If you need a demonstration of why overvaluing science in our culture is a problem and why elevating the status of scientists out of all proportion is a mistake, look no further than the recent documentary The Unbelievers. The inevitable promotional website for the film describes it like this:
“The Unbelievers’ follows renowned scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss across the globe as they speak publicly about the importance of science and reason in the modern world – encouraging others to cast off antiquated religious and politically motivated approaches toward important current issues.”
Ten minutes into watching this orgy of vanity and self-regard and you get the feeling that it is less to do with promoting “science and reason” as it is about fulfilling the ambition of two middle-aged nerds to be treated like rock stars.
There is a barely constrained sense of gloating that oozes from Dawkins and Krauss throughout the film – and I couldn’t help but fill in a backstory of two creepy little crusty-nosed school boys, shunned by their peers and resentful… who grow up and manage to cultivate for themselves the status of minor celebrities amongst the conformist-academic set.
“That’ll show all those jocks who picked on us in school! I bet those girls who called us losers wish they had been nicer to us now!”
The neediness for ego validation is almost palpable.
Of the two, only Dawkins can really claim to be ‘renowned’ for anything. Anyone who has paid attention to the dreary and redundant ‘New Atheist’ phenomenon over the last few years will be familiar with his genre defining book The God Delusion. They will also be aware that Dawkins has made it his life’s quest to make sure there isn’t one single sentient being left on earth who isn’t aware of just how much Richard Dawkins dislikes religion. All he asks in return for his dedication to this noble cause is that the rest of humanity acknowledge how much smarter he is than them.
Krauss is something of a Larry-come-lately to the pantheon of celebrity uber-atheists – deftly inserting himself into the vacuum left by the untimely death of the one true rock-star of movement, the late great Christopher Hitchens (at one point in the film, Krauss holds up a copy of Hitchens’s book ‘God Is Not Great’ and proclaims it to be his “Bible”).
Krauss’ day job is professor and theoretical physicist, although he looks like every villain from the old Scooby Doo cartoon who gets unmasked at the end of each episode. I keep wanting to hear him say, “And I would have got away with it too if it wasn’t for those meddling theists!”
At any rate, Krauss is clearly thrilled with himself now that he’s palling around with the big boys. And in the world of narrow focused, redundant, self-congratulatory atheist spewmeisters – there’s none bigger than Dawkins. In fact, you get the sense that Dawkins – almost a caricature of the classic haughty Englishman – is doing his best in the film to appear tolerant of the younger, uncouth American in running shoes lapping at his heels. Krauss is very much Ralph Malph to Dawkins’ Fonzie.
Krauss’ lesser status is emphasized by the close-up shots in the film of the promotional poster for their speaking engagement at the Sydney Opera House. The poster features a large portrait of Dawkins and bold oversized text announcing “An Evening With Richard Dawkins”….below which in much smaller text is printed “in conversation with Lawrence Krauss”.
Anyone who has a reasonably strong interest in the subjects of atheism, religion, science and materialism will have seen these guys in action for years now – whether on television panel shows, debates on YouTube, BBC/CBC/ABC/PBS science programs and every form of print media. Individually they are both insufferable in their own way. Watching them together in a fawning 90 minute movie makes a documentary on the Nuremburg trials seem like a particularly endurable episode of Friends.
We even get the treat of seeing real celebrities (although mostly of the – oh…isn’t that whatshername? – variety) expound on why they think science is like, totally the best way to be smart. Apparently the producers of the documentary figured the credibility of the two scientists needed bolstering by former movie stars, comedians and some dude in a backward baseball cap who presumably plays in a rock band. And since everybody knows that all the really popular celebrities are dumb, these people must have seemed ideal for the gig.
Actually, the filmmakers were probably just desperate to splice in anything that could compensate for a movie featuring two dumpy, odd looking and not particularly likeable middle-aged men who together struggle to muster a single personality between them. And lest the glow from even the considerably dimmer stars of the celebrity firmament make our two brainy protagonists appear wan and bleached-out by comparison, the celebs are shot in dour black and white while scenes with Krauss and Dawkins are presented in full colour Nerd-O-Vision.
The one reassuring thing I can take away from The Unbelievers is that despite the fact the film came out around the middle of last year, as far as I can tell, almost no one is aware of its existence. That I am yet to hear a single human being utter the sentence – “I saw The Unbelievers last night” – strikes me as a good indication of how much of an appetite there actually is for embracing the dreary worldview of people who are essentially glorified technicians. The only reason I know about the film is because Krauss happened to be a recent guest on Alex Tsakiris’ excellent Skeptiko podcast.
I suppose the film might find an audience with the kind of people who actually forked out good money to fill the Sydney Opera House for the thrill of watching two dishevelled guys sit in the middle of an otherwise empty stage and congratulate each other for being superior to ordinary, stupid folks.
These are the sort of people who don’t bother to think critically for themselves about any of these topics, but assume that expressing enthusiastic agreement with the likes of Dawkins and Krauss makes them intellectually sophisticated by association. It explains why the mostly upper middle class audience at the Opera House all guffawed in a shared sense of knowing superiority and communal smugness when Krauss opened the proceedings by ridiculing the intelligence of the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, who appeared with Dawkins on the Australian television show Q&A the previous night:
“I was amazed. Cardinal Pell… manifestly didn’t understand evolution. Actually, he manifestly didn’t understand anything.”
Oh! Har, har! Chortle, chortle! What sophisticated wit! Smug grins all around. Of course, the very same condescendingly adolescent put down by a smarmy git like Krauss at a dinner party would engender only embarrassment and a general agreement among the guests that the guy was nothing but an obnoxious dick.
Clearly I’m not going to recommend this film to anyone. If you are already one of the true believers and hang off of every word that cascades from the mouths of this pair, then this is the movie for you.
For everyone else I have a simple plea: Can we PLEASE stop treating scientists like they belong to an enlightened caste of unquestionable truth-givers? It’s just a frikin’ job, people! These guys are not experts on anything other than the extremely narrow band of generally arcane study in which they specialize. Just because they are clever at math or biology does not mean they are particularly insightful about anything else! If anything, they’re probably less insightful than the rest of us who didn’t spend our entire lives cloistered in universities.
Look, we wouldn’t line up for hours and pay big bucks to sit in the Opera House to listen to a couple of economists on a stage lecturing us about the meaning of life or ultimate truth – no matter how accomplished they were at their jobs. But we have taken this one human pursuit, this one group of professionals, and because they’re interested in complicated things that none of the rest of us care that much about and because we’re so impressed with the gadgets they come up with, we have elevated them to an exalted status in our culture.
The result is that we have these two guys on a pilgrimage around the world to bestow upon the masses the benefit of their higher understanding. And the multitudes who flock to hear them speak treat them like enlightened beings who alone are privy to ultimate truth.
Is the irony not blinding?