Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Best Magazine Article Ever

Here's something I never thought I'd write: I bought the latest issue of Esquire magazine at the newsstand the other day. The reason for this unlikely step was a headline on the cover that read “Creationists and Other Idiots.” The rather fetching picture of actress Jessica Biel on the cover didn't hurt either.

The article's author is Charles Pierce, and its title is “Greeting from Idiot America.” The subhead reads:


Creationism. Intelligent design. Faith-based this. Trust-your-gut that. There's never been a better time to espouse, profit from, and believe in utter, unadulterated crap. And the crap is rising so high, it's getting dangerous.


I don't know of any other magazine that has had the courage to state the truth so bluntly. Sadly, it's not freely available online. So allow to me to transcribe a few choice nuggets for you.

After describing a visit to the nascent creationism museum being built in Kentucky, which features a dinosaur exhibit in which the fearsome creatures are wearing saddles, he describes some of the obvious contradictions in the museum exhibits. Then Pierce writes:


These are impolite questions. Nobody asks them here by the cool pond tucked into a gentle hillside. Increasingly, nobody asks them outside the gates either. It is impolite to wonder why our parents sent us to college, and why generations of immigrants sweated and bled so their children could be educated, if it wasn't so that we would all one day feel confident enough to look at a museum filled with dinosaurs rigged to run six furlongs at Belmont and make the not unreasonable point that it is all batshit crazy and that anyone who believes this righteous hooey should be kept away from sharp objects and his own moeny.

Dinosaurs with saddles?

Dinosaurs on Noah's Ark?

Welcome to your new Eden.

Welcome to Idiot America.


And later, still talking about creationism:


This is how Idiot America engages the great issues of the day. It decides, en masse, with a thousand keystrokes and clicks of the remote control, that because there are two sides to every question, they must both be right, or at least not wrong. And the poor biologist's words carry no more wieght than the thunderations of some turkey-neck preacher out of the Church of Christ's Own Parking Facility in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an “expert” and, therefore, an “elitist.” Nobody buys his books. Nobody puts him on cable. He's brilliant surely, but his Gut's the same as ours. He just ignores it, poor fool.


Later still:


The “debate,” of course, is nothing of the sort, because two sides are required for a debate. Nevertheless, the very notion of it is a measure of how scientific discourse, and the way the country educates itself, has slipped through lassitude and inattention across the border into Idiot America - where fact is merely that which enough people believe, and truth is measured only by how fervently they believe it.

If we have abdicated our birthright to scientific progress, we have done so by moving the debate into the realm of political and cultural argument, where we all feel more confident, because it is here that the Gut rules. Held to this standard, any scientific theory is rendered mere opinion. Scientific fact is no more immutable than a polling sample. This is how there's a “debate” over global warming, even though the preponderance of fact among those who actually have studied the phenomenon renders the “debate” quite silly. The debate is about making people feel better about driving SUV's. The debate is less about climatology than it is about guiltlessly topping off your tank and voting in tax incentives for oil companies.


The whole article is quite long, and it covers a lot more than just creationism. The tone of the article is exactly right and long overdue.

The next time you hear some condescending pseudoliberal columnist peddle cheap excuses for the fundamentalists; the next time you hear someone say they are just responding to misperceived threats to their faith or to an overzealous atheist like Richard Dawkins; the next time you hear some postmodern nonsense about people basing their worldviews on different assumptions; just remember the wise words of this article. Religious fundamentalism is born out of laziness and cowardice. It is the province of people who can't be troubled to educate themselves about anything, and who have no higher ambition in life than to be led by a charismatic preacher. It is nothing more noble than that.

28 Comments:

At 4:44 PM, Blogger M.C. said...

It is the province of people who can't be troubled to educate themselves about anything, and who have no higher ambition in life than to be led by a charismatic preacher.


What's the difference between relying on a charismatic preacher to tell you what to think, and relying on Scientific American to tell you what to think?

Both are examples of intellectual "laziness and cowardice".

I think Anthony Freeman and Robin Hanson have correctly diagnosed the institition of science.

Organized science is out there picking on the intellectual lightweights of "creation science" instead of investigating its own lacunae.

 
At 4:47 PM, Blogger Jason said...

m.c-

The difference is that on scientific issues, Scientific American gets it right A LOT more often than any charismatic preacher.

But who, exactly, is relying on Scientific American to tell him what to think?

 
At 5:05 PM, Blogger PatSki said...

Scientific American doesn't tell you what to think. A charismatic preacher does.
SciAm seeks to presents what learned minds have discovered so far in their research. A preacher seeks to spread his myopic view of the world and convert others to this view and damn those who do not come round to his way of thinking.
I could carry on.....

 
At 5:10 PM, Blogger M.C. said...

I've ran into many "skeptics" who say they won't believe anything until it has been published in Nature or Scientific American.

It's really just a metaphor for ideas which have been "approved" by the scientific mainstream. And you will find a great many people who hold that vision of science up as their standard for reality. Not science as a method -- science as a social institution which has decided what is true and what cannot possibly be real.

As for charismatic preachers vs. science -- that's a tough call.

On the one hand, the charismatic preacher is likely to tell you a bunch of nonsense like Jesus is the only way and every non-Christian is destined to burn in hell, that evolution is not real, and that women should obey their husbands.

On the other hand, many scientists will tell you a bunch of nonsense such as that death is the anihilation of every aspect of consciousness, that you are nothing but a lumbering robot survival machine designed by your genes, that human consciousnesses are fundamentally separate from each other, and that everything you are and experience is a function of your brain.

Both groups of people maintain their belief systems by avoiding evidence to the contrary, maintaining taboos, and even ignoring their own data. I really see both kinds of dogmatism as undesirable. Consciousness was born to soar, and the straightjackets of belief of both fundamentalist religion and dogmatic reductionism both hobble its flight.

 
At 5:16 PM, Blogger M.C. said...

I created my blog, Science is a method, not a position, to cover research and data that is anathemized by scientific orthodoxy.

I try to avoid dogmatism, I publish well-argued material by skeptics, but the focus is to document studies of phenomena that institutionalized science scoffs at, instead of investigating.

 
At 5:33 PM, Anonymous J-Dog said...

Jason - Thanks for the tip - I will pick up the Esquire issue next time I run out.

BTW: m.c.= square peg in round hole, IMO.

 
At 7:47 PM, Blogger M.C. said...

jdog,

I notice you haven't provided any argument or evidence, just a sneering, insulting guffaw at ideas you are certain are false and risible.

I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but being certain you are right and that others are foolish, deluded, incompetent or otherwise laughable is not science. It is dogmatism, pure and simple.

Why don't you address some of the scientific studies I referenced instead of basking in your own prowess as a sneering scoffer?

 
At 1:02 AM, Blogger Martin Wagner said...

You m.c.,

I've ran into many "skeptics" who say they won't believe anything until it has been published in Nature or Scientific American. It's really just a metaphor for ideas which have been "approved" by the scientific mainstream.

You seem to be unaware that ideas which are approved by the "scientific mainstream" get that way because of a process called peer review. This is a process under which other scientists acting independently attempt to falsify your hypothesis. If your results successfully resist falsification, then your hypothesis gains scientific acceptance by the mainstream. (Which, to be honest, is the only stream there is in science, as an idea can either be verified or it can't. Terms like "organized science" and "scientific mainstream" are the weasel phrases of indignant woo-woos.)

While anyone who takes articles in Nature or SciAm as some kind of gospel would indeed be foolish, the fact is that information in those periodicals has typically undergone the peer review process, and is thus trustworthy. That doesn't mean that informaion won't ever be refuted or modified in the future. But it does mean, for now, it's stood up to being tested.

The problem I have often seen with people who think like you is that when your favorite ideas do not successfully resist falsification and fail to stand up to peer review, instead of accepting (however grudgingly) the results and going back to the ol' drawing board like proper scientists, you go all petulant and indignant and say things like, "Organized science is out there picking on the intellectual lightweights of 'creation science' instead of investigating its own lacunae."

Science "investigates its own lacunae" all the time. That's what peer review is. You guys just don't like it when science fails to validate the supernatural or mystical fluffery you find appealing.

Finally, in response to the following:

As for charismatic preachers vs. science -- that's a tough call.

No, it's the easiest call there is. It's black and white.

...many scientists will tell you a bunch of nonsense such as that death is the anihilation of every aspect of consciousness,

You sound pretty certain that is nonsense (though I'd hate to imply you were being, you know, dogmatic about it). Can you present credible evidence to show that death is not the annihilation of every aspect of consciousness, and are you willing to submit it to peer review? And if the peer review process fails to verify your certainty, are you willing to concede you are in error, or will you continue simply to cry about dogmatic, closed-minded mainstream scientists?

that you are nothing but a lumbering robot survival machine designed by your genes,

I love the snark simply dripping from this. One aspect of the character of the true believer I've noticed is the passionate desire to believe that we're all Special, and meant to be here for some Special Reason and Grand Purpose. And when science simply categorizes us as biological organisms, well, that's pretty damn rude, eh? Certainly doesn't go a long way to flattering people's egos, does it? Well, that's what science is fairly good at, I'm afraid: puncturing the balloon of human self-importance. It's no suprise that the woo-woo beliefs of supernaturalism, religion, psi, and other fancies have met with so much success, as they make it their business to inflate that balloon to super-size.

Biologically, we may be just genetic machines. So what? That fact, which the evidence has led me to accept, has not negatively impacted my ability to take the usual pleasures in life that I would anyway. Why would it?

So again my question is: if we aren't survival machines, what are we? (I may not be the most graceful fellow in life, but I don't lumber, and I'm certainly not robotic, and why do you think that scientists automatically imply that our nature as genetic machines would obligate us to be robotic and lumbering? Who exactly in science has said this, or is this more woo-woo snark?) Little sparks of the Force, angels in training, mystical entities on a spirit journey from Lemuria to Valhalla? And what evidence can you present that you are willing to submit to peer review? And if the peer review process fails to verify your evidence, are you willing to concede you are in error, or will you continue simply to cry about dogmatic, closed-minded mainstream scientists?

that human consciousnesses are fundamentally separate from each other,

Again, you sound pretty certain that is nonsense (though I'd hate to imply you were being, you know, dogmatic about it). Are you implying, confidently, that human consciousnesses are fundamentally joined to one another? Can you present credible evidence for this, and are you willing to submit it to peer review? And if the peer review process fails to verify your certainty, are you willing to concede you are in error, or will you continue simply to cry about dogmatic, closed-minded mainstream scientists?

and that everything you are and experience is a function of your brain.

Who says this, exactly? I think current cognitive science will say that you do experience the world through the sensory input to your brain. But what are you trying to imply here? That a different organ is used? That science says there is no objective reality and that the world is merely a Matrix-like construct of your brain? (Because I don't think any credible scientist does.) I think you've gone a little off the rails here in venting your spleen at science, as your criticisms of the scientific method are no longer clear. In any case, are you suggesting everything I experience is not a function of my brain? And if not, what is it a function of? And what is your evidence for it?

The bottom line, m.c., is that if your beliefs managed successfully to resist falsification in controlled experimental settings, science would be on your side. Whining that it's all the fault of scientists' dogmatic closed-mindedness when your beliefs don't survive the peer review process doesn't help you, and it certainly doesn't garner you any respect. It just makes you look like cry babies with -- yes -- your own dogma to protect.

Finally this:

Consciousness was born to soar, and the straightjackets of belief of both fundamentalist religion and dogmatic reductionism both hobble its flight.

Oh very poetic, m.c. I feel a tear coming on. But really, I think I've got your number. Translated into English, this actually reads, "I want to believe what I want to believe, no matter what you say, so nyah nyah nyah!" Does it not?

 
At 9:21 AM, Anonymous Pope Zach 64 said...

Kudos, Martin!

Just one other point to bring up:

Perhaps MC can explain why, if science is so "anti-soul" and other such crap, many people of all different faiths have no trouble with evolutionary theory?

Perhaps MC has the inside scoop from the Big Guy himself and knows that his way is the only true path? MC, would you care to enlighten the rest of us on why your worldview is the correct one?

MC whines about dogmatism. What's that saying about trying to remove a sliver from your neighbor's eye when you have a board stuck in your own?

 
At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Kevin said...

If I choose to use a word it means exactly what I choose it to mean, no more, no less.

Likewise, if I choose to believe something, it therefor exists exactly as I believe it...and...I can prove it!

 
At 11:16 AM, Anonymous j-dog said...

m. c. - Thank you for the "guffaw".
Martin - Thank you for an excellent response - you nailed it - and I hope that m.c is getting a "valid read" on my current thoughts about his scientific theory. If the answer rhymes with "dupe" he's right!

clue: It's something that you might step in...

 
At 1:41 PM, Blogger LiberPaul said...

The supernatural remains logically possible, and thus an option for belief, only because it is not susceptible to confirmation or disconfirmation on the basis of evidence. But this status is permanent--the metaphysical status of supernaturalism as at most a logical possibility will never change. To become more than a logical possibility, supernaturalism must be confirmed with unequivocal empirical evidence, and such confirmation would only demonstrate that this newly verified aspect of reality had all along never been supernatural at all, but rather a natural phenomenon which just awaited an appropriate scientific test. – Barbara Forrest

Science is a materialist endevour, it has to be and it has served us well for hundreds of years.

 
At 1:51 PM, Blogger LiberPaul said...

BTW Jason,

Thanks for this blog! Great stuff I forward to folks all of the time. refreshing......

 
At 4:26 PM, Blogger Jason said...

liberpaul-

Thank you for the kind words. Glad you like the blog.

 
At 6:48 PM, Blogger M.C. said...


The supernatural remains logically possible, and thus an option for belief, only because it is not susceptible to confirmation or disconfirmation on the basis of evidence.


Dividing reality into "supernatural" and "natural" is an arbitrary and ultimately not a very useful endeavour. There is only reality, and reality is fundamentally one. This is what the mystics have known for thousands of years, and what physics has discovered over the past century.


Science is a materialist endevour, it has to be and it has served us well for hundreds of years


Science is a method of inquiry, not a position on what is real. Materialism is a position on what is real. It is a philosophy, not science.

This is science. This is not.

 
At 8:10 PM, Blogger M.C. said...


You seem to be unaware that ideas which are approved by the "scientific mainstream" get that way because of a process called peer review.


I think Robin Hanson (a materialist skeptic like yourself, as well as being a tenured academic) has a pretty accurate diagnosis of the scientific mainstream. Read his and Anthony Freeman's articles that I referenced above.


This is a process under which other scientists acting independently attempt to falsify your hypothesis.


Well that's replication. Peer review is when they decide whether or not your idea is worthy of publishing in a particular journal.

In the era of the internet, peer review is probably an institution in its latter days.


If your results successfully resist falsification, then your hypothesis gains scientific acceptance by the mainstream.


Unfortunately, sometimes your theories are validated by independent, skeptical replication, and the skeptics then misrepresent the results. Or you have people who claim to have falsified your theory, but were in fact just making stuff up.


(Which, to be honest, is the only stream there is in science, as an idea can either be verified or it can't.


You are of course correct. Science qua science is all about investigating theories, making observations, and conducting experiments.


Terms like "organized science" and "scientific mainstream" are the weasel phrases of indignant woo-woos.)


No, they are terms for human institutions that many people believe represent science. Sheldrake explains the difference here and here very nicely.


That doesn't mean that informaion won't ever be refuted or modified in the future. But it does mean, for now, it's stood up to being tested.


No, peer review means the handful of people who read the article couldn't find any serious flaws.

The vast majority of scientific studies have not been subject to independent replication. And very few experiments have anywhere close to the amount of replication as parapsychology studies.


Science "investigates its own lacunae" all the time.


Well of course "science" does. That's what Dr. Sheldrake is doing, for example. Looking at lacunae. And finding some very interesting things. However the sociological organization of humans we can call "organized science" (tenured university positions, government-funded grants, general-interest science journals, etc.) is not listening. They prefer to throw insults like "pseudoscientist" at people like Dr. Sheldrake, Dean Radin, and others who are threatening the taboo.


You guys just don't like it when science fails to validate the supernatural or mystical fluffery you find appealing.


Here's the science. Address it.





You sound pretty certain that is nonsense (though I'd hate to imply you were being, you know, dogmatic about it). Can you present credible evidence to show that death is not the annihilation of every aspect of consciousness, and are you willing to submit it to peer review?


There is a great deal of evidence for this. Tangentially, any evidence that mind is not limited to the brain is evidence that consciousness could potentially survive death. More compellingly, Dr. Stevenson's studies of young children who remember previous lifetimes is high caliber work, convincing enough that arch-skeptic Carl Sagan deemed it deserved extensive investigation. Veridical perception during NDEs is certainly indicative of the survival hypothesis.


that you are nothing but a lumbering robot survival machine designed by your genes,


I love the snark simply dripping from this.


I'm just quoting Richard Dawkins -- probably the most famous spokesman for the "rationalist", "scientific" understanding of humanity.


And when science simply categorizes us as biological organisms, well, that's pretty damn rude, eh?


No, because organisms are unbelievably incredible things.


Certainly doesn't go a long way to flattering people's egos, does it?


I agree that people's egos are the problem. Einstein said it very well:


A human being is a part of a whole, called by us 'universe', a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.



Biologically, we may be just genetic machines.


Well our bodies are not machines. Machines don't repair themselves. Machines don't reproduce themselves. Machines do not think, experience, nor evolve. The machine model of reality has been very useful, but it is also limiting and it is past time for people to develop other models for the holons in the universe.


So again my question is: if we aren't survival machines, what are we?


Congratulations. The willingness to ask the question is the key. The person who already thinks he or she knows everything can learn nothing.


Little sparks of the Force, angels in training, mystical entities on a spirit journey from Lemuria to Valhalla?


I think Einstein's definition from above works.

Are you implying, confidently, that human consciousnesses are fundamentally joined to one another?


Look at the evidence.

For a more personal, internal perception of this, explore your inner consciousness through a contemplative or meditative practice.


In any case, are you suggesting everything I experience is not a function of my brain? And if not, what is it a function of? And what is your evidence for it?


The materialist model of the brain is that it is like an ipod. I am saying the brain is more like a radio.

 
At 8:28 PM, Blogger M.C. said...


MC, would you care to enlighten the rest of us on why your worldview is the correct one?


A superb question! I mean it.

I like what Martin quoted about the "supernatural". The whole notion of reality being divisible into "natural" and "supernatural" is, IMO, invalid. Reality is one.

I think Einstein had a profound statement when he wrote:


A human being is a part of a whole, called by us 'universe', a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us. . .


I consider it my task and duty to continually work on releasing myself from that "prison" Einstein spoke of. Part of that prison is identifying ourselves with our opinions to an excessive degree. So as a "part of a whole we call universe" I am absolutely certain that my opinions are not uniquely correct, my viewpoint is not perfectly situated, and my conclusions are not infallible. That is why I invite skeptics to contribute to my blog. I don't know that I am always right, in fact I'm quite sure that I am wrong about some things, some of the time. My wife makes sure I know that! I'm just offering up my contributions, and you are obviously welcome to take them or leave them or offer up different opinions.

 
At 12:02 PM, Anonymous Kevin said...

m.c. is really annoying....luckily we can use the collapse comments button and don't have to read his drivel...

We moved from "I think therefor I am" to "I think of it therefor it exists"

 
At 12:25 PM, Anonymous Steven H. said...

Superb article! I look forward to reading the replies next month. I haven't read the other ID article in it yet. Any opinions on it?

 
At 1:42 PM, Blogger M.C. said...


We moved from "I think therefor I am" to "I think of it therefor it exists"


Or in your case "I don't believe it so I don't need to read the scientific studies therefore it's all drivel, garbage, nonsense, pseudo-science yadda yadda yadda". In other words, you live inside a hermetically sealed dogma, you've made up your mind, and that's that.

Fine, but that's not science.

 
At 10:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Kevin

Thanks for clueing me in to the "collapse" feature. It's great to have a drivel filter.

 
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