Evolution for Everyone

This blog marks my move from the Huffington Post to ScienceBlogs. I will always be grateful to HuffPost for introducing me to blogging, but numerous people have advised me that I can reach a larger and more appropriate audience through an outlet such as ScienceBlogs. Thanks to Eric Michael Johnson (“The Primate Diaries“) for the final shove and Erin Johnson, community manager of ScienceBlogs, for making the transition easy.

One thing’s for sure: The kind of discourse reported by HuffPost is a far cry from scientific discourse. If I want to say that someone’s health care plan is going to kill your granny, I’m free to do so on the public stage, despite screams of protest that it’s a bald-faced lie, and the whole messy affair will be dutifully reported on the virtual pages of HuffPost. If I try to do something comparable as a scientist, I’m outta there. I’ll be accused of incompetence, my papers won’t be published, and I won’t get a job. If I willfully falsify information, I’ll be excluded in the same way that the most grievous sinners are excluded from their churches.


Why is scientific discourse so different from public discourse? Because scientific culture values and enforces accountability for what people say more than popular culture. People who become scientists are strongly encouraged to adopt accountability as their personal norm and it doesn’t end there. They are also locked into a system of cultural practices that makes it difficult to violate the norms. Every paper published in a peer reviewed journal is a cut gem of accountability, thanks to the peer review process that scientists take for granted.

Science requires altruism in addition to social control. The editorial and peer review process is done mostly on a volunteer basis. It’s true that slackers have slightly tarnished reputations, but most of the hardworking editors and reviewers that I know give much more than they receive and are motivated primarily by their commitment to their scientific community.

In short, the truth is regarded as sacred within science, more than within public life, with all the obedience commanded by the word sacred in religious life. Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.

Here are some insights that emerge from viewing science as a religion that worships truth as its god. First, being a scientist is not natural. We evolved to adopt beliefs when they are useful, not when then they are true, so being a scientist requires resisting temptation, just as religious believers must resist temptation to achieve the ideals of their faiths. Second, the ideals of science can only be achieved by an entire cultural system. Simply exhorting people to respect the truth is not good enough, just as exhorting people to do unto others isn’t good enough. Third, science as practiced often falls short of the goals of science as idealized, just as religions as practiced fall short of the goals of religions as idealized.

The third point is especially important because it means that scientists must be vigilant about keeping their own house in order before preaching to others. Anyone familiar with science knows that it is a messy process, like making laws and sausages. If only it was as simple as hypothesis formation and testing leading straight to the truth! Often science is like a bloodhound having difficulty finding the scent or running off baying loudly in the wrong direction.

A special problem occurs when all scientists are biased in the same direction. Then there is no diversity of opinion that might cause them to disagree. Everyone knows that Darwin and his contemporaries were biased by the assumptions of Victorian culture, which they didn’t know how to question but we can easily recognize with the passage of time. Everyone is prepared to admit that we are also biased by the assumptions of our own culture, but we seldom make a serious effort to examine and correct for them as part of the scientific process. We should.

The fallibility of science makes arrogance one of its sins and humility one of its virtues, just as for other religious faiths. Beware of scientific emperors. They might have no clothes and that’s not a pretty sight.

Thinking of science as a religion that worships truth as it god enables me to praise its virtues and criticize its shortcomings at the same time. In my previous blogs, I have played the role of scientific reformer for two major issues. The first is the “new atheism” movement spearheaded by the so-called four horsemen: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Samuel Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Isn’t it wonderful how scientists and rationalists reflexively adopt religious imagery? I am an atheist in the sense that I regard religion as 100% a human construction, but I’m here to testify that the “new atheists” depart from factual reality in their own way. So did Ayn Rand, the “new atheist” of her day, as we are learning to our sorrow from the collapse of the free market belief system that she helped to create. If we worry about religions for their departures from factual reality, then we should really worry about “stealth religions” that do the same thing without invoking the gods, because they do a better job of masquerading as reality. As someone who is seriously committed to studying religion from a scientific and evolutionary perspective, I’m here to say that the new atheists can’t bring themselves to accept the facts about religion as a human construction. Read my six-part series on “Atheism as a Stealth Religion”, now archived on my ScienceBlog site, for more. Even better, start acquainting yourself with the emerging field of evolutionary religious studies, whose members are more serious about holding each other accountable for what they say about religion.

The second major issue that requires scientific reform is group selection, a theory that explains how groups can become well adapted to their environments in the same sense that individuals do. The theory of group selection began with Darwin and involves a simple set of issues that anyone can understand. Yet, it remains endlessly controversial. Next year marks the 35th anniversary of my first publication on group selection and I’m confident that the controversy will continue for decades more unless something is done. That “something” is a truth and reconciliation process, similar to the resolution of political conflicts that otherwise might continue forever. The idea that a scientific controversy might require a truth and reconciliation process similar to a political controversy speaks volumes about science as a fallible and culturally influenced process.

My “Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection” blogs are now in their 15th installment, with five more to go. Even though they are already available on my HuffPost site, I will begin by replaying them on my ScienceBlog site so that new readers can read and comment upon them in a leisurely fashion. I look forward to the comments and will reply as best I can, as my time allows. Someone once told me that the best way to get rid of the Mormons and 7th Day Adventists who show up at your door is to politely say that you are already active in your own church. That is certainly true in my case.

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    October 21, 2009

    Welcome to the Family. You’ll see – this is no HuffPo ;-)

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    October 21, 2009

    David, welcome to Scienceblogs!

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    October 21, 2009

    Bravo, and welcome to ScienceBlogs!

  4. #4 Julian Garcia
    October 21, 2009

    Very glad to see you here at ScienceBlogs, and looking forward to the discussion with the readership here.

  5. #5 Veronique
    October 21, 2009

    Welcome to ScienceBlogs, David! This is going to be a blast.

  6. #6 Physicalist
    October 21, 2009

    Welcome to SciBlogs!

  7. #7 EMJ
    October 21, 2009

    It’s a great pleasure having you here David. I’m so pleased you decided to be a scibling! Your research is extremely important and I am greatly looking forward to the debate that your ideas generate. Science only moves forward when ideas are critically and intelligently interrogated.

    The model of science I learned in graduate school was to “Go after the sacred cows and have a barbecue.” You have been a champion of this kind of heroic science for decades and I’m pleased as punch to welcome you.

  8. #8 Christopher Mims
    October 21, 2009

    Can’t believe I get to be the first to welcome you to ScienceBlogs. Bravo! Here’s the first (of many) readers you wouldn’t have had were you still on HuffPo.

  9. #9 John Gathly
    October 21, 2009

    This has been a truly wonderful introduction to your writing. I look forward to scouring the archives for more eloquently presented ideas. You are a welcome edition to the ScienceBlogs community.

  10. #10 ppnl
    October 21, 2009

    I for one am interested in the group selection question. I am looking forward to your posts. I need me some Gould vs Dawkins action.

  11. #11 Colin
    October 21, 2009

    Firstly: Welcome to ScienceBlogs! I hope you have a great time here!

    I have little to add to your comments about ‘new atheism’, but, as you could probably predict, I’m a little uncomfortable with your portrayal of science as a religion. I admit that I used to have the same opinion (before I became a scientist) and I realise now that it was mainly because thinking ‘my religion is science’ made me feel like I was being fair – in the naivest possible sense – to religious people. Well, that and I thought that having a ‘different’ philosophical outlook was a bit cool (no-one told me that it wasn’t a new idea).

    It’s a little late here so I’m not going to explore this in full. Suffice to say: I disagree!

    Although, to be fair, my project is going to hell and I’ve reached the superstitious stage where I will pray to anything. I’ve tried praying to the cloning fairies, the FACS force, as well as the deep one-ness of the Western Blot. Maybe you’re right, maybe I should try praying to the Truth.

  12. #12 The Ridger
    October 21, 2009

    Welcome!

    I don’t read the Huff Post, so I’m looking forward to your reposts.

  13. #13 Brad Bryant
    October 21, 2009

    Welcome to ScienceBlogs, Dr. Wilson!

    You’ve made the correct choice to start over on this site, and what a start you have made. Great piece… looking forward to many more and the ensuing discussions.

  14. #14 InfuriatedSciTeacher
    October 21, 2009

    Nice to see you writing somewhere that isn’t infected with supernatural thinking and alt med… I’d love to see some support for group selection theory, as much of what I’ve seen of it is pretty critical. I’ve also yet to see a rational critique of “new atheism” that didn’t lapse into postmodernist hooey, so I’ll have to go check out your archives. An odd welcome from no one important, but welcome all the same.

  15. #15 Alan Kellogg
    October 21, 2009

    Welcome to the Borg, hope you assimilation is a smooth one. :)

    One small thing. I’m asking this here because I can’t seem to find a more appropriate place. Since you work in evolution I figure you would know people to refer me to on this question. It has to do with the pineal gland, and in its location vis a vis reptiles and mammals.

    In mammals the pineal gland is found in the brain, buried beneath layers of neuronal tissue. In reptiles etc. the same body is found at the top of the brain, just beneath the top of the skull. Often sort of poking out through a hole in the skull. Very often the reptilian pineal gland has an eye like structure, complete with rods and cones.

    What I’m trying to do is find information regarding how this disparity in placement came about—buried versus unburied pineal gland, and how far back it goes. I’m wondering if the split between the Reptilia and the Ur Theria (my coinage) may not go back as far as the time of Seymouria and similar pre-amniotic tetrapods. Which would make the term “mammal-like reptile” something of a misnomer, and so require the use of “reptile-like mammal” intead when speaking of such as dimetrodon and dicynodonts.

    Hope this make sense.

  16. #16 Kitty'sBitch
    October 21, 2009

    Welcome Mr. Wilson
    Hmmm…you’re going to be a trouble maker, aren’t you?
    This should be fun.

  17. #17 jim
    October 21, 2009

    Interesting points. Your throw away line about “collapse of the free market belief system” seems a bit outside your expertise. The free market system existed long before Ayn Rand came along — as did recessions, depressions, and banking panics. Unless you think the “collapse of the free market belief system” happens during every recession and depression only to rebuild itself anew during each recovery.

    (Just to be clear, I’m no fan of Rand. I think recessions/depressions are a normal part of the business cycle and human nature — in good times we systematically underestimate risk, and in bad times we overestimate, which causes dramatic economic swings.)

  18. #18 Wes
    October 21, 2009

    Welcome! :)

    HuffPo is evil (what with the anti-vax pseudoscience and all). You’ll be much happier here.

  19. #19 David Dobbsq
    October 21, 2009

    Welcome, David SW, from David D. Yours is a splendid addition to SB, and I’m looking forward to reading much more.

    Best,

    David Dobbs

  20. #20 Don Monroe
    October 21, 2009

    Welcome!

    I’ve read Evolution for Everyone with pleasure, but I hadn’t known of your HuffPo blog. I look forward to hearing more about group selection.

  21. #21 Luke Vogel
    October 21, 2009

    Wonderful to see you here at ScienceBlogs, David.

    Best of luck in your new blog home.

    I’m impressed you’ve wasted no time getting to the important points.

    I actually found out you were here through PZ Myer’s site. I linked to a few of your Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection blog post, including your reply to Dawkins.

    “Promising New Developments” – http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/10/promising_new_developments.php

    PZ: The other entry might be of more interest to readers here, because of the topics covered. We’ve drawn David Sloan Wilson away from the awful Huffington Post, and he’ll be posting on Evolution for Everyone. He’s a very big name in evolution, and I’ve commented on his work before: I think he’s provocative and interesting, but disagree strongly with him on some parts of his ideas about religion. I’ll also be very interested in seeing him present his case for group selection.

    You may be interested in a very nice post Massimo Pigliucci put up today (since we’re getting right to the point).

    “On the Scope of Skeptic Inquiry” – http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/10/on-scope-of-skeptical-inquiry.html

    Massimo: Second, let us turn to atheism. Once again: it is a philosophical, not a scientific position. Now, I have argued of course that any intelligent philosopher ought to allow her ideas to be informed by science, but philosophical inquiry is broader than science because it includes non-evidence based approaches, such as logic or more broadly reason-based arguments. This is both the strength and the weakness of philosophy when compared to science: it is both broader and yet of course less prone to incremental discovery and precise answers. When someone, therefore, wants to make a scientific argument in favor of atheism — like Dawkins and Jerry Coyne seem to do — he is stepping outside of the epistemological boundaries of science, thereby doing a disservice both to science and to intellectual inquiry.

  22. #22 NewEnglandBob
    October 21, 2009

    Welcome. I am subscribed here and I will try to keep an open mind. It will not be easy since I fall in the other camp so far. I am a layman but I read a lot.

  23. #23 Nicholas FitzGerald
    October 21, 2009

    Hello,

    I just read your 6-part stealth series and I found it very enlightening. As an atheist, I have been troubled by the tone the New Atheism movement has taken on, and have found myself grown disappointed with the arguments put forth by Dawkins et al. of late.

    However, I find something equally troubling with your Evolutionary Psychology approach, which is that saying that we are ourselves fully convinced of the rightness of our atheism, but that we understand religion as an adaptive trait, seems highly arrogant. It is as if you are implicitly saying “Atheism is the Truth, and good for us Intellectuals in our Ivory Towers, but we must understand that the Little Man, going about his daily life in a dark and dangerous world with his limited capacities for reason, needs Religion to cope. Let us not disturb him!”

    How can we hold this dual view without being guilty of such arrogance?

    Furthermore, while I do appreciate that not all results of Religion are negative, there certainly are many negative affects – intolerance of minorities, rejection of important scientific facts, and a general support for “faith” as a means to the truth – to name just a few. While I appreciate that these are not always problems unique to religion, religion certainly provides an incentive and a means to defend these views. I wonder how your “Truth and Reconciliation” approach can address the real societal problems which religion is causing? While I chafe at Dawkins’ approach, I have to admit that we live in a political world, and not everyone he is trying to convince will be won over by measured philosophical debate.

  24. #24 John Atkeson
    October 21, 2009

    Congratulations on obtaining the word ‘evolution’ as your scienceblogs URL!

    I await writings on group evolution suspensefully. I have my own opinions, but had no idea the conflict had been going on so long.

    Also looking forward to more cool-headed analysis of the mechanics of religion. Strident atheist blogs are fun to read but sometimes generate more heat than light. I’m with them on the dangers of religion in a technological world, but not buying that something so ubiquitous in such a successful species is 100% maladaptive all the time.

    My personal suspicion is that religion is a lot like the sickle cell gene. In some situations and moderate concentrations it is (net) positively adaptive, but in high concentrations or novel environments it is inappropriate or maladaptive.

    For both, the modern world offers better solutions. We can control malaria now by controlling mosquitoes, and we can organize against chaos now through genuine engagement with our physical laws.

  25. #25 Phase
    October 21, 2009

    Huh. Interesting. I look forward to a view that is Pro-Truth rather than Anti-Religion. As long as Religion and Science aren’t seen as equally valid when determining the truth, I always couldn’t care less what people believed.

    As much as I like other bloggers like PZ Myers, I think I’ll prefer a less hostile viewpoint. Welcome.

  26. #26 DNLee
    October 21, 2009

    Great to see you here Dr. Sloan Wilson. I’m sure you’ll add some exciting fuel to the fireh here at Sb….and I’m just personally excited to know a ScienceBlogger from real life.
    I’ll share this news with Zuleyma.
    Danielle Lee
    (UM-St. Louis)

  27. #27 Monado, FCD
    October 21, 2009

    I think someone from the religious side called Dennis, Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins “the Four Horsemen”. I hate lying! It’s a form of cheating. But truth is a principle of good communication and good science, not a religion.

    Welcome to Scienceblogs! I loved “Evolution for Everyone” and recommend it to anyone who will stand still for a conversation on evolution.

  28. #28 Isis the Scientist
    October 22, 2009

    Welcome, Scibling. I am looking forward to hearing what you have to say.

  29. #29 Mike
    October 22, 2009

    Dear Dr. Wilson,

    I think it’s really great to have you as a scienceblogger! I’m looking forward to reading your insights, and maybe even get to converse a little in the comments.

    Though I cannot but disagree with you on religion (as, perhaps, will most people on here), I am highly interested in your ideas and insights about group selection, and quite open to them (perhaps as opposed to most people on here :).

    If you have the time to respond, I would love to ask you three questions:

    1) Concerning group selection, you (and E.O. Wilson) write that for it play a significant role in the evolution of a population, there cannot be too much migration between the groups – do you think that sociocultural phenomena which enhance group stability and out-group hostility (such as religion) might serve to limit migration and further between-group competition? Do you know of any evidence that the condition of low between-group migration was fulfilled rather frequently in human evolution?

    2) It has been argued that to explain altruism, we need neither rely on group selection, nor strong reciprocity etc, but that it can be explained as “honest, costly signalling” as a sexual attractor – through sexual selection. In ‘Unto Others’, you leave sexual selection out of the picture for reasons of simplicity. What do you think of this idea? Do you think sexual selection has thus played a role in the emergence of altruism?

    3) Aside from multi-level selection, another idea that seems very promising to me in the explanation of human mental capacities and cultural achievements is the multiple-inheritance model proposed (among others) by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb. In “Evolution in four dimensions”, they expand upon the dual inheritance model proposed by Boyd & Richerson, and demonstrate that there can be genetic, epigenetic(cellular inheritance systems), (socio-)behavioral and cultural/symbolic evolution (cultural artifacts as abstract niche construction).
    What do you think of the role of behavioral and cultural inheritance and evolution in the explanation of human cognitive capacities and cultural achievements?

    Thank you for giving me the chance to ask these questions. Your answers would also be very helpful to me, as I am currently writing my M.Phil.-thesis, and it would be highly interesting what you think of these issues.

    If you should find the time to answer my questions – would you consider allowing me to quote your answers as “private communication” in my thesis?

    Sincerely,
    -Michael

  30. #30 Marcel Kincaid
    October 22, 2009

    Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.

    It transparently misuses the words “religion”, “worships” and “god”, and includes a number of category errors. Truth has none of the attributes of a god, and the behavior of scientists towards truth does not have the attributes of worship. Furthermore, science is a methodological framework for epistemological accretion, not a religion, and it is not religions that worship things, it is people.

  31. #31 IanW
    October 22, 2009

    Welcome aboard!

  32. #32 dreamstretch
    October 22, 2009

    excluded in the same way that the most grievous sinners are excluded from their churches

    The most grevious sinners often run the churches.

  33. #33 noel
    October 22, 2009

    Welcome to science blogs. I like your style already. More than a little iconoclastic, I take it. I love philosophy of science and I look forward to reading your stuff.

  34. #34 NoAstronomer
    October 22, 2009

    Welcome to SciBlogs. I don’t know if you’ll be reaching a larger audience but you’ve certainly gained me.

    On the best way to deal with religious proselytizers:

    As a child we used to get Jehovah’s Witnesses calling at the house on Saturday mornings. Since my father was a late sleeper my mother typically answered the door. She would try to communicate her lack of interest in the subject material but she was too well mannered to simply shut the door in their faces. So a couple of weeks later they would be back.

    Then one Saturday it was my father who answered the door and he actually engaged them in conversation. An hour later they left, never to return.

  35. #35 hoody
    October 22, 2009

    Welcome, sir. I have heard wonderful things about you, and look forward to reading sensible commentary on evolution and religion, as opposed to the emotionally charged, faith-based screeds masquerading as science discussion that might found at such sites as Pharyngula.

  36. #36 Greg Peterson
    October 22, 2009

    It’s a treat to welcome your blog. I loved your book and have used the example of the “cooperative hens lay more eggs” story from it in business settings a few times, to outstanding effect. I look forward to learning more things from your perspective; thanks for taking this on.

  37. #37 aratina cage
    October 22, 2009

    Welcome to Scienceblogs!

    That is quite a volley you shot at the the welcoming crowd. Based on the title alone, it is completely wrong.

    Science is a reconciliation of thinking with reality; it is the optimal basis for determining how reality works — a sort of hit and miss function that has evolved into a highly accurate form.

    Religion, on the other hand, is a reconciliation of thinking with thinking. It is circuitous and relies on mental narration and authoritative revelations that usurp “the way things are” and quirks about the evolved human mind into a doctrine without offering an explanation or a way to determine the accuracy of a revelation. In so far as religion fits with reality, it is arbitrary and coincidental. Also, religion does not need a god. Take Buddhism, for instance. That fact pretty much breaks the analogy in your title.

  38. #38 bob koepp
    October 22, 2009

    I guess I have the honor of being the first commenter to say “Welcome” to DSW as a bona fide scienceblogger. I’ll also commend him for having the courage (or is it foolhardiness?) to suggest that science might be a form of religious expression.

    FWIW, I’m happy to acknowledge truth as my god; but I’m not a monotheist, since truth has to share the glory with freedom. Amen

  39. #39 Mark
    October 22, 2009

    Welcome to Science Blogs!! While I also read Huffington Post, I have to say that you got lost in all the noise over there and I at least did not see you over there. But I am looking forward to reading your thoughts on Evolution and Religion too. What fun!!

    Mark

  40. #40 Berto
    October 22, 2009

    What a nice surprise. Great to see you here, Dr. Wilson! :)

  41. #41 James Hanley
    October 22, 2009

    Welcome to Scienceblogs. I hope you’re prepared for loads of abuse from certain quarters, who are going to hate any mention of group selection, and who will absolutely despise you for the fact that you’re comparing science to religion.

    Then again, my guess is that you’ve probably experienced sharp criticism before. ;)

  42. #42 meatyphil
    October 22, 2009

    I’m glad to see you’ve left the Huffpo, Dr. Sloan. I heard you speak at Penn State University recently, and am now quite interested in your work and ideas.

  43. #43 Vole
    October 22, 2009

    Marcel Kincaid @30 is quite right. And an important difference between science and religion is that science is productive. Modern medicine, the internal combustion engine and space flight, for example, could not have been produced by any amount of prayer.

  44. #44 abb3w
    October 22, 2009

    David Sloan Wilson: Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.

    Depending how you define “religion”, Star Trek Fandom is also arguably a religion. (For those not previously familiar, see “Star Trek Fandom as a Religious Phenomenon”, Michael Jindra in Sociology of Religion, V 55 # 1, pp. 27-51.) Whether science does as well similarly depends on what attributes you consider both necessary and sufficient to denote a “religion”. Sacred scripture (written or otherwise), rite/ritual, moral precepts, a distinction between sacred and profane, belief in a reality beyond the immediately verifiable… the definition varies from scholar to scholar.

    Science has some of these elements in some degree; so, in fuzzy set terms, it has some degree of membership. However, so does Football.

    So, perhaps a good topic for you to discuss at some point in the near future would be to discuss what you mean by “religion”; or more broadly, what various suggestions are currently in vogue in the field of religious studies.

  45. #45 Ray Ingles
    October 22, 2009

    First off, I really enjoyed the book, “Evolution for Everyone”, and recommend it frequently. Nice to see you here. But I have to dispute your characterization of science as a religion.

    So far as I can see, a religion has to include some idea of the “supernatural”. Note that belief systems like Buddhism and Confucianism are more likely to be called “worldviews” or “philosophies” than religions, in direct proportion to how little emphasis they put on the supernatural. There’s already questions about whether they qualify as “religions”.

    I’m happy to cop to science as a philosophy or worldview, but to call it a religion is to stretch the term “religion” to the breaking point, to the point where it’s no longer a meaningful or useful concept.

  46. #46 James Sweet
    October 22, 2009

    Blogging must be a religion that worships computers as its god. I mean, bloggers make specific factual errors, right? Therefore, it’s a religion. QED.

    Oh wait, that doesn’t make any sense.

  47. #47 origin
    October 22, 2009

    Welcome to scienceblogs! Looking forward to some in-depth posts on group selection in the future!

  48. #48 Allen D. MacNeill
    October 22, 2009

    Greetings, David, and welcome to Science Blogs!

  49. #49 Jim Thomerson
    October 22, 2009

    You say that scientists biased in the same direction is a problem. Thomas Kuhn, in the other hand, has argued that science is progressive because most scientists share the same paradigm. I’d be interested in seeing your comments on Kuhn’s thinking.

  50. #50 Michael Blume
    October 22, 2009

    Hi David, although HuffPost is really nice, I am very glad that you joined a science-blogging community! Of course, I would have recommended the new Scilogs.eu! ;-) Just kidding, you are perfectly right here! I sure hope that more people might catch on the thriving field of evolutionary studies on religion! As they are extremely interdisciplinary and international, exchange and debate in the web is of utmost importance to its ongoing success, I’d assume! Best wishes from Germany, Michael

  51. #51 llewelly
    October 22, 2009

    … but numerous people have advised me that I can reach a larger and more appropriate audience through an outlet such as ScienceBlogs.

    Well, I can’t stand HuffPo, so certainly I will be reading your blog more often, but in all honesty, the readers of HuffPo need science education far more than the readers of scienceblogs. So while your audience may be larger, and will certainly be more appreciative, I suspect it will be much less in need.

  52. #52 smijer
    October 22, 2009

    Well, hi there then. I’m impressed by the introduction.

  53. #53 Tacroy
    October 22, 2009

    As someone who is seriously committed to studying religion from a scientific and evolutionary perspective, I’m here to say that the new atheists can’t bring themselves to accept the facts about religion as a human construction.

    Maybe this sentence will be explained further after I read your “Atheism as a stealth religion” series, but it seems to me that you have this exactly backwards. Although the New Atheists may not accept the facts about religion being a human construction, the religious cannot accept the fact that religion is a human construction.

    I refer you to, for instance, Albert Mohler’s response to Dawkins and Armstrong’s two pieces in the WSJ. Although the original article was billed as being opposing articles from an atheist and a theist, Mohler (quite rightly, imo) points out that it was in fact two articles from slightly different classes atheists. I would argue that the fundamental reason why he sees Armstrong as an atheist is specifically because she accepts the facts about religion being a human construction. Indeed, I would go one step further: once you truly accept that religion is a human construction, you can no longer be anything but an atheist (or a hypocrite, I suppose).

  54. #54 cromercrox
    October 22, 2009

    Your slogan is flat-out wrong and betrays a fundamental flaw in your understanding of what science is. Science is not a religion that worships Truth as its God – Science is a Religion that Worships Doubt.

  55. #55 Hank Roberts
    October 22, 2009

    Good move. I could never stand reading HuffPo, woo woo.

    I hope the good writing you did before moving here will be copied and archived “here” — not pointers back to the old material in the old context.

    One recommendation: get comfortable with the fact that many of us use killfile and encourage its use. It makes it possible to ignore much trolling — not as robustly as one could with threaded newsreaders, where one could killfile the responses to a troll post, but still it can be helpful.

  56. #56 Tom Foss
    October 22, 2009

    Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.

    Abb3w (#44) has it exactly right: your formulation here is correct for certain fuzzy definitions of “religion,” “worship,” “truth,” and “god.” So long as you are comfortable with equating two different things based on three superficial similarities, then sure, science is a religion. And so is football, and Star Trek, and any other hobby, as well as most jobs.

    Anyway, welcome to ScienceBlogs!

  57. #57 Peter McKellar
    October 23, 2009

    Welcome – and I look forward to having my views challenged and learning.

    A great start (I see where you are coming from) but Tom Foss @56 sums up how I see the problem also. It comes down to how tight definitions become. I will however read through your archives and get a better feel for what you are saying and how you support any arguments before I put my foot too far into my mouth ;)

    I am also keen to follow your research on the evolution of religion. Group selection will also be of interest – I doubt I understand it well enough to even comment at present. Goody, more to learn :)

  58. #58 Diane G.
    October 23, 2009

    Welcome! Eagerly looking forward to discussions of group selection!

    IMO, your “science is a religion” metaphor is dangerous because of the wrong ideas it will give to those who don’t look any further than the title. (And also for many of the reasons already noted above, esp. #30 & #43).

    Makes for a lively discussion, though. :-)

  59. #59 Mark H Martens
    October 23, 2009

    David:

    “Science as a Religion that Worships Truth as its God”.

    Ok as a metaphor, perhaps. But not exactly insightful, is it. Here’s hoping you got something more interesting than that.

  60. #60 gedwarren
    October 23, 2009

    I see several people have picked up on your analogy of science as a religion already. I don’t get that at all. Yes, scientists often have a passionate belief in what they’re doing, even when they’re plain wrong, just like anyone else can – but that isn’t the same as religion. You are confusing the motive to do ‘good works’ in a community setting which generally accompanies religious conviction with the actual worship of a deity. They are very different things.

  61. #61 Brian Jordan
    October 23, 2009

    … Science as a Religion in which Giving Works Sensational Titles gets a Brotha Paid.

  62. #62 Douglas Watts
    October 23, 2009

    “Science as a Religion that Worships Truth as its God”

    This analogy is wrong on so many levels.

    One problem is that it can be equally reformulated as “2+2 is a Religion that Worships 4 as its God.”

    Analogies are like Venn diagrams. The two circles have to intersect at some meaningful point or the analogy fails. Without a meaningful intersection, it’s just doing Mad Libs:

    “Baseball is a Religion that Worships the Winning Score as its God.”

    “A Gene is a Religion that Worships Replication as its God.”

    The only viable comparison is that science and religion both attempt to offer some explanations for something; and both seem to represent a “striving” for something, although what they strive for are completely different. So I can see nothing in the analogy that is meaningful or enlightening, and what I can see is as trivial as the examples above. One might as well say “Science is a Human Activity and so is Religion.”

  63. #63 Douglas Watts
    October 23, 2009

    In short, the truth is regarded as sacred within science, more than within public life, with all the obedience commanded by the word sacred in religious life.

    Disagree. If you are a scientist, say a fisheries scientist fresh out of college, who works for a consulting firm that is hired by a gigantic power plant which is trying to get a water intake license, on say, the Hudson River, and you know the plant’s water intake kills millions of fish per year in its screens, then you, as the fisheries scientist, are required to put the clients’ interest above any “sacred” interest in the Platonic purity of “science.” Any scientist who has worked for consulting firms is well aware of this fact. There is nothing “sacred” about the scientific profession, any more than there is anything “sacred” about a politician keeping their campaign promises. Most of the real-world, practical applications and consequences of science occur outside the world of rigorous peer review. They occur when scientists are employed to provide practical advice and analysis on stuff happening in the real world. Here’s an example: regulatory decisions made by the Dept. of Interior on the Endangered Species Act are not required to have any peer review, nor under the Clean Water Act, etc. Yet these are the type of science based decisions that have more real-world effect than 90 percent of papers cranked out in peer-reviewed journals. In real life, as any scientist knows, it is just as much who you know and what you say and who is writing the check and if you have a baby on the way as to what the “truth” is.

  64. #64 Rorschach
    October 23, 2009

    In short, the truth is regarded as sacred within science, more than within public life, with all the obedience commanded by the word sacred in religious life.

    You say that as if it is a bad thing.

    Science is a Religion that Worships Truth as its God

    Nice as an attention catcher, but analogy fail, and as pointed out above, rather a trivial statement.

    Welcome to SB !!

  65. #65 ivo
    October 23, 2009

    Every paper published in a peer reviewed journal is a cut gem of accountability, thanks to the peer review process that scientists take for granted.

    Well said! Unfortunately, this precise observation kind of contradicts the lame “science is a religion” metaphor:

    In short, the truth is regarded as sacred within science, more than within public life, with all the obedience commanded by the word sacred in religious life. Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.

    As already explained in various comments above, this fails in too many ways. Ok, it may be true that some psycological, social and emotional aspects of the scientific enterprise superficially resemble some aspects of religion – but this is true of any other activity with a following: sports, Startrek, politics, you name it. A simile that applies to anything at all is usually not very illuminating.

    Secondly, as already remarked by cromercrox and as you notice yourself in the comment on peer review, doubt occupies in science a far more important place than truth — and so do accountability, transparency, objectivity,… none of which is “worshipped”, as these guidelines and precepts are adopted for very good reasons: they proved themselves to work.

    This leads to the central point: there is in science no sacred thing at all, in any sense that a religious person would recognize. Nothing is free from criticism, no tenet is followed on authority alone. On the contrary, scientific progress thrives on “blasphemy”.

    And I could go on, but I think I should instead turn the tables: the onus is on you to convince us that this comparison is compelling and illuminating in any way at all.

    Anyway, welcome!

  66. #66 Bevets
    October 23, 2009

    Evolutionism is the tinfoil hat that keeps God out of your brainwaves. Wake up sheeple!

  67. #67 Luke Vogel
    October 23, 2009

    I’ve noticed a few comments now working on the phrase:

    “Science as a religion that worships truth as its god.”

    First, for me the first thing it brought to mind was Carl Sagan’s insight that “science is like informed worship.”

    Second, there’s interesting debate (apart from the worth of such a phrase) about using the word “truth” as apposed to “doubt”.

    Are you kidding? If we are to accept this type phrasing, replacing “truth” with “doubt” makes no sense.

    Doubt is to be valued as part of science, but the goal of science, what it worships in its informed way, is getting to truth. It is truth that matters, even while recognizing we are giving our provisional acceptance to the facts and theories of science. The tools of science are being and have been continuously refined, including the tools,ways to eliminate bias and value doubt, but what we want by these refinements, what we cherish is truth.

  68. #68 Luke Vogel
    October 23, 2009

    I just want to add to my last comment. That even though I have reservations about David’s phrasing, it is understandable as the argument is forwarded and it’s done so without going out of bounds of science, in fact he’s showing a very deep respect for science.

    Now, back to this very strange replacing “doubt” with “truth” idea.

    One other thing it misses, is that doubt is actually part of science, in this way with scientific truth as the god, this is the antithesis of “supernatural”/”superstitious” religion, while recognizing religion PURELY as a natural phenomena.

  69. #69 bob
    October 23, 2009

    Yes, hello. And goodbye. Hopefully your stature as a scientist doesn’t blind too many people to what you’re doing here. Your equivocations are the favorite of theologians: “science is biased … against bias!” Neat trick, if you can sneak it past people.

  70. #70 Richard Eis
    October 23, 2009

    Welcome…

    As far as I can see, as an atheist I get shoved into the namby pamby accommodationist (hissss) or the cruel, religion must die “new atheist” pigeon hole.

    If I must choose, therefore I choose new atheist as so far that strategy is getting us noticed… and the books are more interesting.

  71. #71 Janus
    October 23, 2009

    Would someone explain to me how this word-twisting, intellectually dishonest buffoon ever got the recognition that he has?

    Truth is science’s _goal_, like checkmate is the goal of chess, except that all of reality is science’s chessboard.

  72. #72 mck9
    October 23, 2009

    Alan Kellog #15:

    In mammals the pineal gland is found in the brain, buried beneath layers of neuronal tissue. In reptiles etc. the same body is found at the top of the brain, just beneath the top of the skull. Often sort of poking out through a hole in the skull. Very often the reptilian pineal gland has an eye like structure, complete with rods and cones.

    I know of no mammals that bury the pineal gland beneath layers of neuronal tissue. The mammalian pineal is pretty much in the same place it always has been, outside the brain proper, dangling just behind the posterior commissure.

    In smooth-brained animals like rats and mice the pineal is still just under the skull, where it is very accessible for a pinealectomy (though bleeding from the sagittal sinus can be a problem).

    In mammals such as ourselves whose cerebral cortex has become bloated, the occipital lobes have swollen and enfolded the pineal deep within the sagittal sulcus. However the topology hasn’t changed. The pineal isn’t buried so much as entrenched. A coffin isn’t buried until you shovel the dirt back in.

    So far as I know the pineal has always served a visual function, but in mammals the connection to vision has become rather indirect.

    The suprachiasmatic nuclei of the hypothalamus serve as the main rhythm generator — an internal clock — for circadian rhythms. They are entrained into the daily light cycle by a direct input from retinal ganglion cells.

    From the suprachiasmatic nuclei, the pathway is thought to go through:

    1. The dorsal parvocellular portion of the paraventricular nuclei of the hypothalums, which projects to:

    2. The intermediolateral cell column of the spinal cord, which projects to:

    3. The superior cervical ganglion of the sympathetic nervous system, which projects to:

    4. The pineal.

    See: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/63500938/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

    The main function of the pineal gland in mammals, so far as is known, is the secretion of melatonin, which tracks the circadian cycle (and helps to make us sleepy at bedtime). If you denervate the pineal by removing the superior cervical ganglion, the circadian rhythm of melatonin secretion disppears.

    I’m more than a little hazy on the situation in non-mammals, but I vaguely remember reading a paper showing that in at least some birds, the pineal senses light directly through the thin, translucent skull. When they made the birds wear little caps to block the light, the melatonin rhythms went away. Or something like that.

  73. #73 Pierce R. Butler
    October 23, 2009

    … truth is regarded as sacred within science, more than within public life, with all the obedience commanded by the word sacred in religious life.

    A nicely provocative statement, but not, um, true.

    Aside from the numerous exceptions and distinctions made by several on-target commenters above, there’s the problem of those last twelve words.

    In religious life, “sacred” signifies that obedience is commanded by an external supreme authority, usually one with a keen personal interest in keeping the minions in line. IOW: Daddy smites! (Sometimes, impersonal laws – karma, etc – fill the same function.)

    Does Dr. Wilson view peer-reviewers, ethics boards, letters to journals, & tenure committees as possessing cosmically infallible omni- science/potence?

  74. #74 Michael Dowd
    October 23, 2009

    Welcome, David! It’s great to see you here at ScienceBlogs — a much better fit than HuffPost. Your contributions here can make a difference in ways impossible (or at least not very likely) there or elsewhere.

  75. #75 Bjoern Brembs
    October 23, 2009

    Welcome!
    There is no truth. Only a temporary explanation of observables. Why should we ‘worship’ that?
    At any time, a new experiment could change what is generally called ‘truth’. Also, the old metaphor of ‘truth’ as the unattainable asymptote fails for the same reasons as ‘reality’ in epistemology. Much as ‘reality’, ‘truth’ is a colloquial concept that, to my knowledge, has no consensus definition in science. Unlike ‘theory’ which has a colloquial usage that is very different from the consensus definition in science.

    By claiming that science is like a religion with truth its god, you not only provide fodder for cdesign proponentsists, but you also misrepresent the scientific method.
    This does not imply that it is impossible that for some scientists, science really is a religion in the way you describe it. These individuals are probably about as delusional as any other religious individuals and will find it difficult to reconcile their truths with others, newer ones, opposing ones as they tend to come along more or less regularly in science.

  76. #76 -ID62-
    October 23, 2009

    Welcome Dr. Wilson,
    Good way to enter the party!
    My understanding of your comments leads me to agree with those who are questioning your definition of religion. I will read more of your work before I comment any further.

  77. #77 Elbows
    October 23, 2009

    So, for an introductory post we get a trite and tired old analogy that’s never stood up under scrutiny before, but it’s presented as a radical new insight as if nobody’s ever considered it before. Plenty of other posters have pointed out why it doesn’t work so no need to repeat it.

    Oh, and the claim that the “new atheists” have departed from factual accuracy, as though they all represent some monolithic body of thought, but without any detailed look at anything they have said to back up that opinion.

    Sorry to be harsh, but this is at the level of high-school debating society rhetoric and if it’s a typical example of David Sloan Wilson’s thinking I find it hard to understand why he’s being given quite such an enthusiastic welcome. Nothing wrong with challenging the status quo and entrenched thinking, in fact it’s to be encouraged, but you do have to come up with arguments that are actually… you know… challenging! Doubt whether I’ll bother with a second visit.

  78. #78 David Marjanović
    October 23, 2009

    Found in the comments sections of other blogs:

    “We don’t necessarily want accurate maps, we want useful ones. But accuracy is extraordinarily useful.” – David Gerrold

    “Archeology is the search for FACT. [writes "FACT" on the blackboard] If you want truth, try the philosophy class down the hall.” – Indiana Jones

  79. #79 JackC
    October 23, 2009

    Welcome and thank you for the initial thoughts.

    Perhaps because I am an amateur radio operator, I have no particular problem with the “Science as Religion” concept. In a way, this resonates with the originally highly derogatory title “Ham” to describe our occupation in my hobby!

    I don’t think I will use it though – since the word “religion” has historical reference to dealing with things that are NOT natural. In that respect, I agree with those that take you to task on that score.

    However, I also recognise the migration of meaning, and your thoughts on the subject do resonate. I look forward to reading your past material (not being a HuffPo reader at all) and hope to be able to spend some time with you on Sb.

    JC

  80. #80 Hank Roberts
    October 23, 2009

    Suggested rearrangement of words in your title:

    Goodbye HuffPost, as a Religion that Worships Truth as its God
    Hello ScienceBlogs: Science

    Subtitle: Woo-woo, goodbye!

  81. #81 'Tis Himself OM
    October 23, 2009

    So did Ayn Rand, the “new atheist” of her day, as we are learning to our sorrow from the collapse of the free market belief system that she helped to create

    I’m an economist. I have a graduate degree in economics from an Ivy League university and many years of experience in the field. I say this to show I have credentials for being able to identify economists. Ayn Rand was not an economist. She was a philosopher and a mediocre novelist.

    While Rand was an advocate of laissez faire capitalism, this was due to her fierce dislike of collectivism rather than for economic reasons. Just as Rand didn’t have a clue about what altruism is, her knowledge of economics was good enough for her to balance her checkbook. She was a friend of Ludwig von Mises and one of her followers was Alan Greenspan. The latter once told me that he liked Rand as a philosopher but despaired her ever understanding the basics of economics.

  82. #82 Sven DiMilo
    October 23, 2009

    A slightly belated welcome and greeting to you, Dr. Wilson!
    I was an undergraduate student in the first course in Evolution you taught (with Guy Bush and Don Straney) at Michigan State back in 1982(ish). I found what you had to say fascinating at the time (even though my priorities may have been elsewhere in terms of in-class performance amd, uh, attendance).
    A pleasure to find you holding forth here at ScienceBlogz.

  83. #83 Alan Kellogg
    October 23, 2009

    Mck9, #72

    And what’s all that stuff on top of the mammalian pineal gland, fatty tissue? You’re dismissing entire lobes here.

  84. #84 MadScientist
    October 23, 2009

    This is an inappropriate analogy of science to religion. Fundamentally religion claims that it is a way of knowing and that people should believe and not question the religious authorities. That is anathema to progress. Science on the other hand says don’t be so willing to believe everything you hear; look at what others have done and see if you can do the same or even do better. I see absolutely no support for the flippant remarks against “new atheists” – whatever that may be (Atheists Born Yesterday Inc.?)

  85. #85 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 23, 2009

    Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.

    This analogy is pathetically wrong and mind-numbingly boring, for all of the reasons pointed out above.

  86. #86 mck9
    October 23, 2009

    Alan Kellogg, #83:

    And what’s all that stuff on top of the mammalian pineal gland, fatty tissue? You’re dismissing entire lobes here.

    I’m dismissing entire lobes because no lobes cover the pineal.

    Here’s a sagittal section of the rat brain:

    http://www.flyfishingdevon.co.uk/salmon/year1/m0000n.gif

    The pineal is labelled “Pi”, just below the “t” of “thalamus” and a little to the left. Note that it’s just under the surface. Pretty much all that’s between it and the dura mater (the tough outer membrane surrounding the brain) is a blood-filled cavity, part of the sinus system that provides much of the venous drainage of the brain.

    In humans and other mammals with more highly developed cerebral cortices, the pineal lies between the cerebral hemispheres, but it is not inside them. It’s a midline structure. Topologically it is still on the outer surface of the brain, but bigger brain parts fold around it on either side.

    Lay a penny on top of a pillow. It’s clearly exposed, like the pineal of a rat. For a primate pineal, fold up either end of the pillow, leaving the penny in the valley between the folded ends. Now the penny is harder to see, and harder to get to — but it’s still not inside the pillow, nor is it covered by layers of pillow tissue. It’s just lying between two pillow lobes. It bears the same relationship to the pillow as it did before; only the geometry as changed.

    Likewise the pineal of a primate bears the same anatomical relation to the brain as the pineal of a rat, or the pineal of a lizard, but the geometry has changed because the cortex has grown so much.

    If you look at diagrams showing the position of the human pineal, you will probably see it as viewed from the side. Whoever draws it is interested in showing the cortex, but the cortex is not in the midline like the pineal. In such a diagram it may look like the pineal is surrounded by cortex, but that appearance is misleading.

    The placement of the pineal would be more clear as viewed from the front, or from above. But it’s a small structure. You won’t even see it unless you’re at just the right level.

    [Correction: I said earlier that the pineal dangled from the posterior commissure. I believe I should have dangled it from the nearby habenular commissure. It's been a while since I did this stuff.]

  87. #87 stevec
    October 23, 2009

    #63 Doug Watts:
    As a consultant myself, if I am hired to assess a situation, I always report on the actual conditions and most likely potential outcomes, regardless of the client. Good consultants are NOT advocates, they do the science and report the results. I regularly tell clients that the results may not be what they expect or want. Maybe not huge hydro companies, but developers doing large subdivisions. Truth is not relative any more than the outcome of an experiment. How the truth is interpreted by the readers of the report – Now That is relative!

  88. #88 Marcel Kincaid
    October 23, 2009

    Sorry to be harsh, but this is at the level of high-school debating society rhetoric and if it’s a typical example of David Sloan Wilson’s thinking I find it hard to understand why he’s being given quite such an enthusiastic welcome.

    Sloan is good at some things, but extraordinarily bad at others — somewhat like Francis Collins, but not as severely.

  89. #89 Marcel Kincaid
    October 23, 2009

    Oopsy about addressing him by his middle name. I actually think that having a three word name has a lot to do with his high standing — he sounds like someone respectable.

  90. #90 Marion Delgado
    October 23, 2009

    Huff is fine cuz the liberal POV needs its own tabloids.

    That said, you’re leaving a snakepit of medical and other New Thought woo that’s almost unparalleled on the nets, so good for you.

  91. #91 Marcel Kincaid
    October 23, 2009

    This does not imply that it is impossible that for some scientists, science really is a religion in the way you describe it.

    It is impossible, because his description is incoherent. Of course there are “scientists” — in the sense that they have a degree in or are employed in a scientific field — who are dogmatic and don’t do real science, but that has nothing to do with what Wilson wrote.

  92. #92 Marion Delgado
    October 23, 2009

    BTW you’re probably quite wrong about the “truth” part.

    Most scientists are about process and the existing body of knowledge. Tell them there’s a “truth” out there but it’s inaccessible to scientific study and they won’t chase after it, they’ll say, “too bad” and go back to what they can study and establish.

  93. #93 Marcel Kincaid
    October 23, 2009

    Here is a much better characterization of the scientific stance:

    The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all accounts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.

    W.V. Quine and J. S. Ullian, The Web of Belief

  94. #94 Hannah Dodd
    October 23, 2009

    You make several comparisons attempting to link properties of science to religion (for example, “We evolved to adopt beliefs when they are useful, not when then they are true, so being a scientist requires resisting temptation, just as religious believers must resist temptation to achieve the ideals of their faiths.”) None of these is actually analogous in the sense that it shows us any compelling reason why we should consider science a religion. In other words, this argument is really a stretch. Many things require resisting temptaion (such as diets), regard something as extrememly important or “sacred” in the way you very loosely define the term (such as tolerance among liberals or thinness in fashion), or fall short of idealized goals (such as… ummm… almost everything??). In order to draw parallels between science and religion, you must make such general statements that they might be used to call almost anything a religion.

    Secondly, I am utterly unpersuaded by your contention that this is a useful analogy to make or that it provides any “insights.” You claim that “thinking of science as a religion that worships truth as it god enables me to praise its virtues and criticize its shortcomings at the same time.” I fail to see how this cannot be accomplished unless we think of science as a religion. Of course we should criticize science when necessary. But just because it has its faults does not make it a religion.

    So, in short, not only is the analogy weak, vague, and inappropriate; it is also pointless.

    Finally, and most importantly, it is amazingly arrogant and pompous for you to claim to be an objective observer gently showing science its weaknesses, when those supposed weaknesses are directly related to the lack of acceptance for your pet theory. You contend that group selection “involves a simple set of issues that anyone can understand. Yet, it remains endlessly controversial.” You imply that (1) scientists who disagree with your view do so because they refuse to understand it and (2) researchers’ legitimate claims against your position merely result from science’s supposedly strict dogma and “religious” refusal to believe what is obvious. You do not come out and say this directly, but it is implied by your tone that anyone’s criticisms of group selection must be based on their refusal to consider it rather than valid concerns. Group selection is controversial not because of a fault with science but because of a fault with the idea itself.

    To summarize … I call bullshit.

  95. #95 Dana Hunter
    October 24, 2009

    So, for your inaugural post as a Science Blogger, you equate science to superstition and then take snide potshots at the New Atheists. Actual science content: negligible. Bullshit: 99.99%.

    Hello and goodbye, Dr. Wilson. You should’ve stayed at HuffPo.

  96. #96 Chris C.
    October 24, 2009

    Gotta agree with Hannah and Dana there – this does not seem an auspicious debut.

  97. #97 melior
    October 24, 2009

    What a fun yet silly game! May I try?
    “Organized religion is like a Pie Eating Contest Using Bullshit as Pie.”

  98. #98 Marion Delgado
    October 24, 2009

    Jim:

    No doubt you believe that, but it’s out of faith, not science.

    And stemming from that, you have no more expertise than Wilson does. Indeed, it’s faith-based economics like yours that calls everything capitalism does natural and inevitable that, for instance, recently drove Iceland over a cliff.

  99. #99 PeterP
    October 24, 2009

    @71

    Would someone explain to me how this word-twisting, intellectually dishonest buffoon ever got the recognition that he has?

    Because he knows how to push people’s buttons.

  100. #100 Jim Thomerson
    October 24, 2009

    As I understand (not all that well) Sir Karl Popper’s thinking, he regards science not as a search for truth, but rather an enterprise to detect and correct errors in our thinking. The scientific method, attempting to falsify hypotheses, has no mechanism for recognizing Truth. An hypothesis can, at best, only be supported, not shown to be the best possible explaination of the phenomenon. By Truth, I refer to Absolute Truth as accepted by faith-based religions.

    Truth can be viewed in differnt ways; is the glass half full or half empty? As one of our ex-students, employed by an A&E firm, commented “If the client wants it blue, you shine a blue light on it.” However, my take on consulting is that I tell the client what they need to know, not what they want to know.

  101. #101 Duncan
    October 24, 2009

    You wrote: “A special problem occurs when all scientists are biased in the same direction. Then there is no diversity of opinion that might cause them to disagree.”

    In my reading of science blogs I witness this bias so frequently that I consider it everyday “science fundamentalism.”

    I witness peer review among scientists usually only in the narrowest of topics.

    Pharmaceutical and medical device companies regularly produce very poor clinical research with costly and devastating effects and there is very little comment or in depth analysis from the scientific community until the damage is very obvious. These are problems that affect millions of people.

    Every time there is a vioxx type incidence (and this happens fairly regularly) and tens of thousands of people die as a result and many more are damaged, respect for science is set back years.

    Instead of self-policing, what I witness is enormous amounts of writing and vitriol poured on the heads of anyone using or practicing any form of “alternative” medicine. Yes, there are certainly outrageous examples of naivete and tomfoolery in alternative medicine but these tend to affect relatively small numbers of people.

    At this time seems to me that all this scientific talent would be best spent policing what passes for scientific research but is really market driven. Commercialism and money is having an increasingly corruptive influence.

    Science can be a wonderful path and very powerful but very subject to arrogance and defensiveness. Also there is a strong tendency to act imperially when dealing with the peasantry called lay people.

    You do not have to be a Christian to recognize the wisdom of the statement, “If you wish to remove a mote from another’s eye, first remove the mote from your own, so you can see better.”

    btw, David, I look forward to reading your future posts. Thanks,

  102. #102 Benjamin Allen
    October 24, 2009

    Hello David. It has been a while since we last spoke (at the Multilevel Selection workshop at ASU in the spring of ’08. I have since gone on to graduate work on predator-prey interactions between ranid tadpoles and natricine snakes) and I look forward to reading your entries. I also look forward to engaging you in discussion.

    That having been said, I have never been comfortable with such a broad definition of religion as being “dealing with the sacred”. I would argue that this particular definition is so broad and all-encompassing that it becomes meaningless, and that religion should probably be restricted to belief systems involving sacredness that also include some supernatural component. I say this because under your operational definition, activities which are self-evidently not religious (such as tourism around political/historical monuments like the Lincoln memorial))would take on religious character. It would be an exercise in comparing apples to oranges.

    As for how religion evolved, that is another matter entirely. None of the three primary hypotheses are mutually exclusive. Protoreligion being the product of highly adaptive cognitive processes such as pattern-detection and agency assignment systems which caused early humans to try to placate animistic forces. Combine these supernatural agents with probably pre-existing rituals (like rites of passage into manhood) and a sense of sacredness (based upon historical experience and environmental conditions probably. “Ooooh that rock is special because the antelope pass it on their migration every year”) and you get primitive religion. From there the memes evolve like any other symbiotic relationship. Commensalism, Parasitism, Mutualism, all of them are possible, and in fact because the religions evolve under certain environmental and cultural conditions they can be parasites in one population and mutualists in another (religion specific of course). Frankly it is not even the supernatural beliefs of religion that are in any way adaptive. The cultural group-oriented activities that surround it are. However those can be implemented by secular institutions, without the supernatural beliefs which retard efforts to better society.

  103. #103 bob koepp
    October 24, 2009

    Jim Thomerson – I think you’ve confused Popper with somebody else, since he held out against positivists for a realistic construal of scientific theories. In other words, he insisted that truth is the proper “goal” of science. I used the scare quotes around ‘goal’ because it might be more useful to think of truth as a “regulative ideal”. And, actually, the so-called “method of falsification” is presented explictly as a “mechanism for recognizing truth.” It’s just that the truths it delivers are negative.

  104. #104 David Sloan Wilson
    October 24, 2009

    Thanks to Bob for this clarification. A number of comments have made the point that ideas can only be falsified, that the truth can never be fully known, that doubt not truth is the religion of science, and so on. I’m happy to acknowledge that science can only approximate the truth, but this still recognizes that there is a truth and that the goal of science is to approximate it as closely as possible, as Bob says. Also, if by “doubt” we mean the collection of practices called the scientific method, then doubt becomes an essential instrument for approximating the truth, but it is the means to an end, not the end in itself.

  105. #105 sav
    October 25, 2009

    I’m a layperson who reads various blogs on ScienceBlogs and often doesn’t participate in the conversation, so I feel funny saying “welcome” because I’m not too active at SB. I suppose I should just say that I look forward to reading about your ideas.

    One thing about this post jumped out at me as I was reading, and before I go into it, I must state that like some other people who have commented here, I have a problem with the science as a religion metaphor. Also, I haven’t read all the comments here, so maybe someone else already made the point I want to make.

    This is what jumped out at me:

    Third, science as practiced often falls short of the goals of science as idealized, just as religions as practiced fall short of the goals of religions as idealized.

    I could put it this way:

    “Third, science as practiced often falls short of the goals of science as idealized, just as A PERSON’S LIFE as practiced OFTEN falls short of the goals of THAT LIFE as idealized.”

    I guess the comparison doesn’t make sense to me because anything idealized will be far better-seeming than it is in practice. Idealization is the drafting stage of forming ideas. Practice is the application of ideas, many of which aren’t well formed before they are put into practice. I’d even say that ideas can’t begin to become well formed until they are put into practice, because the practicing of them will show you what works and what doesn’t about an idea.

    Practice is work. Work is harder than daydreaming. Which would you rather do?

    When one idealizes (or daydreams or just has ideas), what one idealizes is that one person’s ideal. That ideal is shaped by only that one person’s experiences. (This is similar to what you said about scientists being influenced by the reality of their own lives, in particular Victorianism and Darwin.) In practice, a person may run into problems with their ideals. Reality is always more complicated than anyone can imagine for the simple fact that there are other players involved than just one’s imagination.

    Scientists, like everyone else, are not only influenced by what they bring to the table but also by what they discover along the way. And what they discover could blow everything they think they already know sky high.

    I guess I find the metaphor too simplistic and rather aggravating. Why do we have to compare science to religion to make the point that the application of science is not perfect and there are things scientists can do to make the practice better? Isn’t that your main point? The application of how I do dishes is not perfect, and I can do better. I find comparing the practice of the scientific method to the practice of believing in the supernatural disingenuous. Apples and oranges. The practice of worshiping is void of questions. The practice of gaining knowledge is full of them.

  106. #106 Bjoern Brembs
    October 25, 2009

    DSW wrote: “approximating the truth”. If the delivered truths (why plural, is there a trinity coming?) are negative (according to Bob), aren’t we accumulating truths? Which one is it? Approximating the unattainable asymptote or accumulating negative truths? Or riding the fine line between the two?
    Whatever denomination you belong to in this debate is just as irrelevant as what religion you adhere to.
    We have an accumulating set of sensory input (scientific observations) which we try to fit into a system of minimal contradictions. I don’t think it takes an Einstein to realize that this local minimum in our scientific system is nowhere close to what the colloquial meaning of truth is. Therefore, I doubt there will be many scientists, if allowed some thought and deliberation, would profess religious-like faith in a hypothesis equating the two.

  107. #107 Dave
    October 25, 2009

    I’m sorry, this is the first thing I’ve read by David Sloan Wilson, so my first impression of him is this truly horrible analogy between science and religion.

    For one thing, science is a meritocracy, while a religion cannot be a meritocracy, unless you can show me your technique to evaluate how one person is better than another at communicating with the supernatural. Furthermore, even if you could explain your technique for evaluating supernatural communication to me, the followers of a religion DO NOT WANT it to be a meritocracy.

    Wilson also wrote something glaringly untrue about the roles of arrogance versus humility in science versus religion. True, religions typically dictate that their followers should show humility. But to start and lead a religion, who has the nerve to clear their throat and claim their communication with the supernatural, and their moral judgment over other people? Arrogance is a requirement.

  108. #108 bob koepp
    October 25, 2009

    Bjoern – By the time we get to doing actual empirical science, we need something a bit more refined than a vague colloquial idea of truth – just like we need something more refined than colloquial notions of taxonomy to do serious biology. So the fact that views about the role of truth in science don’t conform well to colloquialisms shouldn’t be a source of worry. Right?

  109. #109 Alan Kellogg
    October 25, 2009

    mck9, #86

    And the end result is? Is not the mammalian pineal gland at the bottom of a chasm. Does the mammalian pineal gland have any substantial contact with the outside world, as does the reptilian pineal? I got details wrong, once you correct for my error you find my essential point remains.

    What point would that be?

    That a very long time the reptilian brain and the mammalian brain went on separate evolutionary pathways. With the result that the mammalian and the reptilian pineals began to differ in details of structure and function, taking on aspects not possible in the other tetrapod line. The mammalian pineal shows the signs of long sequestration from the outside world, and where once pre-mammals may have had cells capable of detecting light, those cells have in mammals taken on a chronological role.

    In other words, your objection makes no difference.

  110. #110 abb3w
    October 26, 2009

    Marion Delgado: Tell them there’s a “truth” out there but it’s inaccessible to scientific study and they won’t chase after it, they’ll say, “too bad” and go back to what they can study and establish.

    That depends whether you just tell them it’s inaccessible, or whether you tell them it’s an inaccessible but asymptotically approachable limit. In the latter case, while you’ve told them it’s inaccessible, many will see how close they can get.

    bob koepp: And, actually, the so-called “method of falsification” is presented explictly as a “mechanism for recognizing truth.” It’s just that the truths it delivers are negative.

    Mathematically, this might be better termed “co-recognition”, since it’s identifying propositions in Co-RE.

    Bjoern Brembs: If the delivered truths (why plural, is there a trinity coming?) are negative (according to Bob), aren’t we accumulating truths? Which one is it? Approximating the unattainable asymptote or accumulating negative truths?

    Depends whether you are referring to truths about what reality IS, or truth in general. We do not acquire knowledge of what the state of reality is, or even the probable state of reality, but at most knowledge of which are not the most probable descriptions of the probable state of reality. There’s at least one layer of indirection there which cannot be extricated without taking a philosophical prior that cannot be given philosophically universal justification.

    bob koepp: By the time we get to doing actual empirical science, we need something a bit more refined than a vague colloquial idea of truth

    For science, it suffices that…

    TRUE ≡ P NAND (P NAND P)

    …with NAND defined as a relation for forming compound propositions such that Wolfram’s Axiom…

    (A NAND B) NAND C) NAND (A NAND ((A NAND C) NAND A))) ≡ C

    …holds. In philosophy, some members of Intuitionist schools who prefer a Heyting Algebra over a Boolean (or of a Dialetheial school such as Graham Priest) may have objections. Roughly, these factions lack belief in existence of such NAND.

    However, most scientists will be content with that as a starting point. (A minority show pretenses at philosophical Intutionism.) Next, one needs to get to where one can talk about “probability”; the typical scientist may be less comfortable at the very start of the path mathematicians use to get to that, but will usually be willing to take on Faith sufficient points to join the trip somewhere along the way.

  111. #111 Jeremy Lent
    October 26, 2009

    I think your comparison of science and religion was meant to point out some benign analogies to enhance the understanding of the scientific approach.

    However, many distinguished Nobel Prize winning scientists (and perhaps the majority of scientists?) pursue an absolutist path to the Truth, with disturbing similarities to the absolutism of monotheistic religions… and they have a thousand year tradition behind them. These people (including Hawking, Weinberg, Crick & Dawkins), share an absolutist thought tradition with Christianity and may be seen as pretenders to its throne of Truth.

    Please see my post, Science and Absolutism: The Worship of Truth, for a full discussion…

    http://jeremylent.wordpress.com/2009/10/27/science-and-absolutism-the-worship-of-truth/

  112. #112 robinottawa
    October 27, 2009

    Wow. Someone can’t let go of the religious context for his life. Feeling guilty about something? I get the impression you don’t think we can do without it, even as you proclaim that god is not necessary. It’s not god that’s the problem; it’s just religion, which creates the gods after the fact.

  113. #113 philos
    January 26, 2010

    I having a discussion on Reddit for what to name a proposed new political party. Can I coin the Truth is God party?

  114. #114 philos
    January 26, 2010

    Robin from Ottowa: Only once you have fully let it go are you free to understand it, unashamedly try to harness existing resources. I think he has let go of his attachments to his religious patterning. He speaks from a place of comfort, making interesting connections that needed to be made.

  115. #115 Anirudh Kumar Satsangi
    March 4, 2010

    According to His Holiness Maharaj Sahab (1861-1907), the 3rd Spiritual Head of Radha Soami Faith, “during satyayuga,………..in consequence of their greater spirituality and of the high purity of their heart, had no difficulty in getting access at times into the astral planes and holding communion with the departed spirits.” (Source: Discourses on Radhasoami Faith). Greater Spirituality as mentioned above is linked to the size of pineal gland. In Satyauga pineal gland was highly developed but in Kaliyuga the pineal gland is a rudimentary (undeveloped) organ. This is downward evolution of humankind. We should ascertain the period taken from highly developed pineal gland to undeveloped pineal gland. This will determine the Age of Human Existence on this Earth Planet. Other arguments, as I think, will not help much.

  116. #116 Diane M.
    December 26, 2010

    I hope the time is coming soon when Science starts to study the real truth. The time when our ancient ancesters were more advanced than we could ever imagine to be today. Instead they are teaching our children about Darwin and how in the past people evolved from monkeys. We have always been here as humans. The more Noetic science advances in reaserch and findings the “main stream” science community will hopefully stand up and follow in pursuit.

  117. #117 NJ
    December 26, 2010

    Diane M. @ 116:

    The time when our ancient ancesters were more advanced than we could ever imagine to be today.

    Presumably they had functioning spellcheck…

    We have always been here as humans.

    As shown by the dinosaur saddles, and trilobite pets they kept. Oh, wait…

    Noetic science advances in reaserch and findings

    Constantly advancing the science of liberating money from simpletons. Have you made your annual donation yet?

  118. #118 Marcel Kincaid
    February 27, 2012
    Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.

    It transparently misuses the words “religion”, “worships” and “god”, and includes a number of category errors. Truth has none of the attributes of a god, and the behavior of scientists towards truth does not have the attributes of worship. Furthermore, science is a methodological framework for epistemological accretion, not a religion, and it is not religions that worship things, it is people.

    It’s quite sad that DSW asked his readers to show what’s wrong with his “quite compelling” assertion, but when I pointed out how radically mistaken it was, utterly refuting it (and many others also offered their criticisms), he had nothing to say, ever, about it … it would appear that his assertion and his attachment to it have all earmarks of religion (pejoratively).