Monday, July 07, 2008

IDiocy's defenders

I guess a fellow who thinks that homosexuality is a disease to be cured can believe just about anything, but I was a little taken aback, I must admit, to see Rabbi Reuven Bulka's endorsement in today's Ottawa Citizen of Ben Stein's junk-science exploit, Expelled. After all, my own alma mater gave Bulka an honorary degree a while back, based on what the President at the time called his "outstanding career as a community leader and scholar."

I'll leave the scientific debunking of that mockumentary--not to mention the producers' on-going mendacity, hypocrisy, historical revisionism and plain sleaze--to others more qualified. But I'm interested in some of the other issues that Bulka raises.

To begin with, he's no slouch at confronting Mike Godwin head-on. The first several paragraphs of his piece are about Nazi atrocities: eugenics, forced sterilizations, mass murder of the "unfit," and so on. He argues that, yes indeed, it can happen here:"[E]very now and then some issue arises, and shades of the past appear menacingly on the horizon, with a loud message, a simple message: Do not go there."

And for the good Rabbi, Ben Stein is here to hoist the warning flag.

This "well done documentary," Bulka informs us, is the tale of "scientists expelled from their universities for looking positively on the notion of intelligent design." Oh, no. The horror!

Will we get sequels? Say, about "scientists" expelled from geography departments for teaching students that the earth is flat, or from medical faculties for claiming that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, or about "historians" booted from history departments for using The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion as a textbook and claiming the Holocaust didn't happen? The possibilities for new instances of conspirazoid persecution mania, not to mention the promotion of bogus theories under the umbrella of free expression, are simply endless for intrepid film-makers like Ben Stein. And as Bulka himself demonstrates, there's always a credulous audience out there, if not a large one.

So, what does Intelligent Design have to do with Nazi atrocities? you might be tempted to ask. Isn't it obvious? Well, if not, let Bulka explain.

First, we are told, Darwin was "arrogant" for calling his book "The Origin of Species," because he didn't explain how life began. It's clearly the height of arrogance to publish a book on a specific topic (speciation), and fail to address unrelated topics, like the origin of life itself, or the body-mind problem, or auto mechanics.

Darwin thus disposed of for his failure of character, Bulka moves on to Stein's denunciation of the alleged "religion" of "scientism," which, if it existed, would certainly be worthy of trenchant criticism. Religion should be left to the religious, be they believers, scatalogical pastors or scholarly rabbis. But hold on a minute: Bulka wants us to inject religion right into the heart of science:

You are left wondering why seemingly intelligent people have zero tolerance for intelligent design. It's not as if intelligent design is any less scientific than the gaping hole in how life began that Darwinists greet with an "I do not know" shrug.

Wha...Whoa! Where to start? Comparing ID to a "gaping hole" is promising enough, but let's not accuse Darwinists of shrugging. Darwinists don't do shrugging. A few paragraphs of Richard Dawkins or P.Z. Myers should disabuse anyone of that notion. What scientists don't know is precisely what they zealously investigate. They are extremely interested in such questions, but insist on things like evidence, testable propositions, falsifiability and the like.

But in any case the ID folks don't spend much time themselves on the origins of life--there's always the Bible for that sort of thing. Instead, they run around claiming that specific features of life today--an eye, a flagellum--couldn't have evolved randomly. (Oh, no)?

Rabbi Bulka himself doesn't have a problem with evolutionary theory. He just wants equal time for the quacks. There's a serious problem with the official Darwinists, however. According to Bulka, Stein "skillfully shows how Darwinism moves people to reject religion," he says (although somehow it didn't work that way on Darwin himself). "In a Darwinist system" (whatever the heck that is), "...we are bereft of values. And the scientists seemingly want it that way. If nothing is sacred, anything goes -- there are no restrictions."

Well, no. No one except a person raised by wolves is without values. Every society has values: they don't derive from science, but from the social processes of which society consists. But this sort of thing worries religious folks, who are foundationalists by definition. If God did not exist, Dostoevsky's character Ivan Karamazov said (and Bulka here repeats), everything is permitted. Except that it isn't: we wouldn't have a society, but a short-lived free for all. The notion of a society without values is just as meaningless as Quine's round square cupola.

Stalin and Hitler killed tens of millions "in the absence of any values." Well, once again, no. One could argue, certainly, that they were the wrong values, but values they clearly had. They both wrote books of an excessively moralizing character. Neither were what one might call scientists. And, as Bulka concedes, religion is not free from "taint" in this respect in any case.

But he proceeds (and at this point I begin to wonder about his alleged scholarly abilities):

As bad as religion may be, the argument can be made that absent religion, things would be worse. Mr. Stein drives this point home incessantly, as he juxtaposes scientific tyranny with Nazi imagery. A valueless society enslaved by scientism desacrilizes life. And Mr. Stein is not oblivious to the scientism of eugenics as it impacted then, with the implicit warning that it could happen again.

"[J]uxtaposes scientific tyranny with Nazi imagery," eh? Is Bulka really not able to tell the difference between argument and a crude propaganda technique? Apparently not. So if, for example, I were to "juxtapose" pictures of Ben Stein with candid shots of howler monkeys, I trust the rabbi will agree that this is a sufficiently cogent response to Expelled.

Our values are intact, they do change and develop over time, they are susceptible to all sorts of influences, and they are continually contested. Rabbi Bulka is a part of that very process. So are we all. We alone are responsible, as social participants, for what we value, and how, and how much. That realization is almost vertiginous, and frightening indeed for those who need sky-dwellers to set the rules. But those of us who do not still manage to hold values of our own, and fend off the Nazi hordes. Not to mention the scientific illiteracy of Ben Stein and Reuven Bulka.

(H/t BigCityLib for the Whatcott reference. The Godly do worship in odd ways, sometimes.)

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