Medicine Politics Religion Science

Science leads you to killing people? Not that nonsense again!

That’s the message that Ben Stein has been pushing lately, namely not just the hated “Darwinism” but science itself inevitably leads to political philosophies such as Nazi-ism and Stalinism (but especially Nazi-ism, given its emphasis on racial hygiene and eugenics), including the mass murder that resulted from them. As a result, Stein has been correctly and deservedly excoriated not just by science bloggers, but even by fellow conservatives such as Instapundit, who characterized Stein as “totally having lost it,” and John Derbyshire, who correctly characterized Stein’s lies as a blood libel on our civilization. I didn’t think there was anyone out there other than religious nuts who would try to defend Stein’s vile thesis. So, it was much to my surprise that I somehow came across this gem of idiocy in which a blogger going by the ‘nym ctl blogging at Dean’s World, while trying to sound rational and reason-based, has unintentionally offered perhaps the dumbest, most incoherent defense of Ben Stein that I’ve seen. It’s serves up a neuron-apoptosing panoply of of stereotypes about scientists, bad arguments, and straw men. Truly, ctl owes me some of my dead neurons back. At least if I have a glass or two of wine and it kills a few neurons I get some pleasure out of the deal. Not so here, which is perhaps the reason I felt compelled to offer up a much-deserved dose of not-so-Respectful Insolence™ on this tripe.

The piece starts out in the gutter and descends from there:

Of course science leads you to killing people. It’s generally not scientists who do the killing, of course. As a group, scientists (being academics) are probably among the most physically cowardly of our species, and are therefore among the most gentle. While it’s true that politicians who start wars rarely themselves fire shots in anger in those wars, science doesn’t generally lead to killing in a direct manner, such as by proposing a theory that someone needs to die.

Science leads you to killing people because the scientific method is inherently amoral (note: amoral, not immoral). In itself, that’s fine. Many activities, if not most, are inherently amoral. The problem is that science is like candy. Candy doesn’t normally contain anything really bad for you, and certainly sugar is a necessary part of the human diet. Candy becomes bad for you when it pushes out all of the other foods that you might eat, and then it’s only bad for you because you’re not eating anything else.

Just about the only thing ctl gets right is that the scientific method is amoral. Unfortunately he (or she; I have no idea who ctl is, presuming it’s not Dean or one of his other named cobloggers) then takes this aspect of science and runs with it straight into a wall of stupid. First, let me just take a moment to point out that ctl apparently got his view of scientists from 1950s science fiction movies, Weird Science, or any of a number of stereotypical presentations of geeky, nerdy scientists. Apparently ctl understands as little about scientists as he understands about science. There may indeed be a bit more nerdiness in science than in other professions, but to use such a stereotype as part of the basis of an argument that science leads to killing people is in essence a nonsequitur and strikes me as more of a gratuitous swipe at scientists than anything else.

Let’s see what ctl thinks that this amorality of the scientific method leads to:

Science is not an ethical system. Science is a method for discovering truths about the world we live in. When science is held above all else, though, it is necessarily held above ethical systems. You can see this mechanic clearly in the people who are exasperated at restrictions on killing embryos in order to perform embryonic stem cell research. They wail that religion shouldn’t get in the way of science.

Which is a fine position, but it’s pretty funny to hear the same people complain when we point out that they don’t want religion in the way of science. Because “thou shalt not kill” is a religious edict, not a scientific one. It’s true that there are non-religious arguments for why a person shouldn’t murder another person, but I’ve never met a man who’s gullible enough to believe them.

What a massive straw man! Who says that science is an ethical system? Not even Richard Dawkins or P.Z. Myers says that. ctl also seems to be confusing “truths” with “facts” or “predictable behaviors of nature.” Science is not–I repeat, not–a method for finding out the “truth” about anything. Without going into a great deal of detail, I would characterize science as a methodology that allows us to test our beliefs about how nature behaves with how nature actually behaves and to derive laws and theories with useful predictive power that allow us to predict how nature will behave under certain conditions. In fact, it could well be argued that science is a method of testing hypotheses, refuting them, and through that process coming up with hypotheses that better explain how nature works. For example, Newton’s Laws of Motion predict with a high degree of accuracy how objects move in response to forces, so precisely that they were adequate for sending space ships and space probes to their destinations. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity built upon that and allowed more precise predictions than Newton’s Laws could make. Similarly, the theory of evolution, as the best scientific theories do, describes how the diversity of life came about and makes predictions that allow us to have a good understanding of, for example, how bacterial resistance to antibiotics comes about and what strategies scientists and physicians can undertake to try to minimize the development of resistance.

The second point that needs to be refuted is that “thou shalt not kill” is a religious edict. (Actually, the correct translation of that particular commandment is probably “thou shalt not murder,” to distinguish murder from other, possibly acceptable kinds of killing.) The proscription against murder is most definitely not a religious edict. It existed long before the Ten Commandments and is found in virtually all human societies, regardless of religion. The reason is not hard to understand. Murder is socially disruptive. No human society could permit murder without dire consequences in terms of its cohesivity, which makes its taboo nature quite understandable and which makes the reasons that state-sanctioned forms of killing, such as executions or killing in war are not covered by this Commandment. Even ctl seems to recognize that this moral principle does not derive from religion (although virtually all religions have it in one form or another) but rather tries to dismiss this realization and blame science for leading to killing. Why? Apparently because science can lead to conflict with religion:

Non-religious people usually refrain from murder for the same reason that religious people usually do: murder is repugnant to human nature. But people can be trained into just about any sort of behavior you please, if they have no reasons for resisting. The nanotechnology researcher is never going to murder anyone. The danger is that when the nanotech researcher gives a lecture that religion shouldn’t get in the way of his research, a less gentle man might attend and conclude that the same principle means that religion shouldn’t get in the way of his being a murdering dictator.


Once again, ctl seems to be equating religion with morality. Once again, the two are not the same thing, as morality does not depend upon religion. I could just as easily say that the religious young man who follows Islam is never going to murder anyone; that is, until he hears his Imam give a sermon about how the infidel cannot be tolerated, how he is an affront to Allah, and how Allah commands that he suffer the penalty of death. The same with a Christian until he hears his preacher tell him that abortionists are murderers who must die. Or any other of a number of religions until he hears his religion tell him that killing is acceptable in the name of his god or gods under certain circumstances.

ctl does have one other point but abuses it badly: People can indeed be trained into just about any sort of behavior if it is encouraged by a group with which he or she identifies strongly (and few groups identify so strongly with each other as religious groups). Examples can be easily produced for virtually every religion. Science doesn’t tell anyone to kill; religion frequently does, no matter how much its apologists try to deny it. Here the amorality of the scientific method actually strikes me as less likely to lead humans into acts of murder than religion. After this, though, ctl proceeds to go completely off the deep end:

The researcher who gave the lecture will complain that he never meant that, and that the dictator is abusing what he said. But the abuse is only in the trivial sense that the dictator is correctly applying the principles that the scientist expounded towards a goal which the scientist doesn’t want him to. At the end of the day, the biologist who says that he’s only doing research on clumps of cells has no consistent answer when the man in charge of the firing squad says that he’s only propelling little bits of metal at high speeds towards a clump of cells.

The biologist wouldn’t murder anyone. The biologists friends wouldn’t murder anyone. But they’re not the only people in the world. When you open Pandora’s box, the evils will still fly out even if you were only trying to satisfy your curiosity. No scientist will ever believe it, though. After all, he only meant good for the world.

The stupid, it sears my poor, suffering neurons!

Basically, ctl appears to be admitting that the source of evil is not science itself but the misuse of science by evil people who use it to further a goal that scientists don’t want them to. Sadly, that doesn’t stop him from going right on to blame science for evil because it “opens Pandora’s box” and” lets the evils fly out.” In fact, ctl even seems to realize the ridiculousness of this argument. In an addendum, he says this:

…I’m not talking about science as simply a system for investigating theories. I’m talking about science as it’s actually practiced in the world by human beings. The science which recommends that people avoid saturated fat (and later discovers that the trans fats they pushed people to are far worse) and pushes for treaties like the Kyoto protocol. The science which is a multi-billion dollar industry filled with very imperfect people.

Once again, people who don’t like or understand science frequently confuse the conclusions that science tells us and what we should do about the conclusions that science tells us. The two may or may not be the same. That, for instance, climate scientists tell us that the earth is warming and that human activity is a major cause of it is not the same thing as dictating the policies that should be adopted to try to forestall the dire outcomes predicted. Another example is secondhand smoke. Science may tell us that secondhand smoke is a health hazard and how much of a health hazard it is, but what to do about it is in the realm of policy and thus largely not in the realm of science. I could also even give him the out for the counterargument by saying that the counterargument is talking about religion as practiced in the world by human beings, and it would not alleviate the stupidity of his arguments.

ctl then says:

… I’m not trying to argue that science is itself responsible for the abuses of it, even for relatively mild cases. You can’t blame Newton for Richard Dawkins or for Adolf Hitler (the inclusion of both parties is meant to indicate a range, not an equivalence). You can’t blame the gun maker for the ways in which their guns are abused. But it’s perfectly reasonable to point out that guns do kill people. (I know, I know, guns don’t kill people, bullets kill people.) You can’t hold auto-manufacturers responsible for the tens of thousands of people killed in auto-accidents each year. But it would be absurd to deny that the auto industry leads people to kill each other. That’s not saying that the auto industry should be shut down, it’s only recognizing that there are costs as well as benefits.

That’s just incredibly silly. In essence, ctl has scaled back his argument to the utterly trivial. That something can be used to do harm, ctl seems to be arguing, doesn’t mean that you can necessarily hold the makers of that something responsible but that that something is responsible and thus the makers are responsible…oh, I give up! I can’t tell what ctl is trying to say. Perhaps one of my smarter readers can explain it to me. (Orac never could understand such total illogic, as any fan of Blake’s 7 knows.) The reason ctl’s argument is so trivial is obvious. It’s because his whole premise is fallacious. The premise seems to go as follows: Science produces a conclusion. Someone misunderstands, misapplies, or misuses that conclusion to do something really, really bad. Therefore science is responsible for that really, really bad something that results from a misunderstanding, misuse, or misapplication of science.


Of course it’s worse than that for evolution. Eugenics and social Darwinism, both of which were major contributors to racial hygiene, the “science” (actually pseudoscience) that Nazis used to justify their race policies were perversions of what Darwin’s theory says. According to ctl, it would appear, Darwin should be blamed for the perversions of his theory that social Darwinists, eugenicists, and, yes, the racial hygienists of Nazi Germany used to justify their mass murder. Of course, if I were to apply the same standard to religion, I bet ctl would go ballistic. To demonstrate what I mean, let me recast one of ctl’s paragraphs a bit:

The preacher wouldn’t murder anyone. The preacher’s friends wouldn’t murder anyone. But they’re not the only people in the world. When you open Pandora’s box, the evils will still fly out even if you were only trying to do your best to serve your God. No preacher will ever believe it, though. After all, he only meant good for the world.

I trust I’ve made my point. People did evil long before science existed. No doubt they found rationalizations for that evil. Nazis did great evil and tried to wrap their murderous ways in the mantle of science. That they misunderstood Darwin and twisted his theory to justify doing what they wanted to do anyway does not mean that Darwin was responsible, nor does it mean that science naturally leads to killing people. The point is that people will find ways to rationalize the evil that they do and that they will pick whatever will to them best rationalize what they had planned to do anyway. DarkSyde put as well as any way I can think of to put it:

Religion and science are different species of course. But one thing they share in common is both can be used for great good or nightmarish evil. Particle physicists developed the theories underpinning everything from PET/CAT scans to the device you are reading this post on. They also brought us the hydrogen bomb. Biochemists developed antibiotics, saving the lives and limbs of countless millions of suffering people. The same science produced Zyklon B, a substance used by the Third Reich to economically exterminate families by the trainload.

Only an exceptionally stupid asshole, or an intentionally dishonest creep, would blame chemistry for Auschwitz, and that asshole would be roundly laughed off the world stage — assuming they somehow finagled a spot on it in the first place. Unfortunately, when it comes to biology, modern day Intelligent Design Creationists and their old fashioned fire and brimstone Young Earth Creationist ancestors are precisely those kinds of assholes. And they’re not shameless in the least, quite the contrary: they’re proud of it.

For some reason, propositions that would be considered ridiculous for any other science (blaming Auschwitz on chemistry itself or the atomic bomb on physics), for example) are the norm for evolutionary biology. The reason is obvious: Evolution conflicts with fundamentalist religious beliefs about how life came about and how humans were created. Period. There’s no other reason. Were it not for that, blaming the Holocaust on evolutionary biology would be as obviously ridiculous as blaming Auschwitz on the chemical theory behind the reactions used to produce cyanide in mass quantities just because the Nazis used Zyklon-B to gas Jews. It would be as ridiculous as blaming immunology for the Holocaust because a deluded and evil mass-murdering dictator likened his victims to germs and cited inspiration from Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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