Faitheist t.v.: Historian of science joins young-earth creationist in an old fashioned Coyne-and-Dawkins roast

July 25, 2009 • 3:20 pm

This morning an alert reader called my attention to a Bloggingheads discussion between Ronald Numbers, a historian of science at the University of Wisconsin/Madison and self-described agnostic, and Paul Nelson, Discovery Institute young-earth creationist.  I watched the debate with an increasing sense of unease in my lower mesentery.  Nelson and Numbers engaged in an oh-so-civil discourse, with Numbers standing idly by as Nelson attacked both Dawkins and myself. I come in for some disapprobation for criticizing Francis Collins’s appointment as head of the NIH and for making unwarranted  “theological arguments” in my book.

I was going to dissect this debate here but, damn him, P. Z. Myers went and did it first.  I swear, the man is all over the blogosphere, no doubt aided by his horde of informants. I have little to add to what P.Z. said except to note that the argument from imperfection — i.e., organisms show imperfections of “design” that constitute evidence for evolution — is not a theological argument, but a scientific one.  The reason why the recurrent laryngeal nerve, for example, makes a big detour around the aorta before attaching to the larynx is perfectly understandable by evolution (the nerve and artery used to line up, but the artery evolved backwards, constraining the nerve to move with it), but makes no sense under the idea of special creation — unless, that is, you believe that the creator designed things to make them look as if they evolved.  No form of creationism/intelligent design can explain these imperfections, but they all, as Dobzhansky said, “make sense in the light of evolution.”

Numbers was pusillanimous and failed to engage Nelson as strongly as he should have.  I was ashamed of his performance, especially because I considered him one of us. And shame on Bloggingheads t.v. for putting on a young-earth creationist on Science Saturday. (Bloggingheads t.v. is sponsored by The Templeton Foundation; could this have something to do with it?)

Numbers’ performance was a fine example of faitheism, and of the kind of non-threatening discourse that faitheists think we should all have with religion.  Watch it if you can, and then tell me if Numbers’ “civility” is certain to win more friends for evolution than, say, Richard Dawkins would have done in the same position.  I doubt it.

33 thoughts on “Faitheist t.v.: Historian of science joins young-earth creationist in an old fashioned Coyne-and-Dawkins roast

  1. Yet another example of how a Faitheist fails. The only way to deal with the issue is straight on, with logic, reason, critical thinking in a firm and loud voice.

    Evolution had hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence under DNA, geology, fossils, geographic diversity, comparative anatomy, embryology, homeodomains, form and function, chemistry, molecular and atomic physics, etc.

    ID creationism has lies, obfuscation, ignorance and deception.

  2. “The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected.”
    — H L Mencken, in American Mercury (March, 1930)

  3. Oh but surely if the atheists, especially the scientists among them, are just nice enough, then eventually – five centuries, ten, twenty, whatever – the creationists will start to like them and then everything will be all right. Surely?

    1. That would not be good enough for the Faitheists, Ophelia. They want the atheists, especially the scientists among them, to get down on their knees and say “yes, massa, ahs will be quieten down, sho ’nuff”.

    2. Quite.
      If only Rosa Parks had done as she was told, White Supremacist misogynists would have caved-in a lot earlier too!

  4. Years ago I met Numbers at a day-long open house on evolution and creationism with many others including that gem of a scientist and even person – Ken Miller. At a discussion over lunch when we were talking about the impact of creationism in our respective school districts, I talked about how creationism is a non-issue in my school district, and how my children have never as much heard of one at school. Numbers dismissed my experiences with a casual wave of his hand, saying it didn’t count as mine is an elite district or some such thing. I was more than a little upset with his dissmissive attitude. So then I had to tell him that my district is liberal – very – but not among the elite, and that I hadn’t found enough money yet to buy a house, and that ours is an aspirational district for our inner city neighbours, and that we spend a lot of time helping children develop a scientific attitude. Even then Numbers wasn’t moved. In contrast Ken Miller was attentive, engaging (as always) and wanted to know more about what we did at the PTA.

  5. The don’t want science to encroach on their “right” to an unfalsifiable opinion about reality.

    It’s all about subjective entitlement and the conflation of ontological adjudication with objective knowledge.

  6. I’m going to christen this Coyne’s First Law:

    “Anyone who chooses to call himself or herself ‘agnostic’ is in fact either a faitheist or a pedant.”

    1. Lets see, anoint doesn’t work either.


      advance, affirm, assert, assume, aver, estimate, guess, hypothesize, posit, predicate, premise, presuppose, propose, put forward, speculate, suppose, take for granted, theorize?

    2. I actually find both terms “agnostic” and “atheist” to be useful descriptions of myself.

      Atheist, because I do not believe in any gods and agnostic because I don’t accept non-material knowledge, or “gnosis”.

      This isn’t pedantry. Consider all of the annoying people who say that people like Dawkins miss the whole point by ignoring the sophisticated theology. An agnostic atheist can say “This still doesn’t give me evidence of god” and nicely avoids the even more annoying accusation of being a fundamentalist atheist. No, I don’t believe in god and I don’t see any evidence to believe in god. Case closed. The question of god isn’t even a serious one to reject. I think the term “agnostic atheist” is pithily summarized by Wolfgang Pauli’s words: “That’s not right. It’s not even wrong.”

      After all, I think interpreting “agnostic” as wishy-washy fence sitting does an injustice to the coiner’s original intent. As I understand it, Huxley coined it to label himself separately from those intellectuals who eagerly clothed themselves with woo-based “knowledge” that science couldn’t hope to comment intelligibly on.

  7. What frustrates me more than anything else is that someone like Paul Nelson is even given this kind of forum alongside someone like Numbers. Yeah, I know, its Bloggingheads. But still, any kind of credibility is what think tanks like the Discovery Institute are after.

    Someone who believes in a young-earth does not deserve any kind of platform (especially when the theme is science!!) that brings a decent amount of traffic. And if they are brought on, then they deserve to criticized – unless of coarse you’d have no issues in a conversation related to science with a flat-earther.

    Shame on Numbers. Absolutely pathetic.

  8. I have no objection to Nelson being interviewed on the web…but any such dialog MUST chew on the bones of contention and make the problems of his position frontmost. Numbers did not do that.

  9. How many agnostics does it take to change a light bulb?

    We can never truly know.

    Nelson is a young earth creationist.
    How can any scientific discussion involving him and someone who is pro-science not completely hinge around his reasoning behind the young earth claim?
    To me that point is the real ‘teach the controversy’ issue at the Discovery Institute. How on earth can Behe feel comfortable arguing on the same side as someone who believes the earth is a few thousand years old. That simple claim in on itself would destroy all modern science IF it were true. Its like being on the same debating team as David Icke arguing for a particular style of democracy – you for social equality reasons and he because he believes the current rulers are shape changing lizard men.

  10. Numbers is Here, too:

    The title is Religious Responses to Darwinism, are there’s a couple of very weird italians. One is claiming that:

    the essential scientific fault of Positivist Philosophy is today indicated in the rejection of Mystery as a part of reality (a fundamental cultural heritage of Medieval philosophy). This “fault” is assumed in Darwin’s conception, through an oversimplification of the complex structure of life-development.

  11. Numbers is effectively telling half Nelson “I accept your bullshit without question”. I don’t see how that promotes thinking or science, in fact it is exactly what the fundamentalists wish scientists would do, but damn those godless heathens just refuse to let them teach the controversy. Accomodating such nonsense can only be a bad thing because it promotes rotten brains.

  12. Ronald Numbers is pretty darn objective, he makes me at least feel like he could convince me evolution is true and that I could convince him the Jewish God exists.

    Sorry for being a lone dissenting voice among this sea of lemmings.


      1. So let’s hear how you’d convince him the Jewish god exists. Is there some evidence that we’ve all been missing?

    1. Scientists are just like lemmings too! If by “blindly following a leader” you mean “discovering the machinations of the natural world” and by “jumping off a cliff” you mean “and putting that knowledge to use, ostensibly for the benefit of humanity.” Just like!

  13. When Nelson brought up the recurrent laryngeal nerve, Numbers stated that christians don’t make a claim to perfection after “the fall”. So I would like Numbers (and Nelson if he agrees) to tell which came first the recurrent laryngeal nerve or “the fall”. Maybe the christian fall actually occurs in the spring of creationism and the two people mentioned in the christian handbook were actually fish or strands of spaghetti maybe?

    Numbers and Nelson remind me of two people that I worked with who were always playing practical jokes on each other, they would laugh and each time the jokes would be designed to be a little “better” or more irritating actually. That went on for a long time until they finally had a physical confrontation. You can see Nelson become frustrated at which point Numbers throws out some bread crumbs to soothe Nelson. Numbers probably doesn’t think the crumbs have any nutritional value but he throws them out hoping that Nelson will gobble them up. Likewise Nelson is doing the same thing which makes the whole conversation a prelude to a future confrontation, if they ever actually muster the guts to say what they really believe. They also find companionship in attacking others who prefer to lay the cards on the table, up front, face up so everyone can see why and how their conclusions are made. Unless Nelson and Numbers are studying bullshit I don’t understand why they are mucking around with it.

  14. The faitheists seem to provide pretty good examples of the Noble Lie as expounded by Plato’s Socrates: they regard Christianity, or maybe religion in general, as a useful/beneficial falsehood.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *