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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Introduction: A journalist tries to understand a jealous god - materialist science

After reading American journalist Pam Winnick's A Jealous God (Nelson, 2005), I informed her that I wish I had written it. Authors, a contentious lot, don't usually suffer from a lack of ego, so that's high praise, even if it does not quite aspire to the heights of pardonable jealousy.

Winnick and I both started writing a book on the intelligent design controversy at about the same time. My By Design or by Chance? is a closeup look; Winnick used the ID controversy as a jumping off point for a number of interrelated science controversies - and produced a highly informative, easy-to-read book as a result.

She may also have damaged her career, as the Expelled film suggests, because she did not stick to a party line on many topics, but looked at what the evidence actually showed.

Party line vs. evidence? In science? Yes indeed. A profoundly illiberal trend is growing up in science. Once a party line becomes widely accepted, not only are dissenters ostracized and punished but truth, fair comment, and good intent are not permitted as defenses. If that sounds like a Canadian "human rights" commission, the resemblance is not accidental. The trend in science is part of a larger trend in society, though it is expressed in different ways.

Winnick begins with the 1970s debate on the use of live human fetuses in research. She focuses in particular on the sudden importance of "bioethicists" - whose main job, it appears, was to construct justifications for what researchers wanted to do. (pp. 28-29) For example,
"Research on the Fetus" was filled with the moral doublespeak of bioethics, the intellectual shifting, the illogic and the numerous loopholes that soon would typify nearly all writings in the emerging field of bioethics. (p. 80)
These are the things that mainstream journalists like Winnick, who wrote for the Pittsburgh Gazette, are just not supposed to say.

One must rather speak of "anguished choices" and "no easy answers" - as if, in the entire history of the world, the word NO! had never been invented and there had never been a reason to use it. She adds:
Virtually unnoticed at the time was the sub-rosa dismantling of the Judaeo-Christian ethic, the "bias for life" that at least in theory, holds each life dear. (p. 29)
In my experience, that dismantling wasn't so much unnoticed as impolite to mention. To notice such a thing implied the moral judgement that the loss of Judaeo-Christian ethics was a genuine loss. But our North American society has grown suspicious of moral judgments of any kind, especially judgements in favour of that kind of thing.

Significantly, foreshadowing later developments, advocates of live fetal research called their opponents "scientific know-nothings" who were "anti-research," thus subtly positioning science itself as on the side of dehumanizing trends.

Next: Part One: Science as popular religion

All the parts:

Introduction A journalist tries to understand a jealous god - materialist science
Part One: Science as popular religion
Part Two: The social justice costs of glorifying "science"
Part Three: Celebrity cosmology and assorted flimflam
Part Four: The simple, basic information needed to blow it all up the river

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