Pharyngula

Mixed messages from the NAS

The NAS has a new edition of their Science, Evolution, and Creationism publication, which is a genuinely excellent piece of work. We’ve used the previous editions in our introductory biology course here at UMM, and if you want a short, plainly written introduction to the evidence for and importance of evolution to modern biology, I recommend it highly. It fills a niche well — it explains the science and gives a general overview for the layman without getting distracted by the details. And if $12 strains your wallet and 70 pages exceeds your attention span, you can download an 8 page summary for free. If you teach high school biology or have kids in high school, grab that: it’s an outline of what every educated adult ought to understand about evolution.

However, it does play the bland game of religious appeasement to a small degree, and although it is only a short part of the book, it’s a blemish that would have been better left out. The NY Times review plays up the religion-and-science-are compatible angle, unfortunately; as you might expect, Greg Laden doesn’t sound impressed and Larry Moran doesn’t fall for it. I don’t either. It’s not enough to dissuade me from urging more people to read the book, since it really is an inconsequential dollop of pablum tossed on top of some good science, but I have to say that it really looks stupid in there.

Here’s the short bit from the 8 page summary. This is all it says about science and religion, and it’s not enough to get irate about, but it is wrong and I can’t let it slide.

Science and Religion Offer Different Ways of
Understanding the World

Science and religion address separate aspects of human experience.
Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies of biological evolution have enhanced rather than lessened their religious faith. And many religious
people and denominations accept the scientific evidence for evolution.

Our education system and our society as a whole are best served when we teach science,
not religious faith, in science classrooms.

Do science and religion offer different ways of understanding the world? Sure. One is verifiable, testable, and has a demonstrated track record of success; the other is a concoction of myths that actually leads to invalid conclusions. Perhaps it ought to be rephrased: science provides one way to understand the world, while religion provides millions of ways to misunderstand it.

Similarly, science addresses the natural, material aspects of the human experience, and allows us to probe such complex phenomena as the mind and our long, long history, while religion addresses the imaginary phenomena of nonexistent gods and spirits. It’s a delusional affliction that certainly has affected our material existence, and it ought to be treated as such, rather than respected as providing insight into the guiding power of a deity. And, yes, it is true that many religions accept evolution, to a limited degree. But many don’t. We could also mention that among the inhabitants of our insane asylums and prisons, there are some who accept evolution, and some who don’t. This is a null statement which says nothing about it’s truth.

As for the claim that many scientists have written eloquently about how science has enhanced their faith, name them. Francis Collins comes to mind, but his book does not warrant the label “eloquent” — it was a terrible book, unimpressive, klunky, and silly. Ken Miller is the other usual suspect, and I have to agree that when he writes and talks about science, he is eloquent…but he rode off the rails into quantum absurdity when he tried to incorporate his faith. Simon Conway Morris? Excellent paleontologist, but a writer with the prose style of a rusty rock hammer, and an annoyingly circumlocutary habit of avoiding stating his point. Roughgarden? Weird and sensitive to any slight, and just plain boring. How about Michael Dowd, who certainly is direct and enthusiastic? Nuts, and with the kind of loudly stereotypical eloquence of a televangelist. Teilhard de Chardin? Never mind.

I wouldn’t argue that Christians can’t be eloquent about their faith — far from it — but I haven’t found one that doesn’t sound kooky when they start trying to reconcile science with their belief in the Great Kazoo in the Sky, and their claims of “enhancement” ring as phony as an Enzyte commercial.

That paragraph is pure, meaningless pap, tossed in as a sop to the pious. Whenever you’ve got something written by a committee, you know there’s going to be someone who demands that their personal biases be given a nod of appreciation, and in this case, I’m sure there were people who disagreed but went along with it out of a well-meaning desire to be inoffensive.

They should have taken their last sentence to heart and left the insipid apologetics out of the book — they would have been far better served to have concentrated on teaching the science and left the unconvincing excuses out of the work altogether.

Comments

  1. #1 Steve_C
    January 5, 2008

    What’s worse is how NBC covered the story.

    http://rawstory.com/news/2007/Creationism_causes_problems_in_science_class_0104.html

    The rightwing godbots will never be happy. They hate even the apologists.

  2. #2 Joe
    January 5, 2008

    You can get the whole book free:

    To get your free (for personal use) copy of a new book from the National Academy of Sciences got to:
    http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11876

    Look for the cover of the book, then look below it a bit for a blue button that says “Sign in” with “to download free PDFs” next to it. Your e-mail address, country, zip code, sector (i.e., academic, commercial, governmental, or nonprofit), and connection type are requested; you can opt in or out of receiving e-mail about similar titles.

  3. #3 Katie
    January 5, 2008

    I’ve been working my way through the full version, and I really have to say all the evidence for evolution is nicely done (especially the plugs for Canada :)).

    What I did find hilarious was the bit where they talk about the need for understanding evolution in terms of medicine, and how useful that is. Soon after, they get into the “different ways of knowing” crap.

    Yes, evolutionary biology has definitely helped our understanding of disease and saved many many lives. What -exactly- has religion done that it deserves to be considered a whole other way of knowing??

  4. #4 Sigmund
    January 5, 2008

    I don’t see too much of a problem with it. Its wishy-washy enough to argue that it is entirely true (so long as you are prepared to accept that the ‘eloquence’ of religious evolution writing is purely subjective – and that religious ‘knowledge’ is akin to pure imagination).
    What I do object to, however, is the false dichotomy the title sets up. The term ‘creationism’ suggests that there is one version of origins theory that is in competition with the naturalistic scientific model. What they actually mean by ‘creationism’ is ‘protestant creationism’. I think it would be a lot clearer to people in the US about the religious nature of the topic if scientists and legislators were more specific about this particular point.

  5. #5 Patrick Quigley
    January 5, 2008

    Perhaps it ought to be rephrased: science provides one way to understand the world, while religion provides millions of ways to misunderstand it.

    Wonderful phrasing. You’ve captured the essence of both approaches in a single sentence.

  6. #6 coathangrrr
    January 5, 2008

    I don’t see too much of a problem with it.

    It is totally unnecessary. If I was going to write a paper on the biblical creation myth I wouldn’t put in an extra paragraph talking about evolution for no reason but to say that it is a different way of knowing. It’s just a pointless inclusion.

  7. #7 Dave Carlson
    January 5, 2008

    Okay, these kinds of publications are not really written for atheistic e/c wonks (like me and most people here). They are intended for that portion of the 40-55% of the creationist American public who only know what their local lie-peddling AIG spokesperson has told them, but might potentially be swayed by possession of the facts (And yes, these people do actually exist. I know some of them!). For those kinds of people, it may be entirely helpful to know that the National Academy of Sciences–despite having a large number of atheists–are not on some agenda-driven crusade to destroy their faith.

    And this atheist has no more problem with this kind of well-intentioned “sop” (PZ’s word, not mine) than I do with outspoken atheism.

  8. #8 AlanWCan
    January 5, 2008

    Of course, we all know the real title should be Science, Evolution, and CDesign Proponentsism

  9. #9 Frank Oswalt
    January 5, 2008

    This booklet attempts to make the case for evolution in a way that would convince religious people (and non-religious people who have to operate in a religiously highly-charged environment). Of course it must include a section on the compatibility of science and religion and it does so in an exemplary way. Clearly, the idea of non-overlapping explanatory domains makes no sense to rational people, but then this document is not aimed at rational people. Think of it as a kind of reverse wedge document, and the lip service it pays to religion makes perfect sense.

  10. #10 Steve LaBonne
    January 5, 2008

    I’ll recycle the following comment which I made to Larry Moran’s post on this subject.

    Speaking of changing your mind, years ago I used to think that the accomodationist position exemplified in this NAS statement was prudent public relations and that people like Dawkins were unwise to associate atheism with science. (I recall saying as much on t.o.). I have since come around to agree completely with Larry for all the reasons that he has repeatedly explained on this blog. We need to tell the unvarnished truth, and we need to do it forthrightly so as to open the minds of people who have never been challenged to question the dogmas on which they were reared. The apologist position does not even have the PR value it pretends to have, since no amount of bending over backwards short of complete capitulation will ever satisfy the hardcore religious, whereas if anything it will only solidify the waverers in thinking that they needn’t question their indoctrination.

  11. #11 coathangrrr
    January 5, 2008

    This booklet attempts to make the case for evolution in a way that would convince religious people

    Ack. I stand corrected.

  12. #12 Olorin
    January 5, 2008

    WIRED has another important criticism of the NAS booklet: The reasons why evolution is important in the classroom are overly general and are buried in other material. Here is a telling statement: “In short, there’s little to to sway a parent contemplating the introduction of intelligent design to their child’s science class.”

    WIRED is correct, I think, in saying that the most important motivators are “good luck in finding a like science job” and “the rest of the civilized world will laugh at you.” Notice how the Florida school-board IDers collapsed when confronted head-on by the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It’s a framing issue.

  13. #13 Lorax
    January 5, 2008

    I hate to sound all cynical, but I noticed Matthew Nisbet’s name under the Acknowledgments and I can’t help but consider the possibility that he helped get that doggerel included in an otherwise well presented document.

  14. #14 Dave Carlson
    January 5, 2008

    We need to tell the unvarnished truth. . .

    Steve, what exactly constitutes the “unvarnished truth,” and what makes you think that the NAS would endorse your version of it? Just askin’.

  15. #15 Lee Bowman
    January 5, 2008

    “Notice how the Florida school-board IDers collapsed when confronted head-on by the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

    The FSM ruse has some merit as a strategic attack on organized religions, and as a convenient bulwark against their intrusion into science. It’s like saying, “If you allow (insert a specific religion) in, you must let us in too!”

    The hope of its proponents is that ID be lumped in with organized religion, and thus suffer as well from its stratagem. Since ID proposes no deity or dogma. the stratagem is pointless.

    On the other hand, the board members are under attack from all corners; the press, the science community, most academians, and of course the Pastafarians …

  16. #16 Moridin
    January 5, 2008

    It is appeasing religion, but that is, unfortunately, a necessary evil. The design creationists very position leans on their idea that evolution requires atheism, materialism or philosophical naturalism, which shifts the discussion from evolution versus creationism towards god versus no-god, which the creationists ultimately will win by popular opinion.

    There isn’t just one culture war (science & reason versus superstition & faith), but there is another one as well (evolution versus creationism). Even though both are important, it is about picking your battles.

    Theists who accept evolution is necessity in the fight against creationism.

  17. #17 CalGeorge
    January 5, 2008

    Do science and religion offer different ways of understanding the world? Sure.

    One way is intelligent and brings out the best in us.

    The other is insanely moronic and caters to the worst elements of our nature.

    That religion continues to survive – and that it continues to get very good press – is preposterous. Ludicrous.

    Smart people have completely capitulated to the bullshit they see around them. That’s why it survives.

    I’ve stopped reading the Times. They hired William Kristol. That’s it for me. Someone else can go ogle all their advertising for rich people. Not ME!

  18. #18 Todd
    January 5, 2008

    Thanks Joe!

    Just downloaded my copy.

  19. #19 sciencemc
    January 5, 2008

    As a public school science teacher, I have to be very circumspect when it comes to religion. As much as I agree with PZ, it won’t do me any good to frame the science/faith issue as a choice students have to make. I have to bite my tongue, and I say as little as I can about religion, but I still have to play the non-overlapping magesteria game.

    I see my job as getting kids to understand science, and the difference between good and bad science. If a student tells me they don’t accept evolution, my response is “I can’t make you believe it, but you still have to learn it. Then at least you’ll understand what you don’t believe in.”

    I’m teaching physical science now, but this stuff still comes up during units on earth science and astronomy. So while many of us find the kowtowing to religion cringeworthy, I think we are still at the point in this society that there is a need to explain that we aren’t coming to take their bibles away.

  20. #20 PZ Myers
    January 5, 2008

    Of course. But the way we do that is by not discussing religion at all. The statement at the end of the document did nothing but dishonestly misrepresent the scientific position and give the godly a meaningless pat on the head.

  21. #21 mudderbadger
    January 5, 2008

    I am having a discussion with one of PZ’s students: I contend,that without faith, there is no doubt, without doubt, there is no science. She says I am not correct. I am not smart enough to see why not.

  22. #22 Theo Bromine
    January 5, 2008

    mudderbadger:

    Perhaps you have set a false dichotomy, as you seem to be equating “doubt” with “asking questions”. I would say that science requires curiosity, and skepticism (in the sense of lack of credulity), but not necessarily doubt in the sense of opposition to faith.

  23. #23 Frank Oswalt
    January 5, 2008

    But the way we do that is by not discussing religion at all.

    Like it or not, the issue has become religiously charged in the U.S., so not discussing religion at all is simply not an option. People expect a statement on the relation between science and religion and by remaining silent on this issue, you would create a void that the religious right will fill.

    And really, the document presents the non-overlapping magisteria argument rather nicely:

    Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanation must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of empirical evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. (p. 12)

    That is as close to “science is rational, religion is irrational” as you can get without actually saying it.

  24. #24 Frank Oswalt
    January 5, 2008

    Correction: in line 6 of the quotation, it should read “is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence”

  25. #25 Jesse
    January 5, 2008

    I have to say, while I am myself an atheist, I do think that trashing religion as simply irrational is a bit reductive.

    Here’s why: PZ, as a biologist, you wouldn’t try to use quantum theory to explain speciation. Why not? Wrong tool.

    Religion addresses a lot of things that science can’t. Science can tell me that my mother is genetically related to me. It cannot tell me my mother loves me. There is simply no empirical way for me to absolutely know that. (Unless someone invents a mind-reading device, and even that would be suspect).

    There is no empirical test for love. Can you prove, PZ, using the scientific method, that you love your kids?

    No. You can’t. Because I can come up with a gazillion other explanations for the behavior that don’t involve that, I can’t say you aren’t faking the love, neither can I ever say with any certainty you are.

    Now, I am not someone who thinks religions are right about supernatural beings. But there are many movements (political ones) that are close to my heart that are in many ways religious ones; the Native American rights movement is one. While the demand for land rights can be approached in a non-religious way, that wasn’t the case for the Lakota or Navajo.

    And it may well be the very genetic programming that makes us susceptible to religion makes us able to do science in the first place. After all, if Og the cave-dude had been a simple materialist, he’d have been perfectly happy sticking with flint tools. They work, right? There isn’t any evidence to the contrary, and in that case there would have been little reason to change as people were pretty darned efficient predators with stone tools.

    I think the NOM argument that Gould made has a lot more merit than people think. THat doesn’t mean we should teach ID in a *science* class. We should teach all that stuff in comparative religion 101.

  26. #26 BobC
    January 5, 2008

    The NY Times review has a reader’s comments section that asked the question “What do you think about evolution and faith?” Many people claim there does not have to be a conflict between evolution and god. They are lying and I think they know they’re lying. What’s god good for if the diversity of life can be explained without invoking magic? An honest person would say Darwin killed god. There’s no longer any reason to pretend the magic man is necessary.

  27. #27 Marcus Ranum
    January 5, 2008

    Science is compatible with faith?? Sure, in the same way a rifle bullet is compatible with a melon.

  28. #28 PZ Myers
    January 5, 2008

    Can you prove, PZ, using the scientific method, that you love your kids?

    No. You can’t.

    That’s so wrong it hurts to read it.

    First, science doesn’t deal in proof—it deals in evidence. I can demonstrate that I love my kids by my history of treatment, my expressions, the sacrifices and the investment I make in them. Empirical observation…and it can be tested. This is science.

    Secondly, if science fails, where does that leave religion? Do I have to go to my pastor to be informed that I love my kids? Do I have to wait for a revelation from god?

  29. #29 Gene Goldring
    January 5, 2008

    Presently I’m looking for a detailed account of how teaching creation/I.D. can affect a country economically. Just saying the effects will be felt in biomedical research has no meaning considering science in general has no tangible relevance to the average Joe at this point. I want an argument based on what everybody understands.

    Money!

    Looking through the index of this book there was no mention of a dollar and cent amount. Only the same old argument of the various types research that will be affected down the road.

    Read this news item and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a gap of relevance that needs to be filled.

    US doomed if creationist president elected: scientists
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20080104/ts_alt_afp/usvoteevolutionsciencereligion;_ylt=A0WTUe8jG4BHxVYBnyE7Xs8F

  30. #30 ConcenedJoe
    January 5, 2008

    19 have some guts for buddasake!! No you cannot attack a kid personally as in “I think you and your family are deluded idiots to believe in fairytales.” But you can tell them (as you properly have) that they must learn science in your class and — here is where I am not sure you venture — that unless they are prepared to present a case for any of their beliefs in strictly scientific fashion to leave their myths at the church steps.

    And when you say “I think we are still at the point in this society that there is a need to explain that we aren’t coming to take their bibles away” I say FUCK YES WE ARE!! They want to use them to replace real science texts!! So yes we are when it comes to their applying their demented sheep farmer shit to real life.

    I say carry with you a hundred different myth documents still in practice and toss them on the desk ALONG with the bible. Tell them these are myths and we teach reality here – then throw them in a big box and put it in the closet. Tell they are welcome to discuss anything they want when appropriate but they must use real science (method and research) and they MUST acquiesce to facts and reason in the scientific discussion as it develops. Do not allow them one nanometer of delusion.

    I say JUST talking to long-term indoctrinated deluded people about reality and expecting it to overcome their mental model wiring is useless. They need shock treatment. They need vigorous challenging. Maybe my scenarios can be better – but my point remains — NO KOWTOWING IN THE LEAST – call a spade a spade – no ifs ands or buts about it! I know it is your job and all — but shit – war is war – you unfortunately find yourself on the frontlines – it happens.

    PS Sorry for the rant — you probably don’t deserve it .. take it as a old vet venting.

  31. #31 raven
    January 5, 2008

    Presently I’m looking for a detailed account of how teaching creation/I.D. can affect a country economically.

    Not sure that you can run a program and get a value like 10 trillion dollars. But qualitatively it is correct and provable.

    1. Look at highly religious societies and where they are. Most Moslem ones are still in the dark ages. The ones that are not are due to a geographic accident, they sit in deserts floating on oil. It is estimated that the Arabs imported a trillion dollars worth of western science and technology because they don’t do their own. This estimate comes from Arabs who are now starting to put some money into science because they have more oil money than they know what to do with.

    2. The USA is the world’s last superpower, economic engine and so on. So what is our edge?
    A. Is it natural resources? No, we have our share but the former USSR has more.

    B. Climate? No. Europe is also temperate.

    C. Population? No. China and India have the cheap skilled and unskilled labor niche with 2.3 billion people between them.

    D. Is it science and technology? The USA spends between 1/3 and 1/2 of the total world R&D with 4.5% of the world’s population. Our edge is being the world leader in R&D. That coupled with a relatively free political system and an entrepreneurial capitalist economy gives us…us.

    Science + freedom + capitalism = prosperity.

    The cultists Xians want to kill science while flushing our freedoms into the sewer. This is stupid and suicidal.

    Toynbee predicted this. 18 of 22 civilizations that fell, fell from within. We might be looking at 23 here.

    Another way to look at it qualitatively. Evolutionary thought plays a critical role in medicine and agriculture. We almost had a pandemic with SARS and are now watching H5N1 bird flu. Evolution predicts that sooner or later, a new bug will kill millions or tens of millions. One already has within memory, HIV/AIDS. Evolution only matters if you eat and want to live.

  32. #32 Steve LaBonne
    January 5, 2008

    Steve, what exactly constitutes the “unvarnished truth,”

    The fact that belief in anything “supernatural”, and especially belief in traditional religious dogma which is quite unsupported by evidence, is NOT compatible with science except by the exercise of cognitive dissonance.

    and what makes you think that the NAS would endorse your version of it?

    The fact that many surveys have shown that the proportion of believers among practicing scientists is relatively small.

  33. #33 ConcernedJoe
    January 5, 2008

    Jesse — PZ done answered you just fine — but your illogic, lack of knowledge, and unsubstatiated suppositions boggle the mind. Makes my hair hurt so I have to add my 2 cents. Leaving the science of love to the 1000′s of phychologists and neurologists that study it to enlighten you.. I ask these things: (1) because we don’t understand something in scientific fashion 100% now, what does that have to do with the value of religion in filling in the gaps, and similarly (2) what does religion bring to any such discussion except guesses and superstition. Maybe you are confusing secular philosophy and psychology with “religion” — that is to say disciplines that sometimes SCIENTIFICALLY go forward of the understanding of physical mechanisms (but note: they do NOT deny there are these mechanisms to be found) to address cause and effects or effects.

  34. #34 Kimpatsu
    January 5, 2008

    This is a null statement which says nothing about it’s truth.
    “…IT IS truth”, PZ?
    Please don’t misuse the apostrophe!

  35. #35 SEF
    January 5, 2008

    There is no empirical test for love.

    Actually, there are quite a few. Even the BBC got round to talking about some of the science the other year:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/hottopics/love/

  36. #36 SEF
    January 5, 2008

    without faith, there is no doubt, without doubt, there is no science.

    You got your first premise wrong. It should have been “with faith there is no doubt and without doubt there is no science”. Not that that covers it all of course.

  37. #37 CalGeorge
    January 5, 2008

    P.54: “The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith.”

    Great job, NAS.

  38. #38 Mark
    January 5, 2008

    If I was a biology teacher I would begin day one by writing the following on the chalkboard (I know, that probably dates me):

    “Biology = Evolution”

    and we would take it from there.

  39. #39 Olorin
    January 5, 2008

    Gene Goldring (#29) asks about the economic effect of teaching ID/creo. There are some historical examples of interfering with science for ideological purposes.

    In the 10thC, the scientific capital of the world was Baghdad. Islamic science built upon Greek science and surpassed it. Then the mullahs began to fear that all this knowledge was leading the ummah away from faith. But a renascent Europe was ready to receive the science. Islamic science never recovered.

    Trofim Lysenko’s story is well known. Even after collectivization, Russia exported grain to the world. By the time Lysenko was finally canned, the USSR was importing millions of tons to avoid famine. Russian biology has still not recovered.

    Nazi Germany replaced professors who taught the “Jewish science” of relativity and quantum physics with second-string hacks. Many of the first-stringers ended up on our side, and developed the atomic bomb before Germany could. Sixty years later, German physics has still not fully recovered.

  40. #40 SEF
    January 5, 2008

    Science and Religion Offer Different Ways of Understanding the World

    No. As PZ already said, science provides a (the?) way of understanding while religions only offer misunderstanding. But it goes further than that.

    Religion actually rewards and promotes lack of understanding – by allowing stupid, ignorant, lazy, dishonest and nasty people to feel good about being those things. They can claim to be as good as or better at “knowing” than the book-learnin’, thinkin’ types and thus continue to be ignorant and lazy etc just as they wanted to be all along (and even to despise the minority who do bother to find things out).

    Religion provides a club (both senses!) and hobby for the very worst of human nature and kind. One which conveniently requires absolutely no talent or skill to join (indeed being intellectually talented is much more likely to preclude membership and full participation). It’s the archetypical club you shouldn’t join because it would have you as a member.

    Religion is make-believe at all levels. Make believe there’s a sky daddy. Make believe you know stuff. Make believe you’re a nice person (and that nicer people in the out-group are nasty instead). Make believe you have a get-out-of-jail-free card (and that people in the out-group don’t). Make believe that your prejudices and actions are divinely sanctioned (and other people’s aren’t). Make believe that everyone you dislike is damned. Etc etc.

    Science is the way of knowing – but with inbuilt uncertainty.
    Faith is the way of pretending to know – with absolute certainty.

    No wonder religion appeals to those of little personal merit and lacking any intention of acquiring some of their own. It lets them have make-believe merit – which is just so much easier and more glittery than the real thing. It can get them elected to positions of power without them actually having to be good at anything other than professing their club-membership belief. With enough gullible and corrupt people around, it can even be that get-out-of-jail-free card for real.

  41. #41 Gene Goldring
    January 5, 2008

    raven, Olorin
    Thank you for your very sound replies.

  42. #42 Marcus Ranum
    January 5, 2008

    Without faith there is no stupid

  43. #43 Scott Hatfield, OM
    January 5, 2008

    PZ:

    I agree that the NAS statement (which has been around for two decades, IIRC) could be understood as a sop for believers. I do not agree, however, that it “misrepresents the scientific position.” At best, it merely implies (but fails to demonstrate) that understandings other than those gained via science might have some validity, but at no point is that claim considered to be ‘the scientific position’.

    Further, one doesn’t have to embrace NOMA in order to acknowledge that science, in order to be effective and remain science, must remain agnostic as a formal matter about such claims. It’s just an operational definition, with no metaphysics implied either way, as far as I’m concerned.

  44. #44 SEF
    January 5, 2008

    Without faith there is no stupid

    No, I think it’s possible for stupidity to exist independently from faith. It’s just that there’s some positive (not in the good sense!) correlation and feedback between the two.

  45. #45 Scott Hatfield, OM
    January 5, 2008

    One more thing, for those of you who are not high school teachers.

    The reality is that you cannot teach evolution without reference to religion. Students are not stupid, and many of them will be aware the people of faith find evolution disturbing/challenging/controversial, etc. Attempts to teach evolution without addressing this question will make it appear as if the instructor has something to hide, and also robs the student of important contextual information.

    So, the trick is to give them the historical and contemporary background that is relevant to understanding how evolutionary theory developed, what science is (and isn’t) and why evolution by natural selection qualifies as science, and creationism/ID does not. That takes more skill than simply saying, ‘this is a science class, so we will not mention religion.’ But it is the correct approach, in my view, and things like the recent NAS book are entirely helpful. Effective evolution education is not a curriculum problem, it’s a pedagogical problem.

  46. #46 Jesse
    January 5, 2008

    to PZ and SEF

    Look, maybe I wasn’t clear.

    “I like Eric Clapton because he is great” is not a scientific statement. “I love you” isn’t either.

    That’s because those two things just aren’t testable. PZ can say that he has behaviors that demonstrate that he loves his kids but unless you define what love is in the first place that doesn’t tell you much.

    Now “Eric Clapton will appeal to 20% of the listening public” is testable. That’s a good scientific hypothesis (or at least a good hypothesis). “Clapton appeals to 20% of the people in Iowa” is also a good hypothesis in that I can test it and even come up with a model o explain it.

    PZ, why do you study what you do (invertebrates in this case?) I bet the answer isn’t a scientific theory. The things that appeal to you about the field can’t be answered that way.

    That was what I was getting at– there are just some things about our experiences as humans that science isn’t good at answering because that isn’t what it is for.

    Here’s another: Slavery is wrong. That is NOT a scientific statement and there isn’t any way I can think of to frame it as such. It’s the wrong area of knowledge.

    None of you can prove we aren’t in the Matrix either. Not scientifically, anyhow. It just doesn’t address that.

    This says nothing about the utility and success of science in figuring out the world we can sort of agree we live in. Boyle’s law isn’t wrong. But Boyle’s law — or anything like it– won’t tell me why PZ likes squid. Or what his favorite color is. I can come up with neurological models that say “PZ’s brain behaves in X way when he is studying his favorite topic” but that says zero about what it feels like to him, in his head.

    Does that make more sense? Are you folks seeing what I am trying to get across?

    Telling religious people they are all idiots isn’t terribly helpful, in the scheme of things, at least in certain contexts. It’s no more helpful than the name-calling that goes on in politics. It may make me feel great to call Huckabee a fuckwit (and I think on some issues he is) but that isn’t going to do much except that in the political arena.

  47. #47 sciencemc
    January 6, 2008

    PS Sorry for the rant — you probably don’t deserve it .. take it as a old vet venting.

    No, I don’t think I do. But I understand the venting. Talk to my wife.

    It would be insane for me, in class, as a public school teacher, to go out of my way to trash the bible as you propose. All it will do is throw parents into a tizzy and trigger their irrational defense mechanisms. It would also likely get me fired, since my district’s policy is of strict neutrality in matters of religion. What good would I be as a martyr to atheism? It galls me at times, but there are realities I have to deal with here.

    If a kid does try to bring their religious beliefs into a class discussion, I do not hesitate to tell them they would need to provide good quality evidence to back up their claims if they want to be taken seriously. I have said “Sorry, that’s a religious belief. It doesn’t belong in science class.” However, it’s not my style to belittle students in any way, and like it or not, telling them in public that their beliefs are stupid myths is belittling.

    There are things in my curriculum I take issue with. I work creatively around them as best I can. The text has a section that talks about science and religion as “different ways of knowing.” I refuse to couch it that way, so I just say that science is the way to understand the natural world, and religion is about believing things for their own sake, without regard to evidence.

    As for applying shock treatment: That ain’t my job. I teach kids how to think rationally, and I in no way encourage their religious delusions. Besides, “in your face” just isn’t my style as a teacher, and I have learned that I gotta be me if I want to teach effectively.

    Now outside my capacity as a teacher, I don’t pull any punches.

  48. #48 johnny
    January 6, 2008

    “it’s” is short for “it is”. The possessive form for “it” is “its” with no apostrophe.

  49. #49 David Marjanovi?, OM
    January 6, 2008

    Since ID proposes no deity or dogma. the stratagem is pointless.

    If the cdesign proponentsists really didn’t propose a deity or dogma, the stratagem would be pointless. But confront them with Stupid Design, and suddenly they tell you the Designer is ineffable… and whether ID is true is a theological question… and not teaching ID is religious discrimination…

    I am having a discussion with one of PZ’s students: I contend,that without faith, there is no doubt, without doubt, there is no science. She says I am not correct. I am not smart enough to see why not.

    Faith is not needed for doubt. While a bit difficult, radical skepticism is feasible.

    Science + freedom + capitalism = prosperity.

    Well said.

  50. #50 David Marjanovi?, OM
    January 6, 2008

    Since ID proposes no deity or dogma. the stratagem is pointless.

    If the cdesign proponentsists really didn’t propose a deity or dogma, the stratagem would be pointless. But confront them with Stupid Design, and suddenly they tell you the Designer is ineffable… and whether ID is true is a theological question… and not teaching ID is religious discrimination…

    I am having a discussion with one of PZ’s students: I contend,that without faith, there is no doubt, without doubt, there is no science. She says I am not correct. I am not smart enough to see why not.

    Faith is not needed for doubt. While a bit difficult, radical skepticism is feasible.

    Science + freedom + capitalism = prosperity.

    Well said.

  51. #51 windy
    January 6, 2008

    PZ can say that he has behaviors that demonstrate that he loves his kids but unless you define what love is in the first place that doesn’t tell you much.

    Since it was your question, why don’t you define it?

  52. #52 Lycosid
    January 6, 2008

    The enzyte commercial metaphor was priceless.

  53. #53 CalGeorge
    January 6, 2008

    That was what I was getting at– there are just some things about our experiences as humans that science isn’t good at answering because that isn’t what it is for.

    And there are things religion isn’t good at explaining – just look at almost any page of the Bible.

    Or maybe it is good at explaining things…

    Yeah, the Bible is good at explaining lots about how people are prone to bullshit and believing in idiotic fantasies and exaggerating their self-importance and being authoritarian assholes.

    I’ll give it that.

  54. #54 Olorin
    January 6, 2008

    Johnny (#48) said: “it’s” is short for “it is”. The possessive form for “it” is “its” with no apostrophe.

    The distinction between “its” and “it’s” was a 16thC printer’s mistake in the first place. Why should we perpetuate it into the 21stC?

    We now return to our regular programming.

  55. #55 Steve LaBonne
    January 6, 2008

    It is desirable, for clarity, to make a distinction between the possessive of “it” and the contraction for “it is”. True, prior to the 19th century the dominant forms filling these roles were “it’s” and “’tis”, respectively. As “’tis” went out of currency, these distinct functions eventually came to be represented by “its” and “it’s”. I fail to see why the relative recency of the modern scheme is an excuse for just sloppily confusing two completely different functions.

  56. #56 Jesse
    January 6, 2008

    @ #50

    Precisely the point — is love a certain set of neurological/chemical responses? Is it what you “feel” (whatever that means) or is it a certain set of behaviors? Whether science can even address that at all depends on which door you decide to go through, you know?

    Anyhow, the original point was that a lot of atheists–myself included — have often said that any religion is just a bunch of stupidity. But that isn’t always the case. Religion offers no help at all in understanding the underlying physics or biology of the material world. But it obviously has some survival value. (Otherwise nobody with religion would exist at all, or it would be insanely rare). Or at least it is neutral in the survival sense.

    I agree with PZ a lot more than I disagree with him. In this case though, reducing religion to our experiences with Christianity as a powerful political force isn’t helping win folks over. One commenter was quite right– as a formal matter science has to be neutral about God. Why? For the *very same reason* that ID isn’t science. I can’t construct anything like a scientific hypothesis about the existence or non-existence of God.

    Science also isn’t all that useful for ethical questions. Ed Teller was a decent scientist (if a bit of a jerk about crediting work). Not one iota of his scientific work addressed the political and ethical issues around making nuclear bombs. After all, even Oppenheimer saw the H-bomb as a neat technical achievement, but he obviously wasn’t thrilled with the implications of an arms race, Teller was. Were both men or one of them irrational idiots?

    Now, science can inform those questions, and certainly our positions on them, but in forming a coherent ethical system science is not quite the right tool, just like a saw isn’t all that good for hammering nails.

    Religion doesn’t make you a better person. But science doesn’t either.

    Also, not all religions reward misunderstanding, as one commenter put it. The Navajo in particular were punished pretty badly for misunderstanding anything about their surroundings (you die). Same is true of the Inuit. In both cases their religions have offered good rules-of-thumb to get them around a very, very unforgiving place. Those religious ideas aren’t useful in raw form to figuring out how seals or gila monsters evolve. Nor are they scientific in any modern sense. But they came about in response to certain environmental pressures. Are they “irrational?” Well yes, in a formal sense. But they are very rational if you want to live in a place that hasn’t got a lot of resources and haven’t got 21st century technology.

    The role of religions in any society is a complicated beast. In ours it can be very negative, It can also be a positive–the abolitionist movement was at heart a religious, not scientific position. Were scientists evil or something (as the creationists like to rot this example out?) No. The morality of slavery is outside the purview of science to begin with and has zero to do with evolution. You can’t construct theoretical models of morality in the way you can of perfect gases.

    Non-overlapping magisteria is, in that sense, a better position than people give it credit for around here.

  57. #57 David
    January 6, 2008

    It’s “his,” “hers,” and “its.” No apostrophes, no confusion.

    And I support the NAS’s “pandering to religion” or whatever you want to call it. There are political realities that must be acknowledged, and the wording in this book is an effective way to do that.

  58. #58 ConcernedJoe
    January 6, 2008

    Yup sciencemc I knew I was unfair to you, after the rant .. you were in the street and victim of my road rage. Poor form on my part; sorry.

    Sounds fair to your style .. still and no personal reference it galls me to no end that we still reward belief in fairy tales.. worse yet in irrational, prejudicial, and unfair thinking.

    If one of your students came in professing to believe in gremlins as the major cause of plane and car crashes “you’d” (not casting stone at YOU) have said student down at the mental health professional’s office. Wrap something in standard religion and they get a pass of some sort in the classroom and praise on the street. Makes me sick.

    Peace out.

  59. #59 Michael M.
    January 6, 2008

    It’s a delusional affliction that certainly has affected our material existence, and it ought to be treated as such, rather than respected as providing insight into the guiding power of a deity.

    I’ll believe that when an evolutionary biologist creates the equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, or Apologia pro vita sua, or The Confessions, or St. Teresa in Ecstasy (or any of the other Bernini sculptures at Santa Maria della Vittoria). Meanwhile, I’ll continue to draw inspiration and awe from the great works of art and literature and the imagination, even when those works provide insight into the guiding power of a deity. That you disrespect those says far more about your lack of imagination (and, presumably, utter lack of aethetics) than it does about the purposes of science or religion, or the purposes to which great minds have put both over the centuries.

  60. #60 Steve LaBonne
    January 6, 2008

    I’ll believe that when an evolutionary biologist creates the equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, or Apologia pro vita sua, or The Confessions, or St. Teresa in Ecstasy (or any of the other Bernini sculptures at Santa Maria della Vittoria).

    Which I’m sure will happen the day after an artist achieves a major advance in evolutionary biology. WTF??

    Were you suffering from the delusion that you’d made some sort of point?

  61. #61 sciencemc
    January 6, 2008

    Fuggedaboudit, ConcernedJoe. I get frustrated, too.

    BTW, my students would tell you I am quite unambiguous about my opinion of ID/Creationism. Take away evolution and modern biology makes NO SENSE WHATSOEVER.

  62. #62 raven
    January 6, 2008

    I’ll believe that when an evolutionary biologist creates the equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, or Apologia pro vita sua, or The Confessions, or St. Teresa in Ecstasy (or any of the other Bernini sculptures at Santa Maria della Vittoria).

    Well, I’ll see you the Sistine chapel and Boticelli’s Venus and raise you,

    1. One 2 gigahertz PC costing a few hundred bucks
    2. One vaccine against polio that works
    3. One green revolution that feeds a few billion people
    4. An increase in life span of 30 years in a century
    5. A Toyota camry auto
    6. A microwave oven

    Your move. BTW I’ve got plenty of funds left. Have yet to toss in the jet planes, space station, indoor plumbing, or the internet.

  63. #63 Efogoto
    January 6, 2008

    To use the vernacular of the 1960s: Right on!, Raven.

  64. #64 Tulse
    January 6, 2008

    Jesse:

    Also, not all religions reward misunderstanding, as one commenter put it. The Navajo in particular were punished pretty badly for misunderstanding anything about their surroundings (you die). Same is true of the Inuit. In both cases their religions have offered good rules-of-thumb to get them around a very, very unforgiving place.

    The rules-of-thumb didn’t help because they were religious — far from it, they worked because they were in accord with reality. Religion may have been the conduit, but religion itself didn’t inform those beliefs, and didn’t encourage hypothesis testing and updating of those rules to make them even more accurate, and assist even better in survival. Those groups could have been better served in terms of survival information if such “rules” had been passed down with a sense of curiosity, exploration, and belief in progress. (Religion may have served some social purposes, but for passing on survival info it is far less than ideal.)

  65. #65 Jesse
    January 6, 2008

    Tulse–

    I didn’t say they worked becuase they were religious, per se, just that religion was the way they came about, so a blanket condemnation of religion as rewarding _mis_understanding is reductive.

    Remember, many people in the world didn’t have the benefit of modern technology and being insanely conservative was essential to survival. Inuits couldn’t afford innovation like we think of it. Why not? Because if you make one mistake you and your family are dead. That’s why cultures in deserts, the arctic or other tough places to live don’t value innovation in and of itself. It’s dangerous. The risk is just too much. (Remember, you are dealing with communities of a few dozen at most, one or two deaths is pretty devastating). When Bob the Inuit hunter says “I need to try out this new spear design,” his family says “The one you have worked fine and we will all die if you are wrong.”

    As you note, religion serves social purposes as well, which in a tough place is just as important. Can you imagine an Inuit community surviving for more than five minutes in Greenland if they had schisms due to faith? The cohesion that a common belief system provides is pretty important. It’s what allows Muslims to interact with each other in Mecca without killing each other even though one might be from Bosnia (a white blond dude) and another from Mali. (Malcolm X writes about his own conversion from hating white people generally as a result of the Hajj). This is in no way an endorsement of Islam or its fundamentalist strains, or any religions, I’m just pointing out that it isn’t an absolute negative.

    I’m trying to tell people that the issue of religion and its role is complicated and not reducible to the caricature that some folks here reduce it to. Just as, I might add that atheism is far more nuanced than the caricature that many theists reduce it to (see PZ Meyers points out when he talks about I am Legend).

  66. #66 windy
    January 6, 2008

    Inuits couldn’t afford innovation like we think of it. Why not? Because if you make one mistake you and your family are dead. That’s why cultures in deserts, the arctic or other tough places to live don’t value innovation in and of itself. It’s dangerous. The risk is just too much.

    Then who do you suppose invented their igloos, kayaks, snow goggles, harpoons and other arctic “hi-tech”?

    Can you imagine an Inuit community surviving for more than five minutes in Greenland if they had schisms due to faith? The cohesion that a common belief system provides is pretty important.

    Religion prevents schisms due to faith? Since when? And where’s your evidence that the Inuit belief system was particularly cohesive – were there never rival shamans competing for power, for instance?

  67. #67 Jim Battle
    January 6, 2008

    I don’t have a problem putting in some appeasing crap, considering the target audience. A spoonful of sugar is all it is.

    Just view it as our version of the “wedge strategy.” Let them keep some of their irrational beliefs intact for a while, while feeding them the royal jelly of science. Some percentage will eventually “get it” and drop the nonsense, and hopefully even those that don’t will be better off and less hostile to science than they were before.

  68. #68 Tulse
    January 6, 2008

    Jesse:

    This is in no way an endorsement of Islam or its fundamentalist strains, or any religions, I’m just pointing out that it isn’t an absolute negative

    No one here has said that. No one here denies that, in the name of religion, some pretty nifty things have been done. What has been said is that a) many of those things could be have been done, and better, by non-religious groups and people, b) on balance, the history of religion doing good is spotty at best, and c) in our modern age, with our modern understanding of how the world works, it has no place, and is in many cases downright dangerous (witness Pakistan, a country one good riot away from a fundamentalist theocracy armed with nukes).

    Don’t caricature the arguments that people are putting forward here, and don’t confuse lack of politeness for lack of nuance or understanding.

  69. #69 Thinker
    January 7, 2008

    I am reminded of a double-entendre quip by the late Swedish comedian Tage Danielsson:

    “Without doubt we aren’t wise”.

    (In English, the double-entendre requires having or not having a comma after the word “doubt”, but I’m sure you get the idea.)

  70. #70 Richard Wein
    January 7, 2008

    I’m sorry to see that the NAS booklet repeats a common silly error in the way it defines “theory”:

    The formal scientific definition of theory is
    quite different from the everyday meaning of
    the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation
    of some aspect of nature that is supported
    by a vast body of evidence.
    [My emphasis]

    If “supported by a vast body of evidence” was really part of the definition of “theory”, it would be impossible to say that a particular theory is unsupported or poorly-supported, since that would be a contradiction in terms. Moreover, it would be meaningless to claim that the theory of evolution is well-supported, since that would be a tautology.

    Whether a theory is well-supported or not is a question of fact. It’s absurd to make it part of the definition.

  71. #71 Jesse
    January 7, 2008

    @windy:

    I didn’t say they don’t innovate, I said they don’t value innovation for it’s own sake. You said that some cultures would have done better to approach things in a questioning way with a belief in progress, as you put it, and I am saying that for Inuits and Apaches and San people that may have been a very, very poor survival strategy.

    In American culture, we value innovation for it’s own sake–we love new stuff. That’s because the price of screwing up is minimal. New car model sucks? So what. You can get another and you won’t die.

    There was a *lot* of trial and error in the invention of a kayak, but once they got a design that worked the Inuit were pretty resistant to change (though they were happy to adopt new technologies as they were introduced–provided they knew they worked. Traders to the North have written a lot about how it was awfully tough to impress an Inuit.

    @Tulse

    I didn’t say religion prevents schisms, only that it can provide cohesion. Especially when the *rational* thing to do is cut off those families on the end of the village because they aren’t pulling their weight.

    ANd I don’t think I’m caricaturing much when I see comments like “Without faith there is no stupid.” Isaac Newton might disagree.

    Could many good things have been done by non religious people? Hell yes. Is religion an often dangerous force in society? That too. Look at the US and some of the people we vote into office.

    But at the same time, I originally submitted that there is such a thing as a question, or a statement, that isn’t subject to to scientific testing. After all, we decry ID and other stuff precisely because they aren’t testable. They aren’t falsifiable. They aren’t science.

    That said, I say again, “Slavery is wrong” isn’t testable either. But we all have that weird irrational belief. After all, *Rationally* (in the economic sense), I could make a pretty good case for slave labor. We in the US have often accused the Chinese of gaining a competitive advantage from the use of prison labor, so I don’t see how it’s irrational to call for repeal of the Civil War amendments.

    But I doubt anyone here would be for that. But again, that isn’t a scientific question. Religion has at various times offered a way to approach these things. Can you do it without? Well, yeah, but I at least acknowledge that my position against slavery has no more basis in the physical world than a Christian’s does, even though we probably approach it form vastly different perspectives.

    Science is a tool. So is a saw. Or a hammer. Do you use a hammer or saw to drive screws with? Do you use science to determine whether or not to care for your kids?

  72. #72 Tulse
    January 7, 2008

    If “supported by a vast body of evidence” was really part of the definition of “theory”, it would be impossible to say that a particular theory is unsupported or poorly-supported

    I agree, Richard — it is a lousy, conceptually confused definition of theory. I would have hoped that the National Academy of Sciences would at least understand this fundamental term.

  73. #73 Sven DiMilo
    January 7, 2008

    Whenever you’ve got something written by a committee, you know there’s going to be someone who demands that their personal biases be given a nod of appreciation

    You said it. Just got back from SICB (which, this year, featured a symposium on evolution education that included great talks by Padian, Scott, and Forrest, among others). In the business meeting, a perfectly straightforward resolution against the dilution of science education got waylaid by a silly argument (started by self-described christians) that it would be too inflammatory to claim that biological evolution is a “scientific fact” because in science we never can prove anything, etc. etc. etc. It was depressing.

  74. #74 Elf M. Sternberg
    January 7, 2008

    My letter to NBC:

    To the Editors at NBC News:

    Your recent article, “Science Advisors Give Fresh Boost To Evolution,” about the National Academy of Science’s release of Science, Evolution, and Creationism, did a tragic disservice to the people NBC is supposed to be informing. Your show presented Intelligent Design as if it had scientific merit or validity while downplaying the overwhelming evidence supporting evolutionary theory.

    Yet a review of actual scientific literature shows that there is no such thing as a “theory of intelligent design”; there is no scientific basis on which to hypothesize about intelligent design; and there are no industrial, medical or agricultural research programs underway that use the various premises promoted as part of intelligent design. One would think that if intelligent design was a valid means of understanding our world that it would be economically useful, but all meaningful research conducted in the life sciences use evolutionary biology as their premise.

    Meanwhile, our nation continues to fall further and further behind in cutting edge research into the biological sciences. Creationists have fought for decades to keep evolutionary biology out of the classroom. As a result, our students do not learn about the very fundamentals of biology, and few students reach the university prepared to enter the biological sciences. The most impressive biological research being done today is occurring in countries such as Scotland, North Korea, and Japan– all countries where evolution is taught from the very beginning without controversy.

    “Science Advisors Give Fresh Boost To Evolution” was what has become a meritless standard of reportage: “there are two sides, let’s present them as if they had equal merit.” There are not two equal sides to this debate: there is biological evolution, the foundation of all understanding in the sciences that keep us alive and keep us fed, and there is a small, disgruntled cadre of religious believers who dislike the implications of that understanding. That NBC should present this as a disagreement between equally valid worldviews contributes to popular impressions that cripple our education system and doom our economy.

    Sincerely distressed,

    E. M. Sternberg

    [Sent "To The Science Editor," TechNews@msnbc.com]

  75. #75 Thinker
    January 7, 2008

    E.M. Sternberg: I agree fully with your letter to NBC, but I assume you did not intend to write what you did: (my emphasis)

    The most impressive biological research being done today is occurring in countries such as Scotland, North Korea, and Japan

  76. #76 Barbara Kline Pope
    January 10, 2008

    Some people who are commenting on this blog may be doing so without having had the opportunity to read our book, “Science, Evolution, and Creationism.” This conversation might be enhanced and clarified by reading the book online or downloading it in pdf for free at http://www.nap.edu/sec.

  77. #77 Keith Douglas
    January 13, 2008

    On Inuit problems and disagreements, such as they were (Inuit is plural, BTW) – they are illustrated in the recent legend-turned-to-movie, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. The role of the Inuit religion is also implicit.

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