World Science Festival Redux

May 7, 2009 • 6:41 am

The people at the World Science Festival have asked me to publish their response to a number of us who expressed concern about their support from The Templeton Foundation and their inclusion of a program to discuss/harmonize faith and science.  In the interest of fairness, here is their letter.  I will again post my regretful decision to withdraw from their invitation to discuss science and faith, and then their response to that, and my final response.  This may not be of interest to most people, but they want it on the record.

Three points first:

1.  I have enormous admiration for Brian Greene and his staff for organizing this festival, whose purpose is to acquaint the public with the wonders of science.  What better thing could a scientist do?  What’s more, it’s an altruistic act: Greene has little to gain professionally from doing this; he’s doing it because the payoff in terms of arousing interest and participation in science is potentially enormous.   My only beef about the Festival is that they insist on dragging religion into it, and to imply on their website that faith and science can be reconciled.  I just couldn’t be part of that endeavor.

2.  I still cannot understand what these “conversations” about faith and science are supposed to accomplish.  Surely religious people are not going to convince us scientists to somehow change our methods, or to become religious if we’re not.  Ergo, we scientists don’t stand to benefit from these dialogues. Perhaps we can come to a better understanding of why people are religious, but that won’t change our feelings that their beliefs are mere superstititions.  Nor do religious people stand to benefit:  as I said yesterday, all we can do to help them is to tell the faithful about our latest discoveries, which, if these findings contradict their scripture or dogma, gives them the chance to go back and tinker with their theology so it doesn’t conflict too badly with science.  But we don’t need public dialogues to accomplish that:  “Hey, pastor, we’ve found a transitional form between land animals and seals!”  The faithful have other ways of finding this stuff out, like learning about science from reading or going to secular science festivals.

3.  If anyone doubts that the Templeton Foundation’s implicit goal is to blur the lines between science and religion in a way that is inimical to science, I urge you to have a look at their website, especially their big prizes.  And have a look at the “Epiphany Prize” for inspiring t.v. and movie presentations. They gave one to The Passion of the Christ, for crying out loud!   Note the emphasis on Christian religion and the absence of anything else.  Check out all the other prizes for religious “advances.”  And read science writer John Horgan’s piece on how he felt co-opted by Templeton money. This is clearly a foundation with a mission. But scientists tend to avoid criticizing the Foundation because they give us so damn much money!

In the end, all these dialogues can do is make the participants walk away thinking, “Aren’t we fine fellows?  We’ve engaged the other side.  And maybe they were pretty good fellows too.”  But nothing substantive is accomplished. As for the listeners, well, these are like debates between creationists and evolutionists.  (Most scientists now recognize that these latter debates are futile.) There is simply no time to cover substantive points, and each side is preaching to its choir anyway.   As Steven Weinberg said, “I’m in favor of a dialogue between faith and science, but not a constructive dialogue.”  I would go further and say that there’s really not much point in any dialogue or “conversation.”  Let us publish and speak about our side; let them publish and speak about theirs separately.  Eventually a winner will emerge. Indeed, it’s emerging now, as the proportion of nonbelievers rises in our country. I have no doubt that, within a century or so, this country will become as secular as Europe is now.

o.k.  On to the letters, given in chronological order.  The first is from Brian Greene and  Tracy Day co-founder and Executive Director of the Science Festival. They wrote it to several of us who had expressed concern about the “religion/science” dialogue and the Templeton involvement:

Dear _____, ______, and Jerry

We’ve just become aware of the email exchange regarding the WSF.

Two issues are being raised. We respond to each in turn.

First: Regarding the Festival’s sponsors.

The World Science Festival produces programs according to the strictest standards of editorial integrity. The Festival’s lead producers are among the most respected of journalists, having between them decades of experience, and an abundance of honors and awards. (Indeed, for a recent press release we did a count: the 2008/2009 producers have between them over two dozen National News Emmy, Peabody, and Dupont Awards, and well over a hundred years of producing experience for some of the nation’s most prominent news organizations.) It goes without saying—but for clarity’s sake we shall say it anyway—that in keeping with standard journalistic practices, the World Science Festival does not accept financial contributions that come with any expectation or stipulation for participation in editorial decision-making. And just so it’s clear that this is not a platitude, we’ll note that the Festival has turned down sponsorship opportunities, some quite substantial, because the sponsor sought to blur the Festival’s requirement of a sharp and inviolable distinction between financial support and editorial control. All of the Festival’s sponsors respect this distinction fully.

Second: Regarding the appropriateness of having a Science and Faith program at the Festival.

We feel strongly that it is thoroughly and completely appropriate for the World Science Festival to have a program focusing on Science, Faith, and Religion. We conceived the World Science Festival as an annual gathering that would take science out of the classroom—where for far too long it has been consigned—and allow the general public to immerse itself in this most wondrous and insightful of human undertakings. In short, the Festival is seeking to shift the public’s perception of science as an isolated, esoteric body of knowledge to the recognition that not only is science everywhere, but science has the capacity to deeply inform one’s worldview.

As such, the Festival has programs that not only focus on the content of science traditionally defined, but programs that seek to illuminate how science interfaces with other disciplines and outlooks. We’ve had dance programs interpreting unified theories through choreography and music, plays seeking the human saga paralleling great scientific discoveries, debates focused on policy implications of scientific developments and breakthroughs, readings and discussions of literature influenced by science, among many other forays into ‘non-scientific’ disciplines. For the Festival to have programs exploring the art-science relationship, the government-science relationship, the business-science relationship, the literature-science relationship, and yet to willfully ignore the prominent and tumultuous religion-science relationship would be a strange and, dare we say, cowardly omission.

If there is an opportunity for compelling discourse with the capacity to yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking, its role in exposing the nature of reality and humankind’s place within it, then there’s room for such a program in our Festival.

With all best wishes,

Tracy Day

Co-Founder/Executive Director

World Science Festival

Brian Greene

Co-Founder/Chairman

World Science Festival

Professor of Mathematics and Professor of Physics Columbia University

She then sent me a personal email:

Dear Jerry,

I hope our earlier email regarding the Science and Religion program in the 2009 World Science Festival provides clarity on why we consider the program not only appropriate, but also relevant and important. I’m writing separately to emphasize how much we’d value your participation in this program, and the enthusiasm with which the invitation is offered. I’d be happy to discuss any of the issues in greater detail, if you think that might be of use. Looking forward to your response.

With best wishes,

Tracy Day

I then responded, withdrawing from the Festival. (This was the email published yesterday).

Dear Tracy,

After much discussion with my colleagues, and some soul-searching, I am going to have to decline with great regret your kind invitation to speak at the World Science Festival.   I regard it as a distinct honor to have been invited, and under normal circumstances would not have hesitated to accept.  But two things have forced me to my decision in this circumstance.

The first is that you consider faith as a topic appropriate for discussion in your Festival.  You mention that you feature programs that integrate science with dance, with public policy, with literature, and so on.  But these are quite different from religion.  Neither dance, public policy, nor literature are based on ways of looking at the world that are completely inimical to scientific investigation.  Science and religion are truly incompatible disciplines; science and literature are not.  That is, one can appreciate great literature and science without embracing any philosophical contradictions, but one cannot do this with religion (unless that religion is a watered down-deism that precludes any direct involvement of a deity in the world).  This incompatibility was the topic of my article in The New Republic.  Similarly, homeopathy and modern medicine are philosophically and materially contradictory.  It would be just as inappropriate to offer a discussion of homeopathy versus modern medicne.

You go on to say that,

“If there is an opportunity for compelling discourse with the capacity to yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking, its role in exposing the nature of reality and humankind’s place within it, then there’s room for such a program in our Festival.”

But there is no such possibility in the program you propose.  How could a dialogue with religion possibly yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking?  Such discourse would only confuse people about what scientific thinking is.  The Templeton Foundation, for example, has always sought to blur those lines!  And science’s role in “exposing the nature of reality and humankind’s place in it” has nothing to do with religion or theology.  It is a purely scientific role: to find out how the Universe works and how humans came to be.  It is telling, here, that the editorial by Brian Greene to which I was pointed–an editorial explaining to the public why science is important and exciting–said not a single word about religion.

The second consideration is that the festival is being supported by The Templeton Foundation.  I absolutely believe you when you say that there are no strings attached, and that the Foundation is not exercising any editorial judgement.  But this is not the issue.  The issue is that, by saying it sponsors the Festival, the Templeton Foundation will use its sponsorship to prove that it is engaging in serious discussion with scientists.  Like many of my colleagues, I regard Templeton as an organization whose purpose is to fuse science with religion: to show how science illuminates “the big questions” and how religion can contribute to science.  I regard this as not only fatuous, but dangerous.  Templeton likes nothing better than to corral real working scientists into its conciliatory pen.  I don’t want to be one of these.  That’s just a matter of principle.  But the “no strings” argument doesn’t wash for me, for precisely the same reason that congressmen are not supposed to take gifts from people whose legislation they could influence. It is the appearance of conflict that is at issue.

To avoid this appearance in the future, I would strongly suggest that the Festival discontinue taking money from Templeton.  That foundation is widely regarded in the scientific community as one whose mission, deliberate or not, is to corrupt science.  It doesn’t belong as a sponsor of your festival.

I am sorry to go on for so long, but I thought you deserved an explanation for my waffling, and for my decision.  I certainly support the goals of the festival and hope that it goes very well this year.

Best wishes,
Jerry Coyne

Their response, including a note to one of us who is participating in the festival:

Dear All:

_______, (one scientist who is participating in the Festival)
We’d be thrilled to have you as part of this program. We believe that the schedule will work and we’re double-checking.

Jerry,
We see that you’ve posted your response to us on your blog. We’d appreciate it if you would not just refer to our letter but post it as well so your readers can have a fuller appreciation of our position.

Many thanks and all the best,
Tracy

I was a bit distressed because I don’t think they really took my concerns seriously (at least, not as seriously as they take Templeton’s big donation!), and I wrote this final email:

Dear Tracy,

Yes, of course.  The only reason I didn’t put up your response that was because I don’t believe in posting private emails from other people without their permission (that’s why I left your name off of my reply).  I will post it tomorrow, with the names of the senders.

Just one note: looking at the history of the Templeton Foundation, I noticed that they gave the divisive and anti-Semitic movie “The Passion of the Christ” a $50,000 “Epiphany Prize” for “inspiring films and television.”  This comes perilously close to Templeton’s having endorsed anti-Semitism.  Please remember that Jews protested assiduously against this film.  Do you really want to take money from such an organization?  Judging from the reply you sent, there is nothing you can learn about Templeton that would make you rethink your decision to accept their largesse.

cordially,
Jerry

31 thoughts on “World Science Festival Redux

  1. Thanks, Jerry, for laying out this maddening back-and-forth in all its frustrating irrationality. You’re quite clear and persuasive, it seems to me. I just don’t get why they just don’t get it.

    1. Don, you may not get why they don’t get it, but big bucks are a big inducement and a real mind and conscience stopper.

  2. As usual, Jerry, you are spot on. As expected, they (she) seems clueless and ignores your valid points.

  3. I think the WSF wants the science and religion discussion to show that the two are reconcilable. Of course, this is only remotely true if the religion in question refrains from making claims that have been scientifically debunked, and even then, the religious way of knowing is incompatible with science. But there are a lot of people who don’t see it this way, including some scientists. They probably see the discussion as an effort to get people who are interested in religion to be more interested in science.

    I hope the panel includes at least one representative of science-religion incompatibility. Before I rejected religion, I would have found this discussion enticing; I wanted to find evidence of religious claims. I might have changed my way of thinking if I had heard a scientist point out how faith/uncritical beliefs were antithetical to the scientific method of finding truth, and that only the latter had a record of success. I had to have it pointed out to me that I didn’t have to be agnostic about gods because, even though I hadn’t seen convincing proofs from either side, one side had a lot more evidence than the other. It didn’t take much for me to realized the same went for all other claims. I was already primed for critical thinking, but I needed that extra push in order to throw off my childhood indoctrination of credulousness.

  4. I think your decision is reasonable, especially in light of the point about the Templeton Foundation – I think I would have acted differently.

    The reason is that if you did participate in the discussion, you would have the opportunity to point out repeatedly why you felt the context was misleading. You could explain to people that in fact – 93% of the members of the National Academy of Scientists are atheists or agnostics – and that for the vast majority of scientists religion has no role in helping us understand the world.

    Of course, this isn’t going to magically convert people, but it will correct an important misconception. Due to forums such as this one or history channel specials purporting to provide evidence for Biblical stories, many people have some vague impression that scientists and scholars are constantly making discoveries that confirm or reinforce the predictions of religious faiths.

    It is important to have voices who loudly and publicly insist that this is nonsense and that the majority of scientists recognize it as nonsense even if the majority of voices on any given panel disagree.

  5. Just email them back and say: “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science.” That’ll get them to see the error of their ways. Send a picture of a 900 foot tall Jesus to put the point across, I mean it sure would convince some of them scientist after all.

  6. Out of curiosity, what is the amount that Templeton is putting out for this? I know that doesn’t matter for principle sake, but I see “big donation” and “big bucks” mentioned.

  7. I agree with Jason’s comment above (#4).

    Although there are times when a publicly-visible scientist should avoid participating in an event in order to avoid providing legitimacy to a bad idea (debates with creationists, for example), that doesn’t seem to be the case here. If you believe that Templeton does in fact have no editorial control, then this is a good opportunity to speak your mind.

    It is true that the only real accommodation between science and religion is when religion accommodates science. The lack of such accommodation is destructive to a culture. Presenting the facts of science clearly, and without rancor, goes a long way to convince reasonable religious people to accommodate science. And most importantly, it will help to marginalize those who refuse to accommodate science.

  8. Thankyou Jerry.

    A wonderful display of integrity that should make any scientist think twice about accepting money from The Templeton Foundation.

    It is a shame that you have had to give up a slot at the festival in order to do so.

    This is a good example of actions speaking louder than words.

  9. A representative of the Templeton Foundation has asked me to post this comment, since he couldn’t get the post to work:

    Dear Jerry,

    Your focus on the Epiphany Prizes, a relatively small program that we fund but do not administer, is deeply unfair, and your suggestion that the Templeton Foundation’s agenda is Christian and somehow sympathetic to anti-Semitism is outrageous (I say this as one of several Jews on the staff).

    For the record: the Templeton Foundation supports work in all the world’s major faith traditions and encourages them to have a serious engagement with the best in modern science. You may not like this sort of thing, but you have an obligation to represent it accurately. For an overview of the breadth of our grant programs, visit http://www.templeton.org or peruse our 2008 Capabilities Report:
    http://www.templeton.org/capabilities_2008/overview.html

    I would also point out that, over the years, the Templeton Prize has been won by representatives of every major faith tradition as well as by people who profess no particular faith at all.

    I find it strange that you refuse to have an open discussion of these issues in a public forum like the World Science Festival. Whom do you wish to debate on these matters if not fellow scientists who disagree with you on whether there can be constructive dialogue between science and religion? Why pass up the chance to vanquish the (supposedly) benighted?

    Yours,
    Gary Rosen
    Chief External Affairs Officer
    John Templeton Foundation
    grosen@templeton.org

    __________________

    JAC response: Apparently the guy hasn’t read my posts. I don’t think the WSF is the appropriate place to hold a debate about this issue–it’s analogous to trying to debate creationists and settle the issue in an hour on stage. I much prefer to air my views through my writings, which give me (and the reader) time to reflect on the issues. And Rosen doesn”t answer my criticism of the Epiphany Prizes, except to say they are small potatoes. The fact remains that Templeton gave its imprimatur (and money) to a film that was seen by many Jews (and others) as antisemitic. Isn’t Mr. Rosen ashamed of this? It horrifies me, and I’m only a secular Jew.

    Yes, Templeton has funded misguided projects of all faiths (but not the Epiphany prizes, which appear to go solely to Christian stuff.) The fact remains, and Rosen doesn’t deny it, that the Templeton mission appears to be mixing religion and science, and blurring the boundaries between them.

    1. Rosen takes umbrage because Jerry points out how the Templeton Foundation honored an anti-semitic film. I think he’s complaining to the wrong people. As a Jew, he should be asking why his employer supports anti-semitism.

  10. I know if I saw a science festival sponsored in part by the Templeton Foundation I’d think it very suspect. I’d probably read it as “science” festival the same way I read creation “science” or complementary and alternative “medicine.”
    I agree with your position.

    It is a credibility issue, plainly.

  11. Any organization that in any way recognizes Mel Gibson has lost its credibility. The Templeton Foundation may be as bland as butter but its presence at the WSF is as appropriate as a hog at a dinner party. The Templeton’s may be too obtuse to recognize this but shame on the WSF. A pity more don’t take your stand Jerry.

  12. A look at the WSF home page shows the “John Templeton Foundation” listed in big letters as one of three “Founding Benefactors”.
    http://www.worldsciencefestival.com/
    At the very least, they get credibility out of this festival.

    The description of the 2008 WSG “Faith & Religion” event, quoted yesterday by Jerry, is quite consistent with accomodationism–with just a little hint that science is finding that religion is worthwhile and “real”. I find the description rather slippery but I can see that it would be supportable by accomodationists.

    In any case, the Templeton Foundation surely expects to gain something by this sponsorship and I’m glad to see that Jerry isn’t helping WSF to support Templeton.

    I’ve seen too many cases where these debates or discussions end up as just platforms for religionists to pitch huge quantities of their brain clogging nonsense, much of which is left unchallenged: it’s very difficult to deal with drivelmeisters. Any idea that Jerry is going to “vanquish the (supposedly) benighted” in this context is nonsense (perhaps even delusional). Sorry Jerry!

    I’ve looked through the 2009 event list and can’t find a “Faith & Science” event like last year. It’d be interesting to see who was going to be on the panel.

    BTW, there’s a Baptist Church Choir
    performing at the opening night celebration–no matter what they sang, this is not the way I’d want to begin a few days free of religion.

  13. “your suggestion that the Templeton Foundation’s agenda is Christian and somehow sympathetic to anti-Semitism is outrageous (I say this as one of several Jews on the staff).”
    How is the fact that Gary Rosen is employed by the Templeton Foundation proof that the Templeton Foundation is not pro-Christian and anti-semitic? I’m sure there is a fallacy at work here.

  14. …I have no doubt that, within a century or so, this country will become as secular as Europe is now…

    Hopefully we can keep it so here in Europe.

  15. Oh ! Gary Rosen, the JTF “Big Questions” censorship guy. His name sound like “immoral behavior” to my ears.
    Check what the dear Gary Rosen do to unpleasant comments posted at JTF’s website: start point, censorship, backstage.
    He didn’t just deleted, he edited the content!

    A year latter, with Miller, Simon-Conway and Collins promoting soft-creationism all over the place and d’Espagnat winning the Templeton Prize for his idea to conceal “God did it” in quantum mecanics, come again and say that JTF is not promoting a new flavor of creationism. Branded BioLogos?

  16. I think that the operational question you should have put to them is that if they truly think that a religion-science discussion is appropriate in their conference they couldn’t do it without the whole conference, not just that part of it, being sponsored by Templeton?

    That would directly address their motivations and the sequence of events.

  17. Jerry,

    The only way to reconcile xtianity with science is to twist the English language to the point that most words have no real meaning.

    Those xtians, that I know, that retain some xtian identity have done so by boxing an area, in their mind (brain), to keep their beliefs in and refuse to look at anything in that area logically. Then they keep all of reality in the rest of their mind (brain). Then claim that they have no problem being both an xtian and a scientist.

    I have also known some “xtians” that anything that does not agree with science is just an allegory and so they pick and choose just what they want to continue to believe. Sometime in their early development their cognitive thought processes were corrupted and they feel that they have to believe and this is how they do it.

    It is too bad that the WSF is another group giving the Templeton’s credibility without them being credible.

  18. Jerry,

    The only way to reconcile xtianity with science is to twist the English language to the point that most words have no real meaning.

    Those xtians, that I know, that retain some xtian identity have done so by boxing an area, in their mind (brain), to keep their beliefs in and refuse to look at anything in that area logically. Then they keep all of reality in the rest of their mind (brain). Then claim that they have no problem being both an xtian and a scientist.

    I have also known some “xtians” that anything that does not agree with science is just an allegory and so they pick and choose just what they want to continue to believe. Sometime in their early development their cognitive thought processes were corrupted and they feel that they have to believe and this is how they do it.

    It is too bad that the WSF is another group giving the Templeton’s credibility without them being credible.

    Sorry if this is a duplicate, but when I clicked the “Post Comment” button the last time, the website returned a page not found.

  19. Jerry,

    Very thoughtful post. But, with all due respect, I think you are making a mistake.

    I went to the World Science Festival last year and it is a BEACON of light for rational, clear-thinking, non-sound bite, intellectual discourse focused on science. I can’t imagine that they invited you for any other reason than to express your (well-known to some) views and provide your perspective.

    I’m with Jim above. Sometimes turning down an invitation is smart, as acceptance can give legitimacy to something non-deserving of it. That is not the case here.

    There is a point for clear-headed articulate scientists to go in front of the public. I’d urge you to reconsider. Anyway, my two cents, for what it’s worth.

    SN

  20. This is probably beside the point a little.

    While I do agree with Mr Coyne’s decision to decline the invitation, and that scientific organisations should not be receiving money from religious foundations– does anyone else here think that the focus on Passion of the Christ is a bit over-the-top? It’s really no worse than the bible or any other Jesus movie.

  21. JAC, is there a typo in para 5 of your first email to Tracy Day”

    “How could a dialogue with science possibly yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking? Such discourse would only confuse people about what scientific thinking is.”

    Should that be “How could a dialogue with religion possibly yield” etc?

  22. To Gary Rosen of any other respresentative of Templeton:

    Could you respond to the following portion of John Hogran’s essay linked to by Jerry Coyne in his post:

    One Templeton official made what I felt were inappropriate remarks about the foundation’s expectations of us fellows. She told us that the meeting cost more than $1-million, and in return the foundation wanted us to publish articles touching on science and religion. But when I told her one evening at dinner that~— given all the problems caused by religion throughout human history~— I didn’t want science and religion to be reconciled, and that I hoped humanity would eventually outgrow religion, she replied that she didn’t think someone with those opinions should have accepted a fellowship. So much for an open exchange of views.

    Does Templeton continue to expect propagation of accommodationist views in exchange for its tender?

    1. My previous post is addressed to Gary Rosen or any other representative of Templeton:

  23. “Surely religious people are not going to convince us scientists to somehow change our methods, or to become religious if we’re not.”

    Come on, “science” is not the property of non-religious people! In the same way that is not the property of religious people.
    “Us scientist” includes all scientist, both religious and not religious.
    Making a confrontation between “scientist” and “religious people” is a fallacy, there are religious and non-religious people among scientist.
    What you are doing is appropriating science for your own views, exactly the same you are accusing the Templeton Foundation!

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