Friday, January 19, 2007

Finally, a Positive Review (But Still a Bad One)

The Times Literary Supplement have given The God Delusion the thumbs up. Hardly surprising given that their review was written by the neo-atheist Steven Weinberg. Weinberg is a poster boy for the neo-atheist movement because he is, unusually, a distinguished scientist in his own right. He won a Nobel Prize for his work on cosmology and has also written well regarded popular science books on the subject.

This all goes to show that even Nobel Prizewinners can look foolish if they step outside their boundaries of expertise. He begins his review with a rehash of the old science/religion conflict hypothesis. Staggeringly, he actually tries to resurrect the flat earth myth by mentioning Theophilus of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria. Theophilus is an arguable case (you can read the relevant passage here) because he describes the heavens as a dome. However, the context is a heavily figurative piece of biblical commentary, not a work of natural philosophy. Clement however is not a flat-earther. At least Weinberg concedes that by the 'High Middle Ages', educated Christians believed the earth was a sphere. He should have mentioned that, with very few exceptions, all educated Christians at all times had thought the earth a sphere.

The rest of his case for an eternal conflict is based on anecdote divorced from context. He wrongly thinks that Christians objected to Copernicus moving the earth from the centre of the universe because this demoted its importance. Then he tries to imply that John Hutchinson's mosaic physics commanded support for a century after Newton's death. This mixture of exaggeration and misdirection is just the trick that Draper and White tried to pull off a century and a half ago. It simply shows that Weinberg has no understanding of the history of science. Therefore, it is ironic that later on in his review he writes,

I find it disturbing that Thomas Nagel in the New Republic dismisses Dawkins as an “amateur philosopher”, while Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training. Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folk?

Judging by Weinberg's own howlers, I think Nagel and Eagleton have a point. It would avoid public embarrassment if scientists did not pontificate on subjects they know nothing about.

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