The AAAS and the Cult of Pop Humanism
Confronting a fire-breathing Humanist with a zealous Cultural Conservative may seem a recipe for a great debate, but all too often the outcome is indistinguishable from Talk Radio. The American Association For The Advancement Of Science seems to be toying with a related sub-genre. Call it The Sum Of All Dumb. A recent letter in its journal Science , questioning the wisdom of a retreat from primary scientific sources in its book reviews , drew a response from the reviewer, Scientific American columnist and Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer, equating PBS icon Jared Diamond with Charles Darwin.
Elevating Guns Germs and Steel to the level of The Origin of Species seems as bizarre as equating Carl Sagan with Copernicus, Thor Heyerdahl with Homer, or taking a step back from the brink of inanity, Neo-Creo idol Micheal Behe with Diamond himself.Transcendent failures of critical taste seem a permanent feature of cultural life and can have many causes. Diamond, at least. revisits a good if unoriginal Big Idea, but confusing the present Amazon ratings of books embodying current memes with their place in future history makes onw wonder what became of some soi-disant Humanist's sense of the sardonic ? Once
, organized Humanists provided a measure of innocent public merriment by presenting deadpan Yuletide dinner speeches on the evils of letting children believe in Santa Claus/ But if secular humanism is not presently bent on becoming an established religion, why are its boosters trying to construct a virtual pantheon ?
Cyberfame can be trivially manipulated by “Google bombing” --linking a large number of sites to one web page to elevate it to Google’s search stardom. This wikipedantic hacking exploit has a literary precedent-- virtual Best-Sellerdom can be induced by the reverse of a denial of service attack- synchronized book-buying by True Believers.
That's how the long-forgotten pot-boilers of L. Ron Hubbard, dating from his years as a penny-a-word hack for Astounding Science Fiction, were catapulted to literary stardom. Acting at the behest of Church's executives Scientology devotees took to buying out urban bookstore stocks on the eve of NYTimes book reviews. Many did so cheerfully, finding the expenditure less of a penance than being forced to read them. Literary fashion can distort the statistics too. A plenum of past works attest that books need no more be read to become best sellers -A Brief History of Time , possess literary merit-Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Love Story , pretend to truth-1421 and Worlds In Collision , or even be a good read-- Godel,Escher, Bach.
Andrew Keen explores the counter-critical phenomenon of amplified endorsement in The Cult Of The Amateur. He notes
a recent Wall Street Journal article that found Web sites can be dominated by a small number of users-- at one point 30 of Digg.com's 900,000 registered users were submitting one-third of its Home Page postings. A single Netscape.com user authored 217 stories in two-weeks , and by crowding out the competition garnered 13 percent of the stories on its supposedly global most-popular list.
This sheds some light on the broadband self-celebration of The Academy Of Humanism's elected saints. That oganization has about as much to do with the Humanism in the Renaissance sense as Scientology does with science. Founded in upstate New York not far from the birthplace of the Book Of Mormon and the Baseball Hall Of Fame it is a monument to the continuity of the Ethical Culture movement in New York City. Everybody needs culture heroes, even New York intellectuals, and the upper case Humanists soon colonized distant California, Hollywood included.
Having a significant presence in the urban heartland of publishing and TV enabled the latter day Humanists to maintain a beach head in popular culture by serially elevating a series of worthies, some domestic, and some imported, to stardom on public television and late night TV. Some were more eloquent than profound. The elite could effortlessly turn their peer-reviewed science into New York Review Of Books or New Yorker essays , while those with more popular gifts could handle the mass audience demands of Sunday supplements like Parade and keep audiences from falling asleep on The Johnny Carson Show. Nowadyas ,its Letterman and Leno, but the pirinciple is the same - Humanists have come to view the right to a representative culturally famous for being famous as implicit in the American social contract.
Two decades ago, Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan were exemplars of this phenomenon.Then Stephen Stephen Hawking and Alan Alda had their day as the long end-run onto Prime Time continued ito the closing years of the 20th century. A new millennium has since dawned , but subscribers to The Skeptical Inquirer , and other little magazines serving as militantly secular equivalents to The Watchtower continue to nominate unopposed candidates for prime-time in the PBS programming sweepstakes.This naturally riles the metaphysically obsessed , but their dominion over Fox TV makes a mockery of their own complaints of cultural salients by materalism's militant tendency.Neither side is famed for its sense of the sardonic.
Reading what follows from the pages of Science one one can but thank Providence on Michael Shermer's behalf that the Great Spaghetti Monster is not equipped with a sense of the ironic or the capacity to throw thunderbolts at the skeptically challenged.
Science 29 June 2007 Letters
What Makes a Book a Work of Science?
At the end of Michael Shermer's review of Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion ("Arguing for atheism," Books et al., 26 Jan., p. 463), we find the following statement: "Dawkins's latest book deserves multiple readings, not just as an important work of science, but as a great work of literature."
The literary merits of this work are for others to judge. The assertion that the book is science is my concern. Science makes observations of the natural world and constructs testable models that explain these data. I would ask my colleagues: Where is the science in this text? What data make it a scientific work?
Perhaps it could then be considered a work of scholarship in philosophy. In that case, we would expect references to primary sources and reasoned criticism, taking into account the latest developments in the field. Consider chapter 3, where his refutation of Thomas Aquinas's five ways reveals that Dawkins has read tertiary sources, if that, and makes common mistakes regarding what Aquinas was arguing (i.e., "design" as opposed to "governance"). He could have, for instance, used a recent discussion of the five ways [e.g., (1)] to correct his mistakes and bolster his critique, and that would have at least been scholarship.
So if the book contains no data and lacks scholarship, we must question the author's and the reviewer's credibility on this topic. For the reviewer to characterize such a book as science is disingenuous to the extreme. This is exactly the kind of statement, especially in an AAAS publication, that confuses the real issues in science and religion. How is it that these scientists and this respected journal have forgotten their own standards?
Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721, USA
- J. F. Wippel, in Thomas Aquinas: Contemporary Philosophical Perspectives, Brian Davies, Ed. (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2002), pp. 159-225.
Martinez Hewlett holds a narrow view of what constitutes a work of science--primary research only, secondary sources cited only in discussion of the primary research. To that extent, only the type of articles that are published in the peer-reviewed sections of journals like Science would constitute real science, with everything else relegated to mere popularization. Were this the case, of course, it would obviate many of the greatest works in the history of science, from Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. If these are not works of science, then what are they?
They are higher-order works of science--synthesizing, integrating, and coalescing primary works of science into a unifying whole with the goal of testing a general theory or answering a grand question. This is what Richard Dawkins has done in The God Delusion, addressing what has to be the grandest question of all--God's existence. Dawkins synthesizes, integrates, and coalesces hundreds of experiments, studies, hypotheses, models, and theories to provide a reasoned answer to the God question. One may disagree with Dawkins's conclusions, but if that is the case, then one must specify which experiments, studies, hypotheses, models, and theories that he or she thinks do support the God hypothesis. The fact that Dawkins did not cite this or that theologian or philosopher favored by the reader or reviewer is not his problem. The God Delusion is not intended to be a comprehensive scholarly monograph listing every book and article ever written on the subject. For a science book written for a general audience, The God Delusion provides more than enough references to primary sources to provide most readers with the terms of the debate and the best arguments on both sides.
Yes, Dawkins has an agenda, a thesis, a point he wants to make. But that is another characteristic of great works of science, as Darwin himself noted in response to a critique he received that The Origin of Species was too theoretical and that he should have just let the facts speak for themselves: "About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize, and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!" (1). I call this Darwin's Dictum (2)--all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service--and Dawkins has followed it to the letter.
Finally, the fact that Dawkins writes so clearly and cleverly, with literary style, wit, and humor, elevates this work of science to a higher plane of literature. Those who bewail popular science writing typically have no idea how to do it, and if they tried, they would discover that it is actually much harder than technical science writing. To that end, to the usual horizontal divide of science writing into technical and popular (often artificial, in any case), I would add that there is a vertical divide of science writing: good and bad. Although no one fully understands why books land and stay on the New York Times bestseller list, I venture to say that one reason The God Delusion has been riding that wave to publishing success for over six months at the time of writing is that it is a good read.
Altadena, CA 91001, USA
- Quoted in F. Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. II (John Murray, London, 1887), p. 121.
- M. Shermer, Sci. Am. 282, 38 (April 2001).
The editors suggest the following Related Resources on Science sites:BOOKS
- Michael Shermer (26 January 2007)
Science 315 (5811), 463. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1138989]