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

A bit more about catering to the faithful

March 25, 2009 • 11:18 am

While going through the Berkeley website Understanding Science (discussed yesterday), I found something more of interest.  It’s a page called “Astrology: Is it Scientific?”, which sets out a checklist of questions that the student should answer to see if astrology is indeed a science.  Here’s part of the checklist:

Here we’ll use the Science Checklist to evaluate one way in which astrology is commonly used. See if you think it qualifies as scientific!

Focuses on the natural world?
Astrology’s basic premise is that heavenly bodies — the sun, moon, planets, and constellations — have influence over or are correlated with earthly events.

Aims to explain the natural world?
Astrology uses a set of rules about the relative positions and movements of heavenly bodies to generate predictions and explanations for events on Earth and human personality traits. For example, some forms of astrology predict that a person born just after the spring equinox is particularly likely to become an entrepreneur.
Uses testable ideas?
Some expectations generated by astrology are so general that any outcome could be interpreted as fitting the expectations; if treated this way, astrology is not testable. However, some have used astrology to generate very specific expectations that could be verified against outcomes in the natural world. For example, according to astrology, one’s zodiac sign impacts one’s ability to command respect and authority. Since these traits are important in politics, we might expect that if astrology really explained people’s personalities, scientists would be more likely to have zodiac signs that astrologers describe as “favorable” towards science.1 If used to generate specific expectations like this one, astrological ideas are testable.
Relies on evidence?
In the few cases where astrology has been used to generate testable expectations and the results were examined in a careful study, the evidence did not support the validity of astrological ideas.2 This experience is common in science — scientists often test ideas that turn out to be wrong. However, one of the hallmarks of science is that ideas are modified when warranted by the evidence. Astrology has not changed its ideas in response to contradictory evidence.

The page concludes by saying:

Astrology is not a very scientific way to answer questions. Although astrologers seek to explain the natural world, they don’t usually attempt to critically evaluate whether those explanations are valid — and this is a key part of science. The community of scientists evaluates its ideas against evidence from the natural world and rejects or modifies those ideas when evidence doesn’t support them. Astrologers do not take the same critical perspective on their own astrological ideas.

It seems to me that some of the claims of many faiths are similar to those of astrology–the four ideas given above.  Religion focusses on the natural world (at least some of the time), purports to explain it, uses testable ideas (e.g., efficacy of prayer), and relies on evidence (Scripture, archaeological findings, etc.)  Like astrology, religion fails all of these tests.

I’m not trying to say anything portentous, except that scientists are really keen to denigrate astrology while at the same time bending over backwards to respect religion, even though there is the same amount of evidence supporting each.  This is a point that science writer Natalie Angier makes in her wonderful essay, “My God Problem.”

Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University’s “Ask an Astronomer” Web site. To the query, “Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?” the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, “modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions.” He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of “God intervening every time a measurement occurs” before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn’t—and shouldn’t—”have anything to do with scientific reasoning.”

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. “No, astronomers do not believe in astrology,” snarls Dave Kornreich. “It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science “one does not need a reason not to believe in something.” Skepticism is “the default position” and “one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”

In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them, the poor gullible gits; while for the multitudes who believe that, in one way or another, a divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton, there is no demand for evidence, no skepticism to surmount, no need to worry.

A couple more points of clarification about the last post:

1.  I am by no means denigrating the worthwhile achievements of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education in pushing back the tide of creationism.  Their effects (especially the NCSE’s) in court cases and school-board hearings have had a real and positive effect on keeping evolution in the schools.  My beef is that these effects are temporary ones.  Creationism is like herpes: it keeps coming back again and again until you extirpate the root cause.  The court cases and school board hearings are outbreaks of herpes, which are stanched by our colleagues.  But until the underlying virus is extirpated (that is, the kind of faith that is incompatible with evolution), the outbreaks will continue to occur.

2.  The NAS and NCSE seem to always trot out the “religious scientists” or “scientific theologians” when they need to sell evolution: John Haught, Ken Miller, Michael Ruse, etc.  I would feel better about the whole issue if they’d also trot out Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the many other evolutionists who represent a non-accommodationist point of view.

3.   By saying that we should leave the reconciliation of faith and science to theologians, I am not endorsing the idea that they can or should be reconciled.  Personally, I don’t think they can be. I’m saying only that that reconciliation is not the job of scientists or pro-evolution organizations.

Must we always cater to the faithful when teaching science?

March 24, 2009 • 4:01 pm

As long as I have been a scientist, I have lived with my colleagues’ view that one cannot promote the acceptance of evolution in this country without catering to the faithful. This comes from the idea that many religious people who would otherwise accept evolution won’t do so if they think it undermines their faith, promoting atheism or immoral behavior. Thus various organizations promoting the teaching of evolution, including the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education, have published booklets or websites that explicitly say that faith and science are compatible. In other words, that is their official position. In contrast, the view of many other scientists that faith and science (or reason) are incompatible is ignored or disparaged. As evidence for the compatibility, these organizations incessantly repeat that many scientists are religious and that many of the faithful accept evolution. While this proves compatibility in the trivial sense, it doesn’t show, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, that the two views are philosophically compatible.

As an example of the “official position” of some groups on compatibility, an alert reader sent me the URL of a site at The University of California at Berkeley, Understanding Science 101, that discusses the nature of science and how it’s done. There are a lot of good resources at this site, but perusing it I found, to my dismay, a sub-site that pushes the compatibility between science and faith:

With the loud protests of a small number of religious groups over teaching scientific concepts like evolution and the Big Bang in public schools, and the equally loud proclamations of a few scientists with personal, anti-religious philosophies, it can sometimes seem as though science and religion are at war. News outlets offer plenty of reports of school board meetings, congressional sessions, and Sunday sermons in which scientists and religious leaders launch attacks at one another. But just how representative are such conflicts? Not very. The attention given to such clashes glosses over the far more numerous cases in which science and religion harmoniously, and even synergistically, coexist. In fact, people of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion. Many simply acknowledge that the two institutions deal with different realms of human experience. Science investigates the natural world, while religion deals with the spiritual and supernatural — hence, the two can be complementary. Many religious organizations have issued statements declaring that there need not be any conflict between religious faith and the scientific perspective on evolution.

Francis Collins

Furthermore, contrary to stereotype, one certainly doesn’t have to be an atheist in order to become a scientist. A 2005 survey of scientists at top research universities found that more than 48% had a religious affiliation and more than 75% believe that religions convey important truths.2 Some scientists — like Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and George Coyne, astronomer and priest — have been outspoken about the satisfaction they find in viewing the world through both a scientific lens and one of personal faith.

It seems to me that we can defend evolution without having to cater to the faithful at the same time. Why not just show that evolution is TRUE and its alternatives are not? Why kowtow to those whose beliefs many of us find unpalatable, just to sell our discipline? There are, in fact, two disadvantages to the “cater-to-religion” stance.

1. By trotting out those “religious scientists”, like Ken Miller, or those “scientific theologians,” like John Haught, we are tacitly putting our imprimatur on their beliefs, including beliefs that God acts in the world today (theism), suspending natural laws. For example, I don’t subscribe to Miller’s belief that God acts immanently in the world, perhaps by influencing events on the quantum level, or that God created the laws of physics so that human-containing planets could evolve. I do not agree with John Haught’s theology. I do not consider any faith that touts God’s intervention in the world (even in the past) as compatible with science. Do my colleagues at the NAS or the NCSE disagree?

2. The statement that learning evolution does not influence one’s religious belief is palpably false. There are plenty of statistics that show otherwise, including the negative correlation of scientific achievement with religious belief and the negative correlation among nations in degree of belief in God with degree of acceptance of evolution. All of us know this, but we pretend otherwise. (In my book I note that “enlightened” religion can be compatible with science, but by “englightened” I meant a complete, hands-off deism.) I think it is hypocrisy to pretend that learning evolution will not affect either the nature or degree of one’s faith. It doesn’t always, but it does more often than we admit, and there are obvious reasons why (I won’t belabor these). I hate to see my colleagues pretending that faith and science live in nonoverlapping magisteria. They know better.

Because of this, I think that organizations promoting the teaching of evolution should do just that, and that alone. Leave religion and its compatibility with faith to the theologians. That’s not our job. Our job is to show that evolution is true and creationism and ID aren’t. End of story.

In 25 years of effort, these organizations don’t seem to have had much effect on influencing public opinion about evolution. I think that this may mean that our nation will have to become a lot less religious before acceptance of evolution increases appreciably.

Darwin Day, Philadelphia. 1. I meet Ken Miller

February 14, 2009 • 6:00 am

Last night’s keynote talk at the University of Pennsylvania’s Darwin Symposium was given by Ken Miller, and had the same title as his book: “Only A Theory, Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul.” Ken is undoubtedly the most tireless and effective opponent of creationism in America, a star witness for the prosecution in the Dover trial, and he also co-wrote our country’s most popular high school biology textbook, so I have always admired him a great deal. But the admiration is not unmixed. Ken is also an observant Catholic as well as an author and cell biologist, and his books, starting with “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientists’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution,” have always tried to alloy religion and science, endorsing the idea that science and faith are compatible.

I have been uncomfortable with this view, and finally criticized it in a book review in The New Republic, “Seeing and Believing.” Miller responded in a piece on We are both ardent defenders of (excuse the term) Darwinism, but definitely part ways when it comes to faith.

So I was quite excited (and a bit nervous) about sharing a platform with Ken. I knew he’d be a good speaker, because I’ve seen his talks on YouTube and, of course, his famous appearances (twice) on The Colbert Report. His evening talk didn’t disappoint. Miller is a lively, humorous, and humane speaker, and develops a great rapport with the audience.

Miller’s talk was a pastiche, covering the Dover Trial, the morphing of creationism into intelligent design, and the evidence for evolution from fossils (Tiktaalik featured prominently) and from the fusion of two chromosomes present in our common ancestor with other apes into the single second chromosome of humans. All good stuff, and extremely enjoyable.

It was in the last ten minutes that Miller took up the issue of evolution and God, and that is where I had to part company with him once again. Over the years Miller has tried several ways to reconcile these two areas, including positing God’s direct intrustion into evolution (in Finding Darwin’s God), and suggesting that the laws of physics were devised by God (in Only A Theory). Miller has also said he is a theist, so that God intrudes directly in the real world.

This time he used a different angle, saying that there was indeed design in nature, but it was not the same kind of God-mandated design proposed by ID-creationists. Rather, it was “design” wrought by natural selection. He hammered home this idea again and again, and I began to realize that a kind of subliminal inculcation of the audience was going on. After all, natural selection does not produce “design”—it produces apparent design. Why not just say that? It was the use of the un-adjectivized “design” that seemed to be sneaking God’s hand into Miller’s view. (He also stated unequivocally his certainty that evolution would yield creatures with high, human-like intelligence if the process were to begin all over again, a view that I criticize in “Seeing and Believing.”)

It seemed to me, and several others with whom I spoke, that Miller was trying to get some teleology into nature by using the term “design”. My friend Rick Grosberg opined that the term “design” was a semantic “wedge” that Miller was using to make biologists more open to the idea that God might have played a role in evolution. Regardless, this part of the talk made me quite uncomfortable. I actually Googled “design” during this part of the talk and found the following definition in Merriam-Webster’s website:

1de·sign           Listen to the pronunciation of 1design
1 a: a particular purpose held in view by an individual or group : he has ambitious designs for his son b: deliberate purposive planning <more by accident than design 2: a mental project or scheme in which means to an end are laid down. 3 a: a deliberate undercover project or scheme : plot b plural : aggressive or evil intent —used with on or against he has designs on the money. 4: a preliminary sketch or outline showing the main features of something to be executed the design for the new stadium. 5 a: an underlying scheme that governs functioning, developing, or unfolding : pattern , motif the general design of the epic. b: a plan or protocol for carrying out or accomplishing something (as a scientific experiment) ; also : the process of preparing this6: the arrangement of elements or details in a product or work of art 7: a decorative pattern a floral design.

All of these definitions have one thing in common: purpose and intent. To say that natural selection produces “design” is in effect saying that it yields something that is planned: that there is some foresight in the process. Why would anybody use such a word? I’ve heard evolutionists use “apparent design” or “the appearance of design” as results of selection, but never “design” by itself. If this is not intentional teleology, I’d urge Miller to stop saying this, as it clearly plays into peoples’ idea that there is some intentional design in evolution.

At any rate, after dinner I met Ken and we chatted about things. The first thing he said to me was that one of his friends advised him to break a beer bottle over my head, which was more than a little intimidating when imparted to me by a guy well over six feet tall looking down on my puny five-foot-eight self! But we discussed our differences, tried to iron out misunderstandings on both of our parts, and amiably shook hands. We will never agree on the science-versus-faith thing, but on most issues we are on the same side, and I admire him in many ways. I was glad that we met.

In Philly for Darwin Day

February 11, 2009 • 6:59 pm

I haven’t been in Philadelphia since 1989, when the Philadelphia Academy had its speciation symposium (the one that produced the Otte & Endler volume), but I’m back again for Darwin Day–or rather two days. The University of Pennsylvania is presenting a symposium on Darwin’s Legacy in 21st Century Biology (program here), held at the Harrison Auditorium at the Penn Museum.

A lot of diverse talks on tap. Tomorrow, after some introductory remarks by the redoubtable Warren Ewens, I’ll be talking about what we’ve learned about speciation since The Origin of Species. Then an old friend, Deborah Charlesworth, on Darwin and The Importance of Plant Mating Systems in Evolutionary Biology, another old friend, Rick Grosberg, on Does Life Evolve Differently in the Seas?, Dorothy Cheney on The Evolution of Our Social Minds, John Doebley on Evolution Under Domestication, and Ottoline Leyser on Auxin: The Molecular Behind the Power. The evening’s talk will be my evolutionary friend and religious nemesis, Ken Miller, giving the keynote address with the same title as his book, “Only a Theory? Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul”. Concluding remarks by yet another old friend, Paul Sniegowski. Report on first day’s talk follows tomorrow.

This evening Grosberg and I went in search of The Great Philadelphia Pork Sandwich (two Jewish boys seeking pork!), but failed, and had to be satisfied with another local non-kosher delicacy, the cheesesteak. Washed down with a Yuengling Porter, it was an epicurean delight.


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