I’m a serial non-commenter. It doesn’t mean I don’t read other people’s blogs — I do. I just don’t always have something to say. Often when I do comment it’s because someone — usually a theist — has violated the 9th commandment. If they make a false scientific claim I can verify that claim with a short series of clicks on my computer. Even without my access to a university credential to hundreds of scientific databases and scholarly journals, google is still a magical tool for fact checking. This post is to underscore the importance of being intellectually honest about your own weakness areas and how to talk about them.
I’m no polymath. I lack any discernible knowledge in Nanoengineering. I’m weak in Herpetology. I don’t know the first thing about Industrial-Organizational Psychology. Therefore, when discussing these fields with someone, I go to great lengths to avoid misrepresenting what these fields say about their respective topics. Prior to discussing, for example, non-linear electrodynamic coupling, I will review the literature to get at least a basic understanding of this phenomenon. In this specific example, I actually have a friend who wrote his Ph.D dissertation on this topic, so I might also call him up to discuss the field and ask for direction towards books or academic articles that will help me explain this phenomenon. I will not merely try to fill in the gaps of my understanding with guesswork and pass it off as fact.
But this is where some people — again, usually theists — encounter problems. I’ve read possibly hundreds of blog posts by theists who make scientific claims (often that “prove” god exists or something along those lines). But when I fact check them by reading about what science actually says about a topic, it becomes apparent that they don’t know the first thing about the field of science they are referencing.
Often I’ll google their claim directly and find a link to a creationist’s website. The source might have a shiny pseudoscientific veneer, but it lacks any credibility in actual science. In other words, it becomes evident that the theist blogger making these claims is just regurgitating intellectually dishonest work and passing it off as scientific research.
Listen, you don’t have to have an education to be able to explain scientific topics. You don’t have to have a Ph.D or even a B.A. to take part in the discussion. But you do need at least a basic understanding of a topic in order to have something to say. Don’t make a Not even wrong argument. If you don’t understand a topic well enough to be able to accurately explain it, stay out of the discussion until you have a better understanding. Although I am focussing mainly on theists making claims about god or cosmology or biology, this applies equally to atheists and, well, every human being alive.
And finally, we atheists often tell theists it’s up to them to provide evidence, but I think we also have an ethical responsibility to do some fact checking and lead them to what science actually says about their chosen topic. It’s rather simple to do. A couple minutes of clicking and typing, and you’ll find a wealth of knowledge about that topic, and I doubt god is ever the answer. Do what I do: Be relentless, even if it makes them feel ashamed. Don’t sit back and allow them to violate their own 9th commandment in such a way that it bastardizes and misrepresents science. Also, by doing so you’ll be exposed to more of that beautiful little thing called knowledge.