A bunch of us go after Nicholas Wade’s accommodationism in the New York Times

December 4, 2012 • 9:47 am

Last week I wrote a critique of Nicholas Wade’s specious prescription, published in the New York Times, for curing the rift between fundamentalists and those who accept evolution.

I faulted him on two counts. First, he blamed atheists for the persistence of creationism, mentioning “militant atheists like the biologists Richard Dawkins”.  Second, he suggested that scientists should characterize evolution as a “theory” rather than as a “fact”—an action that, he claimed, that would heal the rift by offering creationists a “fig leaf” to save (or cover) face. In his original piece, Wade wrote this:

By allowing that evolution is a theory, scientists would hand fundamentalists the fig leaf they need to insist, at least among themselves, that the majestic words of the first chapter of Genesis are literal, not metaphorical, truths. They in return should make no objection to the teaching of evolution in science classes as a theory, which indeed it is.

I objected to that because it plays straight into the hands of creationists by suggesting that evolution is “only a theory”—their most powerful rhetorical weapon. And why would calling evolution a “theory” make any thinking person (or unthinking creationist) be strengthened in believing the literalism of Genesis? Those people already believe it strongly! Wade is suggesting that scientists make a Devil’s bargain, and I won’t have it.

I couldn’t rest by just posting my response in this website, and so I wrote a letter to the New York Times’s Science editor. Today, on p. 5 of the “Science” section, they printed that letter (the first one below) along with several others and Wade’s lame response. Here’s a screenshot, since it doesn’t seem to be online (maybe they’re too embarrassed by Wade’s inanities); click to enlarge:

Picture 1

And, in regular print, my letter and Wade’s response (my original was severely edited for space: cut by more than 50%):

To the editor:

Nicholas Wade argues that creationists will be converted to evolution only when scientists “show respect for all religion.” That claim is patently false.  Organizations like BioLogos, founded by National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, have spent many years and much money trying to turn Christian creationists toward evolution by “respecting their faith”.  It hasn’t worked.

Teaching that the book of Genesis is a metaphor, as Wade suggests, is anathema to fundamentalists since it implies that Jesus died for a metaphor—the original sin of a nonexistent Adam and Eve.

Reconciliation doesn’t change minds; reason and logic do.

Jerry A. Coyne
Chicago
Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution of the University of Chicago and author of “Why Evolution is True.”

Wade’s response:

Nicholas Wade replies:

Was I too hard on Senator Rubio? Our politicians have to cope with increasingly complex and technical issues. If they do not distinguish between good science and nonsense, they will be without guidance and, as I said, rudderless. But the thrust of the article was to blame the unresolved war between fundamentalists and scientists for putting politicians like Mr. Rubio in such a difficult position.

As Rabbi Cahana suggests, creationists like to say evolution is “just a theory,” as if it were mere speculation. In scientific parlance, however, a theory is a vast intellectual edifice that explains and is supported by a large array of facts and scientific laws. Evolution is a theory in the latter sense only.

Still, many diplomatic treaties are written so the two sides can interpret critical terms in their own way and allow business to proceed. This is the basis for a compromise: let fundamentalists interpret the word “theory” as they wish and in return cease to oppose the teaching of evolution in schools.

I confess that I lack Dr. Coyne’s zeal for converting the creationists to Darwinism. Nor did I suggest it would be either possible or desirable.

What would be desirable is to get them to drop their opposition to teaching evolution in schools. That is a practical issue to be settled by negotiation. Unfortunately, the extremists on both sides are so fond of striking militant stances that the gap between them has only increased.

Most of the other letters also castigate Wade for misunderstanding what a scientific theory is, and I can’t resist highlighting Eric Schwaber’s letter, which is terse and to the point:

To the editor:

Admitting evolution is a theory won’t change anything. Gravity is a theory, but you don’t see fundamentalists jumping out of 10th floor windows. The problem here is not in the semantics of the discussion, but in the irrational refusal of empirical and scientific evidence by religious organizations.

Eric Schwaber
Medford, Mass.

In contrast, Wade’s “response” is a non-response, failing to deal with the substantive issues about how creationists use “theory” when characterizing evolution. Nor does he consider whether his suggestion would work (anybody who knows fundamentalists realizes it wouldn’t). He could have backed off, but remained intransigent.

What strikes me is his almost prideful statement that he “lacks Dr. Coyne’s zeal for converting the creationists to Darwinism.” (Note the words “zeal,” and “conversion” which implies militancy or even the religiosity of evolutionists. Wade could have said “enthusiasm”! And what’s wrong with trying to teach evolution?)

But fine—leave the “conversion” to the evolutionists.  But what’s really dumb is Wade’s suggestion that if we characterize evolution as a “theory,” the faithful won’t necessarily accept the factuality of that theory, but will stop opposing the teaching of evolution in public schools. What a ridiculous notion! If fundamentalists don’t accept evolution but see it as the Devil’s work, and themselves believe in creationism, what on earth makes Wade think that by characterizing evolution as a “theory”—but still teaching the evidence for it—creationists won’t try to stick their own noses in the tent? For make no mistake: any good science teacher is going to do more than say “evolution is a theory.” That teacher will show how it’s a scientific theory buttressed by innumerable facts.

Finally, the issue of teaching creationism in the schools is certainly not one “to be settled by negotiation.” There is no compromise that is desirable or possible: it’s an issue to be settled by legal battles and unrelenting opposition to the superstitions and lies of creationists.

And once again Wade uses the “atheists-and -fundamentalists-are-both-militant” trope:

Unfortunately, the extremists on both sides are so fond of striking militant stances that the gap between them has only increased.

This man is an embarrassment to that newspaper, which is rapidly becoming a haven for accommodationism.

And that statement, of course, brings to mind the famous xkcd cartoon:

atheists

h/t: John Brockman for the scan and alert

49 thoughts on “A bunch of us go after Nicholas Wade’s accommodationism in the New York Times

  1. Wait a minute – they solicited responses from Wade so they could publish them in the same issue as the letters he was responding to?

    When my college newspaper did something similar back in 1990, professional journalists and journalism professors criticized them heavily.

    1. FWIW, in the Letters section of Science magazine, I’ve often seen letters vs. some earlier paper and a reply from the au’s of said paper.

      1. This is pretty standard, and widespread, practice.
        If you had “Proposer” and “Contradictor” in the same room along with all interested parties, then the exchange(s) would take place thus. By bundling up various “Proposer” and “Contradictor” letters into one block, the publishers can fulfil their obligation to both sides. Win – Win!

  2. The problem with Wade’s idea is that if we accept the creationists’ definition of theory, why the heck would we expect them to give up on trying to block evolution in school? I wouldn’t want something with that definition taught either! “Wait a second, you want to waste time in my kid’s science class with stuff that’s essentially just a guess or a hunch???” Also, obviously, allowing their definition would allow them to push creationism and ID. So Wade’s suggestion would do NOTHING positive, and EVERYTHING negative.

  3. I really hate Wade’s argument…. his best case scenario is that you just write off the fundamentalist children and don’t even bother to educate them, because a choice their parents made for them trumps the validity of science. I don’t know how you could teach a subject successfully to the students that *aren’t* fundamentalists with the kind of hand holding, don’t offend anyone that’s wrong style that he advocates.

    Dawkins’s example of a Latin student that denies that the Romans existed, or even could have existed is apt…. all education suffers when you start allowing people to have an excuse not to learn.

    1. I got something similar from the article, but that he’s just writing off fundamentalists entirely. Sure, they’re ignorant about a basic fact of our world, but he doesn’t have the ‘zeal’ to educate them. And they don’t understand what the word, theory, means. Again – don’t go for education. Just let the creationists continue to wallow in their ignorance so that they don’t disturb everybody else.

  4. Admitting evolution is a theory won’t change anything. Gravity is a theory, but you don’t see fundamentalists jumping out of 10th floor windows.

    More’s the pity.

  5. Yes, let’s not be militant, let’s not upset the flat-earthers too much. Let’s just agree that the Earth is curved ever so slightly.

        1. Well, the flat-earth theory is certainly a useable approximation in small, localised areas (for example it’s implicitly assumed when setting out most buildings). So it could be said to bear the same relationship to the spherical-earth theory as, say, Newtonian mechanics does to relativistic mechanics.

          It only becomes wrong when extrapolated beyond the limits of its validity.

          The God theory, on the other hand, is fundamentally different, it’s hard to regard it as a localised case of some other more comprehensive reality…

  6. “I confess that I lack Dr. Coyne’s zeal for converting the creationists to Darwinism.”

    Yeah, this is when I get depressed. Like calling the Democratic party of the United States the “Democrat” party, Wade’s use of the word “Darwinism” instantly alerts me that he has agenda.

    Why wasn’t it possible for Wade to write his refutation without resorting to this passive-aggressive, snide crap?

    1. “I confess that I lack Dr. Coyne’s zeal for converting the creationists to Darwinism.”

      I don’t see that this is the main goal of the pro-science groups.

      1. It is to stop the creationists from sneaking their mythology into our kid’s science classes.

      2. To educate people whose minds aren’t encased in the concrete of blind and kooky religious ideology.

      3. If Wade is lazy, that is his problem and no one else’s. We lack Wade’s ability to fiddle while Rome burns.

  7. Note also the creationist in the centre of the page repeating Ken Ham’s claim that there are ‘two types of science’,

  8. “Gravity is a theory, but you don’t see fundamentalists jumping out of 10th floor windows.”

    I can dream, can’t I?

    1. There is a famous quote, attributed to Alan Sokal in the aftermath of his undercover busting of the post-modernist cabal:

      Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)

  9. Wade’s initial article, then the subsequent onslaught of letters (and, Wade joining in at length) reminds me of the party game where blocks are piled high in a large “structure”, and, in turn, each player must remove a block without causing the entire pile to collapse. If Wade is not too careful, removing a block here or there might cause the entire pile, i.e., religion, to collapse in a final heap.

    His own “response” within all the letters appears to be an attempt to shore up the ‘structure’ before so many player join in, take blocks out, and cause collapse. Well, the way he arranged the pile in the first place is the reason for so much instability.

    Jerry, you note your own frustration re the editing of your letter by person or persons unknown. This is of course a problem of “column-inches” and is one of many reasons why the death of newspapers is upon us. Your statement was less important than the Macy’s advert! In this year (2012-100=1912) of the Titanic, the incredibly rich exchange about the reported “heroism” of the crew and captain between George B. Shaw and Arthur Conan Doyle, printed in their unabridged style and detail in the weeks following the sinking, is instructive for all print newspapers wishing to remain in business.

      1. George B. Shaw? GB Shaw?

        I hardly recognised George Bernard Shaw aka GBS: author of Pygmalian, which became My Fair Lady, and many better works; campaigner for English spelling reform (alphabet reform, even); and still worth reading as a music critic because he looked at the flowering of the late Romantic period with fresh eyes; but sadly mystical when it came to biology.

  10. Wade:

    What would be desirable is to get them to drop their opposition to teaching evolution in schools.
    That is a practical issue to be settled by negotiation.

    No is isn’t.

    1. This is the fallacy of the mean. There are two sides and they both have a point. It’s wrong.

    One side can be completely wrong. Creationism is just factually wrong.

    2. This conflict has been going on since 1859 when Darwin published his book. If negotiation would have worked, we would know it by now.

    What is there to negotiate anyway. We don’t negotiate or vote about what reality is.

    3. The law and reality is on our side and has been since the beginning. The creationists will get old and die and that is when the problem will be solved.

  11. Wade:

    Unfortunately, the extremists on both sides are so fond of striking militant stances that the gap between them has only increased.

    This isn’t true either.

    Thanks to the fundies and creationists, US xianity is dying.

    Xians are projected to go below 50% of the population by 2030 to 2040. The religion is losing 2 to 3 million members per year, a lot.

  12. Nicholas Wade says:

    But the thrust of the article was to blame the unresolved war between fundamentalists and scientists for putting politicians like Mr. Rubio in such a difficult position.”

    This was the thrust of Wade’s article?

    THIS???

    The perilous and precarious plight of pandering, pompous, and pitiful poophead politicians like Rico “Suave” Rubio?

    I think I’ll just sit down and cry me a RIVER, Nicholas Wade!

    1. Rubio supporters might get upset at this. I’m sure they’ll be OK with it if you mention the theory of alliteration, though.

      1. Good point.

        Okay, the theory of alliteration is JUST a theory.

        Rubio, now you’re a poophead.

        Such a deal!

        😉

  13. I confess that I find the zeal that Mr Wade displays in his pursuit of compromise between religion and science totally bewildering and gob-smacking. I am forced to conclude that if there was disagreement between those who believe that 2+2= 4 and those whose faith led them to an answer, 2+2=5, Mr Wade would work to exhaustion to convince the world that 2 + 2 equalled 4 1/2.

      1. “2 + 2 = 5, for sufficiently large values of 2” – a favourite tagline from the old message board days…

  14. Very few people over the age of, say, twelve who claim to believe in Creationism do so because they think there is evidence for it: rather, they assert their belief as a way of demonstrating the strength of their faith. Embracing Creationism is an easy way to do this without committing themselves to anything self-destructive or illegal. It’s the Christian equivalent of a gang colour patch or a tribal tattoo. It says ‘I’m prepared to be stupid for my religion.’

    Making it harder to be stupid is only going to make it more attractive to these people. The only effective way to shut down Creationism is to shut down religion in general.

    1. Nah, I would speculate that for a high fraction of the offspring of creationists, the World Wide Web and a network of friends (e.g. Facebook) causes them to dump it all…religion, maybe, but almost certainly creationism. It has been tallied that youth today generate a lot of their future adult attitudes by the machinery of the influence of their peers, despite their parents fervently attempted instruction.

  15. “Spot the Creationist” is so much easier than “Where’s Waldo?” George Valliath sounds like Ken Ham’s parrot as he trots out the tired old creationist lie about how some science can never be tested therefore god.

    1. …therefore his particular interpretation of his particular cult’s teaching of the concept of deity dominant in the culture that he happened to be born into.
      There, FIFY! 😉

  16. “Admitting evolution is a theory won’t change anything. Gravity is a theory, but you don’t see fundamentalists jumping out of 10th floor windows”

    I am not sure this argument works. You do not have to accept the theory of gravity to know that objects fall to the ground when dropped. You just see it happen.

    1. That’s really my point. The reason so many Christians are Creationists rather than, say, witch-burners or adulterer-stoners or shellfish-abstainers is because Creationism has no inconvenient implications for your wealth or safety or personal freedom. If fundamentalists made it a tenet of their belief that you had to donate all your possessions to the poor, then there would suddenly be a lot fewer fundamentalists.

  17. I was rather intrigued by Darwin Hall’s notion of a “theory of natural selection to explain the fact of evolution” though I realize most biologists don’t talk in those terms.

    One of the annoying things about Wade’s original piece (not noted here) was his notion that evolution is a theory and a fact in the way that elementary particles are both particles and waves. This seems to me to be a deeply inept analogy. There’s an inherent paradox in the particle/wave dichotomy, but none at all in the evolution as being simultaneously theory and fact.

  18. Wade:

    “Still, many diplomatic treaties are written so the two sides can interpret critical terms in their own way and allow business to proceed. This is the basis for a compromise: let fundamentalists interpret the word “theory” as they wish and in return cease to oppose the teaching of evolution in schools.’

    Wait, what? The secret to good negotiation is to be unclear — so that both sides interpret a key concept in completely different ways? And then business “proceeds?”

    Maybe, I guess … if you’re not concerned too much about what happens in the long term and you just want to paper over a significant disagreement quickly and easily. The business that proceeds is not going to be proceeding like progression, I think, but like a lunchline. There’s a smorgasbord placed before us: we can both take away what we want without quarreling, thus acting as if truth is a matter of preference and taste. “Theory” means different things to different people — and some of us don’t like broccoli quiche. So what? The important thing is that nobody gets angry and tells the other person they’re wrong. We can all be right. Move along, nothing to see here.

    My New Age friends argue like this all the time. Let’s not argue: let’s just believe totally different things but use the same word. We’re both “spiritual.” Instant harmony!

    Sheesh.

  19. “Like those electrons that can be waves or particles”
    That is not an accurate description of electrons.

    “Unlike a fact, a theory cannot be absolutely true.”
    Sure it can.

    “Evolutionary biologists are furiously debating whether or not natural selection can operate on groups of individuals”
    No, they’re not.

    “By allowing that evolution is a theory, scientists would hand fundamentalists the fig leaf they need to insist, at least among themselves, that the majestic words of the first chapter of Genesis are literal, not metaphorical, truths.”
    Fundamentalists are going to insist that not matter what. And this statement makes sense only if “allowing that evolution is a theory” means “allowing the evolution is not a fact”.

    “They in return should make no objection to the teaching of evolution in science classes as a theory, which indeed it is.”
    And yet they do.

    “And rudderless politicians like Senator Rubio wouldn’t have to throw 15 back flips and a hissy fit when asked a simple question like how old is the earth.”
    Rubio is being criticized for saying that evolution is just a theory. How would scientists saying that too solve anything?

  20. This is the basis for a compromise: let fundamentalists interpret the word “theory” as they wish and in return cease to oppose the teaching of evolution in schools.

    Holy cow that’s bad. Has he not thought about what his suggestion would lead to in terms of what they will teach their kids in schools?

  21. Mr. Wade seems to be completely unequipped and massively outgunned to conduct a reasonable discussion on this matter. He calls for respect to be shown to the flat earth society that denies science. I say that it not only deserves no respect, but should be treated with absolute contempt.

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