Creationism vs. Scientism: The Twin Dangers of Religious and Scientific Fundamentalism

By Pigliucci, Massimo | Free Inquiry, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Creationism vs. Scientism: The Twin Dangers of Religious and Scientific Fundamentalism


Pigliucci, Massimo, Free Inquiry


Throughout the twentieth century there has been an ongoing battle for the minds of Americans. This battle, which doesn't seem to be nearing an end at the dawn of the twenty-first century, sees Christian religious fundamentalism pitted against modem evolutionary biology. (1) I see four causes of the evolution-creation "controversy" First, American society is plagued by a variety of forms of anti-intellectualism. Second, some scientists have a tendency to slide into the ideology of scientism when talking to the public. Third, we are doing a poor job in science education. And fourth, we haven't incorporated into our teaching novel insights into how the brain works.

A TALE OF TWO EVILS: ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM ANIJ SCIENTISM

The first component of the problem is reducible to a widespread anti-intellectual sentiment that characterizes the American public at large (in contrast, for example, with the situation in most European countries). The roots of anti-intellectualism in America run deep and have been the object of several studies. The following summary is an elaboration on the work of Richard Hofstadter. (2)

There are essentially five forms of anti-intellectualism, which I shall briefly discuss in turn. The first is "anti-rationalism." This is connected to religious fundamentalism, and it is the idea that reason is cold and dull, and that skeptical inquiry threatens authority (usually of the Church). At the base of this kind of anti-intellectualism is a fear of moral relativism, which in turn is really the fear that one's absolute morals are no better than anyone else's.

The second is "anti-elitism," the idea that intellectual activity is undemocratic. This is a populist political ideology, rooted in the American concept of democracy which is much broader than the European one. In Europe, people living in democracies have little problem accepting the idea of intellectual hierarchies based on knowledge and skill (notice that Americans also readily accept hierarchies, but mostly based on power, money or sports achievements).

Third is "unreflective instrumentalism," the concept that thought has no value unless it is of practical importance, which yields a disdain for theoretical inquiry and for intellectual pursuit for its own sake. This attitude is rooted in rampant capitalism, where an odd combination of the Protestant work ethic and material success are more esteemed than esoterica.

Fourth there is "unreflective hedonism," that is to say to think requires hard work, so why bother? The mass media and entertainment industries are the chief catalysts of this kind of attitude. Most news media essentially provide "pre-interpreted" information, discouraging independent and complex thinking and making use instead of superficial sound bites. To paraphrase Neil Postman, (3) we are a nation that is amusing itself to death.

Finally we have that recent and very special form of anti-intellectualism known "postmodernism" as or deconstructionism," recently imported from France, chiefly with its American exponents pushing it far beyond its original scope. This is the idea that all knowledge is relative, that different cultural traditions are equivalent, and that therefore science should not enjoy any privileged status as a particularly effective method of inquiry The bizarre thing about this type of anti-intellectualism is that it originates from within academia, being pushed by the so-called academic Left, and flourishing within humanities and social sciences departments throughout the country. Perhaps the best critique of postmodernism ever published was the hoax perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal in 1994. (4) He managed to get a paper entitled "Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" into a major postmodernist journal, Social Text. The problem was that Sokal had made up the entire manuscript out of a senseless se quence of phrases spiced up with impressive-sounding terms borrowed from mathematical theory and quantum mechanics. …

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