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Bait and Switch: The Elusive Common Ground
2005.09.20 (Tue) 21:17
In reading our list of Usual Suspects, one argument that we often come across is the argument that science and religion are really "quite similar." Heck, we just heard this recently on our own site from peanut gallery attendant Charles Potnar. Well, in the immortal words of Socrates: bullshit.
An example of this argument that managed to defeat itself fell at our feet this week by way of cable television: the movie Contact was on the other day. You know, that flick where you waited through the entire movie to see the alien and it was her goddamn father. Yes, that's the one. Jeff watched it (he'll sit through just about anything if there are pretty colors on the television screen), and subsequent discussion evoked an interesting response from us.
First, please note: we're not offering a critique of the movie as entertainment in this Rant. While the members of the Two Percent Company have mixed feelings about the quality of the movie, that's simply not the issue. So please, for the love of Mike (who made a special request), don't start defending Contact if it happens to be one of your favorite movies.
We're not attacking the movie as a whole. The point of this little Rant is to bring up a glaringly ignorant, contradictory, and badly executed flaw in this movie — one which hits us right smack dab in between our skeptical eyes. What makes it worse is that, althought we haven't yet read Carl Sagan's original book, we're pretty certain he wouldn't have approved of the apparent "message" of this film — he was a staunch atheist, a skeptic and a scientist. (If anyone has read the book and believes the film to be an accurate adaptation of Sagan's intent, please do let us know!)
An underlying theme throughout most of the movie is the issue of faith — protagonist Ellie Arroway, a skeptical and idealistic scientist, is overtly portrayed as a character with "no faith" — no belief in something without evidence (as if that's a bad thing?) — while her romantic foil, Palmer Joss, is a man of the cloth, eventually the spiritual advisor to the president, and possessed of an overabundance of faith (most ubiquitously, his faith in his god).
A key element of the plot involves the selection of a human being to represent planet Earth in our first contact with an extraterrestrial species. Arroway is in the running; Joss is on the committee that will select the representative. In a pivotal moment, Joss exploits his intimate knowledge of Arroway and publicly asks if she "has faith." Arroway, impeccably honest, admits that she doesn't — at least, not in the religious sense in which the question was intended. She also declares the question irrelevant to the proceedings — to which the committee members respond by pointing out that "ninety-five percent of the people on this planet believe in some form of higher power," with the implication that a representative of Earth should represent "the majority" of Earth (apparently instead of being someone whose education, experience and skills merit this very important position). Her strongest rival for the position, who deliberately plays up his "faith" and "piety," wins the job.
As luck would have it, a series of events leads to Arroway getting her chance to shoot off into space and meet the aliens. In the special spaceship (built by Earthlings using instructions beamed to us from the aliens by radio transmission), Arroway has a fantastic adventure, meets the alien (who isn't exactly her father, but damn, that sucked anyway), and is rocketed back to Earth — only to find, upon her return, that every observer saw her ship fall straight through the launching mechanism. She never went anywhere, as far as everyone else could see; her adventure, they believe, was all in her head.
The whole point of this, from the filmmakers' point of view, seems to be to force Arroway to "have faith" in something for which she has no evidence. In other words, she (a scientist) is suddenly on equal footing with Joss (a clergyman) — they both have faith in something they cannot prove. What a nice little morality tale, huh? Everybody has faith without evidence; even those pesky, immoral, skeptical atheists who deny it!
The filmmakers chop their own legs off with this moral by adding a "stinger" at the end of the film. On her journey, Arroway wore a small camera meant to record any events that transpired. While every outside observer saw her take a journey of only seconds straight through the launching mechanism to the water below, an exchange between two government officials reveals:
|Rachel Constantine:||I assume you read the confidential findings report from the investigating committee.|
|Michael Kitz:||I flipped through it.|
|Rachel Constantine:||I was especially interested in the section on Arroway's video unit. The one that recorded the static?|
|Rachel Constantine:||The fact that it recorded static isn't what interests me.|
|Michael Kitz:||[pauses] Continue.|
|Rachel Constantine:||What interests me is that it recorded approximately eighteen hours of it.|
Wait...so there actually is evidence that something happened? While they can't conclusively prove Arroway's detailed account, there is some evidence — eighteen hours of recorded data accrued in a mere few seconds — that something extraordinary happened.
There are many frustrating (and unbelievable) factors derived from this one plot point. First off, if it was known that there were eighteen hours recorded in a few seconds, then why, exactly, would they keep this information from Arroway? Just for yuks? While they're raking her over the coals and forcing her to "admit her faith" in highly publicized hearings? Even if there is a good reason to keep Arroway in the dark...shouldn't the phenomenon be examined in order to understand it? Wouldn't Arroway's input be invaluable, as the only constant observer of the camera?
But most importantly — and this is the crux of our Rant — this means that Arroway and Joss are not on "equal footing." There remains no evidence of Joss' god, while there is some supporting evidence (albeit limited and unconfirmed) of Arroway's adventure. The filmmakers' morality tale goes right out the window!
The problem is, this is typical of too many factions in our society. Even those who embrace scientific progress, who eschew narrow fundamentalist mindsets, far too often blur the lines between religion and science. Entertainers are notorious for doing this for "entertainment purposes," but whatever the motive, the result is the same: the perpetuation of ignorance and miseducation.
There is a fundamental difference between religion and science, no matter how you slice it, and we need to — as a culture — stop trying to make them "equal" just to be all nice and Politically Correct. Religions have offered no particularly supportive evidence for their claims, have conceived of no hypotheses that can be adequately tested to support or refute them, and seldom produce a consistent and constructive view of the universe. Science is all about evidence, testing, and consistent (repeatable) phenomena. Religious leaders expect blind acceptance of their claims — phenomena which you have no hope of reliably replicating or deducing through logical or mathematical means. Science can be done by anybody, and requires multiple trials by multiple experimenters in order to determine the validity of claims.
In adding that final "stinger," Contact actually proves our point. However, it is a point that entirely contradicts the fabulist moral they've been beating us over the head with throughout the entire movie, and our guess is that it was a much better emphasized point in Sagan's original work, which is eclipsed by the filmmakers' misguided attempt to place religion and science on common ground. PZ Myers has handily addressed this issue on more than one occasion. It's a red herring, folks — the only commonality between religion and science is that they are both approaches to interpreting and understanding the world. However, those approaches are entirely different and, in fact, mutually exclusive!
Don't be fooled by the feel-good, gushy morality tale that Contact pretends to be; it's a silly piece of fluff apparently intended to close the gap between skeptics and true believers. But that gap, quite simply, can't be closed — the gap itself is what defines the skeptics and true believers, and closing it would require one or the other group to switch teams. We don't see that happening any time soon — do you?
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[ Filed under: % Media & Censorship % Religion % Science & Technology ]
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