Adventures in Ethics and Science

As promised, in this post I consider the treatment of the science-religion culture wars in Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. If you’re just tuning in, you may want to pause to read my review of the book, or to peruse my thoughts on issues the book raised about what the American public wants and about whether old or new media give the American public what it needs.

In the interests of truth in advertising, let me state at the outset that this post will not involve anything like a detailed rehash of “Crackergate”, nor a line-by-line reading of the contentious Chapter 8 of the book. You can find that kind of thing around the blogosphere without looking too hard. Rather, I want to deal with the more substantial question raised by this chapter: Are scientists all on the same team?


To answer this question, I think we need to return to a question I raised in my review of the book, namely, what does the hoped-for Scientific America look like? What, exactly, are Mooney and Kirshenbaum hoping will be accomplished in the event that scientists become better communicators and enter into regular communication with the public?

We might imagine any number of goals here, including:

  • More people who have a good recall of important scientific facts (or even of the details of central scientific theories).
  • More people who recognize the expertise of scientists and take what they have to say about scientific findings, theories, and methodologies as credible.
  • More people who have the critical thinking skills to sort sound science from snake oil.
  • More people who are happy to allocate public money to fund the very research projects that scientists themselves are most interested in conducting.
  • More people who agree with scientists as far as what ought to be done in the light of scientific findings and theories.

It’s not clear that we know how to accomplish each (maybe any) of these goals with the American public we have now. Put a pin in this worry. At least as big a problem (and one of the reasons I wish Mooney and Kirshenbaum had articulated their goals more clearly) is that the goals I’ve listed here are separable — and you don’t necessarily get the lot of them as a package deal. Indeed, it’s possible that in the process of making good progress toward one of these goals, we could end up losing ground relative to another. (The second and third goals in the list, for example, might be in tension.)

Moreover, it may take more to achieve some of these goals than really well-tuned communication. Communication can succeed without bringing about agreement. So, we might imagine an American public where people understand science really well and still disagree about what to do in response to it, or about whether we ought to be funding more such research projects.

If the Unscientific America (the problem the book is meant to address) is understood in terms of our failure to achieve one or more of these specific goals (or some other goals not enumerated here), then identifying which ones are crucial for a Scientific America must be an important part of the solution.

Which factors stand in the way of meeting the crucial goals? (Are they different for different segments of the American public?) Which of these factors can scientists (and others on Team Science) do something about by means of targeted communication of various sorts?

Here, there’s a related question that is hard to ask (because it feels like giving up) but is important to ask: Are there some factors that scientists (and others on Team Science) probably can’t do anything about? If we’re going to invest the effort to try to move the American public to a new state of engagement with science, we may have to do some triage, devoting our energies to things with a reasonably high likelihood of actually working.

If Team Science is to succeed with the American public, Team Science needs well-defined goals and reasonable strategies for coordinating its efforts to achieve those goals. But this way of looking at things imagines that scientists see themselves as being on the same team, and as always working toward the same goals.

Are scientists all on the same team? As far as what they most want to accomplish in their interactions with the public, the answer is pretty clearly No.

To imagine otherwise is to ignore the fact that scientists are actual human beings, with a variety of interests and goals. Not all scientists are working toward the same goals. And even scientists who agree about goals are going to disagree about how to prioritize them.

Among other things, this means that not everything a scientist does in the public sphere will have advancing science, or increasing scientific literacy, as its primary goal.

I’m inclined to say that this is how it should be. In a society where even scientific employment does not have a legitimate claim to 24 hours of the employee’s day, scientists, like everyone else, expect to have the freedom to pursue their individual interests and goals on their own time.

To the extent that scientists might share some common interests as scientists that make it useful to coordinate those efforts, they will need to be fairly precise about what those common interests are. As well, they will need to be honest about where their interests diverge.

This shouldn’t be hard. In the course of their scientific work, scientists regularly have occasion to disagree with each other. Everyday disagreements include such subjects as how to interpret a set of data, or what the best strategy for achieving a particular outcome is given what we know about the system we want to control.

Indeed, Unscientific America suggests this sort of disagreement among scientists is not the only sort the public is likely to see on display:

Is the goal to have a public that can dig into complicated scientific disputes and determine who is right or wrong? If so, then let’s remember that many anti-evolutionists and global warming deniers are scientists themselves, couching their claims in sophisticated scientific language and regularly citing published articles in the peer-reviewed literature. (14)

I would have loved to see more analysis of this situation. Explaining how this could be so — that scientists can be found on both sides of putatively scientific controversies — might shed a lot of light on the challenge, especially for non-scientists, of understanding scientific processes and drawing conclusions that are well-grounded in scientific knowledge. One would hope the committed scientists on either side of an issue would not willfully misrepresent data, or be led to conclusions primarily on account of their fit with their political and economic commitments (and one might reasonably guess that Mooney and Kirshenbaum see at least some of the scientists who are anti-evolutionists and global warming deniers as departing from these basic standards of intellectual honesty).

But this, as much as anything, seems to indicate that scientists as a group do not speak with one voice. Even honest scientists can disagree about many things — including, but not limited to, their personal commitments about politics, about religion, and about the role they feel religion ought to play in public life, to name just three. Arguably, these three kinds of commitments are distinct from what’s involved in doing good scientific work and drawing reasonable scientific conclusions.

Scientists have diverse goals. If all those scientists become more committed communicators, what then? Is the public better off? Are the goals Mooney and Kirshenbaum identify as crucial to the establishment of a Scientific America more likely to be achieved?

That will depend on what it is these scientists are trying to accomplish when they communicate with the public.

It is, I think, reasonable to be concerned about whether scientists speaking as individuals (in the course of pursuing individual interests and goals) will be mistaken for scientists speaking on behalf of science, or on behalf of the scientific community as a whole. Sometimes the confusion is on the receiving end of the communication. Sometimes it’s on the transmission end.

When a scientist publicly advocates for a goal, is she necessarily speaking as a scientist? Surely not. Is she necessarily perceived as speaking as a scientist? I doubt that this perception is necessary, but I suspect it’s not uncommon.

It’s very important, on the scientist’s end of the communication, to be clear about what is part of the official framework of science and about what comes from personal, political, or philosophical commitments that other scientists might not share. It is also very important , on the audience’s end, to recognize that the tribe of science is a microcosm of the broader world, made up of lots of individuals with different interests, goals, and temperaments. Judging the whole tribe by a single member would be like judging an entire political party, nationality, or gender by a single member.

And this brings us to the concern that Mooney and Kirshenbaum express in Chapter 8 of Unscientific America, that some of the most visible and most prolific communicating scientists are focused on the goal of advancing atheism (including the public acceptance of atheists as fellow citizens, the idea that atheism itself is a legitimate exercise of religious freedom, the idea that religious ideas voiced in the public sphere are no more deserving of deference than any other kind of idea, etc.) — and that the public on the receiving end may be getting the message that advancing atheism is an official goal of science. Mooney and Kirshenbaum note that advancing atheism is not an official goal of science, and that the perception that atheism is an inevitable consequence of science or of scientific practice could be a serious impediment to getting a significant segment of the American public to embrace science or scientific literacy.

Of course, it’s no secret that a goodly number of scientists are atheists — or, for that matter, that a goodly number of scientists are religious. There are some who argue that there is a forced choice between being an intellectually honest science and being a person of faith, while there are others who argue that there is no such forced choice. (I’ve weighed in on this question myself.) The individual commitments scientists have about whether religious belief is or is not compatible with sound scientific practice (and what “compatibility” amounts to) are frequently bolstered by some armchair philosophy, but it’s worth noting that those of us who do philosophy for a living (and thus might be recognized as having actual philosophical expertise) would not be uniform in our endorsement of many of these arguments.

And, in any case, questions of theism and atheism are philosophical, rather than scientific, questions.

This is to say that scientific theories do not make claims about the existence or non-existence of a deity. Science coursework does not require students to attend, or refrain from attending, religious worship. Peer reviews of scientific reports make no assessment of what the authors of those reports may believe about the nature of the divine on their own time. And anyone who would try to persuade the public otherwise is engaging in deception.

But since being a scientist does not mean one has to opt out of pursuing personal goals, even goals with which other scientists might disagree.

Here are three goals various scientists (and others) work to promote in their communication with non-scientists:

  1. Improving scientific literacy and the public’s engagement with science.
  2. Preserving the separation of church and state in the U.S.
  3. Advancing public acceptance of atheists as fellow citizens and atheism as a legitimate exercise of religious freedom.

While a number of scientists might recognize all three as worthy goals, and might devote their efforts to working to advance all three goals in various ways, they are not the same goal. And even people who accept all three goals will differ about how they prioritize the three.

Consequently, someone who is primarily concerned with achieving goal #3 is not necessarily doing anything counterproductive when his or her advocacy results in a worse situation with respect to goal #1 — unless he or she prioritizes goal #1 higher than goal #3. Sometimes a scientist making a blog post is more concerned to advance atheism than to increase the public’s scientific literacy. And Team Science just doesn’t have the authority to demand that its members only pursue the goals with which all of its members agree.

To the extent that Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to be claiming that scientists who are visible advocates for atheism are undermining the efforts of other scientists to increase scientific literacy and the public’s engagement with science, they are on the hook to provide evidence that those working toward one goal are making the job harder for those working toward the other goal. Unscientific America does cite public opinion polls, but these data may not convey the granularity and heterogeneity of the American public advocates are trying to reach.

This gets us back to the question of whether there are some segments of the public who are going to be especially resistant to attempts to increase their scientific literacy and their engagement with science — so resistant, perhaps, that the returns on efforts to reach them are low enough that maybe we ought to be more focused on reaching other segments of society. Back when PZ Myers was prevented from attending a Minneapolis screening of the anti-evolution documentary Expelled!, I considered this very issue:

The real question is what effect media attention to the Minneapolis incident will have on the filmmakers’ ability to sell their message — that academia is filled with dogmatic meanies who won’t give Intelligent Design or its proponents a fair break — to the American public.

Arguably, there is a segment of the public who already buys this message. They did so before Expelled! was even shot, and they would do so even if Expelled! never came to their local cineplex or church basement. To the extent that these folks have formed an opinion with which they’re comfortable (regardless, in some cases, of additional data that might argue against that opinion), they are not “in play”. Whether PZ kept the Minneapolis incident on the down low or purchased full-page ads in every newspaper in the nation, these hearts and minds were already committed to the other side.

As well, there’s a segment of the public that defaults to suspicion of the Intelligent Design advocates — that would be wary of intellectual dishonesty and dirty tricks even if none were immediately evident in a particular case. These folks aren’t really “in play” either, and they’d likely only pay to see Expelled! for the fun of mocking it ruthlessly. Whether PZ piped up about the Minneapolis incident or not, these people would not be won over to the filmmakers’ way of seeing things.

What’s left are the “undecideds” — the folks who have no firm preexisting opinions about Intelligent Design or academia.

If the argumentative strategy of Expelled! is to win over some undecideds by demonstrating that Intelligent Design has been banished from academia unfairly — because the academics with the power to exclude it are afraid of an open debate — then publicizing the Minneapolis incident in which PZ Myers was barred from the screening because those promoting the film were afraid of an open debate undercuts that argumentative strategy pretty well. Known hypocrites have a hard time selling charges of hypocrisy.

If, instead, the strategy of Expelled! were to argue for the inclusion of Intelligent Design in the academy on its own merits, the Minneapolis incident probably wouldn’t do much to counter that strategy. But that’s not the strategy the filmmakers employed here.

As Jake Young eloquently puts it:

[T]he producers of a movie whose primary argument was based on academic freedom and open debate denied PZ entry and closed that debate….

[S]cientific credibility is also based on the idea that we don’t lie. We tell it straight, and we aren’t hypocrites. On this ground, I have considerable sympathy with Dawkins and Myers. The producers of Expelled are hypocrites and liars, and Dawkins and Myers are right to point that out as loudly as they see fit.

Of the hearts and minds still in play, Team Science has an advantage with the ones that care about intellectual honesty. This means that pointing out the intellectual dishonesty of Team Expelled! is a winning strategy.

As far as the hearts and minds that are still in play that feel no special attachment to intellectual honesty? I’m not sure they were ever ours to win.

I think it’s fair to say that scientists and other members of Team Science are not in total agreement about which segments of the public can be reconciled to science. This, plus the fact that individual scientists have many interests and goals that are their own, agendas not necessarily set by Team Science, means that in their various communicative activities, whether in person, in print, or on the blogosphere, scientists will not display the “message discipline” you might expect from a political campaign.

I’m OK with that.

Personally, I’d like the public to understand science as a human activity, and scientists as bona fide human beings. And, if scientists are engaging in real dialogues with non-scientists — listening as well as holding forth — then they ought to be open to learning from the people with whom they’re in dialogue, to changing their minds — and thus, to changing their message.

We’re not all on the same page about everything. Pretending that we are misrepresents the nature of the tribe of science and of scientific activity. But given that there are some shared commitments that guide scientific methodology, some conditions without which scientific activity in the U.S. cannot flourish, these provide some common ground on which scientists ought to be more or less united. Given that there are certain conditions without which the public cannot access and benefit from the knowledge scientific activity has built (frequently with public funding), these provide common ground on which scientists and the public ought to be more or less united. Such common ground opens the possibility of building coalitions, of finding ways to work together toward the goals we share even if we may not agree about what other goals are worth pursuing.

We probably can’t form workable coalitions, though, by showing open contempt for each other’s other commitments or interests. We cannot be allies by behaving like enemies. Human nature sucks like that sometimes.

But without coalitions, we have to be ready to go it alone, to work to achieve our goals with much less help. Without coalitions, we may find ourselves working against the effects of those who have chosen to pursue other goals instead. If you can’t work with me toward goal A, I may not be inclined to help you work toward goal B. If we made common cause with each other, we might be able to tailor strategies that would get us closer to both goals rather than sacrificing one for the other. But if we decide we’re not working on the same team, why on earth should we care about each other’s recommendations with respect to strategies?

Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s treatment of the “new atheists” in Unscientific America seems to assume that they (mistakenly) link methodological and philosophical naturalism as a way to advance the goal of scientific literacy and engagement with science. Whether or not the “new atheists” argue that methodological natural leads naturally to philosophical naturalism (many would deny this), the more salient point is that sometimes they are concerned to advance atheism, not scientific literacy and engagement with science per se. The audience to whom they are targeting their message may be quite distinct from the audience Mooney and Kirshenbaum imagine as the target of efforts to increase public engagement with science and scientific literacy. It may even be that the “new atheists” are targeting their message to an audience that will resist engagement with science unless it abandons particular religious commitments.

To me, it sounds like there needs to be a serious dialogue within the tribe of science to work out what common interests all of Team Science can get behind. Not only might such a dialogue (or series of ongoing dialogues) lay the groundwork for the coordinated efforts of scientists to protect their shared interests and pursue their common goals, but it might also help scientists figure out strategies for these coordinated efforts that don’t undercut the other interests which individual scientists hold dear.

Increased scientific literacy and public engagement with science strike me as worthy goals, but they are not the only worthy goals. Even if they were, the diversity of the American public would make these very hard goals to achieve with any single strategy.

The diversity of the scientific community could be a significant strength, allowing Team Science to mobilize members who can communicate with many different segments of society in a variety of ways about what science is up to and why it matters, even by the lights of the non-scientists. But exhorting some segments of the scientific community to keep their non-scientific interests and goals on the down-low is bound to fragment Team Science and make concerted efforts to reach the public untenable. So too will philosophically motivated efforts to portray other members of Team Science as intellectually dishonest or bewilderingly compartmentalized (and thus, as suspect spokespeople for science) undercut to ability of Team Science to engage the broader public in science.

I hold out hope that Team Science can actually work better as a team to get the American public more engaged in science. However, if that’s going to happen, the members of Team Science will have to figure out how to coexist better off the court.

* * * * *

Finally, since I know it will come up in the comments:

My own view is that the treatments of PZ Myers and “Crackergate” in Unscientific America didn’t help to explain or support the argument I took Mooney and Kirshenbaum to be advancing. Regardless of where one comes down on “Crackergate” (here’s where I came down), much context was lost in the necessarily brief summary of events offered in the book. Moreover, I think the focus on the details of the incident distract attention from the larger questions I discuss above: How can members of a diverse community of science come together behind common goals and interests while still pursuing individual goals and interests? How can scientists help members of the public to recognize when scientists are speaking on behalf of the scientific community and when they are speaking as individuals following their own goals and interests?

These would have been outstanding questions to examine at depth in Unscientific America, and I suspect that if Chapter 8 had been framed around these questions, more of Team Science would be engaging with the book positively.

Comments

  1. #1 Pierce R. Butler
    July 17, 2009

    Something else I haven’t seen mentioned much in reviews (pro or con) of Unscientific America – media presentations of science may be more harmful to public understanding than all the creationist propaganda and anti-intellectual sermonizing put together.

    Most commenters focus on the portrayal of scientists & science in movies & tv, but I suspect much of the US population takes “science” to be whatever claims are made in the name of science in advertisements. Since the products being promoted usually turn out to be at best semi-satisfactory, much of the disappointment thus generated attaches to the false packaging in which it was sold.

    Neither Ken Ham nor Ben Stein is half so convincing that “scientists don’t know everything!” as is a half-effective medication with uncomfortable side effects that was promised to deliver dancing in flowery sunshine.

  2. #2 hazur
    July 17, 2009

    Janet, nice post. I would like to remark this though: “This is to say that scientific theories do not make claims about the existence or non-existence of a deity… anyone who would try to persuade the public otherwise is engaging in deception.” As PZ, Coyne and others have pointed out some important scientific and educational organizations are actually engaging in deception (your words) by insisting that there is compatibility between science and some religious sects (but not others), instead of taking a position like the one you outlined above which could actually be accepted for everyone, I think. However, I think is still worth reminding that scientific theories without gods have replaced every explanation containing gods out of necessity.
    Cheers,

  3. #3 Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde
    July 18, 2009

    I like how you’ve parsed out several distinct possible goals for Team Science (and I like that I now have a team!) I’d suggest that Goals 4 and 5 would be the easiest to get scientists to agree on (more money, more influence); and that Goals 2 and 3, if occasionally at odds with each other, are the best routes to achieving Goals 4 and 5.

    That is, the more people can apply critical thinking (Goal 3), the more they’re likely to demand higher quality science journalism (“What was the control group?”), and the more they’re likely to be able to understand why very good science is difficult, and interesting, and imperfect.

    The real tension is between Goal 1 (knowing sciencey stuff) and Goal 3 (critical thinking), not because they’re incompatible at all but because school curriculum arguments routinely revolve around teaching students “facts” vs “critical thinking.” There aren’t enough hours in the day to do both, it appears.

    So, basically, as a scientist (and future parent), I support year-round schooling, to give the chance to get in both. But I don’t know how many people on Team Science, particularly those who hated school and preferred playing with chemistry sets at home, would agree.

  4. #4 Lorax
    July 18, 2009

    Excellent! Just excellent. This idea of “goals” is one I’ve hit upon several times in comments and should probably flush out more throughly as an independent post. The problem as I see it, is that UA lumps a huge and diverse group, scientists, into one hat and assumes that M&K’s goals, which overlap with most scientists at some level, overlap with all scientists at all levels.

    Clearly “crackergate” had nothing do to with science per say and to conflate it as that is nothing short of commenter complaining that Friday Sprog blogging has little to do with ethics. non-sequitur anyone?

    While I often disagree with your take Dr. Free-Ride, I find your takes informative and worthwhile.

  5. #5 Frankel
    July 18, 2009

    Thoughtful, rational discusions of “hot topic” issues such as this one is why I love your blog Dr Freeride…

  6. #6 Pinko Punko
    July 18, 2009

    I think I viewed much of the citation of PZ and communion wafer shenanigans as merely an attempt to gain rhetorical leverage of those uninitiated to the internecine goings on of the blog world. Giving minimal facts on a topic, those making flash judgements would come down on the side of civility over incivility, for the most part.

    Great post!

  7. #7 Muse142
    July 18, 2009

    This is a fantastic, level-headed, thought-provoking review. I would be interested to see what Mooney and/or Kirshenbaum think of what you have to say.
    :) That is all.

  8. #8 Shirakawasuna
    July 18, 2009

    Thank you for such a long and in-depth post! You wrote down exactly what I’ve been thinking but couldn’t say even slightly eloquently.

  9. #9 Ken
    July 18, 2009

    Every time a ‘scientist’ makes the logical leap of claiming that their theories prove ‘…there is no God…’ – they add a few more people to their ‘enemies’ list.

    Every time a scientist smugly declares their atheism and launches into a ‘scientific proof’ – they add a lot more people to that list.

    I’m always amazed at how little understanding pencil-heads have of people.

    One thing you might point out in discussions like this – three prominent atheists of the 20th century – Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini.

    Now, scientists will immediately bristle at that connection – and we could argue all day long about it – but a lot of people will make the connection.

    Bottom line – promoting science is great, promoting science coupled with atheism is a recipe for failure.

  10. #10 Thomas Lee Elifritz
    July 18, 2009

    So what is your position on the existence or non-existence of superintelligent alien beings from another dimension, retard?

    Ramble on. It should be amusing.

  11. #11 Marc
    July 18, 2009

    Janet – I think you’ve missed a central concern. Scientists have to be on guard against the misuse of science. A lot of us view the science-demands-atheism argument as simply being yet another in a long line of attempts to harness the authority of science for a ideological goal. You slide around and don’t address this, but it’s an extremely obvious part of the Meyers approach: science contradicts religion, full stop.

    From many years of experience in dealing with these issues, there is also another dimension which you leave out – but it’s central to the strong reactions involved. Tolerance for differing views is one of the central ingredients in modern society, and it has been won at great human cost. Now we have a group of folks demanding that scientists state their religious beliefs and defend them to their satisfaction. That is, and should be, deeply disturbing.

    If you add these two things together you have a pretty clear idea why people like me do not think that the “New Atheists” are on the team of science at all. They’re on the team of atheism, and science is a convenient tool. But the nuances of science, such as the severe limits to the applicability of the scientific method, get left behind. So your entire approach – that we’re one big team – falls apart. I see no better illustration than climate change, where many atheists of a libertarian bent adopt tactics that would make a creationist proud. (This was driven home to me forcefully when giving a talk on it to college freethinkers.)

    There is also the matter of simple online tribalism. Should someone have to prove the obvious, namely that adopting scorched earth debating tactics is counterproductive for many reasons?

  12. #12 Marc
    July 18, 2009

    Janet – I think you’ve missed a central concern. Scientists have to be on guard against the misuse of science. A lot of us view the science-demands-atheism argument as yet another in a long line of attempts to harness the authority of science for a ideological goal.

    From many years of experience in dealing with these issues, there is also another dimension which you leave out – but it’s central to the strong reactions involved. Tolerance for differing views is one of the central ingredients in modern society, and it has been won at great human cost. Now we have a group of folks demanding that scientists state their religious beliefs and defend them to their satisfaction. That is, and should be, deeply disturbing.

    If you add these two things together you have a pretty clear idea why people like me do not think that the “New Atheists” are on the team of science at all. They’re on the team of atheism, and science is a convenient tool. But the nuances of science, such as the severe limits to the applicability of the scientific method, get left behind. So your entire approach – that we’re one big team – falls apart. I see no better illustration than climate change, where many atheists of a libertarian bent adopt tactics that would make a creationist proud. (This was driven home to me forcefully when giving a talk on it to college freethinkers.)

    There is also the matter of simple online tribalism. Should someone have to prove the obvious, namely that adopting scorched earth debating tactics is counterproductive for many reasons?

  13. #13 Pierce R. Butler
    July 18, 2009

    Ken @ # 9 – please note that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were both Roman Catholics, fully accepted as such at the highest levels by the Holy Mother Church. Thank you.

  14. #14 Mike
    July 18, 2009

    Aw Ken.

    if you must troll then at least make it amusing. If you need occupational therapy then I suppose you could count all the war criminals who were atheist and all those that were not. Of course a lot of people will “make the connection”. We have probably more complete idiots than intelligent people in any population. Religious Amerika ist probably no exception. … if you can make the connection

  15. #15 Sigmund
    July 18, 2009

    Marc, have you even read Janet’s piece?
    She questions the notion that there is a single ‘goal’ for scientists and that there is a single way to achieve this goal when dealing with a diverse audience. This was the original point of contention that sparked the entire framing argument in the first place when Nisbet and Mooney singled out Dawkins and Myers in the Washington post in April 2007 as the prime examples of how to communicate science incorrectly.

  16. #16 Matt Penfold
    July 18, 2009

    “You slide around and don’t address this, but it’s an extremely obvious part of the Meyers approach: science contradicts religion, full stop.”

    That is not Myer’s position.

    Myers’ argues that most religion is incompatible with science, not that all religion does is. If a religion makes no factual claims about the universe then his position is that there is then no conflict with science. If a religion claims that Mary really was a virgin, or Jesus really did rise from the dead, or that prayer really can cure the sick then these are factual claims about the universe that are contradicted by what we know of how the universe works.

    Oh, and his name is Myers, not Meyers.

  17. #17 Llano Estacado
    July 18, 2009

    Mooney and Kirshenbaum have succeeded admirably in their quest to shine a large spotlight on the (effective and ineffective) communication styles of the science (and science blogging) communities . Where previously the typical blogging community response to this topic had been associated with agitated derision and inappropriate name-calling, there now appears to be a distinct movement toward a more measured scientific and philosophical examination.

    Once again, Dr. Freeride is among those whose demonstrated leadership fosters a sense of pride when donning the moniker “scientist“.

  18. #18 anonymous
    July 18, 2009

    You have saved ScienceBlogs from becoming an online Jerry Springer show. Thank you. Indeed, Philosophers should be Queens.

  19. #19 XD
    July 18, 2009

    Really excellent analysis, Janet.

  20. #20 Rob Knop
    July 18, 2009

    Advancing public acceptance of atheists as fellow citizens and atheism as a legitimate exercise of religious freedom.

    This is a laudable goal.

    The thing is, this is not what we’re hearing on some of these science blogs. What we’re hearing is that religion=delusion, that scientists who are also religious are hypocrites, etc. We’re hearing that religion is stupid and hateful and childish and evil and all of that.

    That’s very different from an argument that atheism is reasonable.

  21. #21 S. Rivlin
    July 18, 2009

    Janet, as usual, a real pleasureable read.

    As to team science; is it an international team science that the book authors, its reviewers and its readers discuss or is it an American team science? I think the authors specifically wrote of the American team, a team of which the percentage of members born in foreign countries is significantly greater than in the rest of the population and which most Americans, including American scientists tend to ignore. The stream of foreign scientists into the US that have begun in the late 1930s, has reached its peak in the 1960s and plateaud thereafter, until 2001. The American educational system could never fulfilled America’s need for scientists. Beginning with German and Jewish scientists who escaped Hitler and WWII, throught the shock that hit us in the wake of the Russian Sputnik in 1957, when ten of thousands foreign scientists flocked to the US, followed by the wave of Eastern Asian scientists in the 1980s and 1990s, the American team science has always flourished thanks to foreign members. Especially after WWII, the waves of foriegn scientists coming to the US has been fueled mainly by better paying scientific jobs and the great number of superb academic institutions. The majority of these foriegn scientists are also atheists. Moreover, in their countries of origin the religious are a minority. The religious majority in the US, I believe, always has been an impedement to the advancement of science education. This is also the reason that in the US, more than in any other democratic Western country, atheists are the least trusted group of people. The real danger for the American team science today is the limits that were imposed after 9/11/2001 on immigration of foriegn scientists to the US. We still do not produce enough American scientists. On top of it, it is more difficult to compete today with other developed countries on good-paying scientific jobs. Most importantly, the religious majority in America is still electing their own to Congress and to educational boards and thus continuing to perpetuate religious stupidity.

  22. #22 Matt Penfold
    July 18, 2009

    The thing is, this is not what we’re hearing on some of these science blogs. What we’re hearing is that religion=delusion, that scientists who are also religious are hypocrites, etc. We’re hearing that religion is stupid and hateful and childish and evil and all of that.

    That’s very different from an argument that atheism is reasonable.

    Knop,

    You have in the past told me you believe in god despite evidence. Belief without evidence is delusional. It is one of the meanings of the word.

    So please, make your case for belief without evidence but please, do stop misusing the English language in order to do so.

    I would also remind you that many of your co-religionists believe in the literal truth of the virgin birth and the resurrection. Those are factual claims and need empirical evidence to support them if belief in them is to be considered compatible with science. I have repeatedly asked how belief in things such as virgin birth or resurrection can be considered compatible with science. Mooney and Kirshenbaum appear to claim they are, although they are bit evasive on the issue. We know they claim that science and religion are compatible because scientists can be religious, but we also know they must also be considering another type of compatibility since no one takes issue with the first type.

    Since Mooney and Kirshenbaum are refusing (or simply cannot) to explain how literal virgin birth and resurrection are compatible with science maybe you would like to have a go.

  23. #23 Peggy
    July 18, 2009

    Yes! Part of my frustration with UA (at least the part I’ve read) is the implicit assumption that the “scientific community” is a monolithic group with the same interests and goals, and that there is one “right way” to promote science. It seems absurd to think that one person (Dawkins) or small group of like-minded scientists (Myers et al.) could somehow ruin it for everyone.

    (That also assumes that the American public is uniform in its reasons for (dis)interest in science, which I don’t think is fair to say either.)

  24. #24 eNeMeE
    July 18, 2009

    Nice post, thanks.

    Well written and interesting.

  25. #25 S. Rivlin
    July 18, 2009

    Peggy,

    What do exactly Dawkins and Myers ruin for you?

  26. #26 Faust
    July 18, 2009

    @ Matt Penfold

    Belief without evidence is delusional. It is one of the meanings of the word.

    Reference please? I was under the impression delusion always implies falsity. Lack of evidence does not equal falsity. But perhaps you have access to a definition of delusion that I haven’t seen before.

  27. #27 Llano Estacado
    July 18, 2009

    Belief without evidence is delusional.

    I believe that ‘kindness’ is preferable to ‘cruelty’, even though the evidence is inconclusive.

    I believe that ‘generousity’ is preferable to ‘selfishness’, even though the evidence is inconclusive.

    I believe that ‘acceptance’ is preferable to ‘rejection’, even though the evidence is inconclusive.

    I believe that ‘hope’ is preferable to ‘pessimism’, even though the evidence is inconclusive.

    I believe that ‘love’ is preferable to ‘hate’, even though the evidence is inconclusive.

    I have been an atheist and a scientist for 40 years.
    Yet, I believe in many things that I cannot prove with certainty.

  28. #28 XD
    July 18, 2009

    Faust,

    Is the belief that I have a dragon in my garage not delusional? Seriously, I’d like to know.

  29. #29 Gaythia
    July 18, 2009

    This is another one of your great posts. I hope that it leads to further discussion on a much higher plane than much of that taking place on this general topic now.

    I believe that scientists can get behind common goals and interests while still maintaining diverse individual beliefs and pursuits. I also believe that scientists should make deliberate efforts to help members of the public analyze when scientists are speaking as individuals and how the individual scientists own backgrounds and values may affect their judgment. However, scientists themselves need to understand and model respect for valid differences of opinion.

    We can’t expect the public to become more engaged in science and science based issues unless we allow them to see, and even engage in, the disagreements and questioning that can be an important part of arriving at scientific conclusions.

    We need to foster a true spirit of inquiry. Skeptical analysis of the evidence is an important part of scientific evaluations. Not everyone needs to know everything, but if one is going to accept something by authority, one needs to be able to figure out which authority and why.

  30. #30 XD
    July 18, 2009

    Well, Llano, those are all concepts which are based on human behaviour; we have ample evidence that what those concepts describe is real.

    As to having a preference, that will depend on the data of our experiences. One might also use game theory to reach the same conclusions.

    As to belief in gods, do we have any evidence they are real? Any of them: Agdistis, Ah Puch, Ahura Mazda, Alberich, Amaterasu, An, Anat, Andvari, Anshar, Anu, Aphrodite, Apollo, Apsu, Ares, Artemis, Asclepius, Athena, Athirat, Athtart, Atlas, Baal, Ba Xian, Bacchus, Balder, Bast, Bellona, Bergelmir, Bes, Bixia Yuanjin, Bragi, Brahma, Brigit, Camaxtli, Ceres, Ceridwen, Cernunnos, Chac, Chalchiuhtlicue, Charun, Cheng-huang, Cybele, Dagon, Damkina, Davlin, Demeter, Diana, Di Cang, Dionysus, Ea, El, Enki, Enlil, Epona, Ereskigal, Farbauti, Fenrir, Forseti, Freya, Freyr, Frigg, Gaia, Ganesha, Ganga, Garuda, Gauri, Geb, Geong Si, Hades, Hanuman, Helios, Heng-o, Hephaestus, Hera, Hermes, Hod, Hoderi, Hoori, Horus, Hotei, Hestia, Huitzilopochtli, Hsi-Wang-Mu, Hygeia, Inanna, Inti, Ishtar, Isis, Ixtab, Izanaki, Izanami, Jesus, Juno, Jupiter, Kagutsuchi, Kartikeya, Khepri, Ki, Kingu, Kinich Ahau, Kishar, Krishna, Kukulcan, Lakshmi, Liza, Loki, Lugh, Magna Mater, Marduk, Mars, Medb, Mercury, Mimir, Minerva, Mithras, Morrigan, Mot, Mummu, Nammu, Nanna, Nanna, Nanse, Nemesis, Nephthys, Neptune, Nergal, Ninazu, Ninhurzag, Nintu, Ninurta, Njord, Nut, Odin, Ohkuninushi, Ohyamatsumi, Orgelmir, Osiris, Ostara, Pan, Parvati, Poseidon, Quetzalcoatl, Rama, Re, Rhea, Sabazius, Sarasvati, Shiva, Seshat, Seti, Shamash, Shapsu, Shen Yi, Shiva, Shu, Si-Wang-Mu, Sin, Sirona, Surya, Susanoh, Tawaret, Tefnut, Tezcatlipoca, Thanatos, Thor, Tiamat, Tlaloc, Tonatiuh, Toyo-Uke-Bime, Tyche, Tyr, Utu, Uzume, Venus, Vesta, Vishnu, Vulcan, Xipe, Xi Wang-mu, Xochipilli, Xochiquetzal, Yam, Yarikh, Ymir, Yu-huang, Yum Kimil, or Zeus?

    (I’m sure I missed out a few hundred, but I think you get my meaning)

  31. #31 Matt Penfold
    July 18, 2009

    One meaning of delusion, commonly used, is a false belief or opinion.

    Belief without evidence would seem to qualify as a false belief, and thus would a delusion. If one wants to argue that belief without evidence is not a false belief then the whole concept of belief becomes extremely problematic.

  32. #32 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 18, 2009

    I’m inclined to think we can draw a meaningful distinction here between “belief” and “knowledge”.

    (However, I’m going to bag out of filling in the details right now, owing to what a beautiful day we’re having here.)

  33. #33 Ruth
    July 18, 2009

    Llano Estacado -Yet, I believe in many things that I cannot prove with certainty.

    Every single one of the examples you have given is of a subjective value judgment, not an objective fact. Objective evidence can only apply to objective facts, not to subjective value judgments.

    To give you an example, if I say that J.K.Rowling is a better writer than Terry Pratchett, you may disagree with me, but, since that is a subjective value judgement, you cannot say that I am ‘wrong’.

    However, if I say that J.J.Rowling has written more books that Terry Pratchett, I am stating an objective fact, and, since the most cursory examination of the evidence would expose it as false, you would be quite justified in declaring me wrong.

    Is the virgin birth of Jesus a statement of a subjective value judgement, or a statement of an objective fact?

    Perhaps you think that the people who claim to believe in the virgin birth only mean that Mary was a virgin ‘in her heart’, as certain celebrities claim, rather than in actual, medical fact. :o)

  34. #34 BioinfoTools
    July 18, 2009

    I think that improving the high school science system in the USA may go a long way towards the first goal (Improving scientific literacy and the public’s engagement with science.) It is easier to communicate with people who already have a basic knowledge in something. Improve the basic level of understanding at high school and the communication effort should be easier.

    I’ve commented elsewhere that I’m stunned to learn that teaching high school science in the USA doesn’t require university degree-level science qualifications. It seems to me that the USA needs to work towards national qualification standard of high school teachers holding an undergraduate degree in an area relevant to what they teach and a (current!) teaching diploma (practical teaching skills, management, etc.). Likewise, it seems to me that the USA needs to develop a national core science curriculum.

    Does Unscientific America touch on this issue?

    @ S. Rivlin: I can’t help wondering if recruiting scientists from overseas is “yet another” example of universities in the USA compensating for issues at the high school level.

  35. #35 Faust
    July 18, 2009

    Matt,

    One meaning of delusion, commonly used, is a false belief or opinion.

    Belief without evidence would seem to qualify as a false belief, and thus would a delusion. If one wants to argue that belief without evidence is not a false belief then the whole concept of belief becomes extremely problematic.

    Yes the difficulty here is the question of falsity.

    Just as an example: back when it was commonly understood that the earth was flat, let us say some strange prophet came forward and declared “The earth is round like a ball!” Suppose when asked to justify his claim he merely said “I have no evidence, but I think I’m right anyway.” Now as it happens this fellow is (mostly) right (though his fellow countrymen think him deluded), while his fellow countrymen who think the earth is flat (based on limited evidence) are in point of fact deluded.

    It used to be that people thought that light behaved quite differently than we think it does now, back when we thought of space and time quite differently than we think of them now. As it happens Newton had many false beliefs (boy did he!). Was he deluded? How many of our beliefs are false right now? In 300 years of science how many of our current theories will be considered false? Are we “deluded?”

    The following things can be true:

    1) People can have beliefs for which they have no conclusive (or even any) evidence but that are later discovered to be true (or at least for which excellent evidence is discovered).

    2) People can have beliefs about things which are well justified and for which they have good evidence but which turn out to be false.

    I don’t think “belief without evidence is a false belief and therefore a delusion” cuts the philosophical mustard.

    Now as it happens we may want to invidiously describe someone who is making lots of unsubstatiated unverifiable claims as deluded, but our justification in making that claim will vary based on how much evidence we are able to amass for OUR belief that they are deluded. It is possible that we ourselves may be deluded about their delusion.

  36. #36 Muse142
    July 18, 2009

    OT, sorry…

    Llano @ #27:

    Do you really think that the evidence is inconclusive for the proposition that human groups or individuals that encourage or practice kindness, generosity, acceptance, hope, and love will have objectively better outcomes (in terms of productivity, satisfaction, pretty much any way I can think to operationalize it) than those that practice cruelty, selfishness, rejection, pessimism, and hate?

    Rrrreally?

  37. #37 Whomever1
    July 18, 2009

    Isn’t it pretty much a truism that the only way to get a wide-spread paradigm shift to occur is to wait for everyone who believes in the old paradigm to die of old age? You need to convince children that science is fun and credible, and then you’ll eventually win. Logic doesn’t convince anyone of anything.

  38. #38 S. Rivlin
    July 18, 2009

    BioinfoTools said: “@ S. Rivlin: I can’t help wondering if recruiting scientists from overseas is “yet another” example of universities in the USA compensating for issues at the high school level.”

    You bet! Especially when the recruitment actually begins at the level of graduate school. Most American highschool senior students are less mature and unprepared for college than their foreign counterparts. Graduate school requires even more seriousness and hard work than undergraduate studies, traits that seem to be scarce among American students and more abundant among foreign ones. That said, I think that unless the new immigration limits now in place are relaxed, American science will find itself falling behind that of other developed countries. It is unfortunate that American science is dependent on foreign supply of scientists, but as long as the majority in America believes in teaching the Bible as facts, we have no choice, but to import our scientists.

  39. #39 Rob Knop
    July 19, 2009

    Matt: thank you for illustrating my point that folks aren’t arguing that atheism is OK, but that theism is delusional.

    Re: the bodily resurrection of Christ, I blogged about it:

    http://www.sonic.net/~rknop/blog/?p=105

  40. #40 Rob Knop
    July 19, 2009

    Belief without proof is called “faith.”

    Belief in the faith of evidence to the contrary is delusion.

    They’re not the same thing.

  41. #41 Matt Penfold
    July 19, 2009

    Now as it happens we may want to invidiously describe someone who is making lots of unsubstatiated unverifiable claims as deluded, but our justification in making that claim will vary based on how much evidence we are able to amass for OUR belief that they are deluded. It is possible that we ourselves may be deluded about their delusion.

    I understand your point, but you seem to ignore the fact we have developed methods for testing whether beliefs are justifiable or not, at least when it comes to factual claims about the universe. When it comes to things like claiming Mary was actually a virgin then the scientific evidence is very much against such a claim. Yes, we could be wrong in our understanding of mammalian reproduction and mammals could go in for parthenogenesis, but it would be hard to consider a belief that they do either reasonable or justified.

    As Ruth has pointed out, the claim that Mary was a virgin is an objective fact. She either was or she was not. When it comes to dealing with objective facts, evidence matters. Those who claim Mary was a virgin, despite the scientific evidence to the contrary, have no justification for their belief. We would regard someone who believes they have a dragon living in their garage to be delusional, on the basis there is no evidence dragons exist. Religious fact claims, equally devoid of supporting evidence, seem to somehow be treated differently. It is not at all clear why they should be.

  42. #42 José
    July 19, 2009

    @Marc
    A lot of us view the science-demands-atheism argument as yet another in a long line of attempts to harness the authority of science for a ideological goal.

    Nobody claims that science demands atheism. There’s just no scientific evidence to support a belief in God. That’s just the way it is. Do you dispute that?

    Now we have a group of folks demanding that scientists state their religious beliefs and defend them to their satisfaction.

    Who’s doing this? I’ve never heard of such a thing.

    I see no better illustration than climate change, where many atheists of a libertarian bent adopt tactics that would make a creationist proud.

    Misrepresentation and making things up are a creationist tactics.

    @Rob Knop
    What we’re hearing is that religion=delusion, that scientists who are also religious are hypocrites, etc.

    This kind of talk is usually reserved for people who let religion cloud their views on science. If religious people aren’t trying to force their beliefs where they don’t belong, they’re left alone.

    We’re hearing that religion is stupid and hateful and childish and evil and all of that.

    In cases of things like child sexual abuse, excommunicating rape victims, and beheadings, then yes, you will hear those things. But nobody’s attacking Granny Mae for going to church on Sunday.

  43. #43 Larry Moran
    July 19, 2009

    Excellent post, Janet. I agree with everything you say—except maybe for a few minor quibbles.

    Chris and Sheril have missed the point about scientists having multiple goals and that’s why many of their criticisms are misguided.

    What can we do to find common goals that all scientists can share? I’d like to make one small suggestion. Scientific organizations such as AAAS, NAS, NIH, NSF etc. should remain strictly neutral with respect to religion. They should never take a stance on whether science and religion are compatible or incompatible. They should never promote the views of theistic scientists as being excellent scientist BECAUSE they are religious.

    We all know that AAAS and NAS don’t behave this way. They specifically use Francis Collins and Ken Miller as examples of good scientists who are also religious. They explicitly support the philosophical position that science is compatible with evangelical Christianity (Collins) and Roman Catholicism (Miller).

    If all such organizations refrained from taking sides then ALL scientists, atheist and theist alike, could get behind their goals and support them. As soon as they start promoting the philosophical position of science/religion compatibility, they lose some of their potential supporters. The supporters they lose are the atheists who believe that science is not compatible with many of the beliefs of established religions.

    The strict neutrality that I advocate should extend to the leadership of these organizations. Leaders of scientific organizations should not be prominently identified as supporters of religion or opponents of religion.

    Personally, I would extend the goal of strict neutrality to organizations like the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). If they maintain a big tent then all scientists, atheists and theists alike, can support their main goals. As soon as an organization like NCSE starts to promote the compatibility of science and religion by favoring theistic evolutionists over atheists—especially atheists who are opposed to compatibility—they create divisions. I don’t think it is necessary for them to abandon and antagonize the vocal atheist scientists. NCSE disagrees, they have made a political decision to choose compatibility over neutrality because it advances their primary goal, which is separation of church and state.

    These are complex issues. I don’t get the impression that Chris and Sheril are aware of the complexity.

  44. #44 foolfodder
    July 19, 2009

    NCSE disagrees, they have made a political decision to choose compatibility over neutrality because it advances their primary goal, which is separation of church and state.

    If the NCSE was, as a matter of fact, much more effective by presenting the kind of accommodationism that they use at the moment, would you still want them remain neutral? If so, why? Which of your goals are advanced?

    Also, do you really think that any of the anti-accommodationists will abandon the NCSE if they don’t become neutral? I hope I haven’t misunderstood you, but I’d be very surprised and disappointed if they did.

  45. #45 Matt Penfold
    July 19, 2009

    Rob Knop,

    I have heard the argument that the virgin birth, resurrection etc. were singular event before.

    Christianity is not the only religion to make claims of virgin births, resurrections and so on. Anthropologists estimate that there are, or have been, in excess of 10,000 religions. If we allow each religion its fair share of one off miracles, we would pretty soon have a rather length list of miracles.

    Your claim that the Christian resurrection is a one off is simply not true. It is true as far as Christianity goes, and if you chose to ignore Lazarus (not sure why you would do this though), but you ignored the claims from other religions for resurrections. I see no reason why Christianity should be given any kind of privilege in claiming exclusive rights to claim miracles happen.

  46. #46 Matt Penfold
    July 19, 2009

    If the NCSE was, as a matter of fact, much more effective by presenting the kind of accommodationism that they use at the moment, would you still want them remain neutral? If so, why? Which of your goals are advanced?

    How is the goal of science education furthered if the views of a significant number of scientists are either distorted or totally ignored ?

    It is simply not true to claim that scientists believe science and religion are compatible. Some do, some don’t. If only the views of those who think they are compatible are given prominence by scientific organisations then a misleading view of scientific opinion will be given. That is not good for advancing science.

  47. #47 Rob Knop
    July 19, 2009

    Matt — I’m not claiming any exclusive rights for Christianity.

    All I’m saying is that if you believe that those one-off miracles happened, it’s not inconsistent with science.

    The same would be true of another religion that makes claims for one-off miracles, the specifics of which can not individually be tested by science.

    I’m not trying to claim that all miracles claimed by any religion are true, or even that any specific ones are. All I’m claiming is that one can believe that some number of historical miracles did occur, without contradicting science. You’re taking what I’m claiming and twisting it into something more than what I’m claiming. That, of course, is a standard debating tactic– it would be far easier for the antitheists if in fact all of the religious were fundamentalists, but when we make much smaller claims, you’re forced to assert that we’re claiming more than we are, as you do here, to argue against us.

  48. #48 Faust
    July 19, 2009

    Matt,

    I’m not really ignoring the point that “we have developed methods for testing whether beliefs are justifiable or not” as that wasn’t really relevant to the point I was making. As I said our justification for claiming that X is delusional will vary based on how much evidence we are able to amass for that claim.

    As it happens I’m entirely in agreement with the assertion that supernaturalism is a dead end street–an entirely unhelpful and superfluous hypothesis that is of no help in trying to understand either the world or each other.

    Nevertheless it is important to understand that when we assert something like “people should not formulate theories or act on theories about the world for which they can supply no good justification,” (in this case as defined by the scientific method)we are making a normative assertion. Prescription precedes description. Science is based on a set of judgments about what kinds of evidence constitute sufficient grounds for overturning theories. This is why arguments among scientists are part and parcel of the process of science.

    I think the question of “why do we give the unsubstantiated claims of religion so much leeway when there are all sorts of other unsubstantiated claims that we give no credence at all” is a good one and should continue to be pressed. I just don’t think calling people “deluded” is a good conversation starter. My experience is that people who like to go this rhetorical route like to get lathered up and self-righteous about how “smart” they are, and how “stupid” all the little people are. Perhaps you fall into this category. Perhaps not. I would submit, however, that we can get along quite well without calling people deluded and can simply stick to our request for justification–and that we should feel perfectly within our rights when we shut people out of certain discourses when they try to insert claims into that discourse that cannot be justified. In other words, I think analogicaly speaking that like “supernaturalism,” “delusion” is a rhetorical superfluity.

    I should also add that I’m not convinced by any stretch that the concept “religion” requires supernaturalism. But that’s another topic all together.

  49. #49 BioinfoTools
    July 19, 2009

    I agree with Larry that the various professional organisations should stick to representing their profession and leave ideological issues at the door. Any individuals who ask them to bend the organisation towards some ideological stance should be told—politely—that “we represent our profession, not what ideologies our members hold”.

    If their by-line is anything to go by, NCSE does not consider itself a professional organisation representing science educators (i.e. a professional organisation), but an organisation focused around a singular issue: “Defending the teaching of evolution in schools” and “NCSE provides information and advice as the premier institution dedicated to keeping evolution in the science classroom and creationism out.”. With this in mind, and their narrow objective, it seems to me that they have chosen not to be neutral from the onset, so perhaps they’re stuck with it now? I’m not saying I agree, but rather that perhaps they’ve already crossed a line they can’t easily turn back on?

    This brings me back to my earlier comment in this thread (and others!) regards high school teaching qualifications in the USA. I would love to have a better feel for the situation on this matter, as I can’t help thinking is this a key element. Certainly, it is a least an issue that can be tackled pragmatically and neutrally. It may well apply to all subjects at high school level. It’s why I worded my earlier comment more openly when discussing the qualifications. Anyone care to fill me in if degree-level background in the teaching area is required in any area, or just not for science?

  50. #50 foolfodder
    July 19, 2009

    If the NCSE was, as a matter of fact, much more effective by presenting the kind of accommodationism that they use at the moment, would you still want them remain neutral? If so, why? Which of your goals are advanced?

    How is the goal of science education furthered if the views of a significant number of scientists are either distorted or totally ignored ?

    Because more people accept that evolution is true and stop trying to prevent it from being taught properly in schools. I agree that it is not ideal, but it might be better than the alternative. Would you sacrifice the science education of lots of students over (what seems to me) a minor issue?

    It is simply not true to claim that scientists believe science and religion are compatible. Some do, some don’t. If only the views of those who think they are compatible are given prominence by scientific organisations then a misleading view of scientific opinion will be given. That is not good for advancing science.

    But in this scenario (the one where the NCSE is, in fact, much more effective by presenting the kind of accommodationism that they use at the moment) it is more effective at advancing science education. I doubt that science will be set back much by people having a slightly misleading opinion of the compatibility of science and religion. It will be by having generations of people in some parts of America who are hostile to the ToE (and by extension all the science that supports it i.e. all of it).

  51. #51 NewEnglandBob
    July 19, 2009

    Ken @9 does not understand science at all. He also is clueless on history. His comment is pure garbage.

  52. #52 Peter Beattie
    July 19, 2009

    To me, it sounds like there needs to be a serious dialogue within the tribe of science to work out what common interests all of Team Science can get behind.

    In the conciliatory spirit of that statement, may I suggest two items that should be at the core of any such list. They apply equally to scientists themselves, as a kind of best practice guide, and to the public at large with regard to scientific literacy.

    First, the need to be able to identify bias, i.e. a tendency towards a certain opinion without the support of publicly available evidence. This applies especially to oneself. (There is nothing terribly wrong with bias—being humans, we simply cannot completely avoid it—as long as it’s openly acknowledged.)

    Second, being able to specify conditions that would lead one to change one’s opinion. (Due to the epistemological disequilibrium of only ever being able to say with certainty that we’re wrong.)

  53. #53 Steve LaBonne
    July 19, 2009

    Because more people accept that evolution is true and stop trying to prevent it from being taught properly in schools.

    I keep seeing this kind of claim. I would reply to it that 1) no evidence to support it is ever presented by its proponents, and 2) I would argue that it is in fact implausible because it displays extreme naivete about the psychology of fundamentalists.

  54. #54 Matt Penfold
    July 20, 2009

    All I’m saying is that if you believe that those one-off miracles happened, it’s not inconsistent with science.

    They are NOT one off miracles though. Virgin births are reported in many religions. If we allow one to be true we must allow all to be true.

    Further we cannot restrict claims for miracles to those from established religions. Anyone and everyone could claim an event was miraculous. There are over 6 billion people on this planet, and if each is allowed to claim their own miracles or two, miracles then start becoming rather common.

  55. #55 foolfodder
    July 20, 2009

    I keep seeing this kind of claim. I would reply to it that 1) no evidence to support it is ever presented by its proponents, and 2) I would argue that it is in fact implausible because it displays extreme naivete about the psychology of fundamentalists.

    I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that the strategy is effective.

    In any case, I agree with 1) (but would add that it is probably difficult to get data about that) and I share your scepticism with regards to 2) (but would add that I expect the fundamentalists are probably able to sway the more moderate using the science-leads-to-atheism gambit and that this could make the difference in a vote).

  56. #56 Scicurious
    July 20, 2009

    This is a wonderful post, Janet, I wish I could articulate my feelings on these issues half as well as you do.

  57. #57 Steve LaBonne
    July 20, 2009

    (but would add that I expect the fundamentalists are probably able to sway the more moderate using the science-leads-to-atheism gambit and that this could make the difference in a vote)

    I find that too to be an intuitively implausible proposition for which I would need to see substantial evidence. There is not a lot of love lost between fundies and mainline Protestants, in either direction.

  58. #58 Rob Knop
    July 20, 2009

    Virgin births are reported in many religions. If we allow one to be true we must allow all to be true.

    Why?

    And I’m not saying we have to allow any to be true. I’m saying that if somebody believes that one or a few of them are true, that that specific belief is not inconsistent with science.

    Why do you insist that if somebody believes that, then that person must be arguing that every other virgin birth that somebody somewhere has postulated must be true?

  59. #59 Matt Penfold
    July 21, 2009

    “Why do you insist that if somebody believes that, then that person must be arguing that every other virgin birth that somebody somewhere has postulated must be true?”

    Well I was assuming the person would be arguing in good faith.

    You want your paricular claims for miracles to be true. If you want to do that, and claim compatibility with science, you have to extend the right to claim miracles to others as well. You cannot demand that science give you a pass on your claims for miracles and not allow the pass to be extended to others. Either all claims for miracles must be treated as being true or none. That is unless you can provide us with a method of telling which claims for miracles are true and which are not.

    If a creationist claims that their god created everything 6000 years, and just made it look as though the universe is 13.7 billion years, the earth 4.5 billion years and that life was created all at one rather than evolved rather, and claims it was a miracles we have no way of telling if was or was not a miracle. Sure science tells us it was not, but then science tells us human females do not go in for virgin births. Once you allow that the rules which govern the universe can be broken once then you have to allow it can happen again, and again, and again.

    If you want to claim the virgin birth was a miracle then you are on dodgy ground when you deny the claims of creationists that their version of creation was a miracle.

  60. #60 Rilke's Granddaughter
    July 22, 2009

    “nd I’m not saying we have to allow any to be true. I’m saying that if somebody believes that one or a few of them are true, that that specific belief is not inconsistent with science.”

    As Matt pointed out, that specific belief IS inconsistent with science – there’s simply no mechanism for pathogenesis in higher mammals. If you allow exceptions on the grounds of miracles, then you must – logically – allow ALL exceptions on similar grounds.

  61. #61 ponderingfool
    July 23, 2009

    It should be pointed out that not all scientists are American as well. Dawkins should curtail his message because of the peculiarities of the United States? That does smack of USofA-centric thought that does nothing but harm the international reputation of the USofA.

  62. #62 Silver Fox
    July 27, 2009

    XD 30: “(I’m sure I missed out a few hundred, but I think you get my meaning)”

    Yes, we get your meaning which is that you confuse a “belief in God” with nominalism. You might want to read the Jewish Shema: Adonai echad -God is One. Getting a perspective on what belief in God is will save you the time of going through an anthology of god names from the dawn of history.

    Re: Unscientific America, it’s ranked #1359 on Amazon which is a very respectable ranking.

  63. #63 Silver Fox
    July 27, 2009

    “You have in the past told me you believe in god despite evidence. Belief without evidence is delusiona. It is one of the meanings of the word.”

    This is an old “new atheism” canard that is so shop worn it must be in tatters. It is reductionism at lts worst. It reduces all knowledge to scientific knowledge. It denies all internal phenomena of experience. If new atheists want to reduce themselves to science experimenting robots that is their business but they should not presume to deny the fruits of a very different epistemology to those who KNOW that there is an internal life from which knowledge is derived that is different from the knowledge of an external world that is derived through scientific methodologies. That is not DELUSIONAL; what it is, is the recognition of the wholeness of the human person. Again, if new atheists want to live as half-persons, that is their business, but in attempting to deny the whole personhood to others in order to rationalize their own bogus worldview is absurd.

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