The sky is blue. Winter is cold. Jerry Coyne is upset with NCSE. These are the implacable truths anchoring us in reality. The interesting question is not whether Coyne is upset with NCSE, but what he’s upset about this time.
Today, Coyne is upset that the award-winning, NSF-funded website Understanding Evolution addresses a common objection to evolution. (Full disclosure: NCSE assists Understanding Evolution and is listed as a co-organizer of the site. I’ve never worked on the site, but I work at NCSE. As it says in the sidebar, this blog is my own private thing, not NCSE’s. Look through the archives and you’ll see me making the same points long before I even considered working at NCSE. But the fact that I do this for a living is relevant.)
Understanding Evolution addresses anti-evolution claims that evolution and religion are necessarily in conflict:
Religion and science (evolution) are very different things. In science, only natural causes are used to explain natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world.
The misconception that one always has to choose between science and religion is incorrect. Of course, some religious beliefs explicitly contradict science (e.g., the belief that the world and all life on it was created in six literal days); however, most religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution.
For concise statements from many religious organizations regarding evolution, see Voices for Evolution on the NCSE Web site.
Coyne never specifies what, if anything, in this response he finds inaccurate or inappropriate. He claims that there’s something “NOMA-ish” (referring to Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping MAgisteria, a much-criticized but widespread approach to science/religion issues), which I guess is a quibble over whether religion deals only with beliefs beyond the natural world (thus non-overlapping with science), but that’s not what it says. It says that science deals only with the natural world, and doesn’t make any exclusive claim about religion. Religion deals with stuff outside the natural world, but whether it tells us about the natural world is unspecified, hence there’s no claim about overlap or non-overlap. That’s pretty standard philosophy of science and philosophy of religion, so hardly irresponsible. Indeed, Coyne has endorsed this basic framework in the past.
The second paragraph supports its topic sentence with empirically true statements. Some religious beliefs do not accord with science, but many religions explicitly do avow a compatibility with science (rejecting or modifying those conflicting beliefs), and many scientists do see a compatibility, as do theologians and other religious folks. The site is not declaring that any of those people or groups are right, only that they exist (which they do!), and therefore it is a misconception that “one always has to choose between science and religion.” As such, it is irrelevant to the answer that some atheists agree with creationists about the incompatibility of science and religion.
Coyne whinges a bit about “pandering to religion on websites supposedly about science,” but I don’t see the pandering, and this item is on a page about misconceptions of evolution, specifically a section addressing “Misconceptions about evolution and religion.” So that part of the site is not just about science. Most of the site is focused on science, and does a brilliant job, hence the awards. But these sorts of religious objections are common problems, and you often can’t get someone to engage with the science until you deal with that objection. So the site puts a brief discussion of the issues on a page specifically focused on that issue. It makes sense.
That passage has been at the same URL since 2005, at a different URL since 2004, and only now has Coyne noticed it. Interestingly, a creationist lawyer in California noticed in 2005, and filed suit claiming that it constituted religious discrimination because his wife thought the site, funded by a government grant, was endorsing some religious views (those which claim to be compatible with science) over others (those that don’t). The case was tossed out of court, a dismissal upheld on appeal. NCSE covered it, Panda’s Thumb covered it, and Coyne missed it.
As Tim Sandefur pointed out at PT, the passage at issue is “truthful,” and:
The website makes purely factual claims that Mrs. Caldwell, for religious reasons, happens to find offensive. …The government is allowed to make factual, objectively truthful statements about any number of things, including characterizations of the religious beliefs of individuals or groups, even if readers like Mrs. Caldwell might find those statements to be offensive for whatever reasons–including religious reasons. …
These are not religious statements, but statements about religious beliefs, and government is allowed to make statements about religious beliefs. … Statements characterizing religion, or describing the beliefs of others, do not depend for their truthfulness on the content of a religious dogma or creed, and are therefore secular in nature; they are statements that the government is constitutionally free to make under the First Amendment. They are not religious statements.
Coyne isn’t filing suit, so the particulars of the First Amendment analysis aren’t germane, but Tim’s assessment is absolutely correct that the passage at issue is simply describing how certain people and religious groups deal with evolution and religion. It is not advocating (nor pandering).
Coyne’s beef is that he doesn’t want Understanding Evolution or NCSE to discuss “theology or philosophy.” These are, he insists, inappropriate for “websites supposedly about science.”
This is a common refrain from Coyne, that groups like NCSE or the National Academy of Sciences, or sites like Understanding Evolution, should not discuss “theology and philosophy.” Most of the challenges to teaching evolution have nothing to do with the science, and everything to do with philosophically or theologically naïve beliefs about science and religion. Creationism is essentially a giant agglomeration of philosophical and theological errors, with some scientific errors glued to the outside for camouflage. It’s like the decorator crab here, hidden and almost invisible beneath all of the anemones and coral polyps. But if you’re interested in the crab, you don’t take on the anemones.
You can skim off the scientific errors surrounding creationism forever, but you aren’t dealing with creationism itself until you get at those underlying errors. You have to explain what a theory is. You have to explain what science is. You have to give a sense of how science works, and why it works, and why it’s different from religion. That’s all philosophy. And if you want an audience that’s ambivalent about evolution to pay attention to all of that, you have to tell them it isn’t an attack on religion, that there are a range of ways to see the issue and they can sort out those implications later with a counsellor of their choosing. That’s all philosophy of religion (or theology if you prefer), and a bit of sociology.
I know this works because I’ve seen it tried both ways and I know which one works (anecdotal evidence, yada yada), and because I’ve seen results from polling and focus groups which found the same thing. Alas, the details of those studies are confidential, but some of that research is reported by the NAS, by Chow and Labov, by Labov and Kline Pope, and by the Council of Scientific Societies.
The societies conducted polling and focus groups in preparation for a revision of the NAS pamphlet on evolution and creationism. Jay Labov provided this slide summarizing the results of two rounds of focus groups:
That’s what the research tells us works: talking about evolution’s benefits for medical research (people have an instrumental view of what science is, so medical applications are better than other research, alas), defusing the conflict model at least enough to get the conversation going, and emphasizing how wrong it is to impose one person’s religious belief on another. Other messages that were tested had little effect, or had a strong negative effect or a strong pro-creationism effect. Those three points work, and leaving any of them out of a science advocate’s quiver is a poor choice.
Indeed, I think the point about science and religion is the only way to get past the protective camouflage. You can talk about medical research all you want, and you’ll sway some people. But many won’t listen to evidence until you get them past the fear that learning about evolution will make their kids stop going to church (better to be sick than spend eternity in hell!). And you can’t get to the point about not imposing religion without addressing the conflict issue, because otherwise the retort would be that you’re imposing evolution, and evolution is “an atheist creation myth” or some similar false equivalence reliant on philosophical errors about what “theory” means, etc. Explaining how some people find a compatibility between science and religion lets you talk about how science differs from religion, and why your audience shouldn’t let their religious views stop them from hearing more about evolution. Then you talk about evolution and why creationism isn’t science, and why evolution saves lives, and why imposing creationist lessons is immoral. They won’t hear those points without first addressing the purported conflict.
Sometimes your audience is already squared away on that front, and can go straight to evolution. University audiences are usually OK, as are many science classrooms. But not always, and the teachers and other science communicators who turn to Understanding Evolution for advice on how to deal with those situations are getting good, empirically tested, scientifically justified advice. Coyne has no reason to complain.
Gnu atheists will object that they don’t think science is compatible with religion, that the second point is wrong, and therefore they won’t say it. I think that’s short-sighted and wrong. Whatever your own philosophical position, you can still acknowledge that lots of scientists are religious, and that lots of religious groups accept evolution. It’s empirically true! And it gets the fingers out of people’s ears! The moment when they’re trying to get people to accept evolution is not the moment to launch into an attack on religion, because it makes it harder to teach about evolution, and it probably won’t do anything for their view of atheism.
Gnus prefer to emphasize that they don’t personally see that compatibility. Noting that presenting their arguments against compatibility is Not Helpful (in the context of evolution education), they often reply that their focus is on something other than science education, and the confrontational message helps that goal. Maybe so, though no scientifically valid evidence has been offered to support that claim, and what research exists seems to say the opposite. But if it does help, mazel tov.
That doesn’t matter here, because in this case Jerry is criticizing Understanding Evolution and NCSE for not adopting gnu atheist rhetoric, even though those groups have very clear goals, goals that have nothing to do with promoting atheism and have everything to do with improving evolution education. They use a message that works, which research shows to work, and he’s criticizing them not because it doesn’t help the goals of Understanding Evolution and NCSE, but because it doesn’t help the goals of gnu atheists. And that’s unfair.
Image – a decorator crab covered with anemones and coral and other sea life, to the point that the visible eye and legs are barely distinguishable – reproduced with permission of Jeff Jeffords from divegallery.com, and a slide provide by Jay Labov, NAS.