Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A wednesday in may

A bit of frustration
Currently in Florida and now in Maine are more attacks on science and science education, with uber-fundamentalist Christians trying to insert belief systems in place of science at a time when science education and the creative and critical thinking skills associated with it are needed more than ever.
In Florida, Creationism is being inserted into the curriculum via the clever guise of “academic freedom” and what legislator in their right mind would oppose any bill with that kind of language in it, other than an intelligent, educated and courageous one? Short supply, those. There is one tiny part of the bill I actually agree with, stipulating that one shouldn’t be punished for opposing belief; in other words, if you pass all the tests associated with evolution that are required, you shouldn’t be penalized if you don’t accept evolution as a valid scientific theory, in public schools at least. Once in the private sector, all bets are off.
Did I just hear a tiny cry of “discrimination!”? Look at it this way: I fully support a religious organization’s right to be discriminating in its hiring practices, excluding from employment anyone not of their same religion and/or denomination, or anyone who lives outside of their moral framework. Yes, I think it’s not only acceptable, but culturally healthy, if not mature, to openly (there’s the rub) be discriminating. No one would waste time or lawsuits. Yes, a fundamentalist Christian organization is perfectly allowed in my cultural paradigm to not hire an openly homosexual person, or a Muslim organization to not hire a Jew or a Christian, or any example thereof; however, a private company that specializes in products promoting evolutionary biology is as justified in turning down a degree-carrying fundamentalist Creationist over a prospective employee that accepts the evolutionary paradigm. Isn’t that far more reasonable and fair? Wouldn’t you rather know that you haven’t a chance with company A and not waste your time?
In Maine, School Board officials are saying ridiculous and ignorant things not only about evolution, but the “Big Bang” Theory as well, that both ought to be relegated to philosophy classes at best. Huh? These people are in charge of curriculum? If one asserts that evolution and the Big Bang theories are merely philosophies, then what one is really doing, perhaps without realizing it, is dismissing trust in the following (partial list of) scientific disciplines:
This is just to name a few, generalized categories. Go jump on Wikipedia here: to see a more comprehensive breakdown of these and other sciences. Perhaps all of these disciplines should be relegated to a philosophy class. Perhaps we could simply just get rid of all “science” classes, since all these interrelated disciplines are suspect. We wouldn’t want to be hypocritical would we, and teach the scientific method about anything, lest there come a day when even the most innocuous “science” comes into conflict with Scripture. Since God will guide America to greatness, let’s just stop being innovators and producers of technology and simply buy technology from other nations, while we return to that idyllic life of the horse and buggy.
O.K., I’m being a bit asinine, but only a bit. There are some pretty serious consequences to rejection of science and I’m getting more and more annoyed that moderate and liberal Christians allow this small but extremely vocal minority of Fundamentalist Christians to further insinuate faith into educational policy, and to add insult to injury by calling judges who say, “no, you can’t do that,” “radicals,” or somehow rationalize that religion (Christian, of course) is “under attack.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be annoyed, as this is a scientifically illiterate culture, as a whole, one where a chain email carries far more weight in the public mind than a clinical trial, where despite scientific approaches to medicine that have more than doubled the human lifespan, practically eliminated fatal childhood disease in developed countries, made childbirth a largely survivable process, made many cancers curable, others treatable, many fatal diseases merely chronic and continually improves the condition of the accidental and genetically handicapped, the rise of “alternative” medicines and treatments continues, legislated as mandatory in some places, despite the unsupported claims of most and blatantly obvious fraud of some.
I catch a lot of flak for my skeptical beliefs about alternative medicine. The politest retort I get is rolling eyes. Most often I am accused of being “closed-minded.”
Riiiight. Let’s offer an example. I’ve slowly and grudgingly learned to control my cringing whenever one of these enlightened beings professes the benefits of some new Homeopathic remedy. Lacking a skeptical eye towards anything professed as “natural” (yet a plant extract that’s been through 20-plus years of research into toxicology, efficacy and effective dosage by thousands of intelligent and educated people in clean, controlled laboratories is immediately suspect and will probably cause cancer) their only information as to the history and mechanisms of homeopathic medicine comes from homeopathic websites, often with folks thinking homeopathy has some ancient legacy. It’s actually only 150 or so years old, thought up whole cloth by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician in the 18th century, claiming that “like cures like” I.e., if you have a disease, you should ingest a substance that causes the same symptoms in a healthy person, the substance being diluted in water continually until there remains no detectable levels of the original substance (we’re talking parts per trillion here, guys) yet somehow the “properties” of that substance will be transferred to the water, the water will somehow “remember” or take on the properties of that substance and thus this solution of water, which would supposedly cause disease symptoms in a healthy person, will cure disease in a sick person.
O.K., let’s look at this with a skeptical eye. Firstly, the veneration of homeopathy as having a distinctive and ancient heritage is untrue. It was created during what was arguably the last days of the dark ages of medicine, before the germ theory of disease was understood, much less accepted and scientific approaches to medicine were just barely beginning to appear, in the late 18th century. What might give the impression of an ancient legacy is that Hahnemann may have based his hypothesis on ancient Greek principles of medicine, “like cures like” and the concept of balancing the four humors of the body. The four humors only persisted until human biology, via dissection, was actually understood ( I am greatly simplifying for brevity‘s sake). No physician today accepts the existence of the four humors and thus the need to balance them. Homeopathy efficacy has never been duplicated in a controlled clinical trial. An almost childish knowledge of basic chemistry will show that not only is the chemical composition of water completely unchanged by components introduced into solution with it, but there’s no explanation given by homeopathy as to how a substance has “properties” outside of its molecular structure (auras, maybe?), how water becomes some kind of recording medium for these said “properties” both in the complete absence of the original substance from the final solution (chemically a freaking glass of water) as well as not a single molecule of water being changed in any way from exposure to this substance and incidentally, the concept of “like curing like” not having a medical leg to stand on. So, in summary, homeopathy has no legitimate hypothetical basis for working at all, no detectable effects in any spectrum of analysis but most notably chemically, provides no explanation for its mechanism, is based on outdated and discredited medical knowledge and utterly false assumptions of biology and disease and yet grows in popularity every day, flooding websites with unsupported claims of the unbelievable number of maladies it cures, with unchallenged testimonials no different than the tactics of the snake oil salesmen of days no-so-past. Yet I’m “closed-minded.”
What does homeopathy have to do with the former part of my article? I’m pointing out the already pervasive illiteracy of science and dismal lack of critical thinking in American (Western?) society and pointing out how the very basis of scientific education is being eroded in place of…what? Is it offensive if I say superstition? Probably, but I’m at a loss for words here as I ponder the consequences of FURTHER reductions in scientific education, or limiting the application of critical thinking based upon religious radicalism, because where would it stop?
I suppose there is a conflict between faith and critical thinking, but which is doing and will do the most damage? Why does it fall to science to reconcile with religion, but not the other way around? I almost feel like fundamentalism actually limits its god, to one that doesn’t work on scales as immense as the visible universe, on timescales of billions of years, who plays tricks with evidence or allows the devil to do so to weed out the truly faithful, who makes a universe only seem to be what it is: vast, majestic, sublimely complex, ancient and in motion, growing, expanding and yes, evolving. Instead of shrinking your god and his creation, why not make your god bigger? I know plenty of Christians who have. So what if the Genesis account isn’t literal? That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t honor your mother and father. If you accept that fossils are remains of extinct creatures that lived a long time ago (more than 6000 years) that doesn’t mean it’s suddenly okay to murder or cheat on your wife. If the expanding universe leads one to conclude that it’s billions of years old, that has no bearing whatsoever on the verisimilitude of the Sermon on the Mount.
America isn’t going to hell in a hand basket because of science. Sure, we have problems, but they are complicated and aren’t simply due to fewer people going to church (attendance is up actually) or because evolution is an accepted scientific theory based upon mountains of supporting evidence from dozens of different scientific disciplines. But cutting science out because you don’t agree with the conclusions that are drawn from evidence won’t do a damn thing about any of the problems, global or national, that confront the nation, except perhaps set up America to become a technological backwater. No doubt that would somehow be God’s punishment on a sinful nation and not actually a consequence of intellectual (and spiritual) cowardice on the part of a certain majority that allowed a minority to lead a nation to decline.

1 comment:

Gretchen said...

Well said. However, I believe that the word "homeopathy" has become (erroneously so) an umbrella word for a lot of "alternative" medicinal treatments that have nothing to do with the type of snake-oil methodology you mentioned (the water thing). While it would seem obvious to any thinking individual that the water thing is ridiculous, I think that the fact is that there are many medicinal plants, treatments, etc., that have, due to lack of education on semantics and etymology, been lumped under "homeopathic medicine". It doesn't mean that THEY don't work.
But you know how I feel about that.