Blinded by science

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • October 10, 2008
{mosimage}The cheapest shot against scientists, who rail loudly and at length against religious believers, is that they are scientific fundamentalists. It’s a cheap shot simply because science is supposed to be open, inquiring, rational and devoted to truth wherever it is to be found.

So when scientists set out to act like fundamentalists and do so in the manner of the Inquisition, the first reaction has to be disbelief. The second has to be a sober look at the growing phenomenon of scientific fundamentalism.
The case of Dr. Michael Reiss and the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, the oldest scientific society in the world, is nearly incredible evidence that the gulf between science and religion is widening and sad proof that the media delight in noting the gulf, encouraging the gulf and when necessary creating the gulf.

 At first blush, Dr. Reiss, a biologist, an Anglican priest and until very recently Director of Education for the Royal Society, didn’t do anything all that remarkable. He told the British Association for the Advancement of Science Conference in Liverpool that Creationism and Intelligent Design should be treated with “respect” when it came up in class. What he didn’t say, and it was clear he didn’t say, was that Creationism and Intelligent Design should be taught alongside evolution. What he wanted to make clear was that classrooms were filled with people of different cultural, religious and socio-economic backgrounds and when children raised questions the questions should not be treated with scorn and ridicule.

His comments might be described as the essence of reason if not the epitome of reasonableness. But that’s not what the media chose to do.

Ever alert for controversy, or even better a controversy that could be constructed of whole cloth, reporters knew that headlines such as “Royal Society calls for Creationism and Intelligent Design to be taught in school” were bound to sell papers both that day and for weeks to come. And they were right.

The chattering classes exploded while eminent scientists were aghast at the idea that a priest had somehow invaded the ranks of the storied society and was pushing anti-Darwinian ideology. Calls for Dr. Reiss’ firing were instant, loud and insistent, not to mention widely and repeatedly reported. A mild comment turned into a media storm.

Inevitably, Dr. Reiss and the Royal Society agreed that it would be better for him to step down, not because he had said anything wrong or even at variance with the Royal Society’s views but because his comments might be misinterpreted.

For scientists, for us all actually, it was a new low in public debate.

Getting axed not for what you said but for the way people might misinterpret what you said raises the bar on acceptable speech to a new and perhaps insurmountable height. Whatever damage done to the reputations of Dr. Reiss, the Royal Society or the nature of honest discourse, the one party that fared very well was the media. There have been even more stories on the matter since Reiss departed than there were before, but now the outrage wasn’t that Reiss had “argued for creationism.” Now the outrage was that the Royal Society had squelched free speech.

If this story was just about Dr. Reiss’s sad experience with the Royal Society it might be worth a sad shrug and a sigh of disappointment. But it is unfortunately about much more. It is about a scientific intolerance towards non-science that is building throughout the Western World. An institution, a mode of inquiry, built on the search for truth is increasingly shutting down dissent, and anything that might be characterized as dissent, with little regard to the long-term consequences of establishing “acceptable truths.”

It is also a clear lesson on the media’s increasing love of controversy over honest exploration, histrionics over substance and argument for the sake of argument to the detriment of real analysis of the things that matter deeply to us all, regardless of our political, moral or religious stances.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer at CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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