30 November 2005

Lord May takes a parting shot at fundamentalism

Tomorrow sees the retirement of Lord May of Oxford from his post as President of the Royal Society, but his valedictory speech contains a few choice words for those who think their beliefs carry more weight than scientific evidence and opinion. The speech, entitled 'Threats to Tomorrow's World' contains the lines,

"Fundamentalism doesn't necessarily derive from sacred texts. It's where a belief trumps a fact and refuses to confront the facts.
All ideas should be open to questioning, and the merit of ideas should be assessed on the strength of evidence that supports them and not on the credentials or affiliations of the individuals proposing them. It is not a recipe for a comfortable life, but it is demonstrably a powerful engine for understanding how the world actually works and for applying this understanding."

Now there are some who would argue that even engaging in debate with fundamentalist clap-trap gives them more of a platform than they deserve, and to a certain extent I agree with that argument. However, as Lord May rightly recognises, fundamentalism is becoming increasingly significant in both national and global decision-making and is eroding respect for science in every community it touches. It's easy to claim that the UK is (still) a secular nation and that we have nothing to fear, but the facts prove otherwise. We still have an education system where the vast majority of schools have a religious bias, and a government bent on developing more faith schools to serve the demands of non-Christian religious parents. More worrying are the likes of the Vardy academies that teach creationism as a 'real' alternative to evolution and the growth of home-schooling programmes such as Accelerated Christian Education. At the head of this we have a Prime Minister who is not afraid to mix his religion with his role as a leader, and an Education Secretary who has never denied being a member of the ultra-Catholic Opus Dei. Although we should count ourselves lucky that, unlike the US, the majority of our population still think evolution is the best way to explain how we got ourselves into this mess of an existence in the first place.

It is precisely because of what has happened in the US that it is more important than ever that scientists and atheists speak out, for silence will be seen as acceptance.

Now Lord May and I may not agree completely on nuclear power, but we certainly agree on climate change, and as an environmental scientist and a science educator I get somewhat annoyed when religious groups stick their noses into the debate. The neocon view that some god gave us the world for us to exploit doesn't sound very Christian to me, but then there are numerous passages in the bible that support that view, and this is one of the main reasons I first started to reject Christianity as a teenager. It might be worth asking our Global Village Idiot if, as he claims, his god approves of the illegal invasion of Iraq, then why doesn't he think that hurricane Katrina was a message from on-high sent to tell Americans that they've been screwing with our planet too much and for too long (but, of course, Katrina was sent to punish the people of New Orleans for not executing anyone in a same-sex relationship).

Here's the crux of it. Belief, and the actions resulting from it, requires no evidence but a bit of 'sacred' text. Scientists, on the other hand, have to spend their entire lives relentlessly studying evidence from which to draw conclusions, and then have them peer-reviewed before they even have a chance of becoming knowledge. In Bush's case he doesn't even need a bible on which to base his misguided beliefs. Now whether the voice in his head was the result of mild schizophrenia, megalomania, whisperings from Dick and Karl, or just a complete lack of scientific understanding and good old common sense is open to debate (I suspect a combination of all four) but he's also profoundly deaf to the warnings of the scientific community and environmentalists.

I've just returned from the Youth Summit on Climate Change in Berne, Switzerland, where it was made clear that, in today's world at least, scientists can no longer hide in their labs and offices and assume that somewhere further up the chain of command someone is taking them seriously and implementing their advice. I've known this for a long time due to having a masters degree in science policy, so it was refreshing to hear that many others recognise this too. It's time to start bursting a few bubbles, and those bubbles can be found in every university in the country, including here at De Montfort University. Pins at the ready everyone!

Sadly Lord May's successor will be Prof Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and a fantasist who looks set to take a much softer view on these issues than his predecessor. So it is with some degree of hope that I applaud Lord May for stating that he intends to stay around, and hopefully have more freedom to criticise the government and religious groups now he no longer has the constraints of office to deal with. Go get 'em (your Lordship)!

Can humanity rise to godhood?

This is on a slightly different note but I'm throwing it in as it came to mind.

Science fiction has long played with the concept that humans may one day rise to a level of sentience many would describe, or equate to, that of a god. The TV series Babylon 5 did a brilliant job of exploring this idea under the none-too-subtle guise of 'going over the rim of the universe' but for the literary-minded I have to recommend Stephen Baxter's new book 'Transcendent' - which coincidentally also contains an excellent discussion on solutions to climate change, the dangers of warming methane hydrate deposits, and how to deal with greenhouse gas emissions.

The book is the third (and, I'm guessing, last) in his Destiny's Children series that began with the highly-rated Coalescent, and if you're planning on reading it for the plot as well as the ideas then you do need to read Coalescent and Exultant first. Fans of traditional sci-fi will appreciate Exultant as a good old far-future yarn, but otherwise it is definitely the weakest of the three. Religion plays a strong role in the plot of Transcendent (as it does in Coalescent) but Baxter takes a unique angle on it (anything more would be a spolier) so it'd be interesting to hear what other atheists make of it. Personally I was very impressed.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Following the Channel 4 TV series "What we still don't know" that was fronted by Martin Rees in December 2004, in various reviews (e.g. on the Brights forums) I dubbed him the "Fantasist Royal".

The last episode was about the "Multiverse" theory that Rees favours, and claimed that in the infinity of parallel universes there must have evolved superintelligences, and that we could be just a simulation running on one of their computers! (As in the film The Matrix). This isn't "science", it's just bad science fiction. Why would anyone with superintelligence want to run a simulation for 15 billion years?

I posted this earlier with a link but it was too long and disrupted the layout so I had to delete and post again.

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