Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Unknown vs. Hawking? Seriously? I mean, I'm not looking to Hawking for faith lessons but not looking to Tyson either. #YAFPRBE

Just got this press release by email that pits a new author Scott Tyson against Stephen Hawking in some sort of "religion vs. science" debate.



PR Contact: Ginny Grimsley:

Why Hawking Was Wrong
To Discount Life After Death
Award-Winning Physicist Chastises Scientist
For Decrying Religion

Scientists make terrible theologians.

That’s the opinion of physicist and researcher Scott M. Tyson, who thinks colleague Stephen Hawking was wrong to dismiss the concept of life after death. Hawking recently explained in a newspaper interview his belief that there is no God and that humans should therefore seek to live the most valuable lives they can while on Earth.

“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years,” Hawking told The Guardian. “I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

But Tyson believes that Hawking’s comments may serve to do more harm than good for both people of faith and people of science.

“I think that people in general believe that scientists don’t believe in God, and that’s just not true,” said Tyson, author of The Unobservable Universe: A Paradox-Free Framework for Understanding the Universe (www.theunobservableuniverse.com). “History is filled with scientists who were also men of faith, from Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton to Einstein. Now, I do also believe that there are other scientists who would like to prove that God doesn’t exist. These scientists might want to rain on everyone else’s parades with respect to God really, really badly. The problem is that one of the limitations of science is that science simply cannot prove the non-existence of objects and phenomena over the full spectrum of possibilities. So, while scientists may be able to prove in a scientific framework that there is no life after death, they cannot, nor should they even attempt to, prove it in a theological framework, which is the territory of faith. To do so creates unnecessary divisiveness that can serve no beneficial purpose. And that’s the line Dr. Hawking crossed – he essentially discounted the idea in both frameworks, and nothing good could come of that.”

Tyson’s concern is that Hawking’s comments deepen the rift between the scientific and religious communities, erecting hurdles that only diminish the prospects for potential good that science could do for humanity.

“Dr. Hawking is probably one of only a handful of scientists in the world who is a household name,” he added. “In many ways, he’s the captain of the team, he’s the quarterback, so when he speaks, millions of people believe he is speaking for scientists everywhere. That’s part of the weight of his celebrity on the scientific community as a whole. His comments are out of line and further complicate complex issues like stem cell research, in which faith effectively blocks the use of scientific discoveries that could heal people and ease their suffering – a concept not inconsistent with the tenets of most organized religions,” Tyson added. “But science oftentimes becomes blocked politically and socially not because the science contradicts religion, but because the argument is framed in an ‘us versus them’ context. We inadvertently challenge people to either believe in science or to believe in God, at the exclusion of the other. It’s an unreasonable and unnecessary position in which to place anyone.”

What’s worse, according to Tyson, is that people who believe in both science and faith get left out or, worse, placed into the difficult situation of needlessly choosing sides.

“Millions of people practice their faith but then also believe in the veracity of Darwin’s evolution,” he said. “Many in the scientific community view science through their faith, rather than in spite of it. When scientists discount theology in a wholesale fashion, they not only insult the faithful who discount science, but also the faithful who embrace it. It discourages and further polarizes the dialogue between the two disciplines and increases the challenges that science must overcome in its quest to better comprehend the nature of our world for the betterment of society, goals that I and many other scientists will continue to embrace.”

About Scott M. Tyson

Award-winning physicist, engineer, scientist and researcher, Scott M. Tyson graduated from Johns Hopkins University with an engineering degree, and then embarked on a career that included working at IBM’s VLSI Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and Westinghouse’s Advanced Technology Laboratory. Responsible for the implementation of new microelectronics approaches for space, Tyson also served as an advisor to the Office of the Secretary of Defense on space computing technology development and planning, as well as for congressional delegations to accelerate the advancement of meaningful and effective space electronic solutions.

To interview Scott M. Tyson or request a review copy of The Unobservable Universe contact Ginny Grimsley

Ginny Grimsley
National Print Campaign Manager
News and Experts
Now - mind you - I am not a big fan of the "science is the only way of thinking" crowd and I am sympathetic to a diverse set of view points.  But I do not wear my opinions about this on my sleeve, so to speak.  Regardless of where I stand on some of these discussions, what I cannot stand is bad arguments on any side.  And the arguments in this PR piece are pretty bad I must say.  

For example, the PR states at the beginning "Scientists make terrible theologians."  Certainly, some do.  But then the PR argues that scientists who discount religion leave out all the scientists who are religious and that that is not fair.  So - I guess scientists who are religious make good theologians while scientists who aren't religious don't?  I am lost here on the logic flow.

What really gets me here is the attempt to diss Hawking for misusing his fame as a great scientist but to then use the names of other great scientists who supposedly believed in God.  Which is it?  Is it OK to use fame / notoriety as a great scientist to support a point of view or not?

Another thing that gets me is the attempt to somehow elevate the author of this book into Hawking territory.  Hawking is referred to as a "colleague" of Tyson, like they routinely work together or something.  And Tyson is an award winning physicist.  What awards would that be (look here - I could not find any).  Out of curiosity you might ask - has Hawking actually won any awards?  Well, lets see - Wikipedia lists a few: 
  • 1975 Eddington Medal
  • 1976 Hughes Medal of the Royal Society
  • 1979 Albert Einstein Medal
  • 1981 Franklin Medal
  • 1982 Order of the British Empire (Commander)
  • 1985 Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society
  • 1986 Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
  • 1988 Wolf Prize in Physics
  • 1989 Prince of Asturias Awards in Concord
  • 1989 Companion of Honour
  • 1999 Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society
  • 2003 Michelson Morley Award of Case Western Reserve University
  • 2006 Copley Medal of the Royal Society
  • 2008 Fonseca Price of the University of Santiago de Compostela
  • 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the United States
Are we really trying to compare the two here?  Colleagues?  Seriously?   Hawking is a brilliant brilliant brilliant man.  Does that mean his thoughts should count for more than other people's?  I don't know.  But there is no doubt something he says will get my attention more than something Tyson says.  Doesn't mean I think Hawking is right about everything.  But you have to give respect where it is due.  And he deserves it.  If Hawking announced that the color red was inherently better than the color blue I would want to know why he thought that.  He has earned that.  Tyson hasn't really earned much of anything.  Not discounting his ideas per se.  But to try to take down Hawking while elevated himself, that kind of bothers me.  Makes me think that Tyson's ideas may have trouble standing on their own merit.  If they were solid, he wouldn't need to start off with an attack.

Again, this post is not about how I feel about religion and science or religion vs. science (I think the science vs. religion debate is unnecessary personally - but that is all I am going to say about it here).

This post is about how I feel about badly thought out arguments and YAFPRBE (Yet another press release by email).  I am sick of publicists sending me these emails.  Especially when they seem fundamentally flawed.

6 comments:

  1. I think it frightens religious people to be reminded that most scientists don't share their beliefs and that people like Francis Collins are the exception rather than the rule. So they feel the need to combat any mention of atheism -- even if, unlike people like Dawkins, Hawking wasn't attacking religion but just stating his disbelief.

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  2. There are certainly arguments for both sides, but I would like to make three comments:
    First, I disliked that you complain about Tyson for attacking Hawking and then attack Tyson and try to render him noncredible because he hasn't won as many awards.
    Second I think the fame one is carrying does make a huge difference in terms what public statements that person should make. Famous people will always be role models for the next generation and shape public opinions.
    Thirdly, Tyson calls Hawking a colleague because both are Physicists, probably not because he thinks he is as famous as Hawking.

    I was wondering if you are annoyed by Tyson or simply by the fact that the email you got is from a PR agency. Because then suddenly the subtle difference is that they implicitly make use of Hawking's name to sell the book. And that is the really annoying bit.

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  3. roland

    was annoyed by the spam and took it out on tyson ... nothing against him ... just found the pr and spam distasteful

    will ponder your points 1-3 ... disagree about #3 ... I think they were trying to imply more than that they are both physicists

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  4. When I saw the tag line, I honestly thought you were talking about Neil deGrasse Tyson ... I've never heard of Scott M. Tyson, and probably wouldn't have read any further if I'd realized which Tyson was being referred to. I'll hold my tongue on any snarky comments I was tempted to make, other than to wonder whether I can claim James Watson and Francis Crick as "colleagues" ?

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  5. I'm glad to see you're interested in valid arguments but I noticed that you declined to comment on one of the worst ones in Tyson's advertisement.

    Let me remind you of it by paraphrasing somewhat ...

    Now, I do also believe that there are other scientists who would like to prove that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist. These scientists might want to rain on everyone else’s parades with respect to the tooth fairy really, really badly. The problem is that one of the limitations of science is that science simply cannot prove the non-existence of objects and phenomena over the full spectrum of possibilities. So, while scientists may be able to prove in a scientific framework that there is no tooth fairy, they cannot, nor should they even attempt to, prove it in a fairytale framework, which is the territory of faith. To do so creates unnecessary divisiveness that can serve no beneficial purpose. And that’s the line Dr. Hawking crossed – he essentially discounted the idea in both frameworks, and nothing good could come of that.”

    What do you think of that kind of logic? If you don't like my substitutions you can try several others, like homeopathic cures, UFO abductions, astrology, or the Loch Ness monster. The logic is the same in all cases.

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  6. @JE

    fair enough, I also think they call him a colleague just to decorate themselves with his name.

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