May 15 2008

Ben Stein Hates Science

I know I am not the first science blogger to point this out, but I have to weigh in on Ben Stein’s slanderous and hateful nonsense he vomited forth during an interview for the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Here is an exerpt from his interview with Paul Crouch.

Stein: When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [i.e. biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you.

Crouch: That’s right.

Stein: …Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.

Crouch: Good word, good word.

In a way I can’t help feeling a bit relieved that Stein has come out of the closet. He is sort-of a public intellectual, in that his TV and movie appearances have given him the pubic persona of an intelligent person. His first significant foray into a public debate on a controversial topic as the host of the movie Expelled, however, cast serious doubts on his intellect – or at least his intellectual integrity. This pseudodocumentary is nothing more than a thinly veiled hack job of a propaganda piece. It appears to have been effective with its target audience – but pandering to an anti-scientific subculture is hardly a mark of intellectual virtue.

But for those who are perhaps not familiar with the science of evolution or the tactics of its deniers, the presence of Ben Stein in the film may have lent a layer of credibility to the film (and I’m sure that was the intent of having him in it). So it is a good thing that Stein has come all the way out as a science-hater and has fully thrown down the gauntlet of stupid.

Let’s deconstruct this bit of idiocy. First, he directly blames scientists for the extermination of Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. This is absurd on its face. The SS officers who were doing the actual extermination were not scientists. Science had absolutely nothing to do with the historical and social forces at work within Nazi Germany.

It is true that many Nazi scientists participated in the horrific crimes committed by the Nazi’s – as did Nazi clergy, soldiers, politicians, and construction workers. The common element here is that they were Nazi’s. They participated in a political philosophy that dehumanized Jews. Justification was retroactively sought for this political philosophy from history, theology, and science. But these were mere rationalizations – not the cause of Nazi atrocities.

Stein’s “mad scientist” cartoon image is childish and factually incorrect.

He then draws an absurd false dichotomy: “Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.”

Science leads you to killing people? What is this based upon? Scientists, in my experience, tend to be intellectual and peaceful people, not violent murderers. One might say that perhaps Stein is talking about “science” and not “scientists,” but his prior statement about scientists ordering Jews to the gas chamber contradicts that interpretation.

But let’s consider that interpretation also – that science leads to killing people. This is like saying that poetry leads to killing people. Science is a method in inquiry – it is not a set of morals (although the practice of science has its own ethics, as do all professions), and it is in no way immoral. If certain people use the findings or fruits of science to commit evil, that does not make science evil any more than using political mechanisms to commit evil makes all politics evil.

This is grade-school level reasoning.

Let’s consider the flip-side: “Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place…”

I agree that compassion and empathy, as well as other virtues such as a love of justice, lead to moral outcomes and a better world. I am not sure we can say the same thing about love of God. First – if you have the virtues of compassion and empathy, faith in a deity is superfluous. The argument that faith is required for compassion and empathy does not hold water – there is no evidence that those without faith are absent these virtues or that they are anything other than, on the average, good citizens.

I don’t want to start quoting statistics because any study of the relative morality of believers vs atheists I have seen are open to numerous interpretations – that atheists are more or less moral than believers (for example.) My sense is there is no clear trend from this one variable so other variable predominate. But certainly there are many moral atheists – belief is not a pre-requisite to being moral.

Stein gives us one historically dubious example correlating science with a great evil to support the dubious conclusion that science leads to killing. In so doing he opens himself up to the many counter examples that I am sure he would reject.

To take a recent obvious example, belief in God was arguably integral to the motivations and actions of the terrorists that hijacked 4 planes on 9/11, flew them into buildings, and killed thousands of innocent people. This is a legitimate historical example, unlike Stein’s fake Nazi example. Is Stein, in the name of logical consistency, therefore willing to conclude that faith in God leads to murder?

Ben Stein’s statements are childish, idiotic, factually-challenged, and bigoted. He has now shown the world his dark underbelly. I think this interview is likely to stand out as the final nail in the coffin of Stein’s credibility – unless he has even worse stupid in store for us in the future.

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