Natalie Angier is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning science writer for the New York Times, author of Woman: An Intimate Geography and most recently The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. In a new piece at Edge, she points a finger at the hypocrisy of many scientists who wail and gnash their teeth at superstitious craziness like creationism or astrology, but invent elaborate rationalizations about non-overlapping magisteria when it comes to things like the virgin birth or life after death. A somewhat lengthy excerpt, as I can’t help myself:
In the course of reporting a book on the scientific canon and pestering hundreds of researchers at the nation’s great universities about what they see as the essential vitamins and minerals of literacy in their particular disciplines, I have been hammered into a kind of twinkle-eyed cartoon coma by one recurring message. Whether they are biologists, geologists, physicists, chemists, astronomers, or engineers, virtually all my sources topped their list of what they wish people understood about science with a plug for Darwin’s dandy idea. Would you please tell the public, they implored, that evolution is for real? Would you please explain that the evidence for it is overwhelming and that an appreciation of evolution serves as the bedrock of our understanding of all life on this planet? …
Scientists think this is terribleâ€”the public’s bizarre underappreciation of one of science’s great and unshakable discoveries, how we and all we see came to beâ€”and they’re right. Yet I can’t help feeling tetchy about the limits most of them put on their complaints. You see, they want to augment this particular figureâ€”the number of people who believe in evolutionâ€”without bothering to confront a few other salient statistics that pollsters have revealed about America’s religious cosmogony. Few scientists, for example, worry about the 77 percent of Americans who insist that Jesus was born to a virgin, an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction. Nor do the researchers wring their hands over the 80 percent who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the laws of thermodynamics be damned. …
So, on the issue of mainstream monotheistic religions and the irrationality behind many of religion’s core tenets, scientists often set aside their skewers, their snark, and their impatient demand for proof, and instead don the calming cardigan of a a kiddie-show host on public television. They reassure the public that religion and science are not at odds with one another, but rather that they represent separate “magisteria,” in the words of the formerly alive and even more formerly scrappy Stephen Jay Gould. Nobody is going to ask people to give up their faith, their belief in an everlasting soul accompanied by an immortal memory of every soccer game their kids won, every moment they spent playing fetch with the dog. Nobody is going to mock you for your religious beliefs. Well, we might if you base your life decisions on the advice of a Ouija board; but if you want to believe that someday you’ll be seated at a celestial banquet with your long-dead father to your right and Jane Austen to your left-and that she’ll want to talk to you for another hundred million years or moreâ€”that’s your private reliquary, and we’re not here to jimmy the lock.
Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University’s “Ask an Astronomer” Web site. To the query, “Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?” the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, “modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions.” He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of “God intervening every time a measurement occurs” [arrrgh! -- ed.] before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn’tâ€”and shouldn’tâ€”"have anything to do with scientific reasoning.”
How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. “No, astronomers do not believe in astrology,” snarls Dave Kornreich. “It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science “one does not need a reason not to believe in something.” Skepticism is “the default position” and “one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”
Read the whole thing. Scientists who do try to point out that walking on water isn’t consistent with the laws of physics, and that there’s no reason to believe in an afterlife, etc., are often told that this is a bad strategic move — we’ll never win over the average person on the street to the cause of science and rationality if we tell them that it conflicts with their religion. Which is a legitimate way to think, if you’re a politician or a marketing firm. But as scientists, our first duty should be to tell the truth. The laws of physics and biology tell us something about how the world works, and there is no room in there for raising the dead and turning water into wine. In the long run, being honest with ourselves and with the public is always the best strategy.
Update: In the Science Times, George Johnson reports on a conference in which scientists debated how to interact with religion. This was a non-Templeton affair, and most of the participants seemed to be somewhat anti-religion. Videos of the talks should soon be available at The Science Network.