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Ota Benga: Victim of Science & Progress

As longtime readers know, one of my abiding interests is how our culture today invokes “science” to justify morally suspect behavior and undertakings. In ages past, “religion” or “patriotism” would have been the go-to sources of authority, and of course often still are. The kind of people who cite the magisterial authority of Science tend to be the kind of people who are (properly) skeptical of religion or patriotism, but who misplace their hermeneutic of suspicion when the mantel of Science is draped over a thing.

A recurring post on this blog is my story of a Cambridge lecture I heard by the historian Gillian Beer, who focused on how competing factions in Victorian England appropriated the findings of Charles Darwin as justification for their own private ends, both good and bad (e.g., abolition of slavery, imperialism, eugenics). Her point was that science does not occur in a vacuum, and is always subject to manipulation and misinterpretation by fallible humans. We should therefore be very careful to examine motives — our own and those of others — instead of mindlessly accepting the authority of science, because science, through no fault of its own, can be used by those in authority to manipulate others to malicious ends.

Consider the story of Ota Benga.  [1]From the Guardian:

The black clergymen who had been summoned to Harlem’s Mount Olivet Baptist Church for an emergency meeting on the morning of Monday 10 September 1906, arrived in a state of outrage. A day earlier, the New York Times had reported that a young African man – a so-called “pygmy” – had been put on display in the monkey house of the city’s largest zoo. Under the headline “Bushman Shares a Cage With Bronx Park Apes”, the paper reported that crowds of up to 500 people at a time had gathered around the cage to gawk at the diminutive Ota Benga – just under 5ft tall, weighing 103lb – while he preoccupied himself with a pet parrot, deftly shot his bow and arrow, or wove a mat and hammock from bundles of twine placed in the cage. Children giggled and hooted with delight while adults laughed, many uneasily, at the sight.

In anticipation of larger crowds after the publicity in the New York Times, Benga was moved from a smaller chimpanzee cage to one far larger, to make him more visible to spectators. He was also joined by an orangutan called Dohang. While crowds massed to leer at him, the boyish Benga, who was said to be 23 but appeared far younger, sat silently on a stool, staring – sometimes glaring – through the bars.

The exhibition of a visibly shaken African with apes in the New York Zoological Gardens, four decades after the end of slavery in America, would highlight the precarious status of black people in the nation’s imperial city. It pitted the “coloured” ministers, and a few elite allies, against a wall of white indifference, as New York’s newspapers, scientists, public officials, and ordinary citizens revelled in the spectacle. By the end of September, more than 220,000 people had visited the zoo – twice as many as the same month one year earlier. Nearly all of them headed directly to the primate house to see Ota Benga.

His captivity garnered national and global headlines – most of them inured to his plight. For the clergymen, the sight of one of their own housed with monkeys was startling evidence that in the eyes of their fellow Americans, their lives didn’t matter.

Ota Benga’s plight was a dramatic moral failure of civic leaders and ordinary white citizens who failed to protest this outrageous stunt. Here, though, is the most interesting part of this story:

William Temple Hornaday, the zoo’s founding director and curator, defended the exhibition on the grounds of science. “I am giving the exhibition purely as an ethnological exhibit,” he said. The display, he insisted, was in keeping with the practice of “human exhibitions” of Africans in Europe, breezily evoking the continent’s indisputable status as the world’s paragon of culture and civilisation.

Unrepentant, Hornaday declared that the show would go on just as the sign said, “each afternoon during September” or until he was ordered to stop it by the Zoological Society. But Hornaday was not some rogue operator. As the nation’s foremost zoologist – and a close acquaintance of President Theodore Roosevelt – Hornaday had the full backing of two of the most influential members of the Zoological Society, both prominent figures in the city’s establishment. The first, Henry Fairfield Osborn, had played a lead role in the founding of the zoo and was one of the era’s most noted paleontologists. (He would later achieve fame for naming Tyrannosaurus rex.) The second, Madison Grant, was the secretary of the Zoological Society and a high-society lawyer from a prominent New York family. Grant had personally helped negotiate the arrangement to take Ota Benga.

What did The New York Times think of this? Why, the paper of record stood up for Science:

The clergymen had no success at the zoo, and left the park vowing to take up the matter the next day with the city’s mayor. But their complaint did catch the attention of the New York Times, whose editors were dismayed that anyone might protest against the display.

“We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter,” the paper said in an unsigned editorial. “Ota Benga, according to our information, is a normal specimen of his race or tribe, with a brain as much developed as are those of its other members. Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit.”

As the Guardian tells it, the “progressive men of science” in America justified Ota Benga’s treatment on scientific and educational grounds. And why not? For at least a generation, eugenic thought had taken hold of the nation’s top scientists, as well as its political and industrial elites. The dehumanization of Africans (“a degraded and degenerate race” a leading Harvard scientist called them) was what Progress and Science justified.

Read the entire Guardian piece.  [1] As its writer, Pamela Newkirk, points out, the force of these ideas in popular culture — that is, the authority of science, the imperative of progress, and the soundness of eugenics — conspired to create a social environment that conditioned the people to gather guiltlessly at the zoo to gawk at a caged African man. Had not science instructed us that he was subhuman? Were not the leading white progressive clergymen of the era telling us that God smiled on eugenics? [2]

Remember Ota Benga the next time somebody wields Science and Progress as a weapon to tear down our common humanity. And do not forget that many of us who stand in judgment of those barbarians who dehumanized Ota Benga are blind to see what similar acts and processes of dehumanization are going on right here, right now, in the name “Science” and “Progress.”

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90 Comments To "Ota Benga: Victim of Science & Progress"

#1 Comment By JCM On June 15, 2015 @ 8:57 pm

Heartright is right on the money. Spain may have had court dwarfs (portrayed with great dignity by Velasquez) but England had its own tradition of court fools, drawing from the ranks of the mentally deficient.
The “Black Legend” lives on it seems.

Before more cliches about the Spanish Inquisistion, horrible but not unique, readers should Google Richard (I think) Topcliff, Elizabeth I’s torturer-in-chief. He was the go-to-guy to torture nearly to death the likes of Sts. Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, two of the eras best writers and poets.

#2 Comment By Elle On June 15, 2015 @ 9:13 pm

Stephen Jay Gould did an excellent job documenting the ways science has been misused in the past, notably with eugenics and the creation of the “IQ test” in his 1996 book, The Mismeasure of Man. Always worth a read.

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 15, 2015 @ 9:53 pm

Franklin, I could make a pretty good argument for eugenics myself, I’m not writing it off. I would want it to be limited to known, specifically identified, genetic diseases, as clearly defined as to precise cause as ALS or cystic fibrosis. I’d want it to be mostly voluntary, and I’d be open to limited use of IVF so that people who carry a horrible gene but not in every cell can have a healthy baby.

On the other hand, Cosimano’s argument “three generations of Duggars are enough,” is awful tempting.

Which brings me to Irenist’s straw man in search of a right hook:

Why stop there? Why not evaluate all the mothers in the land, and kill all the children with lousy mothers? Of course, we don’t want anyone “repeating the favor,” so let’s kill all the adult products of bad mothering, too!

I’m not God, and unlike some people who have made a hash of good ideas, I know I’m not. I don’t trust ANYONE to make such decisions about another unless there is a clear track record of horrific abuse (which usually requires a child being born, abused, and then removed from the mother’s custody). I simply think it makes sense to allow a woman who desires an abortion to make that choice, and there will be benefits for the community from having such a policy. I don’t try to get perfect results in an imperfect world. More, I know that those empowered to make such evaluations would get it wrong at least as often as, probably more often than, the women concerned, whether the selected judges were pro-life, pro-choice, pro-abortion, or in favor of kicking dogs and children on general principal.

Incidentally, for the past year or more I’ve been working with three children who were horribly abused. They are now in custody of other adult relatives, not the abuser. They need a LOT of help, and I am happy to have been able to play a small part in their progress. Don’t ask me if they “should have been aborted” — as Aslan told Lucy so many times, “What would have happened? No one is ever told that.” They weren’t, and I love them all.

China, never went through the experience of the Nazi genocide and the subsequent soul-searching that Europe and European-descended civilizations did.

China too similar treatment from Japan, and made considerable use of it in teaching history to its own people. However, China retains a powerful strain of the notion that the Heavenly Kingdom is the only true civilization in the world, and is destined to dominate the lesser breeds. This motivates their attitude about the South China Sea for example. In a sense, what the Japanese got wrong was thinking THEY were the master race, rather than the Chinese.

Well, sure; if you already have those theories in mind when you read Genesis today. But you would never, ever get from there to here by simply reading Genesis.

Precisely, but not at all like Nostradamus. People who received, hear, read, study, or talk about a divine revelation think in terms of their own circumscribed understanding of the world. How could they not? Who in 3000 AD would have thought of God creating a billion galaxies with a billion stars apiece, when nobody knew there were more than 3000 stars or what a galaxy was? On the other hand, what is there about a billion galaxies that makes it impossible to take Genesis seriously?

Incidentally, Genesis does stand out among all the creation myths of the world for having everything start ex nihilo with a tremendous burst of light. I suspect Moses was given a glimpse of something he didn’t understand at all but wrote down what he could perceive.

M_Young, what nuances are there within the category of exhibiting human beings in zoos?

#4 Comment By Mark Hamann On June 15, 2015 @ 10:07 pm

I’m not saying that science can replace philosophy, art, literature, and culture. I’m saying that that those three bodies are actually used by people to argue points that are scientifically invalid but accepted on their traditional authority. How do we know that climate change is a fraud? Because God gave us the rainbow to remind us he’ll never wipe out humanity again. How do we know gays shouldn’t marry? “The plumbing don’t fit” as one person once put it to me channeling Natural Law.

The fact is that we have climate models that tell us things. You can argue about the models if you know enough about the models. The post deluge rainbow, on the other hand—not an argument. And we also now know that our “plumbing” is the way it is because it evolved, not because it was designed with a specific purpose and any use outside the supposed design parameters is against nature. Frankly, if it were designed, it qualifies as one of the worst designs ever.

Racists will use scientific arguments and they will use religious arguments. At least the merits of a scientific argument can be independently examined. If your God tells you that my gay friends are objectively disordered, what I can as an atheist who doesn’t think your God even exists to convince you otherwise? I can point to David Gushee or someone like that, but there’s nothing else. Thus we’re at loggerheads and when the Christians lose the upper hand politically, it’s all gloom and doom and hypersensitivity of their persecution complexes.

#5 Comment By Michael Guarino On June 15, 2015 @ 10:44 pm

Yes–there is one very big difference between science and religion, which is that science is constantly trying to overthrow itself, whereas religion seldom does.

This is tripe. There are thousands of Protestant denominations. Within each of them, there is shifting consensus on any number of theological issues. Historically, there are many different variations in religious form: animism, polytheism, monotheism, Buddhist atheism, etc. You simply cannot say religion as a monolith is immune to change, nor can you say that of an individual species of religion.

(Religion is also absurdly old compared to science. The low-hanging fruit of major religious change is mainly gone. Not so for science, where we still have no idea about something as elemental as consciousness. I suspect that is a big factor in the difference in pace between them. A second century Roman probably thought geometry was positively eternal compared to the religious upheavals of his era.)

#6 Comment By Michael Guarino On June 15, 2015 @ 11:08 pm

Certainly, many charlatans and quacks wrapped themselves in the mantle of Science to make claims wholly unsupported by scientific consensus–this happens today, though I suspect people are less willing to trust anyone who waves a diploma then a century ago. And it wouldn’t surprise me that zoologists at the Bronx Zoo were actively participating in the (ab)use of their scientific authority to justify the business decision to turn their primate exhibit into essentially a freakshow.

Read the post more closely. They were by no means charlatans and quacks. It was defended by an eminent and historically important paleontologist, and the zoologist rubbed shoulders with Roosevelt. Even with the benefit of hindsight, you have to admit that these people certainly represented the state of the art for their time.

#7 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On June 16, 2015 @ 12:12 am

Elle,

Um, you’re aware that The Mismeasure of Man has been roundly discredited? Including by James Flynn, of all people, and including in the pages of Nature. I read a lot of Gould’s essays in high school and was a big fan (I saw him lecture once or twice, actually). Then I took a behavioural ecology class in college which covered Bouchard’s twin studies and that cured me of that. I’m surprised to hear people still citing Mismeasure.

#8 Comment By M_Young On June 16, 2015 @ 12:36 am

“‘Stephen Jay Gould did an excellent job documenting the ways science has been misused in the past, notably with eugenics and the creation of the “IQ test” in his 1996 book, The Mismeasure of Man. Always worth a read.”

Indeed, [3] by a radical (and sometime columnist for the Daily Worker.

“Stephen Jay Gould, the prominent evolutionary biologist and science historian, argued that “unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm” because “scientists are human beings rooted in cultural contexts, not automatons directed toward external truth” [1], a view now popular in social studies of science [2]–[4]. In support of his argument Gould presented the case of Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century physician and physical anthropologist famous for his measurements of human skulls. Morton was considered the objectivist of his era, but Gould reanalyzed Morton’s data and in his prize-winning book The Mismeasure of Man [5] argued that Morton skewed his data to fit his preconceptions about human variation. Morton is now viewed as a canonical example of scientific misconduct. But did Morton really fudge his data? Are studies of human variation inevitably biased, as per Gould, or are objective accounts attainable, as Morton attempted? We investigated these questions by remeasuring Morton’s skulls and reexamining both Morton’s and Gould’s analyses. Our results resolve this historical controversy, demonstrating that Morton did not manipulate data to support his preconceptions, contra Gould. In fact, the Morton case provides an example of how the scientific method can shield results from cultural biases.” [emphases mine — MY]

You could also try to grok [4] for extra credit.

#9 Comment By M_Young On June 16, 2015 @ 1:16 am

“M_Young, what nuances are there within the category of exhibiting human beings in zoos?”

Well, there is the entire story of how Benga came to be in the United States — he voluntarily came after being bought from slavery* by Verner and was part of an exhibit at the St Louis worlds fair with other pygmies along with ‘representatives’ of other ethnic groups. This ‘Human Zoo’ concept was quite common in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries and included at least one ethnic group — Lapps — that are European.

Second, he ended up in the monkey house by accident. From the [5]

“Contrary to common belief, Ota Benga was not simply placed in a cage that second weekend in September and put on display. As Dr. Bradford and Mr. Blume point out, the process was far subtler. Since he was already spending much time inside the Monkey House, where he was free to come and go, it was but a small step to encourage him to hang his hammock in an empty cage and start spending even more time there. It was but another small step to give him his bow and arrows, set up a target and encourage him to start shooting. This was the scene that zoogoers found at the Monkey House on the first day of the Ota Benga “exhibit.”” [my ephases]

This obscure event has been covered at length in the Guardian, the NYT, NPR, the Washington Post and even the Daily Mail [my personal favorite headline — “Caged in the human zoo: The shocking story of the young pygmy warrior put on show in a monkey house – and how he fuelled Hitler’s twisted beliefs” There’s a phrase for this sort of stuff — racism porn.

*Or worse, the [6] to eat the occasional forest dweller.

#10 Comment By heartright On June 16, 2015 @ 2:08 am

Science, if it wants to be worthy of the name, is inherently a value free enterprise, whose only criterion is truth and fidelity to experimental validation.

The critical realist/transcendental realist position is that that criterion must be REJECTED on epistemological grounds.

Transcendental realism attempts to establish that in order for scientific investigation to take place, the object of that investigation must have real, manipulable, internal mechanisms that can be actualised to produce particular outcomes. This is what we do when we conduct experiments. This stands in contrast to empiricist scientists’ claim that all scientists can do is observe the relationship between cause and effect and impose meaning. Whilst empiricism, and positivism more generally, locate causal relationships at the level of events, Critical Realism locates them at the level of the generative mechanism, arguing that causal relationships are irreducible to empirical constant conjunctions of David Hume’s doctrine; in other words, a constant conjunctive relationship between events is neither sufficient nor even necessary to establish a causal relationship.

The implication of this is that science should be understood as an ongoing process in which scientists improve the concepts they use to understand the mechanisms that they study. It should not, in contrast to the claim of empiricists, be about the identification of a coincidence between a postulated independent variable and dependent variable.

Positivism/falsification are also rejected due to the observation that it is highly plausible that a mechanism will exist but either a) go unactivated, b) be activated, but not perceived, or c) be activated, but counteracted by other mechanisms, which results in its having unpredictable effects. Thus, non-realisation of a posited mechanism cannot (in contrast to the claim of positivists) be taken to signify its non-existence.

TL;DR:
Prof. Beer is committing the character-assassination of a villain – who thoroughly deserves it.

Further Reading:
[7]

#11 Comment By Eamus Catuli On June 16, 2015 @ 5:05 am

@Michael Guarino:

This is tripe. There are thousands of Protestant denominations. Within each of them, there is shifting consensus on any number of theological issues. Historically, there are many different variations in religious form: animism, polytheism, monotheism, Buddhist atheism, etc. You simply cannot say religion as a monolith is immune to change, nor can you say that of an individual species of religion.

I don’t see how that’s a reply to grumpy realist’s obvious point. In fact it seems to help make the point. There is such a proliferation of religious bodies and movements because claims that are heretical normally just get rejected. So the heretics, if they persist in their views, have to break away and start their own movements. This has been the familiar model for centuries, maybe forever (and of course especially so within Protestantism, which is all about breaking away if needed to pursue your community’s particular vision of the truth).

What distinguishes the modern sciences from that model is that each of them is comprised of an international body of inquirers, tied together through professional organizations, conferences, journals, and interconnected university departments and research institutes, and by and large that body stays together and maintains its loose organizational coherence as new ideas are proposed and tested. Physicists today, for instance, understand themselves to be part of the same enterprise to which Einstein belonged 100 years ago. New ideas either gain acceptance within that enterprise through some combination of experiment, argument and mathematical demonstration, or they don’t. In the latter case, they just disappear. There are big arguments among physicists today on unsettled points, but there’s no equivalent of different or competing “churches” with physics being pursued one way among one large body of scientists and a strikingly different way among another.

Now, there are caveats. You could argue that something like a parallel physics existed in the old USSR, although even the scientists there would hardly have been stupid enough, when under orders from Stalin to do something like develop an H-bomb, to ignore what Western scientists had published about the physics of nuclear fusion on grounds that it was anti-Marxist heresy. There are also, of course, scientific “heresies” that occasionally gain traction in the wider culture: anti-vaxxerism, climate-change denialism, UFOlogy, “Creation Science” and so on. For the most part, though, these involve leaving the recognized scientific disciplines and taking your case directly to the people via mass-market books or the Today show or Republican legislative committees bought and paid for by your industrial sponsors.

And it’s true that what keeps out the crank ideas is a system of exclusion — enacted above all through peer review — that in principle could and occasionally has at least temporarily blocked a real insight. But the danger from this is certainly less than the equivalent danger besetting religious bodies. Einstein was basically an unknown graduate student in his mid-20s when he published the four papers that updended the physics of the day. That they sharply challenged any number of existing assumptions did not stop them from being taken seriously and ultimately having their great effect within the ongoing enterprise of physics, because their arguments held up to experiment and critical scrutiny. This can still happen today; if I discover cold fusion through experiments in my basement next week, and the results are repeatable and robust, physicists will accept it, and I’ll stand a good chance of becoming the first professor of English to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Now imagine the counterpart event in religion. If even a famous Cardinal of the Church, let alone an unknown, proposed a startling new hypothesis bearing on some Christian doctrine — today’s equivalent of the challenge to transubstantiation, for instance — what would the Church do with that? It has neither the means nor the motive to test, verify and then perhaps accept it into an evolving system. There might be some internal discussions over it, but then it would likely be rejected, and if the Cardinal still insisted it was right he would be invited to get lost (or go found his own new church, if he wished).

It’s true that there have been glorious periods of robust intellectual discussion in the Christian past — the medieval Scholastics come to mind — but within pretty narrow constraints and with a trap door always at the ready for ideas judged heretical. The fragmentation you’re pointing to, then, is a result of religion fundamentally not operating the way modern science does.

#12 Comment By Eamus Catuli On June 16, 2015 @ 5:15 am

Also Michael, to be clear, I’m not saying that it’s only the Catholic Church that squeezes out heresies rather than “constantly trying to overthrow itself,” as grumpy put it. It’s religious bodies generally — if anything, most other Christian churches are more parochial and probably even less like scientific disciplines in that regard.

#13 Comment By mlindroo On June 16, 2015 @ 6:49 am

> Remember Ota Benga the next time somebody wields
> Science and Progress as a weapon to tear down our
> common humanity.

And I fail to see why today’s advocates of Science & Progress should be held accountable for something that happened almost 110 years ago.

[NFR: You totally miss the point here. — RD]

#14 Comment By SusanMcN On June 16, 2015 @ 9:08 am

Siarlys and Franklin, points taken. Perhaps my post wasn’t well written because I was honestly stunned by your responses to me. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the blaster didn’t shoot both ways.

Perhaps we can agree that using terms like “mass murderer” and “zygote or clump of cells” for rhetorical flourish rather than classification in a discussion on abortion serves to divide more than join. Knowledge and belief both have their blind spots and to have absolute faith in one and absolute scorn for the other is folly.

Oh, and what I don’t know about history is a lot, but even I know that my own beloved Christian faith has been used as the motivation for some people to commit atrocities throughout time. Science doesn’t have the market on that.

#15 Comment By Rob G On June 16, 2015 @ 10:49 am

“Now imagine the counterpart event in religion. If even a famous Cardinal of the Church, let alone an unknown, proposed a startling new hypothesis bearing on some Christian doctrine — today’s equivalent of the challenge to transubstantiation, for instance — what would the Church do with that? It has neither the means nor the motive to test, verify and then perhaps accept it into an evolving system.”

Actually it does, but it’s not a “scientific” process. The Church has had numbers of councils, synods, etc., that did this very thing.

“The fragmentation you’re pointing to, then, is a result of religion fundamentally not operating the way modern science does.”

And why should it? Neither do the humane sciences, after all. This is why you have various schools of economics, political science, sociology, etc. — because their nature precludes their functioning like the “hard” sciences, not because they’re fundamentally flawed or immune to self-correction somehow.

#16 Comment By Rusty On June 16, 2015 @ 11:06 am

Incidentally, Genesis does stand out among all the creation myths of the world for having everything start ex nihilo with a tremendous burst of light.

Nonsense.

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

So, before the light, there is water; not nothing. Note well also that light and darkness are not Night and Day unless you are situated on a planet. So, a watery planet, sans ‘firmament,’ THEN a burst of light.

Like I said, hindsight is 202/20, and it’s easy to read into ancient tales stuff you already know.

#17 Comment By Rusty On June 16, 2015 @ 11:26 am

People who received, hear, read, study, or talk about a divine revelation think in terms of their own circumscribed understanding of the world. How could they not?

Well then what use is Revelation, if it doesn’t expand actual understanding and is never revised? Especially when contrary Revelations emerge, as they are wont to do, with no method for resolving the conflict?

#18 Comment By Franklin Evans On June 16, 2015 @ 11:29 am

Susan,

We can immediately agree that the rhetorical choices on both sides serve to separate and distance them. We need a rational discussion — something for which I would confidently depend on you, based on what I read of you here — and neither side can see past their desire to hold and wield power.

Speaking of rhetorical choices: I believe that “blind spot” is much too polite a description, especially when I witness people being willfully ignorant of the facts in favor of belief, or being willfully denigrating of the sincere beliefs others bring to the table. I hold all of them in contempt. 🙁

#19 Comment By Michael Guarino On June 16, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

Also Michael, to be clear, I’m not saying that it’s only the Catholic Church that squeezes out heresies rather than “constantly trying to overthrow itself,” as grumpy put it. It’s religious bodies generally — if anything, most other Christian churches are more parochial and probably even less like scientific disciplines in that regard.

The point of science “constantly trying to overthrow itself” is to permit evolution of belief. That is really the only epistemological payoff: culling out unsuccessful positions; the institutional arguments are not important.

You simply cannot say this has not happened in religion, as a meta-phenomena or in the particular case. The mechanism is obviously different because the beliefs themselves are different (people have larger stakes to retain old beliefs for instance). If you examine the history of the theologies of most Christian denominations, you will see how they effect doctrinal change (purgatory was a medieval innovation in Catholicism if I remember correctly, and the lift of the ban on usury required some reinterpretation. Protestants in many cases moved from a liberal theological framework to a neo-orthodox one in the middle of the 20th Century. And so forth.).

Here is my question. How do you expect epistemic structures to react to these conditions: low information (restricted to accepted divine revelation), high stakes (because every belief influences one’s view of life’s meaning), and long history (we have been doing this forever)? My guess is you will see people arguing just like they do in the theologies of most religions. What I am trying to say is that arguments about process is really not where a successful objection can be made.

#20 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 16, 2015 @ 5:16 pm

Well Susan, you’re still standing, and Irenist isn’t. I did think your formulation was worthy of dissection, but now that we’ve all stepped back a bit:

Fundamentally, those who call themselves pro-life, a label I haven’t disputed although there are grounds to nit-pick, start with the premise “This is a human being, a person fully worthy of protection as such.” Those who call themselves pro-choice don’t share that premise.

Science can be abused by either one, but fundamentally, science tells us what is there, not what it all means. I don’t believe an individual cell has the same moral worth (and it is a question of moral worth) as the complete multi-cellular organism. You believe that a unique genetic signature and the fact that its only a matter of time, if undisturbed, before it grows into a full human being, is dispositive.

Its a bit like what I tell my chess students about getting a pawn across the board. You don’t “get another queen.” You don’t “get your queen back” if it was previously captured. The pawn BECOMES a queen (or a knight if that suits you better). That’s why its called pawn PROMOTION.

On the other hand, any given pawn, until its way across the board, I would be happy to sacrifice for a tactical advantage. Its when it is one square away from becoming a queen that it becomes a very special pawn. So I guess the analogy works for my side of the argument also.

But its not about what is scientifically true. Its about what values one applies when examining the data.

#21 Comment By grumpy realist On June 16, 2015 @ 5:46 pm

One of the most fascinating areas in the history of science/religion is how parts of the scientific method (and mathematics!)came out of attempts to find an objective way to compare different stated truths from different religions. The stated idea was to combine Lullism and Cabalism so as to be able to encode Truths in mathematics. As one of the inventors said, he was hoping that they could get to the point that when there was a religious disagreement, they could sit down and say “let us calculate” and get an answer everyone could agree upon.

Well, they didn’t do much for religious disagreements, but they did come up with a dandy system of mathematics.

(For those interested in this, please take a look at Frances Yates’ book on Christian Cabalism.)

#22 Comment By heartright On June 16, 2015 @ 6:07 pm

Rusty says:

Well then what use is Revelation, if it doesn’t expand actual understanding and is never revised?

To make sure that individuals do NOT get to determine the circumstances under which they live, but simply get on with the programme, as told, when told – Or Else.

And that is exactly how things should be.
Next question?

#23 Comment By Eamus Catuli On June 16, 2015 @ 6:20 pm

Michael Guarino, I’m afraid I don’t understand that answer. First, it sounds at the very least like a departure from what we usually hear from the SoCons on this blog: that key Christian beliefs have been taught with unwavering consistency for 2,000 years, that changing them would be in effect to give up on Christianity and give in to the culture-destroying hordes, etc. Now I’m suddenly hearing that Christianity is actually very interested in continual self-correction — maybe not prioritizing this as highly as science does, but also not shrinking from it. You even refer to “doctrinal change,” though we’ve been instructed here many times that the Church does NOT change doctrines even if it sometimes changes “disciplines.” So I guess you’re saying now that that’s all been wrong.

OK, well, if so, then how about giving up this idiotic opposition to gay marriage? Why isn’t that the next logical self-correction that needs to be made?

That aside, maybe we don’t really have much of an argument here. You don’t seem to quarrel with my description of science as an enterprise that accepts significant and sometimes revolutionary changes while maintaining its basic coherence, and without fragmenting the way churches have so often done. OK, well, in that case, I would just reiterate that your previous attack on grumpy’s comment as “tripe” was not only misplaced, but apparently inconsistent even with your own views. And as to a statement like this — “What I am trying to say is that arguments about process is really not where a successful objection can be made” — again, my apologies, but I don’t understand what that’s trying to say.

#24 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 16, 2015 @ 8:37 pm

Hmmmmm,

maybe my understanding of chess is incorrect. I thought ti was possible to get more than anyone piece promoted, such that one could have multiple queens, even if one has only its single queen captured.

______________
“You simply cannot say this has not happened You simply cannot say this has not happened in religion, as a meta-phenomena or in the particular case. The mechanism is obviously different because the beliefs themselves are different (people have larger stakes to retain old beliefs for instance). If you examine the history of the theologies of most Christian denominations, you will see how they effect doctrinal change (purgatory was a medieval innovation in Catholicism if I remember correctly, and the lift of the ban on usury required some reinterpretation. Protestants in many cases moved from a liberal theological . . .”

I could that it is not part of some evolutionary process as evlution is understood.
_______

The Ota Benga story highlights what was thought of blacks period. It actually ignored the science of human beings. It was oriented around a benign trait. It reflects the the model that is still reflected in our understanding of blacks to this day.

Whether it is the “Tiger moms”, espousing impulse control, politicians, educators, and police departments rhetorical explainations of “black anger” or the visciousness of blacks in prisons by sociologists. The principles remain deeply imbedded in our thinking and practice.

Black people will for the seeble future remain caged.

Some blacks will even cage each other as they scramble to get out.

Blaming science here is the sma eflip of the coin. what Ota Benga experienced is the extreme only shadowed by slavery is social engineering and that is the science that matters.

#25 Comment By Franklin Evans On June 16, 2015 @ 9:36 pm

Elite, only pawns can be promoted, and while in theory one can promote all 8 of them, it simply is not possible without collusion between the players. It’s also true that one can promote the pawn to any other piece except the king, and a player (myself included) will decide on a piece other than a queen if he or she sees it as a better choice.

One of the most elegant game ending moves is the promotion of a pawn resulting in checkmate.

#26 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 16, 2015 @ 9:45 pm

maybe my understanding of chess is incorrect. I thought ti was possible to get more than anyone piece promoted, such that one could have multiple queens, even if one has only its single queen captured.

It is possible for any one or more of a total of eight pawns to be promoted, to any rank except king, or pawn. One could theoretically have nine queens, although it is highly unlikely. No other piece, except the pawns, can win promotion.

I would agree that what Ota Benga was subjected to was not science, but it was proffered AS “science.”

#27 Comment By EngineerScotty On June 17, 2015 @ 2:37 am

I would agree that what Ota Benga was subjected to was not science, but it was proffered AS “science.”

Agreed. That’s how one usually sells snake oil, after all–though nowadays, many salesmen of such claim to be oppressed by science, rather than claiming scientific bona fides that are dubious and/or utterly lacking.

But quackery is quackery, in all its forms. Religious quackery exists as well, but in the absence of a well-armed Magisterium that can suppress it at swordpoint, it’s even harder to distinguish from the “genuine article”, if such a thing can be held to exist.

#28 Comment By heartright On June 17, 2015 @ 3:19 am

Eamus Catuli says:

OK, well, if so, then how about giving up this idiotic opposition to gay marriage?

What precisely is idiotic about that?

Here be a 2% minority that is unwilling to practise instantaneous, unquestioning and unconditional subordination of its own existence to the Common Good.

If it practises autonomy, purge it.

#29 Comment By Eamus Catuli On June 17, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

If it practises autonomy, purge it.

Practises autonomy? You mean, like posting one’s own quirky opinions on the internet? We should purge people who do that?

#30 Comment By Franklin Evans On June 17, 2015 @ 12:47 pm

Eamus, heartright is a dogmatist who resorts to demagoguery at every turn. I find very little in his or her posts on which to hang rational responses.

#31 Comment By EngineerScotty On June 17, 2015 @ 5:05 pm

Heartright seems to imagine himself perpetually in line with the Common Good™, something he imagines as having a platonic and independent existence outside of human politics and culture. If the arbiters of the Common Good™, however, were ever to decide otherwise…

#32 Comment By Eamus Catuli On June 17, 2015 @ 6:40 pm

Franklin, I know — I usually ignore them, but once in a while someone fires a clay pigeon in the air, and I just can’t resist taking a shot. 🙂

#33 Comment By Rob G On June 17, 2015 @ 7:36 pm

~~I would agree that what Ota Benga was subjected to was not science, but it was proffered AS “science.”~~

Sorry, but this is simply incorrect. It was proferred as science because it was seen as science at the time. We know in hindsight that it was bad science, just like we now know the same about thalidomide, asbestos, and DDT. This, I think, is Rod’s point.

“Religion” tends to get a bad rap for race slavery, and some of it is deserved. But it also must be acknowledged that there was some bad racial science in the atmosphere in the mid 19th century that affected the various arguments.

“what we usually hear from the SoCons on this blog: that key Christian beliefs have been taught with unwavering consistency for 2,000 years, that changing them would be in effect to give up on Christianity and give in to the culture-destroying hordes”

Simply put, some have and some have not. The closer they are to the core of the thing, the less apt are they to change, and the core beliefs may be refined, so to speak, but they do not change. Hence, the Vincentian Canon: the Church takes the greatest care to hold to and to hand on that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.

This difference, however, should be seen as maximalist not minimalist: on non-dogmatic matters the idea is to be as faithful as possible, NOT to see how much one can get away with not believing.

#34 Comment By Rob G On June 17, 2015 @ 7:54 pm

In reference to the Vincentian Canon Protestantism, with its tandem ideas of sola scriptura and “private judgment,” has been a game-changer. The continuous fragmenting of which we are talking is a feature far more evident in the Protestant world than in the RCC and the EOC, and the difference should be recognized.

#35 Comment By Franklin Evans On June 18, 2015 @ 11:28 am

As this thread has passed onto the second page, I make no assumptions about this post being read or replied to. I’m not looking to hava a last word… but I do need to scratch my professorial itch, and Rod lets me, so… 😀

On the tangent amongst grumpy, Michael and Eamus, I believe I can offer some insight. I am a process expert (software), I have a passion for theater and its processes — having observed close similarities between the two endeavors, as a developer and as a theater producer — and while I disagree with Michael on substance I do agree that he has a valid and important point when he writes [w]hat I am trying to say is that arguments about process is really not where a successful objection can be made.

Examining the process is a necessary first step. It serves to validate the logic being employed. It permits an objective view of the premise, evidentiary support and conclusions but it cannot inform the specific rebuttals to any point in that logic.

That rebuttal must come within the specific context of each point.

Michael, my personal bias here is a lifelong (and for a period of time hostile) rejection of dogma. I grew up surrounded by institutionalized Christian dogma, so that is my focus in most contexts, but I extend that rejection to any religion or general ideology that states in any form “my way or the highway”. It is my observation that religion — Christianity per se — fails on the scientific methodological standards at every turn. It changes when forced to do so. Sometimes it perishes as the final consequence of its refusal to change. Schism is a problematic comparison point, but I would suggest that it is a symptom of failure much more than a signal of change.

I further submit that citations of doctrine, discipline or similar concept is actually falling into the trap of focusing on process. I don’t have further thoughts on that coherently formed, and I welcome comment and argument on any point in this post.

#36 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 18, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

Interesting… Eamus, Franklin and Scotty are stomping on heartright, Hector and I find him an interesting and engaging fellow…

He is, I admit, terse, given to making confusing statements that he believes are self-evident, and difficult to follow. But under it all there is a keen mind which sometimes sees some things clearly.

It was proferred as science because it was seen as science at the time.

That introduces an element of subjectivity which makes term definition almost infinitely elastic. What science consisted of at the time was not so different from what it is now. If such a thing could be, there would be no such thing as science, worthy of the name.

This brings us back to the blaster that can point both ways. Science in its essence is fairly simple: a method of testing hypotheses by observation of empirical results in controlled experiments.

Now almost any museum exhibit is something more than that, and it may or may not be wrapped up in the language of science, or claims made for science… but that doesn’t make it science.

Social Darwinism was not science, not even “at the time” it was propounded. Social Darwinism was opportunistic sloganizing, taking some terms and concepts out of science and applying them in a totally unscientific manner.

#37 Comment By Eamus Catuli On June 18, 2015 @ 3:35 pm

Franklin, as I pointed out earlier, I did not understand Michael’s comment about process. It’s not where a reasonable objection to what can be made? And, the process of what? I don’t know what we’re talking about at this point.

To review, grumpy said that science is different from religion because it tries to “overthrow itself.” Michael called this “tripe” on the grounds that religions (a) fragment and/or (b) change their doctrines, albeit more slowly than science does. I noted that the fragmentation is evidence against his point, because it’s precisely what scientific disciplines do NOT do. If scientific disciplines operated like churches or religions, we’d have a whole bunch of different enterprises all claiming to be “physics,” and all operating in parallel while rejecting each other’s teachings and declining to consult each other’s pronouncements. But we don’t.

As to (b), I pointed out that it’s a departure from what I usually hear on this blog, which is that it’s all-important to maintain certain teachings, like opposition to SSM, because they’re part of a body of core doctrines that hasn’t changed in 2,000 years and that can’t be changed without killing Christianity. Doctrines don’t change. We’re told.

I might further have noted that grumpy’s original comment was, I think, not entirely clear, and that Michael took it to mean some kind of institutional overthrow, which is (as I noted) precisely what science does NOT do — it maintains its institutional structures over time, instead of fragmenting — whereas I think grumpy meant that ideas formulated within scientific disciplines are overthrown as new evidence discredits them.

It would help me out if you could correlate your comments about process with the terms of that discussion. What is “falling into the trap of focusing on process”? Who’s doing it here?

#38 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 18, 2015 @ 8:02 pm

I think the overthrow meme has reached the point of absurdum ad nauseum.

Science is different from religion because science measures and tests observable material phenomena, and religion postulates non-testable transcendent existence. Either or both could be true, or approximate the Truth asymptotically.

#39 Comment By Franklin Evans On June 19, 2015 @ 9:47 am

Eamus,

I’d accept blame for obfuscating the waters here. My last post, to which you refer, was mostly addressed to Michael. In that context, I’d point out that I’m agreeing with you on substance while trying to validate his more general point.

I’ll try to clarify my point. I’ll also continue to accept the blame if this doesn’t help you understand. This is a complex point and quite focused on the abstracts rather than on the practicalities of our topical debate here.

Allow me to introduce a rhetorical nuance. We often here a stock answer to refusal to change, along the lines of “we’ve always done it this way”, also usually accompanied by a refusal to examine the alternatives. People don’t want their comfort zones disrupted.

Religion — and government, and more general questions of ethics — doesn’t slow down on its way past that point. Religion makes a different statement, “this is the way it’s done, and even thinking of changing it is tantamount to [fill in blank, sin, evil, etc.].”

It was embedded in a wider dogmatic stance, consisting of monarchic privilege, an illiterate hoi polloi and religious hierarchs who in no way, shape or form could tolerate challenge often even from within.

Enter the Great American Experiment. Hoi polloi were not just the source of power, their growing literacy demanded it. “We will give you the power of change,” they implied to their first elected representatives to the republic, “and we expect you to use it and to take blame for the mistakes as much as credit for the successes.”

It didn’t take long for political parties to appear, over the objections of some of those same founders who drafted that profound shift. A political party, I submit, is the religious hierarchy of old drafting and promoting their particular dogma in hostile contention to all others.

The analogy stops there, no doubt about it in my mind. Religious hierarchies are monarchic quite as much as the aristocratic governance model. Both saw change as an enemy. Both offered it violence in response.

Each approach, hierarchical and grassroots, has a distinct process. The former is insular, esoteric, with merit being an afterthought to the opinions of the existing hierarchs on who the want to be their successors. The latter is to be honest poorly defined and structured, and the abuses of it look more and more like its becoming a thin veneer of American Experiment over the same old hierarchs.

Maybe (well, perhaps definitely) I’m being simplistic in defining this as a battle between old nepotisms and new democracies. However, that conflict is based squarely in a pair of processes, and examing that conjunction is not only valid, it’s imperative. It defines the conflict, illuminates the consequences of their conflict. We must examine and resolve that conflict on the ground, in practical terms, with an eye to the objective value to be found in both approaches.

What’s the difference between the election of the American President and the election of a new Pope? The language being used for the politicized and emotionalized debate of the elite class with the power to elect.

A poor joke, perhaps. Don’t know why it came out there.

#40 Comment By Eamus Catuli On June 19, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

OK, Franklin, thanks for explaining further. I think I follow that, although it seems maybe orthogonal (?) to what I was talking about, so I don’t know that I have any particular response. Intuitively, the close analogy of political parties to religious hierarchies feels suspect to me — I like political parties better, and they seem to me a lot more flexible, accountable and permeable than most church bodies — but I don’t know; I suppose like most analogies, it works well for some purposes but not others. So it may well be apt given the point you’re making.

At any rate, we seem to be left without Michael’s further input, so I suppose at this point I should just declare victory and go home. 🙂 But thanks again.