The Regrettable Overreach of “Faith versus Fact”

The fact that the various gods that mankind has invented over the years, including the currently popular ones, don’t exist has been sufficiently obvious to any reasonably intelligent pre-adolescent who has taken the trouble to think about it since at least the days of Jean Meslier.  That unfortunate French priest left us with a Testament that exposed the folly of belief in imaginary super-beings long before the days of Darwin.  It included most of the “modern” arguments, including the dubious logic of inventing gods to explain everything we don’t understand, the many blatant contradictions in the holy scriptures, the absurdity of the notion that an infinitely wise and perfect being could be moved to fury or even offended by the pathetic sins of creatures as abject as ourselves, the lack of any need for a supernatural “grounding” for human morality, and many more.  Over the years these arguments have been elaborated and expanded by a host of thinkers, culminating in the work of today’s New Atheists.  These include Jerry Coyne, whose Faith versus Fact represents their latest effort to talk some sense into the true believers.

Coyne has the usual human tendency, shared by his religious opponents, of “othering” those who disagree with him.  However, besides sharing a “sin” that few if any of us are entirely free of, he has some admirable traits as well.  For example, he has rejected the Blank Slate ideology of his graduate school professor/advisor, Richard Lewontin, and even goes so far as to directly contradict him in FvF.  In spite of the fact that he is an old “New Leftist” himself, he has taken a principled stand against the recent attempts of the ideological Left to dismantle freedom of speech and otherwise decay to its Stalinist ground state.  Perhaps best of all as far as a major theme of this blog is concerned, he rejects the notion of objective morality that has been so counter-intuitively embraced by Sam Harris, another prominent New Atheist.

For the most part, Faith versus Fact is a worthy addition to the New Atheist arsenal.  It effectively dismantles the “sophisticated Christian” gambit that has encouraged meek and humble Christians of all stripes to imagine themselves on an infinitely higher intellectual plane than such “undergraduate atheists” as Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens.  It refutes the rapidly shrinking residue of “God of the gaps” arguments, and clearly illustrates the difference between scientific evidence and religious “evidence.”  It destroys the comfortable myth that religion is an “other way of knowing,” and exposes the folly of seeking to accommodate religion within a scientific worldview.  It was all the more disappointing, after nodding approvingly through most of the book, to suffer one of those “Oh, No!” moments in the final chapter.  Coyne ended by wandering off into an ideological swamp with a fumbling attempt to link obscurantist religion with “global warming denialism!”

As it happens, I am a scientist myself.  I am perfectly well aware that when an external source of radiation such as that emanating from the sun passes through an ideal earthlike atmosphere that has been mixed with a dose of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, impinges on an ideal earthlike surface, and is re-radiated back into space, the resulting equilibrium temperature of the atmosphere will be higher than if no greenhouse gases were present.  I am also aware that we are rapidly adding such greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and that it is therefore reasonable to be concerned about the potential effects of global warming.  However, in spite of that it is not altogether irrational to take a close look at whether all the nostrums proposed as solutions to the problem will actually do any good.

In fact, the earth does not have an ideal static atmosphere over an ideal static and uniform surface.  Our planet’s climate is affected by a great number of complex, interacting phenomena.  A deterministic computer model capable of reliably predicting climate change decades into the future is far beyond the current state of the art.  It would need to deal with literally millions of degrees of freedom in three dimensions, in many cases using potentially unreliable or missing data.  The codes currently used to address the problem are probabilistic, reduced basis models, that can give significantly different answers depending on the choice of initial conditions.

In a recently concluded physics campaign at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists attempted to achieve thermonuclear fusion ignition by hitting tiny targets containing heavy isotopes of hydrogen with the most powerful laser system ever built.  The codes they used to model the process should have been far more accurate than any current model of the earth’s climate.  These computer models included all the known relevant physical phenomena, and had been carefully benchmarked against similar experiments carried out on less powerful laser systems.  In spite of that, the best experimental results didn’t come close to the computer predictions.  The actual number of fusion reactions hardly came within two orders of magnitude of expected values.  The number of physical approximations that must be used in climate models is far greater than were necessary in the Livermore fusion codes, and their value as predictive tools must be judged accordingly.

In a word, we have no way of accurately predicting the magnitude of the climate change we will experience in coming decades.  If we had unlimited resources, the best policy would obviously be to avoid rocking the only boat we have at the moment.  However, this is not an ideal world, and we must wisely allocate what resources we do have among competing priorities.  Resources devoted to fighting climate change will not be available for medical research and health care, education, building the infrastructure we need to maintain a healthy economy, and many other worthy purposes that could potentially not only improve human well-being but save many lives.  Before we succumb to frantic appeals to “do something,” and spend a huge amount of money to stop global warming, we should at least be reasonably confident that our actions will measurably reduce the danger.  To what degree can we expect “science” to inform our decisions, whatever they may be?

For starters, we might look at the track record of the environmental scientists who are now sounding the alarm.  The Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg examined that record in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in areas as diverse as soil erosion, storm frequency, deforestation, and declining energy resources.  Time after time he discovered that they had been crying “wolf,” distorting and cherry-picking the data to support dire predictions that never materialized.  Lomborg’s book did not start a serious discussion of potential shortcomings of the scientific method as applied in these areas.  Instead he was bullied and vilified.  A kangaroo court was organized in Denmark made up of some of the more abject examples of so-called “scientists” in that country, and quickly found Lomborg guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” a verdict which the Danish science ministry later had the decency to overturn.  In short, the same methods were used against Lomborg as were used decades earlier to silence critics of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, resulting in what was possibly the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  At the very least we can conclude that all the scientific checks and balances that Coyne refers to in such glowing terms in Faith versus Fact have not always functioned with ideal efficiency in promoting the cause of truth.  There is reason to believe that the environmental sciences are one area in which this has been particularly true.

Under the circumstances it is regrettable that Coyne chose to equate “global warming denialism” a pejorative term used in ideological squabbles that is by its very nature unscientific, with some of the worst forms of religious obscurantism.  Instead of sticking to the message, in the end he let his political prejudices obscure it.  Objections to the prevailing climate change orthodoxy are hardly coming exclusively from the religious fanatics who sought to enlighten us with “creation science,” and “intelligent design.”  I invite anyone suffering from that delusion to have a look at some of the articles the physicist and mathematician Lubos Motl has written about the subject on his blog, The Reference Frame.  Examples may be found here, here and, for an example with a “religious” twist,  here.  There he will find documented more instances of the type of “scientific” behavior Lomborg cited in The Skeptical Environmentalist.  No doubt many readers will find Motl irritating and tendentious, but he knows his stuff.  Anyone who thinks he can refute his take on the “science” had better be equipped with more knowledge of the subject than is typically included in the bromides that appear in the New York Times.

Alas, I fear that I am once again crying over spilt milk.  I can only hope that Coyne has an arrow or two left in his New Atheist quiver, and that next time he chooses a publisher who will insist on ruthlessly chopping out all the political Nebensächlichkeiten.  Meanwhile, have a look at his Why Evolution is True website.  In addition to presenting a convincing case for evolution by natural selection and a universe free of wrathful super beings, Professor Ceiling Cat, as he is known to regular visitors for reasons that will soon become apparent to newbies, also posts some fantastic wildlife pictures.  And if it’s any consolation, I see his book has been panned by John Horgan.  Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad.  Apparently Horgan’s review was actually solicited by the editors of the Wall Street Journal.  Go figure!  One wonders what rock they’ve been sleeping under lately.

10 thoughts on “The Regrettable Overreach of “Faith versus Fact””

  1. I’m thinking that entering into such debate, on either ‘side’, shows group identification. There are so many levels to this story but surely the thing Lorenz etc was saying had nore to do with ‘why we bother saying anything at all’ rather than whar we say.
    A excellent example for me is religion, there is simply nothing that could get me to comment.
    I found your unravelling of his argument and his ‘ingroup’ submissive comments spot on.
    The whole ‘blank slate’ academic tribe present a huge problem as they argue, as you point out in other blogs, about the false divisions of nonsense whilst blocking any radical change in the landscape of the conversation. Hence my surprise that you entered the muddy waters.

  2. Clearing the “muddy waters” is important. Belief in imaginary super-beings acts as a roadblock to self-understanding. As history demonstrates, it can also be very dangerous. It is not a matter of indifference.

  3. Yes, and apologies for the rather confusing comment.
    I totally agree that the religious experience needs to be challenged. But is challenged the right word, as you point out, its obvious to anyone with the slightest objective nature to see. Here is our opportunity, what is it that is so appealing, clearly not the ‘religion’ as most people have the moment of conversion BEFORE the understanding of the landscape of the said belief. ie they are attracted or their brains reward them at a crucial point, for a certain identification or discovery of something. Now I will go on a limb and suggest that the identification is ‘Authority’ or someone who is “supportive’, mimicing the parent/elder/alpha.
    Tinbergen’s beak shows us that the false stimuli, the ‘super’ stimuli will be prefered to the actual.
    Ok so this is all old hat, but what else can we see or observe in the ‘believer’? They are unaware of their self deciept.
    I do wonder if there were times when these super stimuli were universially shared. Did peoples all ‘believe’, we may never know. The cost of belief and the benefit now could be studied, the networking benefits of a religion in a small town, the rewards in employment etc, and the costs through wasted time etc, the sunday ritual.
    Ok so we move to the ‘Climate Change’ debate, now this was what I was actually talking about and not religion, again my apologies.
    I’m not interested in the content, but only in which ‘group’ benefits from certain decisions, and how does identification with one arguement occur.
    Are the same ‘group’ dynamics at play in the ‘political’ churches, or the ‘economic’ churches. Does identification occur before the archetecture of the ‘political ideology’ is understood?
    One of the intriguing things I have found about Ardrey in the ‘Social Contract’ book has been his acceptance of the reality of the ‘Country’, or Nation State. No doubt its real, but its real in the same sense that the church is real, its a shared concept, a powerful and directive shared concept.
    There are secondary forms of evidence for its existence, like the church, there are buildings, politicians (priests) rules/constitutions/laws etc, but these are no different to the Bible etc in that they are subjective?
    I’ve mentioned before that one of the difficulties of the Dawkins etc of the world is that they are enclosed in a cultural reality that they can’t see. They are within the religious/cultural experience and as such cannot grasp the null (for want of a better word)
    Just read the quote in the ‘territorial imperitive’ by Herbert Spencer, basically saying that the truth need not be good, and was reminded of the Nietzsche comment of “who do we think we are to demand the ‘truth’.

  4. I don’t think you’re going out on a very treacherous limb here. After all, it’s not likely that our brains are actually wired for belief in imaginary super-beings. However, “parent/elder/alpha” wiring of some kind is certainly there, and probably enhances the probability of such belief. I agree that secular surrogates exist, and probably scratch the same itch.

    I read Chatwin’s “Songlines,” BTW. Very interesting. He’s too smart to be a Blank Slater, but wants to believe that our “wiring” is more benign than suggested by, for example, Raymond Dart. I have no problem with that. As long as we’re free to seek self-knowledge without being vilified as fascists, racists, etc., I’m fine with any hypothesis, as long as they don’t harden into dogmas before they’ve been verified.

  5. Glad you enjoyed Chatwin’s songlines, I read it a few years ago but revisited it recently and as mentioned it was like reading a different book. Initially I thought the second section was just random thoughts, but it flows magnificently.
    This ability to see differing subtleties is of course the epistemological issue.
    Re the labelling of people within the debate, I am taken straight back to the group territorial issue. reading the ‘territorial imperative’, have just finished the ‘social contract’, and read ‘African Genesis’ only a few months ago, its a bit like finding an old favourite. There are a few areas where Ardrey goes too fast, I think he has a problem with his acceptance of nationhood. By this I mean that we need to be careful that our actual ‘real’ group is identified, not some substitute, some ‘super stimuli’.
    As an aside, I live in Australia and ‘Songlines’ takes on a more profound meaning with some understanding of the relationship of the indigenous community to the land. The British thought they had no ownership, of course this was convenient but the reality was and is that they had and have incredible territorial links and boundaries.
    Regards

  6. I’ve read Jill Ker Conway’s “The Road from Coorain.” I enjoyed reading it, but noticed there was little about the indigenous people. I think there as in the US, people often prefer to put the subject out of mind. Chatwin “got it” concerning the significance of Dart’s cave taphonomy findings. I’ve seen few others even touch the subject. Unfortunately, he accepted CK Brain’s claim that Dart’s anomalies were the work of leopards. Brain has been in full rowback mode on that claim lately. There is certainly evidence of early hominid hunting in the South African caves. Whether it was done by Australopithecus Africanus with antelope humerus bones is another matter.

  7. Talking of overreach..
    Indeed, Chatwin did wander with the Brain stuff but the importance, as you say, was that he was aware of and (did he really) that he met Lorenz.
    If I can go back to your comment re being called fascist etc, could I indulge in a long winded and winding comment.
    I need to start by saying that the understanding of, and acceptance of the sub-conscious and unconscious are key to this ramble.
    So the diversion.
    I moved to a nice coastal town about two and a half years ago and was fortunate to buy two and a half acres of ‘bush’ in the middle of town, now the neighbours were charming and were very helpful about telling us how we should remove the weeds etc from the land. They had been there for 30 years, had one acre and had build there new (10 years) house two metres from the shared boundary as the blocks are very step and covered with Camphor Laurel, (Camphor Laurel is a Chinese tree, and therefore classified as a weed.)
    I doubt that my neighbour every thought that anyone would remove these trees as the block is useless for any development and as stated very steep.
    Anyway, I’m somewhat ‘touched’ and enjoy gardening as my main hobby, exercise, activity and since I moved there have spent an average of four hours working on the property.
    We (Sheree my long suffering partner and Tom, our thirteen year old) were increasingly struck by the frosty reception that we were encountering from the said neighbours.
    You can probably guess what happened, one Sunday Morning at 11 0’colock I decided to remove one of the few remaining large Camphor Laurel trees. It was 30 metres high and required ropes, pullies, and a large chain saw. So off I went, now remember the neighbour was very pro the removal of these trees,.
    Broommm and down comes the tree, falling from about ten feet from where they sit, to land on the now cleared block.
    Well, the resultant outpouring of aggression was fantastic, I had been developing the theory that as I was effectively trespassing on what historically he had, unconsciously, considered his, that the frostiness was the result. He was conflicted between the legal boundary and the ‘unconscious’ boundary.
    Now this is the relevant part of the ramble re your ‘fascist’ comment.
    He stormed to the boundary, yelling with blood vessels about to burst, but it was the content that was the best. “You are the most inconsiderate bastard I have ever met, how could you make that noise at this time on a Sunday Morning.”
    I’m not the bravest man but I was on to this and he is a fool so I thought, well why not,. “listen, its 11 o’clock on a Sunday Morning”.
    “The rules are that you are only allowed to use power tools in business hours and up till 1 pm on a Saturday”. (this was later shown false)
    So that was that, I retreated to other actions and thoughts.
    Now the message was about some abstract ‘inconsiderate’ action. Really it was all about the invasion of his territory. I like to imagine the home territory is like a expanding severity of circles with the inner most protected and the outer less so. Strict territorialism. So I was effectively in his Red Zone, but whilst his unconscious was going mad, he could only consciously frame it in the language of ‘Inconsiderate’.
    One other point, one of the people I’ve been reading, Morris possibly, mentioned that a dog will show you the boundaries of the owner.
    Now our dogs keep twenty yards from that boundary, and his dogs freely roam the said space. I have since taken our dogs up and down that boundary for their morning constitutional just for the fun of it. His dogs have been scratching the ground, marking with a frenzy, sniffing, oh its great fun.
    Anyway, the point is when people call you names they are just not aware of the actual motivation of their language. How else can we explain the unthinking denial of the works you so rightly promote.
    Lastly, I have just got to the part of the ‘territorial imperative’ where Ardrey discusses Freud. He makes the point that if Freud had been introduced to Lorenz and Tinbergens work, he would have said, ;’Oh yes of course, why didn’t someone tell me earlier”. My comment here is that Freud was free, he was the alpha, beta or omega to no one. He could have made this leap.
    Finally, reading Ardrey, Lorenz and Tinbergen for the first time at fifty years of age is both exhilarating and frustrating,. Exhilarating in its clarity and vision, but frustrating that as a university graduate in these fields I was not introduced to these people earlier.
    Apologies for the ramble, but I do enjoy your work and thoughts.
    Regards

  8. That’s some neighbor you have. I’m really lucky in having good ones who are easy to get along with. Your point is well taken, though. That was territorialism at its best.

    Tiger and Fox were another pair of pre-“Sociobiology” writers on human nature. In “The Imperial Animal” they criticized Ardrey’s version of territorial behavior without ever mentioning his name because he hadn’t mentioned that, unlike other primates, humans exchange territory for other territory, money, etc. It really doesn’t make much difference. If humans consider a territory theirs, they defend it just the same. You might say that’s just enough piece of historical source material demonstrating Ardrey’s significance. Everyone knew who they were talking about. In spite of their nit-picking, Ardrey wrote glowing reviews of their books.

    I began reading Ardrey in the late 60’s and early 70’s. There was no question at the time that he was the most influential proponent of the reality and significance of human nature. That was always the main theme of his work. Much later I assumed he had been triumphantly vindicated when the media started spouting truisms about innate behavior as if they had never been the least bit controversial. I was stunned to read Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” and find that he had been dismissed in a single paragraph as “totally and utterly wrong” because, of all things, some good things he had to say about the entirely peripheral issue of group selection in “The Social Contract.” I’ve been tracking down a lot of source material lately in the form of old magazines, etc. Throughout the 60’s and early 70’s, from the left to the right of the political spectrum, Ardrey was invariably recognized as the main proponent of human nature and most effective opponent of the Blank Slaters. The fact that the academic “historians” now pretend that he never existed, and that nothing worth noticing happened before the publication of the entirely derivative “Sociobiology” is enough to shake ones faith in history in general.

    Ramble on as much as you like. I enjoy reading your thoughts, too. Let me know if you can recommend any other good Australian authors.

  9. Thank you for the licence to ramble.
    Now re the territorialism of my neighbour I will try and extend the importance of the conscious/unconscious divide.
    In the Territorial Imperative Ardrey reaches peak despair over the inability of some to grasp some of the core concepts.
    P 322 in the Fontana version in the chapter on ‘the Amity-Enmity complex he writes.
    John Paul Scott was undismayed….. he wrote “all that we know …….there is no known etc”
    Ardrey then says ‘”All that we know”…What must be described as a party line has appeared in the American sciences, protected by its mot respected adherent’s.

    No back to my neighbour, he is epistemologically challenged, now bare with me.
    He was consciously yelling at me about the ‘Noise’. This is important, he was being driven by an unconscious and powerful motivator of ‘Territory’, yet the ‘Social/Cultural’ translation was blocked, as the boundary was clear,. however at a conscious level he had to react, so what does the consciousness do, it translates to a culturally viable framework.
    Now I fear I’m losing clarity, but I’ll continue.
    It is impossible for him to understand his ‘drivers’ as he has never been shown, in fact we are culturally unaware.
    Now back to Scott and the Blank Slaters,
    They are defending their territory, be it in academia, or whatever, they are defending a territory and they are defending a hierarchy, now their place in this is important,. this is the territory they are defending, and the ‘language’ of the attack on intruders is confused, like the ‘neighbour’.
    I hope that makes sense because I’m going one limb further.
    Firstly a comment. Academia has only one example, that I’m aware of, where the ruling orthodoxy was overturned by an ‘outsider’. Einstein was working in the patent office when he broke Quantum, his theories were undeniable and the establishment accepted and brought him in. Its a powerful case, he was a genius, he managed to speak to the scientific establishment in their language, he was right, and not only that, as he broke a knowledge barriers, or conceptual barrier, he broke a few. Such is genius, but also such is the natural consequence of breakthrough. (that this is impossible in the ‘soft sciences of psychology, sociology, you name it, is a huge indictment of these streams!)
    So now on to the ‘blank slaters’ as you have mentioned, they are a ‘group’ they defend territory, their careers and livelihoods are at stake. The reason they don’t notice when the landscape of their arguments are shattered is that the ‘content’ is not important, as long as they are still in their office, as long as the establishment pecking order is the same they actually don’t notice that the arguments are wrong.
    Now this is where there is occasionally an Ardrey, an outsider who through the freedom of his life and a genius for the truth breaks through. However, and this is the epistemological problem, the territorial boundary riders are actually not capable of seeing these truths.
    While I’m on the case of the Blank Slaters lets ask them some questions,. If the individual is a blank slate, how can a community of blank slates develop a ‘culture’.
    Well lets answer by saying that the environment creates culture? but what reacts to the environment if not human nature/instinct.
    So the blank slaters argue about the variations of culture, yes that is the old mistake of looking at the unhealthy (Or Variant) rather than the healthy. the healthy is the ‘shared’, ‘common’ cultural activities. these are where human nature and instinct are at there most strongest. that territory is the building block of every culture is clear.
    I’ll stop in a minute but the Blank Slaters to me are like my neighbour, arguing about the content of the abuse they throw, unaware of the ‘Unconscious’ drivers. They are blind and what’s more it is impossible for them to escape.
    So when they argue about the conscious ‘free will’ to act or chose behaviours, the are actually only arguing about which form of words they will use, which misplace content they will hurl across the boundaries that they are unaware of.
    There are further limbs now opening up, but I’ll wait and see if think these leaps are anything other than the ranting’s of a cynic.
    regards

  10. In case you haven’t seen it, you might want to read “The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt. He basically says the same thing – that the moral reaction is immediate, and is then rationalized after the fact. Here’s a link to one of his papers that more briefly explains his theory.

    http://www3.nd.edu/~wcarbona/Haidt%202001.pdf

    I agree with him.

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