Monday, May 23, 2011

The Awkward Age

I like this billboard, though I also suspect it was photoshopped, rather than a real billboard.

I also like this comment on the post the image illustrates:

My favorite quote thus far; “So we got the date wrong. It’s not like its the end of the world.”
But that's about as far as it goes. The post itself concludes:
What I am wondering is this: when the world did not end, did it cause anyone to become more rational? Or will the Doomsdayers become stronger believers (as sometimes happens in cults) – and more importantly, do moderate Christians feel their interpretation of the bible has been validated?
The word "rational" (not to mention "moderate") increasingly sets off alarms for me, as more and more atheists say and write and post ravingly irrational things in the name of rationality. I can't see any reason why the failure of the Rapture to take place last Saturday should "cause anyone to become more rational." As the blogger points out, "moderate" Christians who've been citing Matthew 24:36 as a warning about predicting a date for the Second Coming will probably see Jesus' non-appearance as a vindication of their interpretation of the Bible, not as a reason to abandon Christianity.

But then, why should they? Scientists are constantly making absurd and irrational claims about science and what it can do. A decade or so back, I read a lot of stuff by scientists who claimed that a Grand Unified Theory of Physics was right around the corner. They didn't specify the date and hour, of course -- they were as canny about that as the authors of the gospels -- but they were sure it would happen within a generation. It didn't. A little over a century ago, some physicists were making similar forecasts -- just before Einstein published his theory of relativity and knocked 19th-century physics ass over teakettle. Computer scientists have long made similar failed promises for the development of artificial intelligence. No one -- at least no scientist -- would argue that because these predictions failed, science should be scrapped.

I talked about this with an old friend who said that, confronted with harmful scientific claims about sex and race, she tries to talk about "scientists" rather than "science," since science isn't responsible for what scientists do or say. I agreed to an extent, but argued that you can't really separate the two: there is no such thing as "science", just a lot of scientists engaged in various projects. Then I pointed out that defenders of religion say the same thing she'd said about science: it's not Christianity's fault, it's Christians who you should blame.

A few years ago, Katha Pollitt wrote in The Nation, "I actually believe in science. I believe we are clever enough to think our way out of the problems we make for ourselves." Pollitt has often attacked critics of science, whether Christian fundamentalists or members of the "academic left." But her statement of belief in science (which I've heard from many other people) isn't rational: it's an affirmation of faith, a credo. Whether "we" really are clever enough to think our way out of the problems we make for ourselves will have to be seen. (I have no such faith myself.) When people, especially scientists, proclaim what Science will do in the future, they are making statements of faith, not reason.

I don't "believe in science" any more than I believe in Christianity; nor do I "believe" in atheism. I don't even "believe" in Reason. I think reason is a useful tool, but like any tool it has its limits, and it's only as good as the premises one starts with. As the saying goes, "Garbage In, Garbage Out." ("Garbage In, Gospel Out," a computer-scientist friend of mine puts it ironically.) Raising Science or Reason to authority is another version of what Religion is for some people: an attempt to escape human limitations and achieve certainty by fiat.