If you went to college, you certainly remember taking a class in which you didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time on that 23 page paper on the farming techniques of 13th century serfs and the impact of said techniques on feudal agriculture. So you did some browsing around and padded the points you did research with page after page of boring fluff, betting that the professor was going to skim it here and there before giving it a grade. No shame in that, we’ve all done it. But did you know you can also do the same thing with blog posts and books, and make a living from repeating that padding technique? A good, recent example of that is a post by Keith Floor over at Cosmic Variance, in which he spends hundreds of words arguing that science could never be an effective substitute for religion. His thesis summed up in the one sentence it needed to be? People like just so stories and science doesn’t have them, therefore they’ll stick to the stories in which they’re special and important enough to be the children of a deity.
How is this argument new? Why is it so important that the same thing was published in Nature? And even more importantly, how is this a good argument? I would want to hear someone tell me that my AI research is going to get a $15 million development grant from DARPA next year and instead of consulting full time and researching part time, I can flip these roles and do what I love for the next five to ten years. But if it’s not true, maybe I should take note and not make plans on the story I want to hear, and focus on the consulting because that’s what pays the bills? This is the problem with accommodationism and mollycoddling faith in a nutshell. We can’t be nice and say that we’d never dream of challenging someone’s faith because that’s what this person really wants to believe. We tried that. It doesn’t work. We don’t need people to give up on every fun or interesting idea out there and apply Occam’s razor to every thought they have. But we do need them to make decisions based on facts. When people believe that they have the divine right to do as they wish, they can do a lot of damage and make very bad choices.
What we’d be doing if we didn’t advocate for science leading the way would be no different than the extreme of the self-esteem movement. Instead of telling little Johnny or Suzie that they really need to spend more time doing math and unless they do, their GPA isn’t going to get them into any college without years of remedial classes, we’d be telling them that math probably isn’t their strong suit and it’s ok that they got a D in geometry. Obviously the A in English means that they’ll be talented writers and literary critics so they shouldn’t worry about that mean old math. But we know that’s not true and that a D in math is a really bad thing. This is the same reason why we can’t tell the faithful that it’s ok to treat some people as less than equal because we know that a person from a different faith or with a different sexuality is just as biologically human as anyone and therefore, deserves the same rights. And this is why we can’t just let creationists preach their gospel of willful ignorance, because we know they’re wrong, we know they ignore facts, and we know that they’re coming from a place of denial. When we excuse a belief in myth, the faithful will take it as a license to ignore facts. Why should we give them this license?