Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean’s been taking a beating over his negative comments on an atheist anti-Christmas sign. There’s no small irony in this, given that Sean is a vocal atheist. His sentiments, which basically boil down to “it’s good to promote atheism, but there’s no need to be a dick about it” strike me as perfectly unobjectionable, but as he’s learning first-hand, that’s not enough for a lot of people on the Internet.

The difference between an unjustly accused “accommodationist” like Sean and a real one like myself is here:

The problem with accommodationism isn’t that its adherents aren’t sufficiently macho or strident; it’s that they’re wrong. And when respected organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, or the American Association for the Advancement of Science go on record as claiming that science and religion are completely compatible, as if they were speaking for scientists, that’s unconscionable and should be stopped. They don’t have to go on at great length about how a scientific worldview undermines religious belief, even if it’s true; they can just choose not to say anything at all about religion. That’s not their job.

I agree with basically everything else that Sean says in his defense, but we part company here, for a very simple reason: what Sean says is factually untrue.

OK, fine, as a formal philosophical matter, I agree that it’s basically impossible to reconcile the religious worldview with the scientific worldview. Of course, as a formal philosophical matter, it’s kind of difficult to show that motion is possible.

We don’t live in a formal philosophical world, though, and the vast majority of humans are not philosophers (and that’s a good thing, because if we did, it would take forever to get to work in the morning). Humans in the real world happily accept all sorts of logical contradictions that would drive philosophers batty. And that includes accepting both science and religion at the same time.

So, in my view, it is not in any way an “unconscionable” political statement for professional scientific organizations to state that science and religion are compatible. It’s a statement of fact, an acknowledgment that in the real world, there are numerous examples of people who are both personally religious and successful, even prominent scientists. Guy Consolmagno, George Coyne, Bill Phillips, Francis Collins, and many more.

How do these people deal with the philosophical contradiction inherent in there beliefs? I have no idea. I don’t really care, either, any more than I care how philosophers resolve Zeno’s paradox. Religious scientists exist, and I can move from one side of the room to the other in finite time. End of debate, let’s talk about something that actually matters.

There is nothing unconscionable, in my view, in professional organizations stating publicly that these people exist. What would be unconscionable is the reverse– a public statement that science and religion can never be compatible amounts to a denial of the existence of the many men and women who find some way to reconcile science and religion in their own lives. I find that sort of rhetoric deeply insulting even on blogs, let alone from a professional organization.

I would be fine with Sean’s compromise position of having them say nothing, but as a political matter, I think it makes perfect sense for those organizations to make the statements they have. Science is frequently under attack from adherents of extreme religious sects who claim that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. Such zealots attempt to use this position to undermine the authority of science, and to cast doubt on essential and critically important scientific ideas that need public acceptance in order for us to solve pressing global problems. Taking the stand that science and religion are compatible– as they manifestly are, given the existence of religious scientists– is a way for professional organizations to fight back, politically. As such, I wholly support such statements.

And that’s what makes me a real “Neville Chamberlain atheist,” as opposed to a poseur like Sean.

(Apologies to Orac for paraphrasing his tagline, but I couldn’t resist.)

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    January 5, 2010

    I agree with you that religion per se is not incompatible with science. The problem is that certain prominent religious schools of thought, namely fundamentalism, are incompatible with science. As scientists we implicitly accept that our source material may not have gotten every detail right, and we live with the possibility of error and ambiguity. The fundamentalist believes that his holy book (whether it’s the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or the Bhagavad Ghita (sp?)) is absolutely and infallibly true, and they cannot accept ambiguity. I have heard several anecdotal reports of former fundamentalists who gave up religion entirely when forced to confront some contradiction in what they previously considered their holy book.

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    January 5, 2010

    I agree with you that religion per se is not incompatible with science. The problem is that certain prominent religious schools of thought, namely fundamentalism, are incompatible with science. As scientists we implicitly accept that our source material may not have gotten every detail right, and we live with the possibility of error and ambiguity. The fundamentalist believes that his holy book (whether it’s the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or the Bhagavad Ghita (sp?)) is absolutely and infallibly true, and they cannot accept ambiguity.

    I agree that modern science and fundamentalist religion are not compatible.

    But remember, fundamentalist religion is not the only form of religion. The only people who think that it is are fundamentalists and militant atheists.

  3. #3 MadGastronomer
    January 5, 2010

    @ Eric Lund
    Well, sure, fundamentalist religion is incompatible with science, but since nobody said it was, what’s that got to do with it?

  4. #4 --bill
    January 5, 2010

    it’s basically impossible to reconcile the religious worldview with the scientific worldview .

    Well, to deal with this formally, you’d have to unambiguously define both `religious worldview’ and `scientific worldview’. The latter is a much harder problem than many people at SciBlogs think.

  5. #5 miller
    January 5, 2010

    This is starting to look really silly to me. If you read what people like PZ, Sean Carroll, and Jason Rosenhouse say, they’re always repeating this point: “There are religious scientists, yes, but that doesn’t mean science and religion are always compatible!” And then I read people like you, and you say things like, “There are kinds of religion that are incompatible with science, yes, but there are also lots of religious scientists!” There is obviously some disagreement between the two camps, but sometimes the disagreement isn’t all that clear.

    Here’s one definitive disagreement I have with you.

    Science is frequently under attack from adherents of extreme religious sects who claim that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible.

    I believe that if a religious sect makes this claim, then they are automatically correct, at least for their particular religion. After all, religious people have full liberty to choose the fundamental tenets of their own faith.

    On the other hand, if a religious person claims that their religion is fundamentally compatible with science, that claim is not automatically correct. A claim is not enough, they also have to act the part. For example, I really dislike how Francis Collins outright rejects the evolution of altruism, apparently influenced by religion. But not every religious scientist necessarily has this problem. It’s just something to watch out for.

  6. #6 hazur
    January 5, 2010

    “Humans in the real world happily accept all sorts of logical contradictions that would drive philosophers batty. And that includes accepting both science and religion at the same time.”
    What characterizes an accommodationist from a non-one is that the former (like you) insist in miss-characterizing the latter like not been aware of it.

    “So, in my view, it is not in any way an “unconscionable” political statement for professional scientific organizations to state that science and religion are compatible. It’s a statement of fact, an acknowledgment that in the real world, there are numerous examples of people who are both personally religious and successful, even prominent scientists…”
    That some prominent scientists don’t see a problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If scientific organizations are going to make any statement about it they should also say that many prominent scientists do see a compatibility problem. That would be a complete statement of fact, not misleading incomplete ones like the currents.

    “…let’s talk about something that actually matters.”, and you’ll be the one deciding what’s important, right?

    “There is nothing unconscionable, in my view, in professional organizations stating publicly that these people exist.”
    Acknowledging accommodationists while ignoring the existence of non-accommodationists is unconscionable.

    “What would be unconscionable is the reverse– a public statement that science and religion can never be compatible amounts to a denial of the existence of the many men and women who find some way to reconcile science and religion in their own lives. I find that sort of rhetoric deeply insulting even on blogs, let alone from a professional organization.”
    I think you are letting the rhetoric drive your understanding, at least I haven’t seen anybody to ask scientific organizations do something like that. I have seen many people making the claim of incompatibility as a personal conclusion they have reached.

    “I would be fine with Sean’s compromise position of having them say nothing, but as a political matter, I think it makes perfect sense for those organizations to make the statements they have…”
    This is acceptable as argument, but of course it’s been addressed before and you should accept that many people is not convinced by it and discuss the arguments presented.

    “Taking the stand that science and religion are compatible– as they manifestly are, given the existence of religious scientists–”
    Chad, I enjoy reading you in general, but you can be really sloppy discussing this issue. You complain about people being insulting while apparently ignoring what they have been saying for quite some time now, which I would argue is insulting.

    “… is a way for professional organizations to fight back, politically.”
    Maybe, but would be better if you confront what the other side really claims and not what you think it does.
    I hope my rhetoric did not come as offensive.
    Cheers,

  7. #7 hazur
    January 5, 2010

    I just read miller comment @ 5, I think he also makes a great point.
    Cheers,

  8. #8 John Farrell
    January 5, 2010

    How do these people deal with the philosophical contradiction inherent in there beliefs? I have no idea. I don’t really care, either, any more than I care how philosophers resolve Zeno’s paradox. Religious scientists exist, and I can move from one side of the room to the other in finite time. End of debate, let’s talk about something that actually matters.

    Outstanding.

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    January 5, 2010

    This is starting to look really silly to me. If you read what people like PZ, Sean Carroll, and Jason Rosenhouse say, they’re always repeating this point: “There are religious scientists, yes, but that doesn’t mean science and religion are always compatible!” And then I read people like you, and you say things like, “There are kinds of religion that are incompatible with science, yes, but there are also lots of religious scientists!” There is obviously some disagreement between the two camps, but sometimes the disagreement isn’t all that clear.

    I think the difference is in the definition of “compatible.” The anti-accomodationist side uses a very rigorous philosophical sort of standard, arguing that accepting any statement about the universe on faith is inconsistent with science. The accomodationist side uses more of an operational definitionm arguing, as I do above, that since religious scientists exist, religion and science are clearly and unambiguously able to coexist.

    I doubt there’s any way to reconcile these, as they’re such fundamentally different starting points. I will cheerfully concede that the anti-accomodationists are probably right when they say that there is no way for religious faith to be compatible with science at the level of rigor that they demand. I just don’t think that’s particularly relevant to the real-world situations where science and religion come in contact. In the other direction, they concede the existence of religious scientists, but don’t find that relevant, for reasons I have never really understood, and don’t expect to ever understand.

  10. #10 Alex
    January 5, 2010

    The problem with the anti-accomodationist side is that their critique often seems to be as much psychological as philosophical. If they were only insisting that the ideas are inconsistent, well, fine. But they often (no, not always) raise questions about the intellectual rigor of people who accept two inconsistent ideas. On the surface even that sounds like a fair question. However, it seems clear from observation that somebody could be rigorous and reject inconsistency within one’s scientific work, but accept inconsistency between one’s scientific work and one’s other practices.

  11. #11 Cherish
    January 5, 2010

    Thank you. I was rather offended by the notion that Sean seemed to be implying he could speak on behalf of scientists because “he’s right” and yet these professional organizations should not.

  12. #12 abb3w
    January 5, 2010

    Chad Orzel: The anti-accomodationist side uses a very rigorous philosophical sort of standard, arguing that accepting any statement about the universe on faith is inconsistent with science.

    Well, almost any statement. “Experience has patterns” (or more rigorously, “Reality produces experience with a pattern of complexity mathematically recognizable with an ordinal degree hypercomputation”) largely gets taken on implicit Faith for science, largely because asserting Refutation on this leaves you unable to resolve even Epicurus’ problem of deduction (“do I have a hand?”), never mind Hume’s problem of induction (“will it hurt again the next time I whack my thumb with this hammer?”). Science also doesn’t tend to have issues with pure mathematical axioms, since (in pure form) particular axioms do not necessarily apply to any particular aspects of the “universe” that physical sciences refer to.

    I think the key to the question is whether you are talking about Science and Religion as abstracted philosophical disciplines, as anthropological practices (which express some aspect of the discipline), or simply as the body of understanding that results (such as “table salt is composed of atoms of chlorine and sodium in a 1:1 ratio”).

    Philosophically, there is the potential incompatibility whenever any claim of the pattern of experience is made as an absolute; EG, Scriptural Inerrancy. The potential exists in principle within science-as-philosophy to test such descriptions against one another via mathematics (doi:10.1109/18.825807).

    In terms of anthropological practice, on the other hand, the impact of these absolute assertions sometimes may be indirect enough that investigation of some subject is not impacted; thus, religion and science may be largely compatible within the scope of one person’s existence. While the magisteria may not be intrinsically separate, the particular explorations of them may be.

    On the gripping hand, there are cases when certain anthropological branches of science and certain anthropological religions cross paths; and conflict will occur. It may merely be internal cognitive dissonance to an individual, or it may be a world-encompassing culture war.

    Accomodationists appear to seek to minimize the number or scope of such conflicts; non-accomodationists, to seek for religion to yield in such conflicts.

    A further scope of complexity to the conflict is that science is largely concerned with the “is”; while religion has much to say about the “ought”, science by nature has relatively little to say of matters across this fundamental divide. Philosophically, matters of “ought” are not part of science… but they are part of engineering. Engineering uses the understanding of the universe from science, combined with various primary bridges across the is-ought divide, to infer further “oughts”. For example: given the “oughts” that the bridge ought be made of steel, trestle construction, four car lanes wide, last fifty years, and not collapse under loads of 50 tons, engineering uses science to infer it ought have beams with thickness of at least such-and-such.

    For now, the limits of understanding in the social sciences reduce the ability of engineering to work in the associated areas — which religions have traditionally considered their own province. A few forays have been made; examples include such fiascos as Spencer’s “Social Darwinism”, which as historical bad examples continue to make considering further forays unpalatable to many. However, failure to make a design choice is itself a design choice.

    The current conflicts between science-and-religion now are trivial compared to the potential conflicts between religion-and-engineering.

  13. #13 JohnV
    January 5, 2010

    Nice The Mote in God’s Eye reference, abb3w. Don’t see those very often :p

  14. #14 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 5, 2010

    You are conflating the logical incompatibility of science and religion as world views–which seems to be pretty clear cut–with the ability of some individuals to simultaneously hold logically incompatible world views in their minds–which is quite common.

    I have no problem with either of these uncontroversial facts about reality. The problem, of course, is when personal or social accommodation turns into logical accommodation, which is absolutely unconscionbale, being based as it is upon a flat-out lie.

  15. #15 Anti-accomodationist
    January 5, 2010

    It rather disturbs me how you scoff at the insistence that logical consistency should be promoted. Why should people be given a free pass to act irrationally in the case of religion? Should we not comment on the incompatibility of science and the paranormal because some people dedicate their lives to such things as well?

  16. #16 --bill
    January 5, 2010

    The `logical incompatibility of science and religion’ cannot be demonstrated until a formal, uncontested definition of both science and religion has been made. And I think no-one in this debate has done that.

  17. #17 Chad Orzel
    January 5, 2010

    It rather disturbs me how you scoff at the insistence that logical consistency should be promoted. Why should people be given a free pass to act irrationally in the case of religion? Should we not comment on the incompatibility of science and the paranormal because some people dedicate their lives to such things as well?

    If your standard is strict enough, science is logically incompatible with sports fandom.

    Religious belief is not, in my opinion, inherently problematic due to its logical inconsistency with science. What another scientist does to reconcile their beliefs is none of my concern. Religion is only problematic when it begins to impose on the actions of others, through legislation or other political action. The proper response to such problems, in my opinion, is to attack the political actions, not religion per se.

    Belief in the paranormal is not, in my opinion, inherently problematic due to its logical inconsistency with science. Belief in the paranormal is only problematic when it begins to impose on the actions of others, say by encouraging the credulous to spend money and invest their hopes in quack medical treatments or schemes to communicate with the afterlife. And again, the proper response is to attack the scam artists who defraud people.

    The logical consistency, or lack thereof, of other people’s beliefs is simply not my problem until and unless the actions they take due to those beliefs create a problem for me, or for someone else.

  18. #18 miller
    January 5, 2010

    I think the difference is in the definition of “compatible.” The anti-accomodationist side uses a very rigorous philosophical sort of standard, arguing that accepting any statement about the universe on faith is inconsistent with science. The accomodationist side uses more of an operational definitionm arguing, as I do above, that since religious scientists exist, religion and science are clearly and unambiguously able to coexist.

    This is a much clearer way of putting it. Thanks!

    I think the trouble is that arguing from the operational definition simply isn’t persuasive. Saying that there are lots of religious scientists might make you feel better about yourself if you already like both religion and science, but for the rest of us, the immediate reaction is, “Then there are lots of scientists I disagree with… so what?” If you actually want to change minds (either to convince them that science and religion are compatible or that they are incompatible), we need to go by the philosophical definition of compatibility, even if it disagrees with the compatible-in-practice definition.

    Of course, that just raises the question of whether it’s worth trying to change people’s minds.

    Generally, I don’t really care if people think science and religion are compatible or incompatible. It strongly depends on the particular religion anyway. But if they believe in incompatibility, they better pick science. And if they believe in compatibility, they better make damn sure that they’re actually compatible. Lip service isn’t enough; even Deepak Chopra fancies himself pro-science.

  19. #19 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 6, 2010

    On a network news broadcast tonight, in discussing the lack of a good Ovarian Cancer test, a reporter said “Science always moves too slowly.”

    My wife, a Physics professor, who doesn’t usually talk back to the TV, burst out: “Well that’s who you have. Want to ask an English major?”

  20. #20 Iorwerth Thomas
    January 6, 2010

    @16: Well, obviously not. Admitting that obtaining strict definitions in both cases is probably impossible [1] would mean that we’d have nothing to argue about!

    [1] I get the impression that a lot of religious scholars have given up on trying to define religion.

  21. #21 hazur
    January 6, 2010

    Chad: “The accomodationist side uses more of an operational definition arguing, as I do above, that since religious scientists exist, religion and science are clearly and unambiguously able to coexist.”
    Coupled with cherry picking I would add. If you’d apply your definition consistently I doubt Francis Collins and others would make the cut. The issue is not that they can make good science on some fields (that’s trivially true for anybody), but that there are fields of science where they couldn’t because interference from their religious beliefs. Only by making aside their beliefs it would be possible to obtain meaningful scientific understanding (everybody knows historic examples). As a reminder, this is what Collins presented in a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley in 2008:
    Slide 1 – Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.
    Slide 2 – God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.
    Slide 3 – After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced “house” (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.
    Slide 4 – We humans use our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.
    Slide 5 – If the Moral Law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?

    Aren’t a few conflicts and incompatibilities apparent there?
    Cheers,

  22. #22 Dianna Narciso
    January 6, 2010

    You make the mistake of assuming that because the human psyche is capable of accepting two non-compatible ideas at the same time, those ideas must therefore be compatible

  23. #23 Anti-accomodationist
    January 6, 2010

    “Religious belief is not, in my opinion, inherently problematic due to its logical inconsistency with science. What another scientist does to reconcile their beliefs is none of my concern. Religion is only problematic when it begins to impose on the actions of others, through legislation or other political action. The proper response to such problems, in my opinion, is to attack the political actions, not religion per se.

    Belief in the paranormal is not, in my opinion, inherently problematic due to its logical inconsistency with science. Belief in the paranormal is only problematic when it begins to impose on the actions of others, say by encouraging the credulous to spend money and invest their hopes in quack medical treatments or schemes to communicate with the afterlife. And again, the proper response is to attack the scam artists who defraud people.”

    We would less often have to deal with the ill-effects of incorrect beliefs if we weren’t afraid to criticize and correct these beliefs when we see them. There is a fine line between being a good vocal skeptic and being a “militant atheist,” but just because there is potential to offend does not mean we should remain silent. We shouldn’t wait for something to become actively problematic to address the problems inherent in it.

  24. #24 ms physics
    January 7, 2010

    “We would less often have to deal with the ill-effects of incorrect beliefs if we weren’t afraid to criticize and correct these beliefs when we see them. There is a fine line between being a good vocal [ed. Christian] and being a “militant [ed. fundamentalist],” but just because there is potential to offend does not mean we should remain silent. We shouldn’t wait for something to become actively problematic to address the problems inherent in it.”

    I was raised fundie and the similarities between anti-accommodationists and fundamentalist Christians only becomes more and more striking. The intolerance of each camp (and I am now subject to both) is alarming.

  25. #25 Paul W.
    January 8, 2010

    Chad, you’re bullshitting.

    We’re not talking about some formal philosophical notion of compatibility. We’re talking about what most people would take “compatible” to mean.

    So, for example, if “science and religion are compatible” only means what you say, then it’s equally true, in commonsense terms, that “science and astrology are compatible,” and “science and vitalism are compatible.”

    I have in fact met a very few scientists who believe in astrology and/or vitalism. So they’re compatible, right?

    Would it be reasonable for the NAS or AAAS to make the latter two statements? Hell no.

    A big fraction, and I think a majority of top scientists and philosophers of science think that science and religion are incompatible, and not just in some formal technical sense.

    They think that science and religion are incompatible in the very same sense that accommodationist rhetoric is intended to reassure the rubes about.

    People mostly don’t want to know whether science and religion are compatible in the sense that you say. They want to know if it makes sense to think that science and religion are actually compatible.

    And nobody is saying that professional science organizations should say that science and religion are incompatible, so that’s just a straw man.

    There is no consensus among scientists or philosophers of science whether science and religion are compatible or incompatible, and the term “religion” is vague, so the NAS and AAAS shouldn’t be making stupid flat claims like “science and religion are compatible.”

    That’s an intentional lie by oversimplification and omission. It is very clearly intended to gloss over the very real and serious conflicts between some science and almost all religion that most people they’re talking to care about.

    For almost anybody who needs an NAS or AAAS statement to reassure them, it’s basically false, because almost all of those people are relatively orthodox substance dualists—they believe in immaterial souls that are their minds, more or less—and brain science says that’s pretty clearly false. There might be a soul, but there doesn’t appear to be one, and if there is one, it isn’t much like any popular religion says.

    Some scientists (like me) care very much about this. I don’t want the NAS or AAAS saying things that are false in light of cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

    You may not care, because you’re a physicist, but imagine how you’d feel if they took the same cavalier attitude towards, say, quantum mechanics, falsely endorsing views like Deepak Chopra’s because it doesn’t matter much to most other sciences.

    You wouldn’t like it one bit, I’ll bet.

    As somebody who comes from a cognitive science background, I think that such statements endorse pseudoscience and deny the most interesting facts known to science.

    That’s some serious shit.

  26. #26 Paul W.
    January 8, 2010

    ms physics,

    The issue here is not that fundamentalism conflicts with science, it’s that mainstream, non-fundamentalist religion does too.

    The problem is orthodoxy, not just fundamentalism, which is mainly an extreme case of orthodoxy.

    The vast majority of Americans that the NAS and AAAS are speaking to with their “compatibility” statements believe in traditional dualistic souls, and science says they probably don’t exist.

    To save the teaching of evolution in schools—mostly leaving out the best bits, namely the evolution of mechanistic minds sans souls—you’re willing to throw cognitive neuroscience under the bus, and pander to orthodoxy.

    It’s ridiculous that people call the New Atheists “fundamentalists,” when the views they’re defending are clearly more doctrinaire.

    Most Americans believe in most or all of the following
    dogmas:

    1. Immortal souls of humans

    2. Immaterial minds of other beings (God, angels, etc.)

    3. Divine Command Theory or something functionally
    equivalent, i.e., morality is dictated by god.

    4. Incarnation of a super-soul into a human

    5. Virgin birth of a god-man to a human

    6. The ultimate importance of third-party forgiveness
    of sins

    7. Substitutional sacrifice for the third-party
    forgiveness

    8. A major component of morality is not doing things
    with your genitalia that God finds displeasing

    …and a few others, but you get the idea.

    These are dogmas, and they’re all pretty clearly false in light of science. Minds and sex and death and morality—the major subject matter of religion—are dogmatically misunderstood by most people, who don’t know the relevant science.

    And you want to tell them that science and religion are compatible? Yikes.

    Note that those are not particularly fundamentalist dogmas; they’re quite middle-of-the-road. There’s nothing about the innerrancy of scripture in there.

    Anybody who calls the New Atheists “fundamentalists” should make a list of the supposed New Atheist dogmas, and compare them to the above list.

    I think it’s pretty freaking obvious that if the New Atheists are “fundamentalists,” then the VAST MAJORITY of Americans are religious fundamentalists—including most “religous moderates” that we don’t normally call fundamentalists.

    And we need to recognize that if that’s our standard of “fundamentalism,” the word has lost its meaning.

    So has “militant.”

    When applied to the New Atheists, “militant” apparently just means principled and outspoken—people who disagree with the majority and are willing to publicly say so, writing books about it and radical acts like that.

    But by the same token, almost every publicly religious figure is “militant.” Theologically liberal people like Tutu and Spong, and Karen Armstrong, even—and lots of mainstream politicians who talk about the value of “faith.”

    So “militant” apparently just means uppity.

    Atheists are called “militant” because they’re uppity enough to argue against the majority, and do crazy radical things like complaining when professional organizations that represent them say things that aren’t true.

    Sorry, as long as professional science organizations are willing to throw cognitive neuroscience under the bus to make nice with religion I’ll be uppity enough to complain about it.

    I’m particularly annoyed with the NAS. Its public statements about religion clearly DO NOT reflect a majority view, much less a consensus among NAS members. (Most of whom are outright atheists, and most of the rest are nontheists.) They have no business lying about the state of science and its implications for religion.

    If they don’t want to say the truth—that most top scientists are irreligious, and almost none are orthodox
    the way the majority of nonscientists are—then they should just shut up about it, rather than telling pretty lies.

  27. #27 ms physics
    January 8, 2010

    Paul W.
    I mean only to comment on the apparent similarity of tactics and behaviors in promoting pet issues.

  28. #28 ms physics
    January 8, 2010

    Particularly, even to the point of merging of vocabulary and phrasing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard what was essentially my edited version of Anti-accomodationist’s statement.

  29. #29 Pierce R. Butler
    January 8, 2010

    Belief in the paranormal is only problematic when it begins to impose on the actions of others, say by encouraging the credulous to spend money and invest their hopes in quack medical treatments or schemes to communicate with the afterlife. And again, the proper response is to attack the scam artists who defraud people.

    So astrology is cool, unless you charge for it?

  30. #30 Pierce R. Butler
    January 8, 2010

    ms physics @ # 27: I mean only to comment on the apparent similarity of tactics and behaviors in promoting pet issues.

    How many ways are there to disagree without saying, “That’s not right.”?

  31. #31 Paul W.
    January 8, 2010

    ms physics,

    Let me try.

    “We would less often have to deal with the ill-effects of incorrect beliefs [about the nature of mathematics] if we weren’t afraid to criticize and correct these beliefs when we see them. There is a fine line between being a good vocal [ed. principled math teacher] and being a “militant [ed. math nazi],” but just because there is potential to offend does not mean we should remain silent. We shouldn’t wait for something to become actively problematic to address the problems inherent in it.”

    I’ve heard very much this sort of argument from colleagues upset about students’ basic failure to understand essential mathematics that underly my discipline, and determined to try to correct students’ basic misconceptions and weak background. (E.g., actually understanding what a proof is and isn’t.)

    And I think they’re making a reasonable point.

    Should I call them fundamentalists, or say that they’re like fundamentalists in some obviously negative, judgemental way?

    Or should I think that the form, and even the wording of such claims, is not what’s crucial.

    Perhaps what’s crucial is whether the claims make a lick of sense, much less being demonstrably true, and sometimes strong wording is more than justified, but sometimes it isn’t.

    Given that, would you like to justify your comparison in more detail?

    For example, is it fair to compare atheist scientists complaining about their views being misrepresented (e.g., by the NAS) to fundamentalists Christians using special pleading to say that they know God’s will in a way that justifies denying gays civil rights?

    Really, what is the comparison you’re making, exactly?

    Note that on one side, you have the accommodationists defending a politically convenient misrepresentation, implying that scientists think science and religion “are compatible,” in some obvious sense, when there is actually no such consensus.

    And on the other side you have people whose views are being actively misrepresented—the ones who don’t agree, and care about the truth—saying “please don’t misrepresent our views.”

    Then the first group comes back with a claim that the second is intolerant, because they object to having their views lied about.

    Fuck that. Lie about my views, and I’m gonna call you on it.

    If you don’t like me calling you on it, just stop lying about it, okay. Say that some people are scientists and religious too, and leave it at that.

    Is that so hard?

    Does that make me intolerant?

    How about if you made the claim that homosexuals commit unnatural acts, to play nice with people who think so? If homosexuals said “y’know, lots of people disagree with that, including a whole lot of experts on the subject,” would that be intolerant?

    When is vocal disagreement intolerance?

    When is it intolerant to complain about your views being misrepresented, in order to flatter the preconceptions of the very people you disagree with?

    Suppose, for example, that a group of rabbis made the politically motivated statement that “Believing that Jesus Christ is your personal savior is compatible with Judaism.” (Suppose they said that so that the Christian majority would not react against Judaism, and would be more open to some Jewish teachings.)

    That is obviously “true,” in the sense that Chad thinks is crucial, because Jews for Jesus empirically demonstrate that fact—they are Jews (in more than one sense) and they are for Jesus too, so it’s perfectly reasonable to say those things “are compatible.”

    How do you think that would go down with the majority of Jews?

    And if they didn’t like you saying that, and dared to say so, would that make them intolerant, like fundamentalists?

  32. #32 ms physics
    January 8, 2010

    “Really, what is the comparison you’re making, exactly?”

    The fact that both camps seem willing to engage in impassioned persecution of the other with malice, whereas folks like the “math nazis” in your example are frequently able to take a much less inflammatory approach in correcting wrong thinking.

    I don’t see where you get the idea that I think scientific organizations should present any official statement on the matter, monolithically accommodationist, or otherwise. If it must be addressed at all, (questionable) it should be representative.

    @30 It’s more a matter of diplomacy, which is clearly not something I can give lessons on! :) I guess I hoped and expected atheists would be more prepared to take a more emotionally detached approach, though I grant many of the issues at hand do not lend themselves to that.

  33. #33 ms physics
    January 8, 2010

    I also just realized that you, quite reasonably, think I am citing Anti-accomodationist as something particularly intolerant. I should have been more clear.

    Though I found the statement strikingly similar to things I heard growing up, I do not find it intolerant. (My mind just went quickly from that to statements and actions from other quarters that actually are inflammatory.)

    In fact, I agree with the statement. It’s just think it’s important to realize going in to a discussion, that the more level-headed of the religious group feel like they are doing just as Anti-accomodationist suggests. I doubt that many people in either group truly have bad intentions, despite conventional wisdom in one culture or the other. And I have found that dialog from this starting point is much more productive than the antagonistic or defensive methods of communication that seem to have become standard.

    And now I’m extra off-topic. Sorry!

  34. #34 Paul W.
    January 9, 2010

    ms physics,

    Really, what is the comparison you’re making, exactly?”

    The fact that both camps seem willing to engage in impassioned persecution of the other with malice, whereas folks like the “math nazis” in your example are frequently able to take a much less inflammatory approach in correcting wrong thinking.

    Excuse me? Persecution? How are New Atheists persecuting anybody?

    They publicly disagree with people, and make no bones about it.

    Do liberals persecute conservatives when they state their liberal and anti-conservative views bluntly? (Or vice versa?)

    What, beyond the sort of blunt disagreement common in many other domains—politics, aesthetics, etc.—constitutes persecution?

    Are New Atheist making death threats? Are they militating to get people fired just for their religious views? Are they trying to take away anybody’s civil rights?

    Are they even telling anybody to shut up, and keep their views to themselves?

    I guess I hoped and expected atheists would be more prepared to take a more emotionally detached approach, though I grant many of the issues at hand do not lend themselves to that.

    My impression is different. My impression is that you want to exempt religion from the kind of criticism of ideas that’s common in other domains, because you’re not emotionally detached enough to handle the same sort of conflict about religious ideas as about, say, political ideologies.

    I could be wrong.

    Could you give some examples of the persecution by the New Atheists, and compare them to, say, criticism of socialism by a conservative, or criticisms of libertarianism by a liberal, or criticisms of chiropractic and the anti-vaccine movement by people like Orac?

    Please try to make a case for a standard, and show that by that standard the New Atheists are particularly uncivil or even undipolomatic as opposed to simply unpopular yet outspoken.

    I, for one, don’t think that The God Delusion or even God is Not Great is uncivil, much less an attempt at persecution.

    Compare those books to, say, Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. (Which I happen to like and mostly agree with.)

    Even people who disagree vehemently with Franken—and the very targets of his criticism—don’t usually describe him as uncivil. They’re likely to cut to the chase and say that he’s wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Why do people whose religious ideas are being criticized find it so easy to play the “incivility” card, and why do other people let them get away with it?

  35. #35 ms physics
    January 9, 2010

    I hesitated over that word choice. I would say that most persecution, if we are to stick to that word, is perpetrated by conservatives, often religious evangelicals. I also suspect that this is mostly due to the fact they enjoy a majority status. I am not convinced things would be significantly different if the tables were turned, however, so I stuck with it. Clearly a bad choice, and I apologize. Since I see no way to edit, let’s go with “antagonism?”

    I don’t think your impression is particularly correct regarding how I feel about the challenging of religious ideas. I do seek to point out that, regardless of the intention of books such as “The God Delusion,” the perception of it among many religious communities is primarily of an attack. Further evidence of the communication barrier between the two groups.

    As to your final question, at no point in this discussion have I felt as if my religious beliefs have been attacked. I think you may be imagining much more motive behind my statements than there actually is. If you were speaking more broadly, even if we were to revise “antagonism” further to “incivility toward,” I sill stand by what I said in post 32. I fail to see how such behavior is appropriate for either camp, especially as it tends to be counterproductive.

  36. #36 Chad Orzel
    January 9, 2010

    #18: I think the trouble is that arguing from the operational definition simply isn’t persuasive.

    And I think that arguing from the philosophical definition simply isn’t persuasive. Which pretty much means we’re at an impasse.

    That, along with general busy-ness, is why I haven’t responded to any of the thousands of words of subsequent comments. There’s just not much point to continuing the conversations when the two sides are arguing from fundamentally different premises. The argument is like a mathematical proof that relies on the axiom of choice (or some other controversial axiom)– someone who accepts the axiom will never be able to convince someone who does not accept it that the proof is valid, and vice versa.

    In my opinion, the only relevant measure of compatibility is whether or not someone can be personally religious and also a successful scientist, and it is trivial to come up with examples that show this is the case. The same goes for whatever other kooky belief systems you want to trot out– I know of at least one person who is (or at least was) both an excellent physicist and a passionate believer in alien abductions.

    Given that I think agreement between accomodationists and anti-accomodationists is impossible, why did I post this in the first place? I posted it not because I thought I would convince Sean Carroll or anybody else of the rightness of my view. I posted it because I believe that, as I said in the post, Sean’s statements were not accurate, and I did not want his opinion sitting out there unchallenged as some sort of authoritative statement of the beliefs of scientists.

    At this point, I’ve pretty much said everything I think needs to be said, and there’s not much point in my continuing in an argument that is ultimately pretty pointless.

  37. #37 Paul W.
    January 9, 2010

    Wow, that’s quite a cop-out, Chad.

    I guess you’re just too busy to address the issues, like

    1. The point that we’re NOT talking about some formal technical philosophical definition, but what reasonable people would take “compatible” to mean. If it only means that some scientists are religious, why not just say some scientists are religious, and leave it at that?

    2. The awkward comparison… why is it okay to say “science and religion are compatible” but not “science and astrology are compatible,” since both are true in the sense that you say is all that matters, i.e., some people indulge in both.

    3. You saying that “science and religion are compatible” is a statement of fact is like saying that “science and are astrology are compatible” is a statement of fact.

    So if the NAS or AAAS said “science and astrology are compatible, that wouldn’t be unconscionable, for the very reason that you say that their making the other statement is not unconscionable.

    This isn’t a matter of starting from different fundamental axioms.

    This is a matter of you misrepresenting the issues, and repeatedly copping out.

  38. #38 eNeMeE
    January 9, 2010

    “I believe [harmless group A] should be tortured and exterminated” is unconscionable, and can certainly be a statement of fact.

  39. #39 prasad
    January 9, 2010

    I agree with Paul W. People who assert compatibility typically make at least some statements about the philosophical presuppositions of atheistic scientists, the depth of theology and whatnot. If *all* you’re going to say that science and religion are compatible because there exist religious scientists, then you need to bite the bullet and explicitly acknowledge that homeopathy, astrology and the like are also compatible for the same reason. Accomodationists typically resist that notion, and arguments leading up to it, and for good reason – the position is strange, even idiotic, and is a great way of writing oneself out of the discussion.

  40. #40 Pierce R. Butler
    January 9, 2010

    The topic may be closed for Prof. Orzel, but an interesting discussion continues at Mike the Mad Biologist’s; I particularly recommend this comment by Paul W.

  41. #41 P Smith
    January 9, 2010

    First, one must define exactly what amounts to “being a dick”. Being unnecessarily confrontational is, but disagreeing is not.

    Second, if one group can state something that is opinion and unprovable, then it is not inappropriate for others to rebut that opinion with one of their own.

    Just imagine a political arena where someone can make false assertions and accusations, and those being smeared and insulted, or those who disagree, are not allowed to rebut them. The maxim, “It’s easier to tell a lie than it is to refute it” takes on a whole new meaning.

  42. #42 Chad Orzel
    January 9, 2010

    Wow, that’s quite a cop-out, Chad.

    I guess you’re just too busy to address the issues, like

    I don’t know what you think you’re going to get me to say, here, that will serve any useful purpose.

    The question “Are science and religion compatible?” as I understand the English language is asking “Does accepting modern science mean that a person must necessarily reject all religion?” The answer to that question is trivial– there are numerous practicing scientists who are also practicing members of various religious faiths. Obviously, those people feel that their personal faiths are compatible with modern science, and I’m willing to take them at their word.

    Modern science may be incompatible with specific religious faiths– any faith that insists on the literal inerrancy of the Bible is pretty much right out– but as a general statement there are some religions whose believers feel that their faith is compatible with modern science. End of story.

    Clearly, you think the question means something different. Nothing I say is likely to convince you that it means what I think it means, and none of the thousands of words you have posted here has moved me any closer to your position.

    As for the reductio of the moment– homeopathy, Bigfoot, the belief that Elvis is alive and working as a fry cook in Shreveport, whatever– they follow the same general rule. As I said before, I know a guy who is an excellent physicist and also (at least as of several years ago) a believer in alien abductions. I don’t know how he made those fit together, but he did, and while it’s kind of socially awkward, it doesn’t prevent him from doing good, solid physics. As long as his personal beliefs don’t affect the quality of his scientific work, I’m not prepared to say that he’s deficient as a physicist because he believes something I think is goofy.

    Trying to pass fringe beliefs off as science is another matter, but science is neither a guild nor the Republican party. There is no specific set of beliefs that you have to accept or reject in order to do science.

  43. #43 Paul W.
    January 9, 2010

    re: the reductio of the moment

    It seems to me that you’re falling short of actually addressing the reductio.

    If you really think that “science and religion are compatible” in the sense you say and for the reason you say, then you should not only be comfortable with saying that somebody who believes in astrology (or ufo abduction or bigfoot) can be a scientist, but flatly saying things like:
    Science and astrology are compatible.

    Nobody involved in this discussion has ever questioned whether you can be a scientist and be religious—that’s a red herring and perhaps a straw man. The New Atheists have often affirmed that some religious people are good scientists—e.g., PZ frequently praising Ken Miller or Frank Collins on science and science education.

    So you’re not really addressing the issue at all if you affirm that some physicist you know can be a fine physicist and believe goofy stuff too—we all acknowledge that sort of thing, and we all always have.

    So, what you need to do, in order to be consistent, is to flatly say, with no hedging, qualifications, or examples that seem milder than that baldface statement, that

    Science and Astrology are compatible.

    You keep falling short of that, and I have to think there’s a reason for it.

  44. #44 Larry Moran
    January 9, 2010

    I agree with Paul W.

    If you think your original argument makes logical sense then you must be prepared to say that science and astrology are compatible because there are scientists who believe in astrology.

    Is that what you claim?

  45. #45 eNeMeE
    January 9, 2010

    I agree with Paul W.

    If you think your original argument makes logical sense then you must be prepared to say that science and astrology are compatible because there are scientists who believe in astrology.

    Is that what you claim?
    Posted by: Larry Moran | January 9, 2010 5:16 PM

    Moreover, for organisations like the NAS to publicly proclaim that “Science and astrology are compatible”.

  46. #46 Paul W.
    January 9, 2010

    Moreover, for organisations like the NAS to publicly proclaim that “Science and astrology are compatible”.

    Right. You wouldn’t want a seeming hostility of science to astrology to drive away the millions of people who believe in astrology.

    The AMA could truthfully say that “Smoking is compatible with long life.” After all, millions of people who smoke do live to a ripe old age.

    And MADD should say that “Getting plastered and driving is compatible with getting home safely.” After all, literally millions of people have in fact driven home drunk and gotten home fine—so by Chad’s standard, they’re compatible.

    Similarly, the Catholic Church should be happy with people saying that “Marriage is compatible with extramarital sex.” Millions of people have combined those, too.

    In fact, if “compatible” only means what Chad says it means, the Pope himself should be happy with that statement, and the even stronger statement that “Marriage ought to be compatible with extramarital sex.”—he thinks that somebody being “unfaithful” is not a good enough excuse for getting a divorce, so evidently he thinks you ought not to accept that they’re incompatible, and break up because of it.

    Somehow, I’m skeptical that many people interpret the phrase “is compatible with” in the minimal way Chad claims to.

    I don’t even believe Chad does.

  47. #47 Chad Orzel
    January 10, 2010

    Your devastating argument is, of course, missing the step where you name some prominent scientists who believe in astrology. But don’t let that get in the way of your schoolboy sniggering.

  48. #48 eNeMeE
    January 10, 2010

    It’s not sniggering, it’s a perfectly clear example.

    This isn’t about the beliefs of scientists, this is about the general public, or why hasn’t the NAS released a statement saying “Science and atheism are compatible” along with “Science and agnosticism are compatible”?

    Would you be happy with such organisations saying “Science and the existence of an object that burns without fuel are compatible” or “Science and the belief that everything is an illusion (modifiable through concentration) are compatible”?

  49. #49 prasad
    January 10, 2010

    You’re simply saying ‘there exist scientists believing in X, so X is compatible with science.’ That argument is quite generic, and anything whatsoever that fits may be plugged for X.

    1. In fact, it’s not just astrology, homeopathy, and their ilk. Why not creationism itself? We all know scientists who win quite legitimate PhDs in science (typically in areas that aren’t cosmology or evbio related) who are creationists. This fellow is a prominent example. Why do you cast your argument as a sort of special exception for your preferred kind of fuzzy, liberal sounding religion, when it applies to other sorts as well?

    2. Consider that quite respectable scientists have expressed skepticism about global warming (I submit that Freeman Dyson or Bill Gray are as respectable as they come), the cause of AIDS (Lynn Margulis, W.D. Hamilton) etc. Are these opinions also “compatible with science”? Should NAS say so?

    3. Do you really want the claim that astrology isn’t compatible with science to rest on the dubious supposition that no scientists believe in it? I could tell you for a fact that Indian satellites are often launched at astrologically auspicious times, with coconuts broken ceremonially. Is that scientific? Or do Indian scientists not count for your argument?

    4. Suppose fifty years from now there are either very few religious scientists or very many. Do you really mean to say THAT would either increase or decrease the compatibility of religion and science? What sort of metaphysics could possibly support that view?

    I have to say, yours seems like a position only someone who’s pre-committed to defending at all costs could long stick with. I think this post very well demonstrates why you can’t make a compatibility (or incompatibility) argument about science and religion without actually examining the nature of the two. You have to consider whether (and which and why) theological claims are scientific, whether science needs methodological or philosophical materialism as a presupposition, and so on.

  50. #50 Paul W.
    January 10, 2010

    eNeMeE is right.

    Chad, I’m just addressing the claim in the title of your post, and your actual argument that it applies to the science/religion issue. We haven’t gotten around to the political strategy argument yet, because you keep copping out.

    You claim that the flat statement that “Science and religion are compatible” is a statement of fact. Your argument for this position is that “compatible” only means that you can do both, and since some people in fact do both, they are ipso facto compatible.

    I’m very familiar with that argument, and a reductio ad absurdam is a devastating refutation of it.

    If you keep making the claim and defending it that way, I’ll continue to point out quite earnestly that in technical philosophical terms, it’s ridiculous. The fact that it’s actually funny is just a side benefit, and I’m honestly sorry if that’s a distraction.

    The reductio shows that something is seriously wrong with your argument. Either “science and religion are compatible” is not simply “a statement of fact” in the requisite sense, or a statement of fact can be unconscionable, or both.

    Take your pick.

    If you want to repair your invalid argument, please give it a shot.

  51. #51 Paul W.
    January 10, 2010

    eNeMeE,

    I think we need to be careful to try to understand Chad’s arguments, and to distinguish them.

    As I understand it, he has two points here:

    1. “Science and religion are compatible” is simply a fact.

    2. In their public pronouncements, scientific organizations are reasonable to emphasize the simple facts that are politically convenient, and de-emphasize or entirely neglect the facts that are politically inconvenient.

    In other words, they can slant things that they say to the public, for political reasons, as long as they don’t lie.

    His point 1 is evidently false, and his argument for it is demonstrably invalid; that’s what the reductio ad absurdam (proof by contradiction) reveals. Chad is engaging in special pleading for convenient assertions that he clearly would not allow for inconvenient ones. Clearly there’s some ambiguity in the term “compatible” and he’s engaging in a bait-and-switch “fallacy of four terms”—his argument for compatibility assumes a sense of compatibility that is NOT the obvious default.

    (I suppose he could claim that people understand the word “compatible” in a different way when they hear his favored sentence, but not in the many other cases we’ve given—but that would be abandoning his argument that compatibility only means what he wants it to mean, full stop. Or he could bite the reductio bullet and say that “science and astrology are compatible” is also a simple fact, and rely on his second point to justify saying one thing but not the other. Obviously I don’t buy that either way, but he could try either of those tacks and it would be entertaining. It would be better than his repeated argument by already-soundly-refuted assertion, and his repeated resorting to the Argument from Tone.)

    His point 2 is a whole different kettle of worms—it raises a bunch of issues about when it’s okay science organizations to willfully mislead by intentional ambiguity and omission, whether that’s justifiable given the politics, and whether that’s actually good strategy.

    I think that’s actually what the whole New Atheist vs. accommodationist controversy is all about, and it’s far more interesting than Chad’s point 1.

    Unfortunately, I think that Chad is unwilling to address those very real and important issues. (As are all of the leading accommodationists—Genie Scott, Chris Mooney, Matt Nisbet, etc. They’ve consistently stonewalled about it for literally years.)

    That is the reason they keep asserting that compatibility is an empirical fact, and making the same invalid argument for it, for years on end, despite it having been soundly refuted years ago, and many, many times since.

    It’s exactly a red herring designed to avoid the real arguments about (1) whether science and religion are compatible in a more interesting sense, (2) whether willfully misleading people is morally okay if the ends justify the means, and (3) whether in fact the ends do justify the means—does it do more good than harm, politically, in the short run and the small picture, and in the long run and the big picture?

    I realize I just let the worms out of the bag by even saying that, but I think that if we do go there, we shouldn’t forget to emphasize that Chad is demonstrably wrong about point 1. (Until he either acknowledges that or comes up with a valid argument.) We should beat that dead horse often and soundly, as long as these militant and dogmatic accomodationists keep trying to ride it. :-)

    IMO, if Chad doesn’t address the clear refutations of his argument for point 1, we can assume that he’s not arguing in good faith, and it’s pointless to argue the more interesting and complicated stuff with him.

    (And no, I’m not sniggering when I write that. I do not find it funny at all.)

  52. #52 spanner
    January 11, 2010

    Science and religion are compatible because some scientists are religious?
    That makes no sense as it says that science is scientists and religion is religious individuals.
    It occurs to me that Orzel’s argument may be that doing science is compatible with being religious which is a completely different argument.
    Put simply, science and religion are two ways of understanding reality. The two are incompatible regardless of how many scientists are able to do good science in a particular field while relying on faith to understand other aspects of reality.

  53. #53 TB
    January 11, 2010

    I agree with Chad. I keep going back to the fact that religious people fought against the Dover school board’s attempt to push religion into science class.

  54. #54 Clark
    January 11, 2010

    It seems odd to disparage philosophy on the basis of Zeno’s paradox. There are numerous ways to deal with it – such as rejecting the actual infinities the paradox demands. But if you allow actual infinities then of course the paradox isn’t a paradox either. One wishes the SEP put in the solutions to the problem (often they do). Of course cast as mathematics and not physics one can make it a logical paradox. But then logical paradoxes tell us about logic, but not really physics (i.e. motion).

    The other problem is the assumption there is a religious worldview rather than many different religious worldviews.

    As to the “are science and religion compatible” question it’s never exactly clear in discussions like this exactly what is meant by the question. Which allows one to play fast and loose with the discussion. Clearly a lot of scientists or people trained in science think they are. This is not to say religion hasn’t claimed a lot of ridiculous things or exercised political control in ways we ought find abhorrent. Just that we ought be careful of going too far.

  55. #55 Paul W.
    January 11, 2010

    TB,

    I agree with Chad.

    About what?

    I keep going back to the fact that religious people fought against the Dover school board’s attempt to push religion into science class.

    Sure. I think we are all pretty happy when more reasonable people are willing to fight against intrusive fundamentalism. (You don’t recall various New Atheists cheering the good guys at Dover?)

    That doesn’t justify what Chad’s saying—that “science and religion are compatible” is flatly a statement of fact, because some scientists are religious.

    By that logic, “science and astrology are compatible” is a statement of fact as well. (And a perfectly conscionable thing for science organizations to say because “A Statement of Fact Cannot Be Unconscionable.”)

    Would you assent to that assertion?

    If not, then I think you don’t agree with Chad. Maybe his goals, but not his claims, and not his argument.

  56. #56 Paul W.
    January 11, 2010

    Clark,

    As to the “are science and religion compatible” question it’s never exactly clear in discussions like this exactly what is meant by the question. Which allows one to play fast and loose with the discussion.

    Yes, but that cuts both ways. The accommodationists are fond of making it sound like only fundamentalist religion conflicts with science.

    That’s just not true. Almost all religion conflicts with science, especially cognitive science and neuroscience.

    It’s no accident that a lot of the New Atheists are brain/mind guys, like Dennett, Harris, and Pinker. Given their expertise, they see mainstream orthodox religion and even most theologically very liberal religion as being in conflict with the relevent science.

    Claims about immortal souls and transcendental mystical insight are antiscientific in much the same way that claims that the universe is only 6000 years old. It’s just that fewer people know and accept the relevant science, so the latter conflict is obvious and the former one is more easily swept under the rug.

    Given the target audience for simplistic statements like “science and religion are compatible”—people who don’t already know the relevant science and philosophy—the obvious interpretation of the statement is false.

    Most people already do think that science and religion are compatible in a fairly strong sense—that science doesn’t have good evidence against the kinds of religion they’re familiar with, except particularly dogmatic biblical literalism.

    Flatly saying that “science and religion are compatible” serves primarily to reinforce that false sense of compatibility—and if you read the accommodationists’ strategic rationales, that’s clearly quite intentional.

    The statement is therefore false on the intended interpretation for its primary target audience.

    I think that’s pretty clearly the relevant sense of “compatible”—not the one Chad promotes. And given that, the statement is false in light of modern cognitive science and neuroscience.

    Clearly a lot of scientists or people trained in science think they are.

    Sure, but that’s not really relevant if compatibility means more than “some people manage both,” which it evidently does.

    And really, does the fact that “a lot” of scientists are religious matter as much as the fact that most top scientists in relevant fields and most philosophers of science aren’t? Should scientific bodies be making arguments ad populum, or relying on the relevant experts opinions?

    Notice that when a scientific body puts out statements about anything else, say climate science, it’s generally written by the relevant scientists, e.g., climate experts.

    But when they want to put out a PR release about religion, it’s written by people with a distinctly minority view within science, and expecially within something like the NAS, and even more especially within the relevant areas of expertise within the NAS.

    You don’t get proper representation of the overwhelmingly atheistic views of top cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, cosmologists, and evolutionary biologists, because that wouldn’t be politically convenient.

    This is not to say religion hasn’t claimed a lot of ridiculous things or exercised political control in ways we ought find abhorrent. Just that we ought be careful of going too far.

    Sure, but there’s a danger in bending over backwards, too. Most religion claims things that are scientifically ridiculous; it’s not just fundamentalist anti-evolutionists, or orthodox conservatives, but most liberal theologians who cleverly avoid or bullshit around awkward facts of neuroscience.

    The dirty secret is that the relevant science conflicts with religion pretty broadly, and that’s not something I think scientific bodies ought to be deceiving people about.

    BTW, I don’t think they should be trumpeting the news that God is Dead or that There is No Soul, either. (There’s no scientific consensus on that, though many scientists think the handwriting is on the wall, and there’s no sense in alienating the religious to that extent.) They just shouldn’t bend over backwards and lie by implying the opposite.

    Note that when it comes to the public statements by scientific bodies that Chad is defending, it’s not the New Atheists who are being militant.

    It’s the accommodationists, who are trying to grab power and get the organizations to say what they want. They are trying to fob off a minority view and make it sound like authoritative statement, to reassure the rubes.

    (The New Atheists would be happy if the scientific bodies didn’t pick a side.)

    Note the irony there. The accommodationists (Scott, Nisbet, Mooney, etc.) have often accused the New Atheists of giving the impression that they somehow “speak for science,” and of transgressing some disciplinaray boundary and making “philosophical statements” that are beyond their expertise as scientists.

    But the New Atheists don’t do that. They state their personal and professional views as to what they think the science actually says and implies, and give their arguments why. None claims to “speak for science,” in any other sense than that absolutely normal sense of making an argument from evidence.

    The accommodationists, on the other hand, are trying to manufacture the illusion of a scientific consensus and put it in the mouths of bodies like the NAS that DO arguably “represent science” in a much stronger sense. And it is definitely the kind of “philosophical statement” they object to when their opponents give their opinions.

    (Saying that science and religion are compatible is just as “philosophical” as saying they’re not. There’s no consensus in philosophy, and the preponderance of opinion in philosophy of science goes the other way, so if anybody’s out of line, it’s folks like Scott, Nisbet, and Mooney—who are they to manufacture a phony philosophical consensus?)

    That is, of course, exactly why they want to use the NAS as a sock puppet for their politically convenient minority views. They want to manufacture an illusion of a scientific consensus, which they can then appeal to the authority of.

    The hypocrisy is staggering.

  57. #57 J.J.E.
    January 13, 2010

    @Chad Orzel

    First, let me admit up front that EVERYONE falls short of doing “good science” in one way or another, and many if not most such shortcomings have little to do with “accommodationism”. Those failures that we all have do not preclude us from doing good science on the balance in our careers. However, such a fact does not remove from us the onus to recognize when we are making errors and to aspire to correct them. This is for any type of error.

    Now let me see if I can convince you that philosophical compatibility is an important issue and deserves to be part of the relevant “axiom” instead of the “Collins” sense of compatibility.

    The chief goal of science is to expand how well we can explain and predict natural phenomena and to disseminate those findings. The ultimate adjudicator of a given scientific statement (whether it be a conjecture, hypothesis, theory, or even law) is how its predictions hold up to subsequent observations (preferably controlled experiments, but in fields like astronomy and evolutionary biology, we sometimes just have make due what can find in the “field”, as it were).

    While we are permitted to come up with ideas in any way we see fit (reading the literature, taking acid, meditation, whatever), the ultimate test of those ideas must be in how congruent with observation they are. In other words, the ONLY authority is the data. As a result, any claim to authority, dogma, doctrine, what have you, erodes the practice of science. As a result, it is incumbent upon a scientist to formally renounce all arguments from authority and all dogmatic assertions as regards the operation of the natural world. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a scientist must renounce all dogma or unchallengeable subjective opinion (the music of the Beatles is and always will be the best music ever produced; van Gogh was the best painter of all time; Beethoven is better than Mahler, etc.).

    So, the obvious case of shirking scientific responsibility in a systematic and unacceptable way is that of creationism. Regardless of how it is wrapped up (YEC or ID or anything in between), creationism relies on the dogmatic assertion that the world MUST have been brought into existence and shaped by a creative intelligence. However, a more subtle case is that of Francis Collins, who claims dogmatically that humans are specially endowed by their creator (the Christian god) with a soul and that the god’s actions are possibly executed through unobservable twiddling with QM knobs. Each of these propositions is sufficiently dogmatic as to flag them for special scrutiny.

    The next question is, do such assertions impinge on the natural world sufficiently to warrant rebuke? In response to this question, I submit that we don’t know because Collins doesn’t try to clarify himself, but he should. Collins is loathe to fully embrace real world scientific implications for his beliefs, but he is also loathe renounce them either. In my view, he intentionally sits on the fence. The problem with this position is that there is a bright line, the one that discourages in the strongest way possible, scientists from being dogmatic or accepting arguments from authority. And he is dancing a jig on that bright line. While it is a relief that Collins hasn’t (to my knowledge) ever placed dogmatic limits on science, it is alarming that he seems unwilling to strongly discourage them either. (here’s one example of such thinking http://tinyurl.com/dzlgxr )

    This is most unfortunate as his “restraint” from being overtly religious in his science is completely arbitrary. He doesn’t suggest that one should prefer to remain undecided on an issue to accepting a dogmatic explanation in human evolution or human souls. If someone else adopts a Collins-esque attitude, what guidance will they have to reject dogmatism on issues that “matter”?

    Finally, to come full circle, just because a scientist occasionally makes mistakes (of any variety) does not mean that the scientist is incapable do doing good science. But nor does it mean that, because that scientist actually does good science on the balance, that those mistakes aren’t still mistakes.

    I close with an analogy that I think captures your position and the fallacy it represents:

    “Many scientists fail to do adequate control experiments. Dr. X has on occasion failed to adequate control experiments. Dr. X is a successful scientist. Therefore, failure to do adequate control experiments is compatible with good science.”

  58. #58 abb3w
    January 16, 2010

    Chad Orzel: There is no specific set of beliefs that you have to accept or reject in order to do science.

    The heart of science seems to be the testing of competing descriptions of what patterns the universe exhibits. Is it possible to do science without having a belief that there is some pattern behind evidence/experience?

  59. #59 Katharine
    January 19, 2010

    No. Science and religion are not compatible just because someone can hold these two inherently contradictory views.

    They are not compatible because they contradict each other factually. Science wins, because we examine things empirically and objectively; we don’t make claims about things based on someone’s 2000-year-old book or whatever other text.

    I don’t care if the argument’s not as persuasive as accommodationism; we’re not supposed to coddle the public!

  60. #60 abb3w
    January 19, 2010

    Science and religion are not compatible just because someone can hold these two inherently contradictory views.

    This is similar to the problem that “the difference between theory and practice is that in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there very often is significant difference between theory and practice”.

    That phrase “inherently contradictory” means they are philosophically incompatible (leaving aside dialetheism-accepting weirdos, and the exact philosophical definitions of each); however, “someone can hold these two” empirically means that the ideas are in some degree cognitively compatible in some human brains. This may not be the sense you use the word compatible; however, it is the sense that some others are using the word.

    If you don’t address the meaning used by others, people who consider that meaning won’t listen to you. Addressing both meanings, noting the difference in character of use, and the difference in implications might allow your central point (philosophical incompatibility) to sink in for a wider audience.

    This isn’t coddling; it’s educating. As part of the process of education, people need to learn that in some contexts, words can have different or more specific meanings than their use in everyday language. Since there’s no commonplace alternative adjective for “compatible” clearly making the distinction between senses, you can add an adverb (“philosophically”/”cognitively”) to emphasize which is meant… and to then can emphasize that those who aren’t, are implicitly committing a fallacy of equivocation by that omission.

    This might help people change their minds.

  61. #61 shaodonglin
    January 20, 2010

    No one attention to earthquake prediction
    October 11 to send warning messages Haiti and Dominica newspapers. The letter sent before the United Nations. December 24 again after Jamaica crash sends earthquake prediction(please open)http://www.dominicantoday.com/dr/world/2009/10/11/33512/UN-recovers-11-victims-from-Haiti-plane-crash

  62. #62 Wes
    January 21, 2010

    Your devastating argument is, of course, missing the step where you name some prominent scientists who believe in astrology. But don’t let that get in the way of your schoolboy sniggering.

    Posted by: Chad Orzel | January 10, 2010 10:21 AM

    Their argument doesn’t need that step. Your contempt for critical thinking is really off-putting.

    The objection offered to you is straightforward: You are claiming that the fact that some scientists believe religion is all you need to claim that the two are compatible. By this definition of “compatibility”, science is compatible with pretty much anything. Compatibility, in the way that you are using it, is trivial and vacuous.

    A more robust concept of compatibility would hold that it is in fact reasonable to believe both. You yourself have admitted, in your own post, that in fact science and religion don’t seem to meet this standard.

    Given the choice between your utterly trivial notion of compatibility, and the robust notion which actually tells us something, the latter seems like the only way to go. And certainly your trivial definition of compatibility would not justify the NCSE claiming that science and astrology are compatible, so it fails to support your argument.

  63. #63 Michael
    January 21, 2010

    But remember, fundamentalist religion is not the only form of religion. The only people who think that it is are fundamentalists and militant atheists.
    Posted by: Chad Orzel | January 5, 2010 10:27 AM

    BZZZ! Wrong. Thank you for playing.

    The so-called “militant atheists”, i.e. non-accommodationists, realize there are other forms of religion besides fundamentalism. Just like you accomodationists know there are other forms of religion besides the liberal goddists. No, what we realize is the fundamentalists are the ones who are a threat to the rest of humanity and the entire world. We don’t have a problem with Aunt Tilly singing in the choir at the Presbyterian Church and listening to sermons on loving thy neighbor from that nice Reverend Jones. We do have a problem with Ken Ham and the folks at the Discovery Institute wanting to replace science education with mythology.

    You and your fellow accomodationists can play nice with Aunt Tilly and leave Ham and Ray “Banana Man” Comfort to those of us who know who the real threat is. You don’t have to thank us for doing the dirty work (in fact, we know you’re too superior to us to deign to do so) but please keep your sneers from being too disdainful. You can ensure the doilies are clean under the tea cups when you’re entertaining Bishop Spong. We’ll deal with Rick Warren and James Dobson.

  64. #64 Pareidolius
    January 22, 2010

    Paul W, you sir are a science writing machine! Overall, I continue to learn more from select commenters than from the SB blog hosts. No Orac, of course I didn’t mean you.

  65. #65 Jean-Denis Muys
    January 22, 2010

    My position has long been somewhere in between:

    A religion can be compatible with science to the extent that it accepts the validity of scientific findings. For example, the Catholic Church readily accepts evolution now.

    For that to hold, it means the religion mostly has to eventually drop any affirmation on the nature of the physical world and stay within the bounds of the surnatural.

    Clearly this is a very narrow place for the religion to be left in. To a large extent the Catholic Church has always accepted to “water down” their teaching in the light of new scientific findings.

    (sorry for mentioning only the Catholic Church. It’s my past faith, and I don’t know enough about any other religion to claim anything about them).

    Obviously, until now, I had thought that the existence of a soul was indeed a surnatural claim, that was out of the realm of science.

    Paul W., you mentioned some results of neurosciences that might invalidate that. Could you please mention a pointer or two?

    Another interesting point is that this debate is mostly, if not an entirely, American one. In my country (France), this is a no-issue. Here, Religion is *irrelevant* to science. Period. To the extent that the teaching of religions do not apply to science at all, they become fully compatible with science. When a religious doctrine is incompatible with science, it’s just that the religion is wrong. Nothing more. Religions can be wrong, what’s the problem?

    So either the “American” vision is primitive and silly, giving far too much weight to religions (reflecting the American society overall), or the “French” vision is primitive and silly, ignoring a real problem that might eventually blow up in our face because the conditions for its realization are not met [yet|anymore]. I don’t know which is which.

    Greetings from France

  66. #66 The Swede
    January 22, 2010

    This was about the most stupid post I’ve read in days. Because there are scientists who are creationists, science is compatible with creationism. Because there are scientists who are scientologists, science is compatible with scientology. Because there are scientists who are fraudsters, science is compatible with fraud. Because there are scientists who are convicted felons, science is compatible with felony.

    Need I go on? The argument is so vapid and self serving it would be hilarious if it wasn’t for that people actually swallow it. It says nothing at all about actual compatibility, using wordplay to appear to make a point. The only point it makes is trivial – there are people who do all manner of things, including religious things, in addition to being scientists, and this in itself says nothing about the science. But it fails to take the lesson from that – that it says nothing about science, including whether the activity is compatible with science.

  67. #67 Foggg
    January 22, 2010

    name some prominent scientists who believe in astrology.

    Posted by: Chad Orzel | January 10, 2010 10:21 AM

    ‘Prominent’ is irrelevant. Having a number of peer reviewed papers in legitimate journals is sufficient to ‘doing good science’, per your own criteria.
    In 2001 a curriculum commission, at the behest of the fundamentalist Hindu Indian government, decreed Vedic astrology should be taught as science in universities. Although many Indian scientists rose in objection, many published scientists, even professors (typically in the life sciences), supported it.

  68. #68 freelunch
    January 22, 2010

    The serious problem with this discussion here and the discussion of accomodationism in general is that there is no clear definition of “compatible with” “religion” and possibly even “science”. I’m willing to take “is” at face value.

    The accomodationists don’t actually accept the general form of the question. They select the religions and religious beliefs that they are willing to defend as compatible with, so their real statement after all the hedging is more like “some religious beliefs are compatible with science, but religion is not scientific and science is not affected by religious beliefs, but I don’t want to offend any of the nice believers.” Is there really much of an argument about that?

  69. #69 ianam
    January 22, 2010

    It’s a statement of fact, an acknowledgment that in the real world, there are numerous examples of people who are both personally religious and successful, even prominent scientists.

    Given how many times the “New Atheists” have acknowledged this and pointed out that it’s a strawman, to repeat it yet again is to be a dick — it’s worse than that, it’s to willfully perpetuate an unnecessary pseudo-debate with potential allies for ego-driven reasons.

    How do these people deal with the philosophical contradiction inherent in there beliefs?

    This is straightforward admission that science and religion are incompatible in the way the “New Atheists” mean, you dick.

  70. #70 ianam
    January 22, 2010

    Your devastating argument is, of course, missing the step where you name some prominent scientists who believe in astrology. But don’t let that get in the way of your schoolboy sniggering.

    Why are you such an asshole, Chad?

  71. #71 ianam
    January 22, 2010

    The question “Are science and religion compatible?” as I understand the English language is asking “Does accepting modern science mean that a person must necessarily reject all religion?”

    Really? You’re that stupid?

  72. #72 Siamang
    January 22, 2010

    Chad,

    You completely. I mean COMPLETELY lost this thread.

    Re-read Paul W with an open mind.

    Re-address this with some humility, and PATIENCE. Look deeply into your arguments, and don’t toss off a clever answer that has no introspection.

    Don’t evade. Don’t cherry-pick parts of a post and let the central keystone of the argument conveniently get missed. Don’t get snippy.

    You’re backed into a corner now, and the petulance gains you nothing. It’s unattractive.

    You know what’s ennobling? Taking a gulp of your pride and listening and considering what someone else has said.

  73. #73 Wes
    January 22, 2010

    To sum up this thread so far:

    Chad believes that science and religion are philosophically incompatible with each other. But, there are still people who believe both. You stupid atheists keep saying science and religion are incompatible, as if compatibility had something to do with philosophy. But really, all “compatible” means is “lots of people believe both.”

    That’s it. When two beliefs are compatible, all that means is that lots of people believe both of them, logic and philosophy be damned.

    So Chad will use “compatible” to mean “lots of people believe both”, knowing full well that his target audience (religious people) thinks “compatible” means something very different–ie, they think it means “reasonable to believe both”, as in philosophical compatibility. Which means Chad is knowingly deceiving people, through deliberate equivocation on the word “compatible”, in order to promote science.

  74. #74 mark
    January 23, 2010

    I can’t remember the last time I saw an argument so neatly and utterly demolished. Really nice work, Paul and others.

    Actually, there was one time: when Chris Mooney stated that Expelled was a box office success. He was presented with irrefutable arguments that it wasn’t a success (link), using every metric possible, by a dozen commenters (including a few SciBlings), and what was his response? He ignored the evidence and resorted to the argument from tone.

    I would like to think that Chad had the integrity to simply acknowledge his error, in a way that Chris didn’t. Guess we’ll have to wait and see!

  75. #75 mark
    January 23, 2010

    Oops, just realized that the last time Chad posted in this thread was 13 days ago. Looks like he didn’t have the integrity to admit his argument was flawed and vacuous.

    Seems to be a pattern for the ‘accommodationists’.

  76. #76 Paul W.
    January 25, 2010

    mark:

    Oops, just realized that the last time Chad posted in this thread was 13 days ago. Looks like he didn’t have the integrity to admit his argument was flawed and vacuous.

    Seems to be a pattern for the ‘accommodationists’.

    Yes. The accommodationists are actually pushing a couple of ideas that are actually anti-science, in an effort to defuse the basic tension between science and religion.

    Jean-Denis:

    Paul W., you mentioned some results of neurosciences that might invalidate that. Could you please mention a pointer or two?

    Here’s a posting over at pharyngula that sketches the argument and the relevant kinds of evidence.

    It also explains how the accommodationist rhetoric is systematically and profoundly mistaken, if not dishonest; the accommodationists insist on misrepresenting the (un)falsifiability of central religious tenents, and the significance of unfalsifiablity in science, to make it sound like science and religion are compatible.

    They aren’t, and the accommodationists end up being denialists about the relevant science—cognitive science and anthropology—in a way they would be horrified about if the subject was, say, astrology, homeopathy or New Age woo, rather than mainstream religion.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/01/comity_and_reconciliation.php#comment-2225963

    As somebody whose background is largely in cognitive science and philosophy of mind, I find it apalling that physics professors and science journalists would distort the basic principles of science in order to downplay a live scientific controversy for political ends.

    I find it especially appalling that they’d advocate scientific bodies like the National Academies of Science doing so.

    That goes against the core mission of the NAS, which is not supposed to take sides in live scientific controversies, but to reflect the best consensus in science.

    It is certainly not supposed to imply that the dominant view among the scientific experts is not just false, but not scientific, which is exactly what the question-begging rhetoric about compatibility does, and is clearly meant to do.

    The NAS is not supposed to be a sock puppet for this sort of political message—which doesn’t reflect anything like a consensus within the NAS, or among the relevant scientific experts. (That’s what what the NAS was expressly designed not to be—it’s supposed to be impartial, scientific, independent, and apolitical)