Accommodationism: onward and downward

June 28, 2009 • 7:03 am

Well, God may have rested on Sundays, but atheists don’t. A mini-kerfuffle has begun with yesterday’s posting of science postdoc John Wilkins at his website Evolving Thoughts.  Wilkins listed six “points” for discussion, these being reasons why accommodationism is the proper strategy for addressing the faith/science dichotomy.  They are the usual mix of I-am-a-nice-guyness, religion-and-science-both-find-truth-ness, and the-atheists-are-so-uncivil-ness.

Over at Pharyngula, P. Z. Myers throws cold water on the feebly smoking embers of  Wilkins’s arguments, writing with his usual pungency:  “I may not be perfectly rational, but my magic invisible monkeys are!” He takes Wilkins down point by point; here are my two favorites (Wilkins’s arguments in bold, P.Z.’s responses in plain type):

2. The usual excuse that making nice with religion is strategic, coupled with the claim that religion is always going to be around. Other people can be strategic. Scientists just ought to be honest. As for the tired argument that religion will always be around — no. Some of us have shed the old myths. More will follow. I don’t have any problem seeing a coming future where religious belief is an irrelevant minority position. Of course, if you start out with a defeatist attitude, it becomes a bit more difficult.

Frankly, this is one of the more ludicrous arguments made by accommodationists. If carried to its logical conclusion, it would imply that we shouldn’t work to change any long-standing human behavior for, after all, it’s always been with us, so we should just learn to deal with it.  Had the accommodationists been around at the turn of the last century, they might have counseled us to forget trying to get equal rights for minorities and women: people have always discriminated, and we can’t do anything about it.  (And don’t tell me that this comparison is invidious because faith is much nicer than discrimination, because that’s not relevant. Anyway, faith continues to cause dissent, fighting, and murder throughout the world, not to mention the more passive forms of destruction like fighting against condoms in HIV-plagued countries.)

At any rate, we have ample evidence that societies can indeed become less religious: it’s happened over and over again in Europe.  Sweden and Denmark are now virtually atheistic countries, but they didn’t used to be.  France and Germany are on the way.  Don’t tell us that religion will always be with us.  I have faith — if that’s the right word! — that some day grownups will put away their childish faiths.   A corollary to the faith-will-always-be-with-us view is that atheists need to show the faithful how they can survive without religion. Well, that’s really not our responsibility, but clearly people can have full and meaningful lives without religion. See Ophelia Benson on this issue over at the Guardian website Comments are Free.

5. Religion has always been wrong about the natural world, but religion is seeking knowledge of something different. Again, first part fine, second part weird. What knowledge? Can you even call it “knowledge” if it’s nothing that anyone can know? Why should we accept any claims by religion?

Indeed.  Some time ago I ran a contest on this site, offering a free autographed book if anybody could come up with a “truth” about the world that was revealed uniquely by faith.  Nobody won — and it wasn’t for lack of trying!  The “truths” that are supposedly found by faith turn out to be nothing more than moral dictums like the Golden Rule.  This is not, of course,  a truth, but a guide to behavior (and rules like this come from secular ethics as well).  Religion is neither constructed in a way to promote the discovery of truth, nor is particularly good at finding it (think of the “truths” of Adam and Eve, the great flood, and the 6,000-year-old universe). And for every Golden Rule, there’s a “truth” like “adulterers should be stoned to death.” Finally, most of the “truths” of different religions are in irreconcilable conflict with one another.  Was Jesus the son of God? Christians adamantly agree; Muslims think that anyone holding that belief is doomed to eternal torment. Let me say it again:  asserting that science and faith are merely different ways of finding “truth” debases our very notion of what “truth” is.

In their more lucid moments, accommodationists recognize this, but you never see them attacking the common claim (made by, among others, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and others) that science and religion are merely different ways of seeking truth.

On his website Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, philosopher Russell Blackford has two relevant posts.  The first is an analysis of Chris Mooney’s position on the faith/science dichotomy.

Chris Mooney is an atheist. Indeed, he is a philosophical naturalist – it’s difficult to be sure what this really means, but for present purposes the point is that Mooney does not believe in the existence of any spooky beings such as gods, ghosts, ancestor spirits, angels, demons, and so on. He is not just a methodological naturalist who, as a matter of policy or practice, avoids explaining the world’s phenomena in terms of the existence of spooky beings. He actually denies that these beings exist. He takes this position because he sees no evidence for the existence of such beings and because the claims made by people who claim to encounter them are so contradictory. It is more rational to explain the experiences of these people by means of some kind of psychological thesis, he thinks, than to think that the experiences are veridical . .

Chris Mooney is an atheist, taking – as far as I can work out – the position described in my first paragraph above. But he thinks it’s bad form for atheists to spell out their positions or to criticise religion in public. Instead of explaining and defending his own substantive position in a consolidated way, he prefers to write posts in which he tells other atheists to shut up . . .

Nonetheless, he calls for other atheists to shut up, in the sense that calls for them to engage in self-censorship, to stop offending and scaring the religious. He seems to imagine that this is a moderate position to take, and indeed it is more moderate (or less radical) than if he took the position of attempting to stop atheist discourse by an exercise of state power. However, this is not a moderate position. Even if he insisted on strict civility, that would not be a moderate position: we do not have to engage in strict civility when we criticise economic theories, political ideologies, or any other non-religious ideas – so why are religious ones sui generis in this regard? There is a long tradition, going back beyond Voltaire, of subjecting religious ideas to satire and ridicule. Satire and ridicule are often needed to convey what is truly absurd about an idea to people who may begin with different premises and are almost immune to argument. . .

I’ve given up on trying to explain this to Mooney. He seems to be dogmatically convinced that his position is the moderate one. Anyone who thinks that religious ideas merit scrutiny and, where we disagree with them, even criticism (let alone satire or ridicule) is taking an extreme position in Mooney’s judgment.

Yes, that’s right.  Although Mooney has repeatedly claimed that he’s not telling any atheist to shut up, I can’t see that he’s saying anything else.  As far as I can make out, Mooney wants the atheists who dislike faith/science accommodationism to simply keep quiet about it, as it’s strategically bad. If he is saying something else, what is it?

In another post, Blackford, who has always been properly concerned with definitions, goes after Wilkins’s characterization of “accommodationism” and “anti-accommodationism,” and suggests definitions that seem reasonable, at least to me.

Anti-accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is compatible with religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.

Accommodationists, on the other hand, hold that even if science and religion are incompatible, it is politically expedient to deny this incompatibility when defending science. Moreover, for reasons of political expediency, no one should bring up the incompatibility even while doing things other than defending science.

And then Blackford notes that although Chris Mooney and others deny that they were practicing a form of intellectual censorship, they really were:

John laments that the debate got nasty very quickly, but he blames this on the so-called exclusivists. Again, I just can’t see it. The recent phase of the debate began when Jerry Coyne wrote a civil, substantial, and very thoughtful review of books by Karl W. Giberson and Kenneth R. Miller in The New Republic. Jerry has also criticised science organisations for at least hinting at the compatibility of science of religion (John agrees with Jerry on this point; i.e. John agrees that science organisations should not do this).

For his pains, Jerry was attacked very trenchantly by Chris Mooney. Worse, Barbara Forrest said that Coyne should shut up. She said that “secularists should not alienate religious moderates” and gave Coyne’s book review as an example of alienating the these people. If that is not telling someone to shut up, I don’t know what is. Chris Mooney expressed full agreement with Forrest (as he represented her – I’m relying on his representation of what she said).

If Forrest said what she is represented as saying, then she believes that Coyne should not have reviewed the books by Giberson and Miller the way he did. Only a completely favourable review would have been appropriate, and Coyne should have self-censored. If that is so, I could not have written my review of Francisco Ayala’s recent book in the way I did in Cosmos magazine last year. I should have censored myself. We would all have to censor ourselves, and not express reservations, whenever reviewing a book by what Forrest calls a religious moderate. Surely it is not unreasonable when we anti-accommodationists point out the absurdity of such a position.

Mooney also headed his post in a way that suggested that the people who thus “alienate” the faithful are not civil, though he later disclaimed the implication that Jerry Coyne had been uncivil in his review. But the clear implication was that Coyne’s review was an example of incivility (and it also follows that my review of Ayala’s book would be such an example).

I have to agree here (surprise!).  What is Mooney asking me to do?  I have tried long and hard to figure it out, but have failed.  If it’s something other than keeping my mouth shut about the irreconciliability of science and faith, I’d like to hear it. I can’t engage in debate when I don’t know what the other side is saying.

(n.b.  Chris Mooney thinks that Wilkins’s post is “brilliant”)

Brown + Ruse vs. Myers: Are atheists responsible for creationism?

June 18, 2009 • 6:47 am

I swear, sometimes I think that pro-evolution accommodationists see evolutionists as a bigger enemy than are creationists.  This became clear to me earlier this week, when I received a nasty, chest-thumping email from philosopher Michael Ruse, accusing me of two things:

1.  Since I was not a philosopher, I had no credentials to pronounce on issues of philosophy, religion and theology.  You know what I think of this claim.

2.  My “anti-religion” activities are inimical to the cause of promoting evolutionary biology.  You know what I think about this as well: religion is really the root cause of creationism, which won’t dissipate until we loosen the grip of faith on America.

I’ll quote just two sentences from Ruse’s email: “But as it is, we are in a battle in America for the scientific soul of its children.  I don’t know who does more damage, you and your kind or Phillip Johnson and his kind.  I really don’t.”

This made me laugh.  Ruse is the Discovery Institute’s favorite philosopher, a guy who can always be counted on to stroke IDers and say, “Yes, yes, you’ve really been misunderstood. I understand.  It’s those nasty atheists who are really the ones cooking up trouble.”  Ruse edited a book with ID prima donna William Dembski, and has posted on the Discovery Institute website.  Fortunately, most philosophers and evolutionists don’t take Ruse too seriously. He is constantly coddling the faithful to grotesque extents, even going so far, in his book Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?, to float the idea of an intergalactic Jesus who could carry the message of salvation between every planet on which life evolved. (See my review of this execrable tome here.)

Ruse still likes to make trouble, though.  His latest shenanigan is a collaborative posting with Andrew Brown (on Brown’s column) at the Guardian website (I swear, the Guardian has published three pro-religion, anti-atheist pieces in the past three days. What’s with them?). The post is absolutely unbelievable in its hauteur — and stupidity.

Ruse reports that he visited Kentucky’s Creation Museum, where he had an epiphany.  He suddenly realized how misunderstood creationists really are.  We nasty, militant atheists don’t take the trouble to step into the creationists’ shoes and understand where they’re coming from.  From Ruse’s circular email, coopted by Brown:

Just for one moment about half way through the exhibit …I got that Kuhnian flash that it could all be true – it was only a flash (rather like thinking that Freudianism is true or that the Republicans are right on anything whatsoever) but it was interesting nevertheless to get a sense of how much sense this whole display and paradigm can make to people.

His conclusion?

It is silly just to dismiss this stuff as false – that eating turds is good for you is [also] false but generally people don’t want to [whereas] a lot of people believe Creationism so we on the other side need to get a feeling not just for the ideas but for the psychology too.

Really?  Didn’t Ruse himself, along with Kenneth Miller and other theistic or theist-friendly scientists, work together to show that creationism is false in the Dover trial and earlier creationist cases? Isn’t that the way we win in court?  Well, maybe, but Ruse’s beef is that we need to be armchair psychologists as well as scientists, something that the deeply empathetic Ruse has apparently mastered.   Brown concurs:

This is, I think one of the key differences between the new, or militant, atheists and Darwinians like Ruse, just as atheist as they but a lot less anti-religious. The new atheists recoil instinctively from the idea that they should get a feeling for the ideas and psychology of creationists. To them the essential point about believers is that they are stupid and crazy and wrong. So why waste your one life trying to inhabit a mind smaller and more twisted than your own?

(Just for fun, click on Brown’s links above.  They don’t lead you to statements by the “new atheists”!)

Well, I won’t waste time rebutting Brown’s (and Ruse’s) view, for P. Z. Myers has done a splendid job of it over on Pharyngula.  This is one of P.Z.’s all-time classic posts.  Check out the eloquent peroration after he has worked himself up to the heights of indignation:

I sympathize [with creationists] because they are all missing the awesomeness of reality for the awfulness of some narrow Bronze Age theocratic bullshit.

But there are also some for whom I have no sympathy at all.

I have zero sympathy for intelligent people who stand before a grandiose monument to lies, an institution that is anti-scientific, anti-rational, and ultimately anti-human, in a place where children are being actively miseducated, an edifice dedicated to an abiding intellectual evil, and choose to complain about how those ghastly atheists are ruining everything.

Those people can just fuck off.

Well, a mite strong there at the end, but I share P.Z.’s frustration and anger.   Do look at the readers’ responses (my favorites from last night are #25 and #47)  and especially the readers’ responses to the Brown/Ruse post.  Suffice it to say that Brown’s piece did not go down well.

Let me point out Brown’s twisted logic at the end of his piece:

But this constant identification of religion with irrationality, stupidity, cruelty, and ignorance [by the new atheists] is doubly self-defeating. It doesn’t of course work to persuade anyone out of religious belief. But it also promotes some quite grotesque self-deception. For if all the bad traits in human nature are religious, and I am not religious, then I am surely free from all the believers’ faults. Sometimes I think this explains the attractions of that style of atheism.

Oh dear.  Who ever said that all the bad traits in human nature are religious?  Or that atheists are free from faults?  This is just smoke and mirrors, and what it mirrors is Brown and Ruse’s refusal to face the complete lack of evidence for both God and  the epistemic assertions of the faithful. And I’m dead sick of the Brown/Ruse failure to engage the substantive arguments of atheists.  Instead, they repeatedly criticize our tone.  This is a tactic born of desperation. It’s what students of animal behavior call displacement activity: for example, when a pissed off sea gull attacks a leaf.

People like Ruse are afflicted with what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief” — the idea that even if the tenets of religion are wrong, it should still be promoted because it’s good for people and for society.  I find this notion incredibly condescending.  We know from the situation in Europe, where there are a ton of atheists, that people do not need religion to live happy, fulfilled, and moral lives.


UPDATE: Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse describes Ruse’s own sordid history of cozying up to creationists. I had forgotten that Ruse gave a series of public talks with ID bigwig William Dembski, and didn’t know that Ruse described Dembski’s book The Design Inference as “a valuable contribution to science.”  To science??

Shoot me now: Coca Cola is an official partner of the Creation Museum

June 10, 2009 • 11:06 am

Well, I’ve officially sworn off Coca Cola.  Thank to P.Z. on Pharyngula, I’ve discovered that Kentucky’s Creation Museum is  partnered with Coca-Cola. From the museum’s website:

When you visit Noah’s Cafe you will notice that our deck is adorned with colorful bright red umbrellas courtesy of our Coke corporate partners.

The Creation Museum and Coke have been partners officially since April even though Coke has been on site for years.

Some fun facts to know are that Noah’s Café is 2nd in Coke sales for the area, next to the Cincinnati airport. Regular and Diet Coke are the most popular flavors here and guests prefer fountain drinks (60%) to bottled products (40%). Because of their popularity Coke will be installing a second machine to handle the high demand for fountain drinks. As you travel thru the museum experience you will end up in the Palm Plaza.

Here you can rest and enjoy a variety of Gold Peak ice teas as well as speciality drinks like Coke Blak and Godiva Belgian Blends while sitting among the palm trees. At the museum you can feed both mind and body while enjoying a fun day with family and friends.

What people won’t do for a buck! I’ve tried to find an email address for complaining to Coca Cola, but to no avail. Maybe an alert reader can help. In the meantime, make mine Pepsi.


“Ignorance goes better with Coke!”

Child doomed by religious faith

May 9, 2009 • 10:33 am

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

–Steven Weinberg

No conflict between science and religion, you say?  Have a look at this article from the Minneapolist StarTribune.  Thirteen-year old Daniel Hauser, whose parents are Catholics but adhere to the healing practices of “the Nemenhah religious group” (this appears to be a Native American religion that believes in spiritual and herbal healing) decided that he didn’t want treatment for his Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Instead, he wants herbal treatments, and his parents are supporting him.  With chemotherapy, the cure rate is very high; doctors say that without it his survival probability is 5%.

The Hausers are in court:

Colleen and Anthony Hauser are in a legal battle with Brown County, where authorities are accusing the parents of child neglect and endangerment. After Daniel stopped chemotherapy after a single treatment, opting instead for “alternative medicines,” child protection workers went to court requesting custody.

Doctors had recommended six chemo treatments, followed by radiation. Dr. Bruce Bostrom, a pediatric oncologist at Childrens Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota and Daniel’s treating physician, on Friday estimated the risk of death from forgoing treatment at about 95 percent. And he testified that Daniel’s tumor had grown since he underwent one chemotherapy treatment in February.

“What is the ultimate outcome of that process?” Tom Sinas, an attorney for the guardian ad litem, asked of the tumor’s growth.

“Death,” Bostrom replied.

The StarTribune report goes on:

The Hausers declined to speak to reporters after Friday’s court session. But Dan Zwakman, a member of the Nemenhah religious group to which they belong, acted as the family spokesman. He argued that this is a case about religious freedom, noting that the group’s motto is “our religion is our medicine.”

. . . Earlier in the day, Dr. Bruce Bostrom of Children’s Hospitals and Clinics, who first diagnosed the cancer when the boy arrived at a Minneapolis emergency room in January, said Daniel has a 95 percent chance of survival if he receives chemotherapy.

Bostrom also said he believes Daniel does not fully understand his condition.

“I think that he understands that he was sick,” Bostrom testified. “He doesn’t understand that the Hodgkin’s is what’s making him sick, and he was led to believe that the chemotherapy was making him sick, when the exact opposite was true.”

“Religious freedom” is not the freedom to kill a child through withholding science-based medicine.  A 13-year-old child, perhaps brainwashed by his parents, simply cannot make this decision for himself.   This is a life-or-death conflict between science, which can save the child, and religion, which is killing him.   No conflict here? What would Francis Collins say?

(Thanks to P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula for calling this to my attention.  He has a post on this incident.)

P. Z. Myers goes after Templeton

May 8, 2009 • 6:54 am

He must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil.

—Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors

Over at Pharyngula, the indefatigable P. Z. has a thoughtful post about whether scientists should take money from The Templeton Foundation.

. . . How about an institution that hands out large grants with the expectation that the work will help reconcile science and religion, or that it will actually find evidence of a deity?

I’d class that with my third group, the funding source that wants a particular conclusion and can’t be trusted to be scrupulous about following the evidence where ever it may lead. They have an agenda, and it is one of the most corrupting and untrustworthy causes of all, religion. They already know the answer, and they only want to pay for results that can be interpreted to bolster their unsupportable claims. Even if they are not asking that anyone fake evidence, we know that any line of inquiry that leads away from their desired answer will be abandoned, even if it is leading to the right answer. They are antithetical to good science.

Such an organization exists: the Templeton Foundation. And, boy are they loaded, with a massive endowment and the willingness to throw large sums of money around. Scarily huge sums — the kind of money that will tempt even the most principled scientist to compromise a little bit. . .

. . .

Templeton is wily, though. They don’t make suggestions quite that blatant. Instead, they hand out money to scientists who they already know are sympathetic to their aims, who also want to see god in the universe. They also offer grants to scientific conferences, saying in essence, “Please include a discussion of the place of faith in science…you don’t have to agree with it, but you must be aware that it is important to many people,” and organizers take the money. They go to science magazines (like Seed) and buy ad space, just like Bio-Rad or Tanqueray Gin, and push their philosophy as if it belongs there. They blur the edges everywhere they can.

The devil’s seduction techniques are devious and subtle, but there’s no hiding what he ultimately wants. . . .

And, to my delight, P. Z. agrees with my decision to pass up on speaking at The World Science Festival because it is partly supported by Templeton.  Most of my atheistic colleagues are all in favor of speaking at this conference, using it as a platform to denounce accommodationism.  It’s nice to see that somebody at least understands why a scientist wouldn’t want to lend his/her name to a Templeton-funded endeavor.

P. Z. gets a column, and more on what counts as evidence for evolution

April 16, 2009 • 9:54 am

P. Z. Myers, the beloved (and also despiséd) author of the popular science blog Pharyngula, has started producing a column on the Guardian website.  His first column is on asymmetry in animals — in particular the gene nodal, which sets up directional (left-right) asymmetries in animals.  P. Z. points out recent research (reference below) showing that snails, who have directionally coiled shells, lose the directionality when nodal is inactivated.   The asymmetry of the human body is also generated in ways similar to that of snails, and again nodal plays a key role.  The gene is somehow involved in determining the directionality of the way cilia (small hairs) beat in the early embryo, which sets up a concentration gradient that can make an embryo left- or right-handed.

I’ve always been fascinated by directional asymmetries — those traits that occur on a consistent side (right or left) in a species.  These include the side of the body that harbors the narwhal’s tusk. and our own internal organs. Other such traits include the direction in which the ears of an owl are turned, and what side of its body a flounder comes to rest on when it changes into a bottom-dweller.  Directional asymmetries are not rare in animals. But how are they formed? How does a gene “know” it’s on the right or the left?  The finding that the direction of cilia movement can tell a gene which side it’s on goes a long way to solving this question, but still leaves open the final question:  why do cilia spin in a given direction? How do they know whether to go clockwise or counterclockwise?  This may, ultimately, reside in the asymmetry of molecules that make up cilia.

At any rate, P. Z.’s column is good, but his explanation of nodal on Pharyngula is even better.  P. Z. has a real talent for explaining science clearly and engagingly, and too often this is overlooked by the hordes of people who visit his blog for the controversy, atheism, and trenchant attacks on religion.  (One thing I’ve found from writing this blog is that visits are much more numerous when I’m attacking something than when I’m talking about science, a fact that’s a little bit sad.)
But the point I wanted to make relates to an earlier post I made about what counts as evidence for evolution.  P. Z.’s  elegant description of how nodal works was hijacked by the Guardian editors by putting it under the title:

Lopsided gene that proves

humans are distant cousins

of the humble snail

A gene shared by birds, fish, reptiles, people – and snails – reveals the fundamental relatedness of all living creatures

Well, we already knew, of course, that we were distant cousins of the humble snail.   We don’t need nodal to tell us that.  And the observation that the gene has similar functions in humans and snails is not, to me, dispositive evidence that humans and snails are related. After all, creationists could always say, “Well of course the gene does the same thing in humans and snails! That’s just the way the Creator decided to make asymmetries!  It doesn’t say anything about common ancestry.”  As I’ve mentioned before, the fact that related creatures use similar genes to do similar things does not count as strong evidence for evolution as opposed to a creationist/intelligent-design alternative.  We might as well say that snails have a gene producing cytochrome c as part of their metabolic pathway, and proclaim that this “proves that humans are distant cousins of the humble snail.”  We share hundreds of genes with the humble snail.

The choice of what to emphasize in a headline is the editors’, not P. Z.’s. And I suppose anything touting evolution is a good thing for readers.  Still, the Guardian editors should realize that hundreds and hundreds of genes already testify to common ancestry — if you choose to use genic similarity as evidence.  I prefer to look at dead genes that are active in relatives as far stronger evidence for evolution against the creationist alternative.

Anyway, congrats to P. Z. for his new gig and a good inaugural column.

Reference: Grande, C., and N. H. Patel. 2009. Nodal signalling is involved in left–right asymmetry in snails. Nature 457:1008-1011.

Russell Blackford goes after faith/science compatibility

March 31, 2009 • 5:48 am

In a really nice essay on his blog “Metamagician and the Hellfire Club”, Australian writer Russell Blackford discusses the issue of the compatibility between science and faith and how that has become the official position of bodies like The National Academy of Sciences (a tip of the hat to PZ at Pharyngula for calling this to our attention). Blackford’s essay is a sarcastic take on an earlier post by Matt Nisbet (a professor of communication at American University who writes the blog “Framing Science”); Nisbet went after Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists for needlessly placing science and religion in opposition.

Blackford puts Nisbet in a full nelson:

. . . Nisbet elaborates how the National Academy of Science (NAS) and related bodies in the US used market research to decide what messages to present to the American public. Having researched the issue, with focus groups and a survey of course, the NAS decided to announce that religion and science are compatible.

Clearly, this is how you do it. For example, it would be wrong to check whether any particular religions or sects make claims that are inconsistent with robust, well-corroborated scientific findings. That’s obviously irrelevant. Furthermore, it would be quite wrong to consider any more (shall we say?) philosophical issues. For example, might there be an argument that even some of the more moderate versions of Abrahamic monotheism include doctrines that are in tension with the emerging image of the world offered by science? How well does the idea of a loving and providential deity square with the millions of years of suffering produced by the slow processes of biological evolution?

You and I might not expect the NAS to take a stand on questions like that. We might think that the compatibility of science with religion would be a matter of some legitimate controversy. If we thought like that – silly us – we might then think it inappropriate for bodies such as the NAS to adopt a position one way or the other. After all, we’d say, philosophers of religion disagree among themselves on this, as do individual scientists, so why is it appropriate for a professional body to take a stand? But we’d be wrong. Obviously the issue can be settled by sufficiently well-planned market research involving focus groups, surveys, etc. In this case, the research told the NAS that they should present material to the public that included “a prominent three page special color section that features testimonials from religious scientists, religious leaders and official church position statements, all endorsing the view that religion and evolution are compatible.” Yay!

This is how to settle a philosophical debate! . . .

So there we have it. When the NAS takes a stance on a highly controversial issue in philosophy of religion, based on market research suggesting that this will help make science appear more acceptable to the American public, that is ethical behaviour. It is certainly not, as you and I might have thought, a meretricious exercise in intellectual dishonesty. But when Dawkins presents his sincerely-held views, relying partly (though by no means entirely) on arguments from his own area of scientific expertise, that is an unethical exercise in denigrating social groups and, yes, in Giving Resonance (don’t worry too much what that expression might actually mean) to the paranoid fantasy, er narrative, “that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda”. Never mind that Dawkins has never made such a claim; one must always be very careful not to go around Giving Resonance.

Another post critical of Nisbet’s stance can be found at the blog Entertaining Research.

Religious scientists and liberal theologians can tout the compatibility of faith and science until they’re blue in the faith [typo: I meant “blue in the face” but I’ll leave the Freudian slip], but in so doing they are seeing a world that they would like to inhabit, not the world they do inhabit. As I said in my New Republic essay on compatibility,

a true harmony between science and religion requireseither doing away with most people’s religion and replacing it with a watered down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.. . . The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

Faith, as it is practiced by many, many people, is simply incompatible with science. It doesn’t solve the problem to tell them to put their beliefs in line with science.

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!

The New Scientist has no shame–again!

March 21, 2009 • 5:27 am

When  New Scientist published its “Darwin was WRONG” cover a few months ago, several of us wrote in to complain about the distortion of Darwin’s work. (The cover referred to how gene transfer might blur the branches of phylogenetic trees, something that Darwin had no inkling of.)  The editor, Roger Highfield, appeared to be chastened.  Since then, the cover has been waved about by creationists in the US to show that evolution really is on the skids.

Well, apparently Roger Highfield is not repentant: he has used that cover AGAIN in advertising his rag (see below).  The man has no shame; this is obviously a deliberate decision, and one he approved.  Letter writing doesn’t seem to have sufficed — perhaps it’s time to boycott  New Scientist (n.b., by “boycott,” I mean to refuse, as scientists, to write for them or have anything to do with them).


(Thanks to Richard Dawkins for forwarding this.)

Note that Graham Lawton, who writes for New Scientist, admitted in a post on Pharyngula that this was deliberate sensationalism:

. . . .

As for public understanding. Well, the cover is designed to sell the magazine. If we run very straight, sober covers, we sell fewer mags, we get fewer clicks and nobody blogs about us, so fewer people read what we produce. Now, I’d argue that this week’s cover has got us a lot of attention, and as a result lots of people will read my story. Many will learn something about evolution. Public understanding will increase. So which way do you want it?

Or look at it this way. Nature is a very educational read. Many people could learn a lot from it. It’s widely available and really quite entertaining and accessible. But very few members of the public read it. Why? They don’t sell themselves.

And yes, the ToL [Tree of Life] is still quite useful in places. I say as much in the article.