Trust in Science, Bertrand Russell, and Religious “Truth”

  • An item about restoring trust in science, which doesn’t say very much except to improve education;
  • A reading from Bertrand Russell, about religion, morals, and science;
  • How a religious thinker thinks historians should only tell history that is “inspiring and uplifting”.

More today about science, belief, and epistemology. My favorite topics.

Salon, Rae Hodge, 6 May 2024: Why restoring trust in science starts with art, history and education, subtitled “Partisan furor and COVID-19 highlighted a deadly distrust in science. But a leading scientist sees a path forward”

Before reading, my thoughts. What does it mean “restoring”? Was there a time when trust in science was higher, really? Isn’t increased mistrust part of the increasing mistrust of all public institutions, by in particular conservatives, uncomfortable by the continued real-world assault on their religious myths? Further: my take is that certain people simply don’t think rationally and cannot be persuaded by “evidence”; they grew up in religious communities that taught them stories to “believe” no matter how implausible or incoherent, and drawing conclusions from evidence is something they’ve simply never been taught. Or, indeed, been taught *not* to do, given resistance by conservatives to courses in critical thinking.

But let’s see what the article says. It’s an interview with one Dr. Frederic Bertley, the President and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio; a “Harvard-educated immunologist who spent his university days working on HIV and AIDS vaccines.” He says his “roadmap toward making scientific understanding more accessible to diverse groups” includes “connecting the arts and humanities to science communications aimed at the general public, rebuilding classroom practices and leveraging the natural intelligence of every age to show people how much they already know about seemingly complex topics.”

Not a very long piece. Well, I didn’t know this:

Let’s talk STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. … It’s becoming in vogue now to move from STEM to STEAM.

But that’s almost an aside. What about the basic problem?

Science nihilism was a thing before the pandemic, existing at whatever percentage in whatever society you looked at. But the pandemic just took that science nihilism and added rocket fuel to it. And the reason why is that you had this weird time.

And concluding:

Can you talk to us about the path forward for creating more clear, helpful science communications — and for engaging the public, and even students, in a way that reestablishes trust?

Education is critical, but it’s got to be education with a consistent drumbeat … So how do we have a consistent drumbeat around science and STEAM literacy? And then the final point is, which is we’ve got to teach it better. We’ve got to connect it to things that people can relate to.

So how do we teach all the complexities of our beautiful natural universe? In ways that can connect people to vocabulary they understand — to things that are meaningful to them, and that will help them feel much more comfortable about science, and therefore less afraid of those big black boxes of scientific data.

OK, this is not a very deep piece. Education is the answer? Sure, of course! If only there weren’t so many people who resist and resent education. And who raise their kids in bubbles shielded from the world outside.


Next, a reading by Bertrand Russell. As posted on the Bertrand Russell Facebook page, here.

“Whose authority? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran? People choose the book considered holy by the community in which they are born, and out of that book they choose the parts they like, ignoring the others. As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles. And so, even when we have a sacred book, we still choose as truth whatever suits our own prejudices.

Modern morals are a mixture of two elements: on the one hand, rational precepta as to how to live together peaceably in a society, and on the other hand traditional taboos derived originally from some ancient superstition, but proximately from sacred books, Christian, Mohammedan, Hindu, or Buddhist. To some extent the two agree; the prohibition of slaying your neighbor and theft, for instance, is supported both by human reason and by Divine command. But the prohibition of pork or beef has only scriptural authority, and that only in certain religions.

It is odd that modern men, who are aware of what science has done in the way of bringing new knowledge and altering the conditions of social life, should still be willing to accept the authority of texts embodying the outlook of very ancient and very ignorant pastoral or agricultural tribes. It is discouraging that many of the precepts whose sacred character is thus uncritically acknowledged should be such as to inflict much wholly unnecessary misery. If men’s kindly impulses were stronger, they would find some way of explaining that these precepts are not to be taken literally, any more than the command to “sell all that thou hast and give to the poor.”

This is from Russell’s book Unpopular Essays (1950), which I have right at hand, so I can verify that word “percepta” is accurate. On the other hand, the quote here is a mashup of sections of the original essay, which is posted various places on the internet, including here.

Nevertheless, this is typical of Russell’s thinking. He wasn’t the first modern thinker to perceive that the religious texts are incoherent, implausible, and parochial — Thomas Paine did it back in 1796, with The Age of Reason, which I wrote about here, back in 2016 — but he was the first, perhaps, to write lots of books saying reasonable things like this. He won a Nobel Prize, in Literature.

As with the first piece above — many people grow up within religious communities that basically teach them not to think, only to believe.


One more, about how the religious think about truth. The Facebook link is here, but I will copy the image, and the text.

“I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting; it destroys. I could tell most of the secretaries in the church office building that they are ugly and fat. That would be the truth, but it would hurt and destroy them. Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and uplifting.”

–Elder Boyd K. Packer (Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History, p 103, fn 22)

As indicated, this comment was in a footnote. There are so many things to say about this: but mostly that religion is not about truth. It’s only about inspiring and uplifting the congregation. The tribe. And I agree! Humanity has survived by telling stories about themselves, promoting their own tribes in competition to others. And it’s a rare trait for individual humans to care about the actual truth of the world and universe that we live in. But humanity is a global culture now, and those actual truths are becoming more and more important.

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