If Youth Knew, If Age Could 3 — Coming of Age in an Ever, Ever-Irrational World
Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019), and Short Reflections on American Secularism’s History and Philosophy (2020).
Here we talk about science and technology and new generations.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: New generations, if we’re thinking in terms of decades into the 2000s — and beyond my own lifetime too, living in current level industrial societies and industrializing societies (even towards more sustainability) will witness declines in religion. This comes with a rise in science, as we see now.
Religion declines in the more advanced economies, the more scientific societies. Technological societies without a scientific backdrop may not see this in the future, as one does not need to question the fundamentals of nature (of the basic claims of the religious or general culture). One can simply acquire technological know-how without questioning supernaturalistic dogma.
These new, fortunate, and tech-savvy generations harbour far more power, far more access to data (and mis-data). Even so, irrationalities abound, will continue, and new ones will pop up. What is the first lesson in coming of age here? What is the modern lesson for a wondrous technological world full of silicon-made wonders?
What is a caveat to this with most of the users of technology disconnected from the linkage between scientific progress and technological progress, and the naturalistic philosophy behind both? Most, the vast majority, of the world believe this world links up with a whole other one, the unseen. Perhaps, also, a listing of ways to detect bunkum are in order, too.
Dr. Herb Silverman: Technology is our present and future, and young people need to embrace it. Being tech-savvy in the workplace is becoming a necessity for job seekers. Schools need to educate students for this reality so they will be able to transition into the work world. Workers presently employed need to be able to master new technology, expect frequent updates and changes to software, and learn how to stay on top of those advances.
For most of human history, technological improvements were achieved by chance, trial and error, or inspiration. The modern scientific enterprise matured in the Enlightenment and concerned itself primarily with fundamental questions of nature. Research and development directed toward immediate technical application arose with the Industrial Revolution and became commonplace in the twentieth century. Science deals with theories, principals, and laws, while technology deals with products, processes, and designs. Science has helped us gain some knowledge of the universe and make accurate predictions on future outcomes. Technology, on the other hand, has helped to simplify our work by providing us with products that help get better results in less time.
A downside to technology is that digital media can pervade the lives of people, many of whom can’t imagine a social life without it. A study at the University of Maryland asked students to give up digital media for 24 hours and then write about their experience. The study concluded that “most college students are not just unwilling, but functionally unable to be without media links to the world.” Without digital ties, students felt unconnected even to those who were close by. This sounds to me a lot like addiction. Another problem with social media is that people often filter out opposing points of view, leading to confirmation bias.
Most tech-savvy folks understand that their technology was created through science, but may not be interested in learning the underlying science. That’s fine with me. Similarly, people feel safe flying on planes without knowing the science behind air flights. On the other hand, I think every educated person should know the rudiments of science even if they don’t directly use science in their field of work. When I was younger, people used to be embarrassed that they didn’t know science. These days I sometimes hear intellectuals, even within academe, matter-of-factly say, “I know nothing about science.” To me, this is comparable to saying, “I can’t read or write.”
Even worse than people who are comfortable being ignorant of science are those who say they don’t “believe” in science, as if science were merely a belief. Religious fundamentalists don’t accept the parts of science that conflict with their holy books, sometimes referring to science as anti-religion. But in searching for truths, science does not try to debunk religious myths, though that may be a consequence of some scientific findings. Much of what we know about the age of the Earth, cosmology, archaeology, biology, and history conflicts with a literal interpretation of the Bible. For too many people, it’s much easier to ignore science and prepare for an afterlife, while being comfortably clueless about the workings in this life.
Evolution is one of the most interesting and important basic facts of science. Just about all evolution deniers are religious. Even religious people who accept evolution almost always try to stick their god somewhere into the process, though biologists would never do that. This makes religious people creationists because they believe their god created the Universe and life on Earth. Evolution is a completely natural process with no supernatural inventor needed.
Religious people do accept some science that improves their quality of life, like penicillin, television, microwaves, and so forth. Often they don’t know there is basic science behind these conveniences. This includes antibiotics, which is based on evolution. If humanity had continued to apply religious belief without solid physical knowledge, how far would we have gotten? Modern history books describe such a period as the Dark Ages.
The term “elites” arouses a negative feeling in many people, however elite is defined. The United States has a billionaire president who attacks the elites. Scientists are part of that elite in his mind. Their superiority based on education and experience gives them knowledge and expertise that most people, even a president, don’t have. Mention of climate change, vaccines, evolution, or the Big Bang, inclines some people to disbelieve these things and hold scientists suspect. Science deniers don’t want to hear long explanations about greenhouse gases, germ theory, the fossil record, or an expanding universe. They prefer to believe it’s all a gigantic hoax.
But I am hopeful for the future. I think we need to train more people as science popularizers, and that scientists should become more adept at written and verbal communication. Some of the best science popularizers have been Isaac Asimov, Stephen J. Gould, Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Through their appealing personalities and convincing evidence, they have shown that it’s possible to excite and educate the public about scientific concepts.
I’m a leftist, but I’ll close with a few comments I sometimes hear from leftists with whom I disagree.
“The truth is unique to each of us since we decide individually what we consider to be truth. Every human being is unique and will see the world differently. We construct our own realities.” No, deciding something is true doesn’t make it so. People can say the Earth is flat, but I accept the scientific evidence that it’s not.
“To be intellectually honest one cannot prove the non-existence of God any more than the existence. Therefore, there is a certain amount of ‘faith’ taken in both positions.” I don’t understand how someone can profess “faith” (belief without evidence) in many things that are shown by science to be demonstrably false. We can’t prove or disprove the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but I would not say there is a certain amount of “faith” taken in both positions. Under certain circumstances, I’m comfortable concluding that an absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
Some on the left with whom I disagree also favor homeopathy, are anti-vaxxers or anti-GMO. Some consider that science and mathematics are anti-feminist and represent patriarchal oppression because they are not subjective or open to interpretation and different ways of thinking. I’ve also heard complaints that science is not democratic.
Call me undemocratic, too, but I think this is the bottom line: Opinions of the uninformed shouldn’t count. Feel free to disagree, but be prepared to show me the evidence.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.
Image Credit: Herb Silverman.