Friday, February 29, 2008

E2.0: Sir Harold Kroto: Issues on Science vs. Religion

This is the 20th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

Sir Harold Kroto, Chairman of the Board of the Vega Science Trust, gave a presentation that was very similar to his presentation last year. It concerned a project of using the internet to pread a love of science and math that, ultimately, is the best way of defeating religious dogma. Noting that there is a positive correlation between academic achievement and believing that there is no God, Kroto draws the conclusion that educating people on how the universe really works (in math and science) is our best defense against religious dogma.


One of the claims that Kroto made in giving this presentation is that we should not wait until we have better science and math teachers. Instead, we should devote ourselves to improving the math and science teachers we already have. So, his project includes a task of creating collections of math and science teaching materials that teachers can find on the internet and download for free.

Of course, this has one obvious drawback – that it requires that there be teachers who are interested in learning how to teach math and science. Many high school math and science teachers – and particularly biology teachers – do not see their position as being one of teaching biology. They have entered into the profession specifically for the purpose of making sure that the students learn about creationism – and learn only as much (or as little) about evolution as is necessary to pass the tests. Even here, creationists are constantly struggling to change the standards so that they can teach creationism in science class – turning high school biology class into a bible study group.

These types of teachers are too common, and will almost certainly not look towards Kroto’s web site for information on how to teach biology to tenth graders. Instead, they are going to be looking to the Discovery Institute and similar organizations for ways of sneaking creationism into the science class.

The first line of attack is to make sure that the high school curriculum requires that students learn biology in biology class (and not religion in biology class), and to make sure that students appreciate their obligation to teach according to those standards. This, then, will provide teachers with an incentive to go out and find materials that will better allow them to do the job assigned, and to keep teachers who inclined to abuse their positions as science teachers from entering into that profession.

In addition to his own project’s work, Kroto advertised other things that are happening on the Internet that are useful in fighting religion. For example, he mentioned Pat Condell’s videos. Condell used to be a stand-up comedian who recently started to produce podcasts that serious blast religious beliefs. In his video casts, he shows no respect for those who hold dangerous religious ideas, and no respect for atheists who are against speaking disrespectfully towards those people and their dangerous ideas.

Blaming Religion

Kroto is like Condell. He has nothing good to say about religion. The first part of his presentation was substantially a rant about all of the bad things that can be associated with religion.

Listening to his presentation made me want to make clear a very subtle distinction that I have used in my writings that I think a lot of people miss. One of the views that many atheists take towards religion is to make an inference like, “9/11 was caused by people who were acting on religious belief; therefore, all religion is bad.” I argue against this implication precisely because it is invalid and it does not demonstrate the devotion to logical and critical analysis that many atheists say should be a part of our culture.

(Thos atheists are right, by the way People generally do have good reason to promote a love of reason and an aversion to sophistry and rhetoric. Sophistry and rhetoric keeps us away from the truths that could, in some cases, easily save our life, health, and well-being. Whereas superstitious and foolish thinking is likely to lead us into error – causing us to devote resources to activites that are not in our interests.)

I want to distinguish this inference to the conclusion that “X is a bad thing that comes from religion, period.” Saying that the first inference is invalid is not the same as saying that there are good religions. An individual could agree with the position that each religion should be evaluated on its own merits, yet also find that each and every religion has something it it that justifies significant demerits.

This is true in the same way that a person can hold that a group of 10 people should each be judged by their individual actions, yet discover that every one of those 10 people are guilty of a serious crime. The fact we have rejected the proposition, ‘P1 is a bad person, so all ten people are evil” does not imply that we must reject the conclusion, “all ten people are evil.”

Harold Kroto has a lot of bad things to say about many of the more common forms of religion. Though he does not provide enough evidence to show that all religion is evil, he does show that several subsets of religion are evil. This is comparable to showing that 7 out of 10 people in our groop are evil. It is substantially the same thing that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris had done in their books.

However, even in showing that 7 out of the 10 people in our group had committed a crime, we are not yet justified in condemning the remaining 3. Each person has a right to be judged on his or her own merits. Justice requires this type of individual assessment. Any time people speak of whole groups being guilty of some wrongdoing, merely because a subset are guilty, they are treating the others unjustly, and proving that they have their own moral flaws in the process.

The Templeton Foundation

An item of debate in this presentation was the work done by the Templeton Foundation. Kroto portrayed the organization as one that is using its vast stores of wealth to blur the line between religion and science and of confusing public thinking on matters of science. Ultimately, he called for a boycott of anything having to do with the Templeton Foundation, or at least praised those who would not accept their money.

He criticized a Templeton Foundation advertisement concerning the question of whether the universe had a purpose. The Foundation’s advertisement had comments by about a dozen scientists, of which about half believed in a definite purpose, and a few others argued for some purpose.

Kroto portrayed the advertisement as deceptive. If one takes the opinions of the members of the National Academies of Sc9ience, one would find that over 90% of these people (and over 95% of those thoat are biologists) do not believe in God. An advertisement that accurately represented the thinking of the scientific community would have been one where 11 out of 12 respondents answered “no” – not one in which a single respondent answered ‘no.’. to Kroto, this is an example of deceptive advertising – an attempt to manipulate people into adopting a view of science that is not true.

Michael Shermer challenged Kroto on the fact that the Templeton Foundation funded a study that showed the effects of prayer on medical care. The study showed that prayer had no effect unless the patient knew that he was being prayed for – in which case it made the patient’s condition worse than that of a control group. It is as if those who knew tht they were being prayed for suffered from some type of additional stress or anxiety which adversely affected their health.

The fact that the Templeton Foundation was willing to do this shows that they do objective research.

There is actually no dispute here. The fact of the matter is that the advertisement that Kroto talked about was poorly done, and showed an intent to convince others of a view that was false. In addition, the Templeton Foundation provided at least one example of an objective study.

There is nothing at all inconsistent in complaining that the Templeton Foundation’s behavior was deceptive and manipulative in the first case, and objective in the second. There is nothing inconsistent with saying, “Here, you did as you should; but, over there, your behavior was intellectually and morally worthy of contempt.” It’s just another example of the same policy of judging each case (as one judges each person) on its own merits.

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