Unscientific Unscientific America. Part 1.

July 14, 2009 • 6:36 am

In Unscientific America, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (hencefore M&K) assert that America is awash in a tsunami of scientific illiteracy.  They see this as a severe threat to Americans’ ability to make reasoned judgments about matters like vaccines and global warming, and to America’s preeminence in science.

Where does the problem come from? In an earlier book, The Republican War on Science, Mooney laid it largely at the door of political conservatives.  But, say M&K, we now have another enemy: the scientists themselves.  By our failure to reach out to the public and engage them, and by our hamhanded and ineffectual efforts when we do, we have missed the opportunity to make this a truly “scientific America.” In fact, scientists themselves have supposedly spurned the public, writing off efforts to improve scientific literacy because we see the public as dumb or intractable. As M&K say on their website:

“Yes, well, this whole mindset is precisely what we wrote a book against. The blame the public mindset. The it’s not our fault, we’re the smart people mindset.”

A lot of the blame, say the authors, rests on atheists-scientists like Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers, who, by supposedly forcing people to choose between science and faith, have driven them away from accepting science. The other implicit message is that scientist-atheists should stop “troubling their own house,” keeping quiet about their atheism.

Beyond requesting the silence of atheists, Mooney and Kirshenbaum propose various improvements in the public-relations skills of scientists.  Their main call is to train a new generation of scientists who are good not only at research, but at interacting with politicians, Hollywood movie producers, and the public.  And we should start celebrating the “hip, fun, trailblazing research pioneers” like Bonnie Bassler and Pardis Sabeti.

In the next few days I’ll publish a three-part review of the book, dealing, respectively, with the nature of the problem, who is to blame for it, and what the solutions are.  But I’ll start with my overall opinion of the book, which is that it is confused, tendentious, evanescent, and preachy.  It is a blog post blown up to book length.  Yes, there are some useful parts, in particular the emphasis on science communication and the need to reward those who are good at it. But these solutions are hardly new; indeed, I could find little in Unscientific America that has not been said, at length, elsewhere. And what is new—the accusation that scientists, in particular atheist-scientists, are largely responsible for scientific illiteracy—is asserted without proof.

This lack of data is the book’s main problem. For a book advocating science literacy, it offers surprisingly little evidence to support its claims. Yes, lots of facts and figures are thrown about—there are 65 pages of footnotes—but none of them strongly buttresses the three primary claims of the book:  first, that the dire problem of scientific illiteracy in this country is holding America back; second, that a main cause of this problem is the failure of scientists to communicate their trade but their simultaneous success in communicating their atheism; and third, that the authors’ solutions to the problem of scientific illiteracy are better than many others. Indeed, the statistics on science illiteracy, which show that it hasn’t changed much in thirty years, count against the author’s thesis that it is not only a growing problem but one that was once palpably improved by science popularizers but is now exacerbated by atheists. Finally, Unscientific America is marred by its tone of preachiness, in which the authors repeatedly, and annoyingly, give the impression that they alone know the true solution, and if we would just listen to them everything will be fine.  This would be an acceptable conclusion if they gave data supporting their contentions, but they don’t, and so we’re left weighing opinions rather than facts.

In the end, Unscientific America is a frame around a big fat empty space.

What’s the problem?

Is America scientifically illiterate? I suppose, from the viewpoint of a scientist, the answer is “yes.”  Repeated surveys (e.g., here) show that, compared to what we scientists would expect, Americans are surprisingly ignorant about scientific facts. As M&K note, only half of Americans know that the Earth goes around the Sun once per year, and many Americans don’t even understand what evolution is.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the authors open their book by describing the “furor over Pluto” — the public bafflement when, in 2006, astronomers stripped Pluto of its status as a full-fledged planet—to show the disconnect because the public and science.  Except to a few extremist Plutophiles, this affair was little more than a joke, a bit of public fun.   It hardly makes the case for a crippling science illiteracy.

Let’s take two more serious cases of science illiteracy, both of which M&K also mention: the vaccination debate and the global-warming controversy.  Are these problems due to public ignorance of the facts and/or to the failure of scientists to properly convey these facts? We don’t know.  The authors give no data, and, indeed, there are credible alternate hypotheses.  The most obvious of these is simply that people who oppose vaccinations and global warming have other agendas which make them less receptive to facts; these agendas could include religion, economic interests, and (in the case of vaccines) personal experience that, to some, trumps science. After all, many opponents of vaccines are educated, aware, and highly literate.  Here, as is common throughout the book, many factors could be responsible for observed patterns, but the authors assert without proof that one is predominant.

Indeed, statistics on the correlation between politics and positions on these issues suggests that more is at issue than just apprehension of facts.  M&K note this correlation:

. . college-educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college-educated Republicans to believer that global warming is real and is caused by human activities.

If science illiteracy is due to this Cool Hand Luke (CHL) Effect—the failure to communicate—have the facts about climate change been communicated more effectively to Democrats than to Republicans?

It’s no surprise that religion, or political stance, makes people resistant to accepting facts. The most familiar example is the resistance of religious people to accepting the fact of evolution. For many of the faithful, this does not reflect lack of knowledge. Rather, they are resistant to accepting the facts, and it is not because of a lack of science communication, because many creationists have been given the evidence for evolution, and not just by atheists, either!

Before we can claim that any public refusal to accept science reflects the CHL effect, then, we need data. Over at her website, Christina Pikas adduces some data showing the opposite, that it is not the lack of scientific knowledge that explains  “why the public doesn’t support some scientific endeavors” like genetic engineering or stem-cell research. Clearly, before we can fix the problem, we have to properly diagnose the problem.

M&K claim repeatedly that the problem of scientific illiteracy is getting worse, e.g.:

For all these reasons the rift between science and mainstream American culture is growing ever wider.

But is it?  The authors give no evidence beyond a decline in the number of science columns and supplements in American newspapers. That, however, does not necessarily mean that the public has grown more science illiterate, and anyway this likely reflects economic strictures rather than a change in the appetite of the public for science or in the willingness of the media and scientists to feed it. In fact, the one statistic that M&K do adduce about temporal trends in science literary shows that it hasn’t changed over time (this comes from a 2008 survey conducted by the National Science Foundation):

Roughly 46 percent of the public holds this anti-evolutionist, young-Earth-creationist, and scientifically illiterate view [the view that God created humans within the last 10.000 years]. That number has held constant since 1982, the first year in which the question was asked, apparently untouched by the waxing and waning of popular-science efforts, whether through magazines or best-selling books.

I suspect that one would find similar results using other assays of science literacy, though I couldn’t find any data.  Surprisingly, though, the authors don’t seem to grasp the implication of this constancy for their theory.  Throughout the “golden decade of the 1990s,” which M&K see as a high spot of science communication (this is when Carl Sagan and Steve Gould held sway) up to now, when atheist-scientists are afoot, there has been no change. Where, pray tell, is the evidence showing that the science-public disconnect has increased?  It must have done so, of course, if the authors’ claim is true that the New Atheists (who began publishing around 2004) markedly increased  the disconnect.

Is the problem especially bad in the US? M&K are confusing on this issue.  In one place they say this about the gulf between scientists and the public:

This divide is especially pronounced in the United States, which is simultaneously the world’s scientific leader—at least for this moment–and home to an overarching culture that often barely seems to know or care.

But then they say this as well:

To begin with, citizens of other nations don’t fare much better on scientific literacy surveys, and in many cases fare worse. Residents of the European Union, for instance, are less scientifically literate overall than Americans, at least according to one metric for measuring “civic science literacy” across countries.

Well, which is it?  And is scientific literacy correlated with science acceptance among countries?  At least for evolution, it is not.  If the US is either on par with Europe, or slightly better, in scientific literacy, why do so many fewer Americans than Europeans accept evolution? (Hint: it may have something to do with religion.)

Finally, M&K make much about how America is slipping in the international race for science prestige, although they admit that we’re still #1:

The United States stands on the verge of falling behind other nations such as India and China in the race to lead the world in scientific endeavor in the twenty-first century.

The “evidence” they adduce consists of these two pieces of data:  China’s rate of increase in Ph.D. production is greater than that of the US, as is the proportion of Chinese bachelor’s degrees that are in science and engineering.  Well, that’s what one should expect when a rural country suddenly becomes urban and aspires to world-class technological sophistication.

But does this mean that we’re falling behind? Is the index of “being ahead” the proportion of total degrees in science, or the number of Ph.Ds minted? Is that highly correlated with the amount of scientific advance or innovation?  And even if we were slipping, why, exactly, should we care? M&K don’t answer these questions, perhaps assuming that it’s obvious.  But it’s not. Are we supposed to care that our country remains number one for symbolic reasons? Or does this purported “slippage” mean that our quality of life is endangered? (And if that’s the case, what is the evidence?) Science is an international community, and shouldn’t we applaud China’s getting up to speed, since international competition in science is, in the end, good for everyone?  Again, there are no answers here, just the repeated claim that this is something that’s really, really bad.

To be fair, I myself have raised the alarum about America falling behind.  Nevertheless, upon reflection I’m not so sure that this perceived slippage should cause us to get our knickers in a twist.  America remains a scientific Mecca, despite other countries catching up, and increasing numbers of foreigners come here for scientific training. In the end, I think that the spread of quality science throughout the world, which will inevitably bring other countries closer to us, can only be good for us all.

M&K have noticed what many have before: the American public is surprisingly ignorant of basic facts of science.  But what Unscientific America fails to prove is that this ignorance has had inimical effects on the public good, or on the advance of science in our country.  Moreover, their claims of a growing breach between scientists and society are backed by almost no data.  Finally, they do not make a convincing argument that our country is in imminent danger of losing its standing in international science, or that this would be a terrible thing if it happened.

These are the foundational claims of the book — the claims that give rise to M&K’s assertions about what caused this illiteracy, and to their prescriptions for fixing it.  In the next part we will see that this lack of evidential support also dogs their discussion about the major causes of scientific illiteracy.

Eugenie Scott and Chris Mooney dissemble about accommodationism

July 11, 2009 • 3:39 pm

I am so tired of people making the same old arguments about why science and faith are compatible, not bothering to listen to the other side.  Over at The Intersection, Chris Mooney is using authority arguments to support his case for compatibility, posting a video of Eugenie Scott (director of the National Center for Science Education) and titling his post “Eugenie Scott Powerfully Makes the Case for Science-Religion Compatibility.”

Here’s the video:

And here is what Mooney says about it:

Her view is pretty much exactly the same as ours. And I am still mystified as to how this can be so controversial–and still wholly convinced that it is the commonsense approach that will ultimately win out in the end.

I guess I’ll have to tell Chris (and Eugenie) once again why it is controversial, since he’s been told before but it doesn’t seem to have registered.

First of all, nobody doubts that science and religion are compatible in the trivial sense that someone can be a scientist and be religious at the same time.  That only shows one’s ability to hold two dissimilar approaches to the world simultaneously in one’s own mind.   As I’ve said umpteen times before, you could say that being a Christian is compatible with being a murderer because a lot of murderers are Christians.   Yet Mooney, and Scott, make this argument, and Mooney touts it as “powerful.”

It isn’t. This is not what we mean when we say science and faith are incompatible.  Got it, folks??  Let’s not hear the “there-are-religious-scientists” argument any more.  It’s trivial, and insulting to anyone who can think. (See here for Clay Shirkey’s refutation of what he calls “The Doctrine of Joint Belief.”)

Scott says, “I don’t have to address this as a philosophical question; I can address it as an empirical question.”  Well, it is both an empirical and philosophical question.

Here is the philosophical part:  is a way of finding out things based on reason and evidence compatible with a way of finding out things based on revelation and dogma?

Here is the empirical part:  are the assertions of faith in conflict, or potential conflict, with the assertions of science?

If the answer to the empirical part was “no, no conflict” then the philosophical part would show compatibility:  faith and science would be equally good — and reliable– ways to find out stuff.

But in fact the answer to the empirical part is “yes” — virtually every faith, with the possible exception of Buddhism and deism, makes fact claims about the universe. And there is no evidence for any of these assertions.  Indeed, many of them have proven to be false.

Scott seems to recognize part of this: she talks about the Grand Canyon, and says that the evidence that it was formed in a single alluvial event is nil: it is “not bloody likely” that the Canyon occurred during a single episode of flooding.  She goes on to say that the claim of an instantaneous, canyon-forming event  “is a fact claim. You can examine that scientifically  . . ”  She rejects it, as she should, because she says, it “can’t happen, given what we know about modern geology. So we can reject that statement.”

Indeed.  Well, here are two more things that can’t happen, given what we know about modern biology: a human female can’t give birth to offspring unless she is inseminated, and people who are dead for three days don’t come back to life.   Do Scott and Mooney not recognize that the foundational claims of the Abrahamic religions are truth claims? And that for many, many believers, the truth of these claims is a bedrock for belief?  This is, of course, why so many Americans reject evolution: it is in absolute and irreconcilable conflict with the “truth” of Genesis and the view that we were the special objects of God’s creation.  There is nothing that better demonstrates the incompatibility between science and faith than the rejection of the scientific truth of evolution by people who have a revelatory “truth” about where we came from.  Is that too hard to grasp? And saying that “well, people shouldn’t accept what it says in Genesis” doesn’t solve the problem, for that’s just telling people that they should have a kind of religion that they don’t have. Try telling a devout Muslim that it is impossible for Mohamed and his horse Barack (yes, that was his name) to have been bodily sucked up into the stratosphere, and that this was merely a metaphor.

The final misconception, which I’ve also discussed at length, is this, asserted by Scott in the video:

“Science can’t test statements having to do with God. . .  Science can weigh and accept or reject fact claims made by religion. . . The basic idea of whether the supernatural exists or not is not something science can measure.”

Wrong. Of course science can test statements having to do with God.  It can test statements deriving from what people claim about their god.  Here is one:  God answers prayers. (Many people think this is true, of course.)  Tests of intercessory prayer have shown that it doesn’t work.  End of story.  Here’s another empirical claim: God is omnipotent and benevolent.  It’s falsified: God fails to prevent natural events, like tsunamis and earthquakes, that take the lives of innocent people.  (Theologians, of course, don’t adhere to the same standards of evidence as do scientists, and so don’t see this as a falsification of an ominipotent and benevolent God. They are wrong.)

And there are empirical observations of the supernatural that could convince scientists that there is a God.  I discuss several of these in an article in The New Republic.  One of them is the appearance and documentation of a 900-foot-tall Jesus, as was supposedly seen by Oral Roberts. There are many others.

So here is what, I think, many of us see as the fundamental incompatibility between science and faith:

Science uses logic, reason and evidence to find things out.  Religion uses dogma and revelation.  These are fundamentally different ways of arriving at “truth.” Indeed, religions can’t arrive at truths at all, because the truth claims of different religions are in irresolvable conflict with one another, and there is no way of knowing which of these are wrong and which (if any) are right.  In contrast, science has built-in ways of determining if it is wrong.  When making a truth claim, scientists can answer the question, “How would I know if I were wrong?”  The faithful have no such way to test their “truth” claims.

Can we talk about this kind of incompatibility, please?

What am I supposed to do with Unscientific America?

July 9, 2009 • 8:55 am

At the request of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, several of us were sent pre-publication copies of their new book, Unscientific America, a discussion of America’s scientific illiteracy and a prescription for fixing it.

One of the recipients was P. Z. Myers of Pharyngula fame, who is strongly criticized in the book for his atheism and the “crackergate” affair, which Mooney and Kirshenbaum consider inimical to public acceptance of science.   Mooney and Kirshenbaum posted a note on their website that they had sent P. Z. a copy of their book, asking him to refrain from reviewing it until he had read the whole thing.

We hope that like Dr. Coyne, you will suspend judgment until reading the book, at which point we’ll be interested to hear what you think.

After reading the whole thing, Myers  posted a strongly negative review of it on his website, concluding:

The bottom line is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book recites the obvious at us, that there is a fundamental disconnect between science and the popular imagination in our country, but offers no new solutions, and in fact would like to narrow our options to a blithe and accommodating compromise of science with rampant ignorance. Their own bigotry blinds them to a range of approaches offered by the “New Atheists”…a group that is not so closed to the wide range of necessarily differing tactics that such a deep problem requires as Mooney and Kirshenbaum are. It’s not a badly written book, but it’s something worse: it’s utterly useless.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum, of course, don’t like this judgment, but dismiss it on the grounds of reviewer bias:

If you want a take that throughly trashes the book, well then this is it. But of course, that’s not surprising, given that the book not only criticizes Myers but, indeed, identifies him as part of the problem. . .

. . . Indeed, it appears that judging the book based on what New Atheists say about it, alone, could lead you to make pretty strong factual errors about its contents. Consider what happens in this blog comment thread to one Jim Lippard: see here, here, here, and finally here–where after making various false claims about our book’s contents, Lippard admits to not having read it.

Perhaps judging a book critical of the New Atheists based on what the New Atheists say about it on blogs it is hazardous to your understanding.

o.k.  So my question is this: what am I supposed to do? I’ve almost finished the book, and have neither made public statements about it nor published any pre-reviews.  I don’t have a crackergate in my background, either.  However, I suppose I could be considered a “new atheist,” though I don’t like the term and I’ve been an atheist since 1967.

Does this mean that Mooney and Kirshenbaum won’t consider my review as a serious intellectual appraisal? Or will they dismiss it only if it’s negative?  I really don’t want to waste time on this if the authors of the book are going to regard any effort as biased from the outset.  So, Mooney and Kirshenbaum, what say ye?  Do you want to hear a review or not? If not, why did you send us the book?

Almost done: are science and faith compatible?

July 2, 2009 • 3:40 pm

The data say they aren’t, but Chris Mooney tweaks them a bit to claim the opposite.    See here, hereherehere, here, and here (in order). (NOTE:  By “tweaking” here I meant “interpret”; I am not of course saying that Mooney fiddles with the data.  Apologies to anyone who construed it that way.)
Here are the relevant facts (my emphasis):

Interestingly, many of those who reject natural selection recognize that scientists themselves fully accept Darwin’s theory. In the same 2006 Pew poll, nearly two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution. Moreover, Americans, including religious Americans, hold science and scientists in very high regard. A 2006 survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University found that most people (87%) think that scientific developments make society better. Among those who describe themselves as being very religious, the same number – 87% – share that opinion.

So what is at work here? How can Americans say that they respect science and even know what scientists believe and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer is that much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

Quote of the week

June 24, 2009 • 3:52 pm

From Peter M. J. Hess, Catholic theologian and director of the “Faith Project” of the National Center for Science Education, comes this trenchant analysis of the faith/science dichotomy.  Quote of the week in bold:

Evolution can certainly be compatible with religious faith. Because the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming, we must consider it to be a truth about the natural world — the world which we as people of faith believe was created by God, and the world made understandable by the reason and natural senses given to us by God. Denying science is a profoundly unsound theological position. Science and faith are but two ways of searching for the same truths.

Lordy, I’m so tired of hearing this statement over and over again from accommodationists (over at The Intersection, Chris Mooney praises Hess’s “great column”).  We’re both searching for the same truths?  That’s news to me.  I didn’t know faith was trying to find out where the genes are for reproductive isolating barriers between species of fruit fly. Or that the faithful are praying for some revelation about dark matter.  Likewise, I don’t know many scientists who are working on the Big Question of whether unbaptized babies go to limbo.

Really, we need to think about statements like Hess’s. They may sound good — for a nanosecond — but they’re intellectual pablum.  They are balm for believers, Panglossian tactics meant to reassure everyone that, hey folks, we’re all in the Big Search for Truth together!

As I’ve maintained repeatedly, religion is neither set up for finding truth nor very good at finding truth. Let me correct that — faith is incapable of finding truth, or at least no more capable than is astrology.   The methods of ascertaining “truth” via faith are either revelation or acceptance of dogma.   These methods have produced “truths” like a 6,000-year-old Earth and the Great Flood.  Not a very good track record.  In fact, I have yet to find a single truth about humans, Earth, or the universe that has come uniquely from faith.  If you have one, please send it to me!  If faith did hit on truths, the tenets of all the world’s religions would not be in irresolvable conflict.  But they are.

In all these debates about the compatibility of science and faith, I have yet to see an intellectually respectable answer to this ultimate dichotomy between “ways of knowing.”  Instead, people like Mooney go after us for our tone, for polarizing people, and so on.  Does Mooney sign on to Hess’s statement that the faithful and the scientists are all really engaged in the same endeavor?  If not, why does he call Hess’s column “great”? Instead of beefing about our “militancy,” why don’t accommodationists start addressing the question of whether faith can tell us anything that’s true? Let’s hear about whether you can coherently accept a Resurrection on Sunday and then go to the lab the next day and doggedly refuse to accept any claim that lacks evidence.   Now that would raise the tone of this debate.

Science vs. theism: a debate with Kenneth Miller. Part I: Throat-clearing

June 16, 2009 • 12:35 pm

The recent debates about accommodating scientific with religious views have been scattered across several websites.  The whole megillah began with a post on Chris Mooney’s site, arguing that the atheist attack on accommodationism was inimical to our joint interest in promoting the understanding of evolution. Mooney also characterized anti-accommodationists as “uncivil.”  Since then, the arguments have bounced between this site and those of Mooney, Jason Rosenhouse, Russell Blackford, “Erratic Synapse,” and others; I’ve assembled the posts in chronological order here.

In his last post, Mooney called my attention to a recent posting by Kenneth Miller at Brown University responding to my critiques of accommodationism and especially my piece in The New Republic discussing two books, one by Miller and the other by Karl Giberson. I have promised to respond to Miller, although both P. Z. Myers and Jason Rosenhouse have already published critiques of Miller’s posting.  Indeed, they did such a good job of refuting Miller’s claims that I’m not sure I have much to add. However, I promised to respond and so I will, though with an increasing sense of languor and futility.

Miller’s piece is in six parts: an introduction and five sections, each of the latter having a bold heading.  I propose to respond to each section in turn.  Today I’ll make a few introductory comments, and will tackle Miller’s own introduction tomorrow.  Bear with me: this will take a few days, and I have a day job. 

Revisiting Miler’s prose from his first book, Finding Darwin’s God, through his most recent posting, I observe what others like P.Z. have noticed: Miller is increasingly backing off from the theism he previously espoused. (Indeed, P.Z.’s response is called “Theistic evolution beats a hasty retreat.”)

My theses are these:

1.  While science and theism (i.e., the view that God acts to change things in the material world) are compatible in the trivial sense that some people adhere to both, they are incompatible in the philosophical sense of being harmonious world views.  I’ve argued this ad nauseum (as in the New Republic piece) and so won’t go into all the details again.

2.  Miller, as a scientist and a theist, is guilty of diluting (indeed, distorting) science by claiming that God interferes in nature in certain specified ways, and that these ways are in principle detectable.  Some of his assertions, such as that of the inevitability of humanoid evolution, are scientifically insupportable.

3.  Miller denies #2, but the evidence is against him.  In particular, he has suggested a). that God might tweak nature through events on the quantum level; b). that God arranged things so that evolution would arrive at certain “inevitable” ends (e.g., the evolution of our own species), a view that cannot be defended as scientific;  c). that the physical constants of the world were constructed by God, or “fine tuned,” to permit life to exist in the Universe;  and d.) the fact that there are “laws” (regularities, really) in the Universe can be understood only as an act of God. The last claim is in fact a God-of-the-gaps argument, since it asserts that the best answer to the question, “Why are there scientific laws at all?” is “God made them.”  Here Miller merely swaps ignorance for “God,” just as creationist Michael Behe swaps ignorance of biochemical evolution for God.

4.  When confronted with #3, Miller says that he is only suggesting these as possibilities.  I counter that this claim is disingenuous, and that Miller either believes these things himself, or is offering them for serious consideration by fellow theists.  I further argue that since Miller has made his theism a centerpiece of this debate, he must do more than obliquely suggest “possibilities” for the theist.   He must state publicly what he actually believes vis-a-vis #3, and tell us what reasons he has for his beliefs.  It is my opinion that his failure to ever have done this reflects more than a desire for privacy of faith — after all, Miller is the one who wrote a book called Finding Darwin’s God and has made much of his own reconciliation of Catholicism with science. I believe it also reflects an understanding that if he publicly revealed what he believed, he would lose stature, for his beliefs would be seen as  not only unscientific, but embarrassingly superstitious.

5.  The behavior seen in #4 constitutes what I call “wink wink nudge nudge” theism.  Without ever defending his beliefs — or indeed, telling us what they are — Miller nevertheless offers a kind of coded succor to his fellow theists.  This is manifest in his recent string of lectures, in which he repeatedly emphasizes that the universe shows “design,” but then backs off, claiming that “I didn’t really mean, folks, that God actually did anything.” Let me repeat — I think this is disingenuous, and that Miller knows exactly what he’s doing.  I suggest that such behavior promotes public confusion about what science does and does not tell us about the universe.  Miller’s “suggestions” for fellow theists involve pointing out ways that nature attests to God.  And, in the end, this is nothing more than a form of creationism.

I have stated many times before that I have enormous admiration for Miller’s accomplishments: he has not only written several excellent biology textbooks (no mean feat, believe me!), but has vociferously defended evolution in the classroom, the courtroom, and other public venues.  I gladly join him in opposing those creationists who want to take good science out of the classroom and replace it with medieval theology.   But we differ in how we view this battle.  Ultimately, I don’t think it will be won until religion’s hold on America loosens.  As a theist, he obviously feels otherwise.

Now that the throat is cleared, more discussion tomorrow.

The Big Accommodationism Debate: all relevant posts

June 12, 2009 • 7:12 am

The Big Debate continues about whether faith and science are compatible and whether scientists should criticize those religious people who agree with them about matters like evolution.  Several people, however,  have complained that discussion is spread out among so many places — and people — that it’s confusing to follow, especially now that Jason Rosenhouse, Kenneth Miller, “Erratic synapse” (somebody please tell me who he/she is),  and the indefatigable P. Z. Myers have weighed in.   I believe that John Brockman is going to post all this stuff on the Edge website, but until then here are the links in chronological (and philosphical) order.  I think I’ve gotten them all.

Ken Miller has posted a robust riposte to my critique of accommodation (link below), which is cited in a new post by Mooney; I will respond to both of these in due time. In the meantime, P. Z. has written an equally robust response to Miller, and Jason has weighed in again.  I swear, folks, I’m not paying anybody to defend me!  I wouldn’t want to be in league with anybody, for example,  who shaves his cat.

“Accommodation” debate posts  in  order:

1. Coyne (original New Republic piece)

2. Coyne

3. Mooney

4. Mooney

5. Coyne

6. Mooney

7. Coyne

8. Rosenhouse

9.  Coyne

10. “Erratic synapse” at Daily Kos

11. Mooney

12. Rosenhouse

13. Coyne

14. Mooney

15. Ken Miller

16. P. Z. Myers

17.  Rosenhouse

18.  Blackford

19.  Blackford

20.  Coyne (Response to Miller, part 1)

21.  Coyne (Response to Miller, part 2)

22.  Sean Carroll

More on Mooney and accommodationism (with a note on Rosenhouse)

June 10, 2009 • 2:01 pm

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse has again taken on Chris Mooney’s critique of accommodationism.   Jason has done such a good job that I have little to add.  However, lest Mooney accuse me of hiding behind Rosenhouse, or of avoiding debate, let me briefly respond.

Mooney’s latest beef is that I have somehow confused methodological naturalism (the use of naturalistic techniques in investigating questions about the world) with philosophical naturalism (the view that there is nothing beyond nature).  Because of my supposed confusion, says Mooney, my claim that religion and science are incompatible is flatly wrong.

I don’t get it. To channel the captain in Cool Hand Luke, what we have here is a failure to communicate. I clearly set out what I thought about this issue in my article in The New Republic, and Rosenhouse, who has apparently read that article, gets it right.  Mooney, who also says he has read the article, gets it wrong.

I am a methodological naturalist, but I don’t think that all supernatural claims defy scientific analysis.  Moreover, I don’t see that the methodological/philosophical distinction has a lot to do with the dissonance between faith and science.  The real dissonance, as I have repeatedly emphasized, is between the scientific acceptance of only those claims adjudicated by empirical investigation, and the religious acceptance of “truth” claims that are discovered by revelation (or instruction by one’s parents) and are unfalsifiable.  These are two fundamentally different and incompatible ways of ascertaining “truth.” In fact, I don’t see that religion has any way at all of ascertaining “truth,” since its claims cannot be falsified.  The fact that the major “truths” of different religions are in permanent and irresolvable conflict testifies to this difference between science and faith.

o.k.  Let’s go over what Mooney claimed.  He relies heavily on Rob Pennock’s superb book Tower of Babel when claiming that science cannot test the supernatural.

The Jerry Coyne debate reached temporary hiatus late last week with Coyne invoking Rosenhouse to defend himself against my charge that he has violated the methodological vs. philosophical naturalism distinction. Coyne doesn’t appear to think he commits this foul; and yet he writes in The New Republic, in a line not quoted by Rosenhouse, that “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science.”

Say what?

If you accept the MN/PN distinction as I have outlined it, or as Robert Pennock does in Tower of Babel, it is hard see how one can claim this. As Pennock writes:

The first and most basic characteristic of supernatural agents and powers, of course, is that they are above and beyond the natural world and its agents and powers. Indeed, this is the very definition of the term. They are not constrained by natural laws…. (p. 289)

And again:

Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables. We confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in which the hypothesized independent variable is made to vary while all other factors are held constant so that we can observe the effect on the dependent variable. But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence these cannot be scientifically studied. (p. 292)

It is hard to see how Coyne thinks he can include supernatural phenomena within the purview of science without directly addressing the whole MN/PN matter, and indeed, wholly rejecting the MN/PN distinction as outlined by someone like Pennock. Let’s face it: “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science” is a pretty extraordinary assertion. Indeed, as far as I can tell it is a contradiction in terms.

Yet in what I have read so far (I have not read his book, so it may be there), Coyne doesn’t directly address the MN/PN matter. Certainly, given that he is dealing with these topics in some detail in the lengthy New Republic article, that would have been an ideal place to take on this philosophical point. But it isn’t there.

Let’s remember why this is important. I have argued that science and religion are at least theoretically reconcilable due to the MN/PN distinction. You can accept all the realities that science reveals through MN, and yet also have supernatural beliefs (not PN), so long as you don’t confuse the two.

This debate about PN vs MN didn’t really interest me.  What did interest me was the notion about whether claims about the supernatural can be tested with science.  And some of them can. The crucial passages of my piece (recognized by Jason but not Mooney) are these:

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature. There was a time when God was a part of science. Newton thought that his research on physics helped clarify God’s celestial plan. So did Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised our current scheme for organizing species. But over centuries of research we have learned that the idea “God did it” has never advanced our understanding of nature an iota, and that is why we abandoned it. . .

. . .In a common error, Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism. He claims that “if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God’s name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics.” Nonsense. There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky. The fact that no such things have ever been scientifically documented gives us added confidence that we are right to stick with natural explanations for nature. And it explains why so many scientists, who have learned to disregard God as an explanation, have also discarded him as a possibility.

What is so hard to grasp about all this?  Clearly some claims about the supernatural  can be tested (and rejected) by science.  One deals with the efficacy of prayer.  People claim that God answers prayers.  This can be, and has been, tested by scientific studies of the efficacy of prayer.  These studies have failed to show any effect. Now you can argue about whether those studies were done properly, but the fact is that they can be.  And, as noted above, there are other ways to scientifically document supernatural phenomena. One that Jason mentions is observing a talking Mount Rushmore.

Does anybody doubt that some claims about the supernatural can be tested with science? Mooney seems to doubt this.

Well, maybe you can claim that any phenomenon amenable to scientific study must by definition not be supernatural.   This is a philosophical/semantic argument that I don’t want to get into.  It doesn’t seem important.  Clearly, the claim that prayer works (or that moral people get cancer less often than immoral people) is a claim that science can study.  Clearly, the claim that the Shroud of Turin was Jesus’s burial cloth can be investigated scientifically.  Clearly, the claim that some religious icons weep blood, water, or milk, can be studied scientifically.  And believe me, if the Shroud of Turin were shown to have been made around 30 AD, religious people would have trumpeted it to the skies.  When it was shown to be a forgery, the faithful claimed that their faith didn’t depend on such claims. Ditto with the efficacy of prayer. Does anybody doubt that if the intercessory study had shown a significant effect of prayer, it would have been trumpeted from pulpits the following Sunday?

And despite my admiration for Pennock’s book, which I still think is the best analysis of intelligent-design creationism around, I think he’s dead wrong when he says, “But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence these cannot be scientifically studied.” Just because we can’t control God and how he responds to prayer doesn’t mean that we can’t study whether prayer works.

Mooney ends his piece in this way:

I will add that I am not a philosopher, and without having read and studied Pennock, probably wouldn’t wade into these waters. But at the same time, it seems to me that MN/PN is a pretty basic distinction, as are the definitions of “natural” and “supernatural.” Furthermore, I suspect most scientists would agree that their work and their methodology does not allow them to make claims about alleged supernatural agents.

I will make this claim about supernatural agents based on scientific methodology: prayer doesn’t help cardiac patients recover faster.  I will also claim, based on observations of the world, that if a god exists, he is not simultaneously omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent.

I reiterate: the incompatibility between faith and science rests on how they determine “truth.”  To quote from my New Republic article:

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer. There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.

Let me pose this question to Mr. Mooney.  The “truth” claims of many faiths are flatly incompatible.  Christians, for example, believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God.  Muslims claim that this is not only untrue, but that anyone who believes it will burn in hell.  At most, only one of these claims can be true. Who is right? How do you decide?  And whatever method you use (whether you were born in Kansas or Kabul; whether you get a personal revelation), doesn’t it differ from the way that science finds out things?

Rosenhouse vs. Mooney

June 6, 2009 • 6:03 am

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse has responded to Mooney’s “part two” critique of my views on accommodationism.  It’s a superb analysis, and, as before, I couldn’t have written it better myself.  If you’ve been following these debates, this is required reading.

As I said yesterday, I’ll wait until Mooney finishes his posts before I reply in one final salvo.  But just a note or two in passing.

First, it’s refreshing to see someone who’s actually read what I had to say about accommodationism.  Mooney says he’s read my New Republic screed on this, but he doesn’t seem to have grasped it.  He gets my views on philosophical vs. methodological naturalism completely wrong; Rosenhouse gets them right.  Likewise, as I’ve said ad nauseum, not every form of faith is incompatible with science.  In my New Republic article, I claim that pure deism (which accepts a hands-off God who doesn’t intrude into the workings of the Universe) is absolutely compatible with science.  The problem is that hardly anybody is a pure deist.  It’s when you get into theistic faiths — those in which Gods tweaks the world from time to time — that we find the incompatibilities.  Rosenhouse understands this; Mooney apparently does not.

About court cases:  yes, judges can state that evolution is compatible with some faiths, but they needn’t accept this to ban the teaching of creationism.  Perhaps the most cogent legal decision ever levied against creationism was that of Judge William R. Overton in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, the famous 1982 decision in which Overton threw out a “balanced treatment” law promoted by creationists.  As far as I can see, Overton says exactly nothing about accommodationism. His decision was made, as legal decisions have always been made in the last several decades, on the basis of the Lemon test of whether a law or statute violates the First Amendment.   As Overton notes, a law that threatens the Establishment Clause is constitutional only under the following conditions:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion …; finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.” [ Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. at 40.]

This says nothing about whether religion and science have to be compatible before creationism is thrown out.  On the contrary:  if creationism violates the above statutes, it’s unconstititional, period.

By the way, the peroration of Overton’s decision still moves me every time I read it:

The application and content of First Amendment principles are not determined by public opinion polls or by a majority vote. Whether the proponents of Act 590 constitute the majority or the minority is quite irrelevant under a constitutional system of government. No group, no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others.

The Court closes this opinion with a thought expressed eloquently by the great Justice Frankfurter:

We renew our conviction that “we have stake the very existence of our country on the faith that complete separation between the state and religion is best for the state and best for religion.” Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. at 59. If nowhere else, in the relation between Church and State, “good fences make good neighbors.” [McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 232 (1948)]An injunction will be entered permanently prohibiting enforcement of Act 590.

Finally, in case you missed it, Joshua Slocum posted the following on both my site and Richard Dawkins’s.  It’s worth repeating here.

Posted June 5, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Cross-posted from Richard Dawkin’s site. For context, I’m responding to a commentor who noted that years of accomodationism simply haven’t worked, but robust confrontation of the positions of the religious is actually opening up the conversation.

I wrote:

All this nervous nellie simpering over people being “rude” or “confrontational” to the intellectually deluded (I’m talking to you, Ken Miller) reminds me of the years I spent listening to this same argument over gay rights:

“Well, see, some people, um, just can’t accept you, so, um, it’s so much better not to push them. I mean, if you’re deferent enough, they won’t feel threatened, and they won’t vote against you having equal rights. Just don’t be too flamboyant, mm’kay? And, really, don’t push your points too hard – even though you’re logically and ethically correct, they just can’t handle it, and they’ll shut down.

Isn’t it so much nicer just to get along quietly, and accept their largesse for allowing you to exist, without forcing them to be grown-ups who face the intellectual and moral consequences of their public pronouncements?”

Hell no it isn’t.

And you’re absolutely right, [commentor]: it’s *precisely* about short-term political expediency. Mooney knows that, and if he doesn’t, he’s fooling himself and compartmentalizing his views so he doesn’t have to face them. Maybe because it’s easier to get along with his friends on the accomodationist end of the spectrum, who make their bread and butter splitting the baby.

This whole issue is so baffling. How can so many very intelligent people (Mooney is among them, you can’t take that away from him) blithely go along acting as if there’s something so peculiar, so special, about American discourse that we cannot, ever, ever, ever, get over our special pleading for religion? Why do they think America, as a society, is incapable of moving on the way most of Europe has? Why are they so content with – so insistent on maintaining – the pessimistic view that America will always be burdened with this intellectual handicap?

One could say something similar about the civil rights movement of the sixties.  I was there, and clearly remember people telling activists not to make a lot of noise because it would be counterproductive, alienating those who were sympathetic.  Now accommodationists like Mooney tell us the same thing about religion. Bosh.  I am absolutely confident that some time in the distant future, we will put away our childish things and religion will disappear in America.  To those like Mooney who say that this is ridiculous, I point to Europe, where religion in all but the formal sense is almost gone.  Have a look at Society Without God, by Phil Zuckerman — a sociological study of how Denmark and Sweden have become almost atheistic countries, but retain their social conscience, morality, and many good things we don’t have in the US.

There have been so many cogent replies to Mooney — on this site, on Richard Dawkins’s site, on Mooney’s own site, and on Jason’s site — that I hardly need to reply personally.  It’s good to know there is a lot of clear thinking out there.

Did Chris Mooney tell me to shut up?

June 5, 2009 • 6:49 am

Well, Chris Mooney has decided to continue the discussion about the compatibility of science and faith that he and Barbara Forrest began on his Discover blog.  If you’ve followed all this, they criticized me for my “divisiveness” in going after the idea that science and faith are compatible.  I responded to this, saying that since Forrest and Mooney apparently agreed with my views (and my atheism), they were in effect telling me to shut up — imposing upon me (and some of my colleagues) a form of intellectual censorship.  I also pointed out that in 2001 Mooney published a pretty strong piece criticizing faith/science accommodation — a piece diametrically opposed to the views he espouses now.

Mooney responded that he had indeed changed his mind, and has become much more of an accommodationist:

…indeed, I find my work from 2001 on this topic pretty unsatisfying. I guess you could say I’ve changed my view; certainly I’ve changed my emphasis. A lot more reading in philosophy and history has moved me toward a more accomodationist position. So has simple pragmatism; I don’t see what is to be gained by flailing indiscriminately against religion, other than a continuation of the culture wars. That’s especially so when those who flail against religion do so in philosophically or historically unsophisticated ways, or (worse still) with the bile, negativity, and even occasional intolerance that I have encountered in such discussions.

I wrote on Mooney’s blog that I was certainly not flailing indiscriminately against religion, and challenged him to find one example of where I’ve done that, or been uncivil to the faithful (another comment that he implicitly levelled at me).  My criticisms of accommodation have been specific: it waters down science and gives people a mistaken view of what science says. (One of these mistaken views is the widespread claim — viz. Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, etc. — that the evolution of humans or human-like creatures was inevitable). This is hardly “flailing.”

Well, Mooney is now publishing a longer critique of what I said, and (oy vey!), he claims that it will be in two or more parts, and perhaps take several weeks.  My heart is sinking. Part I is here.

I will wait until Mooney publishes all of his several promised critiques of accommodationism before I respond, but let me take up one issue here.

Was Mooney telling me to shut up? Apparently stung by that suggestion, he denied it vehemently:

So although I shouldn’t have to, let me come out and say it: I believe in freedom of speech and the value of dialogue and the open exchange of ideas. I have never argued that anybody ought to shut up, be quiet, etc. This simply wrong.

Nobody wants anybody to shut up. This is America. Etc.

But of course he was telling me to shut up!  Despite his denial, it’s palpably clear that Mooney (and by extension, Barbara Forrest), was advising me to lie low and let the accommodationists address the compatibility of science and faith.  (In this he joins the AAAS, the National Academies of Science, and the National Center for Science Education).  Rather than repeat what all of Mooney’s posters have agreed on, which is that he was telling me to put a sock in it because my words were “divisive”, let me just steer you to the excellent analysis by Jason Rosenhouse on his EvolutionBlog.  A sample (read the whole thing on his site because there’s a lot more):

Moving on, let’s look a bit more closely at what exactly Coyne did to bring Mooney and Forrest down upon him. He published a book review. In The New Republic. In this review he did not level a single ad hominem attack and praised certain aspects of what Miller and Giberson have done. He then went on to criticize their ideas. Mooney himself, in his follow-up post, wrote

So-I have recently reread Jerry Coyne’s lengthy New Republic piece, which is at the source of some of our debates; and let me say, it is a very good, extensive, thoughtful article.Are you seriously telling me that is poor tactics? A very good, thoughtful, extensive book review in a high-level venue like TNR is just too much for those poor, delicate liberal Christians to handle? Please. Any Christian who has genuinely made his peace with evolution is not going to be driven to the other side because Jerry Coyne offered a few contrary thoughts.

The whole thing is reminiscent of that Jerome Bixby short story “It’s a Good Life” (later made into a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone). That’s the one with the three-year old who has God-like powers, but lacks any sense of judgment or conscience. Whenever someone does something he doesn’t like, the kid simply wills something terrible to happen to that person. Everyone has to go around thinking happy thoughts all the time, because happy thoughts are relaxing to the kid. And everytime the kid throws a tantrum everyone has to say things like, “It’s very good that you did that. We’re all so happy you turned Mr. Smith into that terrible thing.”

That’s what I think of whenever I read essays like Mooney’s. Liberal Christians are playing the role of the kid. Coyne et al are in the role of those doing things the kid doesn’t like. And Mooney et al are in the role of those trying to soothe the kid. “Mr. Coyne didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. It’s very good that you believe religious clerics and holy texts have something valuable to tell us about the workings of nature…”

In one of his follow-up posts Mooney bristled at the idea that he is telling Coyne, in effect, to shut up. Mooney writes

So although I shouldn’t have to, let me come out and say it: I believe in freedom of speech and the value of dialogue and the open exchange of ideas. I have never argued that anybody ought to shut up, be quiet, etc. This simply wrong. Nobody wants anybody to shut up. This is America. Etc.

No, he didn’t argue that Coyne should shut up. He only argued that writing a very good, thoughtful, extensive article for The New Republic was evidence of how woefully misguided Coyne is about strategy. Which raises the question: where should Coyne have expressed his views? If even a relatively tame article in a high-level venue like TNR is too much for liberal Christians, then what could Coyne have done, short of shutting up, that would have mollified them?

I couldn’t have said it better, so I won’t.  Thanks, Jason, for saving me the trouble.

I don’t want to belabor this “he said/he said” stuff about shutting up, but Mooney’s bizarre denial of what he really said doesn’t bode well for future discourse.  And I’m a bit wary because I don’t think I have much more to say about accommodationism than what I’ve already said on this website or in my New Republic piece.