Framing Science

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In his regular column at Nature this week, David Goldston weighs in on the themes discussed at the AAAS panel “Communicating Science in a Religious America,” which Goldston moderated. In the column titled “The Scientist Delusion,” Goldston notes that even very religious publics often strongly support many areas of science. To use as bogeymen and as a rallying cry “religious fundamentalists” and a “public hostile to science” doesn’t make much sense and may even serve to harm the goals of promoting science in the United States. As he writes:

The point here is not that there’s nothing for scientists to worry about or that they should cease their efforts to teach evolution. But it is important for scientists to understand that they do not face a public inherently hostile to science (even among the relatively small percentage who are fundamentalists), and that public attitudes towards both science and religion are complicated and often contradictory. It’s not even clear what most people mean when they say they don’t believe that humans have evolved. Is this detail a matter of some concern to them, or is this just a casual way to say that they viscerally reject the notion of a random Universe? Evolution is largely a symbolic issue to the public, and may be a poor measure of how religious attitudes affect the reception of science more generally.

Recognizing the complexity of public attitudes, a number of scientists and other scholars are trying to develop language to discuss evolution in ways that might build bridges to the religious. These efforts were the subject of a well-attended panel I moderated at last month’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Massachusetts. Some panellists, in effect, advocated co-opting the language of religion. For example, Kenneth Miller of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, the author of a leading textbook on evolution and a practising Catholic, talked about embracing the notion of life having a design, but explaining it as the result and embodiment of evolution. Others, such as Matthew Nisbet, a communications scholar at American University in Washington DC who organized the panel, suggested moving the discussion away from scientific theory and talking about the medical and other benefits that have resulted from understanding evolution.

If there is tension with religion in the future, Goldston goes on to note that evolution in fact may not be the big source. Instead it may be advances in neuroscience and/or genetics. In these areas, Goldston–a former Chief of Staff of the House Science committee–concludes it will be likely necessary for scientists to work together with a plurality of publics, including religious leaders, to craft ethical frameworks and guidelines:

Responding to these issues will be difficult for scientists and non-scientists alike. New discoveries about the human genome and neuroscience will no doubt be clearly linked to potential medical advances, but they may also raise new questions about what kinds of interventions are appropriate. The conundrums may leave even atheists longing for some theological guidance on how to decide what is moral. And wandering about this uncharted territory may make the well-rehearsed battles over evolution seem like the good old days.

Comments

  1. #1 gbruno
    March 6, 2008

    Ultimately, the source of human religiousity will be pinpointed. It will be shown to be either a particular gene sequence or a particular pattern of brain cell development, or some other biological factor.

    Hopefully it will be treatable.

    Then it will be up to the religiously impaired whether or not they want treatment. But they’ll have to recognize they have a problem before they seek treatment.

  2. #2 6EQUJ5
    March 6, 2008

    Trying to build bridges to the religious? That’s like trying to bridge science to Dungeons and Dragons. Reality does not map well to fantasy, it doesn’t map at all.

  3. #3 Aaron
    March 6, 2008

    I noticed a post about this same article on William Dembski’s blog, http://www.uncommondescent.com. The author of the UD post admittedly “extensively edited” Goldston’s article and selectively enboldened parts for effect. I found it particularly amusing that on his post the UD author left out the last sentence of the original article “And wandering about this uncharted territory may make the well-rehearsed battles over evolution seem like the good old days.” maybe because it was more convenient to end with “The conundrums may leave even atheists longing for some theological guidance on how to decide what is moral.”

    The post can be found at the following link:
    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/the-scientist-delusion/

    Spreading scientific literacy in the US is a battle to save the ignorant from dishonest ideologues.

  4. #4 mogmich
    March 6, 2008

    gbruno:

    What if religiousity is deeply connected with empathy?

    And what if it is empathy that is genetically determined, and not religiosity in itself?

    Would you then treat people for this “genetic defect” in order to get rid of religion?

    Maybe that’s like curing headache with a guillotine.

    I don’t think it is unlikely, that empathy is a very special human thing, although it might very well be a genetic disposition.

    As a Christian I also think empathy is extremely important. without it we would probably not be human at all. It is essential for our own humanity.

  5. #5 gbruno
    March 6, 2008

    Mogmich -

    I don’t see the connection…other animals are capable of empathy:
    http://tinyurl.com/2ovsq8

    People have long caused others to suffer in the name of their religion. Many religiously impaired people and atheists are empathetic. Some are not.

    I’m not seeing any deep connection.

  6. #6 Aaron
    March 6, 2008

    Agreed, gbruno. Empathy seems to be an evolved function rooted in mirror neuron which enables us humans, and other primates, to imagine the pain we see others experiencing.

    IMHO, religion seems to be the result of what Daniel C. Dennett calls the “hyperactive agent detector” which is an evolved function that creates false positives in detecting causal agents.

  7. #7 Benjamin Franz
    March 6, 2008

    mogmich: What if religiousity is deeply connected with empathy?

    And what if it is empathy that is genetically determined, and not religiosity in itself?

    “What if” stories are easy to tell to ourselves and others. Don’t mistake them for actual evidence.

    Anyone can spin a “what if” story:

    What if “religiosity is deeply connected with schizophrenia?”

    What if “religiosity is deeply connected with pedophilia?”

    What if “religiosity is deeply connected with genocide?”

    See?

    None of my “what if” scenarios mean a thing without some actual evidence. Nor does the one you spun out.

    Mistaking “what if?” stories for valid argument is a perfect example of the ‘anti-fact’ perspective where saying something is true is treated as equivalent to evidence that something is actually true.

    If you wanted to try again with “study X showed that empathy is strongly genetically determined and that religion is positively correlated with empathy”, you might have an argument.

    But “what if?” isn’t an argument. It’s just making up stories.

  8. #8 gbruno
    March 6, 2008

    Aaron -

    Dennett may be correct or it may just have been our evolutionary awareness of how we can change our surroundings…therefore something bigger than us must be changing the environment consciously and thus can respond to our prayers. Perhaps both, with a mixing of additional reasonable remnants of higher brain development.

    But with that said, some of us have reached a level of brain development where we see the foolishness of religion. Others have not, even when you present the massive amounts of evidence.

    I’m suggesting that there is a biological reason why this religiousity remains (vestigial thought?), it is not just fear of death, or fear of losing morality, etc.

  9. #9 mogmich
    March 6, 2008

    gbruno:

    Thank you for the link – very interesting!

    I did know a little about that already, e.g. that chimpanzees are able to show empathy to some degree. But I would still say that it is much more important to humans (essential). Especially the kind of empathy defined as “cognitive empathy” in the article.

    Many atheists often say, that it is us humans who have “created the gods in our own picture” and not the other way round. But doesn’t this show a connection to cognitive empathy?

    What I mean is, that if you think religion is a negative thing, then maybe you are forced to admit, that it is a negative effect of a phenomenon which in itself is positive: cognitive empathy?

  10. #10 Jason Failes
    March 6, 2008

    Wow.

    head–>sand.

    Up here in Canada evangelical Prime Minister Stephen Harper just scrapped a scientific advisory position, and sacked a nuclear safety inspector for doing her job. The very notion of running things in a “Faith-based” way is completely contradictory to science.

    Sure, most people may be “meh-Christians”, and would be willing to use a stem-cell therapy to fend of Parkinson’s if they came down with it, but if they consistently vote for the “faith-based” candidate, who makes “faith-based” policies, the end results are the same: less funding, less research, and a lower quality of science education for the next generation.

  11. #11 gbruno
    March 6, 2008

    Mogmich -

    It is possible, just like Dennett’s reasoning or my reasoning in my last post. With our greater brain volume we developed many traits concurrently and some not concurrently, yet long ago.

    The cause of the development of religiousity is interesting, but tough to pinpoint. It is also irrelevant.

    We can be cognitively empathetic, congitive of the side effect of religion, and cognative that the side effect does not reflect reality. At least some of us can…why can’t the rest?

  12. #12 mogmich
    March 6, 2008

    Benjamin Franz:

    What you say is not correct. You cannot refer to “Study X” before it exists. Those who decide to make this “Study X” normally start by asking themselves “What if…”

    Asking a question is perfectly normal in science.

    Didn’t Einstein start by asking himself “What if time is the fourth dimension?” or something like that.

    Fantasy and imagination is not, in itself, in conflict with science.

  13. #13 Mark Powell
    March 6, 2008

    Interesting article, but the comments have gone badly awry. I think Goldston has it right, the public is not hostile to science and fighting the alleged “hostility” is foolish and self-defeating.

    People are more indifferent than hostile to science, and it’s the fault of scientists for expecting everyone to be like us.

  14. #14 jayh
    March 6, 2008

    “Didn’t Einstein start by asking himself “What if time is the fourth dimension?” or something like that.”

    No, he started with an observed phenomenon
    that light measured the same speed regardless of the direction of travel (interpreted as the Lorentz transormation) and was lead by direct mathematics to his other conclusions.

  15. #15 William The Sane
    March 6, 2008

    I suspect that a generalization like “…they do not face a public inherently hostile to science…” is largely a product of one’s personal experience and not a universal truth. Goldston obviously doesn’t live in my neighborhood and he doesn’t know the same public that I know.

    My experience is that my community (a rural town in the western U.S.) is equally divided between the opinions that science is irrelevant and science is evil. Most of them are aware of instances when scientists have been found to be wrong about something (cold fusion came up in class a few days ago) and so they feel comfortable in their conviction that all scientists are always wrong about everything. It takes weeks at the beginning of each community college term to establish enough credibility with the students for some of them to accept statements of obvious fact (like animals are composed of cells, which is hotly disputed by some local community leaders).

    My public is hostile to science.

  16. #16 Anna K
    March 6, 2008

    William the Sane,

    Do your students’ attitudes change after they have been in your class? If not, what do you think would make a difference?

  17. #17 mogmich
    March 7, 2008

    jayh:

    Everyone else knew about Michelson-Morleys experiment. But no one was able to explain the result, before Einstein (that light always travel the same speed).

    Of course Einstein started by studying this, but isn’t that a triviality? The results of these experiments did not automatically lead to the explanation. I am talking about what Einstein started his creative and original thinking with. When you say that Einstein was “lead by mathematics to his other conclusions” it is actually not true. He didn’t START with mathematics – he started by having a “crazy idea”.

    But of course the mathematical analysis is necessary. That is what shows, that the idea is correct, and what makes it real science. But the basic idea came from some kind of creative imagination – not mathematics.

  18. #18 Chris' Wills
    March 7, 2008

    …But with that said, some of us have reached a level of brain development where we see the foolishness of religion. Others have not, even when you present the massive amounts of evidence…….
    Posted by: gbruno

    Well we can’t accuse you of feeling inferior :o)

    Have you ever considered that, even granted your superior brain development, that your beliefs may be incorrect?

    What you consider evidence may not convince others, just as what others hold as evidence may not convince you.

    Science is wonderful and a powerful tool, however denigrating others for not holding the same beliefs that you do is not science.

    I would conjecture that your denigratory attitude to those without your greatly developed brain power and whose views differ from yours is part of what David Goldston is commenting against.

    It is feasible to be a Theist and believe in the existance of a natural universe explainable by Science.

    Oh yes; what ‘massive amounts of evidence’?

  19. #19 gbruno
    March 7, 2008

    C.W. -

    You are playing the “my beliefs are just as good as your beliefs” game. Knowledge is about drawing sound conclusions based on evidence. You never know you have the absolute truth regarding a subject, but based on probablility inferred from the evidence, you draw conclusions, acknowledging you could be wrong. We know this system is the best system of thinking based on the evidence of modern medicine, science, engineering, law, etc.

    A religiously impaired person, particularily a theist doesn’t do this. Most claim that their God exists absolutely and would never accept that they might be wrong.
    We know this system is a terrible system of thinking based on the evidence of the Dark Ages.

    I don’t degrade those who are religiously impaired any more than I degrade someone who is phobic of spiders or who believes cowboys were the good guys and Indians were the bad guys. It is all delusional. They are need help.

    But until they understand and acknolwedge that they are suffering from a delusion, they won’t seek help.

  20. #20 Chris' Wills
    March 7, 2008

    You are playing the “my beliefs are just as good as your beliefs” game. Knowledge is about drawing sound conclusions based on evidence. You never know you have the absolute truth regarding a subject, but based on probablility inferred from the evidence, you draw conclusions, acknowledging you could be wrong. We know this system is the best system of thinking based on the evidence of modern medicine, science, engineering, law, etc.

    I’m not argueing against the validity of Science in explaining how the natural world works. That is a given.

    I’m not argueing that one belief set is equivalent to another (i.e. I don’t argue on behalf of those who harm others physically because they feel good while doing it).

    I am saying that just because you find that Scientific results and/or your logic assigns a low probability to something, that doesn’t mean that it is false.
    Arguements from incredulity (it has a low probability based on my data set and assumptions) are not very good normally. The normal scientific method would be to make predictions and test based on an hypothesis; the God questions isn’t subject to this type of testing (though religious claims may be).

    A religiously impaired person, particularily a theist doesn’t do this. Most claim that their God exists absolutely and would never accept that they might be wrong.
    We know this system is a terrible system of thinking based on the evidence of the Dark Ages.

    You are assuming that they have a problem (impaired is the word you used) so you are pre-supposing that you are correct and that they aren’t.
    You claim ‘most’ believers. Here I dissagree with you, most believers I know have thought about it, generalisations are bad things generally.
    The Dark Ages? well I guess you mean the bit of European history after the fall of Rome. Was it such a bad time relative to the rest of the world at that time?
    Yes, some people, including Bishops abused their power others didn’t. How is this different from politicians today?

    I don’t degrade those who are religiously impaired

    You just insult them

    any more than I degrade someone who is phobic of spiders or who believes cowboys were the good guys and Indians were the bad guys. It is all delusional. They are need help.

    As long as they do you no harm what is it to you?
    If some do you or your society harm then attack what they do, you do nothing but create enemies by generalised insults.

    But until they understand and acknolwedge that they are suffering from a delusion, they won’t seek help.
    Posted by: gbruno

    They may not be delusional, there may be a God.
    If that is the case then the assumption that they need help is your opinion based simply on your delusional beliefs.
    Shocking idea I know but there you go.

    Even given that their is no God, the idea that religious belief is bad isn’t founded in Science.
    Mostly it is founded in claims that religion causes good people to do bad things.

  21. #21 gbruno
    March 7, 2008

    I agree a low probability doesn’t mean something is false, but a rational person doesn’t lead his life according to things which have low probabilities. Especially very low probabilities. Only the religiously impaired do.

    There is a low probability that there is one god, a low probability that there are 2 gods, and on and on. A low probability that there is a tooth fairy, a low probability that there are 2 tooth fairies, and on and on. There is a low probability that this is a dream, there is a low probability that this is a dream of someone in someone else’s dream, and on and on.

    There are an infinite number of low probability scenarios and it is delusional to arbitrarly pick one and claim, yup, that’s reality!

    In Science, which is based on evidence and repeatable predictions, we are dealing with high probabilities. Very high probabilities. If you drop your pencil, I predict it will fall to earth with a certain acceleration. If I pray that a certain candidate becomes president, how does that change the probabilities?

    The idea that non-scientific reasoning is erroneous is founded in science. Religious belief is non-scientific reasoning. So science implies that religious belief is erroneous.

  22. #22 ddt
    March 7, 2008

    It seems to me that we are simply in a never-ending skirmish between the religious establishment and the scientific community, dating at least to geocentrism and flat-earth theory. Religion and science have both been attempts to understand our universe and answer big questions. Religion (capital R) however, believes all questions have been answered by The Big Book (Bible, Koran, etc…), whereas Science is willing to alter or scrap theories when emperic evidence refutes them (Science says “prove it, reproduce it”, and religion counters “because the bible tells me so.”) The conflicts arise when science reveals flaws in religion’s theories through emperic observation (ie you don’t fall off the end of the earth when you sail into the sunset) and Religion reacts by burning/beheading/garotting someone (today they’re simply accused of being sacriligious or “liberal.”) The creation-evolution debate is the latest(?) example. Or am I wrong?

  23. #23 gbruno
    March 7, 2008

    ddt:

    B I N G O ! ! ! !

  24. #24 Chris' Wills
    March 7, 2008

    ….In Science, which is based on evidence and repeatable predictions, we are dealing with high probabilities. Very high probabilities. If you drop your pencil, I predict it will fall to earth with a certain acceleration. If I pray that a certain candidate becomes president, how does that change the probabilities?

    Who knows?
    Make a model (hypothesis), from that make a prediction, test it and see what happens.
    Though finding a control will be very difficult.

    The fact that Science is based on repeatability is its strength and weakness. If an event occurs that has a very low probability then repeatability may not be possible.

    The idea that non-scientific reasoning is erroneous is founded in science. Religious belief is non-scientific reasoning. So science implies that religious belief is erroneous.
    Posted by: gbruno

    Falsehood
    Science makes no self referential claim, science is a methodology not a philosophy.

  25. #25 Spaulding
    March 7, 2008

    The conundrums may leave even atheists longing for some theological guidance on how to decide what is moral.

    Wow, that’s some condescending wishful thinking there. Or maybe it’s just disingenuous palliative fluff. How about alternatives:

    “The conundrums may leave even scientists longing for some hoodoo shaman guidance on how to decide what is moral.”

    “The conundrums may leave even Christians longing for some Aztec death cult guidance on how to decide what is moral.”

    “The conundrums may leave even ethical, compassionate, thoughtful people longing for a tax-exempt heirarchy of supernaturalists to make arbitrary dictates, based loosely on Bronze Age tribal lore, on how to decide what is moral.”

  26. #26 Cbird
    March 7, 2008

    Umm Hello hi I’m a religious person and I believe evolution and science. I think the purpose of this article was to tell people like those posting comments that attacking religious people isn’t going to help anything if anything it will only make us defensive. I’m cool with the fact you don’t have the same beliefs as me but apparently most atheist on the net are not cool with people who have different opinions which the exact same bigotry that you protest.

  27. #27 GBruno
    March 7, 2008

    Cbird -

    One doesn’t believe in science…you believe in the scientific method. You believe the scientific method is the best approach (call it a methodology or a philosophy) for understanding reality. There isn’t a better one anyone has proffered.

    Evolution is a fact. It happens. The theory of differentiation of species by evolution is the best scientific theory we have for understanding the origin of different species.

    I don’t know what religion you believe in, but if you subject it to the scientific method, you will likely fail to conclude it is reality. But since there are more religions than ice creams, you might squeeze by with yours.

  28. #28 Anna K
    March 7, 2008

    Cbird,

    You are right about the purpose of the article. I just started reading this blog recently, but most of the posters here appear to show little interest in forming alliances with religious people to promote science; even with religious people who see no conflict between religion and science. It’s interesting.

    I think Matthew Nisbet’s approach is productive and useful, though.

  29. #29 Cbird
    March 7, 2008

    Exactly Anna K the problem is more about how people are going about discussing the issue rather than the issue itself. It’s basically a war between people with narrow views of the world.

  30. #30 William The Sane
    March 7, 2008

    Anna K,

    My experience is that my students, unlike the public in general, are hostile toward science in a general sense and open to science in a specific sense. When they lump scientists together into a group that seems foreign and unfamiliar, science is perceived as threatening. When they are engaged by individual scientists (who eventually appear to be not evil), they are more likely to view science as innocuous or even beneficial. But I suspect that those that are open to discourse with scientists are predisposed to consider new ideas. Maybe it has something to do with their early education.

    By the time I see the students, in their first couple of years of college, they are a self-selected subset of the general public. Most are open to science, but there are a few that continue to see science education as torture standing between them and their economic goals. They memorize what they have to and then return to the public arena with their conviction that science is dark, mysterious and the route of most of the world’s problems. It can be frustrating.

  31. #31 mogmich
    March 7, 2008

    I think there are basically two problems:

    1) Fanatic religious people who don’t accept the principle, that scientific knowledge overrule religious believe, whenever there is a conflict (creationism, ID).

    2) Fanatic atheists who don’t respect religious believes, even when there is no conflict with science.

    It is false, that science excludes (all) religion. Personally my religious faith is so strong, that I have no problem using scientific reasoning to test it.

    Those who believe in ID and other kinds of religious crap must really be weak in their faith – afraid of losing it because of progress in our scientific understanding of the universe!

  32. #32 Anna K
    March 7, 2008

    William the Sane,

    I am glad to know that given time with real, live scientists, most of your students leave with a better attitude towards science than when they came in.

    fwiw, just some randomish thoughts before I fix dinner, I think one of the hurdles (though potentially an opportunity) of getting people excited about science is that it’s a participatory sport. I got into a science career in a very roundabout way: In my case, getting the chance early on to do some research was so much fun that I was motivated to master the otherwise boring background stuff, so I could keep doing research.

    Re what you said about perceiving scientists as ‘other,’ that just reinforces my conviction that it is essential to find ways to present science and scientists as part of the conversation on what makes for a good life. Right now, aside from clips on shows like CSI, where scientists are seen to be helping uphold the moral order, scientists either seem silent on what makes for a good life, or they seem like threats. (That’s why I think talking about medicine would be fruitful.)

    The marketers and advertisers are vociferous about what makes a good life: consumerism! Have enough, and you’ll be enough! Religious institutions know how to talk about what makes for a good life, and how to get people to listen. But scientists haven’t really found a way to speak up in that conversation. They really haven’t found their voice in that larger conversation (and attacking religion is precisely the wrong way to go about convincing the general public that scientists care about what makes for a good life).

    And I think that is what is at the heart of the problem —
    Scientists are still seen as Dr. Strangelove, doing arcane things that will doom us all.

    So I’m glad your students, at least most of them, are coming away less fearful of, and hostile to, science.

  33. #33 honest observer
    March 17, 2008

    Oh brother… I’m going to have to throw my hat into the ring on this one!

    gbruno said… “But until they understand and acknolwedge that they are suffering from a delusion, they won’t seek help. ”

    Is that so? Let us test theory. Btw, my religion is Satan and frankly… I think your remarks are an insult to the people of the “good” religions. I never did care much for blind Christians, but idiot atheists are WORSE than idiot Christians, if you ask me. Here’s why…

    “We know this system is a terrible system of thinking based on the evidence of the Dark Ages.”

    WE do? Since this erroneous and fatalistic thinking, I advice you to speak for yourself and not sully the intellect and integrity of truly scientific and objective minds!

    First, there’s ONE Dark Age Era that history refers to yet mankind has largely been religious long before and since. I suppose the Greeks lived in the Darker Ages (they had many gods, afterall) and today we live in the Darkest Ages? Or vice-versa?

    Second, if religion was the cause of the Dark Ages, as you and your “we” say it was, then you have to explain to us crazy religious people how this happened BEFORE the printing press was invented. The most printed since that invention has been the Christian bibles. If the Dark Ages came first (which they did), then why didn’t the invention of the press make it into the DARKER/EST AGES? But things got better after the press was invented, despite more bibles being made available to people.

    I would go into what made that era possible, but it would be lengthy. Suffice to say, climate change (mini ice-age) may well have caused it. Religions merely became a rallying point for suffering civilizations. By the same token, the following medieval warming period was likely more responsible for the Rennisance and the following Enlightenment era rather than a simple change in philosophy. As a result of THAT climate change, science and reason were now the rallying point. Sure, the attrocities and rivalries of the Dark Ages carried on as a matter of momentum, but things steadily became “business as usual” for civilization (more or less). This much you should know before making such comment that “religion did it!”. So you’re either vastly ignorant of the history of your species and the reality that surrounds/surrounded them or you’re just being dishonest.

    On “curing” people of religion, that’s insult to injury.
    Surely you know of how that experiment failed the communists? Going godless was to be a cure-all and a boon to science to the forme USSR. But millions died under the “utopian” reign of forced-godless. In it’s Cold War Era antics that removed God from society, it was proven no better than the Dark Ages. In fact, a greater portion of people died in a much shorter time! And for all that murder the USSR did not make the contrinutions to economics, science, and humanities as they had hoped to.

    Not speaking from opinion, but fact, it is apparent that the second example is the worst because some “men” chose to be godless and forced others to it. At least when man abandoned God in the Dark Ages and thought he followed Him, he did so as a biological reaction to the failing world around him. Communism had no such excuse.

    So like I said, your line of thought is dangerous because we’d only be repeating history in “helping the delusional”.

    Check and mate, “g”. Care to try again?