Chad Orzel, responding to Sean Carroll, is absolutely right. The question is whether a panel at the World Science Festival (funded by Templeton, ZOMG!) should include incompatibilist atheists in a discussion about science and religion. Chad argues that doing so would derail the discussion:
In the end, I’m not convinced you need anyone on the panel to make the case that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. That idea is out there, coming from both sides of the science-religion split (and you’ll notice they don’t have any young-earth creationists on the panel, either). The interesting subject of conversation is not so much the absolute compatibility or not of science and religion– given that neither side is really going to budge on that– but rather how it is that religious scientists reconcile the supposedly incompatible sides of the issue.
Chad will surely take flack from the usual quarters, with complaints about the comparison of Affirmative Atheists to creationists, and the lack of “balance” in presenting a discussion of science and religion without including someone to deny the premise of the panel. The premise of a panel on “the relationship between science and faith” is, after all, that there is a relationship. Putting Richard Dawkins on that panel turns it into a debate, not a discussion.
I know this because I’ve seen it happen plenty of times. Some years back, Wim Kayzer put together a series of interviews for PBS. He interviewed some awesome people: Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Dennett, Oliver Sacks, Freeman Dyson, and Stephen Toulmin, and then he tossed in nutjob Rupert Sheldrake. Which would have been fine, had the individual interviews not generally been vapid, and if he hadn’t concluded with a group discussion featuring all six interviewees. Predictably, the discussion didn’t get far, because the five real scientists each felt obliged to personally debunk Sheldrake’s nonsense. With no common ground to work from, there was no discussion until the five simply ignored Sheldrake and had a brief and thoughtful conversation. Cosma’s review matches my recollection nicely, especially about Sheldrake simply derailing the discussion. And I think it’s true that interviewing a non-Western scientist might’ve produced the illuminating discussion that Kayzer thought he was producing. The problem is that Sheldrake simply means something different when he says he’s doing science than the others do, and there’s no way to get at that issue in a 5 on 1 panel.
Another time I saw this was at a conference where Michael Shermer organized a debate between Vic Stenger and Old Earth Creationist Hugh Ross, after which Ross sat on a panel with several scientists including physicist Sean Carroll, biologist Donald Prothero, and theologian Nancey Murphy. The discussion was totally dominated by everyone beating up on Ross. Why? Because there was no common ground about the central issues. The audience, skeptics all, directed most of their questions at Ross, trying to challenge his creationist beliefs, and the other panelists waited for the occasional question, or a chance to jump in on something Ross said. Boring and uninformative.
Someone like Dawkins would stop the World Science Festival panel cold. The whole point Affirmative Atheists are making is that there is no dialogue to be had. Which means that the panel would descend into a metaconversation about whether there should even be conversations like the one they were supposed to be having. And that wouldn’t inform anyone.
I’ll grant in principle that there is a way to have a civil and informative dialogue about science/religion compatibility between people who think it exists and those who don’t. I can’t say I’ve ever seen it work, but surely it can be done. If it’s to happen, it’ll be in a setting where the panel all expect that discussion, where the audience expects that discussion, and where the panelists are chosen to represent a healthy cross-section of views. I hope the PZ Myers/Chris Mooney panel in October produces a productive dialog.