Sunday, May 5, 2013

Doing What Comes Naturally


I saw another meme about "critical thinking" on Facebook the other day, and I wish I'd saved it to repost here, but it doesn't really matter.  Such material is the mirror image of the religious stuff that also gets posted in vast quantities, and generally adopts what I'd call a religious stance toward rationality and science.

It's an old peeve of mine, the idea held by many self-styled rationalists and secularists that science should replace religion, or that it even can.  Are the people who say such things listening to themselves?  Having spent a fair amount of energy and sprayed spittle denouncing religion for its antirationality and authoritarianism, do they really want people to treat scientific knowledge the same way?  But then, that's how they themselves tend to treat science.  Darwin said it, I believe it, that settles it! as I've paraphrased their stance before, isn't much of an exaggeration.  (The image at the head of this post represents another peeve: the attempt to tie "wonder" to science.  It's partly a knee-jerk response to the sentiments expressed in Walt Whitman's stupid poem "When I heard the learn'd astronomer," which has repulsed me ever since I first read it in high school.  Science is compatible with wonder, but it doesn't have a monopoly on the emotion; nor does religion.  Both magisteria are equally capable of pretending they know more than do, and of contempt for the non-rational aspects of human life and thought.)

One of the best indicators of what I'm talking about is the hostility many pro-science, pro-critical-thinking people exhibit toward the idea of teaching the conflicts.  Some go ballistic, others just try to get rid of it by the death of a thousand frets -- but either way, they make it clear that they don't understand what teaching the conflicts means, or for that matter what critical thinking means.  I suspect that by "critical thinking" many of its advocates mean being critical of views they don't like.  These are usually religious views, or other people's religious views, and it occurred to me today that "critical thinking" and "teaching the conflicts" are basically different names for the same practice.  I associate "teaching the conflicts" with people in the humanities, especially the English professor Gerald Graff, and "critical thinking" with people who treat science as a religion, but no matter what you call it, it means subjecting any belief or doctrine to critical questioning, including one's own beliefs and doctrines.  This means examining the evidence for and against a doctrine or theory, learning what makes good and bad arguments, and reaching one's own conclusions.

The inability of many self-styled rationalists to grasp what it would mean to delve into the conflicts over Darwin's theory of natural selection, for example, the willfully irrelevant arguments they muster against such a project, reveals that they're reacting emotionally, not rationally.  They're really the mirror image of their opposite numbers.  But what, they gasp, what if the biology class is taught by a creationist?  What, I counter, if the biology class is taught by a scientific racist?  (In that case, few science advocates would see what there was to object to: scientific racism is still scientifically respectable, as long as you're careful not to express any blatant gut racism as the Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson did a couple of years ago.  "I have never thought of myself as a racist," Watson protested. "I don't see myself as a racist."  So he must not be, right?  I mean, he's a scientist, so he must be telling the truth.)  And when the rationalists are so irrational, we're very far from where we need to be intellectually and culturally.