scientific extremism

As the fire alarm beeps persistently through the night, I am trying to ignore it by watching Richard Dawkins’ documentary version of The God Delusion. It might have become my thing for the past few months — thinking about religious extremism and watching documentaries about it. Currently, I am hung up on the oxymoron of creation science, and the possibility of one opposing evolution.

In an age of so-called reason and tolerance, flocks of men gather on street corners preaching through a megaphone, wanting to save each and every one of our sinful souls, and well-dressed ladies  knock on our doors on Sunday mornings, confidently handing out pamphlets of truth, asking for our commitment and donation to their churches. I can’t help but feel that, if an atheist were to start yelling on a crowded street corner, or if he or she were to start going to people’s houses on weekends, interrupting their private lives, promoting science and reason, pointing out that faith is actually a “process of non-thinking,” and that religion is the ultimate “root of all evil,” and by adhering to its doctrines, all believers are contributing to the spread of “murderous intolerance,” that atheist would receive violent opposition, the kind that religious extremists don’t face.

In a recent conversation with a friend who is quite religious, I was struck by the ignorance that accompanied her faith. This friend is a doctoral student in biology at a top research university, and does not believe in the evolutionary theory. When asked whether she thinks God might have created a universe based on an evolutionary system, an argument that is discussed frequently among different sects of Christianity, she claims never to have heard of such an argument before. After she takes a minute to think – and no more than a minute does she take – she decides that it cannot be, for the Bible says that God created  Earth in 6 days. What about dinosaurs I say, what about them she says. Well, we know that they lived long before humans even existed I say, how do we know that she says, carbon dating I say, oh, she says, I don’t know. As we talk of evolution, she says she doesn’t believe that we come from monkeys, I mention the word primate, she repeats it: right, she says, primape. She suggests that I should look at the website of a creation scientist researcher, Dr. Kent Hovind. I look him up, and Dr. Kent Hovind is a joke. He has his doctoral degree from a non-accredited Patriot Bible University in Del Norte, Colorado. His website, Creation Science Evangelism: Creation, Evolution, Dinosaurs, The Bible, contains videos that I thought I would watch not to be one-sided. Unfortunately, one cannot watch Dr. Dino’s (and yes, that’s what he seems to call himself) educational videos without paying for them (although I must cut him some slack on this, for how else will he afford to pay off his legal charges?).

What astounds me the most, however, is that a person in a competitive PhD program, where everything is about being critical and analytical, about curiosity and skepticism, and questioning before accepting, can strictly hold on to what is written in a book with a questionable author, unable to see just a little bit outside of the small box of repression she has placed herself in. For she, as a biology major, changes the channel when a woman in a sitcom mentions her own breasts to her husband in a non-seductive manner. How can this friend become a scientist, while religion necessitates belief without questioning?

As we talk about these over beer and pizza with another friend, we realize that it had never even occurred to us that one could not-believe in the evolutionary theory. For me, it was never something one would or wouldn’t believe in. As I grew up, evolution was fact, and Darwin was a genius. This got us to thinking, are we no different than religious extremists? Are we scientific extremists? As believers look down on us sinners who are yet to be saved, and pray for us in a pitying manner, do we not do something similar? Do we not look down on their ignorance, their ability to believe without questioning, their ability to accept without curiosity? Do we not ‘other’ them as they ‘other’ us?

Right now I don’t have answers to these questions. However, it bothers me to see that, as science advances, the existence of evolutionary theory in school books diminishes. When I google this in Turkish websites, the first result that comes up is Harun Yahya’s website supposedly proving the downfall of the evolutionary theory. But similar things are happening all around, this is not specific to Turkey. It bothers me because religious extremism, as is any type of fundamental extremism, is dangerous and frightening. While individual spiritualism may be benign, systematic religions promote hatred and intolerance towards the different. And ignorance seems to be their strongest tool.


6 responses to “scientific extremism

  1. The sad fact is that most people are deeply stupid. (I would further argue that even the best of us are poor thinkers on an absolute scale, but that is a different topic.)

    Looking at some of your very interesting thoughts (discussion typically extends to the text around the quotes):

    “[…]that atheist would receive violent opposition, the kind that religious extremists don’t face.”: This is a very wide-spread phenomenon, where groups and individuals who themselves use unethical methods, use faulty lines of reasoning (in good or bad faith), are rude, whatnot, often are extremely sensitive to the same behaviours in others. Whether this type of reaction is just selective blindness or a deliberate tactic, of that I am very uncertain. It is also so that certain characteristics tend to go together disproportionally often, including stupidity and hypocrisy, stupidity and fanaticism, stupidity and intolerance, etc.—and, in today’s world, stupidity and religious fundamentalism.

    “[…]we realize that it had never even occurred to us that one could not-believe in the evolutionary theory. ”: If that is the case, you have indeed been inobservant or unthinking—already because different ideas are taught to different groups. The absurd part from my POV is rather a special case: How can someone actually be presented with the evidence of and reasoning concerning evolution without seeing it at least as a contributing factor? (The answer is obviously that most humans are very irrational.)

    “Are we scientific extremists?”: Not in any typical sense of the word. However, there is a related question of whether any individual evolutionist, atheist, whatnot, believes for the right reason: Looking at e.g. evolution and creation, there are people who believe in evolution for a good reason (review of evidence, understanding of the reasoning), but also does who believe for a poor reason (“My parents/teacher/[famous scientist] said so!”), just as some believe in creation for a good or poor reason. Now, since the “good creationists” are very few compared to the “poor” ones (few people today are in a situation where they would rationally be able to believe in a traditional creationism—unlike a few hundred years ago), what can we say about the number of good and poor evolutionists? It seems reasonable to me to conclude that with the large number of poor creationists, the number of poor evolutionists should be of a similar order (but a smaller proportion)—and a poor evolutionist is no better than a poor creationist.

    “While individual spiritualism may be benign, systematic religions promote hatred and intolerance towards the different.”: In my eyes, the crucial difference is that between religion and Church (in a sense not restricted to Christianity). Most religions (that I have som knowledge of) are uplifting, positive, idealistic, whatnot—whereas most Churches are very different from the religion they ostensibly profess. (The same applies to political ideologies and the related movements/parties. “Animal Farm” is an excellent illustration of this phenomenon.)

  2. I hate that the word “stupidity” is being thrown around so much. After a while it becomes an effect of outgroup homogeneity rather than trying to understand the ideas and mores of people who don’t come from the same background and ideals you have engrossed yourself in. I would be happy to blather on about Carol Dweck’s amazing research (e.g., but this is not the time nor place.

    Second off, I would like to make the point that most of us ARE scientific extremists, and there are gross amounts of the church of science that we have to take either on face value, the word of a credible source, or the gut virtue of it agreeing with our previous belief system. It is utterly impossible to engage in enough research to understand global warming, the rise and fall of the global economy, microfinance vs. sending aid to developing countries, and the intricacies of evolution (how about multilevel selection theory, non-kin selection, and deception vs. honest communication in Darwinian terms). Graduate school is a humbling place. It is easy to prod and poke at the holes readily made by fellow opponents of religion. If we were given the time, or better yet they were, to critically evaluate the intricacies of our beliefs we may come to similar conclusions. Holy doctrines are split by individuals and groups, producing new sects of Christianity or Muslims, and we also select the best parts of The Origin of Species and forget about the parts Darwin got wrong. Remember also that evolution and life history theory predict that while some individuals in a population will be neophiles and be drawn to new ideas (read liberals), it also says the success of the species should also be tied to groups who cherish safety, solidarity, family, and powers higher than yourself. I love a story with some irony thrown into the mix.

    I would also be careful not to characterize religion, as a concept, as inherently stupid or evil or a bastion of the ignorant. I once believed in the gambler’s fallacy, ghosts, and karma. Years ago women would smoke in every trimester of their pregnancy until their children came out sickly; now smoking in banned in all bars in Ann Arbor, far from pregnant mothers and teens that are not allowed the privilege to make that decision. Powerful ideas are infectious, whether good or bad, and I like to believe that in the end people rally around the more positive ones in life. Cases like Animal Farm may happen, but why do you think that is so dependent upon religion? Maybe it is the same driving group force behind cities and countries in the Champions League and Euro Cup that shifts so flexibly, or even something else entirely. It’s really only you that gets to decide that–the beauty and the curse in this story.

    Sorry, like you aren’t a fan of ignorance I am not a fan of black and white. Things stay around for a reason–evolution says that if they don’t serve one then they will die out. How about we just poke and prod each other until we all find the best core beliefs or at the very least understand religion better?

    • Many good points, some of which I have myself voiced from time to time. My last post, e.g., deals with the need for balanced thinking and to keeping ones own fallability in mind.

      It is important, however, to bear two (typical) differences between religion and science in mind:

      o Religion usually bases on the presumption of having an absolute (or near absolute) truth; science is based in the knowledge that we only work with approximations of the truth that will be altered, improved, or thrown away as time goes by (notwithstanding that individual scientist often fail in this regard).

      o In the sciences, anyone who really wants can follow the trail of evidence in any given area, check the individual steps for himself, and so on—and make his own informed decision based on what holes there are or are not, the balance of probabilities, etc. In religion, an argument by authority tends to come up very soon and be very final.

      As asides:

      o I read the linked to article on Carol Dweck, and am a little confused: The article gives the impression of wanting to state that intelligence is highly malleable; however, the only thing that it actually says is that the attitude and estimate we have to our own intelligence are of great importance, that we can construct self-fulfilling prophecies, etc.

      o I find your statement “Remember also that [… to end of paragraph]” somewhat odd and likely to be specious (depending somewhat on exactly what you mean). I object in particular to the equalization of “drawn to new ideas” and “liberal”.

  3. I completely agree with you on the updating of beliefs through science. It is the general strategy that we try to take, using a Bayesian-like system of belief about the world. Plenty of the time, however, I see scientists grounded in their theories until something or someone comes around proving emphatically that they are wrong. We can become hardheaded in things we base our identity and academic reputations on, and removing our ego is no small task. Additionally, we have systematic biases that push us toward reinforcing the beliefs that we already have when seeking new information (e.g., confirmation bias) that are hard to overcome everyday. I completely agree that the scientific method, as taught, is much better than sticking to your beliefs without any chance of change.

    I realize in retrospect that the Dweck article isn’t the best overall look at her work. I thought it was good because it showed both the virtues and limitations of it. She has shown through decades of research that a) people tend to either think of traits as fixed or malleable, and these are linked to how people approach new and possibly angering information, b) small manipulations can change people in the short-run to change from fixed to malleable mindsets, and c) training can produce longer-term changes. There is a very readable overview in her book Mindset if you have the time and are interested.

    Life history theory stems out of evolutionary theory. Essentially, if you are in a risky environment then you should take up the strategy to breed early, avoid risks when possible, and those growing up in an unstable environment can adopt a slower strategy of avoiding risks before maturity, reproducing later, and becoming more novelty seeking later on (see introduction What is important in making the argument across the political spectrum is that it doesn’t have to do with objective risk, but subjective risk in the environment. We find some evidence for this from an article published in Science ( They demonstrated that people with decreased non-specific arousal to threatening stimuli, measured by electrodermal activity, were more likely to support liberal causes. This is far from an airtight argument on my part, but I see these as going hand-in-hand, with more calm individuals that perceive the word as a safe place via physiology as more likely to be liberal. Conservatives would be on the other end, the highly responsive individuals that see the world as risky, support spending on defense, reproduce earlier, and have higher arousal of their sympathetic nervous system. Maybe I’ll make the full argument in a paper one day, but for now this is the germ of my idea.

    • Thank you for your response. You are certainly right in that many scientist have problems with reaching the ideals of science.

      I had a look on the abstract of the Science article, and the results described there seem intuitively plausible (when looking at averages) for at least the “conservative” preferences (e.g. in that someone who tends to feel more threatend will also be more interested in owning a gun); however, I would, at least at this stage, be somewhat hesitant in classifying these groups as conservatives and liberals, seeing that the preferences mentioned are fairly specific sub-issues (in particular, as I am myself fairly eclectic in my political views and additionally often recognize the need for pragmatic compromise). Further, the original statement by you pertained to new ideas—which is something very different (although a correlation would not be entirely surprising, in that someone who is more secure would tend to be more open to changes and willing to take risks, and vice versa).

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