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« Newdow Marches On The RantsDon't Make Us Angry - We Wouldn't Vote for You When We're Angry »

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?
Michael Kitz:Continue.
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?

— • —
[  Filed under: % Media & Censorship  % Religion  % Science & Technology  ]

Comments (13)

S.T.R., 2005.09.21 (Wed) 09:41 [Link] »

I have not seen that movie in many years. I recall liking it.

Wasn't is some religious wack-job that blew up the first Giant space gizmo?

MBains, 2005.09.21 (Wed) 11:49 [Link] »

Ol' So-crates sure had a way with words!

er, where's MY wormhole??? aahhh nevermind.

Grendel, 2005.09.21 (Wed) 17:30 [Link] »

"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?"

The relationship or correlation between science and religion is roughly the same as that between a stapler and a raccoon, or an apple and an outboard motor.

Science is a process, an ongoing and ever developing methodology for the efficient study of our physical environment and how it works.

Understanding the human proclivity for fooling one's self, science is designed to be self-correcting. Placing a particular new piece of knowledge into the canon (pun intended) of scientific knowledge is difficult and having an erroneous bit knowledge removed is just as hard. Science places high value on the accuracy and efficacy of conclusions, of that which it considers by virtue of reliable, physical, replicable evidence to be 'fact'. Whether to add new facts or amend existing facts, scientific method requires a level of certitude so high and exact that it would be unreasonable not to accept it. Science holds truth in extremely high regard, understands the complexity of the universe, and more importantly, the limitations and complexities of human perception and understanding. Science writes in pencil.

Religion, in its practices, typically does not seek to understand how our universe works. Religion already knows and seeks mostly to convince others of it. Where science is a process, religion typically is a set of found facts not open to amendment, though variance in interpretation has caused endless splinter denominations. Therein lies the problem. Religion is largely what one makes of it, is essentially subjective, and presents a 'reality' of a sort each adherent may define for his or herself.

The Christian Bible is essentially a science encyclopedia purporting to explain everything in the universe, including how the universe was created. Five minutes after the ink dried, Christians have suffered the ignominy of furious backpedaling as, one by one, Bible given 'truths' turned out to be simply wrong. All major religions, and virtually all religions, have no self-correcting mechanisms to amend errant truths. Most religious truths were obtained -unknowingly -by a scientific sort of observation. You don't need a God to tell you via His Divine Word that human greed is the root of a lot of trouble ("The root of all evil is the want of money..."). All one need do is observe one's neighbors for a long enough period for this truth to become apparent. Much of the Bible, as with much of the 'truths' of most religions, are merely simple observations reattributed to ____________ (fill in deity of choice).

Ah, but there are 'bigger' religious truths and bigger events to observe. Miracles. Virgin births. Burning bushes. Parting seas. Plagues. Faith healing. Intercessory prayer. None of these have been accompanied as yet by reliable, replicable evidence, nor do they need to within the confines of religious belief. Alas, the more beligerant among religious believers would have us accept them on faith, and would castigate whomever might refuse.

What purpose? To feel good, of course. The "opiate of the masses" is a painkiller, dulling the fear of uncertainty. Science is nothing but uncertainty, ergo, the more one depends on religion, the less one can accept science, especially since it has come to contradict and prove wrong so much of religious dogma.

Despite all that, I still do not think religion an inherently bad thing and trot out my wheelbarrow analogy: Religion is a tool, like a wheelbarrow. A wheelbarrow may be used to haul food to the hungry or bodies from the witches' pyres -it's all in the application. This is one of the few similarities to science.

Religion and science are apples and orangutans. Totally separate and apart. No correlation. Different origins. Different goals. Different usages. Different results.

The ersatz 'battle' between Science and Religion (note the capitals) is nothing more than the result of a highly successful, centuries old marketing campaign by Religion.

Science and Religion were mercifully divorced over the 14th and 15th centuries. Those times wherein Science began to predominate and create practical benefits and improvements in the world are called 'the enlightenment'. Those previous times, when Religion ruled all and no Scientific Discovery could be uttered until it was twisted and pulled into conformity with Religion, were called the Dark Ages. Since the divorce, Religion has been forced into a constant need to explain away, reinterpret, deny, and otherwise try to save face in light of scientific discoveries that continue to undermine age-old religious teachings. No where is this more obvious -and damning for religion, Christianity in particular -than with the discovery of evolution.

Which brings us back to the false dichotomy of Religion Vs. Science. There is no battle, no war, no contest. Religion has learned the value of pretending there is however. To appear to be in conflict with a power as useful and necessary to humankind as is Science is a way to seem to be a peer, an equal, of Science. Neat trick, eh?

As the youngest of the major religions, Christianity has had two thousand years experience at selling nonsense -they are marketing wizards! Their error is in trying to maintain total supremacy even centuries after having lost control of the governments of western nations.

The irony, of course, is in the fact that religion, particularly in the West with Christianity, has been forced by the endless stream of scientific discoveries to adapt or die, right in step with the evolutionary processes of adaptation and survival of the fittest.

Religion would do well to simply acept its fate and relegation to the status of popular emotional paliative to the masses.

Make no mistake, there is no battle between Science and Religion -science has already won, a couple centuries ago.

Fan-man, 2005.09.21 (Wed) 18:46 [Link] »

Man has written every word in the Bible-----every version. Do you believe everything you read? Obviously not.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm in the middle of spanking some chick with the Gideon bible.

Grendel, 2005.09.21 (Wed) 20:11 [Link] »

You sir, are going to HELL.

Fan-man, 2005.09.21 (Wed) 20:15 [Link] »

No problem Grendel, I've been to my Mother-in-law's house plenty of times... (evil grin)

Shawn, 2005.09.22 (Thu) 14:12 [Link] »

Grendel: Correlations.. no problem.

Stapler and Raccoon: annoying, fairly useless, and doomed to end up in my garbage.

Apples and Orangutans: redish and prone to lying around under trees.

Apples and Outboad motors: put them in water and shove you face... no, wait... something about chopping...no... love boat? Crap. No correlation.

Coralius, 2005.09.22 (Thu) 14:50 [Link] »


"As the youngest of the major religions, Christianity has had two thousand years experience at selling nonsense -they are marketing wizards!"

Ummm, isn't Islam younger than Christianity? If so, then wouldn't it be the youngest of the major religions?

Grendel, 2005.09.22 (Thu) 15:38 [Link] »

Is it? I might well be wrong. To me, such details rank in importance right up there with "who's older, the Easter bunny or Santa Claus?"

The detail is immaterial to the point.

Rockstar, 2005.09.23 (Fri) 09:13 [Link] »

I think Shawn, of teh Clausian faith would argue Santa is much older than the Easter Bunny.

However, it is well known the Tooth Fairy is the oldest. When you consider how long humans have had teeth...

Shawn, 2005.09.23 (Fri) 13:34 [Link] »

I appreciate your continued study of the Clausian faith Rockstar, but you are a bit mistaken about the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

The tooth fariy is explained on my site, but briefly, the tooth fairy is a corp of elves who've eaten the reindeers feed. And the Easter Bunny... we prefer not to talk about that. Suffice it to say the elf in charge was banished.

Grendel, 2005.09.23 (Fri) 16:22 [Link] »

Ah, now those old myths about the Easter Playboy Bunny come clear.....

Rockstar, 2005.09.23 (Fri) 17:09 [Link] »

I...would like to see the Easter Playboy Bunny in my apartment sometime...

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