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.