On `Ethnocentrism' in the scientific community

The title given to this short article warrants an explanation. The term `ethnocentrism' is used by social scientists to refer to the tendency of a social group to view the world according to criteria which are selected and approved by members of that group. We are more familiar with the practice of `judging others by ones' own standards' - which is the same phenomenon expressed at the level of the individual. The scientific community often presents itself as a champion of objectivity and impartiality - arising from its adherence to the scientific method. However, this idealised picture comes a long way short of reality! Opinion-formers in the world of science are showing signs of an exclusivist mentality. Science and naturalistic philosophy are being forced into an unnatural marriage. To illustrate the seriousness of the situation, we shall consider, in the UK, the response to Richard Dawkins' 1991 Christmas lectures and, in the US, the educational reform initiative sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Richard Dawkins' personal views were reported in The Independent on 23 December 1991 and, with minor changes in wording, were communicated to his audience during the Christmas lectures. We will quote the first and last paragraphs of his testimony:

I believe whatever is supported by evidence. I do not believe something because of faith or revelation, or because of tradition. . . It might indeed be comforting to believe in a god, but just because something is comforting, that doesn't make it true. Truth means scientific truth'.

Whatever else may be said of Dawkins' belief system, there can be little doubt that he promotes the exclusivity of scientific truth. Revelation is simply rejected. This leads Dawkins relentlessly to an atheistic evolutionary worldview which proclaims itself as the only respectable belief-system for serious, intelligent people. The tragedy is that, when people read his words or hear him speak, so few realise the issues at stake!

Dawkins appears to be highly regarded within the scientific community, for in 1990 he was presented with the `Michael Faraday Award' by the Royal Society. This honour is bestowed on `the scientist who has done the most to further the public understanding of science'. After giving the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, Dawkins received a very favourable review in The Daily Telegraph (6th January 1992). Sir John Meurig Thomas, an eminent physicist and recently retired Director of the Royal Institution, is quoted as saying:

  • He attacked the ideas of the creationists. Anyone who was in doubt about the accumulated effects of lucky changes and how that feeds into Darwinian evolution should see that [third] lecture. It merits a place in the annals of science'.

Such enthusiastic responses to Dawkins' work are difficult to handle without appearing negative and churlish. By contrast, creationists have described him as a teacher of philosophy rather than science. His third lecture makes much better sense when viewed as a `triumph' of deductive reasoning: it clearly revealed a belief system imposing itself upon scientific evidences. January 1st 1992 was a dark day in the history of science. It is particularly sad because able scientists are failing to distinguish between science and naturalistic philosophy. No cautionary words have been given to the public about the worldview advocated by Dawkins: his claims to represent the interests of science have been applauded rather than challenged.

In Origins Research (14(1), 1991), Mark Hartwig and Dennis Wagner evaluate Project 2061: a major educational reform sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). They identify the same problem: scientists who fail to distinguish between science and naturalistic philosophy, and who see themselves as an elite with a mission to promulgate their own worldview.

In the publications related to Project 2061, Hartwig and Wagner find many references to `mental visions of reality': an organising concept on which students are expected to hang the facts of biology. By this, the science educators mean the evolutionary world view. The AAAS report dealing with biological science includes the following passage:

  • Earth abounds in a diversity of living creatures, which all interact to some degree. Each type shares properties common to all life, and yet each is different, as a consequence of millions of years of chance evolutionary events. Identifying the differences and tracing their origins provides the mental framework for comprehending the place we humans have in the biosphere, as well as our present impact on it'.

Thus, the goal of the new biology is to give each person a sense of humanity's evolutionary place in cosmic time. Hartwig and Wagner rightly comment that this is not science! It is the world-view of philosophical naturalism masquerading as science. They add:

  • Organising concepts are necessary and appropriate in science education. But when they are as broad as the ones in Project 2061, science becomes a tool for promoting philosophical and ideological viewpoints. Although science educators may find these viewpoints attractive, even compelling, they are not thereby warranted in passing off these views as science. Our students - and our society - deserve better than that.'

These comments come at the end of Hartwig and Wagner's detailed and thought-provoking assessment. It was they who suggested that `ethnocentrism' is an appropriate description for the approach of these educational policy makers. The issue is of great importance. Unless a significant proportion of American citizens speak up, the formal philosophical stance of US state schools will be a changed. The educational system will promote scientism - which will make exclusive claims on the hearts and minds of millions of young people.

The pattern of an influential group of enlightened individuals guiding the mass of common people is one that has recurred through history. The pioneer of this approach was Plato, whose `philosopher kings' would exercise control over the `lower' social classes of soldiers and workers. In Plato's thinking, the rulers would not be accountable to the masses - only to themselves. Though we have discarded much of Greek thinking, there is an important legacy which continues to affect our own culture. The exclusivist pronouncements of the self-appointed elite are not perceived as arrogant, as they should be, but as weighty and profound! Where is the evidence for that healthier culture that `trembles at [God's] word'? The Bible(Isaiah chapter 66 verse 2)

Our starting point in thinking about truth is the testimony of Jesus Christ to his Father: `Your word is truth' The Bible(John chapter 17 verse 17), to his disciples: `I am the way, the truth and the life' (John chapter 14 verse 6), and to Pilate: `Everyone on the side of truth listens to me' (John chapter 18 verse 37). We are not ashamed of these exclusivist statements because these are the words of the living God. Christians are not being arrogant when we bring the message of repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ to a dying world - it was grace that first humbled our proud spirits and it was grace that taught us the riches of God's truth. All truth is ultimately from God, for he created and upholds the universe and he is the Lord of history. To elevate any human philosophy to a position where exclusive claims are made for it is idolatry. It is an expression of human rebellion, not a mark of maturity. Just as the early Christians proclaimed the emptiness of Greek philosophy - `the world by wisdom did not know God' The Bible(1 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 21) - so must we minister to our own culture by bringing its idolatry to the light and declaring Christ `who was made to us wisdom from God' (1 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 30).

David J. Tyler (1992)

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