Fundamentalist Science, Spock, and Oprah

What do Science, Spock, and Oprah have to do with each other?

They help explain the thinking of anti-religion activists such as biologist Jerry Coyne.  The way some atheists figure, since religion is not logical, it should have no impact on our deliberations.  Oprah doesn’t agree. But who wields more clout in our culture, Oprah or Jerry Coyne?  Or, to put it another way, who is the star of Star Trek, Spock or Capt. Kirk?

Fundamentalist Science is highly illogical.

Fundamentalist Science is highly illogical.

I love to read Professor Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution Is True.  He always makes intelligent arguments for the propriety of a scientific understanding of reality, and the dangers of “accommodationism” with religion.  Plus he has lots of pictures of cats and bugs.

Recently, two posts bumped up against each other that demonstrated the difficulties with Coyne’s approach to these issues, IMHO.  In one post, Coyne reviewed survey data that revealed the relative overabundance of atheism among America’s top scientists.  In the next, Coyne bemoaned the appearance of Oprah Winfrey as Harvard’s commencement speaker this year.  As Coyne pointed out, Winfrey has done a great deal to promote anti-scientific rubbish over her career.

Now, I’m no Oprah fan.  Nor am I particularly religious.  But I can’t help but notice that Coyne’s fundamentalist attitude about this subject fuels the bitterness of our continuing culture wars over the role of religion and science in the public square.  This kind of bitterness is both unnecessary and counterproductive.

Science-advocates such as Coyne promote a particular vision of science as rigidly opposed to religion.  Coyne often protests against truckling to religious thought among scientists and science educators, such as the folks at the National Academy of Sciences or the National Center for Science Education. As I’ve noted before, Coyne’s extreme view of the necessary divide between science and religion puts him at times on the side of extreme creationists.

But Coyne’s religion- and Oprah-bashing put him on the side of some other curious figures as well.  Most famously in pop culture, Gene Roddenberry created Spock as the Asperger’s First Officer to balance Kirk’s testosterosity.  Spock always argued for the rule of logic and was always trounced by Kirk’s shoot-from-the-hip style of emotional leadership.

Smarter writers, too, have explored this Spock/Kirk, Coyne/Oprah divide. Most famously, Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov concluded reasonably and logically that God could not exist.  However, Ivan could not handle Smerdyakov’s gruesome conclusion to that logic.  Nor could Ivan counter Alyosha’s loving-kiss argument.  Like Spock, Ivan’s blind reason could not cope with the complexities of human experience.

Truth may not be democratic.  But our society is.  It is a good thing to have smart people complain about the influence of thoughtless media-mongers like Oprah.  But those smart people must also recognize that Oprah—unlike the elite atheist scientists—has her finger on the pulse of the culture.  She knows what people find important. She knows what people find interesting.  Oprah’s imprimatur does not make an idea true.  But it does mean that the idea matters somehow.

Dismissing such things out of hand demonstrates an unnecessary Spock Syndrome.  Simply because ideas are illogical does not mean they are not true, in an important sense.

 

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