Secular knowledge

December 16, 2004 | 55 comments
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Is secular knowledge a spiritual distraction?

One of the most common criticism of space exploration is that it’s much too expensive. “Why are we sending all of that money into space when we have so many problems here on earth?” the argument goes. An identical argument can be made against a lot of basic research. Although much spending on scientific research can be justified by the economic or practical benefits that result from it, some simply can’t. It’s very unlikely that anyone will benefit from knowing what dark matter is.

A similar argument can also be made on spiritual grounds; in fact, it’s already come up on The Thread That Would Not Die. God wants us to be charitable to each other. We are to help the poor and visit the sick. We are to preach the Gospel, perfect the Saints, and redeem the dead. Why are we wasting time trying to understand quarks and taking pictures of other planets? Or, for that matter, theorizing about economics or history or art? Sure, we have all of those quotes in the Teachings of the Prophets manuals about gaining knowledge and becoming educated, but most of those either refer to spiritual knowledge or justify education for its practical benefits. For the most part the prophets are silent about the idea that secular or scientific (or artistic or literary or historical) knowledge is innately valuable. So is it? Or is it just a distraction from the real spiritual work of mortal life?

I think God wants and expects us to seek knowledge (all kinds), to make scientific inquiry, and to explore the universe. Here’s why.

  • Because gaining knowledge is an attempt to understand God.
  • Because it’s childlike. If you are a parent, then you probably have noticed this — children are constantly experimenting, making hypotheses and testing them out. That’s how they manage to figure out the rules the world works by so quickly. Children are the prototypical scientists, and many scientists describe what they do as just a continuation of childhood. I think that when Christ taught that we should be like little children he was referring to having the faith of a child — but maybe there’s room in there for having the wonder of a child as well. Without a little wonder we get jaded. I don’t know about you, but it’s really easy for me to ignore a mushroom growing in my yard, until I start looking at its structure, and realize it’s actually made up of billions of cooperating cells, and that its relatives has been on earth for millions of years, and produce one of the widest range of pharmacological substances of any living thing. We weren’t meant to be jaded.
  • Because God is an artist. I alluded to this in a previous post: the universe is unbelievably beautiful. I don’t believe He created it all just for us to appreciate, especially since there’s so much of it that neither we nor anyone else will ever see. But I also don’t think He made it so beautiful without expecting it to be appreciated.
  • Because God created us in a way that allows us to understand the universe. Have you ever thought about how surprising it is that a man-made construct, mathematics, can describe the laws by which the world operates? We’re completely used to the idea, but it’s actually so amazing that it took thousands of years to figure out. Until Galileo, in fact. I don’t think God gave us this remarkable ability for no reason. You can make similar arguments for our artistic and musical abilities.

I really want to be eloquent here. I feel like I should be able to. But I can’t, this is the best I can come up with. I’m having a “describe the taste of salt” moment. So here’s my best reason:

On a night when there’s no moon, turn out all the lights and go outside. If you live in a city, drive to somewhere away from the city lights. Let your eyes adjust to the darkness for about 30 minutes. Then look up.

That’s why.

Many of you have chosen to devote your careers to producing beauty or truth. How do you justify yourselves?

55 Responses to Secular knowledge

  1. Bryce I on December 16, 2004 at 1:07 pm

    When I heard the learned astronomer,

    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

    When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

    When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

    How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

    Till rising and gliding out I wandered off by myself,

    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

    Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.

    –Walt Whitman

  2. Bryce I on December 16, 2004 at 1:09 pm

    That poem is actually not reflective of my own feelings — I was reminded of it by Glen’s example, and it seemed to provide a counterpoint to his post.

  3. J. Stapley on December 16, 2004 at 1:21 pm

    My wife and I recently had a discussion about dance and music. She recently started dancing again and she commented on how she is able, in her relative maturity, to focus on the depth of her performance and not just the mechanics. The capacity, she said resulted from her mission, from her being a mother and everything else since she was actively dancing. These are the things you cannot teach.

    I am a chemist and a musician. In these fields and in all else, there are the mechanics or knowledge that is a prerequisite for participation (like my wife’s dancing skills). While this knowledge potentiates it does not alone bestow the profundity of art. The art comes with depth and experience.

    If we exclude knowledge and focus solely on the experience, we remain impotent and banal. And that is Hell.

  4. Jack on December 16, 2004 at 1:39 pm

    O vast Rondure, swimming in space

    Covered all over with visible pow’r and beauty

    Alternate light and day and the teaming spiritual darkness

    Unspeakable high processions of sun and moon and countless stars above

    Below, the manifold grass and waters

    With inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention

    — Walt Whitman –

  5. danithew on December 16, 2004 at 1:51 pm

    Nice post Glen. I agree with your answers to the question: “Why are we sending all of that money into space when we have so many problems here on earth?â€?

    Here’s a reason I think space exploration and study should continue. Of course I’m not much of a scientist so I’ll be ready to hear people shoot me down.

    My thinking is that the answers to a lot of our problems on earth will be found in the scientific and technological advances that are made in order to make space exploration possible and useful. These advances very often have more earth-bound applications as well. A scientist might begin research on a particular topic out of curiosity and interest and then discover that the research results have answers to questions and solutions to problems that could not have been anticipated.

  6. clark on December 16, 2004 at 2:30 pm

    There’s also the fact that basic research always does payoff, just not for a few decades. One could argue quite persuasively that America’s investment in research and “acquisition” of a lot of scientists prior to and after WWII provided a lot of the economic strength that still continues.

  7. Kingsley on December 16, 2004 at 2:47 pm

    The prophets have said that spiritual knowledge, or testimony fed by scripture study, church activity, prayer, etc., is paramount, but I’m not sure they’ve been silent about, much less purposely deemphasized, art and science and history, culture, beauty; take the current Twelve, for example, their backgrounds, interests, hobbies; they seem a fairly accomplished, intellectual set of gents (as have many of the brethren before them). Artists and intellectuals tend to wax heroic when asked to “justify” their lifestyles, as if “The Road Not Taken” the soundtrack to Glory is running through their heads as they type.

  8. Kingsley on December 16, 2004 at 2:50 pm

    Excuse me: the poem and the soundtrack are. What I mean is, we should consider ourselves luck to be professionally engaged in something we love doing, and remember that the brethren are speaking mainly to people not so fortunate, and telling them where they can find the most immediate and satisfactory solace.

  9. Kingsley on December 16, 2004 at 2:51 pm

    Lucky. Lord. You can see that I do not qualify as an artist or intellectual, so perhaps I should stop my gob.

  10. Adam Greenwood on December 16, 2004 at 3:17 pm

    “How thick inlaid the floor of heaven with patens of bright gold.”

  11. David King Landrith on December 16, 2004 at 5:15 pm

    I think that one important thing to remember is neither Joseph Smith nor Brigham Young drew the distinction that we do between spiritual and secular knowledge. Joseph tended to think that all knowledge was miraculous, and Brigham tended to think that all knowledge was practical, but neither of them saw spiritual knowledge as fundamentally different from secular knowledge.

    That said, the commandment to create the School of the Prophets (Doctrine and Covenants 88:77-80) includes instructions to discuss secular knowledge, and among the topics studied were among the topics studied in the school of the prophets were history, political science, and literature.

    The church started its first university just 11 years after it was founded. The University of the City of Nauvoo opened its doors in 1841, and was probably the first municipal college in the country. Orson Pratt taught mathematics there. Sidney Rigdon taught rhetoric.

    Before Apostle David O. McKay headed up the Correlation committee to standardize the church’s curriculum in the early 1900s, it was not uncommon for priesthood meetings to involve instruction in literature and science, since these topics are both spiritually edifying and uplifting in character.

    At any rate, I agree with you that secular knowledge is important for the reasons that you mention, and I’d add that it seems to me that the church has given us an unequivocal admonition to pursue it.

  12. Glen Henshaw on December 16, 2004 at 5:22 pm

    DKL wrote:
    “Before Apostle David O. McKay headed up the Correlation committee to standardize the church’s curriculum in the early 1900s, it was not uncommon for priesthood meetings to involve instruction in literature and science, since these topics are both spiritually edifying and uplifting in character.”

    That’s very very interesting. Can you give me a reference?
    I have heard that Orson Pratt sometimes gave speculative talks on paleontology in general conference.

  13. Derek on December 16, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    > “Why are we sending all of that money into space when we have so many problems here on earth?�

    I don’t think there’s necessarily a tradeoff. Most problems can’t be solved simply by throwing money (out-of-work rocket scientists) at them.

  14. Jim Richins on December 16, 2004 at 6:04 pm

    Perhaps Joseph and Brigham did not draw a distinction between spiritual and secular knowledge because they did not perceive that the two types were antagonistic – at least, not to the extent that they are perceived that way today.

    In fact, I think it was Elder Holland from last October Conference that talked about spiritual knowledge being under assault by the ideas of Enlightenment and Rationalism. (I’ll have to double-check that reference… it was definitely Saturday morning session).

    Insofar as the pursuit of secular knowledge leads a person to question spiritual tenets commonly accepted as “Truth” then I can understand the perception of secular/spiritual being mutually exclusive.

    However, I personally feel that there ought not to be a distinction. I am confident that secular knowledge will ultimately confirm spiritual “Truth”, not disprove it. I also believe that spiritual truths are revealed only to the extent that they can be comprehended by us mere mortals. Either that or the partial spiritual truths we have been given serve some other Divine purpose.

    I’m grateful that my spiritual framework allows for the modification of spiritual “Truth” via continuing revelation, and I am also grateful for the realization that we do not posses all spiritual nor secular knowledge, but only the subset of each that we are prepared or capable of handling.

    I believe the nature of dark matter is vitally important, and may ultimately provide the path to greater spiritual truth.

    In other words, I think the journey is at least as important as the destination – in this case, the pursuit of both spiritual and secular knowledge. The journey itself helps stretch, discipline, or organize our minds and hearts in preparation of greater spiritual enlightenment.

  15. David King Landrith on December 16, 2004 at 6:43 pm

    Glen Henshaw: That’s very very interesting. Can you give me a reference?

    Sure thing, Glen.

    The Priesthood Reform Movement, 1908-1922,” by William G. Hartley appears in BYU Studies 13 (1973), number 2 (by virtue of some fanastic twist of fate, you can download this in pdf form free online):

    One lesser priesthood group, for example, divided its class time between religious lessons and such adventure books as Tom Sawyer, The Jungle Book, The Call of the Wild, Pigs is Pigs, and Frank Among the Rancheros. In another case, a lesson was given on the life of United States President William McKinley—in a Canadian teachers quorum. In December, 1908, a deacons’ quorum in Ogden “went downstairs and Brother              gave a lecture of Ben Hur.” (emphasis in original)

    Hartley attributes it the attempt to make the lessons interesting, but the subject matter was deemed appropriate presumably because it was uplifting in character.

  16. Glen Henshaw on December 16, 2004 at 9:27 pm

    Jim Richins wrote:
    “I’m grateful that my spiritual framework allows for the modification of spiritual “Truthâ€? via continuing revelation, and I am also grateful for the realization that we do not posses all spiritual nor secular knowledge, but only the subset of each that we are prepared or capable of handling.”

    I think that’s an excellent point, and resolves many apparent conflicts between the two kinds of truth. I’d hasten to add that it has sometimes happened that we had a spiritual truth, but didn’t necessarily understanding it correctly; so there’s room not only for additional revelation but also for increassed understanding of the revelation we already have. As is also true of secular truth.

    “I believe the nature of dark matter is vitally important, and may ultimately provide the path to greater spiritual truth.”

    Dark matter in particular? :)

  17. Glen Henshaw on December 16, 2004 at 9:29 pm

    Derek wrote:
    “> “Why are we sending all of that money into space when we have so many problems here on earth?â€?

    I don’t think there’s necessarily a tradeoff. Most problems can’t be solved simply by throwing money (out-of-work rocket scientists) at them.”

    I agree; it’s not a particularly good argument. But it does get made a lot.

  18. Geoff Johnston on December 16, 2004 at 9:35 pm

    I suspect that the percentage of saints in danger of spending too much time building there spiritual or scriptural knowledge base is much smaller than the percentage of saints neglecting that data base.

    So while there is clearly nothing wrong with pursuits of knowledge of science or arts, there is obviously a danger in overdoing that side of search for knowledge — especially when it comes at the expense of increasing spiritual knowledge and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Perhaps an athletic analogy will illustrate my point. Michael Jordan didn’t become arguably the greatest basketball player on the planet by exclusively playing basketball all of the time. An athlete of his caliber must have trained extensively with weights and numerous other non-basketball oriented training. Plus he surely learned a great deal about nutrition and mental preparation. But though he trained with weights consistently, he didn’t become a body builder. Though he learned nutritional truth it was not to become a nutritionist. All of these activities were cross training methods that all supported his main objective — to be the best basketball player he could become.

    I believe the same principles apply to our non-spiritual pursuits of truth and beauty. They broaden our minds, enrich our lives, and increase our intellectual and spiritual capacity. As long as they do not become the primary goal in our lives we usually are in safe territory. “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” All of the examples given thus far seem to fall into this category. The only caveat is that seeking these things should assist us in our primary goal and not replace it. Of course that primary goal is explained to us by our Exemplar “what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you even as I am”.

    Now, exactly what it means to be like Jesus Christ is the real question isn’t it? Sure, one could argue that since God is omniscient then Christ is the pinnacle of scientists, artists, philosophers, etc. so therefore total devotion to those fields fits the commandment. But I suspect that at the last day we will be better served modeling our lives after veil-piercers like Enoch, Moses, and the brother of Jared, than after the great scientists or artists of the world, many of whom were noted scoundrels.

  19. Jack on December 16, 2004 at 10:33 pm

    “You can see that I do not qualify as an artist or intellectual…”

    You’re not fooling anybody, Kingsley.

  20. David King Landrith on December 16, 2004 at 11:15 pm

    Jim Richins: Elder Holland from last October Conference that talked about spiritual knowledge being under assault by the ideas of Enlightenment and Rationalism

    I don’t know whether Holland actually said something like this. I don’t remember it, but then I may have dozed off. At any rate, whatever any church leader may say to trash the accomplishments of the Enlightenment, it should be noted that it is not likely that the Church could have been founded without the it. It’s certainly the case that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are not possible without it.

    Of course, President Hinckley said:

    We hope that our people will gain education. We put very strong emphasis on education. It is a mandate from the Lord as we regard it, and we urge that very strongly with our own people and would hope that would carry over to others.… Surveys have indicated that the higher the education, the more faithful the individual.… We expect people to think. We want them to think. We want them to dig. We want them to read. We want them to improve their minds, and with that message of hope and growth we reach out to them. That is our doctrine which we teach and we hope it bears fruit.

    And besides, athiesm gets a bad rap. It really isn’t all that different from Mormonism. Atheists believe that all religions are false. Mormons believe that all religions are false but one.

  21. Mark N. on December 17, 2004 at 1:45 am

    And besides, athiesm gets a bad rap. It really isn’t all that different from Mormonism. Atheists believe that all religions are false. Mormons believe that all religions are false but one.

    Now, there’s a quote worth stealing.

  22. Jack on December 17, 2004 at 8:37 am

    I watched an interview with Elder Holland on video. The subject was the arts. He wept when he spoke of his experience in seeing the “Pieta” and regarded it as a standard of artistic achievement to which the saints should aspire.

  23. Jack on December 17, 2004 at 8:44 am

    DKL

    Mormons also believe that there is a God who’s influence permeates all.

  24. Glen Henshaw on December 17, 2004 at 9:35 am

    So what are your takes on the (in my experience common) idea that we should be wary of the “ideas of men”? I often hear that sentiment expressed in church when the concept of evolution or the age of the earth comes up, usually immediately followed by the hope that scientists will eventually come to their senses and realize the truthfulness of the literal Genesis account.

  25. David King Landrith on December 17, 2004 at 10:51 am

    Glen Henshaw: So what are your takes on the (in my experience common) idea that we should be wary of the “ideas of men”? I often hear that sentiment expressed in church when the concept of evolution or the age of the earth comes up, usually immediately followed by the hope that scientists will eventually come to their senses and realize the truthfulness of the literal Genesis account.

    If we are to assume that the church has anything like a coherent take on knowledge, and if we are to assume that this take favors knowledge in the way that I have tried to describe, then the only way to understand the “ideas of men” is to understand it in the sense expressed derisively in the phrase, “the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.” Which is to say (the way that I see it), the watering down of gospel truths (surely the creation vs. evolution debate does not concern gospel truths) with notions invented by men to make them more conducive to their mortal desires; e.g., the unlinking of faith and works.

    I’ve expressed my views on evolution elsewhere, and I agree with Duane Jeffery’s assessment that Heavenly Father isn’t a trickster God who plants evidence for the purpose of trying our faith. Knowledge of scientific truths is still knowledge, and such knowledge is virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy. We should therefore seek after it.

  26. Jack on December 17, 2004 at 11:25 am

    “surely the creation vs. evolution debate does not concern gospel truths”

    I think it may very well concern gospel truths if we’re not careful. I like this from Arthur Henry King:

    “…we must not allow the acceptance of evolution as a natural-scientific hypothesis for research to cloud our knowledge of the divine origin of human beings or the actual (not symbolic) existence of Adam and Eve. Our first parents were individuals, not types. Sin, repentance, and exaltation are for individuals, not types. The individual is supreme.

    I understand that there is room for disagreement with AHK’s statement, but I like the gist of it.

  27. David King Landrith on December 17, 2004 at 11:47 am

    I tend agree with the sentiment that your AHK quote expresses. Nevertheless, I don’t see that rejecting it challenges (say) the status of the atonement or the notion of eternal progression. In short, I don’t see how even the most deistic view of evolution is incompatible with the plan of salvation. (Perhaps I should say this on the evolution thread, so as not to hijack this thread; let me just say that I’m not sure that this is the appropriate place to take up evolution again. So barring instructions from Glen about the direction of this thread, I’ll let you have the last word on this.)

  28. Glen Henshaw on December 17, 2004 at 11:52 am

    DKL wrote:
    “I’m not sure that this is the appropriate place to take up evolution again.”

    As much as I would enjoy another 100 post thread, I think you’re right :)

  29. Jim Richins on December 17, 2004 at 5:46 pm

    Found the quote I was thinking of.

    Elder Holland was quoting Richard L Bushman:

    “As a good friend and faithful LDS scholar has succinctly put it, “At a time when the origins of Christianity were under assault by the forces of Enlightenment rationality, Joseph Smith [unequivocally and singlehandedly] returned modern Christianity to its origins in revelation.”

    I am not trying to suggest that the Gospel and the Enlightenment are at odds with each other, nor do I believe that Elder Holland believes this is the case (of any of the Twelve, he would be no more likely to believe such a thing as Elders Eyring or Scott.)

    The quote merely underscores the fact that there *exists* a perception that secular and spiritual knowledge are mutually exclusive. I don’t expect this to be a trap many still fall into.

    Branching off to another aspect of the secular/spiritual topic, I often get irritated by efforts to try and use secular knowledge to justify or prove some spiritual tenet. I do not believe that this is the Priesthood purpose behind pursing knowledge. Trying to synthesize some new scientific discovery with revealed Truth is usually a fruitless effort.

    Continuing from the second half of the last century, medical science has largely validated the Word of Wisdom – no one can deny this obvious example. However, I think this is an exceptional example, not necessarily the model to follow for strengthening one’s faith in different Gospel principles.

    Suppose I was taught that paying tithing is a commandment, but I struggled with it most of my life. Then one day some economist in Denmark or Malaysia or Zimbabwe discovers some new mathematical principle that could explain how the payment of tithing leads to greater financial success, and my “testimony” of tithing is strengthened. Then, a little later, some other economist discovers that the first economist forgot to carry a “1”, and his newly discovered principle is false. My testimony of tithing – having been built on a sandy foundation – could falter.

    We just can not have any confidence that the body of knowledge we possess, both spiritual and secular, is complete and infallible. At best, we possess a subset of all spiritual knowledge, and humans are only making their best guess when creating secular knowledge.

    A former Bishop made quite an impression on me on this point. He is an MD (actually, he was the OB/GYN who delivered all three of our children). Before he was called as Bishop, he was giving a lesson in which he stated (this would be back in the mid-90’s) that 50% of all the medical knowledge that doctors currently understand to be “True” will be proven false within the next decade. Apparently, based on past performance, this is a statistic that the AMA had come up with.

    Scientific theories come and go. The world once was falt, now it’s a lumpy sphere. Spiritual knowledge is clarified and expanded upon as well. Given that we don’t yet know the whole secular or spiritual story, it’s just not a good idea to spend too much effort trying to harmonize the two.

  30. David King Landrith on December 17, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    Jim Richins: Continuing from the second half of the last century, medical science has largely validated the Word of Wisdom — no one can deny this obvious example.

    I’m not sure that coffee and tea have been vindicated in this sense. They certainly haven’t been vindicated apart from caffeine, which is not prohibited by the Word of Wisdom anyway. The guys I work with tell me that the reason I can’t drink it is that “the Mormon Jesus hates coffee,” and perhaps they’re right. At any rate, I can’t come up with a better reason.

    Jim Richins: Trying to synthesize some new scientific discovery with revealed Truth is usually a fruitless effort.

    So true.

  31. Glen Henshaw on December 17, 2004 at 9:04 pm

    Jim wrote:
    “Trying to synthesize some new scientific discovery with revealed Truth is usually a fruitless effort.”

    Yep, in most cases I agree as well, and for the reasons you state — out knowledge, both secular and spiritual, just isn’t complete enough. I’m afraid we’ll have to wait a long time for the “complete whole” to be really complete.

  32. Jack on December 17, 2004 at 9:19 pm

    “I’m afraid we’ll have to wait a long time for the “complete wholeâ€? to be really complete.”

    And yet there’s something scintillating about the process.

  33. Clark on December 17, 2004 at 11:20 pm

    I’m not sure I agree that attempting to reconcile science with religion is futile. But we ought be careful that we keep a certain humility towards our endeavors and not end up involved in a kind of Gospel Hobbyism.

    I confess that I also find science education extremely useful from a practical point of view. I often worry about a democracy in which so many are so ignorant of the important issues at hand.

  34. David King Landrith on December 18, 2004 at 12:41 am

    Clark, Hayek has written about the issue of education in a democracy. He actually poo-poos the value of formal education. He contends that formal education only ever makes up for a very small amount of the knowledge that humans possess. Basically, almost everything that we learn, we learn from osmosis (so to speak) by living and interacting with our culture, and formalized education is a very small supplement to that.

    This is a weird argument at first glance, but it becomes more convincing when one realizes that many among the most educated classes thought that freedom of the press under the Weimar Republic was dangerous, but “illiterate backwoods hicks” accept this without question. Another interesting point is productivity: Even the most poorly educated American workers show up for work on time; evidently they’ve learned something that workers in many other countries haven’t.

    At any rate, I agree with Hayek that formal education is rather overemphasized as a social factor. History shows that university professors aren’t any better at voting than illiterates.

    For my part, I failed out of high school, and I never did obtain a high school diploma. I only went to college to because it was way easier than the near indentured servitude entailed in the running of a small business. I majored in philosophy, minored in humanities, and I possess no marketable skills whatever. What few skills I did gain from sleeping in and showing up at the testing center (an apt summary of my college days), I mostly use to antagonize others who seem self-impressed by their education. That said, I love learning, and I believe it makes me a better Mormon. But I’m not convinced it makes me a better person, much less a better citizen.

  35. Glen Henshaw on December 18, 2004 at 11:59 am

    DKL writes:
    “Hayek has written about the issue of education in a democracy. He actually poo-poos the value of formal education. He contends that formal education only ever makes up for a very small amount of the knowledge that humans possess.”

    While that may be a true observation, I think Clark’s point is that it is becoming increasingly problematic because the scientific issues facing the voters are becoming more and more complex. How do you decide whether, say, human exploration of space is a good idea or how big a threat global warming is without some formal education? I think it would be pretty difficult to pick up enough good information on those topics by osmosis, especially given the sorry state of the modern press.

  36. Jack on December 18, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    Glen, doesn’t increased “specialization” in education make it difficult to understand the issues regardless of formal education? My area of study was in music (though I didn’t graduate and am not likely to do so). I don’t think a vigorous study of music composition and theory is going to go a long way into helping grasp meteorology.

  37. David King Landrith on December 18, 2004 at 4:38 pm

    Voters can tell when they’re being bamboozled, and that’s why they don’t fall for things like global warming. And people smell hype a mile away, which is why they are comparatively indifferent to the types of things that the media tries to tell them are “hot-button issues,” like stem cell research (not that we should discuss the particulars of that here, since Glen has already seen fit to create a very active thread on that topic as well). At worst, science based political issues get judged by how well politicians can popularize them (a la Asimov, for example). And again, I don’t see that a formal education in any area makes a person a better voter in any other area.

  38. Glen Henshaw on December 18, 2004 at 8:24 pm

    Jack:
    “Glen, doesn’t increased “specializationâ€? in education make it difficult to understand the issues regardless of formal education?”

    The particular facts you learn during your formal education may not teach you the facts surrounding a specific issue, but IMHO a decent education does give you a better framework for thinking about the issues. Your music degree won’t explicitly teach you about meteorology, but if it’s reasonably broad it probably does help you learn and interpret the facts better. That’s because you’ve learned how to consider the different sides of an issue, trade them off in your mind, consider the motivations of the various people trying to influence you, and then come to a decision. Unfortunately that ability is all too rare.

    DKL wrote:
    “At worst, science based political issues get judged by how well politicians can popularize them”

    Personally I think that’s a really bad worst case, because the nature of these issues is that they can’t be explained in a sound bite. Furthermore, the politicians often don’t understand them either; they vote according to which special interest groups helped elect them. So we get decisions being made that are completely divorced from the facts, because one side has either better slogans or more money. I can’t see how that’s a good thing; we couldn’t do any worse deciding the issues by coin flip.

  39. David King Landrith on December 18, 2004 at 9:24 pm

    Glen, luckily legislation is incremental and reversible, there’s no need for everything to be decided once and for all right now. Moreover, legislation is almost always a lagging indicator of the state of society (elections virtually ensure this). Therefore, it is generally the case that society passes a verdict and elected officials follow it; i.e., voters generally drive political change, not politicians.

    Consequently, the scenario in which the voter has to sit around and think about the scientific consequences of his vote will never obtain. Typically, he will have already made up his mind because the society (or sub-society) he lives in will have already pronounced judgment on the issue. This is, I think, Hayek’s position, and this is why formal education about the issue is just so many details.

    Of course, your point is a valid one when political decisions are categorical, non-incremental, and practically un-reversible; i.e., in decisions released by activist courts.

  40. Clark on December 18, 2004 at 10:37 pm

    Voters can tell when they’re being bamboozled, and that’s why they don’t fall for things like global warming.

    Seems to me that if they don’t accept global warming that is good evidence for bamboozling. Global warming is overwhelmingly established by the science. It’s a great example of how something serious has been more or less destroyed politically. Both because of idiots supporting it. (i.e. a lot of environmental quacks and the Hollywood lobby) as well as people misrepresenting it (i.e. Rush Limbaugh and unfortunately other conservatives)

  41. David King Landrith on December 18, 2004 at 11:19 pm

    Clark: Global warming is overwhelmingly established by the science.

    You must mean some other science.

    Global warming is the creationism atmospheric science. Next time you hear some reputable scientist discussing global warming, check his credentials. Chances are he’ll have no training at all in atmospheric science.

    There is no unified theory of climatology. There is no way to create anything approximating a reasonable long term forecast. Since there is no way to measure or estimate total planetary albedo (which actually appears to be increased by greenhouse gas emissions), there is no way create anything like an approximation or estimate of the specific impact of any quantity of greenhouse gasses on the atmosphere.

    Moreover, more than half of the measured slight increase in tempurature during the 20th century occured before World War II, thought the overwhelming majority of greenhouse gasses were emitted since then. This is all quite apart from the fact that there is good reason to be dubious of the measurements made before around 1970.

    And please don’t lump me in with Rush Limbaugh.

  42. Clark on December 18, 2004 at 11:49 pm

    David, I put a new climatology blog up on my sidebar. You might wish to check it out. I was very skeptical about global warming back in the 90’s. I’ve become very convinced. There’s no doubt that a lot of crap is expressed under the guise of global warming. However what I see is people taking the state of the science in the late 90’s and acting like that is still state of the art.

    To suggest that the only scientists supporting global warming are those with no training seems very, very false. The bigger question is how many articles in peer reviewed journals dispute global warming.

  43. Adam Greenwood on December 19, 2004 at 12:03 am

    Clark,
    There’s a lot of equivocation over use of the term ‘global warming.’

    Sometimes it means:
    there’s been a global warming trend over the last 80 years or so (Prop. 1).
    Sometimes it means Prop. 1 plus its mankind’s fault. (Prop. 2)
    Sometimes it means Prop. 1 plus the results will be catastrophic. (Prop. 3)
    And sometimes it means all of the above. (Prop. 4).

    I’ve seen the term ‘global warming’ used in all of these ways. I’m very skeptical that legitimate science provides strong support for anything more than the first proposition.

  44. David King Landrith on December 19, 2004 at 12:04 am

    Wow, I guess you’re right! My mistake.

    Just kidding.

    There’s so many “Here’s the real scoop on global warming” sites out there that its silly. Check out, for example, CO2 Science.

    And I stand by my statement about credentials. You have a point about peer review journals, and there I must simply appeal to politics and the overwhelming tendency of peer review to produce convential wisdom. This is better than quackery, but it isn’t always the best science.

    I’m fully awary that there have been substantial increases in technology. Even so, there remains no unified theory of climatology. There remains no way to create anything approximating a reasonable long term forecast. There remains no way to measure or estimate total planetary albedo. Thus, there remains no way create anything like an approximation or estimate of the specific impact of any quantity of greenhouse gasses on the atmosphere.

    Global Warming theory is bound to become the latest “end of the world” theory that misses its deadline. Oh, but wait—it doesn’t have a deadline does it. I guess that means it’s here to stay.

  45. David King Landrith on December 19, 2004 at 12:19 am

    Clark, I didn’t mean my last quip about being persuaded to poke fun at you or your position. I actually intended it to make fun of the idea that one of us might convince the other in this kind of a forum (which isn’t what one could call conducive to resolutions on such matters), but on reviewing it I see that my attempt came off rather badly. I often find that I’ve made fun of many more things (and been more obnoxious) than I’d intended. But in this case, I mean no disrespect.

  46. Clark on December 19, 2004 at 1:58 am

    I honestly don’t mind if people don’t believe in it. I think it pretty much a lost cause at this stage with the destruction bound to happen. Since we are a rich nation, we’ll come out fairly well. Even if we are hit by draughts and so forth we purchase enough food from other nations so we’ll weather it quite well. However I’m convinced it will destabilize many nations.

    As for your quip about peer reviewed journals – well that’s what people say when the science isn’t on their side. All the scientists aren’t being bound by science but somehow let politics trump their integrity. (grin) As I said, what serious studies have undercut the basic agreed upon aspects of global warming? They aren’t brought up because there is a deafening silence of evidence against the science. We are left with skepticism. (Ironically much like the ID defenders)

    Your complaint is basically that we have to know everything to know anything. (‘There’s no unified theory of climate change’) That’s a rather weak argument. One can establish correlation without having a unified theory. Heavens, there are whole sciences without a unified theory.

    But the reason I brought up the blog was in response to your challenge, “check his credentials. Chances are he’ll have no training at all in atmospheric science.” If you check the credentials of the bloggers you’ll find them to be eminently qualified and with very prestigious publishing records.

  47. David King Landrith on December 19, 2004 at 2:24 pm

    My point isn’t that we need to know everything to know something, but that regarding the effect of any amount of greenhouse gasses, there isn’t any way to even guess what the consequences will be.

    But you and I may be proving a separate point here, Clark. The question at the top of this post is, “Is secular knowledge a spiritual distraction?” And perhaps our little diversionary discussion about greenhouse gasses has proven that it can be.

  48. Glen Henshaw on December 19, 2004 at 2:43 pm

    DKL writes:
    ” The question at the top of this post is, “Is secular knowledge a spiritual distraction?â€?”

    It’s okay. This is a very interesting topic to me too… and we seem to be the only three left on the thread.

    I have to gree with Clark on the global warming issue; actually I’m a little surprised because the last time I discussed the topic with him he was still very skeptical. The only thing I have to add is to reiterate one of the points I tried to make in the evolution thread, which is that the nature of peer review makes it extremely unlikely that a scientific conspiracy could last. Or that an unproven, unverifiable theory could be passed off as having scientific certainty. A great example of that is cold fusion; there was every reason in the world for physicists to want it to be true. The fact that it was very quickly shown to be false shows how quickly and forcefully the scientific community can squash bad science.

    As for DKL’s point that legislation is largely incremental and can be reversed, I agree with that. Usually that;s enough to ensure that the right position comes about eventually. I worry, though, about cases where the situation “on the ground” moves faster than the legislation can. I agree that this is an almost inevitable consequence of a democratic society, though.

  49. Clark on December 19, 2004 at 4:16 pm

    David, if global warming is real, then it isn’t a spiritual distraction at all but is a very real spiritual duty that we have. To deny it if there is sufficient evidence gets to the heart to our stewardship of the earth. It is akin to knowing that Vi*xx causes heart attacks but calling the whole controversy a “spiritual distraction.” If anything I see global warming and other scientific phenomena with strong consequences the best evidence that secular knowledge isn’t a distraction.

    BTW – Vi oxx is in the filter?

  50. Clark on December 19, 2004 at 4:24 pm

    Glen there were several studies the past 3 – 4 years that to me were overwhelmingly convincing. So you are right, I definitely came to be convinced despite a very skeptical eye. Whether that counts for much or not I can’t say. It has been my experience talking with friends who remain skeptical that they haven’t followed the progression of the evidence in the various papers available. They continue to believe as they do based upon investigations they made years earlier, neglecting to consider other avenues of proof or recent advancements.

  51. David King Landrith on December 19, 2004 at 11:12 pm

    Clark, I indicated the possible distraction value of this thread to give Glen an easy way to reign it in. Thankfully, having understood my cue, he gave this topic his endorsement. I do find this topic interesting.

    Looking at the bios and qualifications on realclimate.org, it does seem that each of these people could be qualified to do atmospheric science; viz.,applied math, physics, oceanography, and geology—where indicated (this is the second point I’ve conceded in this conversation). From looking at their publications, it does not appear to me that they have much of a career outside of the global warming racket. This is as opposed to (say) Richard Lindzen, who does, and who speaks for a large number of dissenting scientists. He calls global warming a religion.

    As far as comparing my position to Intelligent Design quacks, allow me to indignantly outline a few key differences. I’m playing the role of a nihilist relative to the theory of global warming. I’m not adopting any alternative system of hypotheses which is infinitely less probable. I’ve got prominent scientists in my corner.

    You ask what scientific evidence there is against greenhouse gas fueled global warming, but this question is misplaced. My position is that global warming is not supported by evidence (I’m even suspicious as to whether there’s a falsifiable hypothesis at the bottom of it). The only evidence I have is that the evidence for global warming is grossly inadequate to the task of supporting its conclusions.

    Glen, there is no need to view the prevalence of pro-warming articles in peer review journals as conspiratorial. Another trend where aggregate behavior shows a definite pattern without any guidance (that’s totally unrelated to science) is this: according to the official police record, there have been no mafia-related killings in Chicago since World War II (at least this was true until the mid 1990s). This, of course, is almost certainly false, but its not the result of any grand conspiracy. It is, rather, the accumulated effect of individual and largely independent actions. This happens all the time.

    Moreover, as regards peer review journals and their role in the advancement of knowledge, I don’t see how anyone can deny (regardless of their good points) that peer review journals buttress conventional wisdom, develop blind-spots, and engender conformity. I’m assuming that you and Clark have read enough of the feminist critique of science to understand this. But even so, you have to realize that until the discovery of Vitamin C, everyone was sure (and the peer review journals were happy to report) that scurvy was caused by a microbe and all the evidence fit (or was made to at any rate). Global warming occupies the same scientific space as theories about scurvy microbes and female stupidity.

  52. Glen Henshaw on December 20, 2004 at 10:48 am

    DKL- if you don’t mind, could you outline where you think the current global warming theories break down? I ask because it seems to me that the two central tenants of global warming — that CO2 is increasing in the atmosphere, and that CO2 is a greenhouse gas — can be established by very basic laboratory experiments and are just about beyond dispute. It further seems to me that if those two facts are true then one has to explain why global warming wouldn’t be occurring, i.e. you have to come up with a mechanism that is counteracting one or both of them.

  53. Clark on December 20, 2004 at 9:12 pm

    Just a note to the above, that blog I mentioned has a discussion of this as well.

  54. David King Landrith on December 23, 2004 at 9:28 am

    I’ve been planning to answere your question directly, Glen, when I had time to put it together. But rather than avoid your question indefinitely, I’ll just refer you to several papers by Lindzen:

    Popular papers are here

    Scholarly papers are here (Look for CO2 and greenhouse).

    The answer to your question, in sum, is this: the fact that the greenhouse effect can be replicated in the lab has little to do with how it actually works in the atmosphere. The greenhouse effect is part of a system that contains counter balances. If it weren’t, then the earth’s temperature would probably be much higher than it is. These other processes include convective heat transfer and energy reflection. Moreover, water vapor is the most potent greenhouse gas, of course. Its variance in the atmosphere is much greater than that of CO2. And basically, the fact that our atmosphere contains a large oxygen component makes it quite reactive in general. Burning organic material to create CO2 is just one of many processes that impact its composition, and its not really major one in the scheme of things.

  55. staker on November 2, 2005 at 2:11 pm

    Dropping by the Lab, which is “Glowing”, this Evening1

    Fusion Fire From Frost (F4)

    by Michael R. Staker
    September 2005

    Whose research area? I don’t rightly know2.
    Their expertise should be copious though.
    They will not see me working so,
    Investigating cold fusion for mankind’s pro3.

    They have dismissed the topic here.
    The reason? It might not be so clear,
    Explains Mallove4, Beaudette5, Krivit6, Winocur6,
    Commencing from their will, not intellectual steer7.

    Science consists of experiments and theory8.
    Knowledge is reveled after one is weary,
    In the lab, not lovely, dark and dreary,
    Instead of sneering for a quarterly diary9.

    Support and funding is not a hope to seek.
    But we of LENR10 have character too deep;
    That makes for promises to keep,
    And pleads: “Experiments, complete!”

    Reply “Poe..m” to “Glowing Lab” Poem
    by George Thomson September 2005

    As I sat in my cubie weary
    Thinking of ballistics dreary,
    Came an e-mail thru the door.

    It told a tale of fusion frigid,
    Of science attitudes so rigid,
    They banished test results of yore.

    And what am I to make of this,
    That gets an establishment so pissed,
    Their funding folks said, “Nevermore”?

    What is it about deuterium
    That stimulates so much delirium
    They send support right to the floor?

    Could it be our mighty nation,
    In search of energy salvation,
    Can’t take solutions any more?

    Is our foresight so myopic
    When it should be telescopic
    That blinds us to another door?

    So I guess we’ll just rely on
    Gasoline at three bucks a gallon
    And climate temperatures that soar.

    _____________
    Footnotes:
    1. This is obviously an adaptative play on Poem by Robert Frost: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
    2. Hot fusion research physicists continue to think they have the unique background to study the field, but more is needed. A combination of physics, chemistry, metallurgy, solid state physics, thermodynamics and other disciplines are important to understand the complicated inter-relationship of the phenomena.
    3. The energy available in the deuterium in one cubic mile of sea water, if used for cold fusion power, exceeds all the known fossil fuel reserves of the world and could possibly be developed to profusely change the world.
    4. Eugene F. Mallove, “Fire from Ice: Searching for the Truth Behind the Cold Fusion Furor”, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., NY, (1991).
    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1892925028/002-7671930-3111230?v=glance
    5. Charles G. Beaudette, “Excess Heat: Why Cold Fusion Research Prevailed”, 2nd Ed., Oak Grove Press, LLC, South Bristol, Maine, (2002).
    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0967854814/002-7671930-3111230?v=glance
    6 Steven B. Krivit and Nadine Winocur, “The Rebirth of Cold Fusion: Real Science, Real Hope, Real Energy”, Pacific Oaks Press, Los Angeles, CA ((2004). http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0976054582/002-7671930-3111230?v=glance
    7. The controversy is no longer an argument based on scientific principles, but has been reduced to emotional stands based on pride and unwillingness to be open to the current panorama of scientific evidence which points overwhelmingly to an important new discovery (not fully understood yet).
    8. Theory helps lend credence to experiments and visa versa, but the ultimate test is the experiment, no matter how elegant the theory.
    9. The field has suffered much at the hands (and mouths) of reputable professionals who have given in to the temptation of belittling the field as a way of criticizing, for many reasons known only to their individual consciences.
    10. LENR means “Low Energy Nuclear Reactions”. The field of study has multiple names since the original name of cold fusion was not entirely appropriate and has come to have non-serious connotation by those indicated under footnote #9. Other names include: Condensed Matter Nuclear Science (CMNS) and Chemically Assisted Nuclear Reactions (CANR). http://lenr-canr.org/ and http://www.iscmns.org/index.htm