Health issues related to electromagnetic radiation exposure and chemical exposure

The Royal Society: Twilight for the Enlightenment?

From Dr Paul Stevens, the medicalrenaissance group:

Twilight for the Enlightenment?

Lord May of Oxford, the outgoing president of the Royal Society (the UK’s academy of science) has criticised fundamentalist religion in his anniversary speech.

May begins with an explanation of Enlightenment values:

What are these values? They are tolerance of diversity, respect for individual liberty of conscience, and above all recognition that an ugly fact trumps a beautiful theory or a cherished belief. All ideas should be open to questioning, and the merit of ideas should be assessed on the strength of the evidence that supports them and not on the credentials or affiliations of the individuals proposing them. It is not a recipe for a comfortable life, but it is demonstrably a powerful engine for understanding how the world actually works and for applying this understanding.

He then explains that the world is heading into dangerous times with problems related to climate change, biological diversity and infectious diseases. May describes how religious fundamentalists and others who reject the scientific method are inhibiting progress:

Not surprisingly, there exists a climate change “denial lobby”, funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars by sectors of the hydrocarbon industry, and highly influential in some countries. This lobby has understandable similarities, in attitudes and tactics, to the tobacco lobby that continues to deny smoking causes lung cancer, or the curious lobby denying that HIV causes AIDS.

And,

I have dwelt on this campaign against condom use by individuals and institutions motivated by dogma, because it provides another example where faith and belief not only override evidence, but also lead to deliberate misrepresentation of the facts (presumably in the service of a higher good).

The final section of May’s speech asks whether it’s ‘Twilight for the Enlightenment?’. May covers the threat from the US where religion has become anti-science and the threat from Islamic fundamentalism and concludes that that is definitely cause for concern.

Sadly, for many, the response is to retreat from complexity and difficulty by embracing the darkness of fundamentalist unreason. The Enlightenment’s core values, which lie at the heart of the Royal Society – free, open, unprejudiced, uninhibited questioning and enquiry; individual liberty; separation of church and state – are under serious threat from resurgent fundamentalism, West and East. Our forceful and effective presence on the national and international stage is more important today than at any time in the Royal Society’s 345-year history.

The full text of the speech is available here. And is a highly recommended read.

I find it very sad that Lord May feels the need to defend science against religious fundamentalism. Sad, but unfortunately necessary.

Dr Paul Stevens

About the Anniversary Address – 2005
Twilight for the Enlightenment?

Previous Anniversary Addresses have focused on the Royal Society’s activities in relation to Science in Society (2002), how best to manage the research enterprise (“managing creativity”, 2003) and the growth of international co-operation among the world’s Science Academies (2004). In each case, I tried also to give a sketchy annual report on the work of the Royal Society itself. This 2005 Anniversary Address is obviously an indulgently personal one, setting out some of my fears and hopes for our global future.
I end this valedictory Address much as I began my first one, by again reminding us that the Royal Society was born of the Enlightenment. Everything we do embodies that spirit: a fact-based, questioning, analytic approach to understanding the world and humankind’s place in it. Nullius in Verba.
Many people and institutions have always found such questioning, attended often by unavoidable uncertainties, less comfortable than the authoritarian certitudes of dogma or revelation. But the values of the Enlightenment have on balance – often one step backward for two steps forward – made the world a better place. They have, in the words of that splendidly archetypal document of the Enlightenment, the American Constitution, enhanced life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Today, however, fundamentalist forces are again on the march, West and East. Surveying this phenomenon, Debora MacKenzie53 has suggested that – in remarkably similar ways across countries and cultures – many people are scandalised by “pluralism and tolerance of other faiths, non-traditional gender roles and sexual behaviour, reliance on human reason rather than divine revelation, and democracy, which grants power to people rather than God.” She adds that in the US evangelical Christians have successfully fostered a belief that science is anti-religious, and that a balance must be restored, citing a survey which found 37% of Americans (many of them not evangelicals) wanted Creationism taught in schools. Fundamentalist Islam offers a similar threat to science according to Ziauddin Sardar54, who notes that a rise in literalist religious thinking in the Islamic world in the 1990s seriously damaged science there, seeing the Koran as the font of all knowledge.
In the US, the aim of a growing network of fundamentalist foundations and lobby groups reaches well beyond “equal time” for creationism, or its disguised variant “intelligent design”, in the science classroom. Rather, the ultimate aim is the overthrow of “scientific materialism”, in all its manifestations. One major planning document55 from the movement’s Discovery Institute tells us that “Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist world view, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions”. George Gilder, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, has indicated55 that this new, faith-based science will rid us of the “chimeras of popular science”, which turn out to be ideas such as global warming, pollution problems, and ozone depletion.
In a powerful speech on receiving Harvard Medical School’s Global Environmental Citizen Award, the veteran newscaster Bill Moyers56 noted one extreme form of US fundamentalism, the fantastic theology which sees the End of Days and the advent of “The Rapture” – when the saved ascend to eternal grace, and the rest of us writhe in damnation – as happening any day now, and certainly within the next 40 years. If you believe this, you clearly do not worry about 2050. The adherents of this lunacy comprise an estimated 20-40% of Biblical literalists (a bit paradoxical, because Rapture is nowhere mentioned in it), which means well over ten million. More generally, Moyers concludes “the delusional is no longer marginal but has come in from the fringe to influence the seats of power. We are witnessing today a coupling of ideology and theology that threatens our ability to meet the growing ecological crises. Theology asserts propositions that need not be proven true, while ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The combination can make it impossible for a democracy to fashion real-world solutions to otherwise intractable challenges.”
In the above discussions of climate change, biodiversity, and HIV/AIDS, I gave examples where ideology appeared to triumph over scientific facts. Moyers’s view of “the delusional [sitting] in the seats of power” is supported by Tristram Hunt’s57 report that “Neil Lane, former Science Advisor to President Clinton, has spoken of “a pattern of abuse of science’ in policy making within today’s White House. What they don’t like, they suppress and distort. Official publications on the science of climate change have been brazenly replaced with drafts from utility lobbyists.” Or see Donald Kennedy’s editorial in Science which provided the subheading for this section3, 58: “When the religious/political convergence leads to managing the nation’s research agenda, its foreign assistance programs, or the high-school curriculum, that marks a really important change in our national life.”
In the Islamic world, we also see enlightenment threatened by extremist sects, whose acts evoke the brutal practices which gave us the word Assassin. A sense of the complexities here is given by Scott Atran59: “People attribute Islamic fundamentalism to Islam, but I think it has as much – or more – to do with Christian fundamentalism. You’ll find no apocalyptic visions in Islam; it comes from the Book of Revelation.” Whatever the root causes of the rise in, and confrontations between, fundamentalist sects West and East, the bleak world of Orwell’s 1984 seems a real threat, a few decades later than predicted.
The really sad thing is that none of these fundamentalist beliefs are grounded on, or representative of, the mainstream religions they profess to serve. Fundamentalist Christianity is widely considered as irrelevant to modern theology as it is to modern science. The extremist views and acts of fundamentalist Islam find little sanction in the Koran. Karen Armstrong suggests that “to fight the secular enemy, fundamentalists reduce complex faiths to streamlined ideologies and, above all, try to recast old mythical tales as modern, literal truths.” In so doing, they tend to lose the compassion that is the mark of mature religious beliefs.
More generally, many of the “moral dilemmas” that are said to arise from scientific advances – such as stem cell research – do not in fact arise from any conflict between science and ethical universals. Rather, as Kennedy emphasises3, they arise “from a particular belief about what constitutes a human life: a belief held by certain religions but not by others”. Given that public opinion polls in the US, as in the UK, indicate roughly two to one support for stem cell research, legislation based on the religious beliefs of influential minority groups can bring church and state uncomfortably close.
Ahead of us lie dangerous times. There are serious problems that derive from the realities of the external world: climate change, loss of biological diversity, new and re-emerging diseases, and more. Many of these threats are not immediate, yet their nonlinear character is such that we need to be acting today. And we have no evolutionary experience of acting on behalf of a distant future; we even lack basic understanding of important aspects of our own institutions and societies.
Sadly, for many, the response is to retreat from complexity and difficulty by embracing the darkness of fundamentalist unreason. The Enlightenment’s core values, which lie at the heart of the Royal Society – free, open, unprejudiced, uninhibited questioning and enquiry; individual liberty; separation of church and state – are under serious threat from resurgent fundamentalism, West and East. Our forceful and effective presence on the national and international stage is more important today than at any time in the Royal Society’s 345-year history.

For more of the Anniversary Address – 2005 go to:

http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/publication.asp?id=3864