Scientists can’t get it right in their own field, let alone others.

I frequently argue that scientists who start putting forth notions that are outside their field of specialty, especially when their notions are significantly divergent from the experts in the field they are venturing into, should sit down and shut up.

Imagine a marine biologist, for example, putting forth the claim that the theory of relativity is wrong because physicists misunderstand basic optics. Of course, they are free to do so, but the burden of proof is upon them. Given that this is a field of hard science, they will find it difficult to do so (although, even if they can show some evidence, it is highly doubtful that the scientific powers that be, i.e. review boards, would allow them to publish the conjecture).

So, you only find scientists publicly putting forth universally rejected notions in fields where they are confident that nobody will be able to issue a formal proof that the the notions are blatantly wrong. Hence the spate of atheistic scientists spewing their anti-religion bullshit in the popular press. No need for peer review within the field of theology, no danger of being proven to be a raving lunatic, just sit back and let the profits from publishing bestsellers roll in. Any game that has the ability to provide positive benefits without any risk of loss is a good game to play.

But all this is a truism. The further one ventures from a chosen field of specialty, the higher the probability that one’s notions are wrong, especially when the notions are wildly divergent from commonly accepted thought. I’ve often said that the world would be a better place if folk like Dawkins would write books in the popular press about microbiology, something where he has, I assume, incredible knowledge and experience. The world has more need to hear about microbiology from an expert in the field than it does a need to hear about his conjectures about religion.

Of course, I’m sure it’s harder to write the microbiology equivalent of Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, a book which made incredibly difficult physics accessible to the layperson. And everybody knows there’s more money to made in controversial books than there is in books which seek to actually educate people. So people like Dawkins tend to spend time, not in the pursuit of knowledge in their field of expertise or in the education of the public in same, but by spewing forth their thoughts in areas in which they have little or no real knowledge, using invective-fueled tirades to substitute for thoughtful or useful ideas. It is more profitable for them. To heck with the rest of the planet, which would benefit much more by them spending their time doing science in their chosen field instead of writing books in other fields and doing speaking tours which serve little other than to hone their skills as sophistry and rhetoric. I’m sure they would take offense at my suggestion this reveals a certain immorality.

The real trouble is, scientists have a hard enough time getting things right within their own field of expertise. While a biologist speaking to the field of theology carries a higher probability of error, one would think that a biologist speaking about biology should carry a higher degree of confidence. Especially when it comes to fundamental things, like the sex of a given organism.

Enter Jinzhu, a panda born in 1996. Four years later, he was sent to Japan in order to breed with a female panda. He showed no interest in the female. The confused researchers decided to go to plan B, artificial insemination. When they tried to get some sperm from Jinzhu, they made a startling discovery: Jinzhu had no testicles. No penis. Further investigation revealed a vagina and ovaries.

For over four years, zoologists who specialized in pandas, notably in the areas of reproduction, claimed they had a male panda on their hands. Now everyone knows that male pandas have tiny penises, but they do indeed have one. But the lack of a penis, and the corresponding presence of a vagina, didn’t deter these scientists from believing that they were dealing with a male. I guess it’s a good thing that the Jinzhu wasn’t homosexual, showing a preference for other females. Then the researchers would likely still be confused as to the whole male/female thing, simply figuring that the female couldn’t conceive. It was Jinzhu’s lack of interest in the female that caused them to attempt artificial insemination, and the scientists didn’t figure things out until they actually set about to obtain some sperm from their little girl.

Does this mean that all biologists are this stupid? No, that would be the same insane logical fallacy that Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris use as their one-note argument. But it does show that credentials and titles show nothing about a person’s knowledge of even the subject in which their credentials lie. And if a zoologist can make such obscene errors about their own chosen field of specialty, how far can one even consider their opinion related to a wildly divergent field? Furthermore, how exactly can scientists act holier-than-thou towards theologists when they themselves make the same kind of mistakes?

The panda story has a pretty good ending, though. Jinzhu has given birth to twins! Another story including pictures can be found at china.org.cn. Note, however, that while that story mentions Jinzhu as being left in critical condition, I’ve seen other sources since which say that she has recovered and is doing well.

13 Responses to “Scientists can’t get it right in their own field, let alone others.”

  1. Damian Peterson Says:

    Is theology a science?

    I think that the recent spate of scientific criticisms of religion have been in direct response to the inane attempts to undermine evolution with ‘intelligent design’ and that’s probably why you’re seeing a lot of biologist backlash.

    The claim that the earth is ~6000 years old attracts attention from many other scientific fields too: astronomy, genetics, archaeology and geology to name a few.

    So, yes, I feel they’ve got a point and that they are justified in their aggression. I also feel that Dawkins et al have a far better grip on the topic of theology than young earth creationists have on biology.

    Do you feel that the criticisms they make are invalid?

  2. Lon Says:

    First, thanks for your comment. As a newbie blogger, I’m still at the point where getting a (non-spam) comment is an exciting thing. :)

    I don’t claim that theology is a science, no. However, it can, properly should, and sometimes does use science when applicable. For example, the use of carbon dating to determine the age of ancient manuscripts and the use of modern translation and textual criticism to interpret them, etc.

    The recent spate of criticism is nothing new; there are no new arguments being advanced. Great thinkers throughout the ages have debated these same arguments ad nauseum and have come to no evidence-supported decision either way. The only thing that has changed is that now, instead of relying on reasonable discussion, many have devolved into the concept of pouring derision and ridicule upon an opponent’s position. Some athiests, rather than presenting an actual argument, rely on sound bites designed to do nothing more than a) humiliate his opponent, and b) make fellow atheists snicker. It’s kind of like putting a criminal in the public square to be laughed at, rather than attempting any sort of useful rehabilitation. Interesting inconsistency of thought, since most of these same atheists would agree that rehabilitation is superior to purely putative measures. Now, I’ll grant some theists are no better, but when one’s opponent does something stupid, it is no justification for one to engage in the same kind of stupidity.

    I’ll also grant that some of the beliefs put forth by a highly vocal minority of so-called Christians are indeed absurd given todays understanding. Like the 6000 year old age of the earth. I find it interesting that the same people who totally accept carbon-dating to determine the age of their precious scriptures tend to deny carbon-dating when it provides clues towards the age of the planet.

    And yes, some form of action is required when you have school boards deciding to disallow the teaching of evolution and/or the most widely accepted scientific theory explaining it. The invention of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was indeed justified and useful in making a specific point regarding that.

    We all, not just atheists, have a critical need to constantly point out delusional beliefs and to attempt to attenuate the spread of those beliefs. Beliefs held despite observed facts showing otherwise is indeed delusional. Young earth creationists should be filed under the same category we place flat earth people, holocaust deniers and moon landing deniers.

    The issue is that many, if not most, believers would actually agree with the previous paragraphs. Yet many of today’s atheists paint all believers with the same broad strokes that cover young earth creationists or people like those in the Westboro Baptist Church, and then use that stereotype to “justify” their extreme arrogance towards all believers. Rather than a productive illumination of places where a given theology or doctrine is inconsistent or otherwise arguably in error, or pointing out where a believer’s actions are inconsistent with their own professed beliefs, many of today’s atheists simply pour out derision, scorn, and humiliation on all believers regardless of any specific belief. When an atheist attacks the belief held by someone like Falwell or Phelps, or the actions of some whack-job who claimed to be Christian and hurt them as a child, that is one thing. But it is a huge logical fallacy for them to then paint all Christians with that same brush, and it is even more logically absurd when they think that they’re even speaking towards the question of the existence of God. This, from people who claim to cherish rationality and logic.

    So yes, while I feel that some of the atheists’ criticisms are valid and in some cases they are justified in their aggression, I do believe that much of their aggression is either poorly-targeted or entirely misdirected. I also believe that these atheists do their arguments no justice by exchanging reason for arrogance, anger, and attempts to humiliate their opponents. Humiliating a dumb person rather than attempting to educate them may indeed be more satisfying but doing so arguably points to a failure in a person’s ethics and/or morality.

    I’d agree that Dawkins may have a better grip on theology than a YEC has on biology but that is wholly irrelevant, especially regarding the point made in the original post. My contention was, and is, that Dawkins’ thoughts on biology have incredibly more weight than his thoughts on theology, and the world would be better served if he spent his time writing books and papers on that rather than regurgitating age-old arguments with a liberal dose of arrogance and vitrol. Greater philosophers and thinkers than he have already presented his atheistic arguments; he has brought absolutely nothing new to those arguments except arrogance, insults, and a fashionable t-shirt logo. Conversely, when he has spent his time in his chosen field of specialty, he has brought important new scientific knowledge to the table to the direct and great benefit of humanity.

  3. Damian Peterson Says:

    From what I’ve seen and read, the recent backlash wouldn’t have happened if not for the intelligent design movement and the move to mix Christian fundamentalism with politics in the US.

    I would have to observe from the tone of your original post that your rhetoric is worse than what you are accusing them of: “spewing their anti-religion bullshit”, “raving lunatic”, “sit down and shut up”, etc. I don’t want you to take this as a personal attack however. Just an observation.

    I’ve read Hitchens, Harris, Dennet, Sagan and Dawkins. It’s my understanding that Dawkins’ target (and Sagan’s to an extent) was the inanity of the YECs, Harris’ was the moderates who shelter extremists, Dennet’s was fellow philosophers in an attempt to start a conversation and Hitchens is extremely literate but abrasive and deliberately controversial.

    I’ve personally given up talking with YECs because, now that I’m no longer a believer, it’s impossible to even begin a dialogue - we really have no common ground any more. And I’ve learnt that there is no way to have reasonable discussion when personal beliefs are not able to be suspended.

    I used to be fundamentalist in my beliefs - my family still are - and I now realise that, if I were able to travel back in time, there is nothing I could say to myself to even begin a reasonable dialogue.

    Do you often talk with YECs? If so, how do you get on? I’m beginning to think that the only way to address the issue is from within - i.e. theists like yourself.

    From the secular point of view we’d all benefit from not having to waste energy on defending elementary science against a gazillion YECs and from the Christian point of view you’ll probably have less deconversions when Christians come to their senses and find that it’s unacceptable to doubt YEC within their family and church.

    Have you had a chance to read Dennet’s Breaking The Spell? I really enjoyed it - he’s very reasonable and I think it’s a discussion worth having.

  4. Lon Says:

    I’m in favor of the backlash inasmuch as it attempts to address the encroachment of religion into secular politics and education. In fact, I fault current day believers for not participating in said backlash to a greater degree. The founders’ idea of separating church and state was a distinct improvement in government theory, and serves to protect religion as much as it serves to protect secular society. I’m amazed that Christians, for example, aren’t demanding such a separation. If teacher-led prayer were allowed in classrooms, how many would be comfortable if the teacher happened to be Islamic or Wiccan? To me, it’s far better to disallow prayer in schools; teach my son the facts, please, and let me pick out which religion(s) to expose him to separately.

    But when the backlash against stupidity, which could and should include all reasonable people regardless of belief, gets expressed solely as an argument between atheists, claiming to be the sole possessors of rationality, and all religion as a whole, I begin to take issue. Especially when perfectly rational arguments usable by theists and atheists alike get replaced with nothing more than belittling, ad hominem attacks against theists. There are plenty of intelligent, rational, free-thinking believers who are part of the backlash. And many more believers would likely take notice and join in if they were presented with proper arguments. But when an atheist begins with “People who believe in God are idiots”, it doesn’t matter what they say after that because everyone is guaranteed to ignore everything else they say. Everyone except those actively looking for the equivalent of a barroom brawl, that is. Atheists who use these tactics hurt their argument, because it truly makes them look just as arrogant, irrational, and “foaming at the mouth” as the whack-jobs they seek to discredit. Indeed, to many, the nature and type of ravings of the “new atheism” movement are indiscernible from those of the the fundamentalist religionists.

    Your observation of the language I use is dead on. Although, when you call it “rhetoric”, I’d say you give it too much credit. To me, the language I used is too coarse to qualify for the term rhetoric. Technically, sure, loaded language is indeed a deceitful rhetorical device, but I associate a certain eloquence and refinement with the word. I am frequently fully guilty of the same charges I level at some atheists. And like those atheists, I can only offer the same feeble excuses for it. It’s a retaliation, a desire to respond in-kind to how I perceive I’m being treated, along with the smug satisfaction of thinking that it somehow puts the smack down on my opponent.

    I wrestle with this kind of thing whenever I write on the topics I’ve covered so far on this blog. On the one hand, I see all these things that make me frustrated, angry, and totally fed-up. On the other, I know damn well that anger is an enemy of reason and that “honey attracts more bees than water”. Too often, my desire to vent off some steam overrides my knowledge that that pressure could’ve been kept and used in a more controlled and useful fashion. Like I said, I’m frequently no better than the people I argue against, and when I get on a rant about my opponent’s errors in this regard it is with no lack of understanding about where they’re coming from.

    There is, however, a slight difference that is germane to the point I was making in the previous comment. In most cases, it should be rather clear that I do not accuse all atheists of being arrogant or attempting to humiliate believers. I have seen no such indications from you, for example, and thus it follows that my rant doesn’t even apply to someone like yourself. When I go on a rant against YECs, it should likewise be obvious that I’m not speaking against all Christians. Yet so frequently when I hear an atheist rant, their language seems to include all believers — totally ignoring that many believers would agree with the content of the rant. Atheists who have an argument against YECs, for example, should make it clear that their argument is against YEC notions, rather than being an indictment of all believers. When you have an argument with someone who calls themselves Christian and so obviously doesn’t follow the teachings of Jesus, is it fair to indict all Christians? Isn’t it more rational to point out the inconsistencies or errors in that person or group’s actions than it is to simply call all Christians idiots?

    I’ve only read Hitchens and seen Dawkins and various others on the net. I appreciate your synopsis of the content/styles of the different authors. “God is not Great” in my opinion wasn’t worth the time spent reading it; I get the impression that the time would’ve been better spent reading Dennet or maybe Harris. According to what you said, Harris has a point that I’d definitely agree with, as I believe that mainstream Christians need to become more proactive in standing up to the obvious nut cases. Christians need to be more vocal in saying “this is NOT my Christianity” when faced with the rants of people like Phelps, Robertson, the YECs, et al. It is not restricted to Christianity either; Islam has an even greater problem with allowing a highly vocal, arguably wrong, distinct subset of people to define how they are perceived by the public at large.

    And yes, some YECs or other fundamentalists are impossible to talk to. Personally, I see their biggest fundamental error to be their attempt to make the Bible into something more than it truly is; indeed, I accuse many of practicing various degrees of idolatry relating to their use of scripture. Most have no clue regarding the actual history of the Bible, the briefest study of which reveals the danger of attempting to interpret it literally. They’ll spend hours analyzing the literal meaning of a specific passage, oblivious to the fact that that passage was added in the 14th century, and changed three times in the 15th. Changes made by people who were either demonstrably incompetent at transcribing/translating or just happened to have powerful political or financial interest in doing so.

    Regardless, my tactic when arguing with any flavor of Christian is to go to what is indeed our common ground: the actual (as best we can determine) teachings of Joshua ben Joseph (aka Jesus). I ensure that my arguments are consistent with Jesus’ teachings and require that my opponent do the same. That’s where they run into problems, as most of their doctrines aren’t based on those teachings at all. Most so-called Christian doctrines are based in things that people who never even met Jesus made up about him rather than the things he was trying to tell us. Jesus’ most common metaphor stands in direct opposition to concepts such as eternal hell, the fall of man, and even why Jesus died the way he did. It definitely derails any notion that the typical picture of God painted in the Old Testament was accurate.

    Jesus presented a superior set of morals to the public. Most atheists I have spoken with easily agree with that statement. Thus, even atheists can honestly present arguments from the basis of his teachings, taking a position which people who claim to follow those teachings cannot logically refute. I greatly suspect that the common ground between your beliefs and others is greater than you think, and more importantly, is mostly comprised of things that they cannot successfully argue against.

    But in the end, you’re typically right. There’s no sense arguing because some just won’t be swayed by logic, they refuse to use the intellectual gifts that they themselves claim God gave them. I’m reminded of the recent incident in Britain where the woman played the lottery game. It was a scratchard where the object was to uncover a number less than -8. She uncovered -6 and is still upset that she didn’t win, refusing to accept that she’s wrong. There’s no convincing her. But Jesus had a teaching about that too, something to the effect of “if a person won’t listen, then simply move along without worrying about them further. They’re not worthy of your time”.

    Have you read The Jefferson Bible? It’s a nice presentation of Jesus’ ideas, separated from the virgin birth, resurrection, and most of the miracles. Take a moment to at least read the chapter titled Religious Views of Thomas Jefferson, and you’ll begin to see precisely where I’m coming from. Here’s a sample:

    5. [The Scriptures] have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian Sophist (Plato), frittering them into subtilties and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an impostor. Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man. The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.

  5. Damian Peterson Says:

    I can understand how annoying it must be to be lumped in with the more extreme versions of Christianity.

    One of the reasons I posted a comment here originally is that I believe that the rise of fundamentalism, especially in America, is the failure of educated people like yourself to stomp out those embers. I write this as a generic challenge rather than a criticism - for all I know you could spend all your days and nights trying to talk sense to YECs.

    Instead, and probably due to the underlying spirit of tolerance fellow believers, it’s been the clever arguments of the educated that have been a protecting barrier to the spread of all manner of idiotic beliefs.

    I hereby lay down the challenge to you and others of a similar mindset to man the firehoses - the time for ember-stomping is long gone - and put an end to this ridiculous set of beliefs.

    I believe that just as Wilberforce who was able to use arguments from within the framework of Christianity to convince a “Christian” nation to end slavery, moderate Muslims and Christians are the best equipped to counter the fundamentalists. Us non-theists just can’t find enough common ground to be able to have that conversation.

    What do you think? Is this the most effective way to go about it? Do you see value in this challenge?

    Thanks for the Jefferson recommendation too; I’ve added that to my list of books to read but I’m a slow reader and I’ve got a list as long as my arm.

  6. Damian Peterson Says:

    Ooops, I’ve read another blog entry where you cover the topic of reasonable Christians taking on the job of educating YECs. Sorry, I was hoping to introduce a novel idea but it seems I’ve been pipped at the post.

  7. The Blog of Lon » Blog Archive » Recent comment activity Says:

    [...] been some recent comment activity in my Scientists can’t get it right in their own field let alone others post; it includes some of my thoughts which really need their own posts, but I just hadn’t [...]

  8. Lon Says:

    I’m not sure I’m your man in terms of doing much to help eradicate the errors of the fundamentalist Christians, and it’s precisely due to the requirement that it be done from within. Most Christians, including mainstream ones, would instantly reject the idea that I’m a Christian if they knew the full extent of my belief. Many of their core beliefs are things I reject outright due to inconsistencies I see between them and Jesus’ teachings. Many more of those “necessary to be Christian” beliefs I’m quite ambivalent about due to thinking them quite unnecessary. I’m convinced that if Jesus were here today, he would simply re-state many of his parables with the only difference being the substitution of the word “Christians” for the words “Scribes and Pharisees”. Their actions and their doctrines, in my mind, have done more to obscure and pervert his teachings than any other force in history.

    So, I’m a heretic, and thus any teachings I could offer will be easily rejected by even mainstream Christians, and even moreso by the fundamentalist factions. Of course, I’m the hardheaded sort, and will continue to randomly post on religious topics here until I get my other site running which will be devoted to the topic. I do wish to present my basis for believing in God, grounded in rationality rather than scriptural authority; a belief that the existence of God is predicted not only by a rational theory but by mathematics as currently practiced. I doubt I’ll convert anyone who is firm in their current belief, but I do believe I can resolve a great many of the questions that undermine or destroy the faith of so many in today’s world.

    But back to the question at hand. The current problem that both Christianity and Islam have in self-correcting the flagrant errors of their “fundamentalists” is that the more mainstream voices lack highly-visible public leadership. The meek may indeed inherit the earth, but they certainly don’t get on TV much. The most influential Christian in America is supposedly Joel Osteen, and while his message is an improvement due to emphasizing love rather than sin, it is still easily dismissed due to the “donate to me so that God will reward you” type bullshit. The other highly visible “Christian” leaders are apparently nothing more than a collection of wannabe politicians, charlatans, and frauds.

    Basically, the only spiritual “leaders” that get any level of exposure are the charlatans who finance their exposure by fleecing their followers, and the extremists whose rants make good stories in the media (i.e. the Fred Phelps bunch and the kill-everyone Muslim clerics).

    The only decent spiritual leader that I can think of offhand who gets any mass exposure nowadays is the Dalai Lama, and even most of his exposure is centered on his political issues with the Chinese rather than his teachings. A shame, as his teachings are closer to truth (and closer to Jesus’ teachings) than anything ever said by Pat Roberston, James Dobson, and Donald Wildmon put together. Yes, you heard me right, I believe that a Buddhist is more Christian than all of the most influential Christians combined. What an interesting world we live in.

  9. Damian Peterson Says:

    I’m very interested in hearing your views and look forward to reading your new website when you get it up and running.

    I can see why you would have difficulty expressing your beliefs to mainstream Christians too. They’d probably label you as ‘watered-down’ and quote the “luke warm, spit you out” verse.

    Let me know if you ever publish your thoughts on a rational view of God and I promise to consume it with an open mind.

  10. Byron Says:

    I’d like to toss my two cents in regarding opposition, or the lack thereof, to fundamentalism. If we take this as a common phenomenon, to include the surge of radical Islam in the Middle East, we can assume it’s a behavioral and psychological difference between the two groups. I view fundamentalists as people who blame all of the worlds problems on other people, groups, social movements, etc. Prone to overexcitement and anger, they sway those who are emotionally or psychologically underdeveloped, whether these be teenagers or grown-ups who forgot their two lumps of rational thinking with their morning coffee. People who are more given to rational behaviors and thinking tend to simply roll their eyes and click on a different news link. Additionally, we try not to suppress the right to free speech in America, even if it’s completely thoughtless and ignorant. So you ultimately have these two groups, one with forward momentum and one without. It’s easy to see how a group A gets out of hand.

  11. Byron Says:

    Oh. You’re all sheeple, by the way.

  12. The Wiccan Scientist Says:

    This posting and many of the comments here are very interesting. But, there’s a few problems. First, it seems to be the assumption that anyone that is critical of religious-based teachings is an atheist and, in particular, scientists are atheists. This is far from the truth. I myself am a professor of physics and a practicing wiccan. I have no problem getting my religious and scientific viewpoints to fit together. I also know many scientists that are devout in their religious beliefs, including Christianity and Islam. Jews, or course, are well known for turning out some excellent scientists.

    There is no conflict between religion and science. You can believe in both without any problems. The conflict is between science, which must conform to the real world, and individual preachings, which do not have to have any basis in reality. It is not likely you will find many people today that believe teaching the Earth revolves around the Sun is a threat to their religious beliefs, but this was certainly the belief four hundred years ago. You have to wonder, what will people four hundred years from now think about the debate between creationism and evolution.

    Also, there is criticism of scientists that voice opinions outside the realm of their expertise. This seems to be a self-defeating. By this stance, if you can only voice an opinion of something that you’re an expert in, then you can’t voice an opinion about scientists that opine in fields outside their expertise, unless you are such a scientist.

    The fact is, scientists are well-educated people that are well-trained to think in a logical manner. Their opinion on things is usually well thought out. Of course, if you don’t like their opinion, you’re free to disagree with it or to simply ignore it.

  13. OhHolyKnight Says:

    “I frequently argue that scientists who start putting forth notions that are outside their field of specialty… should sit down and shut up.”

    Fantastic quote, my friend. Don’t you love how religion encompasses everything, so that they are experts on it all, from science to politics to personal lives. Magnificent. Scientists–the ones who actually STUDY what is really going on–aren’t allowed to speak their mind, but when it comes to religious zealots and crackpots chiming in about how amazing god and jesus are and how everyone who doesn’t think like that is just plain stupid, we must “respect” their “opinion.”

    At least those scientists aren’t saying, “It just is.” I respect those men for saying something, be it wrong or in the wrong field or whatever, MUCH more than I respect a Christian who tries to tell me who should shut up when they say things that Christian doesn’t agree with.