Sunday, July 23, 2006

Appeal to authority and uncritical thinking

John Steinbeck owes a great deal to Ed Ricketts. Throughout his life Steinbeck campaigned and championed Ricketts to no avail and it was only when Ricketts appeared as a fiction character in ‘Cannery Row’ that Ricketts became famous.

It must be remembered that it was Ed Ricketts and the captain of the book who wrote the original journals on the voyage and that Steinbeck wrote his book based on both of these journals.

Ricketts was a pioneer in ecology. He had studied the ecosystem of sardines in Monterey Bay and he had foretold that the sardine industry was not sustainable. A few years after Ricketts death the sardine industry collapsed. Ricketts wrote during this time that if he was asked where the sardines had gone he could say ‘they are in cans’.

I cannot help but feel that in terms of the mystical view Steinbeck held he was strongly influenced by Ricketts into thinking that an atheistic solution was the only viable solution. I often wonder if the ‘appeal to authority’ is what damages the role of religion in science more than anything else. Rather than being able to analyse and think through a religious viewpoint it is too easy to accept the easy alternative of another ‘authoritative’ colleague to decide the philosophy that they hold.

We see this appeal to authority quite clearly present today in terms of scientific support for Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Whilst we also see today that there are some people who when they re-investigate the claims of atheism they have to re-evaluate. Anthony Flew is a good example of this and in 2004 he announced to the philosophical world that he had become a deist.

When Steinbeck decides to devote one whole chapter from ‘Log from the Sea of Cortez’ on nonteleological thinking, a strong feature of the philosophy of Ricketts I have to ask myself if Steinbeck when he verges into mysticism but rejects theism has really decided this for himself of if he is overwhelmed by Ricketts philosophy to suggest that theism might be possible.

I recently found a book in the library by Harold Morowitz on abortion called ‘The facts of Life’. In this book Morowitz described how he uncovered that one of the arguments against abortion was based on an appeal to authority that had been misinterpreted by the anti-abortion lobby. One of their claims was that electrical signals had been identified in an unborn child of 12 weeks. This claim was often raised with no real substantiation and Morowitz tracked it down to a conference in 1969. The results had been announced of an experiment that took place in 1963 in Finland. Under unethical conditions experiments had been carried out on aborted foetus’. The electrical activity was not found in the cortex but only in the brain stem. In fact this evidence that had been used as a strong argument for anti-abortionists was based on an unethical experiment and the results had been misinterpreted. The scientific evidence had not been examined before and it was being used without critical analysis. How much of this sort of ‘appeal to authority’ goes on in science?

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