The Relief of Reading Brilliant Work, Jamming, 07/01/2018

As you can tell from some of my posts involving his work in the past, Richard Dawkins annoys the hell out of me.

He’s the unfortunately self-appointed intellectual leader of the obnoxious, smug (and borderline racist* these days) New Atheist movement.

* No, seriously. He actually has gotten pretty ignorant-old-man racist.

Not all atheists can be as whimsically humorous as the New
Zealanders. Unfortunately, most of them are enormous jerks and
I’ve been waiting for someone to come along and write the perfect polemic of Dawkins and all the cruel, demi-bigoted ideas he’s been spreading through Western popular culture. My wait is at last over.

That author’s name is Morteza Hashemi, my colleague at the Reply Collective, and the book is Theism and Atheism in a Post-Secular Age. I deeply hope that his publisher makes an affordable softcover edition available and promotes it reasonably well.

Like any genuinely effective polemic, it does more than just act as a polemic. For one, Hashemi’s takedown of Dawkins’ and Daniel Dennett’s arguments against God’s existence are also insightful and efficient accounts of a dangerous and very popular misconception of how scientific knowledge works.

He labels it well as the myth or ideology of “economy and coherence.” It's a delightfully straightforward way of labelling a perspective on science that I’ve always had trouble putting a concise name to.

It’s the notion that the greatest benefit of scientific knowledge – apart from its truth, of course – was that it was simple, reductive, and ultimately rested on only a few principles. Science as a long, unified story of progress that would ultimately lead to a universal Theory of Everything™ simple enough to fit on a t-shirt.

That vision of science has, over the last couple of decades of conspiracy theories, gotten scientific institutions in a lot of trouble. Because once research was published and reached popular consciousness on how science works and has actually developed, reading that throws the “economy and coherence” concept into the bin.

I feel sad for Bruno Latour. He doesn't have to beat himself up over
how other people have used and abused his work.
Or at least it should. The feelings of regret among researchers of science history, sociology, and philosophy are because of an unfortunate unintended effect such research – works by people like Thomas Kuhn, David Bloor, Bruno Latour, and others in these traditions.

A) How you should understand this research.
1. “I believe science is true because of its economy and coherence."
2. Reads about how scientific fields actually diverge and diversify.
3. “It seems science doesn’t need to be economical or coherent to be true.”

B) Here’s how too many people understand this research.
1. “I believe science is true because of its economy and coherence.”
2. Reads about how scientific fields actually diverge and diversify.
3. “It seems science isn’t economical or coherent.”
4. “Therefore, science mustn’t be true.”

You see what happened there? You hold onto the ideology of economy and coherence as the standard of truth, instead of letting the empirical research show you that it isn’t. This is how revanchists and people with billions of dollars invested in oil companies want you to think.

The petroleum billionaires want you to think scientists are all con-men because they don’t want to waste the money they’ve invested in petroleum. The revanchists want you to believe their extremist Christianity over more pluralistic ethical views about religious belief and its more complex place in human knowledge.

Latour likes to blame himself, because he published so much empirical research on how scientific institutions and knowledge functions. But there’s no reason (other than perhaps watching too much Hannity), to choose (B) over the more empirically faithful (A).

If the plurality of scientific knowledge makes it all a lie, then we never would have developed industrial society in the first place, you wouldn’t be able to read this, and I wouldn’t be able to write it. Let’s move on.

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