I’ve been reading a spate of articles recently concerned with fundamentalism. Antony Barnett and Isobel Hilton have kickstarted a discussion on democracy on openDemocracy, while Bernard Crick wrote a salutory piece in The Guardian on the need for humanists to find common cause with religious people in the face of fanaticism. Also in the Guardian, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne wrote a majesterial piece on the problems of attempting to pass off Intelligent Design (ID) as a theory.

New Scientist last month had a special report on fundamentalism, which covered the issue from most angles satisfactorily. Kike Holderness wrote about the “wedge strategy” adopted by Center for Renweal of Science and Culture (CSC) which is behind the current push in the US for ID. In a 1996 document, the CSC stated that:

If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a ‘wedge’ that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied to its weakest points.

The links between ID campaigners and the anti-Kyoto movement is similarly enlightening.

But before this sounds like a downer on religion, Bryan Appleyard wrote an interesting piece on how there is a danger of “scientific fundamentalism” as well, by which he means:

the belief that the world is accessible to and ultimately controllable by human reason.

He goes on to say:

The human world is very different from the one seen through the telescope or in the test tube. To say it would be nice if it wasn’t is to say nothing. To say that it should be and we can make it so is downright sinister – fundamentalist in fact. But that is precisely what many scientistic thinkers, dazzled by the success of science, have been saying. The human weorld is perverse, complex, violent and utterly indecipherable. There is no science of history and no technology that will save us from the future. Scientific fundamentalism deludes us with dreams of competence; it expects too much of this world, just as religious fundamentalism expects too much of the next.

I think Appleyard lapses slightly into post-modernist, “science is just another faith” vacuity. What he appears to be arguing against is the naturalistic fallacy, that is inferring an ought from an is. It needs to be emphasised here however that this is an area where scientists are sinned against at least as much as they are sinners. Nonetheless, it is certainly a pitfall that scientists should be wary of.

Is it the same thing as “fundamentalism” in the religious sense though? Maybe, maybe not – it certainly doesn’t appear to be on the rise, unlike fundamentalism within all major religious movements. Phenomena such as mass panics over food, mobile phone masts, crime and globalisation (and climate change? discuss) are probably more analagous. Indeed, the world seems to be simmering softly in mind – and occasionally not so mild – panic at the moment. Whether we end up spinning out of control, or more rational forces begin to take hold once more, is not at all clear.

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