Publisher’s promotion: 50% off audiobook of “Faith Versus Fact”

January 12, 2023 • 9:45 am

If you want to hear almost 12 hours of argument that science and religion are incompatible, and at a very low price, the http://www.audiobooks site is selling the audiobook of my Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible for half price until January 27. You can go to the site below to buy one copy, or join a recurring-shipment club and get two free books. This is a bit less than the paperback itself goes for on Amazon. Big fun! It’s just $8.50—you can’t beat that with a stick:

I’m not sure if there’s a shipping fee, as I’m not buying any and haven’t gone through the purchase process (I have many copies), but there are no taxes.  I am Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus), and I endorse this act of self-promotion.

Videos from the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference

December 4, 2022 • 10:45 am

The videos for the Academic Freedom Conference, held at Stanford on November 4 and 5, have now been collected at one YouTube site. There are 17 of them.  At the time, I though I’d write a lot about the various talks, but somehow I wasn’t inspired to do so. I was suffering from insomnia (still am), and had very little energy. But you don’t need my commentary, for you can watch all the videos, which include Q&A sessions, and in effect attend the conference vicariously. I’ll put up the video of the one panel I was in, about (the lack of) academic freedom in STEM, and excuse me for self-aggrandizement, though I was far from the best speaker in this group.

The speakers below include Mimi St. Johns, a Stanford undergraduate in computer sciences, who gave a great talk, as well as my friends Anna Krylov (physicist, USC), Luana Maroja (evolutionary biologist, Williams College), and me. Bari Weiss was there and got Luana to write up her talk for publication on Bari’s Substack. Luana and I have similar views on the infiltration of biology by ideology, and are collaborating on an article about the issue.

Other talks you might find interesting—even if you dislike the speakers or their politic—include Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson’s discussion about “The War on the West” (Murray was on Zoom from the UK), “Academic Freedom and What is it For?” with Greg Lukianoff, Nadine Strossen, Rick Shweder, and Hollis Robbins, “Rationality and Academic Freedom” with Steve Pinker, and the last panel, which comprised four academics who had suffered professionally for speaking out: “The Cost of Academic Dissent,” with Amy Wax, Joshua Katz, Elizabeth Weiss, and Frences Widdowson. (I’ve given links to the talks and discussions.)

If you wanted to go but couldn’t, well, pick your topics.

Who is your Doppelgänger? Mine isn’t the Fonz

September 17, 2022 • 12:00 pm

Yesterday as I was picking up my mail, the mailwoman and I had a chat, and it went something like this:

Postwoman:  I bet you get told a lot that you look like someone famous.
Me: Not really. There’s only one person I’ve been told I look like, or even have been mistaken for.
Postwoman:  Who is that?
Me: You’re probably too young to know this guy: Cat Stevens, the singer.
Postwoman: No, I don’t know him.
Me: Well, who do I look like, then?
Postwoman: (mumbling)  Shavonz (that’s what I heard).
Me: Shavonz? Who’s that? How do you spell it?
Postwomen: No, the Fonz–the FONZ!
Me: Oh, the Fonz! Henry Winkler!
Postwoman: Yep.
Me: You really think I look like him?
Postwoman: Yes.
Me:  Well, nobody’s ever told me that, so I guess I’ll take it.

But in reality I look nothing like the Fonz. Here’s Henry Winkler recently:

I don’t think there’s much of a resemblance, so I guess I won’t take it. You be the judge.

However, when I was younger and had long hair and a beard, I was told I looked like the singer Cat Stevens, and when I visited to Greece as a hippie, just when Stevens was popular, I was mistaken for him twice by the locals, once in a taverna where his picture was hanging on the wall. Stevens, whose birth name was Steven Demetre Georgiou, is about six months older than I. His father was from Cyprus, so he was widely admired in Greece.

I maintain that yes, I looked like him back then.  Here are some photos. First, two of Stevens, then two of me from about 1974 when I was in grad school.

Cat Stevens:


Of course neither Cat nor I look like this now, but the resemblance was noted decades ago. As you may know, Stevens stop singing, converted to Islam, became a hard-line Islamist, and then deconverted.

Here’s one of the songs I like from the Cat. He was very good before he went off the rails:

And another good one, this time a live performance:

Now this is a good excuse for a thread. Who do you resemble, either in your own view or in other people’s? Do you have a Doppelgänger?

If you want, send in photos of you and your Doppelgänger and I may do a post if I get enough of them.

More ideological distortions of biology described by Dawkins and an article on pervasive ideological censorship of Wikipedia articles

July 25, 2022 • 9:45 am

Two days ago, for a small project, I compiled a list of ten ways that biology (and evolutionary biology in particular) has been distorted by ideology. These distortions usually come from the “progressive” (really “regressive”) Left, but the Right contributes, too. What’s important is that biological facts are being hidden or distorted in the service of people’s personal ideologies and politics. Ideologues find some lines of biological research, or conclusions from that research, uncomfortable—even deeming it dangerous—and think they’re doing a service by this kind of distortion and censorship. They aren’t.

Besides a few additional suggestions from readers in the comments, we have two new forms of distortion suggested by Richard Dawkins in a tweet:

I appreciate the call out! The “revival of Lamarckism”, I think, is the current view that epigenetic modifications of the genome, induced by the environment, can be inherited, and can constitute adaptations. There are no good examples: most of the alterations aren’t adaptive, and none of them last beyond a few generations. The ideology motivating this view is presumably a “Darwin-was-wrong” view, and perhaps the political notion that organisms are malleable by environmental change—though this form of change gets inscribed in the genes. (Another method is the “plasticity” hypothesis of Mary Jane West-Eberhard. but even my smartest colleagues can’t figure out how to interpret that theory.)

Group selection, of which we have no good examples in humans and only a few in other species (see the last chapter of my book Speciation with Allen Orr), may reflect another form of ideological “anti-Darwinism”, or perhaps a drive to explain how humans can become altruistic and kind via “selfish genes”. (But as Dawkins has explained repeatedly, apparent altruism, and certainly cooperation, can evolve via individual selection, and Steve Pinker has explained why group selection for human traits is cumbersome and unlikely.)

However, the promotion of group selection by Ed Wilson, the latest big revival of the idea, wasn’t so much in the service of an ideology but of ambition—Wilson wanted to be remembered for having his own Big Theory of human behavior, and group selection was it. His last books and talks pushed the idea that, in fact, almost every aspect of human behavior had evolved via group selection. (This isn’t just my interpretation, but one made by several of Wilson’s colleagues and friends.)

Now, this new article in Quillette, by a person using a pseudonym (no, I don’t know who it is), represents another substantial attempt to distort biology in the interest of ideology.  The author documents at length how a whole group of Wikipedia articles, involving human behavior, intelligence, race, and other traits have been edited or even removed because the claims adduced weren’t comforting to the “progressive” Left. (And yes, the editing is all in the direction of expunging things that contradict wokeness). I haven’t checked the claims, which involves going through the editing history of many Wikipedia articles (the discussion is all on public view), but I direct you to the article to show you how censorious the woke editors have been.

Click to read:

The claims, if true, contradict Wikipedia‘s avowed aim of presenting the latest well-supported ideas from reputable sources; instead, they’ve cut out new and reputable sources in favor of older sources that buttress the ideologues’s claims, and have often replaced the claims of scholars with those of journalists. The aim is to effect “social justice”, not to give information.

“Tezuka” gives five examples of Wikipedia-tampering that he’s followed in depth; these are the areas covered:

1.) Recent evolution in our own species.

2.) Differences in average IQs among countries

3.) The “Flynn effect”: the observation that over the last century, IQs have risen gradually: about three points per decade

4.) The intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews, well known for being academic overachievers.

5.) Race and intelligence: the controversy about the terms “no evidence” versus “no direct evidence”

I recommend you read the article, as here I will focus on only one area: “Ashkenazigate”. This kerfuffle resulted in the removal of the entire Wikipedia article on Ashkenazi Jews and intelligence and the mention of that association on the entire site. I was especially curious about this one, as 23 and Me tells me this is my own genetic constitution:

So what happened? The author first explains why the topic deserves an article:

Although they comprise only about 0.2 percent of the world’s population, the Jewish people account for a large portion of its top achievers in domains of intellectual success. For example, they have won between a fifth and a quarter of the world’s Nobel prizes, and comprise over half of its chess champions. Ashkenazi Jews are particularly noted for their high achievement, including their high average performance on IQ tests. In his textbook IQ and Human Intelligence (Oxford University Press, 2011), Nicholas Mackintosh gives the following summary:

[I]t has long been known that Ashkenazi Jews have an unusually high average IQ (see Chapter 1); some of them also have the misfortune to suffer from a number of diseases, such as Tay Sachs disease, caused by the possession of two copies of particular recessive genes. One suggestion is that the two are linked: while homozygotes with two copies of the genes develop the disease, heterozygotes with only one copy develop higher than usual intelligence (Cochran et al., 2006). (Mackintosh 2011, p. 285)

Aside from its scientific importance, this topic of research is also an important part of the rebuttal to antisemitic explanations for Jewish achievements. In 2006, Steven Pinker wrote in the New Republic that “Jewish achievement is obvious; only the explanation is unclear. The idea of innate Jewish intelligence is certainly an improvement over the infamous alternative generalization, a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.”

Now I’m not touting myself here as being super-smart; I just haven’t followed this very closely, though I’ve heard the claim that there is “overdominance” for a disease gene, like Tay-Sachs, so that although having two copies of the gene form (“allele”) gives you a fatal disease, having one copy gives you higher intelligence than usual. (Presumably having two copies of the “normal” allele gives you lower intelligence than having one copy, though I don’t know why that would be true.)

A similar kind of “overdominance” obtains for sickle-cell anemia. In Africa, having one copy of the disease allele (a mutant of the beta chain of hemoglobin) makes you more resistant to malaria, while two copies gives you the disease, usually fatal at a young age. Having two copies of the normal hemoglobin allele makes you susceptible to malaria. In such a situation, where the heterozygote has higher fitness than either homozygote, the gene will be maintained in the population by selection—called “balancing selection”. This is why the allele for sickle-cell anemia is so common in West Africa, as well as in U.S. blacks whose ancestors came from West Africa. (The frequency is declining in the U.S. because we don’t have malaria and also because there’s been substantial intermarriage between whites, who don’t carry the allele, and blacks.)

By the way, I used this example in my evolution course to show that evolution doesn’t create the best possible situation: the price of heterozygote advantage is having a number of people die from the disease and a number of people with two “normal” alleles die from malaria. If there was a beneficent creator, he would have endowed us with a hemoglobin allele that protects us against malaria when present in two copies but doesn’t cause sickle-cell anemia. Then everyone in Africa would be protected from malaria and not susceptible to the disease. But that hasn’t happened. This is another bit of evidence against a loving creator, for if our genes do reflect a creator’s will, he/she/it has allowed many people to die of malaria and sickle-cell anemia. (I didn’t talk about the god stuff in class.)

Anyway, I don’t know the evidence for this hypothesis for the Ashkenazi, and in truth am doubtful about it. Besides not knowing the single-gene evidence for intelligence, there has to be a correlation of intelligence with number of offspring for selection to work. Further, we need data showing that two copies of the “normal” allele give you lower IQs than the heterzygotes. I’d like to read about this issue in a brief piece, but the original article from Wikipedia has been EXPUNGED.

For reasons I don’t know—perhaps connected with antisemitism or just a general denigration of genes affecting IQ—the article, which was documented with sources, was proposed seven times for deletion from Wikipedia. Then the manipulators made it vanish:

In October 2020, Wikipedia’s “Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence” article was nominated for deletion the seventh time. The argument presented for its deletion was more or less the same one that had been made in every previous deletion proposal:

[O]ur article is some sort of pseudo-academic jaunt through fringe literature as promulgated by the IDW-sorts and the evo-psychs. Meanwhile, nary a hint is here that the true context of this is antisemitism. The article is here to wave a flag: such discussions of race and intelligence cannot possibly be race realist in the WP:NONAZI sense because look at who benefits at this article? *wink*, *wink*

This seventh attempt employed a tactic that had not been used in the other six. Rather than directly arguing for Wikipedia to cease covering the article’s topic, this deletion proposal suggested that the most effective way to address the nominator’s complaint would be to delete the article and then recreate it in an improved state. This argument succeeded where every previous deletion attempt had failed, and Wikipedia’s article about Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence was deleted on October 19th, 2020.

After the article’s deletion, this stated plan to recreate it turned out to be a false promise. Instead, references to high average IQ among Ashkenazi Jews were subsequently removed from every other Wikipedia article in which this topic had been discussed, including the “List of Jewish Nobel laureates” article and the general “Ashkenazi Jews” article, with edit summaries stating that the various papers, articles, and books discussing this topic were no longer reliable sources. Among the many sources rejected with this justification were papers and articles published in the Journal of Biosocial ScienceMens Sana MonographsCommentary, and the New York Times, and the book Abrahams Children by Jon Entine (Grand Central Publishing, 2007). Following the final removal of this material in March 2021, Wikipedia no longer covers the topic of Ashkenazi intelligence.

So it’s gone, and the ideologues have managed to suppress both data and discussion. Note as well that a change like this in one part of Wikipedia ramifies through the site, so that there appears to be no discussion of an interesting phenomenon—Ashkenazi overachievement—anywhere on Wikipedia.

As I said, I don’t know a lot about the topics covered, and nothing about Wikipedia editing, but this article does scare me about the power of ideologues to affect what has in effect become the world’s go-to source of information. (It shouldn’t be for scholars, but erroneous material on Wikipedia has made it into scientific publications.)

The author ends his/her/their article with a warning about this kind of censorship affecting the credibility of Wikipedia. (That will bring joy to the heart of Greg Mayer, who has been promising us an article on “What’s the matter with Wikipedia?” for many years. It’s even partly written.)

The ending:

The original purpose of Wikipedia was to reflect the current understanding of the topics that it covers, not to exert an influence over fields to enact social change. The fact that it performed the first function so well for most of its existence, and came to be regarded as a trustworthy source, is what has made it such an effective tool for those who wish to use it for the latter purpose. While Wikipedia may ultimately prove successful at undermining research about topics related to human intelligence, it also may undermine its own reputation in the process. Formerly trusted institutions have begun to lose society’s trust as these institutions have surrendered to “woke” ideologies, as Quillette has previously described in the case of the New York Times, and Wikipedia will not necessarily be immune to this effect.

It’s clear why the author used a pseudonym.

New video attacks the Guardian’s claim that evolutionary biology is obsolete

July 8, 2022 • 10:45 am

On June 28, Stephen Buryani published an article in the Guardian called “Do we need a new theory of evolution?” His answer was a definite “yes,” implying that new discoveries had rendered modern evolutionary theory obsolete, needing replacement by something else.

The article was a train wreck, full of claims that were long known, distortions of the importance of what “new” things were claimed, and outright mistakes. I wrote a critique on this site, and then Brian and Deborah Charlesworth and I wrote a letter to the Guardian that was published. Doug Futuyma wrote an excellent critique that wasn’t published, and Brian Charlesworth noted some of the more egregious errors: Doug’s letter and those errors went into a separate post.

Now Jon Perry, a science education consultant who makes nice videos about evolution (see them at his website “Genetics & Evolution Stated Casually“) has produced a very good 15-minute video critique of Buranyi’s article, which I’ve posted below.

You can see at the outset how the Guardian article confused and misled the layperson about evolution: a teacher panicked when she saw the article and wrote Perry to see if the textbook description of modern evolutionary ideas really were “wrong”.  No, the textbooks weren’t wrong, and Perry shows why.

Perry takes a few examples touted by Buranyi as baffling—the evolution of the eye, the wing and feathers, for example—and uses published evidence (which he shows) to show that we do understand how these features may have evolved. Buryani didn’t do his homework; Perry did.

Perry also explains what the “Modern Evolutionary Synthesis” is, describing how it began and where you can find its origins. He also mentions the Templeton Foundation as a funder of the movement to show the moribund nature of evolution, and I get a mention in connection with Templeton at 9:00 (“I do mean to get all Jerry Coyne-y on you all, but the funding source of an organization can influence its message, so this really is a fact worth noting—and for some reason, the Guardian article neglected to do so.” (I’m not sure what “getting all Jerry Coyne-y” means, but I hope it’s not an insult!)

Finally, Perry describes the “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” (EES), which is the gentler name for the “Evolution is Dead” movement. He takes up one area of the EES, “plasticity”, and shows that Buryani gets some of it right and some of it wrong, including the claim that it’s ignored in modern evolution texts (it’s not; it’s part of “evolutionary orthodoxy”).

Do watch the video; it’s excellent and Perry simply demolishes Buryani’s article. It’s a video rebuttal, and I wish the Guardian could mention it somehow.

Ask me anything: 2022 edition

June 26, 2022 • 10:15 am

Yesterday reader Peter sent me an email in which he reminded me of my “ask anything” post from last year’s Valentine’s Day, and added that he’d like to see another one. Well, Peter, as you know, ask Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus) and ye shall receive (assuming PCC[e] is in a beneficent mood).  Here’s Peter’s email

Early last year you created an “ask me anything” post which I just ran across while looking for something — and it seemed to be very popular, with nearly 200 comments. You fielded lots of questions — some serious (like mine) and some frivolous. A good time was had by all. I’d love to see another one — maybe you could make it a regular feature?

Well, not much is going on that I want to write about today, as the news is uniformly bad and depressing, so let’s have an AMA session again.  As I wrote last time:

Readers are welcome to ask all sorts of questions, with the proviso that the questions not be really personal ones. Exceptions: my life in science, food, travels, perhaps some philosophy, or things of that ilk. I can’t guarantee to answer every question (assuming there are some), but I’ll have a look from time to time and satisfy people’s curiosity.

Oh, and please, nothing rude or uncivil (as always!).

So go ahead. I’ll look in from time to time and answer some questions (assuming there are some questions).

p.s. I’ll try to answer these from time to time today (Sunday) and maybe some on Monday morning.

Nola and Cooper resign from New Zealand’s Royal Society after being exculpated for criticizing indigenous “ways of knowing” as “science”

March 18, 2022 • 11:45 am

For a while now I’ve been discussing the row in New Zealand about whether  indigenous “ways of knowing”, Mātauranga Māori (“MM” for short), should be given equal treatment in the science classroom to modern science. The short answer for those with any neurons is “no”. While MM does comprise some “practical knowledge” like how and when to pick berries or catch eels, it also comprises a mélange of legend, superstition, moral dicta, and palpably false empirical claims (one being that Polynesians discovered Antarctica, another being divine creationism as the source of life).  As a whole, MM should be taught in New Zealand as part of local history and sociology, but not as science.

That was the position of seven University of Auckland professors who wrote a letter to the magazine The Listener pointing this conflict out (for relevant links, go here). They did not impugn MM as a subject worthy of teaching, but did say that it shouldn’t be taught as co-equal to science in school—a movement pushed by NZ’s woke government and academic authorities. The seven signers—or “Satanic Seven”—were demonized, though they had lots of silent support (to criticize MM as science is decidedly unfashionable, since it’s seen as an attack on the indigenous Māori.

Two of the seven professors, philosopher Robert Nola and biochemist Garth Cooper, were further demonized by being singled out for investigation as members of the prestigious Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ). They were accused by two people of writing a letter that violated the Society’s regulations (see this link for a fuller epxlanation). The complaints didn’t go very far: the RSNZ convened a committee to study the two sets of complaints, and then concluded that the complaints, all involving bad or unethical behavior, as well as harm to people (i.e., Māori) were not worthy of further investigation. Cooper and Nola were thus vindicated, though, in a last slap at them because of the trouble they caused, the RSNZ removed this sentence from their final report (it was in an earlier version):

The Panel considered there was no evidence that the Fellows [Nola and Cooper] acted with any intent of dishonesty or lack of integrity.

Removing that sentence was just a nasty piece of work.  And now, after. being vindicated, both Nola and Cooper have resigned from the RSNZ, as recounted in this article in Point of Order. Click on screenshot.

I had a feeling resignation was in the air, but haven’t been formally informed by either man, though I’ve asked them for statements (stay tuned).

I think they did the right thing. There was no point in staying on to change the RSNZ “from the inside,” as the institution has shown itself refractory to change, as well as ignorant and vindictive. And the pair have already gotten their honor of being elected; there is no additional honor accrued by staying on. Why would they want to remain members of a society that issued this statement about the Listener letter that Cooper and Nola signed?:

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.

These are people who don’t know what science is, but they’re woke enough to defend superstition when it’s unscientific but purveyed by a local minority. In other words, theyre cowardly and ignorant.

I won’t go on except to give a few quotes from the Point of Order piece. The second is self-aggrandizing.

Two distinguished scientists – Professors Garth Cooper and Robert Nola – have resigned both as members and as fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

. . .The resignations of the two luminaries follow the society’s decision – announced last week – not to formally proceed with a complaint against them as Fellows of the Society for being among seven University of Auckland professors who signed a letter to the New Zealand Listener headed ‘In defence of science’ in July last year.

The self-aggrandizing bit:

The society’s decision not to proceed has spared it the prospect of being criticised – if not mocked – by scientists around the world.

Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, pointed out that mātauranga Māori contained strong elements of Creationism (“refuted by all the facts of biology, paleontology, embryology, and biogeography”) and that “expelling members for defending views like evolution against non-empirically based views of creation and the like is shameful”.

He concluded his letter to the society by advising:

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

But they don’t mention that a much bigger fish, Richard Dawkins, wrote letters to both the RSNZ and The Listener defending science against MM, and Richard has a big microphone. Also, there are rumors that I can’t confirm that the BIG Royal Society, the one in London, wrote to the RSNZ chewing them out for investigating Nola and Cooper. That would have shaken up the people in Wellington!

And so all’s well that ends well:

In the upshot, there have been no expulsions – but the professors have decided they no longer want to remain members and fellows of this society.

But it’s not that simple. The RSNZ, made to look like fools, have been suitably chastened, and Nola and Cooper have been exculpated. But the battle for the hegemony of MM continues and shows no sign of abating. All over New Zealand, science students should prepare themselves for a dire watering down of the curriculum.

Robert Nola


Garth Cooper

h/t: Don

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 22, 2022 • 9:30 am

Richard Dawkins and Robyn Blumner (CEO and President of CFI and of the Dawkins Foundation) were in Dubai this past week, and both sent photos. I don’t have many captions, but these show you the intricate topiary and some of the food. (Photos by both RD and RB.)

A topiary plane!

Camel meat for dinner. Robyn said it “tastes a lot like beef but drier and chewier.” Sounds like beef jerky to me.


Some pictures of the flamingos in Dubai at the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary:

My book at the mall in Dubai. Robyn said that they didn’t carry Faith Versus Fact, but that was no surprise to me.


What did the Galileo affair say about science vs. religion?

December 26, 2021 • 11:30 am

Several readers sent me a link to this post by Patrick Casey on the Heterodox Academy blogs because I’m mentioned in it (and in good company too!). It’s an example of what historians of religion (who are often religious) write about all the time. Casey, like other accommodationists, most notably Ronald Numbers, maintains that:

1.) Religion and science are not continually at war with one another (a view called the “conflict hypothesis”), and

2.) The Galileo affair was not an example of the conflict hypothesis. A “nuanced” and complete analysis shows, says Casey, that other factors were involved, including history and philosophy.  This stance is often used to tout accommodationism: the view that science and religion are actually compatible. And it’s often held by people who want to make nice to religion.

I didn’t know of the author, Patrick J. Casey, but he is an assistant professor of philosophy at Holy Family University, a private Roman Catholic University in Philadelphia.  I can’t find him in the faculty directory, but I won’t worry about that; and I have no idea whether, even though he teaches at a religious school, he’s religious. But I won’t psychologize his motivations, I’ll just mention his arguments.

Now I don’t embrace the “simplistic” conflict hypothesis, characterized as arguing that science is continuously at war with religion(see below). Some people like Andrew Dickson and William Draper at the turn of the 20th century did pretty much embrace the “conflict hypothesis,” and I discuss this in Chapter 1 of Faith Versus Fact (p. 5):

The truth lies between Draper and White on one hand and their critics on the other. While it’s undeniable that religion was important in opposing some scientific advances like the theory of evolution and the use of anesthesia, others, like smallpox vaccination, were both opposed and promoted on biblical grounds. On the other hand, it’s a self-serving distortion to say that religion was not an important issue in the persecutions of Galileo and John Scopes. Nevertheless, since not all religions are opposed to science, and much science is accepted by believers, the view that science and faith are perpetually locked in battle is untrue. If that’s how one sees the “conflict thesis,” then that hypothesis is wrong.

But my view is not that religion and science have always been implacable enemies, with the former always hindering the latter. Instead, I see them as making overlapping claims, each arguing that they can identify truths about the universe. As I’ll show in the next chapter, the incompatibility rests on differences in the methodology and philosophy used in determining those truths, and in the outcomes of their searches. In their eagerness to debunk the claims of Draper and White, their critics missed the underlying theme of both books: the failure of religion to find truth about anything—be it gods themselves or more worldly matters like the causes of disease.

As I wrote on Christmas Eve:

My own view, which I’ll summarize in one sentence (read Faith Versus Fact if you want the whole megillah) is this: science and religion both claim that they involve “ways of knowing about the universe”, but while the methods of science really do enable us to understand the universe, the “ways of knowing” of religion (faith, authority, scripture, revelation, etc.) are not reliable guides to truth. If they were, all religions would converge on the same truth claims, which is palpably untrue.

Note that I do not claim that religion is the same thing as science, for it includes things like morality and worship and divinity. The Bible is not a “textbook of science.” But all religions do make firm claims about what’s true, and these truth claims, insofar as they’re not based on actual evidence, contravene the methods of science. That’s why science converges on what we think is real (and can use to make correct predictions), while religions haven’t converged one iota. (Compare the truth claims of Hinduism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, cargo cults, and so on.) Nor do I claim that religion has always been opposed to science, is always in conflict with science, that religionists can’t accept modern science, or all all scientists are or must be atheists.

So when Casey says that I am one of the promulgators of the “conflict hypothesis”, as below, he’s just wrong. Is he familiar with my writings?  I’ve put the statement in bold below because I’m chuffed to be lumped together with such thoughtful men.

But simplistic narratives like the conflict thesis aren’t innocuous — they can warp our understanding of history (for example, here and here the historians of science Stephen Snobelen and Seb Falk address the myth of the “Medieval Gap,” which is grounded in the conflict thesis, as promulgated by writers like Carl Sagan, Jerry Coyne, and A.C. Grayling).

Nor do I think that Sagan promulgated the simplistic narrative of the “conflict thesis”, and I’m not sure that Grayling ever did (he’s too smart to think that). For this is how Casey defines the “conflict thesis”:

Yet anecdotes about religion suppressing science are part of a broader cultural narrative of conflict where science and religion have been locked in a zero-sum struggle — when science advances, religion is forced to beat a hasty retreat. This view of the historical relationship between science and religion is called “the conflict thesis” (see hereherehere).

Note that all of these videos were made by believers, including the DoSER wing of the AAAS (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion), headed by evangelical Christian Jennifer Wiseman and designed to “to facilitate communication between scientific and religious communities.”

Now, the argument by Casey is that the Galileo affair involves politics and philosophy and religion, and is not as simple as the Pope accepting a Biblically-based geocentric solar system, Galileo touting a heliocentric one, and Galileo going on trial for contradicting the Bible and then being sentenced to lifelong house arrest. Galileo was not tortured, but none of us believe that anyway; he was threatened with torture if he didn’t recant. And of course Galileo insulted the pope by putting the geocentric arguments in the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which surely pissed off the Pope.

Here’s the most important “nuance” that Casey adds to the argument

The Pope was a better scientist than Galileo, for he realized that there were arguments against Galileo’s hypothesis, and he just wanted Galileo to do good science and not assert he had “proof” of heliocentrism. 

I quote Dr. Casey (my emphasis):

In addition to a reasonable desire to keep with the Church’s previous ruling, the pope had a fairly sophisticated philosophical justification for his instruction — one that foreshadows what is now called “the underdetermination thesis” in the philosophy of science. The pope argued that whatever evidence Galileo may have had for heliocentrism, it couldn’t amount to a demonstration or proof of its physical truth, since it is possible for God to bring about whatever was observed through means other than heliocentrism. At the time, an obvious example would have been Tycho Brahe’s geo-heliocentric system, which readily accounted for Galileo’s new observational evidence without needing the objectionable hypothesis of a moving Earth.

In taking this position, the pope was standing in a long tradition in natural philosophy that maintained that the job of astronomers was not to determine what the world was physically like but only to provide useful models for predicting the motions of planets. Stated charitably, the pope was instructing Galileo not to go beyond his evidence.

I love that last sentence: it’s more than charitable; it borders on dissimulation. And it’s FUNNY. And the tradition that astronomers are just supposed to make models and not find truth has long fallen by the wayside.

But Casey goes on.

Unfortunately, when Galileo published his Dialogue, he argued adamantly for the physical truth of heliocentrism, “clearly, though not explicitly” (in the words of Peter Machamer and David Marshall Miller), while sometimes making his opponents seem like idiots. To make matters worse, Galileo foolishly put the pope’s argument about the difficulty of ascertaining final scientific truth into the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which many have taken to be an insult to the pope. The pope was enraged by Galileo’s apparent deceit in defending the physical truth of heliocentrism as an established matter of fact, and Galileo was summoned to Rome to stand trial.

But Casey does admit that there was a conflict between Catholicism and Galileo’s arguments:

For better or worse, the trial of 1633 was not the site of a renewed debate about the status of heliocentrism. Rather, the trial focused on whether Galileo had violated the Church’s instruction not to argue for the physical truth of heliocentrism. In the end, Galileo was forced to recant and sentenced to house arrest at his villa in Florence for the rest of his life.

Is that not a conflict between science and religion? Galileo argued for a physical truth that the Pope didn’t want to hear, ergo he was found guilty.

Casey’s last resort is to deny that the conflict hypothesis predicts eternal enmity and war between religion and science. But that’s a straw man:

Third, and most important, even if this were a clear case of conflict, one incident wouldn’t by itself justify the grand cultural narrative of inexorable conflict between science and religion. Historians of the era have repeatedly pointed out that the Galileo affair was not representative of the norm.

But in the last 80 years or so, nobody said that this kind of conflict was the “norm”. Rather, people like Sagan and I argue that the method of finding truth in science is incompatible with the method of finding “truth” in religion, and this occasionally leads to clashes. The church doesn’t argue against the existence of electrons, or claim that benzene doesn’t have six carbon atoms, or argue against most of science in general, because most of science isn’t relevant to the Bible.

But there’s one important part that is: the story of creation. In particular, the first two chapters of Genesis, which 40% of Americans take literally—with another 33% thinking that God guided evolution. (Total percentage of those thinking God helped create life: 73%.) Only a measly 22% of Americans accept naturalistic evolution (including of humans) the way that we teach it in college. That’s about one in five.

And all modern creationism is, at bottom, rooted in religion: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as other creationist faiths, including Hindusim. There is no creationist or Intelligent Design organization that is not based on religion. And I know of only a single creationist who isn’t religious—David Berlinski (and I have my suspicions about him).  Is this not, then, a palpable conflict between science and religion? Of course it is! I look forward to Dr. Casey’s explanation of why the battle between creationism and evolution in American is much more nuanced than the simplistic narrative that evolution contradicts the Qur’an or the Old Testament.

Why do people like Casey feel compelled to repeat the same old narrative about Galileo? Well, they’re partly right: more than science is involved and lots of misconceptions (e.g., the Church tortured Galileo) litter the field. But I also think that this kind of accommodationism often comes from religious people who admire science, and fear that the “conflict hypothesis” will drive people out of religion since they feel they’re being forced to choose between science and religion.

That’s not the way it works, though.

If you talk to former creationists who became atheists because of science, it’s not because a scientist told them that “they had to choose.” No, you hear that they were curious about science and evolution in particular (often because the subjects were banned), and learned about it. They finally realized that evolution is true and Genesis is false, and, like Samson, this brought down the edifice of their faith. Plus they realized that there’s simply no good evidence for God—far less evidence than we have for the existence of atoms or the fact that infectious diseases are caused by microbes.

In which I start to ascertain my genetic ancestry

December 12, 2021 • 10:00 am

Thanks to a friend who told me that the 23andMe company is running a big sale on DNA kits that give you not only a readout of the presumed ancestral composition of your genome, but the much of the sequence itself, and, if you wish, what diseases you’re prone to get.  I have sprung $79 (usually $99) to get the “traits and ancestry” kit.  I didn’t want to know whether I’ll get Alzheimer’s or die from some horrible cancer, so I didn’t choose the $129 (usually $199) “health + ancestry” kit, which includes the DNA data plus those SNPs associated with various diseases.

The cheaper alternative still has lots of useful information, including the ability to scan large parts of your genome if you want to look for particularly interesting genes. It will give you a guesstimate of your ancestry (they have data for 200+ regions) and tell you the probability that you have various physical traits, like brown eyes or attached earlobes. And if you register your DNA at the site (optional), you may be able to find some lost relatives.

All in all, it’s a bargain for $79, and this would have been inconceivable two decades ago.  You can order at the link below. I think it would make a swell holiday gift for someone, as who isn’t interested in their genetic background?

I did this years ago for my Y chromosome to find out if I was a “Kohen“—one of the groups of Jews who have special status in the synagogue, taking care of the Torah and the like. Kohanim are elite Jews, regarded as “priests” and the job is passed from father to son, starting with the supposed Biblical Aaron, brother of Moses. That means that there is an unbroken lineage of Kohanim-specific Y chromosomes going back to the distant past. Yes, there’s been some pollution due to lack of sons or illicit canoodling, but there is a definite genetic sequence of the Y associated with being a Kohen. These people often bear the name “Cohan” or “Cohen” today, but while all Kohanim bear those names, not all Cohens or Cohans are members of the kohanim, as there are pretenders—those who use the name without the job. “Coyne” might have been a corruption of “kohen”, so I wanted to know

Well, I found out that I am a faux kohen: although my Y-chromosome ancestry is Eastern European Jewish, I don’t have the genetic signature of the Kohanim. So it goes.

Now, however, I will get a readout of my entire genome, not just the Y. What will it be? Surely mostly eastern European Jew, but there may be some real Irish genes in me, too, as my lineage does include an Irish goy in the 18th century.  And how Neanderthal am I? Do my brow ridges suggest a higher level of Neanderthal genes than normal (about 2%, I think)?

You can guess below, but I do suggest that a DNA testing kit is a great idea for a present.  All you do is pay the fee, and the kit comes within a few days. You spit into a plastic tube and put a special top on the tube that releases a liquid that mixes with your saliva. Remove that device, cap the tube and shake it, put it into a special plastic bag, and then return it, postpaid, in the box in which it came. Easy peasy!

Click below to order if you wish. And guess what I’ll turn out to be, genome-wise!


Ready to find out what “I” am (LOL):