14 May 2011

“Science is not a tradition”

Harold Camping is one of the latest in a noble line of doomsday prophets stretching back to antiquity. The evangelical Christian broadcaster has announced, reportedly with a straight face, that the end of the world is nigh – on May 21 to be exact. At least the Almighty, in His infinite compassion, has allowed us to catch the Eurovision finals on the 14th before enacting the Rapture.

The Washington Post caught wind of this somber news and proceeded to ask none other than Richard ‘The God Delusion’ Dawkins what his thoughts were on this clearly consequential matter. Dawkins promptly replied:

Why is a serious newspaper like the Washington Post giving space to a raving loon? I suppose the answer must be that, unlike the average loon, this one has managed to raise enough money to launch a radio station and pay for billboards. I don’t know where he gets the money, but it would be no surprise to discover that it is contributed by gullible followers – gullible enough, we may guess, to go along with him when he will inevitably explain, on May 22nd, that there must have been some error in the calculation, the rapture is postponed to . . . and please send more money to pay for updated billboards.

So, the question becomes, why are there so many well-heeled, gullible idiots out there? Why is it that an idea can be as nuts as you like and still con enough backers to finance its advertising to acquire yet more backers . . . until eventually a national newspaper notices and makes it into a silly season filler?

The esteemed professor sure gave the Post a good slapping. Can’t say they didn’t deserve it.

In the question posed to Dawkins, there was this phrase: ‘What does your tradition teach about the end of the world?’ Dawkins took issue with its implication that science is merely a ‘tradition’, a product of customs and beliefs handed down through time. He set the record straight:

Science is not a tradition, it is the organized use of evidence from the real world to make inferences about the real world.

Precisely. We can thank sloppy thinking and the postmodernist assault on knowledge for the annoying refrain that science is just another religion/ideology/cultural construct/power structure/tradition. Sorry relativists, it isn’t. Science is a process, and a bloody effective one at that. Calling science a tradition is like calling the act of putting fuel in your car to make it run a ritual.

Skepticblog’s Donald Prothero has written about science’s unique truth-finding and knowledge-producing characteristics, which can be summarised as follows:

1. It works.
2. It is self-policing.
3. It tells us inconvenient truths.

No tradition does all that.


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