Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Religion vs. Science.

America is lodged in a cultural battle that simply will not end: Religion vs. Science. There's some really fascinating science related to this conflict.

There's really no reason there should be a fight between two such valuable assets, but a conflict arises because our brains evolved to meet the demands of two very different worlds: "two mechanisms, one for understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world, gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires."

So, our rigid sense of right & wrong suggests that we have to choose, & we often have a really hard time seeing the forest through the trees. Why are we so belligerent, gullible & willfully stupid sometimes?

Probably because "thinking anecdotally comes naturally, whereas thinking scientifically does not". It is not costly in a survival sense to believe in connections that don't actually exist, whereas missing a real connection--say, between rustling bushes & lurking predators--can be deadly.
"Our brains are belief engines that employ association learning to seek and find patterns. Superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old, whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old."
We see what we expect to see, what we have "primed" our brains to spot, even if those things are just mythical figments of our imaginations, like angels or UFOs. These pre-beliefs, if you will, affect our perceptions of other people: "In our minds, attractive people are better people — and apparently thinking makes it so."

The dangerous, flip side of priming is that if we aren't specifically looking for something, we don't see it even when it's enormous & obvious. And some forms of priming are insidious & can easily be used to manipulate us.

Politicians use this to their advantage all the time. For instance, the best-looking candidates have a measurable statistical advantage [very few hairy, unkempt politicians out there], & effectively calling the constituency "sissies" leads to higher levels of support for belligerent foreign policy.

It makes sense: if you are looking to unite a group of people to support your bid for personal power, you need to identify something that is similar about those people that can be used to wrestle power away from whoever currently appears to hold it.

Since there actually is precious little biological difference between people, our tendency toward mythical thinking fits the bill nicely. Cultural differences arising from variations in our mythologies become useful: "the best leaders...exemplify what makes the group distinct from and superior to rival groups."

In its sheer, unrivaled ability to manipulate our environment to suit humans, science is powerful. So if you aren't a scientist, how do you take that power for yourself? Perhaps by recognizing that, "Followers may also shun an otherwise desirable trait such as intelligence if doing so helps the group differentiate itself from competitors." And that "the development of a shared social identity is the basis of influential and creative leadership. If you control the definition of identity, you can change the world."

With science sitting in the middle ground, New Age mysticism & Intelligent Design/Creation Science are two of the current tools used by the left & right wings respectively. They exploit our tendency toward perceptual errors & our fondness for anecdotal evidence to claim superiority for their in-group, calling into question the credibility & entire history of science in a blatant grab for power. While they do pick & choose, none of these people are seriously suggesting we give up ALL the benefits of science & go back to living in caves.

Here's a detailed rebuttal of many of the currently popular anti-science arguments. It includes staggering descriptions of some remarkable biological systems, like blood clotting, flagellum, & human-chimp chromosome comparison:

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