Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Increasing numbers of undergraduate college students are unable to distinguish evidence from opinion (Science, Vol. 266, p. 846) Since this is likely to hold to an even greater degree in the general population - by virtue of having far less exposure to science, at a lower level - one may rightly question how the atheist - who relies extensively on scientific information and evidence, can cope. How, indeed, can the atheist successfully present his position, if his most important ally - scientific evidence - cannot be distinguished from subjective opinion by the rank and file of his countrymen? This is the atheist dilemma which I examine in this article.

1. Opinion and Evidence:

Ask anyone who has ever engaged in debate, and they will quickly point to three crucial conditions that must be fulfilled in order to be perceived as "winning" the debate: 1- Access to an extensive base of information or evidence that is readily recalled; 2- Ability to know which precise subset of information to deploy to attack or rebut the opponent; and 3- a knowledgeable audience that can appreciate the evidence - as evidence, marshalled in support of a position or argument.

The third is often forgotten, but is certainly as critical to success as the others. Indeed, one can be the most knowledgeable person on the face of the planet - with an uncanny ability to deploy information exactly when needed - but fail because his (or her) audience does not recognize the evidence or information for what it is, but rather misinterprets it as "opinion". With such misinterpretation comes the homogenizing effect which treats all arguments as exactly equal, and "relative". Everything thereby becomes reduced to "point of view" and whatever information or evidence that was summoned, evaporates as a puff of smoke - making no impact at all.

Enter now the atheist, with an arsenal of scientific evidence to support his positions on evolution, the physical origin of the cosmos, as well as deficiencies in human brain architecture (including the fact that the temporal lobes are complicit in religious "visions"). Where does he stand in a culture in which belief consistently prevails over rational argument and evidence? The sad truth is that he is in much the same position as the debater who possesses awesome information, but has an audience largely comprised of the ill-informed, semi-educated, semi-literate.

FACT: Average SAT scores have dropped nearly 75 points since 1960 (even factoring in corrections for the new format used since the mid-90s).

FACT: The average American now reads fewer than two books a year. (Non-fiction)

FACT: The average IQ (Intelligence Quotient) for Americans has dropped an average of 10 points over the past twenty-five years.

FACT: Since 1960, high school elective science courses (Physics, Chemistry, Biology) have diminished as non-academic courses (e.g. "Speech", "Drama") have proliferated.

FACT: In recent science competency tests - among 15 nations, the U.S. placed lower than 12th, behind nations such as Thailand and Singapore.

FACT: Increasing numbers of college science undergraduates cannot distinguish evidence from opinion. In survey, nearly one third don't recognize the Sun as a star.

FACT: Nearly 1 out of 3 Americans is now classified as functionally illiterate.

The cumulative impact of the above, is a nation growing more ignorant and less intelligent by the year. A nation - indeed a culture, growing perilously more gullible as it becomes less able to distinguish myth from reality; scientific fact from subjective opinion., belief from reasoning. Although the USA has always been suspicious of the intellectual - ridiculing "eggheads" and their ilk, this mistrust has now become downright malignant with widespread denigration of those who dare to show any intellectual ability above the "average". Anti-intellectual epithets such as "nerd", "dork" and "geek" continue to be used with increasing frequency - especially in high schools, as the pop culture intensifies its war against the mind and the rationality it should stand for. Genuine critical thought has become a subversive activity. At the same time, credibility is heaped upon any idea so long as someone mouths it - irrespective of the weight of evidence.

To fix perspectives, on a typical talk or interview program one is likely to find a holocaust detractor mixing it up with one who has LIVED through a Nazi concentration camp and seen the first hand the horrors at Bergen-Belsen, Dachau or Auschwitz. Or, an evolutionary biologist who has studied the genetic and fossil evidence for decades paired opposite a creationist, relying only on a mistranslated, text-mutilated bible written by pre-scientific agrarian nomads. In each case, both sides are given equal prominence, equal air time - and equal deference by the interviewer, thereby obscuring the substantial disparity of evidence and legitimacy that exists between them. Indeed, the points of specious view upheld by holocaust detractor and creationist should never even be dignified by having them appear at the same time with the one possessing facts, or historical records. It is an outrage to truth and to intellectual honesty and integrity.

At this point, of course, the soft-minded and soft-hearted objector will protest that "free speech" would be violated if the above position were encouraged. This is arrant claptrap and rubbish. "Free speech" that artificially awards gravitas- by placing both on an equal footing, or that promotes the fantasy over reality - by placing them on an equal scale - is no "free speech" at all, but a misbegotten counterfeit that is incapable of recognizing neither truth nor lies. It is not surprising that in such an atmosphere of mutated "objectivity" - eroded to the point that "noise" overwhelms signal, all manner of aberrant and unfounded belief can flourish.

2. The Predicament of the Atheist in a Scientifically Illiterate Society

I now consider the formidable predicament of the atheist who finds him/herself in a scientifically illiterate society - one in which the majority of inhabitants are incapable of distinguishing evidence from opinion, or beliefs from empirical principles or laws The atheist himself is assumed not to have arrived at atheism through unthinking belief but rather through a process of critical thinking skills and moreover - to have at least a foundation of scientific literacy (i.e. possess a basic familiarity with the principles of evolution, including mutation and natural selection - as well as basic genetics, and a basic understanding of the cosmic scene: stellar evolution and Big Bang - including the red shift of galaxies, 2.7 K background radiation and other evidence for). This literacy need not have been achieved through any formal education, but rather through a wide and critical reading of relevant material. Or by taking online video courses, such as MIT's, or packaged courses (e.g. in Climate Science) as offered by The Teaching Company.

There are three main difficulties that the scientifically literate atheist faces: 1- cultural prejudice, 2 -emotional reaction, and 3- misunderstanding based on scientific ignorance. In each case, the primary effect is to marginalize the atheist and render him an "outsider" or "deviant" - someone apart from the "mainstream" and the alleged "normality" that it represents. The secondary effect is to somehow dilute or denigrate the scientific foundation upon which atheism rests (more specifically the materialist emphasis of empirical/theoretical science).

By cultural prejudice, I mean a pervasive atmosphere of hostility that is taken as "natural" in a country regarded as "under God", or some facsimile thereof. Atheism is looked upon as a major defect of some sort, not too far removed from having Leprosy and AIDS together, but in a social context. The mainstream media often play into this narrow mindset by either misrepresenting the atheist position - if they give it any attention at all - or casting it as an extremist, irrational position, occupying the left end of a "belief spectrum" to the fundamentalist's right. (See, e.g. the issue of U.S. News & World Report (December, 1991).

This cultural prejudice is further reinforced by the mistaken notion (and illogic) that because an atheist disbelieves in a deity, s/he cannot have any ethics and will therefore subscribe to the "anything goes" school or morality. This, despite the fact that there are numerous texts and articles in circulation disclosing that atheism is predicated upon a pragmatic, materialist ethic, based upon enlightened self-interest rather than superstition. (See, e.g. Ethics Without God, by Kaj Neilsson, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1991).

Finally, cultural prejudice is exacerbated by many atheists' natural reluctance to state their positions - whether in personal interactions (with co-workers or family members), or in the press. These atheists, recognizing the inevitable stigma of non-belief in a god-obsessed nation, prefer to keep their atheism to themselves rather than expose themselves to possible attack in a society that places a premium upon belief ("faith") over reason. Unfortunately, this silence has the negative effect of sustaining the mainstream's perceptions that atheism is a fringe position. The latest Pew religious research surveys show, however, that up to 10% of the U.S. population may be atheists, or 30 million. However, most use deflector euphemistic equivalents like "freethinker", "Bright", "eupraxopher", or "naturalist". (The last two are due to Paul Kurtz).

Emotional reaction is defined as an unthinking reflex action, in response to an atheist's arguments or position. The immediate effect is usually an ad hominem attack upon the person, with no consideration whatever of the substance of his or her arguments. Most of these ad hominems undercut the atheist's morality (assuming that the atheist is lacking) but some are especially vicious and invoke "Satan" in way or another. Of course, these are the equivalents of "drive-bys" and have no intellectual merit at all - being used mostly by the bottom rung of uneducated fundies.

The purpose, in effect, is to quash all arguments - since the attacker is well aware that s/he lacks the basis in either logic or information to counter them. Hence, screaming or epithets or some other emotional or hysterical threat ("You'll be damned to hell", "You're a pawn of Satan!") will be substituted for discourse in order to short circuit meaningful exchange.

Perhaps the most intractable and maddening of all the predicaments faced by atheists is that which arises from a misunderstanding based on fundamental ignorance of modern science. To the informed and scientifically literate atheist, his predicament often resembles trying to "shovel water uphill" - except the "water" is now a tide of ignorance. This ignorance embraces a number of facets: inability to distinguish evidence from opinion, inability to extrapolate from data to predictions, inability to distinguish suspect data (in experiments) from scientifically accepted data, inability to take into account differences in the degree of empirical validity for different scientific disciplines, inability to distinguish the normal QA (quality assurance) criteria of scientific hypotheses and models (as well as evidence) from issues of "proof" or "disproof" and inability to discriminate the term "theory" from speculation.

Thus do the entrenched ignorant put down Evolution as "just a theory" - when in fact a theory is the highest scientific formulation possible- for which confirmed predictions have actually been made.

Let's consider specific examples of each of these in turn. In the case of Evolution, for example, the religious believer is often under the illusion that it is only "a theory" and hasn't been "proven". He is generally totally unaware of the amassed genetic evidence - in terms of transpositions of amino acids in complex molecules, or specific proteins in haemoglobin, nor is he even remotely aware than an entire fossil record has been assembled for the marine organism foraminifera. He's also likely blissfully unaware of one the most powerful demonstrations of the validity of human evolution: Yunis and Prakash paper disclosing the chromosomal connections of humans to chimps( Science, Vol. 215, p. 1525, 'The Origin of Man: A Chromosomal Pictorial Legacy') Yunis and Prakash showed that the human chromosome designated '2' was the result of the telomeric fusion of the two ape chromosomes, 2p and 2q. The effect also saw the reduction from 24 chromosome pairs in apes, to 23 pairs in humans.

Worse, the ID-er or creationist misinterprets specific disagreements over a particular aspect of evolution (by evolutionary biologists) for a fundamental deficiency that s/he believe nullifies the whole. Further, s/he does not comprehend that it is not a simple question of "proof" or "disproof" (since very few sceintfic laws are even regarded as "proven" in an absolute sense for all time) but rather the quality of the evidence itself. In the case of Evolution, the quality of the evidence is extremely high - particularly in its genetic aspect. Thus, with high probability - say 99.5%, one can rightly regard Evolution as close to "fact" as one can reasonably get.

Similar ignorance emerges when creationists attempt to critique the Big Bang theory. They''re unaware that it's possible to employ the laws of thermodynamics to go "backwards" in time (in a kind of reverse film loop) to obtain the properties of the very early universe! One finds on doing this that the physical characteristics (density, temperature, etc.) are fully consistent with a fireball of immense temperature - what we call the "Big Bang". In other words, the present (2.7 K) signature radiation can be extrapolated backward in time to arrive at the Big Bang! (For those interested in the details of this, please see The First Three Minutes, by Stephen Weinberg, Basic Books, New York, 1977. Though somewhat dated, it still represents the most understandable presentation of how physics can be used to obtain the Big Bang, starting from the Penzias & Wilson data).

The data are scientifically acceptable (high degree of quality, reliability) precisely because a significant number of succeeding, independent measurements have disclosed the blackbody nature of the radiation, legitimizing its use for the extrapolation techniques just described. Further, the results are fully consistent with other independent data and measurements such as the neutron/proton ratios in relation to temperatures.(See, e.g. Introduction to Cosmology, J.V. Narlikar, Cambridge University Press, p. 147, 1993).

Once again, the scientifically illiterate err grievously in their penchant to "throw the baby out with the bath water". The Big Bang, therefore, is not merely "theory" or "opinion" but confirmed fact, to as high a percentage of probability as Evolution, if not more. What disagreements and problems there are - in terms of early inflation, or specific values of neutron/proton ratios at the early stages, are minor details which - in fact - have been resolved through the use of sophisticated refinements to the basic theory .

The inability to distinguish degrees of empirical validity among the various scientific disciplines is also a major failing of the scientifically illiterate. For example, among those with even a basic acquaintance of science, it is a "given" that one cannot demand the same degree of empirical accountability and predictive accuracy for celestial mechanics (e.g. the prediction of the planet Jupiter's position in two hundred years) as for climatology. In short, it is just -plain wrongheaded to hold the climatologist to the same exacting standards as the celestial mechanist - since climatology and meteorology are subject to many large scale stochastic processes. Thus forecast variability, including more errors in computer modeling, are to be expected. But one must not use such inevitable errors or predictive shortfalls to attempt to write off, say, global warming as a "hoax".

Lastly, we come to the issue of "proof" and "disproof", wherein one sees the spectacle of vast multitudes of laymen laboring under an outdated misconception. In point of fact, there are relatively few things which can be "proven" in science - for all times and conditions. This is because scientific models are based on a limited set of laws, each of which has a particular domain of applicability. Hence, Newton's laws of gravitation work fine in the environs of earth but fail when we look at the whole galaxy. Coulomb's law (of electro-statics) works fine within a particular scale of charge separation but fails beyond this, since the electrostatic force falls off as the inverse square of the distance. Thus, at very large distances it is negligible.

Rather than the naive concepts of "proof" and "disproof" it makes more sense to apply quality assurance (QA) criteria to the evidence available for particular hypotheses. Thus, it is more practical to consider criteria of adequacy, and whether data meet these criteria. In this way, the relative merit of a scientific finding can be adduced based on standards similar to those employed in industrial quality control. If certain minimal criteria or standards are not met, then the finding is regarded with skepticism or rejected outright.

(To be continued)

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