World Science Festival Redux

May 7, 2009 • 6:41 am

The people at the World Science Festival have asked me to publish their response to a number of us who expressed concern about their support from The Templeton Foundation and their inclusion of a program to discuss/harmonize faith and science.  In the interest of fairness, here is their letter.  I will again post my regretful decision to withdraw from their invitation to discuss science and faith, and then their response to that, and my final response.  This may not be of interest to most people, but they want it on the record.

Three points first:

1.  I have enormous admiration for Brian Greene and his staff for organizing this festival, whose purpose is to acquaint the public with the wonders of science.  What better thing could a scientist do?  What’s more, it’s an altruistic act: Greene has little to gain professionally from doing this; he’s doing it because the payoff in terms of arousing interest and participation in science is potentially enormous.   My only beef about the Festival is that they insist on dragging religion into it, and to imply on their website that faith and science can be reconciled.  I just couldn’t be part of that endeavor.

2.  I still cannot understand what these “conversations” about faith and science are supposed to accomplish.  Surely religious people are not going to convince us scientists to somehow change our methods, or to become religious if we’re not.  Ergo, we scientists don’t stand to benefit from these dialogues. Perhaps we can come to a better understanding of why people are religious, but that won’t change our feelings that their beliefs are mere superstititions.  Nor do religious people stand to benefit:  as I said yesterday, all we can do to help them is to tell the faithful about our latest discoveries, which, if these findings contradict their scripture or dogma, gives them the chance to go back and tinker with their theology so it doesn’t conflict too badly with science.  But we don’t need public dialogues to accomplish that:  “Hey, pastor, we’ve found a transitional form between land animals and seals!”  The faithful have other ways of finding this stuff out, like learning about science from reading or going to secular science festivals.

3.  If anyone doubts that the Templeton Foundation’s implicit goal is to blur the lines between science and religion in a way that is inimical to science, I urge you to have a look at their website, especially their big prizes.  And have a look at the “Epiphany Prize” for inspiring t.v. and movie presentations. They gave one to The Passion of the Christ, for crying out loud!   Note the emphasis on Christian religion and the absence of anything else.  Check out all the other prizes for religious “advances.”  And read science writer John Horgan’s piece on how he felt co-opted by Templeton money. This is clearly a foundation with a mission. But scientists tend to avoid criticizing the Foundation because they give us so damn much money!

In the end, all these dialogues can do is make the participants walk away thinking, “Aren’t we fine fellows?  We’ve engaged the other side.  And maybe they were pretty good fellows too.”  But nothing substantive is accomplished. As for the listeners, well, these are like debates between creationists and evolutionists.  (Most scientists now recognize that these latter debates are futile.) There is simply no time to cover substantive points, and each side is preaching to its choir anyway.   As Steven Weinberg said, “I’m in favor of a dialogue between faith and science, but not a constructive dialogue.”  I would go further and say that there’s really not much point in any dialogue or “conversation.”  Let us publish and speak about our side; let them publish and speak about theirs separately.  Eventually a winner will emerge. Indeed, it’s emerging now, as the proportion of nonbelievers rises in our country. I have no doubt that, within a century or so, this country will become as secular as Europe is now.

o.k.  On to the letters, given in chronological order.  The first is from Brian Greene and  Tracy Day co-founder and Executive Director of the Science Festival. They wrote it to several of us who had expressed concern about the “religion/science” dialogue and the Templeton involvement:

Dear _____, ______, and Jerry

We’ve just become aware of the email exchange regarding the WSF.

Two issues are being raised. We respond to each in turn.

First: Regarding the Festival’s sponsors.

The World Science Festival produces programs according to the strictest standards of editorial integrity. The Festival’s lead producers are among the most respected of journalists, having between them decades of experience, and an abundance of honors and awards. (Indeed, for a recent press release we did a count: the 2008/2009 producers have between them over two dozen National News Emmy, Peabody, and Dupont Awards, and well over a hundred years of producing experience for some of the nation’s most prominent news organizations.) It goes without saying—but for clarity’s sake we shall say it anyway—that in keeping with standard journalistic practices, the World Science Festival does not accept financial contributions that come with any expectation or stipulation for participation in editorial decision-making. And just so it’s clear that this is not a platitude, we’ll note that the Festival has turned down sponsorship opportunities, some quite substantial, because the sponsor sought to blur the Festival’s requirement of a sharp and inviolable distinction between financial support and editorial control. All of the Festival’s sponsors respect this distinction fully.

Second: Regarding the appropriateness of having a Science and Faith program at the Festival.

We feel strongly that it is thoroughly and completely appropriate for the World Science Festival to have a program focusing on Science, Faith, and Religion. We conceived the World Science Festival as an annual gathering that would take science out of the classroom—where for far too long it has been consigned—and allow the general public to immerse itself in this most wondrous and insightful of human undertakings. In short, the Festival is seeking to shift the public’s perception of science as an isolated, esoteric body of knowledge to the recognition that not only is science everywhere, but science has the capacity to deeply inform one’s worldview.

As such, the Festival has programs that not only focus on the content of science traditionally defined, but programs that seek to illuminate how science interfaces with other disciplines and outlooks. We’ve had dance programs interpreting unified theories through choreography and music, plays seeking the human saga paralleling great scientific discoveries, debates focused on policy implications of scientific developments and breakthroughs, readings and discussions of literature influenced by science, among many other forays into ‘non-scientific’ disciplines. For the Festival to have programs exploring the art-science relationship, the government-science relationship, the business-science relationship, the literature-science relationship, and yet to willfully ignore the prominent and tumultuous religion-science relationship would be a strange and, dare we say, cowardly omission.

If there is an opportunity for compelling discourse with the capacity to yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking, its role in exposing the nature of reality and humankind’s place within it, then there’s room for such a program in our Festival.

With all best wishes,

Tracy Day

Co-Founder/Executive Director

World Science Festival

Brian Greene


World Science Festival

Professor of Mathematics and Professor of Physics Columbia University

She then sent me a personal email:

Dear Jerry,

I hope our earlier email regarding the Science and Religion program in the 2009 World Science Festival provides clarity on why we consider the program not only appropriate, but also relevant and important. I’m writing separately to emphasize how much we’d value your participation in this program, and the enthusiasm with which the invitation is offered. I’d be happy to discuss any of the issues in greater detail, if you think that might be of use. Looking forward to your response.

With best wishes,

Tracy Day

I then responded, withdrawing from the Festival. (This was the email published yesterday).

Dear Tracy,

After much discussion with my colleagues, and some soul-searching, I am going to have to decline with great regret your kind invitation to speak at the World Science Festival.   I regard it as a distinct honor to have been invited, and under normal circumstances would not have hesitated to accept.  But two things have forced me to my decision in this circumstance.

The first is that you consider faith as a topic appropriate for discussion in your Festival.  You mention that you feature programs that integrate science with dance, with public policy, with literature, and so on.  But these are quite different from religion.  Neither dance, public policy, nor literature are based on ways of looking at the world that are completely inimical to scientific investigation.  Science and religion are truly incompatible disciplines; science and literature are not.  That is, one can appreciate great literature and science without embracing any philosophical contradictions, but one cannot do this with religion (unless that religion is a watered down-deism that precludes any direct involvement of a deity in the world).  This incompatibility was the topic of my article in The New Republic.  Similarly, homeopathy and modern medicine are philosophically and materially contradictory.  It would be just as inappropriate to offer a discussion of homeopathy versus modern medicne.

You go on to say that,

“If there is an opportunity for compelling discourse with the capacity to yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking, its role in exposing the nature of reality and humankind’s place within it, then there’s room for such a program in our Festival.”

But there is no such possibility in the program you propose.  How could a dialogue with religion possibly yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking?  Such discourse would only confuse people about what scientific thinking is.  The Templeton Foundation, for example, has always sought to blur those lines!  And science’s role in “exposing the nature of reality and humankind’s place in it” has nothing to do with religion or theology.  It is a purely scientific role: to find out how the Universe works and how humans came to be.  It is telling, here, that the editorial by Brian Greene to which I was pointed–an editorial explaining to the public why science is important and exciting–said not a single word about religion.

The second consideration is that the festival is being supported by The Templeton Foundation.  I absolutely believe you when you say that there are no strings attached, and that the Foundation is not exercising any editorial judgement.  But this is not the issue.  The issue is that, by saying it sponsors the Festival, the Templeton Foundation will use its sponsorship to prove that it is engaging in serious discussion with scientists.  Like many of my colleagues, I regard Templeton as an organization whose purpose is to fuse science with religion: to show how science illuminates “the big questions” and how religion can contribute to science.  I regard this as not only fatuous, but dangerous.  Templeton likes nothing better than to corral real working scientists into its conciliatory pen.  I don’t want to be one of these.  That’s just a matter of principle.  But the “no strings” argument doesn’t wash for me, for precisely the same reason that congressmen are not supposed to take gifts from people whose legislation they could influence. It is the appearance of conflict that is at issue.

To avoid this appearance in the future, I would strongly suggest that the Festival discontinue taking money from Templeton.  That foundation is widely regarded in the scientific community as one whose mission, deliberate or not, is to corrupt science.  It doesn’t belong as a sponsor of your festival.

I am sorry to go on for so long, but I thought you deserved an explanation for my waffling, and for my decision.  I certainly support the goals of the festival and hope that it goes very well this year.

Best wishes,
Jerry Coyne

Their response, including a note to one of us who is participating in the festival:

Dear All:

_______, (one scientist who is participating in the Festival)
We’d be thrilled to have you as part of this program. We believe that the schedule will work and we’re double-checking.

We see that you’ve posted your response to us on your blog. We’d appreciate it if you would not just refer to our letter but post it as well so your readers can have a fuller appreciation of our position.

Many thanks and all the best,

I was a bit distressed because I don’t think they really took my concerns seriously (at least, not as seriously as they take Templeton’s big donation!), and I wrote this final email:

Dear Tracy,

Yes, of course.  The only reason I didn’t put up your response that was because I don’t believe in posting private emails from other people without their permission (that’s why I left your name off of my reply).  I will post it tomorrow, with the names of the senders.

Just one note: looking at the history of the Templeton Foundation, I noticed that they gave the divisive and anti-Semitic movie “The Passion of the Christ” a $50,000 “Epiphany Prize” for “inspiring films and television.”  This comes perilously close to Templeton’s having endorsed anti-Semitism.  Please remember that Jews protested assiduously against this film.  Do you really want to take money from such an organization?  Judging from the reply you sent, there is nothing you can learn about Templeton that would make you rethink your decision to accept their largesse.