry?

Posted by Anon at February 27, 2006 03:36 AM

I see the "Christianity is the analog of Islamofascism" lie is alive and well among many here as well.

Posted by Cecil Trotter at February 27, 2006 05:14 AM

Overheard at the (nonexistent) editorial conference for the Corner:

"Let's see... should we run our 327th jab at some stupid lefty P.C. 'hate speech' code on campus?

"Or skewer for the 17th time the Muslim fundamentalists' belief that they should be shielded from offense by Danish cartoonists?

"Wait, I've got it: let's run Derbyshire's sage and thoughtful warning to Dennett."

Posted by Monte Davis at February 27, 2006 05:45 AM

I agree with Pete. If the power goes off, the gas stations go dry and the all important WalMart goes empty, many scientists and intellectuals will find themselves where they never considered going before.

On Their knees.

I do not understand the need of some scientific types to attempt to seperate religion and science. I don't know of any people, whom I consider to be truly religious, DISbelieving in science.

Is there a divide in some thought about the origins of the universe? Absolutely!! But that breaks down into a belief in a divine being or a belief in a big bang, There are honestly some of us who believe that, "Let there be light", implies a HUGE bang.

Two of the smartest people I know are highly scientifically trained. Both are very devoutly religious. One is a toxicologist the other is working on artificial intelligence. They are awed by Gods miracle of giving us the intelligence to do work like that. And that is the way they approach their scientific side. I really doubt that in a world if billions of people that they are the only two who see the world this way.

Science and religion are not mutually exclusive. I don't see science being attacked from the religious people as far as I can tell. I've never heard of a priest or minister or a rabbi or an imam, getting up and saying, "...the atomic weight of cobalt IS NOT 58.933200, and don't you believe those heretic scientific types who say it is!" It just doesn't happen.

Posted by Steve at February 27, 2006 06:11 AM

I find the majority of Derbyshire's opinions odd at best and often absurd. This article just continues that trend.

Science is fragile? He's a nutter. We're mapping the human genome, building circuits 1 molecule at a time, and operating robots on a planet millions of miles away. Yet John Derbyshire is worried about a few ID folks halting science for a millenium. The guy needs to get out a little.

Posted by Leland at February 27, 2006 07:20 AM

While this may not rise to the level of "data," every actual working scientist I know, I met in church.

And to say that dangerous and irrational mobs are representative of any religious viewpoint is a straw man argument at best. There are rational and irrational people of every stripe, whether devout or athiest, scientist or blogger or clergy.

Posted by Jon Acheson at February 27, 2006 08:56 AM

I'm amazed at the comments here, and wondering if anyone actually followed the link and read the whole thing.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 27, 2006 12:10 PM

So you prefer people to "read the whole thing?" I guess that doesn't apply to the "sobering thoughts" of Derbyshire himself, who writes:

"Still, not having read Dennett's book... My sketchy knowledge of Dennett and his work..."

Posted by Monte Davis at February 27, 2006 12:19 PM

My knowledge of Dennett is less than sketchy (I've read several of his books, and enjoyed them), but I agree with Derb. This "bright" nonsense does not advance rationality and science at all. It only alienates people. Adamant atheists such as Dennett and Dawkins hurt their cause (a cause that is largely mine as well) more than help it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 27, 2006 12:28 PM

Steve: I agree with Pete. If the power goes off, the gas stations go dry and the all important WalMart goes empty, many scientists and intellectuals will find themselves where they never considered going before. On Their knees.

You may wish to re-read what I wrote as I said no such thing. Except by force, I would be more likely to get down on my knees and pray to the tooth fairy than god because at least the former does not contradict herself out of existence. Religion is not about truth, and you miss its function entirely if you think it is.

I would advocate a softly softly approach for science. It needs to continue the course of appeasement and tribute until it gains enough of a competitive edge to guarantee its own survival. Science is made up of individuals while religion is almost exactly like a big gang, the peer pressure is great and few can survive outside it. It would be suicide for the individuals of science to stand up directly to the religious gangs at this point in time.

Science thrives on growth induced freedom while religion thrives on stagnation. Religion is somewhat like reproduction by cloning. It passes fixed beliefs on to the next generation which is a highly successful strategy in an unchanging environment, however, it tends to lead to long term extinction. The inability of science to keep growth going the first time round is what led to the dark ages of religion.

People have evolved to religion over many hundreds of generations, science is far younger and more fragile. One of the reasons I am a strong advocate of space settlement is that it would do a lot to overcome the infant mortality vulnerabilities of science.

Posted by Pete. at February 27, 2006 05:40 PM

Derbyshire is off his rocker.

Why do the scientists need to humble themselves before the priests? The scientists can build A-bombs...

Posted by at February 27, 2006 08:37 PM

I continue to be fascinated by the comments here, and how many of them seem to be a result of almost a willful misreading of the post. I'll have to expound on this at length when I've given it some more thought, and have more time.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 27, 2006 08:45 PM

In giving religious belief intellectual credence Derby is doing exactly that which he criticizes others of doing playing with fire, in this case by adding accelerant.

Religions are somewhat like very big dogs, they can do the dog work and provide useful protection, but if you let them think they are the boss, then all of a sudden you can have a great deal of blood shed on your hands, hence the Middle East. By bluntly casting doubt Dennett helps soften religion, this is a risky but probably necessary act. Liberty comes from keeping religions permanently off balance. Unfortunately, science can not afford to show weakness in the face of religion - because religion will take advantage of it.

Posted by Pete at February 28, 2006 02:05 AM

I get the point that Derbyshire is suggesting that Dennett is shooting himself in the foot by attacking religious beliefs in such a manner as to cause backlash. This backlash may be enough to change people, more or less balanced on their views of religion and science, into religious fanatics rejecting science.

I simply think he, Derbyshire, is over the top with comments like this:
Religious belief is deepy, rootedly human, unshakeable and ineradicable. Science, by contrast, is an artificial and unnatural activity, which could be stamped out rather easily.
I don't buy it, especially not in today's world. He can point out historical references millenium old. IMHO, using the same references, you'll find that not only was science lost for sometime, so was religion. After all, not only did the early Christians not utilize the math and science of the Greeks and Romans, they rejected the Greek and Roman religion as well.

Posted by Leland at February 28, 2006 11:13 AM

But they did not reject all religion (i.e. living by faith rather than proof) they selected one religion in favor of another. Actually, there are many that reject older religions and take Science as their religion. That is to say that they except certain theories of science as unchallengeable Truth about which it is wrong to question or do experiments to verify.
Just because someone, in the name of reason, rejects all the gods in favor of the Truths established by Science does not mean they no longer live by faith. Many just place their faith in the Knowledge discovered by the experimentation of others rather than think for themselves. As with all of human endeavors there are more that profess to follow science than really understand what that means.
True science has neither dogma nor politics. Alas, both are all to prevalent among the people of science today.

Posted by Frank at February 28, 2006 01:11 PM

That's along the lines of what I would (or will, when I get around to it) write on this subject, Frank. Dennett has a faith of his own--the basic tenets of science.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 28, 2006 01:25 PM


I agree with your comments. I see I phrased my comment incorrectly. I was trying to flip Derbyshire's argument to point out its flaw. You found the flaw I was trying to point out. I recognize that doesn't necessarily mean you (or Rand) accept my premise that the same flaw exists in Derbyshire's argument.

Posted by Leland at February 28, 2006 01:33 PM

Those unable to sustain the added complexity of not believing but who nevertheless have the capacity to change their beliefs can always adopt a pulse width modulation approach. Given a sufficient number of people this can yield a fairly good approximation of science. :-)

Posted by Pete at February 28, 2006 10:05 PM

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