The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart is generally a very good interviewer, often asking his political guests some of the more difficult questions while remaining courteous and without making up straw man positions. He often asks the questions (and follow up questions) that many real journalists should be asking, and he clearly demonstrates intelligence and the ability to think on his feet and react to what his interviewees are saying. After watching him interview someone called Marilynne Robinson on The Daily Show Thursday (interview starts at 14.33 in) I have to say that in future he should stick to politics and leave science and/or religion alone.
Absence of Mind challenges postmodern atheists who crusade against religion under the banner of science. In Robinson’s view, scientific reasoning does not denote a sense of logical infallibility, as thinkers like Richard Dawkins might suggest.
Already you know you are hearing from someone who doesn’t understand even the basics of that which she seeks to criticize, since science does not claim anything even close to “logical infallibility,” it merely claims to be the most reliable method of investigating reality. (Once the word “infallibility” is used by someone criticizing science, you know straight off that they will try to conflate science and religion. Only religion claims infallibility.) Of course, that’s just flap copy, but after listening to Robinson’s dopey arguments on Thursday I would suggest that in future she stick to writing fiction and leave any expose of the faults with science to someone who knows what they are talking about.
Robinson starts off the interview with an unsupported assertion (all transcriptions by me from the teevee):
ROBINSON: …people on one side of the argument have claimed the authority of science but they have not construed an argument that actually satisfies the standards of science.
A bold claim. One you might expect her to justify using (say) an argument that actually satisfies the standards of science. Let’s see how she does:
ROBINSON: I don’t think frankly that it’s scientific to proceed from the study of ants to a conclusion about the nature of the cosmos.
And a million scientists went, “huh?” At this point, Stewart should have asked her WTF she was talking about (he actually just nodded and said “Right”), because I had no clue. Robinson never explained what she meant either. Proceeding “from the study of ants to a conclusion about the nature of the cosmos”? If anyone reading this has any idea what she was babbling about, please let me know in the comments.
STEWART: Who do you think is more afraid: do you think science fears religion more than religion fears science, or is there equal mistrust to go around?
The correct answer is that religion fears science – because science, bit by bit, has proved the various claims of religion to be totally wrong. Of course scientists sometimes fear the political power of the religious to muzzle science, to prevent the teaching of science where it conflicts with religious ideas. But science certainly doesn’t fear religion itself.
That would have been the correct answer. Not Robinson’s answer though, which was:
ROBINSON: I’m really not sure about the nature of the controversy because I know lots of religious people that [sic] love science and I know lots of scientists who seem to be completely at ease with religion. It’s the quality of science and the quality of religion that determines the nature of the conversation.
(Sigh.) It is disappointing to hear from supposedly intelligent people, arguments that have been refuted again and again. And for someone who is claiming to challenge postmodern atheists (whoever they are), you would think she could have first spend ten minutes reading a couple of atheist blogs where this question has been patiently answered again and again. I’ll try one more time. Yes, we know that some scientists can be religious. That is because human beings are very good at rationalizing incompatible information. It does not alter the fact that science has proven many of the claims of numerous religions to be completely wrong, which means that science and religion are in many instances, incompatible. Why is that so hard to understand?
Here’s where Stewart goes off the rails:
STEWART: I’ve always been fascinated that the more you delve into science, the more it appears to rely on faith. They start to speak about the universe as if, well there’s “most of the universe is anti matter [sic],” oh really, where’s that? “Well, you can’t see it.” Well, where is it? “It’s there.” Well, can you measure it? “We’re working on it.”
It’s a very similar argument to someone who would say God created everything. Well where is he? “Well, he’s there.” And I’m always struck by the similarity of the arguments at their core.
Wrong Jon, just wrong. The arguments may appear similar superficially, but at their core they are fundamentally different. (I’m assuming Stewart meant dark matter, not anti matter since “most of the universe” is actually dark matter and dark energy, not anti matter.)
Superficially, it may appear that “God exists” is similar to “dark matter exists” – superficially in that you can’t see either. But is that really the standard we should be applying when evaluating scientific claims? We can’t see something, so it’s faith? I guess Stewart's show must be based on faith too then, since I can’t see the radio waves hitting my satellite dish either.
Examining this less superficially, “at their core,” why do scientists say that dark matter exists? Well, dark matter was initially hypothesized to explain why the rotational speed of galaxies was faster than expected, given the mass of visible matter in the galaxies. Then, having hypothesized dark matter, additional ways of testing this hypothesis were devised – for example, gravitational lensing. Dark Matter Exists. Dark matter has been tested, and so far it has passed the tests. Furthermore, if some different scientists in the future find evidence that contradicts dark matter, or if they come up with a better explanation for the observations than dark matter, the new explanation will be adopted and dark matter abandoned.
Those are the differences between science and faith, differences that Stewart has apparently not noticed in his extensive delving into science. Science is based on observation of the real universe, confirmed or dis confirmed by experiment, and always subject to revision when better data comes along. Religion is based on the authority of old texts, is resistant to dis-confirmation, and in many cases stubbornly refuses to change even when proven to be completely wrong. But yeah, both God and dark matter are invisible so they both rely on faith. Good insight there Jon.
STEWART: Is it that the human mind has created these two disciplines, each one sort of equally at the mercy of our limitations?
No, the problem is that one discipline is based on reality while the other is not, and yet the one not based on reality is given undeserved respect and freedom from criticism.
ROBINSON: I think it’s also true that until quite recently many great scientists such as Isaac Newton and so on were profoundly religious people.
Again – yes we know. This doesn’t mean that science and religion are compatible. Newton was an alchemist as well. He was wrong about that too.
ROBINSON: …we need the best insights from science and the best insights from religion.
What insights can we get from religion? Name one – name one insight that we couldn’t get without religion.
ROBINSON: The gladiators from both sides are I think inferior representatives of both sides, and that’s where the conflict comes from.
No, the conflict comes from the fact that many religious claims have been proven by science to be totally wrong, and yet many religious people refuse to accept this fact, insisting that their religious fantasies be given equal (or even superior) credence to science. Although I do agree that Stewart and Robinson are both inferior representatives in this subject. “Absence of Mind” – a good description of how both Stewart and Robinson arrived at their arguments. Robinson comes over as a profoundly stupid person – one who has examined this subject superficially and thinks she has something profound to say, but who in reality is merely parroting arguments that would be ripped apart in minutes in the comments section of any one of a thousand atheist blogs.
One more point – I don’t buy the argument that Stewart is just a comedian and so shouldn’t be held to account. He clearly can be a tough interviewer when it suits him: just see his interviews with Bill Kristol, Ron Paul or any number of right wing politicians. He wasn’t joking when he said “the more you delve into science, the more it appears to rely on faith,” he was making a serious point.