Andrew Brown makes another dumb argument for accommodationism

June 20, 2009 • 4:19 pm

Apparently, accommodationist-in-chief Andrew Brown has his own blog, and is now using it to make arguments even dumber than those appearing in his recent Guardian piece. To wit: we athiests should be very careful about our tactics. According to Brown, if we persist in equating acceptance of evolution with atheism, then we’ll create a situation in which evolution can no longer be taught in the classroom. After all, teachng atheism in the classroom is tantamount to a denigration of religion, which is illegal in American public schools:

I don’t want here to get into a discussion about whether this [whether atheists embrace the “scientific worldview” more fully than believers can] is true. Christianity at least does seem to require the acceptance of at least one miracle as the most important thing that ever happened in the universe and it’s certainly reasonable for a scientist to reject this. In any case, it’s all part of a much bigger myth, which does far more than science can to explain the world: that of the triumph of reason, truth, and so forth over ignorance, superstition and stupidity. Such myths are not dislodged by argument.

Already, I can hear the voices saying not all in the tones of E. L. “But where’s the evidence?” “How can a scientist believe in miracles?” and so on. But it is precisely at this point, which the new atheists consider their strongest and most unanswerable, that Ruse’s argument takes effect. Suppose we concede that the new atheists are right, and no true, honest scientist could be anything other than an atheist. If that is true, the teaching of science itself becomes unconstitutional. For it is every bit as illegal to promote atheism in American public schools as it is to promote religion. Again, there are recent judgements from the heart of the culture wars to make this entirely clear. . .

But the American courts have never been asked to decide whether science is the negation of religion: in fact the defenders of evolution and of science teaching in schools have gone to great lengths to ensure that the question was not asked. The “accommodationists” whom Coyne so despises, have been brought out in all the court cases so far to say that that evolution and Christianity, science and religion, are perfectly compatible. If the courts were asked to decide whether not whether ID was a religious doctrine, but whether evolution was a necessarily atheist one, and if they decided that Jerry Coyne and PZ and Dawkins and all the rest are right, then science teaching would become unconstitutional in American public schools. They would, in short, have fucked themselves.

It’s at times like this when I think I’ve entered Cloud Cuckoo Land. Does anybody seriously think that teaching evolution is a deliberate promotion of atheism? If so, I haven’t met any of them, and that includes P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins. (Let me take that back — I’ve met two: Brown and his compadre Michael Ruse. Ruse once wrote that I should give my NIH grant back to the government because my research involves the unconstitutional promotion of atheism!)

Actually, we teach evolution because it’s a wonderful subject, explains a lot about the world, and happens to be true. And yes, it’s likely that teaching evolution probably promotes a critical examination of religious beliefs that may lead to rejecting faith. But teaching geology, physics, or astronomy does that, too. In fact, education in general leads to the rejection of faith. (Statistics show that the more education one has, the less likely one is to be religious.) Should we then worry about teaching physics, astronomy, or indeed, allowing people access to higher education, because those “promote” atheism? Should we constantly be looking over our shoulders because the courts may catch onto this? Well, American courts may be dumb, but even our benighted Supreme Court is more rational than Mr. Brown.

What Brown is really saying is that we should be worried about promoting rational values of any type, or any notion that beliefs require evidence. He doesn’t seem to realize the difference between cramming atheism down people’s throats and teaching them to think, which may have the ancillary effect of eroding faith.

Clearly, both Ruse and Brown are willing to use any rhetorical tactic to decry atheism, no matter how mush-brained it is. As I said in my last post about the Ruse/Brown twins, this smacks of desperation. Rather than engage the serious arguments of scientist-atheists, they talk about our “uncivil” tone — and now about the horrible unforseen consequences of our supposed equation of evolution with atheism. I repeat, so that Brown can get it: teaching evolution is NOT promoting atheism, it’s promoting a scientific truth. And the promotion of any scientific truth may have the ancillary effect of dispelling faith. This is almost inevitable, for the metier of science — rationality and dependence on evidence — is in absolute and irreconcilable conflict with the with the metier of faith: superstition and dependence on revelation. Too bad.

p.s. I look forward some day to Mr. Brown dropping the attacks on atheists and discussing, on their own merits, the assertions of the faithful. Does he think Jesus was the Son of God, that God answers prayers, and that there is an afterlife?


UPDATE:  Over on Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers has posted his reaction to Andrew Brown’s piece, “In which Andrew Brown gets everything wrong.”

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!