OK, so I’m a little late to this one. But I still think I have something to add. Well I would.
PZ wrote a piece extolling the virtues of science over religion in curing diseases such as cancer, and bemoaning the shortage of funds to support research. (And also bemoaning the money wasted on useless woo projects such as homeopathy and creationism.) The Discovery Institute’s pet brain surgeon, Michael Egnor, then penned what he probably imagined was a decent rebuttal - Cancer Research, Prayer, and St. Jude. A snippet:
I take exception to his claim that prayer and religious faith had nothing to do with the improvements in the treatment of cancer.
The remarkable progress in the treatment of cancer in the past several decades had a lot to do with faith and prayer. Myers misunderstands the origins of modern medical science and the history and nature of cancer treatment.
Advances in science and cancer treatment emerged, not from science in isolation, but from a culture that made science possible and that directed the fruits of scientific work toward good and compassionate goals. The culture from which science has emerged is Judeo-Christian culture, and modern science has arisen only in Judeo-Christian culture.
PZ responded, as did Orac and Steven Novella, so I don’t need to repeat all their points in detail. Obviously scientific discoveries took place in other cultures apart from Judeo-Christian ones, and even more obviously, the main contribution of religion to scientific discovery has been to suppress it and deny reality, rather than to encourage any new discoveries. Opposition to stem cell research on religious grounds is an obvious example. As is Egnor’s support of the Discovery Institute, a body that wants to deny evolution and instead promote the pseudoscientific idea of Intelligent Design. Egnor even denies that knowledge of evolution has any bearing on medical research – a view that if accepted by researchers, would without doubt hinder new discoveries. Egnor’s views are decidedly anti-science.
Steven Novella also noted that Egnor’s argument was a diversionary tactic. PZ had argued that science, not woo or prayer, has resulted in improvements in treatments for cancer; Egnor shifted the argument to claim that only faith and religion motivated those scientific discoveries. Well OK, he can think that if he wants, but hasn’t he just admitted that it is only through science that these discoveries can actually be made? If you examine Egnor’s almost 2,000 words, you won’t find anything that suggests science is not the best (or only) method for making new discoveries in medicine. And yet this is the man who would bypass the scientific method to teach pseudoscience in schools, and have researchers ignore the implications of evolution in their work. His best argument is that, well, er, science was motivated by religion. Really? That’s the best you got?
OK then. So my question to Michael Egnor is this: now that you have apparently conceded that only science will result in progress, will you publicly admit that we should consider only scientific ideas about how we got here, and disavow quasi religious ideas such as ID? No? I don’t think he will either.
I want to comment on one additional point he made:
The application of science to care for the sick presupposes the view that we have an ethical obligation to help the weakest among us. The atheist view of metaphysics — that the universe has no purpose and no designer and no transcendent ethical code — provides no impetus to scientific inquiry or to the compassionate application of scientific knowledge.
An example he uses is the claimed higher rates for survival of epidemics in early Christian communities, compared with those in pagan communities. This, he claims, was due to the care that Christians provided for the sick, and their refusal to flee when an epidemic struck. (In pagan communities, healthy people fled.) Assuming this is true, all this shows is that early Christians were better than early pagans. Or, if you like, Christian irrationality was better than pagan irrationality. Of course, preferable to both is rationality. By now we should have progressed beyond the world view of second century pagans, with or without religion.
Of course, Egnor’s argument is just the old “no morality without Jesus” drivel we have all heard and debunked many times before. Good people do good things and bad people do bad things, religion notwithstanding. But as someone once said, only religion can make good people do bad things. Egnor shows here that his opposition to evolution is not based on rationality, but on his religious beliefs. Which is great for him, I guess. But not something anyone else need take seriously.