On Nov. 1 the Bristol University Atheist, Agnostic, and Secular Society met to hear three talks: Julian Baggini on philosophy, Sheikh Ramzy on religion, and David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at University College London who spends lot of time refuting pseudoscience and alternative medicine, on science.
Colquhoun’s talk wasn’t recorded, but he’s transcribed it over at his website, DC’s Improbable Science. After the mish-mash of theobabble we’re used to, this piece is short, straight, and to the point. And he takes issue with Baggini’s criticism of New Atheism. An excerpt:
Dr Baggini, among others, has claimed that the “new atheists” are too strident, and that they only antagonise moderate atheists (see The New Atheist Movement is destructive, though there is something of a recantation two years later in Religion’s truce with science can’t hold).
I disagree, for two reasons.
Firstly, people like Richard Dawkins are really not very strident. Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, is quiet and scholarly. It takes each of the arguments put forward by religious people, and dissects them one by one. It’s true that, having done this, he sets forth his conclusions quite bluntly. That seems to me to be a good thing. If your conclusions are stifled by tortuous euphemisms, nobody takes much notice. Just as in science, simple plain words are best.
The second, and more important, reason that I like Dawkin’s approach is that I suspect it’s the only approach that has much effect. There is a direct analogy with my own efforts to stop universities giving BSc degrees in subjects that are not science. Worse, they are actively anti-science. Take for example, homeopathy, the medicine that contains no medicine. I started by writing polite letters to vice chancellors. Usually they didn’t even have the courtesy to reply. All efforts to tackle the problem through the “proper channels” failed. The only thing that has worked was public derision. A combination of internal moles and Freedom of Information Act requests unearthed what was being taught on these courses. Like Westminster’s assertion that “amethysts emit high Yin energy”. Disclosure of such nonsense and headlines like
“Professor Geoffrey Petts of the University of Westminster says they “are not teaching pseudo-science”. The facts show this is not true
are certainly somewhat strident. But they have worked. Forget the proper channels if you want results. Mock what deserves to be mocked.
I’m getting pretty tired of the stridency argument. I challenge anyone who makes this argument to produce a list of offensively strident comments from, say, God is Not Great, The God Delusion, The End of Faith, or Breaking the Spell, and then I’ll make a list of equally (or more) strident statements from theologians and preachers. What offends me is how accommodationists—even the atheist ones—focus exclusively on the former and completely neglect the latter. It’s another example of the hands-off-faith position, in which “lack of faith” isn’t given the same consideration.
Colquhoun also refers to his October 28 piece that will certainly rile up people, “Why philosophy is largely ignored by science.”
I have in the past, taken an occasional interest in the philosophy of science. But in a lifetime doing science, I have hardly ever heard a scientist mention the subject. It is, on the whole, a subject that is of interest only to philosophers. . .