Terra Sigillata

Great news came across my RSS reader the other day that author and journalist, Chris Mooney, was among twelve journalists selected by the John Templeton Foundation for an intensive two-month fellowship on the relationship between science and religion. The Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion provide financial support for scholars to study at their home institution and engage with US and European scholars at the University of Cambridge UK to “promote a deeper understanding and more informed public discussion of this complex and rapidly evolving area of inquiry.”

As one might suspect, the vast majority of the 239 comments at Chris’s blog post contain vitriol and bile that Chris would take such tainted money as that from the Templeton Foundation because the organization is partisan and this will forever constitute a conflict of interest, that Chris has formally left science, how dare he still call himself a journalist…blah-dee-blah.

As my colleague PhysioProf is wont to say: Bring out the fainting couch and some vapors.

I think all of us in the biomedical sciences know investigators who have taken funding from the tobacco industry before it was fashionable not to and very few of them have tied down friends and neighbors and forced them to smoke cigarettes.

And wait. How is it that 2% of the US population and 0.25% of the world population is Jewish yet 27% and 28% of Nobel laureates in Physiology/Medicine or Chemistry, respectively, are Jewish? Seems more consistent, although not causal, that a little religion helps your science.

I applaud Chris for devoting time to exploring science and religion with leading experts in the field. A journalist with another 40 or 50 years of writing ahead of him is wise to avail himself to all opportunities for inquiry and learning, especially on such a topic that is ubercontroversial to some and of obvious resonance to others.

My family and I don’t belong to any organized religion but I was raised in a Protestant-like offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church called The Polish National Catholic Church (our priests could get married, have families, birth control was ok, abortion was ok but not encouraged). One of the most critical skills I learned in the Polish church was how to bowl, laying the foundation for my future glory as an undergrad when my team won the intramural bowling title during my senior year.

But spending a third of my life in the southern US has opened my eyes as to the role that religion plays in the lives of good people who are otherwise highly-critical thinkers. Understanding religious faith in my community has been important in helping to convince African-American men of the need for prostate cancer screening and women for breast cancer screening. I have dozens of students who have chosen to pursue careers in nursing or the laboratory sciences because they feel it is a service to their community that is consistent with their faith. And yes, they know how to conduct well-controlled experiments and think that my belief in a PCR fairy is ridiculous.

I don’t support the tax-exempt status for religious organizations with huge properties and hordes of vehicles nicer than those I drive but, like it or not, religion that is not at the extremes does serve the public good. Yes, at the extremes religious differences are at the heart of the 30 or so wars going on in the world right now. Religion is used by some to attack, devalue, or deny science. Mindless religious belief can lead to sloppy thinking in other areas of one’s life.

In many cases, religion is a threat to science. Religion is often used as a shield for racism and other discriminatory behaviors. I hate this part of religion. I see it here in the southern US. It is ugly. I’m even mystified how the faith that sustained the ancestors of some of my colleagues through slavery is now used to justify discrimination against my other colleagues who are gay and lesbian. These are problems – a big problems that we must fight.

But in other cases, religion drives people to become excellent scientists and live meaningful lives of service, generosity, and altruism. Yes, one doesn’t have to be religious to live this way. But why is that? Why can some great scientists also be religious pillars of their respective communities?

So that is why I’m happy that Chris is doing this fellowship. He’s a great writer who recognizes the need for lifelong personal and professional development. I’ll be very interested to read his writing that comes out of this fellowship.

Congratulations, Chris, on being awarded this fellowship. Best of luck in your journey!

Comments

  1. #1 Pascale
    March 2, 2010

    Add my congrats to the list. This is an area that needs discussion and dialog, not both sides screaming about the other’s ignorance. Fellowships such as this one promote this exchange of ideas (dare I say in a civilized manner), and I’m betting a really interesting book may come out of this effort.
    w00t!

  2. #2 Rev Matt
    March 2, 2010

    I didn’t bother adding my thoughts on Mooney’s post, past the 100 comment point it seems to be akin to pissing in the ocean. As I noted on my blog recently I’ve frequently been critical of him on the issue of Framing, but outside of framing I think he’s a very adept science journalist and an effective interviewer to boot.

    I find it difficult to see Templeton as some malign force in the world of reason. While I disagree with some things they support and do agree that they tend to favor writers who are too willing to concede points to the religious viewpoint to the detriment of the scientific one, they also are genuinely engaged in at least attempting to find common ground and work from there. So good for them.

    I see nothing wrong with Mooney getting, and accepting, this opportunity and I wish him all the best.

  3. #3 Joan
    March 2, 2010

    I’m sure this is not an original thought but since day 1, I’ve found his writing facile, shallow, and biased. Where is his reporting on the abuses of science by conservation organizations? It is hard to be a scientist and a liberal, watching the conservation organizations (not all, of course) doing the same kinds of things that the Bush Administration was rightly critized for and getting a free pass from the science writers. It is certainly not as pervasive, in fact it isn’t even common, and obviously, they are motivated by good rather than evil. But when you distort or ignore science to get the outcome you desire, or go science shopping until you find someone who supports your desired outcome, and trash or silence all others….live by the sword, die by the sword. Mooney is only writing about 1/2 the picture, and not doing so in a rigorous way.

  4. #4 David
    March 2, 2010

    Your statistics about “jewish” nobel prize winners are misleading. The site you reference counts as “jewish” any scientist of jewish ancestry, whether personally religious or not.

    The religous beliefs of Nobel winners aren’t systematically recorded, but I would bet that most of the names on those lists are in fact “secular jews” or what we sometimes call “gastronomic jews.” And I would bet that, if a true count were taken, the only group with a convincing disproportion compared to the population would be non-believers.

  5. #5 Mike the Mad Biologist
    March 2, 2010

    There was a period when Templeton was ‘exploring’ intelligent design, so I do have problems with Templeton. But rather than make a substantive argument, I would prefer to nitpick: I think you mean that Jews are 0.2% of the world’s population. If there are ~120 million of us, I’m certainly not aware that.

  6. #6 Abel Pharmboy
    March 2, 2010

    @Mike #5 – You are correct, sir. About 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish but that’s 0.25% of the world population – I fixed it in text above. Thanks also for bringing to my attention that Templeton had funded work to explore intelligent design. Sounds a bit like how NIH’s NCCAM “explores” areas.

    @David #4 – I was being semi-dramatic with my point that being associated with a particular faith might increase one’s chance of a Nobel Prize.

    @Joan #3 – I can’t speak for Mr. Mooney but I’m not sure that he has ever endeavored to expose science abuses by conservation organizations. If you are concerned about this oversight, you might care to e-mail him.

    #Pascale and Rev Matt – Thanks for acknowledging the spirit with which I offer my congratulations. We don’t always have to agree with each others to learn from one another. Sure beats mindless screaming at one another.

  7. #7 Joan
    March 2, 2010

    According to my mother, all Nobel Prize winners are Jewish. All successful people (unless they are conservatives) are Jewish. They may not know it, they may hide it, but trust her – they are Jewish. She’s quite certain that Obama and Michelle must be Jewish, too.

  8. #8 David Marjanović
    March 2, 2010

    The religous beliefs of Nobel winners aren’t systematically recorded, but I would bet that most of the names on those lists are in fact “secular jews” or what we sometimes call “gastronomic jews.”

    Some, like Richard Feynman, are indeed on record as being atheists.

    I agree that atheists are probably drastically overrepresented among Nobel Prize winners.

    I was being semi-dramatic with my point that being associated with a particular faith might increase one’s chance of a Nobel Prize.

    Maybe I’m just being autistic, but… why did you write it, then? If you meant it as a joke, you should have marked it as such; it’s written – we can’t hear your tone of voice or see your face. On the Internet, nothing is an obvious joke; for any opinion somebody can be found who holds it sincerely.

  9. #9 antipodean
    March 2, 2010

    Abel said: “I think all of us in the biomedical sciences know investigators who have taken funding from the tobacco industry”

    I sure as shit don’t. Maybe your sample is a little polluted given its geographical centre and the proximity of the University that Tobacco Built?

  10. #10 Abel Pharmboy
    March 2, 2010

    @antipodean – Guessing from your pseud that you are in/from Australia or NZ but these grants were pretty widespread across the US, not just here in TobaccoLand. I might also be showing my age as well. In the late 1980s and early 90s, an org called The Council for Tobacco Research gave $10-50K USD grants for any types of pilot projects related to cancer causation and prevention. This was before the Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement and before cash-starved academic medical centers stopped taking tobacco money. I never had a CTR grant myself but I do remember applying to them several times while a postdoc.

  11. #11 John S. Wilkins
    March 2, 2010

    My comment, from Paul Myers’ attack on Chris:

    “Paul, I think this is just demogoguery on your part. I have spoken to two Templeton recipients, and neither of them claimed that the Templeton Foundation had in any way tried to influence their work, either in terms of the direction it went, or the content of it. So, as far as I can tell, your objection boils down to “They are talking about religion!” I know you don’t like that, but surely there’s nothing wrong about that in the abstract?
    Wild claims that people must be taking religion’s side in what it is entirely unclear to me is a case of mutually exclusive choices do nothing at all to make your views look sensible and rational. If you have evidence that Templeton money comes with strings, present it, and we will all point in “J’accuse” fashion at them. Otherwise, your attack seems to be merely that anyone who does not exclude religion from civil discourse is a poopyhead.

    Which makes me one.

    I should apply for a Templeton grant just to annoy you…”

  12. #12 ginger
    March 2, 2010

    RE: comments 9 and 10, I think it’s an age thing maybe, or maybe a discipline thing too – in the public health sciences, people’s heads would explode if you took tobacco money these days (other than MTSA funds.)

    (I’m a N. American in Oz.)

  13. #13 antipodean
    March 2, 2010

    Hi Abel

    I guess age and geography bias us all.

    My experience would be like Ginger’s. You take money from tobacco and your career is over.

  14. #14 movingturtle
    March 3, 2010

    Thanks for the even handed thoughts on this. I felt very uncomfortable with the criticism aimed at Chris Mooney over this. Leaving the details of what The Templeton Foundation is involved in aside (as an organisation I have a poor opinion of where their priorities lie as regards science and religion) and how atheist-scientists (including myself) feel about what the relationship between religion and science should be, I think the most important point you make is “the role that religion plays in the lives of good people who are otherwise highly-critical thinkers.” The almost militant atheism promoted by many atheists polarises people along religions/non-religious lines and really doesn’t serve to promote either party’s interests. Perhaps this is an important issue for the atheists community at large?

  15. #15 jre
    March 3, 2010

    Chris Mooney’s books and articles have always been fair and faithful to the truth, whatever one may think of his preferred tactics of engagement with the other side.

    Also, like just about everyone who has had any contact with Chris, I have found him to be a mensch. He helped me locate a needed graphic once, with no particular motive for helping a total stranger, and when I did some extremely minor research for Storm World, he was gracious enough to acknowledge it.

    So I think I belong to a largish faction of those following the “framing” debate who differ with Mooney’s message in some details, but who still respect the source. And yes — I think his fellowship with Templeton is going to do a lot more good than harm.

  16. #16 Dacks
    March 5, 2010

    The problem with Templeton is that it exists for a reason that is anti-scientific: to prove that religion is compatible with science. They don’t ask whether religion is compatible with science, they work backwards from the answer.

    The fact that he applied for and accepted the fellowship says to me that Mooney agrees with this project. Certainly many scientists feel the same way. But there should be no illusion that any answer that rejects the interaction of science and religion will come out of the seminar.

  17. #17 antipodean
    April 7, 2010

    Hi Abel

    A tidbit on the Tobacco discussion- sadly a little late.
    Interestingly The American Thoracic society won’t even let you review a paper for their flagship journal if you’ve taken money/have any relationship with tobacco. I would guess that the big public health journals might be the same?

  18. I think dealing with such things makes you even more wiser to health issues than those who only read about it.

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