The NCSE enables more woo

November 21, 2010 • 4:17 am

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and its executive director Eugenie Scott have some great achievements under their belts, especially preventing the incursion of creationism into American public schools. Nevertheless, they have a distressing habit of coddling religion, which they think—mistakenly in my view—helps them further their goals.

This accommodationism is most annoying when the NCSE assumes its science-has-its-limits stance, a stance designed to show that beyond those borders lies the proper and goodly realm of religion. Yes, of course science has some limits—it can’t (yet) explain why I love the paintings of Kandinsky and others find them abstract and boring.  But how on earth do these “limits” somehow justify belief in the palpable nonsense of faith?

Here’s a talk that Eugenie Scott gave at a panel discussion at October’s Secular Humanism conference. It purveys the usual NCSE party line:  that science deals only with methodological and not philosophical naturalism (I wonder what NCSE director Barbara Forrest thinks about that), and that science is not a world view but a method (I’d argue that rationalism, which can be seen as science broadly construed, is a world view).

Anyway, all this is familiar.  But what is most disturbing is Scott’s almost joyful emphasis on science’s limits. If you want to skip all the “methodological naturalism only” and “science can’t test the supernatural” cant, just start at 18:59 to watch the last seven minutes.

I find Scott’s anecdote about her post-birth bonding with her newborn daughter due to “perinatal hormones” (start at 20:20) extremely strange.  She implies that while the physiology that creates those feelings is scientifically tractable, science is impotent at explaining the meaning of that experience: Scott says she felt an “indescribable surge of love, protectiveness, care, and I bonded like iron to that helpless little baby.”  Isn’t the whole point of that evolved physiology to promote those “meaningful” feelings? And isn’t it likely that some day we will understand precisely how those hormones act on our brain to create those emotions we find so “meaningful”?

I suspect Sam Harris would have a few words to say about this, and about the supposed impotence of science before “meaning.”

Let’s not kid ourselves: the implicit point of Scott’s peroration is that because science can’t explain meanings, therefore religion can, and hence is not to be criticized. Talk about belief in belief! Well, it’s not the NCSE’s job to criticize religion, but it sees part of its job as to coddle it.  And because of that, I feel compelled to call them out.

And here’s a distinction without a difference (22:39):

The conflict is between secular philosophies like humanism and supernaturalism, not between supernaturalism and science.

Way to finesse the conflict between science and religion:  just subsume science under “secularist philosophy”!

Finally, Scott adopts a tactic beloved of creationists:  showing that science is fallible because some scientists are immoral (23:40):

If you think science is a world view, read that article a couple of days ago—I guess yesterday—in the New York Times about Chinese scientists. Scientists are supposed to be these honest—no! Read about this: there are thousands of papers having to be withdrawn because of rampant stealing of data, rampant plagiarism, and so forth. Science is not a world view. It’s a way of understanding the natural world.

This tale may say something about scientists—that they are human, and sometimes fallible or mendacious—but it says precious little about science as a world view.  It’s just meant to tarnish the lustre of science, and thereby burnish the image of faith.

109 thoughts on “The NCSE enables more woo

  1. Scott’s accommodationism is no different from YECs creationism here. YECs worship a trickster god who makes us believe that a thousand year old universe looks like a billion year old. Scott carter to a trickster god who makes us believe that a supernatural universe looks natural.

    Why would truthful scientists be interested in perpetuating Scott’s lies on nature (any more than YEC’s lies)?

    “science can’t test the supernatural”

    Why would that be interesting, except when it comes to specific religions, when what is wanted is to test the natural? That the world is entirely material is the obvious hypothesis we are interested in and need to reject.

    We can easily test that hypothesis to at least 3 sigma on current observations already. (Say, using the for this purpose pseudorandom distribution of tested and published natural theories – natural implying sharing characteristics of energy conservation, say.)

    Actually we can do better, but using conservative tests we don’t need more; we can quantify remaining uncertainty that the world isn’t what we see it as. What we physicists deem a theory “tested beyond reasonable doubt”.

    If Scott wants to fault materialistic theory, entirely possible though as per above not very likely, she would have to come up with undeniable observations of supernatural phenomena. It isn’t enough to swing around some theological claims on science as a barbarians club – “na na na, I don’t wish it to be so, share my ludicrous theological fantasies on science and religion, or else!”

    Btw, notice the use of the accommodationist version of Wagner’s … excuse me, Pascal’s wager. “There is an off hand chance that theocracy will rule the world after this. Why take the minute risk of severe consequences then, when you can put off the likely outcome of substantial reward, progress on freedom from superstition and its destructive and immoral social consequences, now?”

    1. I should note that my picture of the accommodationist wager is a (always popular!) strawman projection.

      In reality I don’t think accommodationists put it, or think of it, in those terms.

      It is however not good that accommodationist strategy can be interpreted thusly, it is a stress test that they fail and it is a PR problem that they should work on. But they don’t. And that infuriates me – science is worth the best.

    2. The creationism comparison is very apt and is exactly what irritates me most about this brand of accomodationism. She isn’t seeking to defend religion or faith, she is only seeking to undermine science. Like creationism, the whole argument is a negative one and relies on the audience (and maybe the speaker) being too biased & gullible to ask “wait, if we were holding science up to extreme standards, why aren’t we doing the same to religion?”

      It’s the same damn anti-science schtick that we’ve seen from hundreds of other religionist nuts.

      What could have happened inside the NCSE, to think that publicly attacking and ridiculing science should help to promote science education? They’ve slipped a belt or something.

  2. Any reasonable person would concede that within the range of possible human experiences there are some that are deeply and profoundly meaningful. But could anyone seriously claim that the subjective way in which we understand the world precludes scientific inquiry into the actual means of understanding (i.e. the brain)? And if that’s the case, why shouldn’t science eventually propose a reason for why some experiences are more meaningful than others?

    Actually, I tend to interpret this sort of lament about the role of science a bit differently than it’s expressed. It’s almost as if those complaining don’t want rational explanations because they’re afraid these would take the mystery, joy and wonder out of their lives. This seems to say a lot more about those complaining than it does say anything about science.

    1. They should listen to Richard Feynman explain why a scientific understanding adds to wonder, and cannot subtract from it!

  3. Sigh.

    But does this non-threatening, coddling approach get people to *really* accept science? Or just some highly superficial, smattering of facts that don’t uncomfortably conflict with their desire for the existence of supernatural forces and entities? My concern with this approach is that they are not fostering a true appreciation for what science tell us about our world. Instead, they are pushing a version of science that can be re-worked to fit their spirituality, when and where the need arises.

    In my opinion they are also doing a great disservice to young people by teaching them that science is “limited” in the way portrayed. My view of the best long-term approach for science and rational thinking would be, in fact, to have their pre-existing notions and world view shaken up a bit – not reinforced through this coddling approach.

    1. I have seen zero evidence to show that it actually goes any way to achieving the stated goals.
      Mooney is the most vocal advocate of this strategy, yet the only example that he has managed to present turned out to be an embarrassingly infantile fraud.
      I should really like to hear about studies that show that goddly-coddling had a positive effect on the take-up of scientific acceptance.
      Put down those facts, Eugenie!
      (Obscure Pink Floyd reference)

      1. … And the first person to complain that it should have been “Careful with” instead of “Put down” gets an extra 18 months in eternal atheist hell! 😉
        (Being in an elevator with Chris Mooney)

  4. So tell me: why should I give any more credence to the God of the Gaps that Scott (says she) doesn’t believe in than I do to the God of the Gaps that the Pope (says he) does believe in?

    After all, that’s exactly what she’s doing here. Science can’t explain a mother’s love of her baby; therefore religion offers a reasonable alternative explanation. But what is this allegedly reasonable alternative explanation that religion has to offer? Why, of course, that this here cracker is the reanimated flesh of a millennia-old Judeo-Greco zombie death god! And that you should eat said cracker so that when the zombie death god turns your own dead body into a zombie, he’ll add it to his private collection rather than hand it off to his kid brother (who’ll use it for a squeaky toy).

    I’m sorry. Scott has done wonders for the cause of rationalism and science education over the course of her career. But her accommodationism is simply Not Helping™.

    I think she would do much better to accomplish her primary stated goals by simply dropping the matter. She doesn’t have to beat up on the faithful; there’re plenty who’ll gleefully take up that mantle. But adopting the exact same approach as a classroom teacher should would serve her much better: don’t mention religion yourself, and, when challenged on it by somebody else, dismiss the matter with a simple, “The topic under discussion is science, not religion. The religious perspective is orthogonal to the discussion. There are ample venues for discussion of the religious perspective, but this is not one of them.”

    As a bonus, not only is that statement true in and of itself, it also doesn’t conflict with what Scott herself has been saying. Plus it sets the perfect role model for science teachers under attack from the religious.

    Cheers,

    b&

    1. Your final two paragraphs are spot-on. A simple, elegant solution to a completely unnecessary problem, and the accommodationists can adopt this tactic at any time without backpedaling on earlier positions.

      Surely this “schism” is as much a pointless distraction to the accommodationists as it is to the gnus — and surely they would like the put the whole thing behind them. Does anybody here have Eugenie’s ear? Can someone put this to her, and if she has an objection, tell us what it is?

      1. Not exactly the same thing as having her ear, but you could always try sending a message to the NCSE’s YouTube channel.

      2. I like the last two paragraphs too (because thats exactly what I do, LOL!)

        Anyone can watch me do it on YouTube– Debate with a YECer on evolution, in a church. Someone in the audience (maybe the YECer, I forget) brought up my atheism. I pointed out that the topic of the debate was on evolution, but if the church would like to hear my personal views and perspectives on atheism, I would be happy to come back to speak on that topic.

        End of story. Back to talking about evolution.

        Im always being told that this wishy-washy crap is ‘practical’ in high-theist areas. Well, I can (and have) maintain my dignity and be practical with Bens idea.

      3. Others seem to find your last two paragraphs ring a bell with them, but I’m afraid *not* with me.
        Not at all!
        With all other forms of woo, the NCSE *actively* fights against them. For that is their raison d’être.
        The very CORE REASON that they exist!
        Suggesting that the most popular, the most destructive, the most infective, the most insidious form of woo be literally ignored is bollocks, in my opinion.
        Religion needs to be confronted head-on, not ignored!

        What you are saying is akin to a doctor saying to a patient: Yes, you have a harmful bacterial infection that you will pass on to others, and will reduce your well-being & theirs particularly if they are young or vulnerable, and I have anti-biotics, but will not give them to you because we quarantine only your especial sickness off from any cure because of millennia of of irrational false respect for these strain bacteria.

    2. Very true, the problem arises only when one claims that religion is orthogonal to the facts, as if it was related to facts and science in any special way not afforded other human foibles.

      Perhaps Scott has realized that if she does claim that the religious perspective is not relevant to the discussion of science the religious will feel slighted in not upholding their special pleading. She will become “strident” in the context, and some can construe that to mean overall. It is troublesome for an accommodating mind.

      However, I believe that this is indeed “the perfect role model”. If science isn’t worth fighting, and fighting fairly for, what is?

      1. She doesn’t even have to be strident about it. While embracing “non-verlapping magisteria” goes too far in the direction of accommodationism, simply observing that religion and religious beliefs have no place in a discussion on science is entirely correct, proper, and in line with her already-stated position.

        She can leave it unsaid that the First Amendment grants people the sacred right to fill in the gaps with gods. She can even put it in so many words, by saying that she has no intention of stepping on anybody’s First Amendment right of religious freedom.

        Of course, us nasty, strident Gnu Atheists will point out the other half of the unspoken truth of her statement — that religion is irrelevant to science because science has so thoroughly demolished the factual claims of the religious. But she herself can (and probably should) remain entirely above that fray, and simply point out that religion has no place in scientific inquiry — any more than a discourse on Shakespeare has a place at a particle physics symposium. If the physicists want to get together after hours to see a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or to celebrate Mass, that’s their business and equally irrelevant to their day jobs.

        What I think is unwise is her embrace of religion, of offering it as a valid alternative on those subjects which science has yet to satisfactorily explicate. Such a stance is utterly antithetical to the goal of promoting science education.

        Cheers,

        b&

  5. It’s incomprehensible to me that anyone who has become a parent can view the creation of a child as anything more than an absolutely materialistic endeavor: coitus, conception, the statistically inevitable miscarriage(s), pregnancy, birth, all resulting with good fortune in an infant driven and controlled mainly by instinct and reflex, and whose intellecual and emotional development follows a set course. It’s all 100% material, with no magic involved at all, however magical or dreadful the emotions involved.

    I was a thoroughgoing materialist before parenthood, but experience with children really closed the case.

    If anyone really wants to understand what it takes to make a baby, read Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful—I recommend this to all expecting fathers (but not mothers!).

      1. Endless Forms Most Beautiful is an outstanding popular book that explains the chemistry and mechanics of development. Like all genetics, the science of how things work comes from studying how they don’t work. In developmental biology, this means freakishly disturbing phenomenon like double heads, cyclops, sirens, and mirror hands—Greek mythology is real, and not at all mythological.

        This is the very last thing the great, great majority of expectant mothers want to have in mind for the developing baby inside them, if only for the hormone ride they get to experience.

        BTW, a little-known museum that has all these real developmental abnormalites on display preserved in bottles is Harvard Medical School’s Warren Anatomical Museum on the top floor of A Building.

  6. Emotional attachment to ideas such as “everything happens for a reason” are NOMA-inducers for those who have been viscerally affected by an event and choose to keep the experience an enigma. I think many find *any* examination of “sacred” subjective experiences to be an intrusive denigration. Some woo is woefully sacrosanct.

  7. Jerry:

    “Scott says she felt an ‘indescribable surge of love, protectiveness, care, and I bonded like iron to that helpless little baby.’ Isn’t the whole point of that evolved physiology to promote those ‘meaningful’ feelings? And isn’t it likely that some day we will understand precisely how those hormones act on our brain to create those emotions we find so ‘meaningful’?

    This of course is the “hard problem” of consciousness: how is it that certain brain processes give rise to experiences such as emotions, sensations, etc.? The likelihood of its solution isn’t clear.

    Some philosophers like Colin McGinn say this question is perpetually beyond our capabilities, others like Dennett see it as essentially misposed. There’s no consensus I know of as to whether and how it will be solved. Since experience isn’t something that can be observed, measured or weighed, (no one has ever observed a pain, the taste of mango, etc.), standard causal accounts of how it gets created (produced, generated) by brain processes seem non-starters. And the idea that experiences are *identical* to their physical or functional correlates also seems hard to sustain, since those correlates are observable but not the experiences themselves. There are intermediate accounts involving consciousness as a non-physical *property* of a physical system, but none of them are exactly taking the naturalistic philo-scientific community by storm.

    Supernaturalists like J. P. Moreland like to seize on the scientific intractability (thus far) of consciousness as evidence for the failure of naturalism and the equal and opposite success of supernaturalisms such as Christianity, http://www.naturalism.org/Morelandreview.htm But their proposed explanations usually posit consciousness as something fundamental bequeathed us by God, ignoring the accruing evidence that suggests consciousness is somehow (but how?!) a function of naturally evolved complex representational systems such as ourselves.

    As usual, the debate boils down to epistemic standards: do you stick with naturalistic empiricism (no woo or unexplained explainers allowed) and hang tough with not having explained consciousness thus far, or do you relax your standards and gain a spurious explanatory victory? I feel bad for those in the second camp since they’re missing out on all the fun of grappling with the hard problem, http://www.naturalism.org/consciou.htm

    1. The problem of consciousness is indeed a “hard problem”, and I too have serious doubts that it is explicable in terms of objective physicalist language. But of course that doesn’t mean that the supernatural offers any explanation beyond “goddidit”, which is of course no explanation at all. There is no sense that mysterianism leads to religion, any more than existence of numbers or other abstract qualities does.

    2. It is a hard problem for sure but the more we learn about the brain and consciousness, the less we see any gaps between the brain and the mind. There aren’t any aspects of our personalities or reasoning which can’t be changed by altering the brain and there are many even more philosophically damaging experiments.

      So yes it is hard but when evidence does come in, it has always pointed to a purely naturalistic answer (even if it is a very difficult answer).

      1. Yes, the correlational evidence is overwhelming that consciousness is somehow entailed by complex systems, in our case naturally evolved neural systems, which persuades me it’s an entirely natural phenomenon. But the “explanatory gap” of why and how consciousness arises looms large and it isn’t clear to me that more understanding of what the systems do will close it. But that’s not to say it won’t ever be closed. We can’t take our current epistemic and conceptual limitations as an indication of a deep metaphysical divide.

        1. I don’t think you will ever close the gap for those who imagine they’ll suffer forever for wondering how consciousness can even exist without a material brain. –Nor will you close the gap for those who imagine themselves “saved” because of what they believe.

          Consciousness is a feedback loop that encourages the survival and reproduction of those who have it. Particularly important are feelings of pain, fear, and pleasure. I don’t think this is a “hard” problem for most neuroscientists. We don’t have to have all the details to understand that we’ve got the right framework on which to build further knowledge.

          History shows us that when we think the unknown involves something mystical or magical, we become particularly poor at finding out more about a phenomena we don’t understand.

          1. When scientists can’t or don’t know an answer, why would one feel justified in thinking that a guru does? Has there ever been a verified case where a mystic, prophet, holy book or whatever understood some scientific phenomena before scientists did? All woo has their anecdotes, of course, but where is the evidence that faith, feelings, or revelation can lead to any objective truths or scientifically prescient knowledge?

          2. “Consciousness is a feedback loop that encourages the survival and reproduction of those who have it. Particularly important are feelings of pain, fear, and pleasure.”

            It isn’t clear how feelings add anything to what their neural correlates are already doing, which is why the issue of mental causation – the role of conscious phenomenal states in controlling behavior – is so vexing. If you literally *identify* feelings with their neural or functional correlates, then it’s clear they were selected for by evolution, but that identity claim is exactly what’s contested about consciousness – one reason it’s called the hard problem.

        2. But the “explanatory gap” of why and how consciousness arises looms large and it isn’t clear to me that more understanding of what the systems do will close it.

          Emotions underlying consciousness is likely an epiphenomena of the evolutionary process Coyne describes, “evolved physiology”.

          In any case such emergent systems (say, crystal properties arising from molecular bonds) are often “hard” computationally. For example, there are Ising models (of ferromagnetism) which are known to be computationally intractable, so that we know that we can’t calculate all their relevant properties from fundamental theory.

          Now it would be laughable to entertain the notion that therefore ferromagnetism doesn’t follow from EM properties of the material. Even more absurd to claim that this is an example of (the need for) gods-of-the-gaps explanations.

          Yet this is what accommodationists will have us do. Yech!

          1. You may be right that, from a scientific 3rd-person perspective, consciousness per se (qualitative phenomenal experience), ends up epiphenomenal in terms of explaining behavior. But of course from a subjective 1st-person perspective it seems crazy to deny the behavior-guiding role of phenomenal states such as pain and pleasure. Getting both (epistemic) perspectives integrated into a naturalistic explanation of consciousness is the toughie, a problem not posed by any other phenomenon I know of. But as you say, there’s no reason to jump from our perplexity to any supernatural conclusions.

            I hazard a representationalist approach to naturalizing consciousness following Thomas Metzinger’s work at http://www.naturalism.org/appearance.htm

            1. You may be right that, from a scientific 3rd-person perspective, consciousness per se (qualitative phenomenal experience), ends up epiphenomenal in terms of explaining behavior. But of course from a subjective 1st-person perspective it seems crazy to deny the behavior-guiding role of phenomenal states

              Causal efficacy doesn’t bother me, as I can easily see how we could wrong about that. What is more problematic, and that the epiphenomenal account does not address, is how and why such states produce “phenomena” to begin with. Why are certain brain states (and only certain ones) accompanied by subjectivity? How can we even understand the notion of subjectivity (whether causally effective or not) from within an objective science?

            2. “What is more problematic, and that the epiphenomenal account does not address, is how and why such states produce “phenomena” to begin with. Why are certain brain states (and only certain ones) accompanied by subjectivity? How can we even understand the notion of subjectivity (whether causally effective or not) from within an objective science?”

              You express my puzzlement precisely! The epiphenomenalist assumes that brain states cause consciousness, but offers no good account of how that happens. What’s interesting is that many folks don’t even see consciousness as particularly weird, they just suppose that somehow the brain does it. Well, yes, but how, precisely????

  8. When will people realize that the only response religion has to any question about the natural world is “god made it so”. It is not only an inutile answer, it is absolutely worthless at best. Given that rather severe handicap, how exactly is religion ever meant to provide (meaningful) answers to anything?

  9. Watched this awhile back and was disappointed in Eugenie Scott but was energized by PZ’s and Dr. Stenger’s honesty.

  10. This is exactly the reason why I removed my membership and support from the NCSE, accomodationism, pure and simple, Scott’s talks reeks of it. Perhaps the NCSE are running low on funding so they need the support of the more liberal clergy to keep going (The Clergy Letter Project) What a bunch of disingenuous bull crap that is, I’m sure a “Atheist Letter Project” would not be so profitable for the NCSE. I would ask Scott why you can apply science to determine the age of the earth but not when you are questioning the credibility of Parthenogenesis in humans? Doesn’t the rule of Occam’s razor or the principle of parsimony apply when we are investigating claims that humans that have been dead for three days can come alive and be seen in two different places at the same time? These are questions that scientific principles can be applied to; Scott and her ilk just prefer to turn a blind scientific eye to them.

  11. I think it’s almost inevitable that someone at NCSE will look accomodationist. The position itself requires building coalitions, so going out one’s way to make enemies might not be a good idea.

    1. Bending science to meet christianity is not acceptable. It is better not to teach than to teach science incorrectly. The students need to know that the knowledge gained by scientific rigor isn’t the same as the speculative thought chosen by christianity.

    2. NCSE

      National Center for Science Education

      It seems obvious, to me, what the NCSE is about. And yet it seems to be such a difficult concept for people, including those in the NCSE, to understand.

      You need give nothing to religion, but remain true to the goal of “teaching quality science” and letting the religion chips fall where they may… Which is their role, from their website:

      NCSE provides information and advice as the premier institution dedicated to keeping evolution in the science classroom and creationism out.

      They should stick with it. And stop trying to build coalitions with institutions that epitomize ignorance and superstition.

    3. This isn’t building a coalition, it’s the guard dog rolling over and asking for a tummy rub from the burglar.

    4. They certainly don’t care about the enemies they make among explicit atheists, or among allied scientists who wish they’d simply remain neutral about religion, rather than courting it.

  12. Just out of curiosity, where does your “three days” come from?

    Last I checked, Friday afternoon to Sunday morning is a day and a half.

    Besides, for me is the more interesting question: are we really to believe that Jesus invited Thomas to fondle his intestines through his gaping chest wound? And what of Lazarus? His corpse was putrid when Jesus reanimated it.

    Of course, it’s not like any of the copious contemporary records contains even a hint of any of this…we might as well be discussing Harry Potter’s favorite broomstick for all the bearing any of this has on reality.

    Cheers,

    b&

    1. The gospels and the creed do not speak of three days, but that he rose on the third day. This may not make the claim more reasonable, but at least the math works out.

    2. It has to do with the beginning of the Jewish day, and a lot depends on which of the gospels you read (they give different days/times). I can’t remember it all right now (eating dinner while reading this), but I’m sure a search of apologetics sites would give some of the excuses…er, evidence, that the “third day” bit is accurate and true (providing you don’t look behind the curtain!).

  13. I like Eugenie Scott but I don’t know why as her explanations are bogus. Christianity will never provide valid reasons why I like her, however, using scientific methodology I could at least approach the real reasons.

    Eugenie makes many bogus claims, such as ‘science can disprove a claim that the earth was created by some god thingy 6,000 years ago but can’t disprove a claim that the earth was created by some god thingy 4.5 billion years ago.’ That statement is false, there is substantial evidence that the earth is a consequence of the natural processes that formed the sun. Which can be shown in the same way as can be shown that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. She declares that science can’t explain the emotional reaction of a mother bonding with her newly delivered infant while claiming that science does in fact describe what is happening, she seems not to like the simplicity of the scientific explanation. The scientific explanation may need refinement as more knowledge is obtained but that doesn’t justify a statement that a scientific explanation isn’t possible.
    She also used the phrase “supernatural reality”, there simply is no truth in the claim that supernatural is real, she might be able to claim supernatural as an unlikely possibility but not as reality.

    Societies have in the past and now do pay a high price for allowing the supposed comfort of christianity. The tragedy of christianity is that at best it is a short term solution to emotional upheavel that is being used to set or justify policies that seriously need reality based solutions. Society can’t get better when we keep using the same damned god reasoning.

    On a side note, two christian preachers came to my door yesterday, I had no logical choice but to tell them that thankfully they are mistaken.

    1. Eugenie makes many bogus claims, such as ‘science can disprove a claim that the earth was created by some god thingy 6,000 years ago but can’t disprove a claim that the earth was created by some god thingy 4.5 billion years ago.’

      Once one grants the latter, one cannot rule out the former — any being that could create the universe could certainly create it to look old. To rule out that option requires not science, but theology. And that is what I object to most about the NCSE position, that is theological, and not scientific.

    2. If god is magic (as his believers believe) than he could make a 6000 year old earth look 4.5 billion years old. Once you allow a magical being into the equation as a possibility, anything goes. Science stops working or being valid as soon as magic becomes part of the scenario? How can a double blind test be valid if a magical being can skew the results at whim, for example?

      If the god is the god in the holy book in which they learned about god– then he can pretty much do anything– but the same goes for all other holy books and magical beings. It’s silly to say that science and some magical beings are compatible but not others. What the NCSE is doing in essence is saying whose interpretation of which magical text is the most compatible with science. That’s weird because it implies that SOME magical beliefs are compatible with science.

      I think all magical beliefs belong in the same magisteria, and I would encourage believers to keep that “magisteria” to themselves and/or amongst those with similar beliefs. Science should not be in the business of mollifying those who have magical beliefs.

      1. It’s the same problem of Last Thursdayism. Supposedly there isn’t any answer to the argument that a (god?) made the universe look as old as it does yet be far younger. However, I have yet to hear an answer to “Well, all the evidence we have points to an old age, yet you say it’ all an artifact of it’s creation. Ok, show me the evidence that supports your contention.”

  14. What if tragedies or negative human emotions we don’t understand were used to imply that demon belief is perfectly scientific? Such emotions could also be used to support the notion that Scientology’s “Thetans” and “engrams” could be real or that Karma and reincarnation are scientifically valid.

    Does Genie think that is beyond science to comment upon? Does she want to play semantic games so that people can weave these beliefs into the facts? I don’t think the NCSE would be comfortable encouraging such misperceptions. And yet they do so for gods.

    The way the NCSE treats “Christianity light” differently than they treat other superstitions and pseudoscience bothers me. When they make exceptions for certain woo, it allows believers in that woo to imagine their beliefs are exceptional in some way– more worthy of respect or more likely to be true. But, as far as the evidence is concerned, gods are no more likely than demons and a supernatural being that can make everything appear natural is no more likely than a supernatural being that poofs humans into existence but makes them look like they evolved. Science should not really be in the business of saying which magical beliefs might be true– nor which which supernatural claims are off limits for scrutiny. I’m also very uncomfortable with scientists indicating which gaps people can stick which magical beliefs into. I think science should be in the business of treating all non-science (nonsense?) with a similar dismissal.

    Plus, skeptics who treat religious woo differently than they treat other woo tend to be the skeptics who vilify their more honest atheist cohorts. They are being hypocritical, but rather than admit this to themselves, they denigrate those who point it out. To me, they are giving the equivalent of the courtier’s reply: “science can’t say for certain that there are no magical clothing fibers that only the chosen can see… and those who say there are no such things as magical fabric are militant and hurting the cause!”

    You can’t be a “candle in the darkness” if you are still pushing the idea that faith can be a means for understanding “higher truths”. If that were the case, why is there no consistency in these “truths”, and why is there no growing evidence in support of any of these magical beliefs?

    Science makes no claims of divine knowledge; why should it give lip service to those who do? Science has the possibility of being the tool people use to liberate themselves from the superstitions of their pasts. Letting woo in, weakens that tool. I don’t want any part of it.

  15. These kind of accommodationists give more harm to science than what they can imagine. It really bothers me when people talk about other ways of understanding world besides science. There might be one but the share might be split in 99% to science and 1% to others. I was very generous here though. And the problem is in the current situation of humanity maybe 75% favor other ways and 25% science. Those shams receive more credit than they deserve. Everyday people use the product of science for their survival but do not take it serious. This needs to be changed. I would not mind a situation that 75% back science the way it deserves and maybe some 25% still play with their imaginary methods of understanding the world. Till that point the people like her do not help the situation. Cheers

  16. Although I have no plans to rescind my NCSE membership, I do think Scott (and the NCSE) is deliberately blurring the distinction between 3 different claims:

    1.)In theory, religious claims of fact are immune to scientific criticism.

    2.) In practice, religious claims of fact try to make themselves immune to scientific criticism.

    3.) Religious claims of fact are not actually fact claims, but more like personal or cultural expressions of meaning, emotions, values, or preferences — which are ultimately immune to scientific criticism.

    I disagree with the first and third statements, which seem to me to be examples of the second. If you push #3, you can argue for #1 in hopes of arriving at #2.

      1. Even people with less vague beliefs tend to want the “softer” method used on their claims, though. Treat “God exists” the way you would treat “I love my mother” or “kindness matters.” God is a fact, sure — but approach it like a value.

        It’s as if someone who insists there is a monster in Loch Ness keeps defending his belief against scientific criticism by arguing that science isn’t the right tool for this issue. It can’t pronounce on what’s in the lake for the same reason it can’t be used to prove that we ought to help endangered species. Unless and until scientists do find a monster in the lake, of course. Then science works just fine.

        1. Yes, I’ve been aware of these semantic games, and I played them myself when I was a believer. The key is to confuse claims of opinion with claims of fact and pretend they are the same sort of claims. With opinions there are “no wrong answers”– but with a fact, the answers are the same for everyone no matter what they believe or might opine.

          There’s this idea in faith based thinking that if you believe or want something badly enough you can “will” it to be true. (Repeat “I do believe in fairies” over and over so that Tinkerbell will live!)

  17. Well, quite aside from anything that Scott does say, she’s deadly boring! It’s fine to read from a script, but she could at least try to look animated, and be a bit more expressive, put some meaning into what she has to say.

    As to the content, while it is probably true that science will never provide the answer to the question of the meaning of life, religion is really not likely to be any more successful. How does being created by a god make life meaningful? I know all sorts of people who have religious belief and don’t find their lives meaningful at all. Meaning is something that individuals provide or not, as the case may be. Religion or science don’t come into it.

    Well, doesn’t the fact that some religious believe that they were created for a purpose give meaning to life — namely, the purpose? The Shorter catechism says that our purpose is to love god and enjoy him forever. Okay? Now, where’s the meaning in that? You have to fill that with meaning yourself; just saying it won’t provide a sense of meaning, and believing it won’t either.

    So far as I can see that’s the way meaning works. It’s something we contribute or not, depending on our circumstances. Sometimes, like Scott when she was an expectant mother, we wonder why the hell we decided to do X, and then doing X either has meaning, because it fits in somehow with how we conceive of ourselves, or it doesn’t.

    I got married once, and it never took, for lots of reasons, no doubt. And then I got unmarried and married again, and the second time round I experienced a relationship that not even death could break.

    But the idea that religion itself is somehow about the meaning of life is a bit of a bad joke. Life is about the meaning of life — or not, as the case may be. Sometimes we chance upon things that fill our lives with meaning. Sometimes the bottom simply falls out of the world. But it happens to religious people just as much as it does to non-religious people, so the idea that meaning is somehow beyond science is simply a category mistake, as though one thing is about facts and another about meaning. That’s a myth, and it’s one that the religious keep trying to foist on us, because it’s the only thing they’ve got going for them. But if you really look at it, they don’t even have that.

    1. Well, doesn’t the fact that some religious believe that they were created for a purpose give meaning to life — namely, the purpose?

      … so what meaning there is, is created for the gods of choice.

      Hasn’t anyone noticed that creationism is terribly non-humanistic and arrogant? Of course atheists have noticed that on religion, but I would expect religious being capable of self-reflection as well as the rest of humanity.

      Or, assuming they are self aware (always an iffy proposition around cult-heads), do they shy away to keep the cognitive dissonance to a minimum?

    2. doesn’t the fact that some religious believe that they were created for a purpose give meaning to life

      Cows are created to feed people, but I doubt that would provide much comfort to a philosophically-inclined bovine.

  18. I’m pleased to see Forrest embraces the idea that the success of methodological naturalism provides support for philosophical naturalism. I’ve always thought this obvious, but everyone seems to back off from saying it, even the pro-science people.

    1. Just to make a terribly nitpicky rationalist comment, not “everyone” does so, as evident from my first comment. (What I shy away from is the implication that these are theological philosophical issues, as I believe the terms and ideas originate from. It is indeed something of an oxymoron, I believe, if they would have been so and thus not amenable for the actual effect of evidence.)

      Dawkins, Stenger, perhaps also Dennett, effectively says the same when they discuss gods-of-the-gaps arguments. What else would “gaps” refer to than the haphazard “don’t know” answer to a natural question, and how can this not imply that the success of science has promoted effectively a non-gods world view?

    2. Yes, many are afraid to suggest that science can lead to atheism, lest it scare of those whose faith has cultivated a fear and prejudice against atheism.

      The accommodationists want to use the fact that there are supernatural believers that are scientists as evidence that the two can be compatible with the hopes that his will encourage more scientific thinking. They want to hide or gloss over any association between science and lack of religion, because they think it will scare people away from learning science, particularly evolution. But it’s the religious indoctrination that has made believers scientifically ignorant. It’s their religious indoctrination that tells them they are “saved” for what they believe and punished eternally if they stop believing. Accommodationism does nothing to free people from these delusions; from what I can tell, it only encourages them.

      To me, accommodationism prolongs the root of the problem- this idea that faith is good and noble and a means of finding out something true.

      I don’t really know how you accommodate some brands of magical thinking without making it sound like science is supportive of all woo that it can’t prove false. It just seems dishonest to imply that gods and souls are more “scientific” than demons and witchcraft.

      1. As I see it, a priori dualism (and/or higher degrees of separation of physics, ehm, nature) had even chances. So what if it didn’t win out?

        Are they suggesting [shocked] special pleading? [/shocked]

        I demand right of “winners write the history” at this point. And “Science´” for $800, thank you Alex.

  19. Posting in order to subscribe to new comments. It’s really hard to find them with the nested comment-threading.

  20. If the plagiarism of some scientists disqualifies science as a world view, then wouldn’t the centuries of horror perpetrated by religious organizations make religions even less qualified to be considered world views?

    Once again we have a double standard regarding religions. If religious believers act badly in the name of their religion, that shouldn’t be held against the religion itself, but any scientists who commit ethical offenses permanently tarnish the good name of science.

    When worldwide scientific organizations begin burning people at the stake for refusing to profess belief in evolution, or spend decades protecting and enabling thousands of pedophiles by threatening their victims with eternal torment, then I’ll start taking Eugenie Scott’s opinions seriously.

    1. What about the plagarisms of religions? Christianity borrowed and subverted other religions, incorporating their beliefs. Islam borrowed from Christianity, same with Mormonism. Buddhism from Hinduism. Heck, even scientology borrowed from science fiction of the day. Yet this plagarism is considered good?

  21. Scott says she felt an “indescribable surge of love, protectiveness, care, and I bonded like iron to that helpless little baby.”: Isn’t the whole point of that evolved physiology to promote those “meaningful” feelings? And isn’t it likely that some day we will understand precisely how those hormones act on our brain to create those emotions we find so “meaningful”?

    The inclusion of the supernatural seems to always be associated with emotions or feelings; the fuzzy bits of human experience. I guess that is the only place it can fit in, and the more we actually understand of our fuzzy bits, the less supernaturalism is needed. If you get a series chemical triggers in the brain that causes you to have an attachment to another being, and that is experienced through the medium of “emotions” then why should there be a deeper “meaning” attached to it? In this universe, it doesn’t “mean” anything. The sense of meaning or purpose is just another emotional feeling that humans attach to experienced phenomena, just as a sense of heat is a feeling that an object is too hot to touch. Just as the feeling of “too hot!” is triggered into the brain so the body reacts to reduce damage to tissues, the feeling of “this idea has meaning” is a way for the brain to attach significance to an experience or idea, so we remember it. Though, I am no biologist, so my comparison may be faulty, and would greatly welcome any correction to this description. 😉

    Tell you what; if accomodationalists feel (heh) that they must use emotions to show that science doesn’t know everything, and there is room for the supernatural, how about accomodationalists only use descriptions of other feelings such as post-natal depression, racism, bigotry etc. and point out that their benevolent, all-loving god gave them those sensations. A discussion on depression being a result of a god’s will would be interesting to have, especially as that divine will can be counteracted with the appropriate prescription of chemicals.

    1. Ooh that’s a good point. How different Scott’s story would have sounded if the mysterious meaningful feeling had been a nasty one. She of course stacked the deck by choosing one absolutely loaded with prior approval. Love! Infant! Helpless! Little! Mommy! Bonding!

      1. After having her first child, my younger sister wrote to me and said it had made her see more clearly that the only reason we are here is to reproduce ourselves. I think she was drinking a glass or two (or perhaps three?)of red wine at the time of writing the letter, because there was quite a large wine-stain on the paper, but I don’t think that detracts from her insight, which in no way prevented – or prevents – from loving her children deeply.

      2. How different Scott’s story would have sounded if the mysterious meaningful feeling had been a nasty one.

        The loving feelings are a mysterious gift from God — post-partum depression is just due to lack of serotonin.

          1. That’s the way it always is – religion get the credit for good things, but bad things are the fault of people. Religion has the ultimate get out of jail free card, thanks to people like this.

      3. Is intellectual honesty too much to ask from a spokesperson for the National Center for frigging Science Education? Apparently any principles are worth abandoning if they might make the religious feel more relaxed.

  22. The conflict is between secular philosophies like humanism and supernaturalism, not between supernaturalism and science.

    There’s another problem with that besides the one mentioned. Supernaturalism is not a secular philosophy.

    1. I think you’re misinterpreting the sentence, Ophelia which is not difficult to do because it appears to be ambiguous.

      I believe the intended meaning is as follows:

      The conflict is between secular philosophies such as, say, humanism on the one hand, and (non-secular philosophies) such as, say, supernaturalism on the other hand, not between supernaturalism and science.

  23. Ms. Scott needs to realize that Jehovah required the ancient Jews used to sacrifice their first born son. Until Jewish society decided that sucked and, over a period of CENTURIES, worked away from the practice, substituting animals in their ritual sacrifices.

  24. “Nevertheless, they have an distressing habit of coddling religion, which they think—mistakenly in my view—helps them further their goals.”

    In theory, whether accommodating religion furthers the NCSE’s goals is an empirical claim. But testing it, in practice, is another matter.

    1. Quite.
      I have never seen any that has not been shown to be fabricated fraud.
      I should be delighted were ANY genuine statistical evidence, no matter tendentious, to be shown to me.
      But so far: NIL.
      Despite the blow-hard winds of Mooney, et alia.

  25. I saw this on the live webfeed in October, and I was disgusted. What is she playing at? A leading science educator bends over backwards to accomodate religion and superstition, because science has “limits”?

    I was pleased to hear Victor Stenger’s talk just afterwards, where he cut through the BS to say that Christianity was simply incompatible with science.

  26. The worst aspect of her line of argument is that I don’t think even SHE thinks its a winnable point. Eugenie is not some liberal Christian arguing for an ineffable God or even one of those insufferable agnostics whose main objectives seems to be to discover a position that allows them to feel superior to both believers and atheists. She is an atheist who has looked at the evidence and come down firmly on one side – our side.
    What she is doing here is politics – using a set of words that can mean very different things to different people, the objective being to get everyone to feel fuzzy and warm about your stance and to go along with you. This type of approach is really anathema to scientists which is why a lot of us get riled when we see it coming from the head of an organization that seeks to promote science.
    Perhaps it would be easier to swallow if Eugenie renamed her organization the National Center for the Promotion of Evolution in Education. In that case they wouldn’t have to go to such extreme lengths to conceal awkward topics like the scientific method – something that certainly isn’t compatible, as a means of gaining knowledge of the world, with the religion of many of their allies.

  27. “Where is the evidence that accommodation has improved the position of science in society?”

    How about the body of US constitional law on the establishment clause? You might have read some of it in Kitzmiller v Dover Area BoE. Viewing science as not necessarily being non-religion has been what has kept creationism out of at least a good swathe of the US public school system.

    While you might wish that US constitutional law would produce the same results if judges concluded that accepting science requires that one be a philosophical materialist, it is unlikely that this result would obtain. It has been held that government in the USA, thanks to the First Amendment’s ‘establishment clause’, can promote neither religion nor non-religion. By insisting that science is but a subset of non-religion, you would put it beyond the pale as a subject that could be taught in public schools in the USA in any way other than that in which ‘world religions’ are taught.

    I’m sure it must be some comfort to you to know that the creationists are on your side on this one, as they would love nothing better than having science put on the same legal footing as religion.

    Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

    1. What a load of nonsense.
      The establishment clause is very clear. It shouldn’t matter if it’s an atheist or a theistic evolutionist arguing a point of order about evolution and creationism, their stance should be the same – religion should not be taught in science classes. The trouble with the US is that the establishment clause has been ignored for political purposes (In God we Trust?, One Nation under God?)
      By the way who the hell claims you need to be a philosophical naturalist to do science? There is no difference between science based on philosophical naturalism compared to methodological naturalism (which basically means you act as though there is no God interfering with nature).

    2. You HAVE to be kidding!
      I have never heard such a load of tosh in months.
      The very evidence alone puts a big lie to your main thesis!

  28. I think it can all be summed up pretty neatly this way-religion,and other associated wooclaimers make claims that can indeed be tested by science.In fact they have,and been found to be-nonexistent.Victor Stenger makes this point pretty clearly in his books.But I would remind everyone that existence is a mystery,but as Dawkins said that doesnt mean religion has come up with any answer at all that clears it all up.

  29. As an evolutionist, a scientist, and a practicing atheist, I am interested in influencing public attitudes in a positive, favorable direction.

    If the recent election demonstrated anything (although unfortunately it was not anything new) it was that the United States public is predominantly uneducated, and that includes being anti-evolution, anti-science, and anti-atheist.

    If we’re so smart, why aren’t we more realistic? We can talk freely among ourselves, but we will never win any public arguments by spitting in the faces of the very people who control the funding and hold the power.

    If we want to have a positive effect on people’s behavior, we have to speak to them in language they can both understand and accept. It’s a long, slow, painful job.

    If any of us had to make a living by trying to speak to the general public in a way that would make them hate evolution, science, and atheism LESS, we would be among the first to approach them exactly the same way Eugenie Scott does.

    Forget idiotic pejorative labels like “accommodationist,” which is simply misleading! A much better word is “persuasive.” Let’s get off her back and help her do her job the way she does it–better than anybody else!

    1. Horse manure. “Reaching out” hasn’t led to any stampede of people embracing science. We can play softball with peoples beliefs all we want, but that’s not going to accomplish any more than it has since the Scopes Trial.

    2. By “we”, I presume you are implicitly parochially restricting your world internet audience to residents of the USA?
      Such insouciant insularity does not bode well for a cogent analysis.
      I have been requesting that supporters of accommodationism, one of whom you appear to be, that they show some actual facts to support their base supposition.
      References, studies, even mass anecdotes would suffice for a start.
      Yet what have I received? Nothing.
      Zilch. Zip. Nada. Zero. Nil.
      I have yet to be convinced to abandon my view that accomodationists are little more than pearl-clutching wishful thinking intellectual vandals.
      Do you, perchance, have ANY stats with which to back up your feelings?
      I’m sure that I would not be the sole skeptic who should like to see these ghostly fatcs.

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