How many “ways of knowing” are there?

September 8, 2009 • 6:56 am

I’ve become rather ambivalent about Eugenie Scott — and, indeed, about some of the policies of the organization she heads, the National Center for Science Education.  On the one hand, Scott is a really nice person (I used to count her as a friend, though I’m not sure she feels that way about me now!), and, more important, she and the NCSE have done absolutely terrific — and award-winning — work battling creeping creationism in America.  The NCSE’s intercession in the Dover intelligent-design trial, for example, was critical in the victory.

But Scott also travels around giving strongly accommodationist talks, reflecting the NCSE’s policy that science and religion, when properly conceived, are harmonious.  This is, of course, the NOMA stance.  The NCSE has made a tactical decision that selling evolution is most efficacious if you proclaim — never mind what you really think — that religion and science are compatible, occupying their own magisteria.

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford reports on a talk Scott gave yesterday at Dragon*Con.  To be fair, Blackford didn’t take notes, and I haven’t heard the talk.  But if his memory is accurate, Scott told the audience that there are many valid “ways of knowing” beyond science.  As Russell reports:

. . . In any event, it was the first part of the speech that worried me. This emphasised the claim that science (Scott said “science”, not “reason”) is only one way of knowing. The others that she mentioned were personal insight and authority (I don’t think she was saying that these three are the only “ways of knowing”). She appeared to be happy to count all sorts of ideas gained from personal insight, perhaps assisted by rituals or drugs, as “knowledge”, which is rather odd, since knowledge is, at the least, justified belief. She counted revelation, including the words of holy books, as a sub-set of authority, and explained that the problem is when empirical claims are based on revelation.

Scott also said that science is a limited way of knowing because it can only investigate natural phenomena and can only offer natural explanations for them, and so cannot deal with supernatural claims. She offered no argument for this claim. Indeed, she gave an example of scientific study of truth claims that appeared to refute it. This was a description of a controlled experiment to see whether people really can perform better than chance at dowsing for water. Clearly, if the claim “I can perform better than chance at dowsing for water” is refuted by scientific investigation, it follows, a fortiori, that the claim “I can perform better than chance at dowsing for water by using supernatural means” is also refuted.

Oh dear dear dear.  Russell, I, and others have addressed the idea of science and the supernatural many times before (see here, here, and here, for example), dispelling the soothing idea that “science has nothing to say about the supernatural.”  That is, of course, hogwash.  Science has plenty to say about the Shroud of Turin, whether faith healing works, whether prayer works, whether God seems to be both beneficent and omnipotent, world without end.  Science can, as we’ve repeated endlessly, address specific claims about the supernatural, though it’s impotent before the idea that behind it all is a hands-off, deistic Transcendent Force.

Scott admits that there is a problem when empirical claims are based on revelation, but seems completely unaware that empirical claims derived from revelation form the basis of nearly every faith.

I am absolutely sure that Scott is aware of these arguments. But she ignores them, and goes around spreading the same old accommodationism.  In this sense she’s like the Twins: she’s heard the counterarguments, but not only has she failed to answer them, she ignores them. What is even more distressing is that Scott is an atheist, so for her, at least, there are no supernatural ways of knowing.  Does she think she’s missing out on a kind of knowledge that only the faithful have? I doubt it.

As for “ways of knowing,” my response is always, “What do you find out? What do you “know”?  And how would you know if you were wrong? Was Jesus the son of God?  Christians’ “way of knowing” tells them, “Yes, of course!” But Islamic “ways of knowing” say, “No, of course not, and you’ll burn in hell if you believe that.”  Revelation, dogma, and scripture are not in fact ways of knowing; they are ways of believing.  There are no “truths” that religion can produce which are independent of truths derived from secular reason.

With his usual acumen, Russell dissects the problem in detail.  Read his post.  And I agree completely with his conclusion:

I am not suggesting that the NCSE enlarge its remit to attack religion more generally. That is not its raison d’etre at all. But it can be neutral about such questions as whether science undermines a large amount of religious thinking, far beyond the claims of creationism and Intelligent Design. It can stop relying on an unnecessarily narrow (and very dubious) view of scientific epistemology, designed to leave as much authority with religion as possible. It can stop selling Gould’s intellectually bankrupt principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria on its website.

It’s perfectly clear by now that neither Scott nor the NCSE will ever deal with the ideas that 1) the other “ways of knowing” don’t produce truth, 2) science can indeed address the supernatural, at least some aspects of it, and 3) a lot of people DO NOT find science and faith compatible. By enabling superstition, and giving credibility to irrationality, Scott and the NCSE’s NOMA-ism will, I think, hamper the evolution of a rational America.  Yes, we’re on their side vis-a-vis creationism, and yes, I’ll be more than glad to join hands with them in fighting that scourge of rationality.   But so long as our allies keep spouting half-truths and untruths about the relationship between science and religion, we’ll keep calling them to task.

Where's the beef?

Fig. 1. Other ways of knowing: I can’t has cheezburger.

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?

Truckling to the Faithful: A Spoonful of Jesus Helps Darwin Go Down

April 22, 2009 • 7:10 am

For if we ever begin to suppress our search to understand nature, to quench our own intellectual excitement in a misguided effort to present a united front where it does not and should not exist, then we are truly lost.
–Stephen Jay Gould

If you’re a regular at this website, you’ve heard me complain about scientific organizations that sell evolution by insisting that it’s perfectly consistent with religion.   Evolution, they say, threatens many peoples’ religious views — not just the literalism of Genesis, but also the morality that supposedly emanates from scripture.   Professional societies like the National Academy of Sciences — the most elite organization of American scientists — have concluded that to make evolution palatable to Americans, you must show that it is not only consistent with religion, but also no threat to it.  (And so much the better if, as theologians like John Haught assert, evolution actually deepens our faith.)  Given that many members of such organizations are atheists, their stance of accommodationism appears to be a pragmatic one.

Here I argue that the accommodationist position of the National Academy of Sciences, and especially that of the National Center for Science Education, is a self-defeating tactic, compromising the very science they aspire to defend.  By seeking union with religious people, and emphasizing that there is no genuine conflict between faith and science, they are making accommodationism not just a tactical position, but a philosophical one.  By ignoring the significant dissent in the scientific community about whether religion and science can be reconciled, they imply a unanimity that does not exist.  Finally, by consorting with scientists and philosophers who incorporate supernaturalism into their view of evolution, they erode the naturalism that underpins modern evolutionary theory.

Let’s begin with  a typical accommodationist statement—this one from the National Academy of Sciences:

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

This at least recognizes some conflict between evolution and fundamentalist faiths, but downplays it.  The National Academy website also includes three statements by religious scientists, Kenneth Miller, Father George Coyne of the Vatican, and Francis Collins, averring no conflict between the Gouldian magisteria.

There are no statements by anyone who sees faith and science as in conflict.  This is not because those people don’t exist: after all, there are plenty of scientists and philosophers, including myself, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, P. Z. Myers, Dan Dennett, A. C. Grayling, and Peter Atkins, who feel strongly that science and religion are incompatible ways of viewing the world.  Several of these people have written books to that effect.  Apparently the NAS prefers to ignore this dissent.

When a professional organization makes such strong statements about the compatibility of science and faith, and ignores or gives but a polite nod to the opposing view, that organization is endorsing a philosophy.  This goes beyond saying that evolution is true.  The NAS is saying that most religious people and scientists have no problem with evolution and faith.  Given that 40% of Americans reject evolution outright (almost entirely on religious grounds), while 92% of NAS scientists reject the idea a personal god, the National Academy is clearly pushing its agenda in defiance of evidence.

Among professional organizations that defend the teaching of evolution, perhaps the biggest offender in endorsing the harmony of science and faith is The National Center for Science Education.  Although one of their officers told me that their official position on faith was only that “we will not criticize religions,” a perusal of their website shows that this is untrue.  Not only does the NCSE not criticize religion, but it cuddles up to it, kisses it, and tells it that everything will be all right.

In the rest of this post I’d like to explore the ways that, I think, the NCSE has made accommodationism not only its philosophy, but its official philosophy. This, along with their endorsement and affiliation with supernaturalist scientists, philosophers, and theologians, inevitably corrupts their mission.

Let me first affirm that I enormously admire the work of the NCSE and of its director, Eugenie Scott and its president, Kevin Padian.  They have worked tirelessly to keep evolution in the schools and creationism out, most visibly in the Dover trial.  But they’re also active at school-board hearings and other venues throughout the country, as well as providing extensive resources for the rest of us in the battle for Darwin.   They are the good guys.

So why am I using this space to criticize the organization?  I suppose it’s because I feel that in its battle against creationism, the NCSE should represent all evolutionary biologists.  But they are not representing a lot of us when they nuzzle up to theologians and vigorously push the harmony of science and religion. In effect, they’re pretending that the many people who disagree with their philosophical message don’t exist. Yet they can afford to ignore us because, in the end, where else can we atheists go for support against creationists?

The pro-religion stance of the NCSE is offensive and unnecessary — a form of misguided pragmatism.  First, it dilutes their mission of spreading Darwinism, by giving credibility to the views of scientists and theologians who are de facto creationists, whether they admit it or not.  Second, it departs from their avowed mission to be philosophically neutral.  Third, it disingenuously pretends that evolution poses absolutely no threat to faith, or conflicts with faith in any way.

None of this would be a problem if the NCSE would just stick to its avowed mission and “neutral” stance toward religion.

What is this mission?   As stated on one of its webpages:

What does NCSE do?

The National Center for Science Education, founded in 1981, engages in a number of activities advancing two primary goals: improving and supporting education in evolution and the nature of science, and increasing public understanding of these subjects.

If they just did this, there would be no problem.  So do they have to engage with faith to advance the teaching of evolution?  Apparently not, at least if you look at their religious position on the same page:

What is NCSE’s religious position?

None. The National Center for Science Education is not affiliated with any religious organization or belief. We and our members enthusiastically support the right of every individual to hold, practice, and advocate their beliefs, religious or non-religious. Our members range from devout practitioners of several religions to atheists, with many shades of belief in between. What unites them is a conviction that science and the scientific method, and not any particular religious belief, should determine science curriculum.

This stance of religious—and philosophical!–neutrality is underscored by a speech given by Eugenie Scott:

I think we make a grave error when we confuse philosophical views derived from science — even those we support — with science itself. . . .

I must say, though, that over the last several months I have presented lectures at several universities and two meetings of professional scientists in which I have argued that a clear distinction must be drawn between science as a way of knowing about the natural world and science as a foundation for philosophical views. One should be taught to our children in school, and the other can optionally be taught to our children at home.

But despite their avowed commitment to not mixing philosophy with science, an important part of the NCSE’s activities is its “Faith Project,” whose director is the theologically trained Peter M. J. Hess.  This project appears to be devoted entirely to the philosophical position that evolution need not conflict with “proper” faith.   Among the pages of this project is Hess’s statement, in “Science and Religion”:

In public discussions of evolution and creationism, we are sometimes told that we must choose between belief in creation and acceptance of the theory of evolution, between religion and science. But is this a fair demand? Must I choose only one or the other, or can I both believe in God and accept evolution? Can I both accept what science teaches and engage in religious belief and practice? This is a complex issue, but theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

You can’t get much more explicit than this.  To those of us who hold contrary views, including the idea that religion is dangerous, this logic sounds like this:

We are sometimes told that we must choose between smoking two packs a day and pursuing a healthy lifestyle.  Many cigarette companies, however, hold unequivocally that no such choice is necessary.

More accommodationism rears its head in the section called “How Do I read the Bible? Let Me Count the Ways”:

Contrary to what biblical literalists argue, the Bible was not intended by its authors to teach us about science — which did not exist at the time the Hebrew oral traditions were set in writing as the Book of Genesis. The Bible does not teach us the literal truths that the earth is flat, or that a global flood once covered Mt. Everest, or that we inhabit a geocentric cosmos, or that the world was created as we now observe it in six solar days, or that species were specially created in their present form and have not changed since the days of creation.

Rather, the Bible can be read as a record of one particular people’s developing moral relationship with the God in whom they placed their trust. As such, it enshrines timeless ideals about the integrity of creation and human responsibility within that creation. For biblical believers, part of that responsibility is using the gift of human rationality to discover the exciting story of how life ― including human life ― has developed on the earth.

Well, the Bible wasn’t intended to teach us about science, but it was intended to be an account of where life came from, and it is still read that way by a huge number of Americans.   What gives the NCSE the right, or the authority, to suggest how people interpret the Bible?

The “recommended books” page of the NCSE’s religion section gives the same one-sided view.  The section on “Theology, Evolution, and Creation” lists 36 books.  Every one of them appears to offer an accommodationist viewpoint.  Another 38 books appear (on the same page) in a “related themes in science and religion” section on the same page.  In both section we find all the familiar names: Francis Collins, John Haught, Kenneth Miller, Michael Ruse, Simon Conway Morris, John Polkinghorne, Joan Roughgarden, and so on — accommodationists all.  There are no books by Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling, and all those who have criticized the science-faith concordat.

As is usual in accommodationist literature, when the neo-atheist evolutionists are mentioned, they are done so dismissively, and held partially responsible for arousing anti-evolution sentiment:

When scientists such as William Provine and Richard Dawkins present philosophical materialism as the inevitable outgrowth of science or evolution (Dawkins 1987; Provine 1989) they reinforce the view encouraged by Morris and other antievolutionists that “one cannot be an evolutionist and a Christian.”

Perhaps most telling, the NCSE markets, as “staff publications,” some books that apparently show how religion and science can live happily together.   Take a look at the page on which you’re supposed to sign up as an NCSE member. There you’ll find the “staff publication” Catholicism and Science, by  Peter M. J. Hess (director of the “Faith Project”). By advertising the book in this way the NCSE is saying, “here’s our point of view.”  What is the point of view of Catholicism and Science? The book is so new that I haven’t seen it, but here’s the description on Amazon:

When most people think about Catholicism and science, they will automatically think of one of the famous events in the history of science — the condemnation of Galileo by the Roman Catholic Church. But the interaction of Catholics with science has been — and is — far more complex and positive than that depicted in the legend of the Galileo affair. Understanding the natural world has always been a strength of Catholic thought and research — from the great theologians of the Middle Ages to the present day — and science has been a hallmark of Catholic education for centuries.

Of course this doesn’t mention that the Catholic church itself has gone back and forth on the veracity of evolution.  Pope John Paul II, for example, declared that God inserted a soul somewhere in the lineage between Australopithecus and Homo. (Scott mentions this view, albeit only in passing, in an essay “Creationists and the Pope’s Statement.” But Dr. Scott’s long discussion of the position of the Catholic Church is celebratory, completely ignoring how the views of many Catholic contravene everything we know about human evolution.

Digging deeper into the NCSE site, one finds it riddled with strange lucubrations about religion.  For example, in an essay by Phila Borgeson called “Is There Two-Way Traffic on the Bridge? Why ‘Intelligent Design’ is not Fruitful Theologically,” one finds this:

The little we know about God from “intelligent design” is not congruent with an understanding of God that takes Hebrew and Christian scriptures seriously.  . . In Christian scripture, the central way in which God is related to his creation is, of course, through Christ’s redemption of the suffering of the world. Out of this emerges a theodicy that embraces as the price of the freedom God has bestowed on creation what we often read as the cruelty and caprice of nature. A designer God, though, must also be the designer of pain and death. In theological terms, “intelligent design” offers no articulation of how salvation is accomplished and constructs a God that is hard to square with the God who is steadfast love and suffering servant. George Murphy, working within his Lutheran tradition, has placed much emphasis on a theology of the cross as central to an understanding of God’s interaction with creation (Murphy 2002, 2003). Jürgen Moltmann stresses God’s suffering with God’s people, drawing on the Hebrew concept of shekinah and the kabbalistic concept of zimzum along with the Christian understanding of the kenosis (self-emptying) of God (Moltmann 2001). WH Vanstone pointed out in prose and hymn that the image of God as a creator, omnipotently, serenely, and detachedly presiding, then occasionally condescending to manipulate things to his will, is totally incongruent with what Christians know in the divine self-emptying of Christ (Vanstone 1977).

Zimzum?  Can somebody please tell me what on earth this tedious exegesis has to do with science education?

But my main beef is this: the NCSE touts, shelters, or gives its imprimatur to intellectuals and scientists who are either “supernaturalists” (the word that A. C. Grayling uses for those who see supernatural incursions into the universe) or who have what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief”—the idea that while religion may be based on false beliefs, those beliefs are themselves good for society. (Among the former are Kenneth Miller and John Haught, the latter Michael Ruse and Francisco Ayala).  Both of these attitudes draw the NCSE away from its primary mission of promoting evolutionary biology, and push it into the hinterlands of philosophy and theology.

I have discussed Kenneth Miller’s views on evolution before, in particular his explicit Catholic theism  (i.e., God interacts directly with the world), and his speculation that these interactions may occur through perturbations in subatomic particles. He has also floated the idea that God set up the laws of physics so that they were particularly propitious for the appearance of life on Earth, and so made inevitable the appearance of highly intelligent beings who could apprehend and worship their creator.  Miller’s theism is also reflected in his published statements such as the following:

In reality, the potential for human existence is woven into every fiber of that universe, from the starry furnaces that forged the carbon upon which life is based, to the chemical bonds that fashioned our DNA from the muck and dust of this rocky planet. Seems like a plan to me.

And this:

. . . . .the God that we know through Christianity is not someone who acts like an ordinary human being, who simply happens to be endowed with supernatural powers. We are talking about a being whose intelligence is transcendent; we’re talking about a being who brought the universe into existence, who set up the rules of existence, and uses those rules and that universe and the natural world in which we live to bring about his will.

As both Massimo Pigliucci (a biologist and philosopher at Stony Book) and I have noted, this kind of talk comes perilously close to intelligent design; indeed, it may well be a form of intelligent design.  If God “uses rules” to bring about his will, then evolution cannot be undirected.

John Haught, another person who appears frequently on the NCSE website (and was also a religious witness in the Dover trial), has an equally teleological view of evolution.   In his accommodationist books God After Darwin and the more recent Deeper than Darwin, he espouses a teleology in which evolution is ineluctably drawn by God to some future point of perfection.  In God after Darwin, he approvingly cites (p. 83) the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin’s suggestion:

. . . . that a metaphysically adequate explanation of any universe in which evolution occurs requires — at some point beyond the limits that science has set for itself — a transcendent force of attraction to explain the overarching tendency of matter to evolve toward life, mind, and spirit.

But any injection of teleology into evolutionary biology violates precisely the great advance of Darwin’s theory: to explain the appearance of design by a purely materialistic process — no deity required.   In a letter to his mentor Charles Lyell, Darwin explicitly decried the idea of divine intervention in evolution:

I entirely reject, as in my judgment quite unnecessary, any subsequent addition ‘of new powers and attributes and forces,’ or of any ‘principle of improvement’, except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. . . I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.

If we’re to defend evolutionary biology, we must defend it as a science: a nonteleological theory in which the panoply of life results from the action of natural selection and genetic drift acting on random mutations.

The directors of the NCSE are smart people.  They know perfectly well — as did Darwin himself — that evolutionary biology is and always has been a serious threat to faith.  But try to find one acknowledgment of this incompatibility on their website.  No, all you’ll find there is sweetness and light. Indeed, far from being a threat to faith, evolution seems to reinforce it!  Is it disingenuous to be a personal atheist, as some NCSE officials are, and yet tell others that their faith is compatible with science? I don’t know.  But the NCSE’s pragmatism has taken it far outside its mandate. Their guiding strategy seems to be keep Darwin in the schools by all means necessary.

Am I grousing because, as an atheist and a non-accommodationist, my views are simply ignored by the NAS and NCSE?  Not at all.  I don’t want these organizations to espouse or include my viewpoint.  I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution.  If natural selection and evolution are as powerful as we all believe, then we should devote our time to making sure that they are more widely and accurately understood, and that their teaching is defended.  Those should be the sole missions of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education.  Leave theology to the theologians.

WEIT review: Kevin Padian sucks me back into into the religion/science quagmire

April 1, 2009 • 7:06 am

Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at the University of California at Berkeley, has done pathbreaking work on the evolution of flight, and on other paleobiological issues.  He’s also been a stalwart defender of evolution against creationism, and is the president of the National Center for Science Education.

In the latest issue of Public Library of Science Biology (known as PLoS Biology), Padian has written a  review of Why Evolution is True.  I wish I could say I was pleased with it.  After all, Padian did start the review by praising the book:

First, make no mistake: this is a wonderful book, as far as the explanation of many of the interesting lines of evidence and case histories for evolution go. . . Coyne hits all the right notes, without over-dazzling the general reader with too many molecular complexities or obscure examples. This is a very readable, companionable work that takes its place alongside other fine recent explanations of evolution such as Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, by Donald R. Prothero [3], and Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin [4], as well as a great many Web sites that explain the evidence for evolution. It would be an excellent text for a freshman or non-majors course in evolution, or for a local book group.

So why am I grousing?  Because his review is not about the science — or even about the book. Rather, it’s about a book that he wanted me to write but that I didn’t.  Padian spends most of his review calling me to task for not emphasizing strongly enough that evolution is compatible with religious faith.

First, a scientific quibble.  Padian criticizes me for not using strict cladistic terminology:  we should not say, for instance, that amphibians evolved from fish because “fish” is a term reserved for an ancestor and all of its descendants — which is not strictly true because some descendants of early fish became amphibians, and, ultimately, reptiles, birds, and mammals. This is the same criticism that Eugenie Scott leveled at the book in her review in Nature (that’s no surprise, because Scott is executive director of the NCSE and a close associate of Padian).  I can see their point from a cladistic stand, but it’s not necessarily the best way to present evolution to the public.  Under cladistic terminology, no group could have evolved from any other group!  All of us (including Neil Shubin, the discoverer of  the transitional form Tiktaalik) call the aquatic, lobe-finned ancestors of tetrapods “fish”.   It’s common parlance, and not misleading to the public.  What would Padian call those lobe-finned ancestors?  At any rate, I don’t think using common parlance is a serious crime here; in fact, it makes things clearer.  So we can agree to differ on this (see the comments by Greg Mayer and Nick Matzke here).  But that’s not Padian’s main criticism.

Padian says that “truth” (as in the title of my book) “is a personal thing.”   And he complains that I have not explained to the readers what I mean by saying that something is “true”:

Based on the title of this book I would have expected a bit more engagement with the philosophy of knowledge. How do we know something is true, and what do we mean when we say something is true? What could make us abandon our claims, and realistically, would we ever do so?

But Kevin doesn’t seem to have noticed the following passage in the first chapter (page 16):

Because a theory is accepted as “true” only when its assertions and predictions are tested over and over again, and confirmed repeatedly, there is no one moment when a scientific theory becomes a scientific fact.  A theory becomes a fact (or a “truth”) when so much evidence has accumulated in its favor– and there is no decisive evidence against it– that all reasonable people will accept it.  This does not mean that a “true” theory will never be falsified. All scientific truth is provisional, subject to modification in light of new evidence. There is no alarm bell that goes off to tell scientists that they’ve finally hit on the ultimate, unchangeable truths about nature.  As we’ll see, it is possible that despite thousands of observations that support Darwinism, new data might show it to be wrong.

And on p. 222-223, at the end, I show why evolution qualifies as “true” under this definition, and also give examples of possible observations that could disprove evolution.

But his real point is the NCSE’s standing policy of courting religionists, as articulated by Eugenie Scott:  “This is not a problem that you can solve merely by throwing more science at it.”  You have to cater to believers.

Three points here:

1.  The Dover decision rested on throwing science at Judge Jones, not convincing him that you could believe in evolution and God, too.  You don’t have to be a believer to refute creationist claims or to show that they were inspired by religious belief.

2.  You can’t solve the problem without throwing science at it. That’s what I was trying to do. That’s what I was trained to do. So I’m trying to solve the part of the problem that I’m capable of addressing without hypocrisy.

3.  Twenty-five years of hard work by scientific organizations like the NAS and NCSE, involving pushing religion/science accommodationism, have had no perceptible effect in changing the public’s acceptance of evolution.  It stays at about 40-50%, no matter what. Yes, court cases are won, but minds don’t seem to be changed.  I have pondered this long and hard, and have concluded that these figures won’t budge much until the United States becomes, over what will be a long period, a more secular nation: much like the countries of western Europe.

What should I have written, according to Padian?  That “truth” is philosophical, not objective, and that we should recognize and respect the philosophical “truths” of the faithful:

Creationists—people who deny evolution because it conflicts with their religious precepts—often tell us that whether we accept a naturalistic or a supernatural explanation of the world around us is a philosophical choice: a belief. They’re not wrong. That first decision—what kind of “knowledge” is going to be privileged in your mind—is ultimately a question of belief, a leap of faith, a decision about truth, if you care to use the term at all. . . . .

. . . Coyne does a very good job in this book of presenting the actual evidence for evolution. He is less complete on the philosophy and methods that underlie science, particularly in specific disciplines. And one would have liked to see more
about dealing with people who are apprehensive about the “truth” of evolution.

But this is something I’m incapable of doing.  I can’t tell people that faith and science are compatible, because I don’t believe it, and I don’t want to be a hypocrite.  Nor do I want to pander to religion.  And I’m not so sure that it is a “philosophical” choice” or a “belief” “to “accept a naturalistic versus supernaturalistic explanation of the world around us.”  Is it a philosophical choice to take antibiotics when you have an infection, rather than calling on a shaman or Christian Scientist?  (I bet you do take antibiotics, Kevin–is that a philosophical choice?)  And is it a “philosophical choice” to say that AIDS results from drug-taking and a dissipated lifestyle rather than from a virus?  Is it a “philosophical choice” to believe that the world is 6,000 rather than 4.6 billion years old?  Well, if these are philosophical choices, one of them works and the other one doesn’t.

The postmodernist claim that accepting scientific rather than spiritual truths is simply a matter of taste is a claim of breathtaking inanity.  Science helps us understand the world — it works.  Religion can soothe us, but I don’t see it coughing up equivalent truths, nor have I heard a convincing argument for what “truths” faith presents to us, as opposed to those revealed by secular reason alone.  Somehow I can’t believe that in his heart Padian accepts this philosophical equivalence, but maybe I’m wrong.  What exactly is his position vis-a-vis the supernatural? Can cancer be cured by both shamans and chemotherapy? Is he perhaps saying that books defending evolution should go easy on those religious views from which he himself isn’t fully emancipated?

Finally, Padian makes the following statement:

All these are worthy and sensible statements. And yet Coyne begins his last chapter with the statement of an audience member to him after his public lecture: “I found your evidence for evolution very convincing—but I still don’t believe it.” Well, nothing says that our job is to convince people of the “truth” of evolution—I don’t think it’s my job—but we would like people to understand it.

This is a remarkable admission. Does it mean that The National Center for Science Education doesn’t care if Americans accept evolution?  All that money and work, just so people can understand a theory they reject?

Outcome in Texas: Mixed but not that great. Lunacy spreads to Florida

March 28, 2009 • 6:07 am

The school board hearings have ended in Texas, and the outcome is mixed. In other words, we’ll all have to keep watching and fighting the benighted hordes who keep trying to insert scripture into the school curriculum. According to Gordy Slack’s report over at Salon, the motion to include teaching about the “strengths and weaknesses” of science (read: evolution) was rejected by an 8-7 vote, but Don McLeroy (the creationist head of the board) and his minions retreated, dug in, and won some stuff by proposing a variety of amendments:

Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of science education in the public schools, says that once McLeroy and his allies failed to pass the “strengths and weakness” language, “they had a fallback position, which was to continue amending the standards to achieve through the back door what they couldn’t achieve upfront.”

And they succeeded. Casey Luskin, a Discovery Institute lawyer, and its guy on the Austin scene, was psyched by the outcome. “These are the strongest standards in the country now,” he says. “The language adapted requires students to have critical thinking about all of science, including evolution, and it urges them to look at all sides of the issue.”

Here is what they voted in:

1). A requirement that students “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data on sudden appearance and stasis and the sequential groups in the fossil record.” In other words, McLeroy succeeded in getting his “stasis is God” position officially adopted (see yesterday’s post).

2). A requirement that teachers and textbooks compel students to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanation concerning the complexity of the cell.” This is, as we all know, part of the intelligent design claim that cells are too complex to have evolved.

Now how in the world are public school students going to meet these requirements without having to be taught intelligent-design/creationist positions? I can see it now: textbooks will have to say, “Some scientists think that cells are too complex to have evolved by natural selection,” and “Some scientists think that the Cambrian Explosion and the existence of living fossils implies that A Great Designer created the world in an instant, calling all species into being.”

What really worries me is that textbook publishers are going to have to include nonsense like this to satisfy the Texas standards. I have been criticized for using the Holocaust analogy, but I think it’s an apt one: imagine a history class (which, after all, depends on assertions of empirical fact) being subject to the same standards. After reading about the Holocaust, students are then given the disclaimer, “Some people think that the Holocaust never happened, and that this story was fabricated by the Jews out of self-pity.” That’s what the Texas shenanigans really amount to. Remember, the Wedge Document of intelligent design is aimed not just at science, but at expelling ALL materialistic ways of investigating nature from the schools.

We’re in trouble.

And down in Florida, Tampa Bay Online reports that creationists have filed another bill in the state senate requiring “A thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution.” (Thanks to PZ over at Pharyngula for this link.)

NOTE:  Florida Citizens for Science says that this bill is dead for the year.  But given what has happened down there, I suspect that it– or something like it– will be back soon.

Clearly, this is the next-generation strategy of creationists. It has the merit of not looking explicitly religious, although of course its motivation is precisely that. It’s a clever strategy. Let’s see how the courts deal with it.

More on Texas: Good guys winning, but it’s dicey

March 27, 2009 • 5:41 am

According to the Dallas News and the NCSE report (and noted by Genie Scott yesterday), the Texas Board of Education voted down (by voting a tie) for the “strengths and weaknesses” clause discussed here yesterday:

Against the proposal were three other Republicans and four Democrats.” A final vote is expected on March 27, 2009, but the outcome is not likely to change. It remains to be seen whether the board will vote to rescind the flawed amendments undermining the teaching of evolution proposed at the board’s January 2009 meeting.

But the fight isn’t over yet: Board member Barbara Cargill is trying to slip in an amendment requiring children to learn that “there are different estimates for the age of the universe”!!! We all know what that means: she doesn’t mean 13.7 plus or minus .2 billion years, she means 6,000 to 13.7 billion years. In other words, this gives wiggle-room for the ridiculous Biblically based estimate of 6000 to 10000 years. Here’s the report from the live blog on the meeting by Steve Schafersman:

I can’t get a copy of these amendments right now. However, the first one she wants is to strike the current standard for the Big Bang and remove the 14 billion year old age from it. She says she wants teachers to tell students that there are different estimates for the age of the universe. What would these be? 13.7 billion years and 10,000 years? She is promoting a Young Earth Creationist view, of course. Many times in the past the SBOE has changed standards and textbook content that mention millions and billions of years to simply “a long time ago.”

Cargill wants to substitute a standard from Astronomy that simply adds, “and current theories of the evolution of the universe including estimates for the age of the universe” to the Big Bang standard 4A. This Astronomy standard is poor in several ways: it is vague, it is non-specific, there is only one current theory for the origin of the universe, and there is currently a well-established consensus that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, so there are not multiple “estimates.” It is sad that the astronomy teachers came up with such an incompetent standard, and now it is being inflicted on ESS. Cargill’s amendment that strips a very ancient number of years and replaces it with vague “estimates” that are equivocal about the age of the universe.

While speaking for her amendment, Cargill says she “has no intention of opening the door to teaching Creationist ideas about the age of the universe.” Yeah, right. Next, she made a Freudian slip and her secret intentions were revealed. She said “universal common design” when she meant to say “universal common descent.” Her unfortunate amendment passes by a vote of 11-3, with only Knight, Miller, and Nunez voting no. So the SBOE holds true to its wonderful tradition of stripping any date older than 10,000 years from science standards!

Stay tuned. In the meantime, some video clips from the controversy. First, the good guys (gals): Genie Scott testifying about the S&W clause the day before yesterday:

Second, the benighted dentist and chairman of the Texas Board of Education (it makes me cringe to write that), Don McLeroy, reading from Stephen Jay Gould in an attempt to prove that “stasis is God”.  I only wish Steve were still alive to respond to this — he would crush McLeroy like a bug.

Hijinks in Texas!

March 26, 2009 • 1:33 pm

Most of you know that there’s a crucial battle going on in Texas about science education in the public schools.  The school board (which is loaded with social conservatives and at least three unashamed creationists) and the state legislature are trying to water down the teaching of evolution by:

1.  Demanding that teachers expose students to the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories (as we all know, this is a transparent attempt to drag in the discredited creationist/intelligent design criticisms of evolution),

2.  Teaching about “the insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of cells.” (Lord have mercy–this is right out of the Behe handbook!), and

3. Teaching about “the insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record”  (see below).

It’s hard to believe this is really going on in modern America, but it is.  The Guardian asked me to write an op-ed piece about the issues, which I have you can find here.  An excerpt:

Creationism in the classroom

Evolution is a scientific fact – except, perhaps, in Texas, where the school board is trying to cast doubt on it

Imagine that your state legislature has decided to revamp the way that health and medicine are taught in public schools. To do this, they must tackle the “germ theory of disease“, the idea that infectious disease is caused by microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria. The legislature, noting that this idea has many vocal opponents, declares that it is “only a theory”. Many people, for instance, think that Aids has nothing to do with viruses, but is the byproduct of a dissipated life. Christian Scientists believe that disease results from sin and ignorance, spiritual healers implicate disturbed auras and shamans cite demonic possession.

In light of this “controversy”, the legislature sets up a school board that includes not only doctors, but also shamans, faith healers and, for good measure a few “psychic surgeons” who pretend to extract veal cutlets from patients’ intact bodies. Taking account of these diverse views, the board recommends that from now on all teaching of modern medicine must be accompanied by a discussion of its weaknesses, including the “evidence” that Aids results from drug use and malnutrition, as well as from impure thoughts and evil spirits. And our failure to understand the complexities of chronic fatigue syndrome might be seen as reflecting its causation by an inscrutable and supernatural designer.

You would rightly be furious if all this happened. After all, the “germ theory” of disease is more than just a theory – it’s a fact. Like all scientific theories, it might be wrong, but in this case that chance is roughly zero. That is because the germ theory works. Antibiotic and antiviral drugs really do cure diseases, while spiritual healing does not. Only an idiot, you’d say, would try to tamper with medical education in this way.

But this is precisely what is happening in Texas with respect to another well-established theory of biology: evolution. . . .

. . . What’s next? Since there are many who deny the Holocaust, can we expect legislation requiring history classes to discuss the “strengths and weaknesses” of the idea that Nazis persecuted Jews? Should we teach our children astrology in their psychology classes as an alternative theory of human behaviour? And, given the number of shamans in the world, shouldn’t their views be represented in medical schools?

Our children will face enormous challenges when they grow up: global warming, depletion of fossil fuels, overpopulation, epidemic disease. There is no better way to prepare their generation than to teach them how to distinguish fact from mythology, and to encourage them to have good reasons for what they believe.

How sad that in the 21st century the Texas legislature proposes the exact opposite, indoctrinating our children with false ideas based squarely on religious dogma. Can’t we just let our kids learn real science?

One of the most bizarre aspects of this whole mess is that the head of the Texas Board of Education, appointed by the governor, is one Don McLeroy, a young-earth creationist whose day job is dentistry. McLeroy is also a born-again Christian and a Sunday school teacher.  (For the usual pungent comment on this guy, see P. Z. Myers’s take on Pharyngula.)    Yesterday, McLeroy wrote a bizarre Op-Ed piece in the Austin Statesman making his case for teaching the “problems” with evolution.  It seems to boil down to– of all things– stasis in the fossil record:

Stephen Jay Gould stated: “The great majority of species do not show any appreciable evolutionary change at all. [This is called ‘stasis.’] These species appear … without obvious ancestors in the underlying beds, are stable once established and disappear higher up without leaving any descendants.”

“…but stasis is data…”

Once we have our observations, we can make a hypothesis. The controversial evolution hypothesis is that all life is descended from a common ancestor by unguided natural processes. How well does this hypothesis explain the data? A new curriculum standard asks Texas students to look into this question. It states: “The student is expected to analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record.” It should not raise any objections from those who say evolution has no weaknesses; they claim it is unquestionably true.

And the standard is not religious but does raise a problem for the evolution hypothesis in that stasis is the opposite of evolution, and “stasis is data.”

This is sheer sophistry based on an out-of-context quotation.  Gould, of course, was a firm believer in evolution, something that Dr. McLeroy conveniently forgets to mention.  And Gould never saw punctuated equilibrium as incompatible with neoDarwinism. He raged at creationists who used punctuated equilibrium to their advantage.   And you don’t have to be an Einstein to realize that the theory of evolution does not demand that every species must evolve all of the time!  Further, how does McLeroy deal with the many examples of real transitional fossils, and the many cases of palpable evolutionary change within fossil lineages (many described in WEIT)?  He doesn’t tell us.

This would all be comical if it didn’t have enormous repercussions for public education in this country.  Texas is of course one of the nation’s biggest consumers of public-school textbooks, and, to maximize sales,  publishers tend to bring their texts in line with the strictest state requirements.  This means that what happens in Texas may affect science education throughout the country.  And so the circus continues.

Fortunately, the National Center for Science Education is down in Texas in force, fighting hard for evolution at the school board hearings.  I have just heard from Genie Scott, and I hope she won’t mind if I quote a bit of her on-the-spot report.   It looks as if things are going fairly well:

But the good news is that 45 minutes ago +/-, an amendment to reinsert S&W [“strengths and weaknesses] failed on a tie 7:7 vote. One of the moderates is away taking care of a sick husband, so we don’t have a majority. But the moderates hung in there, and there was not a majority voting for the restoration of the old language.

We have several bad amendments to go, but that is the truly big victory that if we had lost, we would have been in very bad shape. But other bad stuff needs to go.

If anybody can get rid of the other “bad stuff,” it’s Genie & Co.  Keep your fingers crossed!

WEIT reviewed in Christian Science Monitor and Nature

March 16, 2009 • 1:39 pm

This past week two reviews of WEIT have appeared, one in the Christian Science Monitor, which includes an attached podcast (click under the cover icon), and one by Eugenie Scott in the scientific journal Nature. Both are pretty positive, I think, though, that the Nature review is quite tepid. I suspect that one reason for this is that I have angered the National Center for Science Education (Genie Scott is its executive director) by claiming that science and faith are largely incompatible. The purported compatibility of these areas is a keystone of the NCSE’s strategy for selling evolution in the public schools, and the organization has a history of being diffident towards scientists who question such religious accommodationism, either in principle or as a tactic for getting evolution into the schools. The NCSE even has a “faith project” for demonstrating that faith and religion are compatible. My own view is that an organization designed to defend the teaching evolution should do just that and only that, and should stay away from religion completely.

There is one issue Genie Scott brings up that I want to respond to. She says this in her review:

A book for the public must simplify, but there lurks the possibility of subsequent distortion. Many people misunderstand evolution as a great chain in which simple forms evolve into more complex ones, rather than the branching and extinction of lineages. Amphibians did not evolve into reptiles, and reptiles did not evolve into mammals and birds. Rather, a population of early tetrapods — four-legged vertebrates — gave rise to a diverse group of organisms that included ancestors of modern frogs and salamanders, and to a separate branch characterized by having an amniotic egg. A primitive amniote gave rise to reptiles and birds on one branch, and mammals on another. Given that the branch leading to mammals preceded that leading to reptiles, it is misleading for Coyne to use the outmoded term ‘mammal-like reptiles’ instead of ‘non-mammalian synapsids’.

Well, this is a dispute about whether the common ancestor of mammals and reptiles could be considered a reptile, which many cladists don’t since the group “reptiles” must include ALL the descendants of a common ancestor. But if the common ancestor has many diagnostic characters of a reptile, then why not call it one? If you followed Scott’s line of reasoning, you could not say that the ancestor of modern amphibians was a fish, since the category “fish” must include the ancestral fish and ALL of its descendants. But everybody calls early lobe-finned fish “fish.” This criticism, I think, is pretty trivial.