It is a commonly cited stereotype that religious people are notoriously narrow-minded and intolerant of others, and their worldviews. Indeed at the time of writing (September 2015) this can be seen in the extreme when considering such groups as the so called Islamic State, which neither represents Islam nor is a state and to call it so gives it some kind of legitimacy. This behaviour is unacceptable, but I want to demonstrate that it is not just religious zealots who behave like this. In reality large segments of the scientific community, who claim to be open and tolerant, have a tendency to sit and pontificate on what we are supposed to believe.
Science is based on the simple principle that if something is tangible, either in that it or its effect can be directly  or indirectly  observed or measured it exists and nothing else does. This leaves at the present time either a lot of unknowns, or simply things that do not fall within this narrow definition. What is love? Is it the complex firing of neurons and particular synaptic connections beyond our current understanding or is it something more?
 Direct Effect: An apple falling from a tree demonstrates gravity.
 Indirect Effect: The usual example given here is the wind, but that can be directly measured as pockets of warm and cool air interchanging space with each other as they respond to the heating of the sun. A better example would be the effects of nurture on personality.
To be fair to the scientific community, I must admit at this point that once shown contrary proof it does tend to embrace the new view. However, my point is about the living present as it exists at the specific moment in time. Even today when uploading this resource the BBC Website was running a story on the discovery of a ‘new type of human’ found in South Africa in which the following sentence appeared:
The researchers claim that the discovery will change ideas about our human ancestors. (New human-like species discovered in S Africa accessed on 10 September 2015)
Does the above statement mean that our understanding of the origins of mankind might be mistaken and more importantly would I have been able to suggest so prior to the new evidence being found?
Consider the following two well-known examples:
What are dinosaurs?
When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s I was taught that dinosaurs were large lumbering (almost) clumsy lizards that’s own stupidity probably contributed as much to their extinction as the Yucatan meteor. Yet since Jurassic Park (1993) we have been bombarded with more and more evidence that suggests otherwise. An interesting soundbite comes from Jeff Goldblum. When asked which dinosaur was the most interesting dinosaur that he came across when filming the sequel – Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997). his answer was the now famous velociraptor. This seemed to be a strange admission when it had featured so significantly in the original movie. He went on to qualify his answer by stating that it was a completely different animal to the one he had originally met in 1993. Such was the progress the scientific community had made in 4 short years.
Current thinking suggests that dinosaurs are in fact more like birds than lizards and you cannot tell the scientific community otherwise (indeed one of my students described the picture on the left as a ‘mutated chicken’ when she first saw it. In fact it is an interpretation of what some scientists now believe a velociraptor looked like – which again is markedly different to how Jurassic Park has and continues to present them).
After we had been dazzled by the ‘wonderfully realistic’ Jurassic Park, the ground-breaking BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) followed. It was presented as an educational programme and even drew on the talents of Kenneth Branagh whose esteem added even more gravitas to it. However what we got was a documentary that concerning behaviour was 90% conjecture and at least as much fantasy as the Jurassic Park series and there we sat, consuming it and assuming it was right because of the authoritative presentation style.
Now watch the short video an example:
The above clip makes great TV and is a compelling story, but that is all it is. By using an authoritative documentary style it is easy to believe what is presented before our very eyes. If we stop and think though it is obvious that the bulk of the narration (if not all of it) is pure conjecture. There is no way anybody can speculate so specifically about the exact mating rituals of animals that died out some 65 million years ago. The producers built the speculative behaviours of dinosaurs on simple observation of ‘similar creatures’ that are still with us (see also below), but that is far from certainty. Using the same approach our descendants could well speculate in a million years that chimpanzees were able to speak because of their marked similarity to us!
So what’s my point?
My point is very simple, whilst those who worked on Jurassic Park in particular embraced the new knowledge you could not at any point have said to the scientific advisors / paleontologists ‘well actually you could be wrong’. They would not have admitted it and although they may dress it up with phrases like ‘Based on current scientific thinking…’ or ‘Evidence seems to suggest…’ they would steadfastly stick to their views as unbendingly as any religious zealot.
This new thinking may well be right, but what if it isn’t?
Again when I was growing up I was taught that Pluto was the ninth planet in our solar system and if I had completed a test and excluded Pluto I would have lost a mark on my grade. Yet in 2006 it was demoted to a dwarf planet, which is not a real planet. It is unnecessary to go into the exact physics of this new thinking, but the reasoning was based on the fact that it had not cleared its neighbourhood of other space bodies nor was it a satellite (i.e. a moon). Additionally some consider that it is extremely sensitive to other fields operating within the solar system and in particular the gravitational field of Neptune as highly significant. The final nail that sealed Pluto’s fate is that it is not remarkable when compared to other exo-planets that have since been discovered – each of which has never been nor ever will be classified as planets.
Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am not disagreeing with any of the scientific findings represented here; my point is more about the fact that nobody can even suggest that at any point in time the scientists could be wrong as new evidence may emerge that demonstrates current theories and scientific dogma could be wrong. Or to put it in another way, as with the issue concerning dinosaurs what annoys me is that science likes to present its ideas as infallible fact and the wisdom of the scientific community which, whilst not omnipotent, likes to feel that it is at least omniscient as it raises itself to godlike status. This makes much of the scientific community at least as self-righteous as the most intolerant zealot. Surely this is just the other side of the same coin!
The litmus test however is that if I had answered a question in 1988 on the status of Pluto and stated that it is not a true planet I would have been marked wrong. Can I reclaim the lost points some decades later?
Evolution of course is a subject of major contention, with viewpoints ranging from literal creationism, through intelligent design to Darwinian evolution and beyond. A central issue is that evolution still remains unproven on a macro-scale and yet it is taught as fact and tolerates no opposition from any quarter. The basic lack of proof of macro-evolution is that there has never been any evidence found of the emergence of new species. One of Darwin’s major studies focused on a number of finches which lived in isolation on the Galapagos Islands. Many had developed different and specialised beaks (see image for just a few of the specialisations which were observed). This indeed can be seen as very strong evidence of evolution, and certainly provides a good illustration of micro-evolution in practice, but the often missed point is that they are still finches and have not become another species!
There has never been any evidence of a cross-species jump and indeed when renowned atheist Richard Dawkins was confronted with this he was unable to come up with any evidence to support the emergence of any new species.
Liberal education demands that students are presented with all possible data and left to form their own views, based on analytical skills developed during schooling.
If the infallible scientific community gets it wrong from time to time what’s to say that current thinking on certain matters is wrong too.
However, it is not the religious self-righteousness of the scientific community that is the most infuriating – it is the pure hypocrisy!
© Horton, R. (2015) Omega Support Services