Monday, April 19, 2004

The Conservative Assault on Science Continues By way of Pharyngula I have been made aware of this column by Kelly Hollowell. It was published at the arch-conservative website WorldNetDaily and bears the alarming title Distorting Science for the Secular Agenda. It is one more example of the recent conservative antipathy toward science.

Let us consider Hollowell's article in full:

The last decade was riddled with headlines of children killing other children in the classroom and schoolyard, teen pregnancy and drug abuse on the rise. According to the Educational Testing Service, studies show between 75 and 98 percent of college students surveyed each year report cheating in high school. One study asked 1,700 sixth- to ninth-grade students to share their attitudes about rape. Sixty-five percent of the boys and 47 percent of the girls said that forced sex was acceptable if a couple dated six months. Even in a debate over the war in Iraq, students on campuses nationwide are arguing whether terrorism is wrong and the fight against terrorism is right, suggesting "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

These head scratchers are best explained by the nation's overwhelming embrace of moral relativism, which rests on the teaching that values are subjective and ethics depend on the situation. In other words, there is no such thing as right or wrong, good or evil.

So far there is nothing here that hasn't appeared in countless right-wing op-eds over the years. Hollowell feels no need to justify her statement that an abstract philosophical position - moral relativism - is behind any of the statistics she mentioned. Accepting her statistics as correct (a dubious proposition, to be sure) there are other explanations for the facts she cites. The propensity of students to cheat does not imply that they think cheating is morally right. Sometimes people do things they know to be wrong in the hopes of gaining some more immediate reward. And debating the merits of the war in Iraq, or occasionally placing yourself in the shoes of those on the other side, is hardly evidence of great moral perfidy. That one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter is a simple statement of fact about how different people can have different perceptions of the same situation. It does not imply that equal moral merit is being attached to both sides.

So where did moral relativism gain its footing in a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles?

It actually started in the 1920s when a belief began to circulate in the U.S. that there were no longer any absolutes, specifically, of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge and above all of human value. This belief system was built on the work of at least two prominent scientists: Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin.

The work of these scientists ultimately conveyed the same singular message: That the world was not what it seemed, so old rules, philosophies and ways of life no longer applied.

Loyal readers of this blog could probably write the remainder of Hollowell's column without looking at the original. That Darwin's theory; seen by ignorant, benighted, militantly atheistic scientists as one of the great leaps forward in our understanding of biology; was in reality a calamity for generations of impressionable youth is old hat for conservatives. But Einstein?

Wait a minute. Surely she's not about to argue that since Einstein talked about relativity, and that sort of sounds like relativism, that Einstein was promoting a particular view of morality? I mean, that would be too stupid even for a conservative, right?

The basis of Einstein's life-changing view called the theory of relativity can be summed this way: Time is not constant. Both velocity and gravity can distort time. Nearly nine decades ago, this surprising discovery shook the very foundation of human perception, understanding and reality.

Mistakenly, in the minds of many, the theory of relativity became relativism. So it was in the 1920s and still today that the popular interpreter of Einstein's work finds himself saying "All things are relative" and thinks that he is voicing a scientific discovery. This notion of "all things relative" moved from the laboratory into the public domain, creating an era in which all absolutes disappeared. Relativism has become the prevailing spirit of thought and action in our modern culture, but that is just half the equation.

Holy shit! She went and did it. Once again Hollowell presents no evidence for the proposition that generations of amoral teenage zombies have been taking their marching orders from Einstein. At least Hollowell distances herself from this view. Very big of her.

Incidentally, even as a two-sentence description of relativity it will not do to write “Time is not constant. Both velocity and gravity can distort time”. I'm not even sure what it means to describe time as constant. What she really means is something like our perception of time will change depending on the velocity at which we are traveling. Or that it is possible for observers in different frames of reference to observe the same phenomenon but have different perceptions of the duration of the phenomenon. Putting it that way, of course, would have made it far more difficult to draw simplistic moral conclusions.

The other half is provided by Darwin, who left us with the teaching that all of life arose by accident. If that is true, the human race has no unifying meaning or purpose. And if we have no unified meaning, then we have no inherent duty, obligations or responsibility. Worse, we have no inherent value except that which is assigned by the ever-changing opinions of a fickle society.

Actually, Darwin showed that chance was one factor in determining which life forms would be around four billion years after the first primordial sort of life arose in some unknown way. Hollowell thinks this implies that “we have no unified meaning” because she equates “meaning” with the existence of God and equates “evolution” with the non-existence of God. Suffice it to say that this is hardly the only philosophical interpretation of Darwin's work.

Together then, the misapplied and false doctrines of relativity and evolution have delivered a one-two punch to the American way of life, giving birth to moral relativism and severing cultural ties to traditional Judeo Christian principles.

Substituting repetition for evidence is a favorite rhetorical trick of conservatives.

But what if Darwin's theory is wrong? And what if Einstein's theory of relativity were rightly understood apart from the concept of relativism? Could we regain our moral hold on the value of life? Could we assure ourselves and our children that right and wrong still exist? The answer is yes, but how do we turn back the indoctrination of nearly 100 years?

Despite the paucity of evidence in support of evolutionary theory, secular advocacy has made it the mainstay of our academic institutions. Its impact on the devaluation of human life can be seen in a broad array of practices including shooting sprees, abortion, human experimentation, euthanasia, physician assisted suicide, embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning. The list goes on.

In reading this last statement keep in mind that Hollowell writes about “the paucity of evidence in support of evolutionary theory” not because she has actually studied biology and considered the evidence but rather because she knows that in conservative circles it is safe to make such claims. She probably recalls hearing once that “relativity has been proved” whereas evolution is “just a theory”. Otherwise she would simply have dismissed relativity along with evolution, instead of graciously conceding the possibility that Einstein's theory can be interpreted in a way that does not endorse moral relativism (Ya think?).

At the risk of repeating myself, why does Hollowell feel no need to back up the statement that evolution has been responsible for shooting sprees, abortions, human experimentation, and other sorts of badness? Do you think she would be impressed by the argument that religion has been responsible for pogroms, crusades, and inquisitions?

Actually, stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning probably do owe something to evolution, since the science undergirding both of those practices originated from evolutionary thinking (the same could be said for most aspects of modern biology). The people wanting to pursue stem-cell research are generally motivated by a desire to cure diseases and ameliorate the suffering of sick people. Moral relativism indeed.

It is also clear that the misunderstanding and/or deliberate misuse of Einstein's theory of relativity has convinced a majority of society that there are no absolutes. If anyone dares to claim otherwise, they are labeled by secularists as self-righteous, backward-thinking, fanatics.

More repetition, this time coupled with another favorite conservative rhetorical trick: Putting words in the mouths of their caricatured opponents.

Sadly, the church has largely abandoned its post on these issues as well. They retreated years ago under the pressures of arrogant academics who claimed the church wasn't smart enough to understand science and needed religion as compensation for their inability to reason. Even today, few pastors will speak from the pulpit on the issues and impact of relativity and evolution.

The problem isn't that “the church” isn't smart enough to understand science. It is that all too many people, speaking in the name of religion, have not bothered to obtain even a high school level understanding of the relevant scientific concepts.

I currently live in Virginia, but before moving here I lived in Kansas for three years. While I was there I listened to the local Christian radio station almost every day. The pastors on that station seemed perfectly happy to spew the most hateful, ignorant venom in Darwin's general direction. I wish the churches they represented had been more reticent about talking about evolution! They didn't talk about relativity much, but that was probably because that nifty connection between relativity and relativism hadn't occurred to them.

So it is left to individuals to educate themselves and those around them.

I agree completely. If only the whole column had been so lucid. Alas, I suspect that she is using the phrase “educate themselves” in the Orwellian sense of making yourself completely impervious to facts and logic.

With that in mind, scientists will soon launch a rocket to test Einstein's general theory of relativity in space. Regardless of the results, we should take this opportunity to explain to our friends, our children and anyone who will listen, the difference between relativity and moral relativism.

It's time to stop the distorted use of science by advocates of the secular agenda because the impact on our children and our nation is very bad.

I'm not sure what rocket Hollowell has in mind, but I'm all in favor of explaining the difference between relativity and relativism.

And what better way of closing this entirely evidence-free column than by repeating the familiar charge one more time.

Actually, at this point we are given an author bio for Ms. Hollowell:

Kelly Hollowell, J.D., Ph.D., is a scientist, patent attorney and adjunct law professor of bioethics. She is also a nationally recognized conference speaker and founder of Science Ministries Inc.

There's a lot here to parse. First, be suspicious of anyone described simply as a scientist. If they really had any qualifications in this regard they would be described by a more specific term like physicist, or chemist, or biologist. Also be suspicious of anyone who is described as a professor but does not provide the name of the institution at which they teach. Trust me, professors teaching at reputable schools are eager to let you know that fact.

I followed the link to Science Ministries, and found the following paragraph about Ms. Hollowell:

My writing and speaking engagements are rooted in a unique ministry. I hold a PhD in molecular, cellular pharmacology (DNA Technology and analysis) and a law degree from Regent University (the only ABA accredited Christian law school in the world).

This from Ms. Hollowell herself. It makes me very suspicious that she hasn't told us the school from which her PhD was obtained; that's SOP when you are describing your qualifications. The biology jargon is also suspicious. She knows it will mean nothing to most of the people reading it, yet she makes no attempt to explain what it means. It is there only to impress nonscientists. Finally, Regent University is closely affiliated with Pat Robertson. It's not just Christianity that it teaches, but a particular strain of Protestant fundamentalism.

Spend a few moments at the Science Ministries website and you quickly realize that the emphasis is on “Ministries” not “science”.


At 1:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's not just Christianity that it [Regent] teaches, but a particular strain of Protestant fundamentalism." Wrong, again. Please do some more research before making blanket statements such as that above. Glad to read that you followed up and acknowledged your erroneous statements re: Dr. Hollowell and her qualifications.


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