The Royal Society of New Zealand blows off those complaining about its treatment of the Satanic Seven; refuses to apologize for mistreating them

April 15, 2022 • 8:15 am

I don’t want to recount the whole story about how seven professors at Auckland University, three of them members of the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ), wrote a letter to a magazine (“The Listener”) questioning whether Maori “ways of knowing” (Mātauranga Māori, or “MM”) should be taught along with and coequal to science, as the government is planning.

Because they questioned whether MM,, which is a collection of myths, superstition, legend, morality, some practical knowledge, and misinformation (i.e., creationism) should be taught as “science”, the “Satanic Seven” were largely demonized as racists. Two of the members (one recently died), were chastised in a tweet from the RSNZ, and then were investigated by the RSNZ because there were ludicrous complaints that their letter caused “harm”. They were eventually exculpated, but at the beginning the RSNZ put this statement on its website:

This statement criticizes the signing members by asserting that MM is science, that the modern definition of science is “outmoded” (presumably it should include creationism), and simply rejecting the assertions of their three members. This announcement is invidious, and eventually the RSNZ, after what seems to have been a complaint from London’s Royal society, took it down.

You can read more about this, and see the petition described below, at an earlier post. In the meantime, 73 fellows of the RSNZ—a substantial portion of the members—signed a petition complaining about the Society’s behavior  and making three motions:

We therefore move that:

1. Both the Society and Academy write to Professors Cooper and Nola, and to the Estate of Professor Corballis, and apologise for its handling of the entire process.

2. The Society reviews its current code of conduct to ensure that this cannot happen again, and in future the actions of the Academy/Council are far more circumspect and considered in regards to complaints concerning contentious matters.

3. The entirety of the RSNZ/RSTA entity be reviewed, examining structure and function and alignment with other international academies, and the agency given its Fellows upon whom its reputation rests.

The RSNZ responded that it would hold a special meeting on Wednesday to consider this petition. It did, but, as the notes below show, the RSNZ didn’t do squat, much less even vote on the motions.

An RSNZ member who will remain anonymous conveyed these notes to me abut the meeting. (Note: “RSTA” in the text below, which stands for “The Royal Society Te Apārangi”, is the same thing as what I’ve been calling RSNZ—”Royal Society of New Zealand”—whose full name is “Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi.” The notes taken by the member are indented, while the are mine. Note the quotes from Māori experts affirming that MM is not science!

Notes on RSTA meeting 13 April 2022

The RSTA meeting involved about 100 people on site in Wellington and over 100 people online.

The meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule, which means participants can report on the “information received” but not on the identity of the speakers or their affiliation. This is supposed to facilitate open discussion. Of course participants were not allowed to discuss the Rule.

The next procedural matter participants were told was that there could not be a vote on any of the motions proposed.

One of the two facilitators explained that the President of RSTA, Brent Clothier, and the Chair of Academy Council, Charlotte Macdonald, would not be answering questions since this was about “you having your say.” To many it seemed, rather, that the facilitators were there to serve the RSTA executive in damage control. In accord with this rule the President and Academy Chair did not have to answer questions, repeatedly put, about how the message they both signed, denouncing the Listener letter-writers for things they did not actually say, and kept on the RSTA website for months, was decided upon and worked out.

After the mover of the motions spoke to them at length and corporate governance was then also spoken to, there was a little discussion of the ruling that there could be no vote on any of the motions proposed. But further discussion was blocked (except for one objection) when it was reiterated by the “independent” facilitators that it was “inappropriate” to have votes today, “not possible” because the rules of the Society do not allow it. True enough: this was one of the complaints, of course, that there is almost no way Fellows can have input, either by putting items on an AGM or calling for another meeting (at least RSTA agreed to this meeting, knowing that the widely-supported request for it had already become an embarrassingly public fact) or voting on issues.

There was some discussion of mātauranga Māori and science, including one early speaker who claimed that there were racist tropes in the Listener letter [JAC: You can read the letter here.] because it claimed that “indigenous knowledge is not science” and this was like saying “indigenous art is not art.” It was not said at the meeting that it is very strange to claim that it is racist to suggest that “indigenous knowledge is not science,” in view of the fact that leading Māori advocates of mātauranga Maori, Professor Sir Mason Durie, and of the decolonisation of education and research, Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith, say the same thing:

You can’t understand science through the tools of Mātauranga Māori, and you can’t understand Mātauranga Māori through the tools of science. They’re different bodies of knowledge, and if you try to see one through the eyes of the other you mess up. “

Sir Mason Durie, Vision Mātauranga Rauika Māngai [2nd Ed], 2020, p. 26

Indigenous knowledge cannot be verified by scientific criteria nor can science be adequately assessed according to the tenets of indigenous knowledge.  Each is built on distinctive philosophies, methodologies and criteria.”

Durie, M. (2004) ‘Exploring the Interface between Science and Indigenous Knowledge’. 5th APEC Research and Development Leaders Forum. Capturing Value from Science.

And from the intellectual leader of the decolonisation movement, Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2016):

“[S]ome aspects of IK mātauranga are fundamentally incommensurate with other, established disciplines of knowledge and in particular with science, and are a much grander and more ‘mysterious’ set of ideas, values and ways of being than science.”

Smith, L., Maxwell, Te K., Puke, H., Temara, P. (2016)  ‘Indigenous Knowledge, Methodology and Mayhem: What is the Role of Methodology in Producing Indigenous Insights? A Discussion from Mātauranga Māori’. Knowledge Cultures 4(3): 131-56.)

But it was said that while it would now be racist to claim that indigenous art is not art, partly because art has fuzzy boundaries and because indigenous art contains such treasures, science has much sharper boundaries and rules, especially that anyone can propose or challenge ideas in science, and that there is no final say—positions directly at odds with the claims about mātauranga Māori by leading Māori:

Māori are the only ones who should be controlling all aspects of its retention, its transmission, its protection.”

Aroha Te Pareake Mead, Rauika Māngai, A Guide to Vision Mātauranga, p. 33)

Most of the discussion of MM (and there wasn’t much) consisted of affirmations that it is valued (often as if this is an argument for its being science). No one of course argued otherwise at the meeting, and the Listener letter writers had explicitly affirmed its value, including for science, and that it should be taught—just not as science.

More of the discussion was on governance and RSTA’s engagement, or lack of it, with Fellows, and discouragement of free speech. There was certainly widespread agreement that there was insufficient engagement or space for input or discussion among Fellows.

A number of Fellows independently called for the apology to Garth Cooper, Robert Nola and Michael Corballis’s estate in motion 1 to be sent out by RSTA, and no one spoke against it. No one maintained that the RSTA acted correctly in their website denunciation or the removal of the exoneration of any suggestion of bad faith on the fellows’ part from the report of the Investigating Panel. To many, however, it seems unlikely that RSTA will take this request on board, although signed by the seventy-plus signatories of the letter to RSTA and supported again viva voce in the meeting.

On the other hand it does seem likely that the RSTA officers will have to take on board the widespread criticisms of the lack of accountability and engagement. But that seems entirely up to them and their readiness to move beyond protecting their positions. There is no concrete pressure on them except the moral pressure they may feel from the unhappiness of many about the current system.

The two “independent” facilitators will write a report to go to the RSTA executives, which they can then do what they like with it.

Those present at the meeting in person or online have also been given an email to write to, until late (5pm? midnight?) on April 14 (i.e. the day after the meeting) where they can send in written comments to the RSTA executive. [JAC: Of course I don’t have this email, and even if I did I would not publish it because it is for Fellows alone.]

So there it is: a meeting RSTA didn’t have to call (although it would have elicited still more international embarrassment had they not), but with the predetermined rule that there was to be no vote on any motion; and with wide affirmation of MM and RSTA’s support for it (whether or not as science was much less clear); and wide criticism of RSTA’s corporate structure and lack of accountability, of its poor engagement with its Fellows and discouragement of free speech; and an emphasis on the RSTA’s need to clarify its function and to shape its form to fit this function. But this criticism is at this point to be responded to entirely as they see fit by a self-policing executive.

In other words, the Royal Society of New Zealand feels no responsibility to respond to its members’ motions, or to investigate its own behavior. It can if it wants, but if it doesn’t want to—and I suspect this will be the case—it doesn’t have to. They’re likely hoping the kerfuffle will blow over. As for “meeting”, it was simply window-dressing: giving its members a chance to blow off steam.

The RSNZ has come out of this with not just egg on its face, but a massive omelet draped over its body.  They were wrong to demonize and publicly disagree with their members, they were wrong in their characterization of MM as “science” (do they even know what science is?), and they were wrong to stonewall and not respond to the members’ call for apologies and structural form.

The two members who were investigated, Drs. Robert Nola and Garth Cooper, have resigned from the RSNZ. A large number of the other members are disaffected. The RSNZ won’t do the right thing because it would be considered “racist”.

The institution is ridiculous and and should be mocked.

What’s going on in New Zealand? Three easy pieces

January 9, 2022 • 10:45 am

I haven’t reported lately on what’s happening with science in New Zealand, so here’s a brief update. I have are three items.

As you may recall, there’s been a big fracas about the way to teach science in New Zealand, with the indigenous Māori  and their supporters arguing that mātauranga Māori, or Maori “ways of knowing” (a stew of knowledge gleaned from trial and error, mythology, philosophy, and legend, as well as creationism) should not only be taught in science classes, but taught as coequal with modern science. (See all my posts here.) This, argue the former, is required by treaty obligations (it isn’t). Seven University of Auckland professors signed a letter in the magazine The Listener arguing that mātauranga Māori isn’t the same as modern science, and while deserving to be taught in anthropology or sociology classes, it would be a disaster as taught as a “way of knowing” identical in content and validity to modern science.

Of the seven professors who signed The Letter, one has since died, but two (Robert Nola and Garth Cooper) were elected to New Zealand’s Royal Society, a huge honor.  And those two were—and still are—subject to an investigation by the RSNZ—for exercising their freedom of speech! Both the RSNZ and University of Auckland also issued statements criticizing the group I call “The Satanic Seven.” It was at this point that I realized that although New Zealand is a great country with lovely and progressive people, it is also a very Woke country, with the Māori regarded as almost an inerrant group of people whose “ways of knowing” produce truth simply because they come from the Māori.  And there doesn’t seem to be a surfeit of freedom of speech.

Outside of NZ, people are uniformly appalled by the disapprobation raining down on these two, as well as the other five. But within the country, people are pretty split between the science-friendly and the Woke.

A lot of the disapprobation from Kiwis was inspired by a petition started by two U. Auckland professors, Siouxie Wiles and Sean Hendy, both experts in Covid with high national profiles. You can see part of the petition they started, that garnered 2,000 signatures, here.) A bit of the petition (I’ve put a few logical errors or insteances of distorted reasoning in bold):

A letter signed by seven University of Auckland Professors/Professors Emeritus, published in the New Zealand Listener (July 23), claims to be “in defence of science” against what is described as an effort to “encourage mistrust of science”.

We, the signatories to this response, categorically disagree with their views. Indigenous knowledges – in this case, Mātauranga – are not lesser to other knowledge systems. Indeed, indigenous ways of knowing, including Mātauranga, have always included methodologies that overlap with “Western” understandings of the scientific method.

However, Mātauranga is far more than just equivalent to or equal to “Western” science. It offers ways of viewing the world that are unique and complementary to other knowledge systems.

The seven Professors describe efforts to reevaluate and revise the significance of Mātauranga in NCEA, including the acknowledgement of the role “western” science has played in rationalising colonisation as contributing to “disturbing misunderstandings of science emerging at all levels of education and in science funding.”

The Professors claim that “science itself does not colonise”, ignoring the fact that colonisation, racism, misogyny, and eugenics have each been championed by scientists wielding a self-declared monopoly on universal knowledge.

And while the Professors describe science as “universal”, they fail to acknowledge that science has long excluded indigenous peoples from participation, preferring them as subjects for study and exploitation. Diminishing the role of indigenous knowledge systems is simply another tool for exclusion and exploitation.

The Professors present a series of global crises that we must “battle” with science, again failing to acknowledge the ways in which science has contributed to the creation of these challenges. Putting science on a pedestal gets us no further in the solution of these crises.

Finally, they believe that “mistrust of science” is increased by this kind of critique. In contrast, we believe that mistrust in science stems from science’s ongoing role in perpetuating ‘scientific’ racism, justifying colonisation, and continuing support of systems that create injustice. There can be no trust in science without robust self-reflection by the science community and an active commitment to change.

Because of this petition, the Satanic Seven were further demonized, including having their jobs threatened, receiving harassing emails, and so on. In no case that I know of did the University of Auckland support them. Indeed, it helped criticize them.

Item #1:  It’s therefore Ironic that the main authors of that petition, Siouxsie Wiles and Sean Hendy, are now beefing that they, too, have been the subject of harassment for different reasons, and aren’t getting support from the University of Auckland. It’s laid out in this Guardian piece (click on screenshot):

An excerpt:

Two of New Zealand’s most prominent Covid experts are taking legal action against their employer, the University of Auckland, over what they say is its failure to respond adequately to “harassment from a small but venomous sector of the public” that is becoming “more extreme”.

Siouxsie Wiles, an associate professor of medical science, and Shaun Hendy, a professor of physics, have filed separate complaints to the Employment Relations Authority, which last week ruled that they should proceed directly to the Employment Court due to the “high public interest” in their Covid commentary.

According to the ruling, the scientists say that as a result of their work they have “suffered vitriolic, unpleasant, and deeply personalised threats and harassment” via email, social media and video sharing platforms which has had a “detrimental impact” on their physical safety as well as their mental health.

The determination also noted that Wiles had also been the victim of doxxing – in which personal information is published about a person online – while Hendy has been physically confronted at his university office by a person who threatened to “see him soon”.

Now I don’t countenance either threats or doxxing, which are reprehensible behaviors. But I find it ironic that both Wiles and Hendy are beefing about the very behaviors that their own petition instigated against the Satanic Seven—a foreseeable consequence of their actions (they are of course exercising free speech).  And as for threats, well, having one’s employment threatened would scare me more than simple threats by someone to “see me soon.” I have to add that none of the Satanic Seven have complained of victimhood (I’ve heard about the threats from them privately), nor sued the University of Auckland.  The whole mess is just ironic. The fact is, though, that none of these nine people did anything to deserve public disapprobation, but only two of them instigated a climate of hatred that affected the others.


Item #2. If you want to see how far down the rabbit hole the promoters of mātauranga Māori have gone, here’s an article from a popular magazine, Spinoff, an article that happened to be financed (how does a magazine article get “financed”?) by the University of Otago, one of the big promoters of mātauranga Māori and Māori studies in New Zealand. Click on the screenshot to read (along with the disclaimers):

(The funding, in very small print):

This is propaganda, not journalism:

This piece shares with other defenses of mātauranga Māori two features: a.) a lack of examples of scientific knowledge acquired using Māori “ways of knowing,” and b.) a plethora of mātauranga Māori words so frequent that they make the article almost unreadable to those who don’t speak the language. To me it seems a way of showing off, as if one were describing a kerfuffle about science in France by heavily larding it with French words. I’ll give examples.

First, below is the one bit of knowledge that mātauranga Māori is said to have conferred. This is in an English-language magazine, so good luck following it:

The arrival of a Pākehā scientist at Te Rau Aroha marae in Motupōhue asking questions about mātauranga Māori and kaitiakitanga wasn’t received with aroha by all. Moller said he was viewed as the face of a Pākehā institution which many whānau were sceptical about dealing with.

When the scientists wanted to place radio trackers on the manu, mana whenua firmly opposed it as their tikanga of kaitiakitanga is to not disturb the adult tītī. The scientists later tested the trackers on mainland manu and found they disrupted their attendance behaviour at the colony. Moller says it was a good example of how mātauranga Māori can improve science.

The upshot: indigenous people said putting a GPS tracker on a manu (a “muttonbird”, a type of petrel), would disturb the colony or the birds. They were right. This doesn’t, however, say that there isn’t another way of tracking these birds.

And that’s about it. Yes, you could teach this in a class as coequal with animal behavior, but it would take just two minutes. And this is the kind of example touted as the “science” of mātauranga Māori . But remember, that “way of knowing” also includes creation myths as scientific “truth”.

The paucity of what mātauranga Māori (“MM”) has to add to classes in modern science is repeatedly seen in articles that defend MM. Yes, some examples are useful in spicing up the curriculum and making it seem more local, but it’s not a replacement for modern science.

And a few bits of incomprehensible dual linguistics:

The University of Otago associate professor specialising in genetics is the most senior Māori academic of the handful working in his field.

For the last 20 years, Wilcox has been designing and creating tikanga-based research frameworks. He was part of the team that created Te Mata Ira: Guidelines for Genomic Research with Māori, which lays out how whakapapa, kawatikangamanatika and manaakitanga guide how DNA research is conducted with iwi and hapū.

Oops, here’s some more dissing—this time a backhanded slap at modern genetics:

Among the papers he teaches at the university is one about Māori concepts of hereditary inheritance – whakapapa and pepeha.

Whereas in Western science genetics is specialised, “pushed off the side” to breeding programmes or for “recreational” purposes like, Wilcox says whakapapa is a central tenet of te ao Māori culture.

Pushed off to the side for breeding programs and “recreational” pursuits like 23AndMe??? Does Professor Wilcox not know the span of modern genetics, now deeply invested in reconstructing human migration and ancestry from DNA sequences and “ancient DNA”, working on cures for dieases using CRISPR, or unravelling how genes create phenotypes (“evo devo”)? I’m sure whakapapa is investigating these matters as well as epigenetics and the role of micro-RNAs in gene expression. But wait, there’s more! (My bold.)

However, there are similarities between the two cultural approaches. Pepeha is split between hereditary locators (waka, iwi, hapū) and environment locators (marae, maunga, awa). Wilcox says this is exactly the same as the first equation in quantitative genetics: my phenotype is the sum of my genetics as well as the environment that I live in.

“So pepeha in some respects is the conceptual equivalent of quantitative genetics, it’s just a different way of looking at it,” says Wilcox.

Yeah, right? Does pepeha encompass Fisher’s fundamental theorem of genetics, or the breeder’s equation? I’m guessing “no.” And phenotype is not the “sum of genetics and environment,” because, as all real quantiative or evolutionary geneticists know, there is interaction between genes and environment. It’s not just phenotype = effects of genes + effects of environments. I’d love to give Professor Wilcox a quick quiz on modern molecular and quantitative genetics. May his whakapapa help him!

A bit more of linguistic preening and virtue signaling, and we’ll pass on.

To protect the whakapapa of his iwi and hapū research participants, which have included his own whānau of Rongomaiwāhine and Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa – “you don’t want to get on the wrong side of them” – he writes up cultural agreements which ensure the data collected belongs to the iwi and hapū, not to the researcher or their employers such as crown research institutes and universities.


Item #3.  Here’s a sensible defense of how to lessen educational inequities in New Zealand, and one that doesn’t involve introducing MM into science class. As I’ve discussed before, New Zealand’s status in educational achievement of students in STEM, compared to students in similar countries, is abysmal. This article agrees, but so do all sentient Kiwis. How to fix it?

Click on the screenshot, from the NZ magazine Stuff. There’s also a video. The author, Gaven Martin, is a Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at Massey University (not one of the Satanic Seven), and he’s going to get into trouble for writing this.


There has been considerable debate around the intersection of NCEA, mātauranga Māori, and science. But it is the wrong debate.

I would like to offer a different perspective, informed by the review of mathematics education I chaired for the Royal Society of New Zealand and Ministry of Education recently.

Like many of the significant shifts we have seen in education and NCEA over the last few decades, the current debate is underpinned by slogans and little if any evidence.

First, there should be no doubt that our national teaching of science, technology and mathematics (henceforth just “science”) delivers cruel results.

In 2018-19 our 13-year-olds scored their worst-ever results in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (60 countries); and 15-year-olds had their worst-ever Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results in reading, mathematics and science (about 90 countries).

. . .We have been in both relative and absolute decline for more than 20 years. The economic costs to the nation and the impact on individuals of this are truly appalling. Read An empirical portrait of New Zealand adults living with low literacy and numeracy skills, by an AUT study group, and then weep – I did.

. . . But surely the worst thing about our current education system is the way it exacerbates – indeed grows – inequity. The relative performance of Māori and Pasifika peoples in science education is a dark stain on our nation, and we simply must address it.

The current slogan for the NCEA changes appears to be, “Many Māori are disengaged from science because they don’t see their culture reflected in it”.

There is no evidence that such a claim has any bearing on education success rates. The issue is not about groups or individuals seeing themselves in the curriculum. It’s about the way our children are taught​, and the knowledge and skills teachers bring into the classroom.

Martin goes on to indict several aspects of NZ education that disadvantage Māori students in particular, but you can read the article. The important part for our purposes is that he doesn’t see teaching MM as “science” as one of the remedies:

It is ridiculous to assume that students who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, or who are Māori and Pasifika, are not as smart, or able; it is about opportunity to learn. Our system and its prejudices denies the opportunities to those who might most benefit.

Another slogan: “Elevating the status of mātauranga Māori is not about undermining science. It is about incorporating genuinely useful indigenous knowledge, such as approaches to environmental guardianship, that complements science.”

My view is that that is a very generous interpretation of what the NCEA changes actually offer. But more importantly, such tinkering with some NCEA standards is not going to deal with the real problems. [JAC: NCEA are National Certificates of Educational Achievement, the equivalent of secondary-school diplomas that come with three ratings.]

Because ultimately, this debate reflects a cynical ploy by the Ministry of Education, pretending to address the seriously inequitable outcomes of our system. The real issues are very hard and there is no quick fix.

. . . For the last two decades there has been no political will to fix this mess. Maybe our political classes agree with the Productivity Commission, that we should import those with the skills our economy needs (predominantly in science), and our children can look after the tourists.

I don’t think he means mātauranga Māori as “the science skills our economy needs.”

“Ways of knowing”: New Zealand pushes to have “indigenous knowledge” (mythology) taught on parity with modern science in science class

December 3, 2021 • 9:15 am

One of the most invidious and injurious side effects of wokeism is to validate “other ways of knowing” as being on par with modern scientific knowledge. Granted, one can respect the mythology and scientific “claims” of indigenous cultures, some of which turned out to be scientifically valid (quinine is one), but their efficacy can be established only by conventional scientific testing.

New Zealand, however, is in the midst of a campaign to teach Maori “ways of knowing” alongside science in science classes as science, on par with modern science, which of course had roots in many places. The reason for this is to give Maori credibility not just as indigenous people with moral and legal rights, but to validate their pseudoscientific views.  Scholars who object to this ridiculous parity are in the process of being cancelled.

Here’s an email I got the other day from a biology colleague in New Zealand:

Now in NZ the Government is trying to insert something called ‘Matauranga’ into science courses. Matauranga means the knowledge system of the Maori. It includes reference to various gods e.g., Tane the god of the forest is said to be the creator of humans, and of all plants and creatures of the forest. Rain happens when the goddess Papatuanuku sheds tears. Maori try to claim that they have always been scientists. Their political demand is that Matauranga must be acknowledged as the equal of western (pakeha) science; that without this, Maori children will continue to fail in science at school.

One rationalisation for this is that they are the indigenous people of New Zealand and that their knowledge deserves respect (mana). it is a very messy situation and a group of science academics of various stripes are engaged in fighting a rearguard action against this. They wrote a letter to the Listener, a weekly publication of reasonable respectability, in which they made the claim that matauranga was not science and had no place in science courses. The kickback against this was astonishing, with some 2000 academics around NZ signing a petition condemning them.

Further,the Royal Society of New Zealand is taking two of the academics involved to task,  with the likely outcome their dismissal from the Society. They have been accused of racism!

Wokism is well under way here.

In response to my question, the colleague told me that the two forms of “knowledge” will be taught to 16-18 years old, and not just to Maori. There will also be exam questions, but it’s not clear if those will require students to parrot the tenets of Mātauranga.

Here is a screenshot of the letter that got its signatories in big trouble (click on it to see the original letter). Note that it’s civil and conciliatory, but defends modern science. The signers are all from the University of Auckland.

This is a sensible letter which is not inflammatory—except to those postmodernists and Wokeists who see “other ways of knowing” just as valid as modern science. They are wrong. But in response, 2,000 academics and public figures signed a heated objection, which included the following:

We, the signatories to this response, categorically disagree with their views. Indigenous knowledges – in this case, Mātauranga – are not lesser to other knowledge systems. Indeed, indigenous ways of knowing, including Mātauranga, have always included methodologies that overlap with “Western” understandings of the scientific method.

However, Mātauranga is far more than just equivalent to or equal to “Western” science. It offers ways of viewing the world that are unique and complementary to other knowledge systems.

I’m sorry, but in general the factual assertions of this Maori “way of knowing” are palpably inferior to “other knowledge systems.” They stand as myths, and ones with no factual basis; and to teach them on par with science, as if rain might really come from the tears of a god, is ludicrous. Yes, there are some practical “truths” to Maori ways of knowing, like how to build an eeltrap, and how to avoid building houses on flood plains, but if you accept this practical knowledge of science, then Maori Mātauranga is no different from any practical methods in any culture. And this doesn’t make it coequal with “modern science”, for modern science is capable of not only building eeltraps, but sending men to the Moon and bringing them back.

Those who signed the letter objecting to the Listener letter above are either completely ignorant of science (which I don’t believe), or are flaunting their virtue. It’s true that Maori have often been mistreated by colonials, and NZ has tried to rectify this inequality over the years, as it should. But one way not to rectify it is to pretend that Maori “knowledge” is really “true” in the scientific sense. To teach that in the schools, as is being proposed, is a recipe for continuing scientific ignorance. It is the same as a letter saying that fundamentalists Christian “ways of knowing”, like creationism, should be taught alongside evolutionary biology in science class. (Such “parity” is not upheld by freedom of speech, for American courts, at least, have long declared that teachers do not have license to teach anything they want in a class—particularly religion.) Indeed, as we see above, Maori “science” is explicitly creationist!

Toby Young discusses the issue in this article in The Spectator (click on screenshot, my bolding):

An excerpt:

. . . the moment this letter was published all hell broke loose. The views of the authors, who were all professors at Auckland, were denounced by the Royal Society, the New Zealand Association of Scientists, and the Tertiary Education Union, as well as by their own vice-chancellor, Dawn Freshwater. In a hand-wringing, cry-bullying email to all staff at the university, she said the letter had ‘caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni’ and said it pointed to ‘major problems with some of our colleagues’.

Two of Professor Cooper’s academic colleagues, Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Shaun Hendy, issued an ‘open letter’ condemning the heretics for causing ‘untold harm and hurt’. They invited anyone who agreed with them to add their names to the ‘open letter’, and more than 2,000 academics duly obliged. Before long, five members of the Royal Society had complained and a panel was set up to investigate.

The witch-finders disregarded several principles of natural justice in their prosecutorial zeal. For instance, two members of the three-person panel turned out to be signatories of the ‘open letter’ denouncing Professor Cooper so had to be replaced. In addition, all five complainants were anonymous and when the Society asked them to identify themselves, three fell by the wayside. But two remain and the investigation is proceeding apace, with a newly constituted panel.

It’s not too late to save the professor. Letters from members of our own Royal Society, or any distinguished academics in the sciences and humanities, pointing out the absurdity of punishing a scientist for engaging in debate about the validity of science will help. You can email Paul Atkins, the chief executive, at Remember, the only thing necessary for the triumph of intellectual intolerance is for believers in free speech to do nothing. [JAC: Note that Atkins is the new chief executive].

I would urge readers who feel strongly about this to write to the email above, which I’ll repeat:

Here’s the official letter from the University of Auckland’s Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater about The Listener letter (click on screenshot):

Some excerpts from her statement, which is in the “we favor free speech, but it causes pain ” genre:

A letter in this week’s issue of The Listener magazine from seven of our academic staff on the subject of whether Mātauranga Māori can be called science has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni.

While the academics are free to express their views, I want to make it clear that they do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.

The University has deep respect for has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni. as a distinctive and valuable knowledge system. We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other.

This view is at the heart of our new strategy and vision, Taumata Teitei, and the Waipapa Toitū framework, and is part of our wider commitment to Te Tiriti and te ao principles.

I believe Aotearoa New Zealand has a unique opportunity to lead the world in this area. The University of Auckland, as this country’s largest research institution, should be and will be at the forefront of this exciting exploration.

This is the letter of a person trying to treat a narrow line between free speech and condemnation of what is said. Further, she notes that the seven academics “do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.” Well, is Vice-Chancellor Freshwater entitled to declare those views, or is that the purview of her boss, the Chancellor? Or has the University itself issued a formal statement of exactly what the views of the University of Auckland on mātauranga Māori are? We don’t know. If there’s some official statement that the University views modern science is on par with Maori ways of knowing, I’d like to If the University has no official view, and takes no stand at all why does Freshwater say that the seven academics “don’t represent it”?

As for Freshwater’s statement that The Listener letter “has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni”, we have no idea how much hurt and dismay it’s caused. I know from private correspondence that there are plenty of people at the University supported that letter and do not see Mātauranga Māori as a valid competitor to modern emprical science.

Further, emphasizing the “hurt and dismay” among University members is not helpful to the discussion at all, as from the outset it puts the discussion on an emotional footing, when the issues are not hurt and pain but the validity of Mātauranga Māori as an alternative to modern science to be taught in the science class.  That is something that one can argue about validly, and I think that Mātauranga Māori is mostly mythology and not science. For one thing, it’s creationist, so its credibility is shot from the beginning.

Finally, Freshwater’s claim that “We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other” is confusing. They are of course directly at odds if you look at the empirical data, which include creationism and other palpably untrue claims. They are competing as the proposal is to teach both in science class, on the high school and perhaps on the University level.

She has a longer letter as well (click on screenshot), and I’ll give a few excerpts:

It’s long, so just one excerpt from a discursive piece in which Freshwater takes issue with the seven academics who signed the letter:

The freedom to express ideas is constrained neither by their perceived capacity to elicit discomfort, nor by presuppositions concerning their veracity. However, it needs to be clarified that allowing the expression of an idea does not imply endorsement by the University. This has been our position in the debate about mātauranga Māori and science.

Our seven academics were entirely free to express their views, however the University was also free to disagree with those views. That does not mean the University is censoring or trying to silence our academics, it is merely making clear that such views are not representative of the myriad views within the institution; and that the University may at times disagree with the views expressed by its academics. That is healthy in a university.

Well, if that’s “healthy”, then the University of Auckland is very ill.  If there are “myriad views” about this issue in the University, why does Freshwater say that the signers “do not represent the views of the University of Auckland”? Does this mean that seven people don’t stand for the views of everyone? They never pretended they did, but it sure looks as if Freshwater knows that there are more “official” views that diverge from these. If the University of Auckland has no position at all on the issue, then they should say so and stop denigrating the seven signers. But remember, this does appear to be an official position:

We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other.

That sure looks like an official position!

And the “not censoring” bit is unconvincing: the signers were identified—not by name but as signers of an easily accessible letter—and criticized in the assertion that they don’t adhere to University principles that were never specified.  Further, as we see below, the Royal Society of New Zealand is considering booting out two of its signers who are members. (I doubt that the University instigated that, but its opposition to the letter may have contributed to the Royal Society’s decision to have an investigation).

From Wikipedia, which has an article on the controversy that started last summer:

The TEU, the union which represents academics such as the professors, released a statement saying they “neglected to engage with or mention the many highly accomplished scholars and scientists in Aotearoa who have sought to reconcile notions of science, mātauranga Māori, and Māori in science.” The Royal Society Te Apārangi released a statement saying “The Society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in [the letter].” The New Zealand Association of Scientists released a statement saying “we were dismayed to see a number of prominent academics publicly questioning the value of mātauranga to science.” The letter writers were supported by opposition MP Paul Goldsmith.

Daniel Hikuroa, also an academic at Auckland, pointed out that Mātauranga Māori like Māramataka (the Māori lunar calendar) “was clearly science.” Tara McAllister said “we did not navigate to Aotearoa on myths and legends. We did not live successfully in balance with the environment without science. Māori were the first scientists in Aotearoa.” Tina Ngata wrote that “this letter, in all of its unsolicited glory, is a true testament to how racism is harboured and fostered within New Zealand academia.” An open counter-letter received more than 2000 signatures.

Here’s part of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s “Joint statement from President and Chair of Academy and Executive Committee“:

The recent suggestion by a group of University of Auckland academics that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth is utterly rejected by Royal Society Te Apārangi. The Society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in The Listener – Letter to the Editor.

It deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause.

This makes the RSNZ look like a joke, for they are rejecting the idea that the entire collection of mythology, quasi-religion, a few practical methods, as well as outright lies (like creationism) is not a “valid truth.” And the RSNZ rejects the “narrow and outmoded definition of science, which happens to be, well, just science.  And the invocation of “harm” that comes from rejecting lies, myths, and false beliefs is ludicrous.

Finally, as I have to stop somewhere, the New Zealand Psychological Society, equally outraged, also condemned the view of the “Satanic Seven”. Click on the screenshot to read the whole pdf:

A few quotes from the letter, which purports to be from the entire New Zealand Psychological Society (did all members assent?), but was written by the President, Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki, who must be Maori.:

I believe it is important that we express our disappointment in the recent letter to the Listener by professors of psychology, biological sciences and critical studies. We also wish to express our support and aroha for those who were, and continue to be, negatively affected by the letter’s content. We note that the letter was not subject to established protocols of rigour and peer review and as such, the contents reflect opinion, not science. In reviewing the letter, it is readily apparent that racist tropes were used, alongside comments typical of moral panic, to justify the exclusion of Māori knowledge as a legitimate science.

Diversionary claims! Of course letters to a non-science journal aren’t peer reviewed and “aren’t science.” Who said otherwise? And the letter was not racist. But wait! There’s more!

. . . The letter writers express their concern that science is being misunderstood at all levels of education and science funding. They further add that science itself does not colonise – while acknowledging that ‘it has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art’. This is similar to saying ‘Guns don’t kill people. People kill people’. Esteemed scholar, Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (and others) established that science has indeed been used, under the pretence of its own legitimacy, to colonise and commit genocide towards Māori and other Indigenous peoples. Science, in the hands of colonisers, is the literal gun. The writers fail to note the overwhelming evidence that the users of the science they favour, are also the ones who set the rules about what counts as science, where it can be taught, learned, published or funded. This issue is extremely relevant to the need to decolonise the power base held in our learning institutions.

. . . The White Saviour trope: This is where Māori are told which elements of our Indigenous knowledge is important and to whom. The writers, speaking for Māori, offer the opinion: ‘Indigenous knowledge is critical to the perpetuation and preservation of culture and local practices and plays key roles in management and policy. The writers (as is their inherent privilege) relegate Māori knowledge to archival value, ceremony, management and policy (although it is not clear what is meant here). Speaking for Māori ignores obligations to honour the Treaty of Waitangi, and ignores the overwhelming evidence that racism is a primary reason that Mātauranga Māori science is undervalued.

No, that last sentence is false. Mātauranga Māori “science” is undervalued, at least by scientists, because it’s mostly wrong. For one thing, it posits an instantaneous creation.  Do its advocates say, “Well, Mātauranga is often right but is also often wrong.”

There’s more:

Māori knowledge is indeed critical to the preservation of our culture and practices because we are resisting epistemic and cultural genocide, while also striving to flourish and develop. Speaking for Māori again, they add that ‘in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself’. Māori aren’t asking them to define science. We have done that ourselves despite having obstacles thrown up at all stages.

. . . Psychology has a long history of marginalising Māori knowledge, and it is concerning that two of the writers are professors of psychology. We note that the letter reinforces known racist assumptions about the validity of Mātauranga Māori science that occurs across psychology and academia. We are particularly concerned about the wellbeing of Māori staff and students in psychology who must now navigate the fall-out of this letter.

It is unbelievable that stuff like this can come out of the mouths of reputable academics. “Science, in the hands of colonisers, is the literal gun.” Seriously? Yes, of course science has been used for bad purposes by bad people, as has architecture (gas chambers), and religion. But this says nothing about whether the epistemic value of modern science is on par with the epistemic value of Mātauranga Māori. If the University of Auckland plans to teach the latter on par with real science in science classes, it will be shameful; and I feel sorry for its dissenting scientists, who may be many. But now have to keep their mouths shut lest them be called out like the Satanic Seven.

The Kiwis have been very careful in the past few decades to ensure good relations with the Maori, who themselves colonized an empty New Zealand about 700 years ago. But keeping good relations does not demand that you accept a “way of knowing” that is mythological, spiritual, and wrong.

As my friend said, “Wokism is well under way here.”


Okay, it’s time for me to write to Roger Ridley (above) so that two of the seven don’t get booted out of New Zealand’s Royal Society. If they are, that society will have branded itself as a huge joke.  Here’s the letter I just sent. Note, though, that you should write instead to Paul Atkins, who was recently named the the new chief executive of the NZRS. His email is

Dear Dr. Ridley,

I understand from the news that New Zealand’s Royal Society is considering expelling two scientists for signing a letter objecting to teaching “indigenous” science alongside and coequal with modern science.  As a biologist who has done research for a lifetime and also spent time with biologists in New Zealand, I find this possibility deeply distressing.

The letter your two members wrote along with five others was defending modern science as a way of understanding the truth, and asserting that Maori “ways of knowing”, while they might be culturally and anthropologically valuable, should not be taught as if the two disciplines are equally useful in conveying the truth about our Universe. They are not. Maori science is a collation of mythology, religion, and legends which may contain some scientific truth, but to determine what bits exactly are true, those claims must be adjudicated by modern science: our only “true” way of knowing.

I presume you know that the Maori way of knowing includes creationism: the kind of creationism that fundamentalist Christians espouse in the U.S. based on a literalistic reading of the Bible. Both American and Maori creationism are dead wrong—refuted by all the facts of biology, paleontology, embryology, biogeography, and so on. I have spent a lifetime opposing creationism as a valid view of life. That your society would expel members for defending views like evolution against non-empirically based views of creation and the like, is shameful.

I hope you will reconsider the movement to expel your two members, which, if done, would make the Royal Society of New Zealand a laughingstock.

Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
Department of Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago

John Horgan makes a strawman argument against “consilience”

June 27, 2021 • 9:30 am

The science writer John Horgan became well known for his 1996 book The End of Science, in which he claimed that the era of “fundamental science”—the kind of science that yielded big discoveries like the structure of DNA, evolution, and quantum mechanics—was coming to an end. That is, all the paradigm-changing views of the universe had already been made.

Since then, of course, we’ve learned about dark matter, dark energy, the Higgs Boson, gotten indications that quantum mechanics may have fundamental flaws, and so on. String theory, though it may be untestable and thereby die, became a big deal. Now you may say that Horgan’s right—that these discoveries aren’t “fundamental”—but I’d never bet on humanity reaching the end of world-changing scientific discoveries about the universe. Still, in 2015 Horgan defended his earlier conclusion in the pages of Scientific American.   He wasn’t calling for science to stop, of course, but promoting the depressing conclusion that we’d found out pretty much all the “fundamental” truths we’d ever get.

I think he was and is wrong.

Now, also in the pages of Scientific American, Horgan has a new “opinion” piece that is again a bit of science-dissing in that it’s the usual criticism of “scientism”, which he defines as science overstepping its boundaries and impinging on “other ways of knowing”, like religion (!) and the “knowledge” we get from psychedelic visions.

But Horgan’s main target is “consilience,” a term used by E. O. Wilson, who wrote a book by that title proposing a sweeping project: the absorption of all forms of “knowing” and endeavor into science. That would include morality, art, psychology, literature, philosophy, and so on. All knowledge would and should, claimed Wilson, be analyzed using the toolkit of science, leaving no room for the humanities as we know them.

Click on the screenshot to read:

My first response is one I made in my exchange with Adam Gopnik at Letter on “ways of knowing”: religion (see Horgan’s title) is not a “way of knowing”, and neither is ingestion of ayahuasca (which Horgan tried and is regularly used by shamans to derive “visions” that Horgan sees as “ways of knowing”).

Horgan says these mystical  drug-induced visions  are ones “in which we seem to glimpse truths normally hidden behind the surface of things.” I’ve recounted my own LSD-induced vision in which my hidden truth, which I wrote down on a piece of paper because it sounded so profound, turned out to be “the walls are fucking brown.” And if you do glimpse truths when you’re on drugs, they’re either private experiences or other claims that, when you’ve come down, must be verified with the toolkit of science. “The universe is one” is not a truth except in the trivial sense that it’s all made of matter and energy.

Since my views on the ambit of science (construed broadly) have been set out in the exchange with Gopnik, I won’t repeat my arguments here, but I deny Horgan’s claim that there are “ways of knowing” about the cosmos that do not employ the empirical toolkit of science. (See also pp. 185-196 in my book Faith Versus Fact.).

But I do agree with Horgan that the Grand Project to subsume art, literature, philosophy and morality completely into the “harder” sciences is futile. The thing is, hardly any scientist I know agrees with Wilson or with Horgan’s characterization. Yes, Sam Harris does think that science can determine what is right and wrong to do, but few agree with him about that (I dissent as well). And even the most “scientistic” scholar I know, Steve Pinker, doesn’t entertain the notion that full consilience is feasible. As Pinker said in the New Republic:

Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism. But to explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. No sane thinker would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe. At the same time, a curious person can legitimately ask why human minds are apt to have such perceptions and goals, including the tribalism, overconfidence, and sense of honor that fell into a deadly combination at that historical moment.

In the last sentence Pinker raises a point that is the subject of one of the best short pieces he’s written, the one below from The New Republic (click on screenshot; this piece was later attacked by New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier):

You should read this article as a palliative for Horgan’s, as Pinker is calling not for the ingestion of all other disciplines by science, but an expansion of the humanities by using the toolkit of science. Surely science can inform morality, art, analysis of literature, politics and history.  Here’s part of Pinker’s view:

Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

Those ways do deserve respect, and there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works. But must these be the only paths to understanding? A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.

In some disciplines, this consilience is a fait accompli. Archeology has grown from a branch of art history to a high-tech science. Linguistics and the philosophy of mind shade into cognitive science and neuroscience.

And of course even religion has been altered by science (I wouldn’t use the word “enriched”), at least in terms of science disproving some of the foundational claims of religion, like the existence of a creation event of biological life by God, the existence of Adam and Eve, the Exodus, and so on. In that sense, any morality that gets its force from from religion loses considerable ground.

But on to Horgan.

First, I again deny that there are ways of knowing about the universe (which is, after all, what Horgan means by “fundamental knowledge”) that do not require the empirical toolkit of science: observation, testing, doubting, predicting, and so on.

But Horgan has other points to make. First, he doesn’t think consilience is possible. Here’s he’s probably right, for we simply will never have the knowledge to connect all human endeavors through scientific hypotheses. Some depend on unknowable historical or evolutionary events, others on knowledge inaccessible to us. Even if, in principle, all phenomena reduce to the motions of molecules, we will never be able to scientifically explain why Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina the way he did or why it affects each of us differently. And no scientist I know, save perhaps Ed Wilson, thinks that we should try to do this, though there are Darwinian analysis of parts of literature.

But Horgan goes further, arguing that we haven’t even achieved consilience within scientific disciplines. Physicists are still arguing about quantum mechanics and string theory, we don’t yet have a unification of all fundamental physical forces (gravity stubbornly refuses to consiliate), we don’t understand how physical processes in the brain produce consciousness, and even evolutionary biologists still argue about the importance of group selection.  But the existence of unsolved problems, some of which will never be solved, does not support Horgan’s argument that greater consilience isn’t feasible. We simply can’t imagine what science will find in the next few centuries and, as Pinker notes, consilience is being achieved in archaeology and linguistics.

It turns out that Horgan thinks consilience is unfeasible for this reason:

If consilience entails convergence toward a consensus, science is moving away from consilience.

I’d take issue with that, too. Scientists are a lot more in agreement on matters of truth than they were 200 years ago. We have a consensus about the major features of evolution, about the structures of molecules, about how DNA and metabolism work, about the age of the Universe, about who were the ancestors of humans, and what the fundamental particles were. Of course we’ll never agree on everything, but to say that “science is moving away from consilience” in effect says that we know less than we used to. And that’s not the case. We have a lot more consensus than we used to. When I was young, there was a big argument about whether the continents moved. We now know that they do.

Further, Horgan asserts that besides being unfeasible, consilience is undesirable. He says he once thought it was desirable, but realized that a pluralism of “ways of knowing” is extremely valuable. Horgan’s argument for pluralism comes from his view that it brings to bear more “ways of knowing” on unsolved questions. But his claim here is weak:

But increasingly, I see pluralism as a valuable, even necessary counterweight to our yearning for certitude. Pluralism is especially important when it comes to our ideas about who we are, can be and should be. If we settle on a single self-conception, we risk limiting our freedom to reinvent ourselves, to discover new ways to flourish.

Wilson acknowledges that consilience is a reductionistic enterprise, which will eliminate many ways of seeing the world. Consider how he treats mystical visions, in which we seem to glimpse truths normally hidden behind the surface of things. To my mind, these experiences rub our faces in the unutterable weirdness of existence, which transcends all our knowledge and forms of expression. As William James says in The Varieties of Religious Experience, mystical experiences should “forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

. . . Wilson is a gracious, courtly man in person as well on the page. But his consilience project stems from excessive faith in science, or scientism. (Both Wilson and Pinker embrace the term scientism, and they no doubt think that the phrase “excessive faith in science” is oxymoronic.) Given the failure to achieve consilience within physics and biology—not to mention the replication crisis and other problems—scientists should stop indulging in fantasies about conquering all human culture and attaining something akin to omniscience. Scientists, in short, should be more humble.

And that’s it. (The relevance of the “replication” crisis is obscure, and at any rate isn’t ubiquitous.) It’s all about the “other ways of knowing”. Horgan has a long digression about a shaman’s drug-induced vision of snakes, which, in fact, Wilson says could be genetically ingrained in our psyche. Further, we may learn how drugs like ayahuasca unleash our neurons to produce these visions of evolution-installed fears. A shaman’s vision is not immune to the tools of science.

At any rate, look at Horgan’s last sentence above: “Scientists, in short, should be more humble.”  Where have you heard that before? That’s right—from theologians. Although I believe Horgan is a nonbeliever, here he’s being soft on belief, implying, as he did in the title, that religion has something to say about the nature of truth and scientists should give theologians a break. Well, the nature of religion may tell us why it exists and makes certain claims, but that involves a scientific analysis of religion—an analysis Horgan spurns. You know who needs to be humble? The religionists, because they harbor far less doubt than do scientists!

As Horgan says:

Wilson needn’t have worried. Scientific omniscience looks less likely than ever, and humans are far too diverse, creative and contrary to settle for a single worldview of any kind. Inspired by mysticism and the arts, as well as by science, we will keep arguing about who we are and reinventing ourselves forever.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with much of that: worldviews include subjective issues from outside science, and of course we’ll keep on with these futile arguments about “who we are” (arguments, by the way, that might be partly settled by evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology!). But this is not the point. The point Horgan makes is that there are other ways of knowing what is true about the world beyond science, and science should stop sticking its damn nose into the tent of the humanities. But this is a straw man. Almost nobody claims that literature, music, and art will or should be completely subsumed by science (though they are, at bottom, consistent with it), but on the other hand Pinker is right in claiming that we should not tell scientists to stop impinging on the humanities.

I’ll end with Pinker’s closing of his lovely New Republic article, in which he answers critics who say that the invasion of humanities by scientific practices is “naive and simplistic”:

And the critics should be careful with the adjectives. If anything is naïve and simplistic, it is the conviction that the legacy silos of academia should be fortified and that we should be forever content with current ways of making sense of the world. Surely our conceptions of politics, culture, and morality have much to learn from our best understanding of the physical universe and of our makeup as a species.

Sometimes when I read Horgan, and see his endless criticisms about the limits of science, his concentration on scientific disagreements and ignoring genuine consiliences, and his claim that science is but one of many “ways of knowing”, I wonder if the man—despite being a teacher of science writing—really likes science.

h/t: Hos

Are we “scientific fascists”?

December 2, 2020 • 1:15 pm

This article from Medium floated into my ambit, with a title was guaranteed to lure me like a mayfly lures a trout.  The author, Roderick Graham, is an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and has his own eponymous website.

The main point of his article is to outline a set of ideas and behaviors that he calls “scientific fascism”, which appear to involve the use of data, reason, and logic in a way that attacks Graham’s favorite ideas about social justice. It’s the combination of “scientific” and “fascism” that intrigued me.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Graham gives a definition of scientific fascism that guarantees that it will fulfill the secret mission of its adherents:

I offer this definition of scientific fascism:

“Scientific fascism is a body of ideas characterized by the desire to erase the unique experiences of minority groups, obedience to a narrow view of science, and a dismissal of people who disagree as being devoid of reason or intelligence.”

. . . . and as part of the definition he includes these behaviors practiced by “scientific fascists”:

The scientific fascist adopts as their tools of choice science and reason. The purpose of using these tools is only ever to mount an attack on the ideas underpinning social justice activities. These ideas include “lived experiences”, “safe spaces”, “white fragility”, “heteronormativity”, “systemic racism”, “toxic masculinity” and “microaggressions”, to name a few. This is one of the qualities that separates scientific fascism from scientism. Scientism is an extreme belief in science. [JAC: no it’s not!] Scientific fascists, on the other hand, are using science and reason for the political goal of pushing back social justice activism.

Now of course science and reason can be used to criticize any ideology or idea, be it Critical Studies, other aspects of social justice, liberalism as a whole, the ideology of Republicans, Communism, and so on.  But Graham uses the term “scientific fascist” only for those who use science and reason to attack social justice—and his conception of it—which already shows that the two words of his mantra “scientific fascist” have been construed more narrowly.

But he’s dead wrong in his second quote, for the purpose of using “science” and “reason” is NOT “only ever” to mount an attack on social justice, or to try to “maintain social inequalities and erase the experiences of minority groups from public discourse.” But you could, of course, use science to see if safe spaces work, or if there is such a a thing as implicit bias, but somehow I don’t think Graham would favor that kind of science. He’d rather use “lived experience”—those people who say that they require safe spaces and have been victims of unconscious bias.

By Graham’s definition, then, scientific fascists are identified by what they do, not by the fact that they use reason and science in an authoritarian way (whatever that is; how can data be non-authoritarian?). Ergo Graham is not being profound when he says stuff like this:

At the risk of belaboring the point, the scientific fascist is only ever interested in using science to push back against social justice ideas. Within academia, knowledge production is varied. Professors in history, law, business, and theology, just to name a few, use many different approaches to producing knowledge within their field. Scientific fascists are not interested in those fields unless they attempt to speak to the experiences of minority groups.

Well, we can argue about whether business, law and theology are “ways of knowledge production”, unless they use scientific (i.e., empirical) methods. But under Graham’s definition, someone who criticizes theology and its dictates for being irrational and nonscientific is not a “scientific fascist” unless she is going after social justice aspects of theology, like God’s supposed dictates.

The above gives us a hint of how Graham says is the best way to counter scientific fascists: use LIVED EXPERIENCE.  We all know the fallacies of generalizing from anecdotes—through anecdotes, multiplied through, say, a scientific poll, can become data. But Graham doesn’t talk about that. Rather, he’s referring to someone who uses their “lived experience” to produce knowledge by generalizing from it.

So what do “scientific fascists” say? Graham has a little list. Here are some examples of how we (I suppose I’m one of them) use science to attack social justice. We supposedly make statements like these:

“…the desire to erase the unique experiences of minority groups…”

  • “I believe in the Englightenment [sic] principles of individual liberty.”
  • “Why must you always put people in groups. I am an INDIVIDUAL!”
  • “What kind of ‘lived experiences’ do trans folks have? What is an experience if not lived?”
  • “All Lives Matter”

Only the first statement has anything to do with science, but none of these statements involve using science to do down social justice. They are statements of preference that do not involved data.  Let’s throw these in the circular file and move on to how we supposedly misuse science:

“…obedience to a narrow view science…”

  • “Sociologists are a bunch of left-wing communists, and you cannot trust their research.”
  • “Critical scholarship is a cancer in our society and must be removed from our universities.”
  • “These studies departments — women’s studies, queer studies, black studies — they produce no real knowledge.”
  • “Critical theory is unfalsifiable.”

The first and second statements are not science, construed either narrowly or broadly, but are slurs, that don’t involve data. (I suppose you could test whether sociologists are all “left wing communists”!)

The third statement is one that can be debated so long as you define what you mean by “knowledge”. I would claim that, in general, Critical Studies departments aren’t usually in the business of producing knowledge (though some practitioners are), but are in the business of pushing an ideology and burnishing people’s self image.

The last statement, too, is worth debating, because perhaps Critical Theory, unlike the structure of DNA, evolution, or the cause of malaria, might indeed be unfalsifiable. I have yet to hear an adherent to Critical Studies outline what could falsify it.  But in truth, although these statements may be made by scientists who are used to a certain level of rigor in their experiments and conclusions, they do not stem from science itself.

And this is how we supposedly use science to “erase” minorities and our purported opponents (by the way, if you see the word “race” or “harm” in a screed, head for the hills):

“…and a dismissal of people who disagree as being devoid of reason or intelligence.”

  • “Ibram Kendi is a low IQ individual.”
  • “Here are the fallacies in this claim.”
  • “Black folk are being told there is racism by liberal elites (but there really isn’t).”
  • “The woke are irrational and illogical.”

Good Lord! First of all, you’d have to be a low IQ individual yourself to claim that Ibram Kendi is a “low IQ individual.” You may not like his ideas, but you can’t take issue with the fact that the guy is smart.

The second claim is indeed a use of reason and logic to attack an argument. There’s nothing wrong with it, nor does it dismiss people as being devoid of reason or intelligence. In fact, the statement itself is a use of reason and intelligence to address an argument, not to impugn anyone.

I don’t quite get the third statement. One may argue about whether “structural racism” is pervasive (and argue, based on its definition, whether it is), but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who says that there is no racism. The data even show it, reflected in the differential rate of traffic stops by police, which, since the black/white difference narrows at twilight, is surely based on anti-black racism.

As for the last statement, well, it may be true in some instances—indeed, like this article itself, which attacks science and reason not for their supposed lack of value, but because they’re supposedly a tool of racism.

After reading this article—and I draw to a close, for discussing it involves too much “emotional labor”—I realized that it has nothing to do with science at all. It is an attack on those who use reason and logic to go after the social-justice ideas that Dr. Graham embraces. The word “fascist” is in there simply as a pejorative: someone who argues against those who want to restrict immigration, and who uses the same kind of authoritarianism and data would not, I suspect, be called by Graham a “scientific fascist”.

You might entertain yourself by thinking of related names that characterize people like Graham, but in the interest of reducing my peevishness, I’ll refrain.

Boudry on scientism and “ways of knowing”

July 27, 2020 • 10:30 am

It’s been a while since we’ve discussed either scientism or “ways of knowing” on this site (the two ideas are connected). I’ll reiterate my views very briefly. “Scientism” has two meanings, as Maarten Boudry notes in his piece below, but the most common non-pejorative meaning is that of science making claims outside of its ambit, something that almost never happens these days.

I’m more interested in the idea whether there are “ways of knowing” beyond those involving science or “science broadly construed” (“SBC”, i.e., any profession, including plumbing and car mechanics, that uses the empirical method and relies on hypotheses, tests, and confirmation as ways of understanding the cosmos). As far as I can see—and I’ve asked readers about this—I’ve found no way beyond SBC to ascertain what’s true about our universe.

The most common area to claim that there are ways of knowing beyond the empirical is of course religion, but theology has never found a single ascertainable truth about the Universe that hasn’t been confirmed (or disconfirmed, as in the Exodus) by empirical research. You can’t find out what’s true about the Universe by reading scripture or waiting for a revelation. Even “scientific revelations” like Kekulé’s dream of a snake biting its own tail, which supposedly gave rise to the ring structure of benzene with alternative single and double bonds, had to be confirmed empirically.

Maarten Boudy has a new blog piece that discusses these ideas, but also highlights a new paper that, he says, puts paid to the notion that there are ways of knowing beyond science. Click on the screenshot to read it. (His piece has a good Jewish title though Boudry is a goy.) As you can see from the title, Maarten tells it as it is:

Boudry, by the way, is co-author of this collection of essays, which, though mixed in quality, is generally good and gives a good overview of the “scientism” controversy. (Click screenshot for Amazon link.) The co-author, Massimo Pigliucci, absolutely despises my including stuff like plumbing in “science construed broadly,” and has said so many times. Massimo is deeply preoccupied with demarcating “science” from “nonscience,” and sees me as having messed up that distinction.

Here’s Maarten’s link to the new paper and a useful classification of four flavors of scientism:

Now yesterday I read a clever new paper in Metaphilosophy – yes, there really is a journal by that name – in defense of scientism, which follows the second strategy. The Finnish authors, known as the Helsinki Circle, present a neutral definition of “scientism”, distinguishing between four different flavors represented by the quadrant below. The four positions follow from two simple choices: either you adopt a narrow or a broad definition of science, and either you believe that science is the only valid source of knowledge or that it is simply the best one available.

The differences between “natural sciences” and “sciences” here, as Maarten wrote me, is this:

“Natural sciences” is just physics, chemistry, biology, etc.

“Sciences” includes the human and social sciences, (like “Wissenschaft” in German).

But I’d prefer the distinction to be between “science” (what is practiced by scientists proper) and “SCB”, or the use of the empirical method to ascertain truth (SCB includes the human and social sciences). Given that slight change, I’d fall into the lower-left square. The upper left square, says Maarten, is occupied only by the hard-liner Alex Rosenberg.

But never mind. Boudy and I are more concerned with the criticisms of science that fall under the rubric of “non-pejorative scientism”, and he mentions two:

The authors want to draw attention to the other three versions of “scientism”, which are more defensible but nonetheless interesting and non-trivial. In the rest of the paper, they discuss how the different interpretations of scientism fare under two lines of criticism: (a) that scientism is self-defeating because the thesis itself cannot be demonstrated by scientific means; (b) that science inevitably relies on non-scientific sources of knowledge, such as metaphysical assumptions or data from our senses.

I’ve addressed both of these, but Maarten concentrates on the second. (My criticism of [a] is that you don’t need to demonstrate a philosophical or scientific underpinning of the methods of science to accept it, because science works—it enables us to understand the Universe in ways that both enable us to do things like cure smallpox and send rovers to Mars, and to make verified predictions, like when an eclipse will occur or the light from stars might bend around the Sun). Justification of science by some extra-scientific method is not only futile, but unnecessary.

Maarten refutes (b) handily:

Here I want to focus on the second objection. Does science “presuppose” the existence of an external world, or lawful regularities, or the truth of naturalism, or other metaphysical notions? No it doesn’t. These are merely working hypotheses that are being tested as we go along. I’ve argued for this position at length myself, in a paper with the neurologist Yon Fishman and earlier with my Ghent colleagues. As the authors write:

“One does not have to assume that science can achieve knowledge of the external world. Science can merely start with the hypothesis that some kind of knowledge could be achievable. For all practical purposes, this hypothesis would merely state that there are at least some regularities to be found. This hypothesis could be tested by simply attempting to obtain empirical knowledge with scientific means. If it is impossible to achieve this kind of knowledge, then the efforts would just be in vain. But hoping that something is the case is not the same as believing that it is the case.”

Second, does the fact that scientists rely on their sense organs invalidate scientism? No, because that’s a trivial point. It’s obviously true that science could not even get off the ground without sensory data, but this input too is being refined and corrected as we go along.

All these arguments about science being “based” on some extra-scientific assumption or source of knowledge are guilty of what I call the “foundationalist fallacy”. The mistake is to think that knowledge is something that needs to be “grounded” in some solid foundation, and that if this foundation is not completely secure, the whole edifice will collapse. But this metaphor is deeply misguided, and it inevitably leads to infinite regress. Whatever ultimate foundation you come up with, you can always ask the question: what is that foundation based on? It cannot be self-evident, floating in mid-air. This reminds one of the old Hindu cosmology according to which we live on a flat earth supported by four big elephants. Pretty solid, but what are the elephants standing on? On the back of a giant turtle. And that turtle? On the back of an even larger turtle. And so it’s turtles all the way down, ad infinitum.

Boudry’s Argument from Turtles also goes, I think, for (a): if you must justify using scientific methods through philosophy, how do you justify the value of philosophy in settling such a question? But never mind. If people dismiss science as an activity because philosophy (or science itself) provides no foundation for the empirical method, I’ll just ask them, “Have you ever been vaccinated or taken antibiotics?” If they say “yes,” then they already trust in science regardless of where the method came from. (It comes, by the way, not from a priori justification, but through a five-century refinement of methods to hone them down to a toolkit that works. Remember, science used to include aspects of the Divine, as in creationism as an explanation for life on Earth or Newton’s view that God tweaked the orbits of the planets to keep them stable.)

I’ll be reading the Metaphilosophy paper (click on screenshot below to access and download it), but let me finish by self-aggrandizingly saying that Boudry does agree that SCB is part of the nexus of empirical methodology that includes “real science”

For me, an essential part of scientism is the belief in one unified, overarching web of knowledge, which was defended most famously by the philosopher Willard V.O. Quine. Take an everyday form of knowledge acquisition such as a plumber trying to locate a leak (I believe this analogy is due to the biologist Jerry Coyne). Now plumbing is not usually regarded as a “science”, but that doesn’t mean that my plumber is engaged in some “different way of knowing”. He’s also making observations, testing out different hypotheses, using logical inferences, and so on. The main difference is that he is working on a relatively mundane and isolated problem (my sink), which is both simple enough to solve on his own, and parochial enough not be of any interest to academic journals. Plumbing is not a science, but it is continuous with science, because it makes use of similar methods (observation and logical inference) and is connected with scientific knowledge, for example about fluid dynamics. The plumber or detective or car mechanic is not doing anything radically different from what the scientist is doing.

Take that, Massimo!

And here’s a reading assignment:


In yet another paper, Gregory Bassham continues his criticism of my science vs. religion work

May 31, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Two days ago I analyzed former philosophy professor Gregory Bassham’s unpublished critique of my book Faith versus Fact. (I also discovered that I analyzed the paper on this site in 2017 at greater length, so it’s been unpublished for at least three years. Shoot me for forgetting!). Bassham claimed that religion has its own “ways of knowing” that aren’t based on science, much less empirical observation. His argument, I contended, falls flat.

Now I found a similar critique from Bassham on about my argument in the book that science does not depend on faith. I won’t say he’s obsessed with me, but if he wants to get his ideas out, he should concentrate on getting them published.

You can see his second critique by clicking on the screenshot below.

My argument in the book, also made in my Slate piece “No faith in science,” is aimed at a common jab at science made by believers. “Science,” they say, “is based on faith, just like religion.” In effect, they’re saying, “See, you’re just as bad as we are!”

Read below if you want; it’s a short paper (12 pages double spaced).

In my book and the Slate article I contend that the religionists’ argument depends on two different conceptions of faith, described in the Slate piece like this:

You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically. You wouldn’t go to a shaman or a spiritual healer for strep throat—unless you want to waste your money.

The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.

It goes on, and I don’t want to reprise the argument, which is a short one at Slate. In the present paper, Bassham presents a variety of ways that, he thinks, science depends on “faith”, but it turns out that all of these are “confidence-justified-by-experience” construals of that word.

First, though, he reprises word for word what he wrote in the Faith vs. Fact critique when trying to argue that religion is not based on “faith = belief without evidence.” You’ve seen this before, so he’s self plagiarizing:

There are many widely accepted conceptions of faith that do not view it as evidence-free belief. Among these are the Catholic “propositional” view of faith as assent to revealed truths on the authority of God the revealer;  the Calvinist conception of faith as firm belief in key tenets of the Christian faith as a result of the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit; the modern Protestant “voluntarist” view of faith as interpretive trust in the self-revealing actions of God within human history;  and the modern “Existentialist” conception of faith as an attitude of commitment, acceptance, and “total interpretation” made by the whole person. None of these common views of faith see it as an evidence-free form of cognition, or as inherently irrational.

Where’s the beef—the bit about “evidence”? The paragraph above doesn’t do a lot of work towards showing a similarity between what scientists deem as “faith” (justified confidence) and religious faith. So let’s look at one of Bassham’s arguments that scientist really do have a religious-like faith:

Finally, what of the claims that science is based on faith because of its commitments to the orderliness of nature and an unexplained set of physical laws?

These are really separate issues, but Coyne lumps them together and dismisses both with the following quick retort:

The orderliness of nature—the so-called set of natural laws—is not an assumption but an observation. It is logically possible that the speed of light in a vacuum could vary from place to place, and while we’d have to adjust our theories to account for that, or dispense with certain theories altogether, it wouldn’t be a disaster. . . . The laws of nature, then, are regularities (assumptions, if you will) based on experience, the same kind of experience that makes us confident that we’ll see another sunrise (p. 210).

Here Coyne completely misses the point at issue. The claim that scientists’ belief in the orderliness of nature is based on faith is grounded in two obvious features of science: (1) its working assumption, based on extensive but nevertheless limited evidence, that the laws of nature always operate everywhere in the universe, and (2) its resort to inductive reasoning to predict future events based on past observations. Both points require comment.

Since Francis Bacon, it has been clear that scientists regularly make claims that are not 100 percent certain because they go beyond the available evidence. For instance, they often make universal generalizations (statements of the form “All A’s are B’s”) based upon limited evidence. This is one reason why, as Coyne himself admits (33-34), all scientific theories and claims are tentative, revisable, and falsifiable. Thus, when scientists assume that basic scientific laws like the speed of light operate always and everywhere in the universe, they are not simply, as Coyne claims, making an “observation.” It is impossible to “observe” either future events or (trivially) events in unobserved parts of the universe. Thus, when scientists assume that the speed of light is a “regularity” that remains absolutely invariant, they are making a universal generalization that goes beyond the available evidence. In other words, they are holding “a belief which is not based on proof.” This is what defenders of the “science is based on faith” argument mean when they claim that scientists’ belief in the orderliness of nature is based on “faith.”

In other words, says Bassham, our assumption that the speed of light is a constant throughout the universe is an act of “faith” comparable to the claim that “belief in Jesus as your savior will get you to Heaven”.  And that is bogus. The speed of light in a vacuum can be measured in several ways, and incorporated into physical theories that apply elsewhere than in a laboratory on Earth, and, as far as we know now, is a constant. We do have evidence, just as we have evidence that other physical constants apply in places other than on Earth. So our inference to the best explanation is that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum.

Only a faith-osculator would argue that the speed-of-light claim is bascially the same as claiming that Jesus Christ, the son of God (as well as God himself) died and was resurrected so you can go to heaven, a belief based on at least five distinct empirical claims, all of them unevidenced.

In fact, there are some who have suggested that the speed of light is variable (see here and here, for instance). I’m not sure how much credibility the VSL (variable speed of light) view has, but the important thing is that we hold to a constant c because that’s what the evidence shows, but we could relinquish it if the evidence shows otherwise.

In contrast, no Christian will abandon the Jesus idea even though there’s not a scintilla of evidence for it from the get-go.  So, “faith” in science 1, “faith” in Christianity, -100.

All of Bassham’s arguments for “faith” as a tenet of science are similar to the above, and I’ll let you grapple with them yourself.  To end, I’ll give a quote from philosophers J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig (oy!), which Bassham quotes to show how science depends on faith:

Science cannot be practiced in thin air. In fact, science itself presupposes a number of substantive philosophical theses which must be assumed if science is even going to get off the runway. . . . Here is a list of some of the philosophical presuppositions of science: (1) The existence of a theory-independent, external world; (2) the orderly nature of the external world; (3) the knowability of the external world; (4) the existence of truth; (5) the laws of logic; (6) the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified true beliefs in our intellectual environment; (7) the adequacy of language to describe the world; (8) the existence of values used in science (e.g., “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”); (9) the uniformity of nature and induction; (10) the existence of numbers.

I would claim that all of these are inferences to the best explanation, though #6 is clearly not what scientists believe since we know that in some ways our faculties are faulty (that’s what optical illusions are about).  #7 is dubious because nobody argues that (viz., quantum mechanics), and a few of the others, like “the existence of numbers” are not articles of faith.

Knock yourself out!


Op-ed in science journal Nature disses science and “scientism”, questions Enlightenment values

October 10, 2019 • 10:15 am

Nathaniel Comfort, author of the risible Nature essay at hand (click on screenshot below), is a professor in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. We’ve met him three times before on this site; he seems to be a postmodernist who dislikes genes, New Atheism, and Richard Dawkins.  Now he’s written about. . . . well, it’s hard to discern. If you read the essay (and I both pity you if you do and challenge you to see its point), you’ll see it’s laced with criticisms of Enlightenment values, white males, scientism, and the oppression of the disabled. Oh, and it lauds postmodernism, especially its “other ways of knowing”.

One of Comfort’s main points, at least as I discern it, is that science has somehow deeply changed how humanity has perceived itself. Not so much in the Darwinian way, in which we now see ourselves as part of the branching bush of life, but because of discoveries like our microbiome (seriously, do I think of myself as “Jerry Coyne + bacteria”?), the “blueprint” model of DNA, horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, CRISPR technology, and so on. This, of course, is not new: many people have flaunted these buzzwords before and claimed they affected our sense of self, even though our sense of self seems to be pretty much what it was half a century ago.

Comfort’s real point, though, appears to be doing down science, or what he misdefines as scientism:

Huxley’s sunny view — of infinite human progress and triumph, brought about by the inexorable march of science — epitomizes a problem with so-called Enlightenment values. The precept that society should be based on reason, facts and universal truths has been a guiding theme of modern times. Which in many ways is a splendid thing (lately I’ve seen enough governance without facts for one lifetime). Yet Occam’s razor is double edged. Enlightenment values have accommodated screechingly discordant beliefs, such as that all men are created equal, that aristocrats should be decapitated and that people can be traded as chattel.

I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.

I am not sure that this definition of “scientism” matches that of other people; usually the definition is of “science extending its ambit beyond what it should be”. In that latter sense, I’d see “scientism” as the misuse of science to push ideological issues, like saying “science tells us that we should sterilize Italians and Jews”, or “science tells us that races are inherently unequal”. And, indeed, science has been misused in such ways, though these misuses have severely diminished over time and, in the end, it’s not science itself that’s responsible for these attitudes, but bigots and other bad people latching onto science. Still, what’s the point of running through this list once again?

Further, just because people holding Enlightenment beliefs can also hold un-Enlightenment beliefs, like killing aristocrats and having slaves, does not constitute an indictment of the Enlightenment beliefs as commonly understood and adumbrated by Pinker in Enlightenment Now—the tripartite values of reason, science, and humanism. These values do not call for the killing of aristocrats or the enslavement of others.

And Comfort gives no examples of how “scientism”, even as he construes it, has constrained our sense of self. He seems to give one example at the end of his piece (see below), but it’s unconvincing. In fact, one can make a good argument that the solving of social problems is in many cases a deeply empirical issue. Perhaps your ideas don’t come out of science per se, but from your own values and ethics. But then confecting solutions often requires empirical data. One example of the former is the idea that all people should be equal under the law, regardless of race, sex, or gender. But how do you fix things? Those decisions, like using busing or affirmative action or even demonstrating that unequal representation results from discrimination rather than unequal preferences, are empirical matters: does intervention X facilitate solution Y? That, I’d say, is “science construed broadly.”

Even immunology and information theory come in for a hit, since they somehow facilitate the discrimination between “self and nonself”, or make people seem like machines, in a socially inimical way. Look at the postmodernism on show here:

Across the arc of the past 150 years, we can see both science and scientism shaping human identity in many ways. Developmental psychology zeroed in on the intellect, leading to the transformation of IQ (intelligence quotient) from an educational tool into a weapon of social control. Immunology redefined the ‘self’ in terms of ‘non-self’. Information theory provided fresh metaphors that recast identity as residing in a text or a wiring diagram. More recently, cell and molecular studies have relaxed the borders of the self. Reproductive technology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology have made human nature more malleable, epigenetics and microbiology complicate notions of individuality and autonomy, and biotechnology and information technology suggest a world where the self is distributed, dispersed, atomized.

Yes, and so what? Where’s the scientism here? Certainly IQ was once used to keep foreigners out of the US and even sterilize women, but we don’t do that any more. As for the other stuff he mentions, that’s not scientism but science. The last sentence about the “atomized” self is pure nonsense.

And then Comfort calls on postmodernists (who aren’t of course scientists) to demonstrate the “deep entanglement of science and society”:

The immunological Plato was the Australian immunologist Frank MacFarlane Burnet. Burnet’s fashioning of immunology as the science of the self was a direct response to his reading of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Tit for tat, social theorists from Jacques Derrida to Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway have leaned on immunological imagery and concepts in theorizing the self in society. The point is that scientific and social thought are deeply entangled, resonant, co-constructed. You can’t fully understand one without the other.

The last bit isn’t really true. Yes, some scientific problems arise in a social milieu, which is trivial, but the truth or falsity of scientific findings themselves is absolutely independent of society. And, as reader Vampyricon noted when calling this article to my attention, “Comfort also leans on the postmodernist myth of science as being focused on dominating nature, a claim that reminds one of Luce Irigaray’s claim that Newton’s Principia is a rape manual.”

At the end, Comfort disses rationality again, because, after all, those who promulgated Enlightenment values were “university-educated men who were not disabled”, and, as Vampyricon noted, wanted to “dominate nature.” Here Comfort mixes postmodernism with wokeness. If any two things are deeply entangled, it’s not science and society, but wokeness and postmodernism, both afflicted with the idea that truths are not empirical and determined by consensus, but personal and validated by feelings:

Yet there is a fruit fly in the ointment. Most of these Age-of-Reason notions of identity, and the dominant sci-fi scenarios of post-human futures, have been developed by university-educated men who were not disabled, and who hailed from the middle and upper classes of wealthy nations of the global north. Their ideas reflect not only the findings but also the values of those who have for too long commanded the science system: positivist, reductionist and focused on dominating nature. Those who control the means of sequence production get to write the story.

That has begun to change. Although there is far to go, greater attention to equity, inclusion and diversity has already profoundly shaped thinking about disease, health and what it means to be human. . .

So, if scientism is bad for society, and the lucubrations of able-bodied white men who went to college are determining our future, what can we do? What is Comfort’s alternative? He offers none. All he does is give us an example of how artistic “liberation” from science leads to some kind of enlightenment for disabled people:

DNA-based conceptions of ethnicity are far from unproblematic. But the impulse to make the technologies of the self more accessible, more democratic — more about self-determination and less about social control — is, at its basis, liberatory.

Nowhere is this clearer than for people living with disabilities and using assistive technologies. They might gain or regain modes of perception, might be able to communicate and express themselves in new ways, and gain new relationships to the universe of things.

The artist Lisa Park plays with these ideas. She uses biofeedback and sensor technologies derived from neuroscience to create what she calls audiovisual representations of the self. A tree of light blooms and dazzles as viewers hold hands; pools of water resonate harmonically in response to Park’s electroencephalogram waves; an ‘orchestra’ of cyborg musicians wearing heart and brain sensors make eerily beautiful music by reacting and interacting in different ways as Park, the conductor, instructs them to remove blindfolds, gaze at one another, wink, laugh, touch or kiss. Yet even this artistic, subjective and interactive sense of self is tied to an identity bounded by biology.

What is the sweating journalist trying to say here, here in the pages of one of the world’s premier scientific journals? Is this kind of art better for disabled people than the many scientists and technologists working on curing disabilities or making it easier for disabled people? (And yes, many of these benefactors are white men who went to college.) Note that the above is Comfort’s peroration, and it’s almost nuts. Not just nuts, but poorly written and loaded to the gunwales with postmodern jargon.

In his last paragraph, Comfort—surprise?—plumps for “other ways of knowing”:

Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to define human identity and worth in terms of the values of science itself, as if it alone could tell us who we are. That is an odd and blinkered notion. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change, the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable. This isn’t to lay all human misery at science’s feet — far from it. The problem is scientism. Defining the self only in biological terms tends to obscure other forms of identity, such as one’s labour or social role. Maybe the answer to Huxley’s ‘question of questions’ isn’t a number, after all.

Umm. . . Western science and technology—if you construe empirical observation, affirmation, and testing as “science”—are the only reliable sources of public knowledge. “Self-knowledge” is emotion and feeling, but becomes scientific if you want to demonstrate to others stuff like “I am a caring person who helps others.”

But none of this has anything to do with “defining the self only in biological terms.” Such a definition is Comfort’s conceit, and one of the hard-to-discern themes of his piece. But his conceit is misguided and wrong. Even biologists don’t think of their “self” in purely biological terms.

What is also wrong is that the scientific journal Nature published this tripe. What were they thinking?

h/t: Vampyricon

A misguided attack on scientism in Quillette

May 12, 2019 • 10:30 am

How many times do I have to criticize attacks on scientism, all of which use various permutations of the same three claims? Here they are:

1.) There are “other ways of knowing” that don’t involve science. These often involve “why” questions, like “Why am I here? (i.e. what is my purpose?)” or “Why is the universe here”?

2.) The scientific method (or rather, the use of empirical analysis and observation, confirmation, testing, making predictions, and so on) cannot be justified a priori by philosophy, and involves untestable or fallacious assumptions.

3.) Science is  trying to take over the humanities, and this unwarranted extension of science to places where it doesn’t belong is true scientism.

The article below that just appeared in Quillette rehashes the same tired old arguments, and I’m tired of refuting them. But I’ll take up the cudgels once again. To see my numerous and previous criticisms of scientism, go here.

Read the article by clicking on the screenshot below. It’s a criticism of an earlier piece by Bo and Ben Winegard (also in Quillette) called “In defense of scientism.”


The nice article by the Winegards uses a narrow definition of scientism: “science based social policy” (SBSP) which they say is “the view that social policy should be based on the best available theory and data; in other words, that social policy should be decided using the weight of the evidence. And that is all scientism is—the view that scientific attitudes and methods can enhance all modes of empirical inquiry and should, therefore, be promoted.” Well, some would disagree with that. Others define scientism as “the extension of science beyond its proper bailiwick.” Two such construals of that are 1.) The claim that science devalues nonscientific realms like art and literature, and 2.) Science tries to construct an objective morality, saying that empirical investigation alone can tell us what and what is not desirable and good.

The Winegards address both of these construals, admitting that science can’t replace art and literature, which convey emotion and experience rather than empirical truth. But they also argue—and I agree—that science can helpfully infuse areas like sociology, literary criticism, and other areas that try to make claims about reality. And they agree with me that no, science can’t tell us objectively what is good and moral and desirable, for those are subjective preferences. But once you agree on those preferences—and in morality many of us do adopt similar consequentialist views—then science can tell us how to best achieve them; for how to achieve a desired goal is an empirical matter.

But Aaron Neil, a researcher at the Canadian think tank Cardus, wants to go beyond what the Winegards say, in particular conveying the first two tropes given at the top.  I’ve refuted both of these claims before, most extensively in my book Faith Versus Fact, but I’ll try again, and will also try—and probably fail—to be brief. My refutations of claims 1 and 2 as emitted by Neil are these:

1.) Neil fails to tell us a single bit of knowledge that wasn’t derived by science, though he bloviates at length about how this is possible. If there are “other ways of knowing”, what is the knowledge produced by those ways? If it’s so pervasive, Neil should be able to give us many examples. But he fails miserably, coming up dry.

2.) Indeed, you can’t justify philosophically the use of the empirical method to produce truths about the universe. But the justification is not by philosophy, but by usefulness. In other words, the scientific method works to tell us truths about the universe, and some version of it (the varieties of empirical methods that I call “science construed broadly”) are the only way to find out facts. To paraphrase theology, we justify science by works rather than faith.

Let’s take Neil’s two claims in reverse order (his quotations are indented):

1.) The scientific method can’t be justified by philosophy, and involves untestable (and sometimes failed) assumptions. Here are some of the philosophical attacks on science leveled by Neil:

a. Science is self-refuting in saying that “scientific truth is always provisional.” To wit:

Although the Winegards present an innocuous definition in their essay, they commonly drift into the less benign form of scientism identified by Hayek. The Winegards’ Hayekian scientism manifests itself early in their piece with the claim that “Truth is always provisional.” As they correctly note, scientific “truths” appear to be true so long as they provide “the best available theory” based on the evidence at hand. However, not all truths bear this hypothetical quality. Ironically, the very statement, “Truth is always provisional” is not itself a provisional truth claim. If it is always true that truth is always provisional, this statement is self-refuting. Not all truth claims are theoretical statements that are vulnerable to empirical falsification. Take the proposition, “there are no square circles.” This is not a hypothesis that is true so long as scientists do not discover a square circle. Logically, a circle can never be a square.

Do I need to waste time on this? It’s philosophical pilpul. Instead of saying “truth is always provisional”, let’s restate it as “science doesn’t tell us anything with absolute certainty, but we have degrees of certainty about various things, and are more confident about some scientific truths than others.”  That revision is sufficient to refute Neil’s philosophical twiddling.

b. Science is based on untestable metaphysical assumptions. To wit:

. . . as the greatest critics and advocates of modern science have argued, science is full of extra-scientific assumptions.

Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, saw that far from doing away with faith and metaphysics, the scientific enterprise of the “godless anti-metaphysicians” rested upon its own “metaphysical faith.” In The Gay Science, Nietzsche explains that science depends on dispelling personal convictions and replacing them with provisional hypotheses. However, Nietzsche argues, the scientific attempt to disallow a priori convictions is itself based on “some prior conviction…one that is so commanding and unconditional that it sacrifices all other convictions to itself.” For scientific inquiry to occur, the conviction must “be affirmed in advance” that “‘Nothing is needed more than truth.’” Implicit in the modern “scientific spirit” is the metaphysical belief that “truth is divine.” Therefore, he argues, “there is simply no science ‘without presuppositions.’”

If Nietzsche provides an example of a moral assumption implicit in the scientific method, David Hume, the great skeptic and pioneer of the modern empirical project, provides a philosophical one. For Hume, “all inferences from experience suppose that the future will resemble the past.” To observe that a cause follows from an effect, and to conclude that the same effect will always follow from the same cause, assumes that nature remains the same. This assumption is impossible to prove. “It is impossible,” writes Hume, “that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future; since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance.” In other words, arguing for uniformity in nature based on experiences assumes that uniformity already exists. To prove the consistency of the causal relationship would require stepping outside of empirical experience.

Again, this is easily refuted. First, not all scientists think that the pursuit of truth is the most important thing they do. But as scientists it is our job to pursue truth and that’s all, though many of us do value truth above nearly everything. (For example, many of us would prefer to be told we have a fatal disease than be lied to.) Further, if you are interested in solving problems like “How can we stem global warming?” or “How can we quash this outbreak of measles?”, then science is the only way to go. The so-called a priori assumption that the empirical method is the best way to find truth is not a prior conviction, but the result of centuries of experience of what works and what doesn’t.

As far as Hume is concerned, science does not assume that the future will resemble the past. Indeed, evolutionary biologists assume that the future will NOT resemble the past. The resemblance we do see, and this is not an a priori conviction but also the result of experience, is that the laws of physics appear to remain unalterable in our universe, so in that sense future laws and events (i.e., as instantiated in the evolution of stars) can be assumed to resemble the past laws and events. We use uniformitarianism insofar as our experience tells us this applies. We do not assume it a priori.

It’s a common mistake of people like Neil to think that scientists once sat down and constructed a scientific method, complete with dictums like “value truth above all else”, “assume the future will be like the past”, and “empirical investigation, replication, and so on are the best ways to find empirical truth”. No, those procedures developed from experience when people learned about the best ways to find truth.

2.) There are other ways of knowing. I discuss this at length in Faith Versus Fact, concluding that if you want to know facts about our universe, the scientific procedure (“science construed broadly”) is the only way to proceed. This does not denigrate philosophy or mathematics, both of which are logical systems that are very important in doing science and in thinking hard about what you’re doing. Mathematics does not tell us truths about the universe, but truths about the logical system it comprises. That’s why we can sensibly speak of “proof” in mathematics but not in science. Philosophy, by teaching us how to think clearly and logically, can point out errors in our thinking and lead us to conclusions that aren’t obvious. One of them is the Euthyphro Issue, which teaches us that most religious people get their morality not from religion itself, but from secular and extra-scriptural sources. That is not a truth about the universe, but a logical (and valuable!) truth that comes from reflection and perhaps some observation of how people construe morality (the border between this kind of philosophy and science is very tenuous).

What are the other ways of knowing? Neil discusses two areas.

a. Ways to answer “why” questions. To wit:

A notable example of this scientistic shift from method into metaphysics comes from Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins who, like Dawkins, is a prolific author as well as a fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford University. During the question and answer period following a discussion of The God Delusion, Dawkins was asked whether science provides the answers to the great existential ‘why’ questions. In his reply, Dawkins declared that questions like “why does the universe exist” are “silly” questions that do not deserve answers. Peter Atkins makes a similar point in a recent article. He argues that questions like “Why are we here?” are “not real questions because they are not based on evidence.” Real questions, according to Atkins, are questions “open to scientific elucidation.”

Unfortunately, for Dawkins and Atkins, the belief that all questions must be open to scientific explanation is a metaphysical commitment, not a scientific one. Science does not say that only scientific questions are worth pursuing. Nor does science say that every aspect of reality can be explained by science. Lurking beneath their rejection of the non-scientific lies a fundamentally extra-scientific worldview. In their dismissal of the deepest questions concerning human existence, Dawkins and Atkins speak not as dispassionate scientists, but as partisans to their own philosophical picture of reality.

This can be dispelled easily when we realize that what Dawkins and Atkins (both scientists) are talking about as “fake questions” are “questions that cannot be answered with any certainty.” They are construing “real questions” as questions that have answers that we can all agree on, and can have some certainty about the answers. And for those kinds of questions, Dawkins and Atkins are correct, for only science can answer questions that have answers like that. Sure, you can say, “I had a vision of Jesus,” but there is no way to verify it. Beyond this kind of subjective “truth”, we must turn to science. If questions like “Why are we here?” do have “correct” answers, or answers that most of us can agree on, then pray tell us what the answers are, Dr. Neil! For religions, which occupy themselves with such questions, cannot agree of any answers.

b. Areas that constitute “other ways of knowing.” Disturbingly, besides philosophy, which I’ve already discussed, the only field mentioned by Neil is theology. (I’m not sure whether he thinks theology can really tell us any truths.):

Science is not the only form of knowledge. There are valid non-scientific ways of approaching reality. In fact, before the empirical science of Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, science (from the Latin scientia) simply meant “knowledge.” For the ancients, natural philosophy (the rough pre-modern equivalent to modern science) and philosophy were ‘sciences’ because each intellectual discipline contributed towards knowledge of reality. Not only were philosophy and theology considered legitimate ways of knowing, the medievals placed natural philosophy below philosophy and theology. It may be tempting to dismiss the medieval hierarchy as an example of pre-modern ignorance. Before too quickly discounting it, consider first the following explanation behind the ordering provided by Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologian-philosophers of the Middle Ages: “Lower sciences,” Aquinas writes, “presuppose conclusions proved in the higher sciences.”

And that’s about it: philosophy and theology (“natural philosophy” is just another word for “science”). Neil doesn’t mention literature or art or music or any of the other classic but bogus “ways of knowing.” (I’m not denigrating these areas, but claiming, as I did in my book, that they are ways of feeling rather than ways of knowing.)

Again, it’s extremely telling that despite Neil’s repeated claim that “science is not the only form of knowledge,” he cannot give us a single example of “knowledge” that comes from outside science. That alone invalidates this part of his argument.

For further discussion of the fallacious “other ways of knowing” claim, read pp. 185-196 of Faith Versus Fact, and for a longer discussion of the scientism canard, read pages 196-224—a section that goes over many of the issues discussed by Neil as well as the Winegards.


New York Times op-ed: Science can learn from religion

February 3, 2019 • 10:00 am

UPDATE:  If religious practices promote well being, one would expect that more religious countries would have happier inhabitants. But the graph below (prepared by reader gluonspring) shows that this is not the case: the most religious countries score lowest on the UN’s “happiness index.” Of course this is a correlation and not necessarily a causal relationship, and there are other factors as well (people may turn to religion if they are poor and unhappy), but this certainly goes against DeSteno’s hypothesis.


I’ve gotten the link to this new NYT op-ed from about a dozen readers, with some explicitly asking me to respond.

Okay, I’ll bite, though my response will be limited to this site as there’s no way in hell that the New York Times would publish a piece saying that science and religion are not mutually helpful. The writer is David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of the book Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride. More about him and his funding sources (yes, you can guess!) later.

The article manages to press all my buttons, including extolling the oleaginous Krista Tippett (I had to listen to her ask Daniel Kahneman this morning how he manages to “inhabit the space of his theories”!) and criticizing Steven Pinker. But let’s examine the arguments, which are independent of whether DeSteno loves Krista Tippett (she is, by the way, funded by Templeton).

DeSteno’s thesis is that religion has contributed to science, and that arguing for a divide between the areas “might not only be stoking needless hostility; it might also be slowing the process of scientific discovery itself.”

How does this occur? According to DeSteno, religion has found ways to control not only individual behavior, but also group behavior—and in good ways. If we study these religous methods, we could concoct hypotheses about how we can apply this behavioral control to society at large. In other words, the contribution of religion to science is that it suggests hypotheses. These hypotheses can then be tested using science to see if they work. As DeSteno says:

Religious traditions offer a rich store of ideas about what human beings are like and how they can satisfy their deepest moral and social needs. For thousands of years, people have turned to spiritual leaders and religious communities for guidance about how to conduct themselves, how to coexist with other people, how to live meaningful and fulfilled lives — and how to accomplish this in the face of the many obstacles to doing so. The biologist Richard Dawkins, a vocal critic of religion, has said that in listening to and debating theologians, he has “never heard them say anything of the smallest use.” Yet it is hubristic to assume that religious thinkers who have grappled for centuries with the workings of the human mind have never discovered anything of interest to scientists studying human behavior.

Just as ancient doesn’t always mean wise, it doesn’t always mean foolish. The only way to determine which is the case is to put an idea — a hypothesis — to an empirical test. In my own work, I have repeatedly done so. I have found that religious ideas about human behavior and how to influence it, though never worthy of blind embrace, are sometimes vindicated by scientific examination.

So what are these “religious ideas”? They include these:

1.) Meditation. The idea that meditation can reduce suffering and make people more moral has, says DeSteno, been supported by science. He also says that idea comes from Buddhism.

2.) Ritual. DeSteno says that science has found that the repetitive actions of rituals lead to greater self-control and more feelings of “affiliation and empathy”. He implies that the use of rituals originated in religion.

3.) “Religious virtues such as gratitude and kindness.” See below.

That’s about it, but one can think of other ideas as well. Whether they come from religion is debatable, and I’ll get to that in a minute. DeSteno’s conclusion?

If this view is right, religion can offer tools to bolster secular interventions of many types, such as combating addiction, increasing exercise, saving money and encouraging people to help those in need. This possibility dovetails with a parallel body of research showing that by cultivating traditional religious virtues such as gratitude and kindness, people can also improve their ability to reach personal goals like financial and educational success.

. . . My purpose here isn’t to argue that religion is inherently good or bad. As with most social institutions, its value depends on the intentions of those using it. But even in cases where religion has been used to foment intergroup conflict, to justify invidious social hierarchies or to encourage the maintenance of false beliefs, studying how it manages to leverage the mechanisms of the mind to accomplish those nefarious goals can offer insights about ourselves — insights that could be used to understand and then combat such abuses in the future, whether perpetrated by religious or secular powers.

Science and religion do not need each other to function, but that doesn’t imply that they can’t benefit from each other.

It’s clear that what DeSteno means is that science can find out stuff if they test hypotheses derived from examining religion, but that science itself doesn’t benefit. Science is, after all, a set of practices that help us find out stuff, and it isn’t and has never been helped by religion. It is society that benefits—supposedly.

DeSteno calls these testable hypotheses “spiritual technologies”, a word he got from Krista Tippett (it has shady overtones from Scientology, though). But he also says, correctly, that these practices can be separated from religious dogma, and also don’t vindicate the dogma of any religion. In response to Pinker, who, when faced with DeSteno’s ideas, said that these are cultural and not religious practices, DeSteno says that it’s hard to separate the two.

And it is, which is one of the problems of DeSteno’s thesis. Are these techniques derived from studying religion and its supposed successes, or do they come from elsewhere? I’m willing to admit that meditation comes from Zen Buddhism, though many people don’t see that as a religion. But that aside, it does seem to have value, though some people, like Dan Dennett, never feel the “mindfulness” and “out of self” experiences touted by adherents like Sam Harris. I would be interested to see if the scientific studies of meditation explicitly credit Buddhism, but I won’t carp if they did.

As for the other two, I am not so sure they come from religion.  Ritual probably long preceded present-day religions, and may have had little to do with belief in divine beings. The origins of ritual are lost in the irrecoverable past of our species. Indeed, religion may have adopted rituals like singing and dancing from the teenage phase of our evolutionary history.

And, of course, there are other ways of bonding. Do soccer fans derive their chants and solidarity from observing religion? I don’t think so. There are many things that help us bond, and many rituals that facilitate that, and surely some of those don’t come from religion. I won’t go into this in detail as readers can think of these on their own. But why not write an article like “What science can learn from soccer”?

Here’s some video from that proposed article:

As for “gratitude and kindness,” I deny that these ideas derive from religion. While some religions emphasize them, many urge them on adherents to their faith but urge intolerance and dislike towards members of other faiths. That, indeed, was the situation throughout most of religious history. If you ascribe “gratitude and kindness” to religion, you must also ascribe “dislike, xenophibia, and intolerance of others” to religion as well. Here DeSteno is brandishing a double-edged sword.

There are many reasons to think that religion adopted the “gratitude and kindness” stand from secular reason and from evolution. These virtues would have arisen via experience and evolution over the long period of time when humans lived in small groups—groups of people who knew each other and thus could practice these virtues in light of the expected reciprocity from others. And, of course, secular ethics has emphasized these virtues from since forever. As Rebecca Goldstein told me, moral philosophy is a thoroughly secular enterprise. And she’s right. Religions simply took over these virtues from preexisting groups.

But there’s more to say. Religion has also had a malign influence on humanity, not, perhaps, through scientific study of religious methods of behavior control, but from secular enterprises apeing religious methods to control people. For example:

  1. Threats as a way to control behavior. There’s nothing more compelling than making people behave than by threatening them if they don’t. Religion is excellent at doing this, especially through threats of burning in hell. Other threats have been used by dictatorships to make people conform. What are Nazism and Stalinism but oppressive ideologies that use the methods of religion, including god figures, threats, ritual, and punishment of apostasy and blasphemy?
  2. Deprivation of freedom of expression. Religions have been suppressing heresy for centuries, a technique taken over by totalitarian regimes to ensure control.
  3. Use of raw power to get your way. Here I’ll mention how some Catholic priests have used the cachet of their church to sexually molest young people.
  4. Promises of reward if you give money or effort to the church. People who tithe expect rewards, often in the afterlife. But “prosperity gospel” hucksters like Creflo Dollar, as well as Scientologists, use these promises of reward to bankrupt their acolytes.

Now scientists may not have studied these religious methods to judge their efficacy. After all, who would fund a study of whether gaining religious power over someone makes them more likely to succumb to sexual molestation? But the hypotheses that these methods work can reasonably be ascribed to religion (at least as reasonably as the three ideas mentioned above), and they have been used to damage human beings. On balance, one can’t say that the existence of religions has been an overall good in making humans feel good and behave well. Likewise, we can’t say that scientific discoveries about human behavior would be less advanced if religion hadn’t existed.

When I read this article, I immediately thought, “I smell Templeton in here.” (By the way, the self-aggrandizing rat in the wonderful children’s book Charlotte’s Web is named Templeton!) And it doesn’t take much digging to find that DeSteno has been and still is amply funded by Templeton. Here are two past grants he’s had, both listed on his c.v.:

John Templeton Foundation Co-PI’s: David DeSteno and Lisa Feldman Barrett Informal Science Education via Storytelling: Teaching Scientists and Philosophers How to Communicate with the Public Funding Program: Academic Engagement November 2016 – October 2018; Total costs: $216,400. J

John Templeton Foundation PI: David DeSteno Behavioral Measures of Virtue: Moving from the Lab to the “Real World” Funding Program: Character Virtue Development June 2014 – May 2016; Total costs: $244,251

And, on January 22 of this year, Northeastern University noted that DeSteno and a colleague now have three more grants from Templeton adding up to a cool $600,000:

DeSteno and fellow Northeastern psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett recently received three grants from the John Templeton Foundation for a total of nearly $600,000, including two grants to continue offering workshops that help scientists such as Routledge communicate complex information to laypeople.

Hundreds of scientists from all over the world have applied to attend the first three workshops, and a dozen have been selected to participate in each one. According to DeSteno, several of their workshop attendees have written articles for major news outlets such as theTimesThe Wall Street Journal, and Scientific American. Now they are planning a fourth workshop this fall in Boston.

Some of these grants have been to teach scholars to communicate with the public. As Templeton described the first grant above, which expired in October 2018:

Scholars yearn to provide insights into some of the big questions. Yet, too often, they are limited in their abilities to communicate findings directly to a knowledge hungry public .The result is either that scholars write mainly for one another, placing important knowledge in insular academic journals that are beyond the reach and interest of the public, or rely on intermediaries to digest and transmit knowledge. If science and philosophy are to maximally enhance well-being and benefit humanity, scholars must have a way to more easily disseminate their discoveries to the public. Success in doing so requires learning not only how to tell a good story, and how to write in different styles, but also how to approach, pitch and work with editors at prominent publications.

There’s the Big Questions trope again, which is TempletonSpeak for “osculating faith.” I see workshops like this as Templeton fostering a way to spread its own views to the public, as DeSteno does here (this article could have been written by a Templeton flack). And two of DeSteno’s new Templeton grants are for further workshops in this kind of communication.

There’s a lot of dough to be made, and public approbation to be gained, by claiming that science and religion have a lot to teach each other. Yes, science can often test religious claims (Adam and Eve, the efficacy of prayer, and so on), and these claims are always dispelled. As for religion’s contribution to science, as outlined by DeSteno in this article, well, it’s not impressive.

It’s not to the New York Times’s credit that they continue publishing religion-osculating pieces like this. Would that they gave the same space to criticisms of religion!

Templeton the rat (from the Charlotte’s Web Wiki)

h/t: Greg Mayer, Michael