Making decisions, scientific or moral, Gavin Ashenden observes require “a pubic engagement without mockery, fear or suppression.”
There are times when this is especially obvious. In the UK a few years ago, doctor called Andrew Wakefield published a paper linking a series of autism spectrum disorders to the MMR vaccine. Parents in their droves began to stop vaccinating their children.
The medical community subsequently accused the original paper of being fraudulent. The vaccine-autism connection was described by the medical establishment as perhaps the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years. Dr Wakefield was accused of having had a number of conflicts of interest. Interestingly the press were criticised for naïve reporting and giving Wakefield too much unearned credibility.
There are still some parents, including the actor Robert de Niro, who continue to passionately believe there is a connection, and that this is all a conspiracy driven by the big pharma companies to make money, but the scientific evidence, remains unsupportive of Dr Wakefield
When untruth causes deaths and disease it’s only too obvious how much it matters. But truth doesn’t stop being important simply because there is no immediate gearing with death.
At the moment there is a serious struggle to try to get to the truth over global warming. Once again there are conflicts of interest. Matt Ridley, a prominent UK scientist, sceptic (and atheist as it happens) has been trying to expose them.
There are as always two sides to the argument. There has been no warming for the last 18 years despite all the computer predictions that there should have been.
Does this mean that global warming is more affected but patterns of solar activity than by our man made emissions? If the scientists can’t be sure, it’s very difficult for the non-scientists to take a view.
I can’t easily judge between the one scientific claim and another opposing one, but I do find cover-ups and the closing down of debate leave a bad taste in my mouth. After all, if the truth is on your side why close down the debate?
The ‘climategate’ fiasco over the leaked emails form the University of East Anglia were an early warning that scientists weren’t coming at the problem with open minds.
The central figure, a Dr Jones, turned out to have been discussing for years with his colleagues various tactics whereby they could avoid releasing their data to outsiders under freedom of information laws. They were worried that their private data didn’t support their public position.
Sadly, if the average punter, perhaps like you and me, thought that by turning to Wikipedia we can find an even handed treatment of both sides of the argument it may not be so.
It turns out that a Cambridge scientist and green activist William Connolley has created or re-written 5,428 unique Wikipedia articles on anthropogenic –‘man made’ warming as part of his campaign. And the thrust his work seems to have had the effect of diminishing the evidence on one side by expunging material on the Little Ice Age and the medieval warm period, which of course, suggest the primacy of solar causation.
As the journalist James Delingpole put it: “When Connolley didn’t like the subject of a certain article, he removed it — more than 500 articles of various descriptions disappeared at his hand. When he disapproved of the arguments that others were making, he often had them barred — over 2,000 Wikipedia contributors who had annoyed him found themselves blocked from making further contributions. Acolytes whose writing conformed to Connolley’s global warming views, in contrast, were rewarded with Wikipedia’s blessings. In these ways, Connolley turned Wikipedia into the missionary wing of the global warming movement.”
Matt Ridley claims that the media are under constant pressure not to report the views of those who question whether the link between human activity and the raise of temperatures has been properly made. He (and James Delingpole also) report that as sceptics, they are on the receiving ends of vicious campaigns of vilification. They are personally insulted, and their views rubbished.
I asked an old friend I had always admired for being committed to green issues about the latest state of play between evidence and conclusion. “Have you become a climate denier?!” she wrote back rather tartly? I felt like I had committed some dreadful social solecism. How did asking a question suddenly turn me into an ‘untouchable’ as a ‘denier’?
I might have replied “are you a denier-denier” but playing games with words doesn’t do justice to the urgency of the issues. Keeping an open mind and trying to get as much access to the whole truth ought to be the aim.
I have no doubt that renewable sources of energy must always be preferable to burning fossil fuels. I am a great fan of tidal power; but the central argument is about whether the very high cost of renewables is justified? And the issues are not simple. Large numbers of the poor are denied energy on the terms they might otherwise access it by the move awat from fossil fuels. And it’s very hard to justify imposing very expensive shifts from fossil fuels to renewables in Europe when both India and China are building fossil fuel power stations that more than eradicate any changes made elsewhere.
To make those decisions we need a pubic engagement without mockery, fear or suppression.
The place of religious or spiritual experience is no different.
Those conversations too gets closed down by mockery, fear and vilification. But the decisions we make and the values or gods we choose sculpt the shape of the world we live in. It is faithful theology or ‘God-values’ that will offer protection to the millions of yet to be born, and protect the vulnerable elderly who have no further commercial or social value; ‘God-values’ that promise patterns or templates of family relations that deliver social cohesion and clearly articulated gender identity which offer a foundation for the future.
I have often wondered if one of the psychological reasons that lie behind some atheism is the discomfort with being ethically accountable to a higher power whose values might challenge their own perceived self-interest?
I rather like hearing atheist voices; I often agree with them. They can be relied on to reject weird pictures of god that I think ought to be rejected too. They do us a favour in exposing shallow or unworthy expressions of faith.
What I don’t understand is when voices from the side of an experience of belief are raised, offering more profound, creative and hopeful pictures that has been shown to transform lives, why it is that the ‘god-deniers’ find the evidence hard to listen to, and try to keep the conversation out of the public square,- in particular schools, Colleges and universities.
Bring on all the evidence, safeguard the oxygen of free speech, and let the truth emerge.