When Sentiment and Fear Trump Reason and Reality
LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS
Published: March 29, 2005
have recently begun to
wonder whether I am completely out of touch with the mainstream, and if
so, what that implies.
When I was a young student it became clear to me that
the remarkable success of the scientific method, which changed the
world beyond belief in the four centuries since Galileo, made the power
and efficacy of that method evident. Moreover, scientific ideas are not
only powerful but so beautiful that they are on par with the most
spectacular legacies of civilization in art, architecture, literature,
music and philosophy.
This is what makes the current times so disconcerting.
We like to think that spectacular intellectual developments bring
progress, so that future generations may benefit from what has come
before. But this is often an illusion.
I remember the shock wave generated four years ago when
the Taliban government in Afghanistan destroyed thousands of statues,
including two priceless and awe-inspiring archaeological artifacts, the
world's largest standing statues of Buddha, created almost 2,000 years
ago. The Taliban claimed that Islamic law prohibited the creation of
idolatrous images of human faces that might be used for worship.
I remember sharing the feeling of incredible sadness to
know that the world had forever lost a precious part of its
intellectual heritage. It was difficult to believe that in the 21st
century such a return to the dark ages could happen anywhere.
Those images came to mind again as I followed recent
news of incidents in the United States in which fundamentalist dogma
and its fear of the intellectual progress that comes from understanding
nature has trumped the scientific method. These actions attack
intellectual pillars of our civilization that are every bit as real as
monumental statues of Buddha.
The "reality-based community," as one White House
insider so poetically referred to it recently, is losing the fight for
hearts and minds throughout the country to a well-orchestrated
marketing program that plays on sentiment and fear.
The open intrusion of religious dogma into the highest
levels of government is stunning. Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme
Court speaks of "the fact that government derives its authority from
God" (during oral arguments before the court about displays of the Ten
Commandments) while the president of the United States has argued that
evolution is a theory not a fact.
The effort to blur the huge distinction between faith
and science, between empirically falsifiable facts and beliefs, was on
display again this month in two very different contexts.
Congressional leaders ignored the conclusions of the
doctors who have actually examined Terri Schiavo and judges who have
listened to the evidence. Senator Bill Frist, previously a heart
surgeon who must have once known better, shunned the conclusions of
these doctors and, without ever having examined Ms. Schiavo himself,
stated his "belief" that she was not in a vegetative state.
Meanwhile, on a much less emotionally tragic but no less
intellectually puzzling front, the Templeton Foundation continued with
its program to sponsor the notion that science can somehow ultimately
reveal the existence of God by once again awarding its annual Templeton
Prize for Progress in Religion not to a theologian, but to a physicist.
Dr. Charles Townes, the winner, is a Nobel laureate
whose scientific work has been of impeccable distinction; his prime
contribution to religion appears to be his proudly proclaiming his
belief in God as revealed through the beauty of nature.
I confess that my immediate reaction was the same as it
has been to all of Templeton's recent awards to scientists. If this is
the most significant progress in religious thought, beating out the
work of distinguished theologians throughout the world, then it is a
sad reflection on such progress. Of course, I rather believe that it
reflects on the foundation's misguided goals and methods.
Nature's beauty inspires religious fervor in some
scientists. For others, like the Nobel laureate Dr. Steven Weinberg, it
merely reinforces their belief that God is irrelevant.
The point here, which should be obvious, is that
science and religion are separate entities: science is a predictive
discipline based on empirically falsifiable facts; religion is a
hopeful discipline based on inner faith.
Theologians as ancient as St. Augustine and Moses
Maimonides recognized that science, not religion, was the appropriate
and reliable method to try to understand the physical world. Yet it is
precisely this ancient wisdom that is now under attack.
Foes of evolution and the Big Bang in this country do
not operate with the direct and brutal actions of the Taliban. They
have marketing skills. Openly condemning evolution as blasphemous might
play well to the fundamentalist true believers, but it wouldn't play
well in the heartland, which is the real target. Thus the spurious
argument is created that evolution isn't good science.
This "fact" is established by fiat. The Discovery
Institute in Seattle supports the work of several Ph.D.'s who then
write books (and op-ed articles) decrying the fallacy of evolution.
They don't write scientific articles, however, because the claims they
make - either that cellular structures are too complex to have evolved
or that evolution itself is improbable - have either failed to stand up
to detailed scrutiny or involve no falsifiable predictions.
What is being obscured in this manufactured debate is
that the underlying intent has little to do with evolution, or the age
of the earth. The fundamentalist attack is on the basic premise that
physical phenomena have physical causes that can be revealed by use of
the scientific method.
Because science does not explicitly incorporate a deity
in its considerations, some fundamentalists believe that it undermines
our moral order, just as the Buddha statues presented a threat to the
fundamentalist Islamic moral order.
The pillar of our humanity that is most under attack is
our remarkable ability to understand nature. We claim that in places
like Afghanistan the enemies of truth are the enemies of freedom and
democracy. If the scientific method is out of the mainstream in our
country it is time to take a stronger stand against the effort to
undermine empirical reality in favor of dogma.
Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss is chairman of the physics
department at Case Western Reserve University. His new book, "Hiding in
the Mirror," will appear this fall.