The Christian Humanist, Episode #22.1: Science

Our outro music this week comes from Michael Knott’s 1994 record Rocket and a Bomb. The song’s called “Jan the Weatherman.” Hey, “Jan” rhymes with “Dan,” and our special guest this week is tornado chaser Dr. Dan Dawson. He’s kind of a weatherman, anyway.

General Introduction
– Where’s David Grubbs?
– Welcome to our special guest
– What’s on the blog?

Our History with Science
– Dan Dawson dreams of tornadoes
– Michial’s near-failures
– Easy science at Milligan College

Ancient Science
– The four elements
– Aristotle and the geocentric universe
– Methodological contributions
– Rapidly changing science
– A gratuitous shot at 2012

Arab Investigators and Medieval Science
– Why Nathan doesn’t call it science
– Elaborate biology
– Effect on Medieval drama

The Rise of Modern Science
– Reverence for mathematics
– Science as a self-correcting system
– How philosophical is your average scientist?
– “Whatever works”
– No sense of history

The Wizard of Oz
– A history lesson
– Electric tornadoes
– How tornadoes work
– But can we fix it?

Mad Scientists and the American Renaissance
Emerson, Poe, and the War on Science
– Romanticism and the Enlightenment
Hawthorne and the dangers of scientific perfection
– Melville and the unspeakable
– The death of the imagination

Dan Defends Science
– The move toward the holistic
– A sense of mystery
– The end of history
– The myth of progress

A New Kind of Science
– The ecological movement
– Merging the Romantic and the scientific
– Interdisciplinary interaction

Scientific Threats to Christianity
– Hegel, Nietzsche, Dawkins
– Integration by example, not argument
– Learning from the nü atheists
– Are confessing Christians a lunatic fringe?

The Limits of Science
– Physics and metaphysics
– The limits of theology
– The geocentric universe and evolution
– Non-overlapping magisteria
– The natural shift
– Why we’re frustrated with militant atheism and militant creationism

What We Need to Know
– Science is your ally
– The what questions and the why questions

Aristotle. On the Heavens. Trans. J.L. Stocks. Complete Works of Aristotle. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1984. 447-511.

—. Sense and Sensibilia. Trans. J.I. Beare. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1984. 693-713.

Bacon, Francis. The Major Works. Ed. Brian Vickers. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. New York: Signet, 2006.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Mariner, 2008.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Each and All.” Collected Poems and Translations. New York: Library of America, 1994. 9-10.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birth-Mark.” Tales and Sketches. New York: Library of America, 1982. 764-780.

—. “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Tales and Sketches. New York: Library of America, 1982. 975-1005.

Melville, Herman. “The Lightning-Rod.” Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Tales, Billy Budd. New York: Library of America, 1985.

—. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 1967.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Sonnet—To Science.” Poetry and Tales. New York: Library of America, 1984. 38.

Sagan, Carl. Contact. New York: Pocket, 1997.

Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

4 thoughts on “The Christian Humanist, Episode #22.1: Science

  1. Thanks again, guys, for having me on the show. I thought the conversations we had were very interesting and I learned a lot about how folks from other intellectual traditions view science, and how scientists can learn from the humanities, philosophy, and theology.

    I wanted to write a quick paragraph (the Reader’s Digest condensed version) regarding how tornadoes work, that will hopefully be more coherent than my response on the show, and in case anyone is interested.

    Essentially, most tornadoes form out of what are known as supercell thunderstorms, which are thunderstorms that have a persistent rotating updraft (called a mesoscyclone). They are often associated with a “hook echo” on a radar display. The tornado usually forms on the rear side of the storm underneath the mesocyclone at a place where a downdraft, called the rear flank downdraft (RFD), reaches the surface and wraps around the mesocyclone there. The tornado forms on the interface of the RFD and the warm moist inflow into the storm. It is thought that the RFD helps to drag down and tilt rotation from aloft, and concentrate and intensify the circulation, which results in a tornado, but the details of this are still being worked out. My own area of research involves investigating how the rain and hail in the storm affects the tornado development process. Interestingly, many supercell storms (maybe even most) have this RFD process as described above, but fail to produce a tornado. Understanding why some supercells produce tornadoes and others don’t is the biggest area of research into tornadoes right now. I just got off of a month and a half field research program called VORTEX 2 ( ) that aimed to help collect data to solve this problem.

  2. I’d like to add something we left out, too. Another historical group that’s skeptical of science is the Southern Agrarians (along with the New Critics, with whom they’re very associated). I’ll just quote from Richard Harland’s “Literary Theory from Plato to Barthes,” which explains it better than I can:

    In typical Modernist manner, Ransom and Tate set up poetry in opposition to science. Science is seen as a useful tool, giving us practical control over our environment But such control is achieved at the cost of abstraction and generalization, at the cost of losing sight of the full, individual things of the world. By science, says Ransom, “we know the world only as a scheme of abstract conveniences.” By focusing too exclusively upon scientific knowledge, modern society jeopardizes other more important values necessary to human well-being.
    Poetry gives us an alternate form of knowledge. It does not merely stimulate emotions: both Ransom and Tate attack Richards on this point, and both are particularly hostile to Romanticism and what Ransom disparages as “heart’s-desire poetry.” But the poetic form of knowledge has no practical purpose. “Poetry,” says Tate, “finds its true usefulness in its perfect inutility.” Coining slogans in what was to become a characteristic New Critical style, Tate dismisses “the Doctrine of Relevance” (i.e. the belief that poetry must be socially or politically useful), “the heresy of the will” (i.e. the preference for functionalistic, goal-directed ways of thinking) and “the fallacy of communication” (i.e. the assumption that a poem is merely a channel for passing ideas from poet to reader). In opposition to this last “fallacy,” he proposes a view of “the work of literature as a participation in communion.” Such a view has profound implications for the role of poet and the role of reader.

    I’m quite sympathetic to this argument, as readers of this blog no doubt already realize; at the same time, I recognize a hypocrisy at the heart of it: Ransom and Tate are able to maintain their lifestyle in no small part because of the scientific advances of the century that preceded them. Still, I think they offer an interesting and important pull in the opposite direction.

  3. And as I attempted to articulate in the podcast, I think that the ecological turn in the physical sciences captures some of the best of both the 19th-century analytical scientific traditions and some of the best of the 19th-century post-Hegelian poetic and philosophical traditions.

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