Rod Dreher

Philosopher Carlin Romano can’t stand the egotistical way some would-be defenders of science go about their work. Excerpt:

Standing up for science excites some intellectuals the way beautiful actresses arouse Warren Beatty, or career liberals boil the blood of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. It’s visceral. The thinker of this ilk looks in the mirror and sees Galileo bravely muttering “Eppure si muove!” (“And yet, it moves!”) while Vatican guards drag him away. Sometimes the hero in the reflection is Voltaire sticking it to the clerics, or Darwin triumphing against both Church and Church-going wife. A brave champion of beleaguered science in the modern age of pseudoscience, this Ayn Rand protagonist sarcastically derides the benighted irrationalists and glows with a self-anointed superiority. Who wouldn’t want to feel that sense of power and rightness?
You hear the voice regularly–along with far more sensible stuff–in the latest of a now common genre of science patriotism, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science From Bunk (University of Chicago Press), by Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at the City University of New York. Like such not-so-distant books as Idiot America, by Charles P. Pierce (Doubleday, 2009), The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby (Pantheon, 2008), and Denialism, by Michael Specter (Penguin Press, 2009), it mixes eminent common sense and frequent good reporting with a cocksure hubris utterly inappropriate to the practice it apotheosizes.
According to Pigliucci, both Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxist theory of history “are too broad, too flexible with regard to observations, to actually tell us anything interesting.” (That’s right–not one “interesting” thing.) The idea of intelligent design in biology “has made no progress since its last serious articulation by natural theologian William Paley in 1802,” and the empirical evidence for evolution is like that for “an open-and-shut murder case.”
Pigliucci offers more hero sandwiches spiced with derision and certainty. Media coverage of science is “characterized by allegedly serious journalists who behave like comedians.” Commenting on the highly publicized Dover, Pa., court case in which U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent-design theory is not science, Pigliucci labels the need for that judgment a “bizarre” consequence of the local school board’s “inane” resolution. Noting the complaint of intelligent-design advocate William Buckingham that an approved science textbook didn’t give creationism a fair shake, Pigliucci writes, “This is like complaining that a textbook in astronomy is too focused on the Copernican theory of the structure of the solar system and unfairly neglects the possibility that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is really pulling each planet’s strings, unseen by the deluded scientists.”
Is it really? Or is it possible that the alternate view unfairly neglected could be more like that of Harvard scientist Owen Gingerich, who contends in God’s Universe (Harvard University Press, 2006) that it is partly statistical arguments–the extraordinary unlikelihood eons ago of the physical conditions necessary for self-conscious life–that support his belief in a universe “congenially designed for the existence of intelligent, self-reflective life”? Even if we agree that capital “I” and “D” intelligent-design of the scriptural sort–what Gingerich himself calls “primitive scriptural literalism”–is not scientifically credible, does that make Gingerich’s assertion, “I believe in intelligent design, lowercase i and lowercase d,” equivalent to Flying-Spaghetti-Monsterism?
Tone matters. And sarcasm is not science.

Romano goes on to praise the folks at Skeptical Inquirer magazine for the dispassion with which they approach debunking pseudoscience and related claims — this, by comparison to what he regards as the unearned arrogance of people who think they’ve demolished an argument or way of knowing because they’ve sneered at it:

As an epigram to his chapter titled “From Superstition to Natural Philosophy,” Pigliucci quotes a line from Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Science warriors such as Pigliucci, or Michael Ruse in his recent clash with other philosophers in these pages, should reflect on a related modern sense of “entertain.” One does not entertain a guest by mocking, deriding, and abusing the guest. Similarly, one does not entertain a thought or approach to knowledge by ridiculing it.
Long live Skeptical Inquirer! But can we deep-six the egomania and unearned arrogance of the science patriots? As Descartes, that immortal hero of scientists and skeptics everywhere, pointed out, true skepticism, like true charity, begins at home.

But you should never expect a fundamentalist, religious or secular, to be skeptical of his own approach to knowledge, or frailty.

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