By 25–a full quarter of a century–some of my contemporaries have achieved a smattering of life’s great milestones: hanging one oversized piece of posterboard with Latin on it in a frame next to their other oversized piece of posterboard with Latin on it in a frame, legally shackling themselves to a person whose tendency to mispronounce “espresso” won’t seem so endearing when you’re trying to decide who gets the couch,¹ blending their genetic material with someone else’s genetic material into a human amalgam that they then eject from their body, etc. etc.
Not to be outdone, I, too, have racked up some major accomplishments. The most impressive of which are the time Dan Savage featured me in his column (which was then syndicated worldwide), and when preeminent “Intelligent Design” “scholar,” Michael Behe, referred to me as “that snooty girl in the back.”
I know what you’re thinking. Einstein was at least a year older before figuring out special relativity; this girl is on fire. I know, I know. I am truly humbled. We’re all just trying to find our place in this desolate rock hurdling through space.
Allow me to elaborate on one of these achievements (no, not the Dan Savage one, even though it might be orders of magnitude more momentous): it was the fall of 2009, and the Jefferson Society had invited Behe–who, for reasons that defy logic, is a professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University²–to come discuss his theory of “irreducible complexity.”
The Jefferson Society has a storied past of inviting sordid and perhaps unsavory characters to speak before the Hall–a cast that has included Black Panthers, members of the KKK, and John Yoo, architect of waterboarding as an enhanced interrogation technique. Contrary to popular belief, the rationale behind extending these invitations isn’t to offend as many people as possible, but rather, it is founded on the idea that opinions are only valid if they can stand up to scrutiny, and that higher understanding can be achieved through unhindered discourse. The idea of sparring with Neo-Nazis doesn’t faze me. I’m not worried that my logic and reasoning faculties won’t be superior to theirs.
The controversy surrounding Michael Behe addressing the Hall served its intended purpose: upon hearing that a proponent of Intelligent Design was being given a pulpit, the biology department at the University of Virginia descended upon Hotel C with all their research. It was a slaughter. It wasn’t even close. It was Predator in the Colosseum with a bunny rabbit. Still, watching a poor, defenseless animal get shredded to pieces is its own form of entertainment.
I remember distinctly, before he pulled out the tired and long-since discredited “eyeball” example,³ that he projected a Far Side comic on the screen. It depicted a group of explorers in the jungle who happen upon a man hanging upside-down from vines in the trees, clearly caught in a trap.
Of course, looking at the trap, one would automatically assume that it was set there by some intelligent life–that the vines and impaling rods did not arrange themselves that way by chance. This, he said, was an analogy for human evolution.
My jaw dropped. I thought I felt the gray matter from my brain trickling out of my ears; I was just dumbfounded that anyone who was not in a vegetative state, let alone someone with a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania, would draw that comparison. Even if you grant that the chances of life arising in the particular pattern it has arisen are minuscule (which they are), the whole beauty of evolution is that, against all odds, life did arise by chance, and, through a series of very unlikely accidents over the course of millions of years, it diverged into various formats that were well-adapted to certain environments, and here we are. The point of science is to figure out how and why. Not to throw up your hands and say, “Too hard; Fairy Sky Dad did it.”
Which is what I asked him. I said I didn’t want to argue the veracity of whatever nonsense claims he was making; our biology professors could do that. I wanted to know how he called himself a scientist when his answer to something being “too complicated” or “too hard” was not to say, “Let me employ the scientific method to try to figure out what this thing is,” but rather, “I give up.” I mean, that’s just not in the spirit of science. (I believe the scientific term is “un-sciencey.”)
On the way back to the airport, he is reported to have referred to me as “that snooty girl in the back.” I couldn’t have been prouder.
On the other end of the spectrum is an impetus to question constantly and to doubt everything, never to accept something as definitively true without a preponderance of evidence. Underlying this mentality is intellectual humility, the idea that we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to believe that our ideas are always the best on first consideration. The desire to welcome opportunities to view even our most deeply-held beliefs through a different lens.
It is the general ethos of good debaters that there is no issue too controversial, no idea unassailable, and no question too sacred to be immune from being asked. If I believe in anything with certainty it is the aforementioned principle; I am a real zealot. And yet, I would argue, there are some questions that, by the mere act of being posed, are horribly offensive. And it’s not because people are overly sensitive or don’t appreciate the merits of debate or are tools of the liberal political correctness machine. It’s because these issues have largely been settled, via logical deduction or scientific investigation, and to revisit them as though both sides of the question hold equal weight is insulting to the intellectual work that has been done.
Take eugenics as an easy example. It’s not just uncouth to say, “Perhaps people of -insert ethnic minority here- descent are just stupider”; it’s also just plain wrong. Even if it were true, which it’s not, we have all agreed anyway that humans have an intransigent, inherent moral value just by virtue of being a member of the species. Raising the issue again is not just insensitive; it’s a slap in the face to years of scientific and social progress. Also important to remember is that none of these truths were corrected in a social vacuum, and to trudge them up again trivializes the pain and suffering wrought unto real people and real groups who were seriously hurt by the incorrect, uncorrected notion.
Questioning the veracity of something like racial equality is not practicing intellectual humility; that’s just looking at the facts and the evidence and plugging your ears and yelling “la la la la la!” into the ether.
A skeptic will question claims, then embrace the evidence. A denier will question claims, then reject the evidence.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) May 16, 2016
But what about all those times when the basis of our understanding has been rocked by some new discovery? I would first offer that most people I hear advancing this idea that we should be open-minded to all questions no matter what typically don’t know what that means in the context of modern science. Yes, Copernicus did rub some people the wrong way when he suggested that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around. But in 1532, the extent of our scientific understanding was pretty much that giraffes were giant dogs with their heads stretched out and stars were teeth that fell out of witches’ mouths and tides were caused by God taking a moonlit bath. In the late 13th and 14th centuries, we literally cut open perceived “criminals” to show people that their organs were disgusting and corrupt and that was causing their deviant behavior. (We of course used no non-criminal point of comparison.) Since then–and, really, since the neolithic agricultural revolution–technology has been increasing exponentially as we broach the impending singularity (perhaps one of many?).
One of the more recent scientific “upsets” I can think of is that neutrinos have mass and come in three distinct “flavors.” If you don’t know what that means or why it matters, then you shouldn’t be saying things like, “We used to think the sun revolved around the earth, so we could totally be wrong about global warming.”
But this brings up an important point — that the scientific method is fallible, that we can make mistakes, that there are holes in our understanding. And that’s true. But if we use the cases in which we are wrong as grounds to abandon our entire framework for trying to understand things, then we’re not going to be able to understand anything.
I present my entire argument with the caveat that every day, we are gathering more and more evidence to support the idea that we know less and less. But theoretical possibilities aside, it’s not going to be productive to debate things like, “Does global warming exist,” or, “have women been historically oppressed.” It’s almost like an insistence on having these discussions, despite having already dissected them ad nauseam and arrived at a consensus, reflects an ulterior motive or underlying prejudice that the arguer wants to will to be true. And that’s not fair. Far more likely to advance discussion, and far more interesting in general, would be to expand upon those basic assumptions to broaden our understanding. E.g. accepting that women have been historically oppressed, is it fair/adequate/better to implement quotas in board rooms? etc. etc.
There’s ignorance, there’s bigotry, and then there’s hiding bigotry and willful ignorance under the guise of being cynical and questioning. The last, while becoming more ubiquitous, seems somehow way more insidious. Some stuff is just wrong.
- May I suggest Solomon’s Judgment?
- Might I suggest never sending your kids to Lehigh to study science?
- Proponents of “intelligent design” and “irreducible complexity” assert that the eyeball is too complicated to have formed in increments, because, they claim, the organ serves no purpose and can’t function properly if it’s not entirely intact in its final, sophisticated form. This is, as it is called in scientific terms, complete bullshit.