A Valediction Forbidding Nonsense

A couple of passages from the president of the Royal Society’s valedictory speech because they are so B&W.

In short, I guess that the same ill-understood circumstances that allow complex human societies to arise and persist also – and perhaps necessarily – have elements that are strongly antithetic to the values of the Enlightenment. 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.

See – ‘and above all recognition that an ugly fact trumps a beautiful theory or a cherished belief’. That’s where we came in.

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…Many people and institutions have always found such questioning, attended often by unavoidable uncertainties, less comfortable than the authoritarian certitudes of dogma or revelation…Today, however, fundamentalist forces are again on the march, West and East. Surveying this phenomenon, Debora MacKenzie 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 Sardar, 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.

Because people refuse to recognize that an ugly fact trumps a cherished belief. Because as far as a great many people are concerned, it is very much the other way around – a cherished belief trumps pretty much everything, and certainly anything so small and petty and trivial as a mere fact or piece of evidence. And because deference is paid to them and witheld from the other team – because it’s considered bad manners to tell the cherished-belief-first crowd that they’re mistaken and not thinking clearly, while it’s not in the least considered bad manners to tell the evidence-first crowd that we are shallow, cold, boring, heartless, unimaginative, trivial, shallow, and mistaken and deluded and going to burn in hell forever. An unfortunate arrangement.

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