Nobel laureate protests the NAS/Templeton connection

March 25, 2010 • 7:51 am

Jack Szostak, at Harvard, won last year’s Nobel Prize for his work on telomerase, the enzyme that maintains the ends of chromosomes.  His main research interest has now turned to understanding the origin of life.

Szostak just sent a letter to Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, protesting the use of its space to host today’s Templeton Prize award.  Here, with Jack’s permission, is the letter he sent.  I am not sure whether he was aware that it was Cicerone himself (at least according to the Guardian) who nominated today’s awardee, a NAS member.

Dear Ralph,

I was surprised and upset to see that the NAS is allowing the Templeton Foundation to announce  the winner of the Templeton Prize in the historic Lecture Hall of the Academy.   It is inappropriate and counter-productive for the NAS, a scientific organization, to interact in this way with an overtly religious group such as the Templeton Foundation.

We are not a faith-based organization – we ask questions and seek the answers in evidence.  In a country plagued by ignorance and superstition, the NAS ought to be a beacon of coherent rational thinking and skeptical inquiry. If science is, as George Ellery Hale stated, our guide to truth, then religion is clearly incompatible with science, as should be apparent from considerations of faith versus inquiry.

Organizations that promote faith and religious belief have no place in the NAS, and to see the NAS hosting a Templeton event sends the message to the public that science and religion are completely compatible and indeed that science-religion interactions should be fostered.  I disagree strongly, and I am very disappointed by this action of the NAS.  Indeed, to host such an event encourages a misrepresentation not only of the organization, but of the members.  Just last night Rabbi Wolpe publicly claimed that over half of the elected members of the Academy are theists.  More critically, the Academy is misrepresented by this event. Our mission is to inquire into issues of national import and to do so as scientists.  We have no mandate to accommodate any position of faith whether based in religion or other prejudice.

The fact that the winner is an NAS member is irrelevant.  A small minority of NAS members may be religious, but  they should promote their personal religious views separately from the NAS.

At the least a statement from the NAS is needed at this time, clarifying its independence and, I would hope, declaring the decision to host this event a mistake.  The Academy’s image needs to be mended both for the public and its members.


Jack W. Szostak

59 thoughts on “Nobel laureate protests the NAS/Templeton connection

  1. I had actually forwarded the Guardian article to Jack, after you linked to it here, so the information he had was from that article (and my earlier “did you know…”) It was that article that prompted the letter above.

    1. I psychically communicated the relevant facts to Szostak before your e-mail arrived, so the credit is mine.

      1. I probably just should have said I knew he read the Guardian article, but the credit I wanted to give was to this site.

        and Jack forswears telepathy until it can be peer reviewed.

    1. Interesting choice of scientists to quote regarding the compatibility of science and religion. I’m not at all sure it reflects the majority view of Academy members. The whole section is designed to take a stance that may or may not be politic but certainly is not fully representational of the Academies. Rather disturbing, really.

      1. It would have been refreshing if they had just said, “The validity of ‘other ways of knowing’ has not been demonstrated. Full stop.”

    2. I found the statement a decent work of accommodation. Nowhere is the suggestion made that science can be reconciled with religion. Unfortunately, this latest bit just made it that much harder to see that. Accommodationists can be their own worst enemies.

  2. Well, maybe all major-i mean in a public outreach sense-science organizations are compelled-bylaws, boards, funding- to be “open” to these experiences: AAAS has a dialogue on science ethics and religion?

  3. Gah! The Google-ad thingie at the bottom of the post sez: “Darwin Can’t Tell You where life came from”!

    Well duh! He’s been dead for over 100 years…

    Google must have a really crude algorith for matching ads to audiences.

    As for the NAS, I’m still waiting for the announcement of the Adult film festival in their Lecture Hall.


      1. They couldnt tell;-). Dear Dr Paco Ayala, : formidable scientist: so whats next thats the conundrum? So much for bayesian inferences…

        1. Like the ‘shoehorn’ bit. When a statue is erected to Prof. Ayala, it should bear the inscription ‘El Cid Calzador’.

    1. Ooops. Missed the comments above.

      Anyway, they would pick someone in my field. Ayala keeps a low public profile, is an evolutionary geneticist, and doesn’t raise hackles to my knowledge.

      I still think the Templeton prize is unprincipled. But on a purely tactical level, this was pretty smart of them.

      1. Second year in a row: last year templeton went to B. d’Espagnat, physicist,gave him the prize at UNESCO headquarters

  4. Good for you, Jerry and Jack Szostak, to effectively criticize the NAS’s disreputable action. But this part of Szostak’s otherwise commendable letter is incorrect: Just last night Rabbi Wolpe publicly claimed that over half of the elected members of the Academy are theists.

    I was present this week at the debate in Boston between Christopher Hitchens and David Wolpe when Wolpe cited a AAAS, not an NAS survey about scientists’s belief in God. A video of Wolpe citing this statistic in a previous debate with Hitchens is online:

    A Pew Charitable Trust survey of the American Academy of the Advancement of Science found that more than half of all scientists believe in God.

    Wolpe refers to AAAS members, not NAS members, and a quick Google search shows that Wolpe accurately represents Pew’s poll.

    The statistic of 93% disbelief in God among NAS members is from Edward Larson in 1998:

    ”Our survey found near universal rejection of the transcendent by NAS natural scientists. [Table showing 7% personal belief in God by NAS scientists]“

    Full disclosure: though I am fully in Hitchens’s corner in these debates (especially when he’s pouring generous servings of whiskey like he did after Tuesday’s debate!), David Wolpe is Rabbi to my cousins and their parents, so he’s part of my tribe, and I’m obligated to defend him if I can.

    1. I was at that forum recall him stating that over 50% of NA members believed in god. The woman in front of me was also upset. I believe it was in his opening remarks. He may have stated correct statistics later, but I distinctly recall that one and the lady in front of me calling out “not true.”

      1. My recollection may be incorrect and it is possible that Rabbi Wolpe misspoke and referred to the National Academy rather than the American Academy—an understandable and forgivable mistake for a scientific layman.

        If this is the case, I sincerely do not believe that Rabbi Wolpe was attempting to misrepresent the facts, but simply mixed up these very similar names. Those at the debate can tell you that his real mistakes were much bigger than this!

        In case I am wrong, I just zapped Wolpe a quick email:

        Dear Rabbi Wolpe:

        I was a pleasure meeting you again after your debate on Tuesday with Mr. Hitchens.

        I’m writing because a statistic you cite in this debate was raised by Harvard’s Jack Szostak in his appropriate criticism of the National Academy of Science’s decision to host today’s Templeton Prize. I believe that you correctly cited an AAAS poll — as you have in the past, not a poll of the elite NAS members, and point this out at Jerry Coyne’s blog here. In the case that I mistakenly recall Tuesday’s debate and you did refer to the NAS, please be aware of Ed Larson’s poll showing that 93% of “greater” scientists — NAS members — have no personal belief in God.

        Either way, if news of this controversy reaches you, this is what it’s about.

        1. Rabbi Wolpe may have mistakenly conflated the stats for the NAS and those for self-identified scientists in the U.S. I will not give myself credit for perfect memory so without a recording I cannot say for certain he said NAS, but my companion also remembers it that way.
          I don’t think I’d have had any reaction if he had cited the American Academy of Arts and Science. It is not a scientific body, but a body that includes scientists, as well as writers, actors, historians, sculptors, etc.

          I have not heard Rabbi Wolpe talk before and so those of us unfamiliar with his spiel may well have misunderstood his mistakes. And yes, they were but grains in a desert of error, magical thinking and obfuscation. So if Dr. Szostak misinterpreted his error I hardly think it a large error and it still speaks to the larger issue that ought to be of concern to the NAS – that they are misrepresenting their membership to the public, thus making such errors less likely to be caught.

    2. OK, so the Pew survey reveals that most scientists don’t believe in God, but how does a scientist get to belief in a universal spirit or higher power? What does that even mean? Wait, I know: I don’t want people thinkin’ I’m one a them stinkin’ atheists.

      1. … how does a scientist get to belief in a universal spirit or higher power? What does that even mean?

        Wherever you are, there are always stars above you. Thus, they are higher. Measure the energy they emit per unit time, and you have power.

    3. Eugenie Scott challenged the findings of Edward Larson and Larry Witham regarding lack of belief in a personal God amongst NAS scientists.
      “The title of the recent Larson and Witham article in Nature, “Leading scientists still reject God” is premature without reliable data upon which to base it. ”

      The NCSE have congratulated Ayala on his prize.

      In 2006 the AAAS stated “Many religious leaders have affirmed that they see no conflict between evolution and religion. We and the overwhelming majority of scientists share this view.

      51% against 41% of AAAS scientists (according to Pew)doesn’t count as an overwhelming majority in my book. Would be interesting to see a Pew poll of the NAS on the question.

      What is crystal clear is that the NAS and AAAS are pushing the accommodationist position. Perhaps for political reasons in terms of combatting creationism; perhaps as an opportunistic grab by religiously minded scientists to use science’s most august institutions to entrench their own preferred philosophical position as the official one.

  5. In the Templeton announcement:

    Referring to Picasso’s Guernica, [Ayala] noted that while science can assess the painting’s massive dimensions and pigments, only a spiritual view imparts the horror of the subject matter. Together, he explained, these two separate analyses reveal the totality of the masterpiece.

    Fair enough, but what the fuck does that have to do with religion?!???

    1. Its not fair enough, it sucks. To most christians “spiritual” is indistinguishable from ghosts and angels. So when you talk to a group that includes christians and you use the term spiritual they hear an acknowledgment of their mythology.

        1. Yes, that’s the attitude that got us into the current problem.

          Unless the statement is specific as to the meaning it isn’t any different from stating that only through the christian god can it be known because, that is what it means to them. It is a subversive way to increase the destructive effect of the statement, by giving it a more powerful meaning to godbots.

          1. You need some numbers when stating something like : “To most christians “spiritual” is indistinguishable from ghosts and angels”. A survey indicates that a lot of people believe in angels. I know a communist that commended her life to her guardian angel every day. I pressume the angel in question didnt object.

            1. Pollsters don’t appear to ask that question. They don’t seem to ask christians if they believe in heaven but they do ask that question in general surveys that include everyone. My guess would be that its assumed that christians believe in spirits that are separate from the body. My statement was made based on personal experience. However, I can’t recall ever reading about a christian that separated their the floaty thing they think they have (spirit) from their spirituality. Does your experience or information support or suggest that most christians separate their floaty thing from their spirituality?

      1. Yeah, I didn’t want to get wrapped up in what is meant by “spiritual” because I was more flabbergasted by the more central problem of Ayala’s argument (namely, even if we acknowledge that artistic appreciation is epistemologically distinct from science, that doesn’t even come close to justifying faith or religious dogma or any of that garbage).

        But yeah, you’re right to point that out. Depending on how one defines “spiritual”, I might agree or strongly disagree with the quoted statement. Part of the human experience includes a certain passion for the universe, a personal emotional movement, which might be metaphorically described as “spiritual”. Not that any of that contradicts scientific materialism (clearly this “spiritual” experience is a product of our neurology, duh). But it’s something to be embraced (within context), not shunned.

        And of course no (or at least very few) atheists suggest we ought to shun it. We are not passionless Spocks.

        I was giving Ayala the benefit of the doubt and assuming that it is this passion/emotion/etc. that he meant by “spirituality”. But who knows, he could have meant something quite different…

        1. Well, to christians it isn’t any different than had it said goddoneit. Although maybe slightly less satisfying to them.

        2. Fair enough, but what the fuck does that have to do with religion?!???

          You couldn’t have handed the accommodationists bigger prize.

    2. No, [Ayala], it is NOT the spiritual view “imparts the horror of the subject matter.”

      It is the knowledge of history of the inhumanity of man towards man and the knowledge of the tyrants and those who opposed them that exposes the horror and the remedies.

    3. One of the most pathetic arguments against science is that it lacks a metaphorical framework. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard religious apologists claim that science doesn’t explain art, music or literature. Do they seriously think that atheists do not understand or value metaphor or emotion? Bloody hell, Picasso was to all intents and purposes an atheist and avoided religious imagery in almost all of his work and yet he could still produce paintings like Guernica (a work that shows the destruction meted out by Hitler and Mussolini’s airforces, helping out their friend Franco, a religious dictator who was trying to destroy the secular 2nd Spanish Republic in an attempt to restore traditional catholic values).

      1. a “religious dictator” or a ‘non religious dictator” (reads funky) are always dictators, eg.: lenin, pinochet, , somoza, trujillo, castro, mao, hitler, franco. I wonder if religious or non religious adds any extra “quality” to being a dictator.

  6. The christians will never be happy until the only answer to anything is goddoneit. “Other ways of knowing” isn’t their goal but just a small step. They will instill mythology wherever they can any way they can get it.

  7. In an interesting parallel saga, G. Perelman, russian mathematician, refused to accept the 0ne million bucks math Millenium prize for his proof of Poincares’ “conjecture” (ja!!).This is the second prize he refuses. He is dissppointed by the ‘intellectual and moral failings of his peers'(via seveal news agencies). Currently is rumored, he play ping-pong against the wall.

  8. It was disturbing to me that I learned of Ayala’s prize in an e-mail from the NAS, bragging “Templeton Prize won by NAS member.”

    This, to me, goes well beyond “hosting the announcement” and slops well over into facilitaion territory. It sucks.

  9. I’ve said it before on various forums, and I’ll say it again:

    To me, “Spiritual” seems to be two things in the English-speaking world:

    (1) Possibly the best and most-widely recognized label that we have for the profound, precious, and wordless feeling of connectedness to the rest of the cosmos that (I hope) all healthy human beings can have.

    (2) A mildewed, shabby, moth-eaten curtain behind which incoherent ideas hide in order to seem profound.

    1. Why not describe it as an emotional response, that is what it is.

      I’m impressed and awe struck by the universe and life as a natural process. If I think of the universe and life as created, its a feeling of what kind of an idiot would do that.

      I know that my emotions are generated biologically and have nothing to do with spirits.

  10. If we make people like Ayala our enemy, we will be left with few friends. I do not like this accomodationist demonization. Lets get back on track.

    1. What “track” are you talking about? And who is saying that Ayala is our “enemy?” What I, at least, am saying is that I don’t think the idea that religion is a way of finding truth– a way that is complementary to the truth-finding of science–is philosophically sound. Sorry, but I’m not going to stop criticizing the “two magisteria” idea. I’m perfectly happy with the track I’m on.

        1. PS–Which is the main reason I bought and liked your book. I don’t give a shit if someone finds comfort in the notion of god as long as they recognize the truth of evolution.

      1. I have less of a problem with the two magisteria idea. I think Gould was on to something but made a huge mistake in his definition of the scope of each.
        I think there may be some use to revisiting the idea and properly defining the implications of complete separation of the two realms. At the moment Goulds woolly and unjustified decision to surrender morality and meaning to the religious obscures the real value of a hypothesis that would prevent a theistic God from having any ongoing contact with this world.
        At the moment NOMA is used as a sort of one way valve by the religious or accomodationists who use it to criticise atheistic points about religion while at the same time ignoring the real implication of NOMA – that theistic knowledge of a God is impossible.
        I suspect that is why Francis Collins went out of his way to abandon NOMA for being too restrictive for theists in the introduction to his new book.

        1. I was wondering about just this, in relation to Ayala’s comments post-award. Philosophers and scientists shouldn’t talk about religion and god because it’s outside their subject matter (odd to say that of philosophers – he was talking to a BBC presenter, and maybe he didn’t really mean that); the two are separate. That doesn’t seem to go very well with Templeton’s desire to inject religion into science – to harmonize them, to bring them together, to explore what they have in common. But perhaps it’s okay as long as the exclusion is in one direction only. A one way valve, as you say.

          1. Ophelia, they need their one way valve because science owns 99.999999% of the universe and religion’s 0.000001% being only in the realm of the mind, so without the valve they will disappear in a puff of smoke.

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