Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Atlantis and creationism investigates Archaeology from the dark side:
"If you examine the methodologies of pseudoarchaeology and creationism -- the way they construct their arguments -- you'll find that they're almost identical," says Garrett Fagan, a professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies at Penn State who has devoted much of his career to battling alternative archaeology. "These are essentially not intellectual arguments; they are political arguments. It looks like science, but it's not. They blame science and evolution for any number of social ills, and they regard undermining and destroying science as a primary goal."
Turns out, creationists and Atlantis worshipers have a lot in common. You wouldn't expect it, but the links are fascinating to watch. The two crib each other's arguments and "artifacts," but more interestingly a mental style.

In that regard, this article is a fascinating adjunct for Truth: A Guide by Simon Blackburn, which the first article's author reviews, and also in a fascinating New Yorker review. Basically, creationists regard truth as something one can impose on data, as do other pseudoscientists, including Atlantis theorists (also Kennedy conspiracy buffs, psychic advocates, anti-vaccine advocates, and a host of other fringe movements).

Scientists, biologists at least, generally feel that we're aiming at a truth that exists. Few of us are philosophers and rarely are we postmodernists, which means we generally figure there's something to the idea of truth. As the review indicates, truth itself is a surprisingly difficult concept to nail down.

One of the themes of the Salon review (especially combined with the archaeology story) is the distinction between religious modes of acquiring truth and scientific modes.

Clifford was no atheist, but he contended that there was "a duty to believe carefully, in the light of reason alone." Reason could be identified not by its results but by its method: It consists "not in propositions or statements which are to be accepted and believed on the authority of the tradition, but in questions rightly asked, in conceptions which enable us to ask further questions, and in methods of answering questions."

Blackburn goes on from here to suggest that people animated by religious ideas of truth do not literally believe in the power of Jesus or Mohammed, or at least not in the same way they believe in more mundane categories of truth, like the necessity of gasoline or mortgages. There may be something to this if we're talking about bourgeois Westerners and "mainline" religions, but Blackburn seems almost unaware of the possibility that for some people religious belief can be even more potent than belief in the everyday world. Given the history of the 21st century so far -- and given the fact that Blackburn spent several years living and teaching in the American South -- this is a bizarre oversight.

[His real mission] is to connect Clifford's faith in the methodical asking and answering of questions to the problem of truth. Blackburn sees both Hume, the hardheaded 18th century Scotsman, and Wittgenstein, the 20th century Viennese dreamer, as embracing an empirical approach to truth and rejecting supernatural and metaphysical modes of philosophy.
My limited experience banging heads with creationists indicates that O'Hehir's analysis – "that for some people religious belief can be even more potent than belief in the everyday world" – is a remarkably cogent and accurate statement about the problem. Creationists do not approach the problem of evolution the way you and I do. They approach the natural world by asking, what set of possible explanations could be consistent with certain theological beliefs. The Biblical Word is absolute truth, if something is not obviously consistent with the web of inference drawn from that Word, they don't care.

I approach evolution by asking, why are there so many kinds of animals? Evolution provides a coherent, unified and predictive theory to answer that question. Its elegance, fundamental simplicity and broad applicability (associated concepts to a scientist) make it ring true, though I know that my understanding of the truth is always contingent on unknown future results.

My major professor says in a multivariate stats class: "The truth is the intersection of multiple independent lies."
I suppose one could treat that as a restatement of syncretism, though it was only meant to illustrate the point that, so long as the error in individual measurements is random, statistical techniques rapidly converge on values representative of the population of data at large, not just the part of it you sampled.

That's why scientists are all about looking at the range of data. If all the experiments, with all their random errors, and all the theories, with their individual biases, give you the same picture, it's probably mostly right. The areas where the experts disagree are areas where a consensus hasn't emerged, but it will.

"Lies" in the quote above are really more like honest mistakes. Creationism, by contrast, thrives on intentional lying, or at least on selectively evaluating and twisting the evidence (true knowledge) to serve a purpose inconsistent with itself.

Syncretism works by intersecting honest mistakes, so does the scientific method. We can survey the religions of the world and decide that, since there's broad consensus that murder is wrong, that's got to be some sort of moral absolute. Since there are non-theistic religions, maybe a deity isn't an absolute truth. We can talk about it though.

Interestingly, one etymology of "syncretism" derives "cret" from "kretismos," to lie. Hence, syncretism would be the coming together of lies.

Similarly, in science, knowledge is never absolute. There's always a range of possibilities, and different evidence helps make some possibilities less and less likely, progressively eliminating the least likely, until you have a small bubble of inaccurate theories around a true core. The intersection of independent lies.

In this way, science privileges knowledge of the World. Religious scientists (a substantial portion of scientists) accept the fundamental religious importance of the Word, but partition it off somehow, as O'Hehir says, treating that belief "not in the same way they believe in more mundane categories of truth, like the necessity of gasoline or mortgages." In this way, the Word must be interpreted in light of the World.

Creationists put their weight in the Word, and must twist the World to fit their understanding. I think that's silly, just as I think any form of belief which treats certain premises as absolute and unquestionable truths is silly and dangerous.

A while back, I wrote about a claim that HIV came into humans through a set of events involving an oral polio vaccine. I looked at the evidence and dismissed the claim, though I didn't deny that it was possible. I think several readers remain wholly unconvinced, in part because they were asking themselves "How could the HIV/OPV connection be true, despite the evidence that's incompatible with this?"

It's that mindset which leads to conspiracy theories, Atlantis worship, and creationism, to name a few. It's a human tendency to get so tied to our beliefs that we refuse to drop our preconceptions, even when all the evidence of the World is arrayed before us.