Neuron Culture

6. Asa Gray

Greg Laden, trying to toss a line between the “New Atheists” and ‘Accommodationists” who are currently squabbling about a dust-up featuring PZ Myers v Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum (who apparently rough Myers up a bit in their book Unscientific America), writes:

Now, I just want to make this point: I learned early on (when I was still an altar boy) that where religion and life conflict — where the religion was not doing a good job at explaining the bits and pieces of life that were not making sense — it was OK to drop the details of the religion part and chalk it up to mystery.

I’ve never understood why so many people reject this approach. And I think a bit of historical background helps here. You could ask yourself, for instance, What Would Asa Gray Do?

If you name the important figures in the acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection in the U.S. in the 1860s, near or at the top of your list should be Asa Gray*, pictured above. Gray was a Harvard botanist who took the fight for Darwin’s theory straight at its greatest obstacle in the U.S.: his Harvard colleague and one-time friend Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was a staunch and eloquent advocate of intelligent design. Gray was a devout Protestant who figured that when he was doing botany, he was tracing God’s work. “The unity we perceive in nature,” he wrote, is one to which “sound science has ever delighted to point, as the proof that all is the direct handiwork of a single omniscient Creator.” As yet, Gray wrote, those arguing that species arise any other way “are bound to show that natural agencies are competent to produce such results …. The burden of proof rests upon them.” This could easily have been Louis talking.

In the 1850s, Darwin, through a long and remarkable series of letters to Gray (some of which are here), led him down a breadcrumb trail to slowly embrace the theory of evolution by natural selection. The breadcrumbs were the botany samples on Gray’s own lab tables. I tell this story in Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral. Darwin’s seduction of Gray was a key event in the spread of his ideas. Here’s a much-elided version:

As early as the 1840s, Gray had noted that eastern North America and eastern Asia, especially Japan, both hosted many plants found nowhere else. Identical or closely similar species were growing a world apart. Forty plant genera existed only in these two areas. He noted this oddity in print several times but lacked time to examine it closely.

In 1855, however, …. Charles Darwin … wrote Gray asking for help in solving some plant-species distribution problems he was struggling with. As always, Darwin was humble, solicitous — and subversively Socratic, even while fishing for information he genuinely needed.

As I am no Botanist, it will seem so absurd to you my asking botanical questions, that I may premise that I have for several years been collecting facts on “variation,” and when I find that any general remark seems to hold amongst animals, I try to test it in Plants.

Though Darwin in this particular letter asked about differences among North American alpine plants, his confession to testing ideas on “variation” against Gray’s plant data sums up the course of their ensuing correspondence. Their exchanges would greatly strengthen Darwin’s theories even as he sold them to Gray. …

For two years, then, Darwin plied Gray with questions about plant distribution problems in North America, and particularly about the eastern U.S.-East Asia puzzle, that led Gray to consider more deeply the possible links between species distribution and “variation,” or species change. It was a brilliant strategy, convincing Gray not by rhetoric but by enticing him to reconsider the evidence on his own lab tables….

Finally, in July 1857, Darwin fessed up. With a short letter followed by an abstract, he made Gray the third confidante to know of his theory of evolution, including his ideas on natural selection…. Gray was at first cautiously receptive about Darwin’s theory, then increasingly convinced. The logic seemed sound. Even if Darwin himself worried aloud to Gray that this theory was “grievously hypothetical,” it nevertheless made an empirical argument based on a natural process rather than a supernatural one. It thus appealed to Gray’s empiricism. But what truly sold Gray, in those months between Darwin’s private confession of the theory and his publication of it more fully in the Linnean Society papers and then Origin, was the light the theory shed on the Japan-North America pattern Gray had long been pondering.

This exchange led to a monograph by Gray, On the Botany of Japan
and its Relations to that of North America and of other Parts of the
Northern Temperate Zone
, (described nicely here, beginning at pages 9-10) that was one of the first scientific papers to apply Darwin’s theory in the way it would so often be used later — to explain anomalies of species distribution. The experience turned him with finality against the use of creationist arguments in science — and made him an advocate for applying Darwin’s views instead. He soon became the most effective advocate of Darwin’s theory, defeating Louis Agassiz in a prominent series of debates and defending The Origin of Species in The Atlantic, which until then had run one Louis Agassiz essay after another.

But accepting Darwin’s theory, including its mechanistic process of natural selection, didn’t make Gray an atheist. He still believed that God played a role somewhere, somehow — but that he had created life, and perhaps the rules by which it worked, in some manner “lost in the mists of time,” and that his hand worked in an arena beyond the knowable. That was faith. Science was what could be seen. And it was no fair — it wasn’t science — to assert as fact something that you could not observe.

It was a perfectly workable separation for Gray, and has been for many scientists since then. I suppose you can argue that believing in God somehow corrupts you as a scientist. But though I’m an atheist, I haven’t heard that argument phrased in a way that’s convincing — and it flies in the face (ahem) of an awful lot of evidence, in the form of good scientists who’ve done great work while believing in God.

The turf between science and religion is — well, it’s a gray area. And it seems perfectly fine to me to treat it the way Gray did: as a region not to tread in your day job. Science was empirical, and if it wasn’t empirical, it wasn’t science. Religion was belief — a domain beyond proof. That’s why they call it faith.

•Gray’s Wikipedia entry desperately needs some revision to reflect all this.

UPDATE: Jonah Lehrer’s short review of Richard Dawkins’ upcoming book raises an issue that Greg addressed and that runs either under or right atop the surface of these discussions: Does a harsh insistence on atheism really do much to advance the cause of belief in empircal science?

Comments

  1. #1 Jason Dick
    July 13, 2009

    Two points:
    1. Well, I think that times have rather changed since then. The scientific evidence available to us today ensures that most everybody who gets even a relatively basic understanding of a wide variety of disciplines from geology to astronomy to biology, and who is even moderately is accepting of the evidence, quickly becomes a non-creationist if they were one in the first place. Back in Darwin’s day, by contrast, you had many well-educated men who just didn’t know any better, because nobody had put the pieces together yet. It’s not really any surprise that such people were convinced very quickly through evidence. And yes, this is precisely how we should operate today: a completely religion-neutral teaching of the science in schools should do away with nearly all creationism. I don’t think this means that we shouldn’t use other tools at our disposal outside of the classroom.

    2. As far as religion and being a scientist is concerned, well, believing in a religion requires that one set aside a portion of ones’ beliefs about the nature of reality as being inaccessible to logic or evidence. This isn’t the only way of thinking that requires it, not by a long shot, but it is perhaps the most pervasive. And when a person accepts that it is okay to do this, they lose the ability to discern when they are being irrational about other things and when they are not. That is, they never know when something that is very accessible to science falls ‘behind the veil,’ so to speak, where they won’t listen to evidence or reason (or at least are less likely to). Yes, it is very true that holding such beliefs may never impact their practice of science. But it is by no means clear that this will always occur.

    Now, merely failing to hold a belief that is inaccessible to logic or evidence does not guarantee that one will hold nothing but reasonable beliefs. But at least it doesn’t protect any unreasonable beliefs around an extra layer of emotional baggage.

  2. #2 hazur
    July 13, 2009

    If the scientific question you are trying to answer is: ‘how a universe with a god would differ from one without one’ you should see there is a clear conflict of interest there for some people. You could tell that that is not a scientific question, but I haven’t heard a convincing argument for it.
    Cheers.

  3. #3 Scott Belyea
    July 13, 2009

    Excellent append, and I appreciate the relevant additional information about Gray, which goes beyond what I knew previously.

    A related observation would be that the ongoing hassles accomplish little other than to waste sizable amounts of the time and intellectual energy of quite a number of accomplished individuals, many of them working scientists.

    The way things are going, I expect a growing number of both scientists and lay people to be rejected both by the “extreme religionists” because they’re not doctrinally pure enough and by the “extreme atheists” because they’re not doctrinally pure enough.

    However, I don’t think either side recognizes how big the “excluded middle” is in this debate – scientists who carry on happily without being interested in debating their religious beliefs; and religious lay people who are quite content to ignore the debate as long as the practice of science or science education isn’t tromped on.

    And that last point should be the key, but it’s all too often getting lost in the pointless sound and fury.

  4. #4 CW
    July 13, 2009

    As Jerry Coyne so recently noted

    First of all, nobody doubts that science and religion are compatible in the trivial sense that someone can be a scientist and be religious at the same time. That only shows one’s ability to hold two dissimilar approaches to the world simultaneously in one’s own mind. As I’ve said umpteen times before, you could say that being a Christian is compatible with being a murderer because a lot of murderers are Christians.

    This is not what we mean when we say science and faith are incompatible. Got it, folks?? Let’s not hear the “there-are-religious-scientists” argument any more

    I think that applies equally well to the “there-was-this-specific-nineteenth-century-religious-scientist” argument.

  5. #5 Ray Ingles
    July 13, 2009

    My problem with religious thinking is when ‘unknown’ becomes ‘unknowable’, when people jump from ‘don’t understand’ to ‘can’t understand’. It’s where a scientist gives up, and asserts that ‘no one will ever understand such-and-so’. Neil Degrasse Tyson has an eloquent essay on this, “The Perimeter of Ignorance.

    From what I’ve been able to see, religious scientists who aren’t studying a field where they think their faith gives answers do just fine. But very few people, so far as I can see, are able to do good science when studying a subject they approach with faith.

    So it’s not that “believing in God” necessarily “corrupts you as a scientist” – and I haven’t seen anyone but strawmen actually advancing that claim – it’s just a risk factor.

  6. #6 Deen
    July 14, 2009
    …it was OK to drop the details of the religion part and chalk it up to mystery.

    I’ve never understood why so many people reject this approach.

    Because this way, you can give religion credit for all the hits, while having to accept no responsibility for the misses. Religion can never be wrong, just “mysterious”. This is intellectually dishonest. People wouldn’t accept this in any other area in life (especially not in science), but here it is, being advocated for religion anyway.

    Also, it is an implicit admission that religion can’t really teach you anything about life. Only life itself will tell you which teachings work, and which don’t are mysterious. Yet many people still want to consider religion as a powerful tool to understand life.

  7. #7 David Dobbs
    July 14, 2009

    I really don’t want to drag this out; a look at other sites show this one goes interminably. But a couple points:

    I read Coyne’s essay and find it and similar ones unconvincing. He wants to insist on examining the question with the assumption that religious people will demand that religion explain, in the public sphere, many mysteries. Here’s the relevant passage, which CW quotes above

    First of all, nobody doubts that science and religion are compatible in the trivial sense that someone can be a scientist and be religious at the same time. That only shows one’s ability to hold two dissimilar approaches to the world simultaneously in one’s own mind. As I’ve said umpteen times before, you could say that being a Christian is compatible with being a murderer because a lot of murderers are Christians. …

    It isn’t. This is not what we mean when we say science and faith are incompatible. Got it, folks?? Let’s not hear the “there-are-religious-scientists” argument any more. It’s trivial, and insulting to anyone who can think. (See here for Clay Shirkey’s refutation of what he calls “The Doctrine of Joint Belief.”)

    Scott says, “I don’t have to address this as a philosophical question; I can address it as an empirical question.” Well, it is both an empirical and philosophical question.

    Here is the philosophical part: is a way of finding out things based on reason and evidence compatible with a way of finding out things based on revelation and dogma?

    Here is the empirical part: are the assertions of faith in conflict, or potential conflict, with the assertions of science?

    If the answer to the empirical part was “no, no conflict” then the philosophical part would show compatibility: faith and science would be equally good — and reliable– ways to find out stuff.

    But in fact the answer to the empirical part is “yes” — virtually every faith, with the possible exception of Buddhism and deism, makes fact claims about the universe. And there is no evidence for any of these assertions. Indeed, many of them have proven to be false.

    Coyne’s key question is “are the assertions of faith in conflict, or potential conflict, with the assertions of science?” And he concludes they are in conflict, simply because every faith makes fact claims about the universe. Well — yes and no. The religious doctrines may make faith claims. But many individual believers limit those claims and scale them back in a way that makes them perfectly compatible with a rigorously empirical approach to science and communal explanations of cause and effect. This is precisely what Gray did — and precisely what many people do today. The examples are not irrelevant. They show that religious scientists can (I say can, not inevitably will) pursue science in a way indistinguishable from atheistic scientists. If you believe otherwise, then develop a Turing test for religious scientists: What scientific questions can you ask an unidentified scientist that will reveal whether the scientist is an atheist or religious? I find it hard to imagine one.

    I also can’t buy that being religious would tempt an otherwise good scientist to ease up on a quest for answers. (As to the idea expressed by Jason Dick that atheism somehow protects one from irrational behavior — oh please. That rather ignores much of the best neuroeconomic work done lately — and suggests a startling willingness to believe in miracles.) Both that worry about easing up on empirical questions and Coyne’s argument assume — virtually insist — that a religious person, even a religious scientist, will wield religion as a way to “find out stuff,” as Coyne puts it. Say what? Obviously some do. But many harbor religious belief as a way not to answer things, but to accept or be reconciled with certain things that cannot be found out. Coyne or others might say “Aha! That’s the problem! They’ll give up on answering mysteries because they’ll say they’re unknowable! So they’ll stop asking scientific questions!”

    Well, no. For I suspect many religious scientists are — like Gray — often willing to move that line when empirical evidence begins to offer a scientific explanation, and to make ever smaller the realm of the unknowable — while happily trying to pursue answers in an empirical way, knowing there will always be a realm beyond the reach of proof. In short, they don’t even try to use religion to “find out stuff” — so it needn’t interfere with science’s realm of doing just that.

    In those cases, religion is a private matter — which is how many people keep it. There’s obviously a huge problem when people wield their religions otherwise. But the threat to science and to empirical understanding and evidence-based public policies comes not from private religious belief, but from the insistence to use it publicly and as a guide for public policy and an explanation of How Things Work. It’s those actions, not belief, that create problems. Not all belief is incompatible with science. It’s perfectly possible to believe and do and’or appreciate good science. Insisting otherwise likely does the empirical cause more harm than good, by insulting and alienating many who do believe.

  8. #8 Deen
    July 14, 2009

    David, you still focus on the question whether people can both be religious and a scientist at the same time. This is not disputed. Clearly, people are capable to compartmentalize their science and religion well enough, so that their religious views don’t interfere with their scientific work. But does that prove that science and religion are compatible, or that people are just really good at compartmentalizing two opposite ideas?

    Nobody refutes that there are religions whose fact claims are compatible with the fact claims of science either.

    However, as a methodology, science and religion could hardly be more different. For instance, in science, it’s considered proper to withhold belief until you have evidence. In religion, on the other hand, believing despite the absence of evidence is considered a virtue.

    If a religious scientist would apply the first principle to their religious beliefs, they would have to withhold a belief in what their faith teaches, and thus not be religious. If they would apply the second belief to their scientific beliefs, they wouldn’t be a scientist. So the only way to continue to be a religious scientist is to keep both their beliefs and these principles meticulously separated, and only apply the principles to the appropriate beliefs.

    I have no reason to assume that this makes Christians bad scientists. In fact, I suspect that many people are quite good at keeping up this separation. I just don’t think it’s a very consistent position to have.

  9. #9 Deen
    July 14, 2009

    Typo:

    If they would apply the second belief principle to their scientific beliefs, they wouldn’t be a scientist.

  10. #10 Ray Ingles
    July 14, 2009

    David, it’s true that some – quite possibly “many” – religious scientists will be “willing to move that line when empirical evidence begins to offer a scientific explanation”. But Tyson’s essay above lists many examples of religious scientists who didn’t.

    I can add another one. Consider this quote from a prominent physician, J. S. Haldane (father of J.B.S. Haldane), close to a century ago, discussing the “mechanistic theory of heredity” (“Mechanism, Life, And Personality”, 1913):

    On the mechanistic theory this [cell] nucleus must carry within its substance a mechanism which by reaction with the environment not only produces the millions of complex and delicately balanced mechanisms which constitute the adult organism, but provides for their orderly arrangement into tissues and organs, and for their orderly development in a certain perfectly specific manner.

    The mind recoils from such a stupendous conception; but let us follow the argument further… This nuclear structure or mechanism must, according to the mechanistic theory, have been formed within a very short period by the union of two others – a male and a female one. How two such mechanisms could combine to form one is entirely unintelligible, and the observed details of the process tend only to make it, if possible, more unintelligible. When we trace each nuclear mechanism backwards we find ourselves obliged to admit that it has been formed by division from a pre-existing nuclear mechanism, and this from pre-existing nuclear mechanisms through millions of cell-generations. We are thus forced to the admission that the germ-plasm is not only a structure or mechanism of inconceivable complexity, but that this structure is capable of dividing itself to an absolutely indefinite extent and yet retaining its original structure…

    There is no need to push the analysis further. The mechanistic theory of heredity is not merely unproven, it is impossible. It involves such absurdities that no intelligent person who has thoroughly realised its meaning and implications can continue to hold it.

    Reading this passage, it’s striking how clearly he recognized the functional requirements that a mechanism for inheritance would have to meet. But he could imagine no physical arrangement that could satisfy those conditions… and concluded that therefore such a mechanism was impossible. Indeed, he insisted that a spiritual explanation was the only remaining option. Laborious work by Watson and Crick (and Wilkins and Franklin) has since discovered DNA, however. What if Haldane had “push[ed] the analysis further”? Would we have discovered DNA earlier?

    As I said before, religion isn’t a determinant for this sort of thing, but a risk factor. Of course, smoking isn’t a determinant of lung cancer, just a risk factor, as well.

  11. #11 Jason Dick
    July 14, 2009

    Well, no. For I suspect many religious scientists are — like Gray — often willing to move that line when empirical evidence begins to offer a scientific explanation, and to make ever smaller the realm of the unknowable — while happily trying to pursue answers in an empirical way, knowing there will always be a realm beyond the reach of proof. In short, they don’t even try to use religion to “find out stuff” — so it needn’t interfere with science’s realm of doing just that.

    It is possible. But the emotional baggage that religion brings along makes it that much more difficult. And it’s not so much that they try to use religion to “find out stuff”, but that they (often unknowingly) already have beliefs that make very specific statements about the natural world.

  12. #12 PoxyHowzes
    July 15, 2009

    I fail to see how the Carollian approach (“I have sometimes thought six impossible things before breakfast”) of Gray and/or others illuminates just how it is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum (M&K) wish to remold the general public vis a vis science or religion. Do M&K want more public understanding of science? Of religion? Of both? More knowledge? more tolerance? more funding? less of any of these? — a better balance? a different balance?

    And I think that without a clear statement of the desiderata — a description of how our everyday life would be different were M&K to accomplish their goals — then we who choose to engage in discussion or argument (or worse) about the book, will be nothing more than red or white pawns, always talking past each other in a looking-glass story where neither science nor religion guides the plot, the characters, or the dialog.

    Do M&K fondly wish “a return to yesteryear?” A return to the decades upon decades in which atheists STFU on pain of death? A return to generations upon generations of religious history during which atheism was a wild belief “that dare not speak its name”? A return to a century or so ago when the atheists’ most radical and threatening idea was an orbiting teapot?

    To coin a phrase, “Toto, we’re still in Kansas.”

    Kansas is where they vote religion into law. Is that what M&K want all across the country, all across the world? Do they want all bodies politic, all publics here, there, and everywhere, to vote their various religions into law, willy-nilly?

    Faced with the very real prospect, the worldwide threat, and (in places) the actuality of such establishmentarianism, do M&K suggest that dominionism and establishmentarianism should not be opposed, unless the opposition be thoroughly genteel?

    Or do M&K merely wish to ensure that opposition to dominionism, to establishmentarianism, to religionists of of any stripe never comes from scientists, and never comes from atheists?

    To what end do M&K assert that opposition must be mild and meek at all times, and, no matter what, must always and ever be inoffensive to any religionist?

    As for the “new” atheists, Do M&K have something else for them to do besides hide behind a curtain until Toto finds them?

  13. #13 J.J.E.
    July 15, 2009

    Just a few quotes from your response in no particular order:

    many individual believers limit those claims

    For I suspect many religious scientists

    so it needn’t interfere with science’s realm of doing just that

    In those cases, religion is a private matter

    But many harbor religious belief as a way not to answer things, but to accept or be reconciled with certain things that cannot be found out.

    The religious doctrines may make faith claims.

    Now, I agree with your assessment as far as it goes. But there is an elephant in the room. And it is basically that, the complement (the A’ to your A) is that, many individual believers DON’T limit those claims, many religious scientists don’t compartmentalize responsibly, many religious people DON’T treat their religion as private, many dogmas DO make falsified fact claims etc.

    Coyne is most assuredly NOT saying that religion leads deterministically to corrupted science in every individual who has it. You know this. But the hemming and hawing you do is pretty much only good for rejecting that extreme version.

    What is true, and indisputable, is that religion in practice is very frequently incompatible (in the empirical sense) with science and that when that incompatibility is manifested (as it often is, just see Arkansas, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Texas, just to name examples in education) it is very often to the detriment of science. This is undeniable. Jerry has a very low hurdle to clear, which is why his position shouldn’t be controversial. To show incompatibility, he needs only show that compromised science is more likely under the influence of religion than without it (all else being equal). Your position is much more demanding and requires religion to have a negligible influence.

    But for some reason, people resist criticizing religion, even while criticizing the politicization of science, for example (see Mooney’s other much better book, the Republican War on Science). And even when religion ISN’T in the business of shaping science to its own ends, it doesn’t provide anything of value in the practice of science. In other words, even “moderate” religion is bait for Occam’s Razor.

    And we haven’t even treated the incompatibility in the philosophical sense. For those religions that are more than merely personal reflection with a metaphorical interlocutor named God (ie most religion, though maybe not most university theology), there is most certainly a hard and fast incompatibility vis-a-vis the standards of evidence for making conclusions and what constitutes reliable observations. To put it crudely, the “data” of most religion as practiced in the U.S. and its “method” of making conclusions is entirely arbitrary and is entirely contingent on accepting dogma and premises that can only be supported by fiat. And, if like sports and art, such methodology were applied only to its own magisterium, then this would be a non-issue (it is true that the Cowboys are the best team eva; and Eliot Porter is an artistic lightweight because he used color, unlike Ansel Adams; compared to Jesus died for our sins and arose from the dead; God created light first, man from clay and woman from an extraneous rib; God flooded the world for a year with a month long+ flood; Moses performed magic tricks using super-human aid). But as you know, religion can’t help but overlap.

    I also can’t buy that being religious would tempt an otherwise good scientist to ease up on a quest for answers.

    Why can’t you buy this? It has been observed numerous times. See Kurt Wise for an extreme version of this. For a more nuanced example much more sympathetic to your perspective (though still problematic from mine), see James Tours. And in between those two extremes, I have found it common to encounter extremely insistent and rude creationists who are also trained as research science PhDs, some of which have continued as practicing scientists. Of course, my anecdotes do not a trend make, but I think your assertion in this regard is a dubious null hypothesis. (Interestingly, it seems as if chemists are most likely in my personal experience to be competent researchers and creationists simultaneously, which is why Kurt Wise is so exceptional.)

    Ultimately, this is simply to say that all people can hold different ways of thinking in their own heads, and they can be widely different, even incompatible in the sense that one methodology is WRONG in other arenas. But only one way of thinking provides reliable frameworks that enable us to predict and manipulate the natural world: the scientific method. If art or sports aspired to make assertions about that realm, they’d be incompatible as well. But they don’t. Unfortunately for most popular religions (certainly for the monotheisms), they are inextricably historically tied to explaining how the world came about and why reality is as we see it. In other words, religions as practiced by the majority of believers in the U.S. are linked to making empirical statements about natural phenomena amenable to scientific inquiry. As such, religion constantly violates the NOMA principle in ways that literature, art, and sports don’t, despite the best efforts of clever theologians to sever that historical tie to explaining how the world came about.

  14. #14 TomJoe
    July 16, 2009

    JJE @13: … many religious scientists don’t compartmentalize responsibly …

    Who are you referring to here? More than just a couple would be nice here since you mentioned “many”.

  15. #15 Bruce Gorton
    July 16, 2009

    Just a repost of something I posted on Greg Laden’s blog (with a few edits):

    The problem here is that the argument is not simply about atheism, it is about accomodationism.

    You have the scientific purists, who hold that science compromised in the name of not offending popular opinion isn’t science so much as propaganda – which is the group I fall under (fair disclosure).

    This side is generally written off as being “New atheists” but it is hardly restricted to atheists. One of the criticisms of science I have come across when arguing with creationists, is that they don’t trust scientists who are more about telling them what they want to hear than the truth.

    The second group you get are the scientific accomodationists. These are not the same as the people who think there is no conflict, it must be stated, they are instead those who think whether there is a conflict or not is secondary to “promoting science.”

    Hence in order to “popularise” science they argue that scientists should not hold controversial positions or use scientific evidence to maintain these positions, hence so far as I can see, what they are arguing for amounts to sacrificing scientific accuracy in the name of political expediency.

    Here is why I disagree with them:

    In arguing how to communicate science, one should take into account how other concepts have been successfully argued, or held back. Politics demonstrates that people are actually comfortable with controversy, and will rally to it.

    This is how woo operates – homeopaths make their money by claiming “big pharma” is evil, the “Secret” operates on the idea that it includes something “they” don’t want you to know about.

    And back to politics, in South Africa, the ANC is the ruling party of our country yet still makes effective use of rhetoric involving third forces and “counter-revolutionaries.”

    Why? Because controversy, even manufactured controversy sells.

    And trying to hush it up doesn’t. There is no more effective way to convince people there is something to see than to adopt a bored tone of voice and say “Nothing to see here.”

    By glossing over any given controversy, any given argument within the scientific community the accomodationists effectively sacrifice scientific accuracy and ethics, in the name of zero real gain.

    By putting across an argument that essentially says “shut up, that’s why” they undermine the very cause they claim to champion, leaving science to the position of the Democratic party – where ultimately support for it wains until the forces of anti-science stuff up so royally that the said stuff-up is too big to simply ignore.

    GW Bush was a bad president by 2004, he was president until the end of 2008 – because Kerry, was milquetoast and the Democrats had a name for rolling over, a name they maintain and which will go back to hurting them once Bush is long past enough to be forgotten.

    I am not saying scientists should copy Rovian politics, as popularity is not the end goal of science, but rather that if you want to popularise science, you shouldn’t copy the Democratic Party either – you shouldn’t compromise in the name of political expedience because compromise is not actually politically expedient.

  16. #16 Bruce Gorton
    July 16, 2009

    And note, the recent example of Mooney and Kirschenbaum (Hope I spelt that right):

    They bring up the cracker-gate saga, and ask “what is this doing for science?” Like the only thing a scientist can ever be is a scientist.

    In context Myers was actually admirable. (Context being: Student takes Euchrist, gets assaulted, the Catholic League starts trying to get the kid expelled, kid gets death threats, then Myers gets wind of it, threatens to desecrate a cracker, gets threatened HIMSELF, so he goes through with it.)

    Had he not desecrated the cracker, frankly he would have been acting in the same cowardly manner as all of those silent liberal voices did when Salmon Rushdie had a fatwa put on his head. The accomadationists do one better and proclaim the Ayotollah right.

    But that aside, the whole series of events had nothing to do with science or science advocacy, it was Myers advocating the idea that religious symbols shouldn’t mean more than actual living people do. This was not a blow against science, if anything the knock on effect was positive (See my previous post) but it was not supposed to be a blow for science either.

    In short, it didn’t belong in that book – at least not without evidence for the position that it hurt science. If scientific literacy had gone down, or acceptance of evolution, or if there was anything to indicate that the so-called “new atheist” cracker desecration had ANY effect, then it would have belonged in that book.

    But it didn’t, because the chapters dealing with Myers, are not there to talk about a stumbling block to scientific literacy.

    It is part of a personal vendetta against Myers (Mainly because he is a more controversial figure than Coyne), and against the “new atheists” who so completely annihilated Mooney and Nisbet in the “framing” debates, that using them to generate false controversy served a double purpose – sell the book and “get some payback.”

  17. #17 J.J.E.
    July 16, 2009

    TomJoe, you’re just testing me right? You already know the answer but want to make sure I do too?

    Well, for starters, I gave you two examples above. And I have run into many personal anecdotes where scientists have straight out told me they reject evolution, that it violates their understanding of Christianity, etc. I was even given a “I’ll pray for you” promise. Anyway, my sample size is big because I’m a professional scientist who has spent the last 13 years in academia. I met a guy who dropped out of grad school because of evangelical Christianity when I was in undergrad. I got told by a professional chemist that my field of study (evolution) was wrong because it denied god in my first year of grad school. Even now, I occasionally get scientists who give me the same song and dance because they are religious. I have yet to receive that treatment from a secular scientist.

    But I suspect that my personal anecdotes aren’t enough for you, so how about some real data.

    For starters, here are more than 400 scientists (including Tour above) who question the consensus on evolution:

    http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?command=download&id=660

    The rate of religiosity in that group is much higher than for the larger scientific community, so I’d lay money on religion increasing their skepticism disproportionately to their skepticism about any other topic.

    For a more general survey of scientists:

    http://people-press.org/report/528/

    which shows that 13% of scientists reject evolution. While most of those scientists are probably not in Biology (and have more room for ignorance of the evidence) the number is still quite impressive. And even if only 1/4 of that 13% (round down to 3% just to be conservative) reject science because of religion, then that’s a HUGE number of scientists who allow religion to interfere with their judgment in science. Of course, if the number is only 3%, I wonder why the other 10% reject it if not religion. My guess is that my random low-ball figure of 3% is a large underestimate.

    Anyway, there is a lot of evidence for how religion interferes with science in the lives of even scientists.

  18. #18 sevişme
    July 23, 2009

    And even if only 1/4 of that 13% (round down to 3% just to be conservative) reject science because of religion, then that’s a HUGE number of scientists who allow religion to interfere with their judgment in science. Of course, if the number is only 3%, I wonder why the other 10% reject it if not religion. My guess is that my random low-ball figure of 3% is a large underestimate

  19. #19 Mike Olson
    July 30, 2009

    Wow, this is really amazing. I read this and felt great. I see a hugely valid point. What is sad is that because my education was not research oriented and because I live in a rural area, but maintain a huge interest in science, I take a lot of heat about how I should reject science and live by faith. I’m frequently admonished because I like to read the latest research oriented books and use “Scientific American,” as a source of information regarding the basis of many current issues. My point is, I’m faced with bigotry and ignorance from some fundamentalists who aren’t inherently stupid, but feel comforted by being part of the herd. I come here and I find intelligent science types who *believe* that simple *faith*(belief) in God either requires compartmentalization of a personality or disqualifies a person from science. I can only say this: Our concept of spacetime can only be expressed beginning with the instant of the Big Bang. My knowledge of the world and how it works can only be what is known to occur after that instant. Those things that I’ve learned and I know and I am aware of, become more beautiful, more intricate, more complex the deeper I go and the further I proceed in understanding. That gives me a greater faith in God. I attribute everything to God, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking for magic, non-physical answers or wishful thinking. I don’t set God aside in my understanding, I certainly don’t believe God intervenes in human events(with one notable exception)(free will would be impossible, thus the concept of judgement and being sent heaven and hell becomes ridiculous) but I am grateful to be here. I am willing to believe in that notable exception and it effects nothing regarding my understanding of physics, genetics, biology or chemistry. These things are largely mechanistic, but do you really believe they are so mechanistic that if you were able to concieve of the path of an electron in Alpha Centauri with enough accuracy you could predict the course of your grandchild’s life? Look, my apologies I’m not trying to write a thesis on either Christianity or science. I just see the whole division as being created by a few cranky, vitriolic folks on either side of the issue.

  20. #20 hiphop
    July 31, 2009

    Wow, this is really amazing. I read this and felt great. I see a hugely valid point. What is sad is that because my education was not research oriented and because

  21. #21 seks izle
    August 2, 2009

    of physics, genetics, biology or chemistry. These things are largely mechanistic, but do you really believe they are so mechanistic that if you were able to concieve of the path of an