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John West Explicates C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Skepticism


The Christian Post has a very thoughtful and thorough account of a presentation that Discovery Institute's John West gave at the National Conference on Christian Apologetics, analyzing C.S. Lewis's views on science and scientism. It's very much worth reading. One of the important and counterintuitive insights that Lewis offered was his observation that far from encouraging skepticism, the mention of "science" can call forth a perilous gullibility, not least from educated, intelligent people who should know better.

Writes reporter Napp Nazworth:

Healthy skepticism is a cornerstone of the scientific process. Knowledge is advanced and new discoveries are made by challenging scientific results and testing alternative hypotheses.

Lewis recognized, though, that science can also promote an uncritical acceptance of views that are said to be backed by science or wrapped in science-y language, West pointed out.

In Lewis's time, West said, most scientists supported eugenics, or the belief that the gene pool of humans should be improved, and they argued that their views were supported by science. These views led to policies such as forced sterilization of those deemed to be of less worth, such as criminals and the handicapped. These policies were not only popular in authoritarian regimes like Nazi Germany, but in democracies such as the United States and England. Anyone who opposed what the vast majority of scientists were saying must be "anti-science," it was argued.

West noted that Lewis mocked the gullibility of his Oxford colleagues in That Hideous Strength when one of the characters claimed it was difficult to fool the working class because they assume that what they read from elites is propaganda, "But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don't need reconditioning. They're all right already. They'll believe anything."

Invoking "science" can be the key to getting smart folks to stop thinking skeptically. As Dr. West notes, that's part of the explanation for the rise of eugenic racism, also the subject of a new exhibit at NYU about the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory: "Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office." The New York Times reports on it, not missing the important point that eugenics in its day was an entirely mainstream and highly prestigious scientific pursuit:

When the Eugenics Record Office opened its doors in 1910, the founding scientists were considered progressives, intent on applying classic genetics to breeding better citizens. Funding poured in from the Rockefeller family and the Carnegie Institution. Charles Davenport, a prolific Harvard biologist, and his colleague, Harry H. Laughlin, led the charge.

"There were many prominent New Yorkers involved in eugenics," Dr. Tchen said. "It was initially about how to become more efficient as a modern society."

Researchers sought out "unfit" families in the Manhattan slums and the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. They cataloged disabilities and undesirable traits, scribbling the exact dimensions of heads and arms.

Psychiatric institutes sent crates of case files to the office, where the chief characteristics of "the feebleminded" were collated into pedigree charts. Davenport himself devised a sophisticated apparatus to quantify skin color.

"The Eugenics Record Office was built around very systematized ideas that still might be seen as legitimate today," said Noah Fuller, an artist and co-curator of the exhibit. "At the time, this was widely accepted as legitimate science."

So what has changed since then? Are we supposed to believe that just a century ago, elite opinion in science and in the culture at large was so terribly fallible and vulnerable to being misled by prejudice -- yet today, it cannot err?

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Image source: Christian Post.