In which people cannot read

Ophelia and Larry are upset. In particular, they are upset that Chad Orzel and I thought it was OK to have a panel about how scientists reconcile their religious faith and their scientific work but not to include panelists who reject the panel’s premise.

This was the point that Chad and I were raising, at least, but it is not quite clear that Ophelia and Larry realize what we were saying. Thus, Larry writes:

Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles [Extremists Aren't Interesting] and Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas [Talking Sense] take the same position. Non-accommodationist atheists shouldn’t be allowed on the panel because they are extremists who can’t discuss anything calmly and rationally.

Which is not what either of us said. What I said was:

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.

Larry quotes the first part, misses my specification that Dawkins would stop this particular panel cold, and then fails to quote the next paragraph, where I addressed myself to the broader question of whether it was ever worth having a panel discussion featuring Affirmative Atheists and religious scientists. And I answered that question in the affirmative, never asserting irrationality or lack of calm. If there’s anything in his post other than blatant misreading, I don’t see it.

Ophelia does slightly better. Quoting that same first paragraph as Larry (but, again, not the second), she asks:

Why wouldn’t that [a metaconversation about whether to have a conversation] inform anyone? Rosenau doesn’t say. Why should there be conversations like the one they were supposed to be having at a science fest? It’s certainly not obvious to me, given that science and “faith” operate in rather different ways. It’s also not obvious to me that, or why, an explanation of that fact would not be interesting.

First, I did say why such a conversation would be uninformative. All that came before what she quoted was about exactly that point. She is free to disagree with the argument, but if she thinks it didn’t exist, I think she needs new glasses.

That said, I’ll freely grant that there might be an interesting conversation to be had about whether science and religion are compatible. I even acknowledged that possibility in the paragraph after what she quoted. But the issues Orzel in reply to Coyne and Carroll, the points I was endorsing, were not about whether the panel ought to exist. The question was, given that the panel did exist with a goal of exploring the question of how scientists reconcile science and faith, should someone who finds no compatibility should be on the panel?

My point, and I think Chad’s, is that adding an Affirmative Atheist to the panel would change the panel’s nature. The World Science Festival decided to have the panel that they did, and is entitled to populated it with panelists who will not take the panel on a tangent. If the objection is simply to having the panel at all, that’s a different conversation than what I thought I was entering, and nothing I said was addressed to that question.

This gets to a quotation of Poe’s that I remember periodically. Edgar Allen Poe, was, among other things, an accomplished literary critic, and as the publisher of a magazine of criticism, he laid out some clear aims for critics:

Criticism is not, we think, an essay, nor a sermon, nor an oration, nor a chapter in history, nor a philosophical speculation, nor a prose poem, nor an art-novel, nor a dialogue. … Following the highest authority, we would wish, in a word, to limit criticism to comment upon Art. A book is written – and it is only as the book that we subject it to review. With the opinions of the work itself, the critic has really nothing to do. It is his part simply to decide upon the mode in which these opinions are brought to bear.

That is to say, the question is not “should a book on this topic and employing this angle have been published?,” but “does this book accomplish what it set out to do?” Roger Ebert employs a similar system in his movie reviews. Similarly for the panel, it strikes me as better to ask whether it would accomplish the goal it sets for itself than to ask whether it should exist. Undoubtedly Coyne and Carroll and Benson and Moran all have ideas about great panels that WSF ought to run, but this year, those are not the panels that were chosen from the many suggestions they surely received.

If World Science Forum decides to host a discussion of whether science has any relationship at all with religion, I won’t think that’s a bad choice, and I’d be upset if they didn’t have any Affirmative Atheists on such a panel. But that’s not the panel they have this year, and trying to wedge an Affirmative Atheist into this discussion would force the discussion away from the topic that the panelists and the audience were promised.

Here’s an analogy: A panel at a physics conference about the latest research on string theory need not include someone who thinks string theory is a dead end and advocates an entirely different form of unifying theory. Including that person would change the panel from a discussion about the current work being done within the field of string theory into a discussion about whether anyone should be doing string theory work. And that’s a fine conversation to have, but not if the panelists all expected the narrower discussion.

Or another analogy: My fiancée runs a program bringing together community members to discuss how they – individually and as a community – can reduce their carbon footprints and fight global warming. The programs are explicitly not about policy changes, they are about changes in individual behavior either alone or through collective action. Sometimes people come into her groups and really want to talk about the cap-and-trade legislation in Congress, or how to be more effective lobbyists. And she has to shut that discussion down. Not because it isn’t important. We need political change; it needs to be enacted by cities, states, nations, and international bodies. It needs to happen now. But that’s not what her program is about. So while agreeing that the issue is important, she can still say it isn’t appropriate for that setting.

Maybe World Science Festival will have a panel on whether science is compatible with religion next year. And an Affirmative Atheist or two should be on that panel if they do. But this year, they’re having a different conversation, and it’s a fine conversation to have. Lots of scientists are religious. At least a third of working scientists are theists, half partake of religious ceremonies, and even some atheist scientists feel that spirituality is important to their lives. A general audience is interested in finding out how scientists who navigate those waters do so. This panel is for that audience, and it isn’t clear what an Affirmative Atheist would add to that discussion. They add plenty to other discussions, of course. Sometimes they do so calmly and rationally.

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Penfold
    June 4, 2010

    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.

    Yeap, you did say that. Oddly you seem to somewhat proud of having said it, which odd since it is the sort of thing most people would like to forget they ever said.

    How can a “conversation” take place about how science and religion can best be reconciled unless it can first be shown that such a reconciliation is possible ? You want to move the debate on when the initial premise is still in dispute. Unless and until it can be shown there are very good reasons for thinking science and religion are compatible there is no conversation about how it can be done to be had. Of course you have a history of this sort of thing, blindly accepting that science and religion are compatible whilst refusing to explain how. You get full marks for consistency at least.

  2. #2 Sigmund
    June 4, 2010

    Josh, I get what you are saying, that the panel is actually about how religious scientists reconcile their faith with their science but the actual description on the main page for this event sounds rather different:
    “For all their historical tensions, scientists and religious scholars from a wide variety of faiths ponder many similar questions—how did the universe begin? How might it end? What is the origin of matter, energy, and life? The modes of inquiry and standards for judging progress are, to be sure, very different. But is there a common ground to be found? ABC News’ Bill Blakemore moderates a panel that includes evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala, astrobiologist Paul Davies, Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels and Buddhist scholar Thupten Jinpa. These leading thinkers who come at these issues from a range of perspectives will address the evolving relationship between science and faith.”
    To me the idea of having a discussion addressing “the evolving relationship between science and faith” is going to be very difficult without bringing perspective of the non-accomodationists into the discussion.
    If the discussion was actually along the lines you suggest (“How religious scientists reconcile faith with science”) then you would have a good argument. Unfortunately for you the wording of the discussions description is much broader.
    For instance, do you seriously think this talk can occur without mention of the new atheist position on science and religion by the current participants (for example in criticising the new atheist position on NOMA as Ayala has recently taken to doing)? Given that one practically never reads an accomodationist attack on the new atheist position without the use of pejorative language (“fundamentalists”, “extremists”, etc) or the use of strawman arguments (that its claimed that no religious person can do good science, etc) can you not see the likelihood that this tactic is going to be repeated during this discussion?

  3. #3 Anton Mates
    June 4, 2010

    But the issues Orzel in reply to Coyne and Carroll, the points I was endorsing, were not about whether the panel ought to exist. The question was, given that the panel did exist with a goal of exploring the question of how scientists reconcile science and faith, should someone who finds no compatibility should be on the panel?

    Hmm; I gotta disagree with this. According to the WSF’s own webpage, the panel is intended to explore the question, “Is there a common ground to be found?” And it promises that the participants “will address the evolving relationship between science and faith.” If that’s the case, then it would be entirely appropriate–perhaps even obligatory–to include someone defending the position, “No, there is not a common ground to be found, and the relationship between science and faith is mutually destructive.”

    Now if their goal was simply to explore the question of how scientists who reconcile science and faith pull it off, then I think you’d be right. But in that case they’re doing an awfully bad job of communicating that goal to the public.

  4. #4 Matt Penfold
    June 4, 2010

    To provide an analogy.

    Imagine the panel in question was going to discuss what can be found at the end of a rainbow. Rosenau and Orzel seem to be arguing that such a panel should ignore those who point out there is no end of a rainbow.

  5. #5 Jason Rosenhouse
    June 4, 2010

    Lots of scientists are religious. At least a third of working scientists are theists, half partake of religious ceremonies, and even some atheist scientists feel that spirituality is important to their lives.

    Well said! (For everyone else, that’s an inside joke between Josh and me.)

    You’re still defending the indefensible though.

  6. #6 Ophelia Benson
    June 4, 2010

    I’m not “upset,” Josh. That’s such a silly way to characterize disagreement. I disagree with you; I’m not upset. I ate a healthy dinner, I slept well, my pulse and respiration are slow and steady.

    You always (when talking about “new atheists” that is) seem to forget that you represent the “be nice or be quiet” party.

  7. #7 Ophelia Benson
    June 4, 2010

    As for my getting you wrong, because you did say why in the bulk of your post, before the part I quoted -

    Well, yes and no. True enough, you did purport to say why, and I could have said as much. But then again, what you said before “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” doesn’t actually say why that metaconversation wouldn’t inform anyone – it says why different discussions that you has witnessed were derailed by different people talking about different things. To treat that as saying why would require accepting your implicit claim that Richard Dawkins is the equivalent of Rupert Sheldrake and Hugh Ross. I don’t accept that claim. I don’t consider your two analogies good analogies. I also don’t accept your assumptions about what the faith & science discussion is supposed to be about; I don’t see why it couldn’t perfectly well be about why such a panel was offered, or what the relationship between “faith” and science actually is.

  8. #8 Deepak Shetty
    June 4, 2010

    The question was, given that the panel did exist with a goal of exploring the question of how scientists reconcile science and faith, should someone who finds no compatibility should be on the panel?

    Perhaps you can also recommend the type of glasses one should wear ? because try as I might , rereading the description, I do not see anything about how scientists reconcile science and faith.

  9. #9 Dan L.
    June 4, 2010

    Umm:

    For all their historical tensions, scientists and religious scholars from a wide variety of faiths ponder many similar questions — how did the universe begin? How might it end? What is the origin of matter, energy, and life? The modes of inquiry and standards for judging progress are, to be sure, very different. But is there a common ground to be found? ABC News’ Bill Blakemore moderates a panel that includes evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala, astrobiologist Paul Davies, Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels and Buddhist scholar Thupten Jinpa. These leading thinkers who come at these issues from a range of perspectives will address the evolving relationship between science and faith. (Emphasis Added)

    The panel apparently IS about whether, not how, religion and science are compatible. Who is it that’s having trouble reading, exactly?

  10. #10 TB
    June 4, 2010

    “The panel apparently IS about whether, not how, religion and science are compatible. Who is it that’s having trouble reading, exactly?”

    Emphasis a different line …

    “These leading thinkers who come at these issues from a range of perspectives will address the evolving relationship between science and faith. ”

    And consider WHO is on the panel and you understand what the intended focus is. In many ways, a panel is defined by who is on it. In this case, it’s obviously involves people who believe there is a revolving relationship between science and religion.

    Josh’s point stands.

  11. #11 Sigmund
    June 5, 2010

    If you don’t even know the difference between ‘evolving’ and ‘revolving’ I’m not surprised that you fail to see the problem with the panel.
    The lineup of the panel directly contradicts the description of the discussion – unless you take it that the “range of perspectives” actually means “incredibly narrow range of perspectives that is now a minority viewpoint amongst working scientists”.
    They’ve managed to create a panel that makes the average Fox News line-up in comparison seem ‘fair and balanced’.
    As Jason said above, defending the indefensible.

  12. #12 J. J. Ramsey
    June 5, 2010

    Sigmund: “If you don’t even know the difference between ‘evolving’ and ‘revolving’”

    Look at your keyboard. ‘R’ and ‘E’ are next to each other. It’s just a typo. Sheesh.

    Sigmund: “unless you take it that the ‘range of perspectives’ actually means ‘incredibly narrow range of perspectives that is now a minority viewpoint amongst working scientists’.”

    And your evidence that it is a minority viewpoint is …?

  13. #13 Sigmund
    June 5, 2010

    JJ Ramsey asked: “And your evidence that it is a minority viewpoint is …?”
    According to the most comprehensive study of this question –
    “Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions,
    Disciplines, and Demographics
    Elaine Howard Ecklund, Christopher P. Scheitle 2007
    Social Problems, Vol. 54, Issue 2, pp. 289–307″
    Have a look at table 3.
    The results that Ecklund found were that over 68% of scientists said that they did not believe in God. Of the remainder less than 10% of scientists in the survey said they had no doubts about the existence of God.
    This doesn’t mean that 68% were atheists. I guess a lot were agnostics or pantheists but certainly not theists who seem to make up less than one third of scientists (and probably less than 10% if you take a strict definition that a theist has no doubts about the existence of God).
    In case you are thinking that this was a nasty atheist researcher trying to malign religion with a dodgy survey think again. The survey was funded by the Templeton foundation and Ecklunds work has been heavily promoted by accomodationists like Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbett.

  14. #14 J. J. Ramsey
    June 5, 2010

    Sigmund, given that this thread was about whether incompatibilists should have been on the science-and-faith panel, the way you used “minority viewpoint” suggested that you thought accommodationism–not theism–was the minority viewpoint. Pointing out that most scientists are non-theists doesn’t really bolster the idea that most scientists are anti-accommodationist, since one can easily be non-theist and accommodationist.

  15. #15 TB
    June 5, 2010

    Sigmund: Ecklund has a new book out that’s discussed just a few posts down.

    ” For what it’s worth, about half of scientists identify with a religious tradition, and half (not quite the same half) attend religious services periodically. Those religious scientists are not all theists (only a third of scientists are theists in any sense, the remaining two thirds are evenly split between agnostics and atheists), and they often feel that their religious beliefs isolate them in professional settings.”

    Belief in god is not the Defining Thing of religion. Even if there are agnostics and atheists on that panel, they wouldn’t be the right kind for you.

  16. #16 Sigmund
    June 5, 2010

    TB, if you read the first post of the previous thread you will see that I suggested Pastor Michael Dowd, author of “Thank for for Evolution”, as a suitable member of the panel. He is not an atheist or an agnostic, he is a minister but, unlike Davies or Ayala, has the advantage of actually speaking honestly about the anti-accomodationist case rather than misrepresenting it and arguing against a strawman version.
    By the way Ecklunds book is based on the paper I referenced which contains all the meat of the matter. There is a lot of data in the paper that needs to be seen before you can make sense of some of her conclusions, some of which seem to be stretching things to breaking point in the effort to mix scientists with religion.

  17. #17 Jason A.
    June 5, 2010

    Description of the panel:

    For all their historical tensions, scientists and religious scholars from a wide variety of faiths ponder many similar questions—how did the universe begin? How might it end? What is the origin of matter, energy, and life? The modes of inquiry and standards for judging progress are, to be sure, very different. But is there a common ground to be found? ABC News’ Bill Blakemore moderates a panel that includes evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala, astrobiologist Paul Davies, Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels and Buddhist scholar Thupten Jinpa. These leading thinkers who come at these issues from a range of perspectives will address the evolving relationship between science and faith.

    Taken directly from the World Science Festival website ( http://www.worldsciencefestival.com/faith-and-science )

    Particularly, it says:

    But is there a common ground to be found?

    Contrary to your assertion that the panel is strictly for religious scientists to explain how they reconcile their faith with science, the description of the panel clearly states that the question of whether it’s even possible to reconcile the two is part of the discussion. This is exactly the territory that the people you wish to exclude want to discuss.

    Now, what was that about not being able to read?

  18. #18 TB
    June 5, 2010

    Sigmund: I’ll reserve my own judgement on whether the people on this distinguished panel is as intellectually dishonest as you suggest, as well as on Ecklunds’ book.
    I wonder if Dowd would appreciate you dropping his name in an effort to smear the likes of someone like Elaine Pagels?

  19. #19 Jason A.
    June 5, 2010

    TB:

    And consider WHO is on the panel and you understand what the intended focus is. In many ways, a panel is defined by who is on it. In this case, it’s obviously involves people who believe there is a revolving relationship between science and religion.

    Josh’s point stands.

    Okay, Josh’s point stands – if we accept that the description of the panel is very poorly worded in a way that will mislead attendants who are not familiar with the accomodationism debate into thinking that the question of “But is there a common ground to be found?” has been settled. I’m not sure why you consider that an improvement though, since it takes us into the realm of direct propaganda. It certainly gets away from informing attendants, since only those already familiar with the arguments of all the panelists will be able to understand what the focus is.

  20. #20 Deepak Shetty
    June 5, 2010

    @TB

    And consider WHO is on the panel and you understand what the intended focus is. In many ways, a panel is defined by who is on it.

    Spectacular reasoning. The argument is that based on the topic what viewpoints should be represented and your point is based on the viewpoints we should infer what the topic is?

  21. #21 TB
    June 5, 2010

    Jason A and Deepak: I have no trouble understanding what the panel is about from what is written and from who is on the panel. You do too or you wouldn’t be arguing about it.

    I don’t believe that you want someone on the panel to argue that science is incompatible with religion, you want someone on that panel to argue that science is the same as atheism and atheism isn’t compatible with religion. That’s a completley different conversation and obviously not the topic of the conversation.

  22. #22 Sigmund
    June 5, 2010

    “I wonder if Dowd would appreciate you dropping his name in an effort to smear the likes of someone like Elaine Pagels?”
    Don’t be so utterly pathetic.
    I never mentioned Pagels, who, as far as I know, is renowned as a brilliant biblical scholar. I don’t have a problem with her on the panel so stop dishonestly trying to put words into my mouth to bolster your own laughable argument.
    I suggested Dowd as someone who works daily at the coalface of the science/religion conflict and who has shown he understands the specific points of contention in the accomodationist/non-accomodationist debate.

  23. #23 Deepak Shetty
    June 5, 2010

    @TB

    you want someone on that panel to argue that science is the same as atheism and atheism isn’t compatible with religion.

    As before, spectacular reasoning.

  24. #24 TB
    June 6, 2010

    Sigmund: I didn’t put any words in your mouth. You cited Davies and Ayal and suggested a completely different panelist to counter them. That implies the other two, existing panelists are at least complicit in any intellectually dishonest characterizations of new atheists. Not complimentary to the other panelists, one of whom is Elaine Pagels. And a little googling shows Pagels is aware of the debate so you can’t claim simple ignorance on her part.

    I think you smeared the reputations of everyone on that panel and then dropped Dowd’s name to obfuscate your actions. And you’re just indignant because I busted you on it.

    Deepak: Not that I’m really replying to you, because you’ve given me nothing to reply to. But anyone who has put together a panel knows that the people on the panel will define the direction the topic will go in. You want a different conversation? Put together your own panel. But I think the organizers wanted something different than the usual noise that comes out of the blogosphere comment sections on this topic.

  25. #25 Smitty
    June 6, 2010

    To provide an analogy.

    “Imagine the panel in question was going to discuss what can be found at the end of a rainbow. Rosenau and Orzel seem to be arguing that such a panel should ignore those who point out there is no end of a rainbow. ”

    Imagine the panel in question was going to discuss improving racial harmony between black and white Americans. Why would you invite someone from the Aryan Nation or KKK, who believes non-whites are inferior and should be treated as such. The idea of faith and science coexisting is every bit as repulsive to them, as an interracial marriage is to the white supremacist.
    Rainbows do exist and end at some point. But to characterize theistic scientists as little children believing climbing to the end of the rainbow, is just silly.

  26. #26 Michael Fugate
    June 6, 2010

    Smitty,
    I think you are looking at the wrong end of the spectrum. Would you exclude someone who advocates for blacks to shop at or invest in black-owned businesses? or someone belonging to a group such as the Black Panthers?

  27. #27 Deepak Shetty
    June 6, 2010

    @TB

    But anyone who has put together a panel knows that the people on the panel will define the direction the topic will go in.

    Sigh. One last try. This is precisely the point. You dont choose the panelists first then the topic or the direction of the topic. You choose the topic first and then choose appropriate panelists. So if the topic was “How do scientists/people reconcile their religion with science” then you might be justified in saying you don’t want someone who believes that it cant. If on the other hand you want to frame your topic as “Is there common ground?” or “the evolving relationship between science and religion” then you want people who could argue that historically and even in the present the relationship has been detrimental in a lot of cases , not just someone who will recite his pet true Scotsman fallacy (This is bad religion!).
    Or lets put it another way. Choose the same topic description for a World Science fair. But now only invite Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne,P.Z. Myers, Sam Harris and Christoper Hitchens. Do you think that we could make the same arguments you are making – i.e. the panelists define the direction, so obviously we don’t need an Ayala or a Miller or equivalent?

  28. #28 Deepak Shetty
    June 6, 2010

    @Smitty

    Imagine the panel in question was going to discuss improving racial harmony between black and white Americans…

    For your analogy to hold , the topic would have to be “discuss improving the relationship between religion and science”
    For me the analogy is “discuss racial harmony between black and white americans” and refusing to invite people who will bring up slavery, KKK etc.

  29. #29 TB
    June 7, 2010

    Deepak, you sounded a lot smarter when you were just being sarcastic.

    Anyone who has any experience putting together or moderating panels knows that sometimes you start with a list of topics and match people to them but sometimes you start with a list of people and come up with topics for them. Often it’s a mixture of both.

    If I had to guess, I’d say this panel’s topic was probably pitched with people like the ones currently on it in mind as panelists. A topic clarified and focused by the people serving on the panel.

    All that considered, it’s a pretty weak fire you’re trying to hold their feet to.

  30. #30 Deepak Shetty
    June 7, 2010

    @TB
    Do you make a hobby of missing the point? If you want to choose the panelists and then come at the topic/description then why didn’t they put up a more accurate one?

    All that considered, it’s a pretty weak fire you’re trying to hold their feet to.

    Heh. You still spent a lot of time trying to blow it out.

  31. #31 TB
    June 8, 2010

    You mean why do I waste time with a troll like you? I don’t usually, except this was a good opportunity to highlight your ignorance. :)

  32. #32 Deepak Shetty
    June 8, 2010

    @TB
    consistently spectacular.