Sunday, March 04, 2007

Tolerance, Courage, and Politeness

We Canadians have a world-wide reputation for politeness. In fact, out of 36 cities ranked worldwide, Toronto placed third. In that study by Reader's Digest, 70% of Torontonians did the "courteous" thing.

Whatever the truth of the comparitive politeness of Canadians, it is almost a tautology to suggest that one of the most important virtues in society is tolerance. In fact, the CBC recently did an Ideas program on the "limits of tolerance". I wasn't able to hear the series in its entirety, but its timing was propitious.

I've been rethinking the value of tolerance recently. One of the questions which keeps surfacing is "Do we have to be tolerant of intolerant people?" Here's a simple example. Somebody at your place of employment starts ridiculing another employee and says, "He's so gay." What do you do? Do you smile or laugh gently? Do you walk away and say nothing? Or do you risk a conflict by putting the person in his/her place'? Is it just being polite to do or say nothing? Is it being tolerant? Or does it demonstrate a lack of courage?

These are hard questions to answer. I suppose there are decent guidelines that one can follow, things like asking oneself if the person really dangerous or just a nuisance? Will other people think I agree with his sentiments unless I say something?

If one speaks up, then it is possible that one will be labeled intolerant, impolite or something far worse. Intolerant is probably the one accusation that will bother us the most. I think that is because tolerance is one of the most vague virtues in the entire arsenal of virtues.

One of the places where intolerance might be consideredf a virtue these days is in the debate about so-called intelligent design in the curriculum of schools. Evolutionists are being accused everywhere of intolerance because they do not want intelligent design being taught as part of the school curriculum. If the accusation were accurate, then I'd say intolerance is a virtue. But I think the accusation is bogus. The true nature of the debate is whether or not religious dogma should be able to masquerade itself as a reputable scientific alternative to evolutionary biology. Religion, in my view, should have no place in schools unless it is taught as comparative religion. It shouldn't be considered in teaching biology, geology or any other science. So the real question is whether or not intelligent design is religion.

In my view, there really isn't any debate here at all. Inteligent design is just a way of saying if you don't know the answer to the complexity of living systems, then you sneak god into the equation. God becomes a god of the gaps, filling in where we don't know all the details of how things work. But because human knowledge is and always will be full of gaps, that means god will become part of every curriculum. Instead of answering a tough question with "I don't know, therefore I'll have to do more research", the answer will become, "I don't know. That must be because an intelligent designer is behind the complexity. I guess that's all you really need to know. God did it."

If that isn't religion, what is it?

In the face of accusations of intolerance, evolutionists need to be courageous, tough as nails, and resolute in defending the true spirit of scientific inquiry. Just because evidence may not be as detailed as we might like doesn't mean we abandon the search or the methods by which we discover knowledge. This is not intolerance any more than speaking up in the face of bigotry is intolerance. It's simply what needs to be done.


ben said...

First, the ID folks have moved on. They realise there is no advantage to trying to 'insert' ID into the curriculum. Instead the newest technique is to simply 'question' the theory of evolution.

But your question of tolerance is interesting. What do you do when your cancer specialist ‘doubts’ evolution? What do you do when 'doubts' are raised and yet the same person supports science by participating in Phase III and Phase IV studies.

The limits of tolerance. If I could only find them.

Wishing you all the best.

Don Spencer said...

Thanks, Ben.

I have just surveyed the conversation between you and the good doctor on your and his blogs. It deserves more attention and reflection, which I will give it later.

I guess my short answer to your question is that an ID oncologist could easily be as good as any evolutionist oncologist. Oncology really isn't about evolutionary biology, although I hasten to add that I would be a little anxious about any oncologist involved in molecular cancer research who doesn't understand the difference between a replicator and a vehicle for natural selection. I don't know how an oncologist qualifies for serious molecular cancer research without a good grounding in gene studies and replication.

True, this branch of biology wasn't something Darwin originated, but one has only to read Dawkins "The Selfish Gene" or "The Blind Watchmaker" to get a grasp of where evolutionary biology is today.

ben said...

I would agree that to be a good 'mechanic' in the sense of defining an appropriate treatment, prescribing the correct medication etc., there is probably not much difference between a 'controversial' oncologist and an evolutionary one.

But at the same time, the simultaneous rejection of the process of science, which accommodates evolution, while at the same time accepting, indeed supporting results produced by medical research deemed philosophically or religiously acceptable is behaviour I find despicable.

A further problem is that many people still see doctors as experts not simply in medicine but in science – science of all kinds. Thus having an oncologist fighting evolution goes far beyond the simple question of whether a treatment might be appropriate. It becomes a social issue.