Big dustup at Panda’s Thumb

April 26, 2009 • 11:07 am

Over at Panda’s Thumb, there’s a big dustup about the piece I posted this week about the accommodationist stance of science organizations like the National Center for Science Education and The National Academy of Sciences.   I have science to do today, so I’ll have to stay out of this fray, but I can’t resist a few remarks.  (On Pharyngula, P. Z. Myers has a superb and far longer reaction to the fracas. It’s also posted on Panda’s Thumb. I agree with him 100%.)

1.  Mr. Hoppe sounds a wee bit haughty in asserting that only he, from the trenches, knows how to win the minds of Americans.  It’s not like P. Z. Myers and I haven’t talked to a lot of non-scientists about evolution and faith.

2.  As I’ve said before, 25 years of trying to sell evolution by asserting that it’s compatible with faith has had no effect on changing the minds of Americans.  The percentage of Americans who accept evolution is about where it was a quarter-century ago — indeed, it’s a bit lower now.  The battle to change minds is a stalemate.  (In contrast, the evolution side has won repeatedly in court, but you don’t need to push accommodationism to do that.  All you need to do is show that creationism or ID is religiously motivated.)  I think that widespread acceptance of evolution in America may have to await the de-religionizing of our people, which may take a while. But, as one can see from Europe, it’s not impossible. The winning battle may be the battle against faith.

3.  Anybody who thinks I am insisting that the NCSE or NAS start preaching atheism or science/faith incompatibility hasn’t read my post.  I am asking that these science organizations stay away from any talk about religion, atheism, or compatibility and stick to the straight science.  Further, it is not seemly for us to spend our time kissing up to believers, especially, given what I say in #2 above, there’s not a lot of evidence that this kind of osculation actually works.

4.  Whoever the poster “Siamang” is, he/she is perceptive.

7 thoughts on “Big dustup at Panda’s Thumb

  1. Dear Jerry Coyne,
    I am a Biology teacher and I have just read your excellent book. I would like, however, to try to clarify some controversial points in the evolution / religion / creationism controversy.
    Scientific knowledge is conjectural. The history of science shows that various concepts, laws, models and theories accepted by the scientific community have been replaced by others, or simply disappeared (the phlogiston theory, theory of caloric, the ether concept, atomic models, etc.). So, the idea that a scientific theory is true or closer to the truth than another theory is problematic: it is an unresolved issue in philosophy of science. What can be said, however, is that if a theory has more predictive power than another, it is (in this sense only) better than the other.
    Scientific knowledge enables us to predict and, to some extent, control nature phenomena. It won´t help explaining a natural phenomenon like falling bodies, for example, to simply say “Bodies fall because God wants them to”. Such statements, whether true or false, have no predictive power. We must seek naturalistic explanations, which can be tested by experiments or observations. Only by applying scientific laws and theories can we predict the time it takes a stone to fall down when released. The same can be said of statements such as “The bacterial flagellum was designed by an intelligent agent”. It’s necessary to enrich that statement with more details of the type “When did that agent do that? How was it done?”
    For the time being, there are no alternative theories with the same predictive power as the theory of evolution. Therefore, ID is not an alternative to that theory. It lacks predictive power (and predictive success).
    Notwithstanding, the problem is that statements such as “The evolutionary process, the laws of physics and the beginning of the universe are divine creations”, as well as the existence of the soul and others like that, are not subject to empirical test and therefore cannot be dealt with science: they are metaphysical statements. That does not mean they are devoid of meaning (for many centuries, the theory that the world consists of atoms was a metaphysical theory). Therefore, in my view some form of theistic evolution cannot be scientifically refuted and I see nothing wrong in saying that evolution and religious claims of this type are not exclusive. The same goes for ethics: science cannot tell us how the world should be: it can only build models to explain (tentatively) how the world is.

  2. Fernando,

    The minute you say that life evolves the way it evolves because a Magic Man wantes it that way, you loose your predictive power. Furthermore, if you think gods or souls can impact the physical world (i.e. effect our thougts and our personalities, cause bacteria to evolve flagellum) you are making claims about the physical universe, and you are therefore subject to the scientific process. It’s true that our body of knowledge is far from complete, but scientists should not support people augmenting scientific theories in the total absence of supporting evidence. At the vary least, an organization committed enhancing to the public’s understanding of science should remain silent on the subject, rather than condone it as the NAS has done.

    1. Claims like “The laws of physics and evolution were created by God” don’t add predictive power to scientific theories but they don’t diminish it either. We still got to do scientific research to uncover laws and natural processes.
      Besides that, the purpose of philosophical, ethical or religious assertions is not to give predictive success. Predictive success is not the sole human aim.
      Finally, scientific theories do depend on metaphysical pressupositions (determinism, for example), although we can replace one pressuposition with another if, by doing so, we gain predictive power. That’s what happened when quantum mechanics replaced determinism with indeterminism.

      1. If you say “The laws of physics and evolution were created by God,” you must then explain what this “God” thing is, and how it made the laws, and how you know this. To make baseless assertions goes against the scientific method, as is making statements about God that are unsupported objective evidence. At best, science should remain agnostic about God. Since the common notions of God contradict much of what we know about the physical world, we can probably dismiss the God hypothesis as exceedingly unlikely. You are free to say and believe what you want, but science doesn’t just make things up or defer to tradition, and The NSA shouldn’t be endorsing that kind of unscientific behavior.

  3. From Canada
    Yes you must fight faith. Arguing evolution is true is unlikely to help with a intelligent population.
    Europe? Your hope is Americans become like them?! America has been the intellectual and moral leader for a century now. Europe is becoming like america and will in creationist opinion too. Its just not been introduced with the same industry. Its coming.

    Evolution must make its claims on the merits of the case.
    Americans are paying more attention then in the past and losing confidence in the claims of evolution.
    Creationists would love a full national debate if we could get it. We would gain quicker then the present slow ways of getting audiences.
    the schools should also be freed from censorship.

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