Sunday, July 10, 2011

Johann Hari on free speech and religious fundamentalism

Great speech, isn't it?

There's a post on Pharyngula (where I got this video clip, too, actually) that's not directly related to this video, but it's still about "making the argument," as Hari says. If you think you've got something to say, say it.

"Fine, make the argument. If you disagree, if you don't like what someone says, argue back. Make a better case. Persuade people. Get it right. Do it better. The best way to discredit a bad argument is to let people hear it."

But don't keep other people from saying their piece. And don't huddle in secret meetings, afraid to let your ideas meet the light of day:
The Intelligent Design creationists have been having a secret meeting in Italy, where they claim to be challenging Darwinian orthodoxies. Well, semi-secret: they brought in David Berlinski's daughter to pretend to be a "journalist" and throw gentle little softballs in youtube interviews, but many of the attendees are anonymous, the meeting program is not available, and the place is stocked with devotees of religious orthodoxy who are singularly clueless about science. What it really is is a great big creationist circle jerk where everyone is free to say stupid things and not have one of those annoying evidence-based scientists in the audience asking difficult questions, and also avoid real journalists who might publicly expose their inanity. ...

Yes, their careers are in danger, because disciplines that value rigor and evidence and science are not going to be impressed at all by deluded cowards who hide in closets and whisper oft-debunked stupidities at one another. If you've got the goods, stand and deliver; show us your evidence, explain your reasoning, persuade people who disagree with you with the strength of your argument. They can't, so they scurry off to picturesque villas in Tuscany, shoo away those difficult criticisms, and sit and reassure each other that they are very clever indeed while mangling information theory and biology.

My favorite quote from Darwin's Origin is so appropriate here.
It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the "plan of creation" or "unity of design," &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject the theory. A few naturalists, endowed with much flexibility of mind, and who have already begun to doubt the immutability of species, may be influenced by this volume; but I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality. Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for thus only can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.

There was an orthodoxy in Darwin's time, too, and it was the dogma of creationism. Darwin's advice to young scientists was to conscientiously express their convictions, and to get out and publish, publish, publish their observations. That's how science progresses, by wrestling with disagreement and confronting it with evidence and experiment.

OK, I didn't originally intend to combine these two things, but I thought they fit. There's a culture that believes in free and open expression, a clear-eyed, courageous, stand-up face-to-face look at our ideas and our beliefs,... and then there's a culture of dogma and faith, afraid of other ideas which might prove better.

I know which culture I prefer.

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