Science and Faith

Let’s set aside contentious topics like the PepsiBlog wars and try a nice, soothing discussion of science and religion.

You’ll recall that, a month ago, I agreed with Chad Orzel that it was OK for the World Science Festival not to put a New/Affirmative/Explicit Atheist on their panel about Science and Faith. Then people got angry at me and I responded angrily, after which I got more flack, and walked back my position a bit. Basically, I had originally thought the panel was meant to be one thing – a personal look at how science and religion interact in some scientists’ lives– but as I looked more carefully, it looked like something else – a discussion of academic study of science and religion.

I concluded that last post by writing:

Eventually, someone who actually attended the damnable thing will actually describe the events, and we can stop speculating about what the panel was meant to be, and discuss what was actually said there.

And at long last, we have two reports. The first came out fairly quickly, with Kristopher Hite producing something like a transcript of the event. I confess that I mostly skimmed, as reading a blow-by-blow summary of a panel discussion is particularly agonizing. Some good stuff, but not a lot of interaction, or pressing of the panelists on contentious points.

Kris summarizes:

The utility of this panel became clear to me after it was over. While waiting to talk to the panelists I overheard one audience member say to Dr. Davies “I’m a layman, so to me all I hear in the faith/science debates are the loudest most vocal of the two sides.” This illustrates to me why calm discussion is necessary, it is through thoughtful and nuanced discussion that we move radicals away from the edge of zealotry, into a realm of moderation so discussion can continue. I disagree with many assumptions made in the discussion I just transcribed. I see no reason human beings can not derive “meaning and purpose” while maintaining a secular humanist world-view. I see no reason to invoke ancient traditions as necessary for maintaining cultural identity or having a rich understanding of significant historical events such as the bombing Guernica. I do however see a real need for more, and wider, OPEN discussions such as this!

Soooo… WIN?

Dave Munger, who didn’t attend the event but was sent unedited video of it, isn’t so sure. He finds the discussion rife with places where a moderator should have pressed harder, or let another panelist press a question, but didn’t.

In the final section of follow-up questions to the group, there were hints that we might get to some of these issues. The session came tantalizingly close, when moderator Bill Blakemore, a reporter for ABC News, asked whether science can speak to moral or ethical values. Davies answered that “some argue” that laws of ethics can emerge from science, but the other panelists either claimed ignorance or said it could not. Blakemore didn’t ask the obvious follow-up: Why not? Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio makes an excellent argument (on the Templeton website!) that human morals are a product of evolution and reason (PDF Link), and not dependent on any kind of faith or supernatural belief. How would the panelists respond? We don’t know, because they weren’t asked.

Which is to say: fail. But not a massive fail. A missed opportunity rather than anything actively harmful.

As to the contentious question of whether the panel would have benefitted from a vocal atheist’s presence (note that Ayala, a former priest, refused to explain his own religious beliefs), this makes me think that including an atheist might have helped, but without a moderator urging panelists to press one another, including an atheist wouldn’t have changed the flaw Dave identifies, and would not improve the aspects of the panel that Kris identified as most valuable (nor would doing so have necessarily detracted, unless including the atheist turned it into a fight about whether god(s) exist rather than the more nuanced issue Blakemore raised).

Dave Munger seems to agree:

I’m not sure including a strong atheist viewpoint on the panel would have helped matters much, though. To me the key problem with the panel was its format and moderation. The panelists each presented a work of music and visual art illustrating their viewpoint on faith and science, which was then made into a slick video presentation preceding their interview with Blakemore. This meant that the case for faith was starting with a stacked deck: Why weren’t they asked to present a scientific principle, or some data to support their claims? This is, after all, a science festival, right? To follow this up, Blakemore asked the panelists primarily softball questions, only rarely pressing them, and never on the most fundamental questions about the relationship between faith and science.

I tend to agree with Orzel and Rosenau that out-and-out debates on contentious issues are often counterproductive. In these settings, advocates often revert to talking points at best and ad hominem attacks at worst. So assembling a panel that was sympathetic to reconciling faith and science wasn’t necessarily a bad call on the part of the World Science Festival. Once they did that, however, it was their obligation to choose a moderator and a format that would challenge the panelists. Terry Gross, for example, has moderated shows about contentious issues such as abortion, interviewing advocates from each side of the issue on separate days. Rather than shying away from difficult questions, she asks them directly, but in an environment where the interviewee knows he or she won’t be attacked.

I don’t think it’s wrong to assemble a panel that believes it’s possible to reconcile faith and science, but I do think that when a public conference devoted to science presents an issue on which the scientific community is fairly evenly divided, it’s the conference organizers’ responsibility to ensure that the primary points of contention are addressed.

This sounds about right, except for the last sentence. As a Pew poll found last summer, most American scientists are Democrats, and fairly politically liberal. If WSF held a panel on politics, would those poll results justify stacking the panel with Democrats, and only one token Republican? There is, after all, a colorable but silly argument to be made that conservative Republicanism is incompatible with science.

But that’d be absurd. A scientific consensus is relevant when it applies to scientific questions, but the consensus among scientists in favor of the Democratic party is not a scientific consensus. One would hope that a panel on the politics of science would include relevant experts in science policy, some of whom would be scientists, others political scientists or sociologists, and others legislators or legislative staff. Fairness might require that the panel be roughly divided between Democrats and Republicans, but you probably wouldn’t include people who think that the government should not fund science or in any way be involved in science policy, nor someone who thinks that the only challenge faced by science is conservative Republicanism (I know no one advocating that view, FWIW). You’d want the panel to reflect the consensus and major disputes within the science policy/politics community.

By that same analogy, I think it makes sense for this panel to have been staffed (and moderated) not according to views among scientists, but to the views of academics who study the interface between science and religion. This was my view before, and I still think it holds. Tossing in a moderator who is not a specialist in science, religion, or science/religion, probably didn’t help. Blakemore has almost the right experience, having covered the Vatican before and now covering global warming. But that’s not the same as covering science, or dealing with the ways scientists grapple with faith. Which means that he didn’t know where to press the matter to create the deep discussion we all would have liked.

But from the evidence offered by the people who actually attended the panel, it seems like not including a New/Affirmative/Explicit Atheist on the panel may well have been the right choice, or at least not an unfair choice.


  1. #1 Deepak Shetty
    July 8, 2010

    I do however see a real need for more, and wider, OPEN discussions such as this!

    Wow. really? Someone expresses a view like the above (given the context – OPEN? , yes that’s the word that comes to mind), someone feels that now he understands the utility of such panels because of comments like the above and you post this without comment? Really?

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