A Follow-Up To the Previous Post

I'm back from Atlanta. Did anything happen while I was gone?

Well, some people replied to my previous post. Of course, I knew when I posted it that many would disagree with my views. What I had not anticipated was that the main criticisms leveled at me would be so far removed from anything I was actually arguing.

In a comment to the post, Josh Rosenau wrote this:

Yeah, screw the complexity and nuance of real people doing real things for real and complex reasons. While we’re at it, screw real historians for trying to actually understand that complexity and for objecting when people rely on simplistic and ideologically driven alternatives. Someone has to stand up to experts!

My point had nothing to do with standing up to experts, nor was anything I said directed at historians in general. I certainly was not decrying the complexity and nuance of real people doing real things and all the rest.

Michael Weiss seems to think that I'm just inherently opposed to any talk of complexity and nuance:

That book repeatedly makes the very good point that scientists are engaged in the task of trying to understand nature, based on evidence. Well, historians are engaged in the task of trying to understand human history, based on evidence.

Apparently, your need for history to be a morality play trumps everything else — that historians shouldn't even try to get the facts right, and any attempt to understand the viewpoints of the participants automatically entails approval of everything they did.

In a delicious twist, “That book” refers to my book Among the Creationists. He's really worked up about this, judging from the sheer wealth of comments he left to my post.

Now, I would have hoped that Josh and Michael would have given me a little credit. Since I was specifically criticizing Josh and his NCSE colleague Peter Hess, I am not surprised that he replied with some hostility. But if he had calmed down a bit before replying, it might have occurred to him that I probably was not issuing a blanket condemnation of what historians do. That would be a pretty strange position to take, especially for an academic. Likewise for Michael. Is it really plausible that I was arguing that historians shouldn't even try to get the facts right? That he was charging me with something that was completely at odds with what I argued in my book might have suggested to him that he was misinterpreting my intent.

Michael served up a bunch of analogies that were meant to put me in my place, but none of them were to the point. Here's one that is. A defense attorney might present a wealth of specious assertions and irrelevant facts specifically to muddy the waters on the question of his client's guilt. The attorney's intent is not to provide nuance that helps us understand what really happened, but instead to confuse what is ultimately a simple question. My claim is that much of the writing on science and religion is of that mold. There are a lot of demagogues out there who claim that their views are terribly complex and nuanced. But then the various factoids and tidbits they toss off simply do not deliver what is promised, and the simple interpretation of the story emerges unscathed.

With respect to Galileo specifically my claim is this: Historians have done excellent work in elucidating the motivations of all of the actors. They have explicated the political situation of the Church at that time and documented the decades of interactions between Galileo and the Church prior to his trial. I would encourage everyone to read a representative sampling of the scholarly work in this area. But after you have assimilated all of that information, you should still think that the Galileo affair is a straightforward example of a conflict between science and religion.

I don't say that because I have a burning need for history to be a simple morality play that trumps everything else (for heaven's sake). Rather, I say that because, as it happens, this one really is a simple morality play.

I'll probably do a separate post about Galileo, so I won't belabor that point here. For some examples of the kind of thing I am talking about, here's my review, from four years ago, of the anthology Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion. The book is a treasure trove of facts about the history of interrelations between science and religion. But those facts frequently add up to a good deal less than those authors think.

Here's another analogy: An authoritarian regime might find it politically expedient to allow a certain measure of political freedom and dissent. That means that an historian studying any specific instance of repression could write quite a treatise explaining the minutiae of why the regime might have come down hard on one dissident, while letting slide the actions of another. No doubt he would find a wealth of details influencing the regime's actions. He would probably identify some personal failings on the part of the dissident that contributed to his fate. In principle, it could be quite a good book.

But would anyone be impressed by the argument that, on the basis of such work, the relationship between authoritarianism and political freedom is terribly complex and nuanced? Or that anyone who claimed that authoritarianism was just fundamentally opposed to political freedom was historically naive and misinformed? Of course not. The conflict is always there, even if at some times it rages more brightly than at others. It's not that the historical details are unimportant. It's that after you've understood the minutiae the basic picture has not changed at all. And so it is with science and religion.

The other issue in my post was the presentation of Bruno in Cosmos. P. Z. Myers has said most of what I was thinking on that little question. I'll just note that I don't understand how someone can watch a segment that ends with the statement, “Bruno was no scientist,” and conclude that the segment was all about what a great scientist Bruno was. Nor do I see how a segment that includes the statement, “[Bruno's] vision of the cosmos was a lucky guess, because he had no evidence to support it,” could be construed as claiming that Bruno was a martyr to evidence-based reasoning.

And anyone who paints a picture in which Bruno was the bad guy in the story, and then proceeds to blame him for what later happened to Galileo, is not a serious historian just trying to understand the complexity and nuance of the situation. That person is just a demagogue and a propagandist.

But let me conclude with a question for Josh. In a comment to his post he writes, “The relationship of science and religion is certainly complex, and I'm the last person who would claim that there has never been conflict between the two.” Very well. If I am using the wrong examples, then perhaps Josh will tell me which examples I should be using. What does he consider to be a genuine example of conflict between science and religion?

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Well said.

Jason, hang in there and don't let the crap get you down.

I don't necessarily agree with everything you say but I think it's worthwhile and deserves support. A lot of the flack you get comes from people with scripted agendas, and the occasional overt troll.

Re. "complex and nuanced," i would say that it is, but not in an obfuscatory manner. Religion is not a monolith any more than philosophy or art, two other fields to which humans turn for a sense of values. Clearly there are instances of severe conflict, and we see these in our own times (e.g. YEC and ID in the schools). But there are also instances of common ground, notably about issues such as civil rights and world peace.

During the past three decades, reasonable voices in religion in America have been largely drowned out by the extreme religious right, which is at root an authoritarian movement. There is no room for compromise with movements that are absolutist, crusading, and triumphalist: and since they have declared open war on science, reason, and secular governance, we are bound to fight until they are soundly and thoroughly defeated.


As for Bruno, he was no scientist, but neither did he "practice magic" as someone asserted. Occasionally an artist or philosopher or someone such as Bruno is smart enough and observant enough to express an insight that later turns out to be convergent with science. That doesn't make them a scientist, it makes them an insightful artist, philosopher, or whatever.

In response to your criticisms of The Script, they gave you The Other Script.

By Valhar2000 (not verified) on 25 Mar 2014 #permalink

Jason, if you don't want people to think that you're objecting to nuance and complexity, maybe don't lead off by denigrating people who observe that the real world has complexity and nuance. The Draper/White thesis is pseudohistory, and people with respect for real intellectual work (whose number I'd have thought included you) shouldn't hold it up as the end-all when real historians criticize it.

My objection to your conflict script is the idea that conflict is the only mode of interaction between science and religion. My objection to the Cosmos script is that the only example of that interaction they gave involved conflict, when they could have told a quite different story with Lemaitre or other scientists. If they wanted to tell a story about scientists being suppressed by political power, they could have used Soviet science (thus telling a story about an ACTUAL SCIENTIST). But they chose an example that wasn't really about science and tried to shoehorn it into the bogus Draper/White framework. That's the problem.

By Josh Rosenau (not verified) on 25 Mar 2014 #permalink

Notice how Josh fails to answer Jason's question about real examples of conflict......

If the relationships are complex, then multiple causal factors exist and one of them in the case of Galileo was religion. What better authority to keep someone in line than God's word. It was not the only factor and may not have been the primary factor, but - in a complex world - it was a factor. I am curious that when Peter Hess at the NCSE website tells us how to read the Bible is he doing anything different than Galileo did - telling authorities how to properly interpret scripture? Science says x, the Bible says y, therefore one should accept x and view y as allegory? This is a conflict - that Hess has chosen to resolve - but it creates much more nuance and complexity than Hess admits. Just claiming that groups have viewed parts of religious texts as poetry, doesn't mean that all do or do so for all parts. Does Hess see the resurrection as allegory or literally true? I think science might have something to say about resurrection of a human dead for 3 days. Nothing is simple - certainly not the relationship between science and religion.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 25 Mar 2014 #permalink

My denigration was of people who brag about seeing nuance and complexity. My experience has been that when people call attention to how complex and nuanced their views are in the context of science and religion, what they deliver is not actual nuance and complexity, but merely a lot of irrelevant esoterica that mostly creates the illusion of complexity around a fairly simple situation. Hence my defense attorney analogy.

For a comparison, I saw someone on television a while back defending life after death or something like that. The first thing he said was, verbatim, “I'm a scientist, so I believe in evidence-based approaches to knowledge.” If I said at this point that someone who opens his remarks like that is not someone to be taken seriously, would you think I was being unfair? Real scientists don't talk like that. And if I did make such an objection, would you take me to be saying that I am in principle opposed to evidenced-based approaches to knowledge?

The Cosmos script did not claim to be making any general assessment of the relationship between religion and science, said nothing about Draper and White or the conflict thesis, neither said nor implied that Bruno was a scientist (in fact, it explicitly said the opposite), and did not present Bruno as a random example of a scientist being repressed by political power. The point, obviously, was to illustrate the intellectual climate in Catholic Europe at the dawn of the scientific revolution. I would have chosen Galileo for that purpose, but Bruno works too. He was not a scientist, but he got it right on a couple of big questions. And while its wrong to suggest that Bruno was killed for his scientific beliefs (and Cosmos was very clear that he was not) it is equally wrong to pretend that his scientific beliefs were irrelevant to his persecution and eventual fate.

I see nothing wrong in any of that. But most of the people you quoted favorably seemed more interested in being part of the hating on Bruno club than they were in presenting relevant nuance and complexity surrounding any point Cosmos was making. Suggesting that Bruno was in some way to blame for what happened to Galileo, for example. is not serious scholarship that alters our view of what happened. It's propaganda pure and simple, But you linked to it favorably.

Josh Rosenau,

Perhaps the two sides are talking past each other. You are, as far as I can figure it out, perhaps looking at the interactions of actual priests and actual scientists, and then concluding from the fact that they are not always at each other's throats that conflict is not necessary.
That is not the opposite of how I understand the issue and Jason Rosenhouse's position. The point is that the endeavours of religion and of science are necessarily in conflict because they both aim to describe the same world but use utterly incompatible methods for that purpose (dogma, blind faith, scripture and personal experience on the one side, evidence, hypothesis testing, parsimony and modelling on the other).
This means that the two endeavours are conflicting with each other in principle, even if sometimes an individual scientist or priest realises that they currently don't have anything to win but everything to loose from open conflict or if sometimes one side has conceded defeat or does not consider an individual point to be important enough to press it.

Josh Rosenau @ # 4: ... they could have told a quite different story with Lemaitre or other scientists.

Yeah, they could have told the story of Hypatia of Alexandria, or Michel Servetus, or Leonardo's escape to France, or the Conquistadors, or those heresy hunts from the Council of Nicaea onward, or ...

A documentary producer could easily fill a series the length of Cosmos with bloody examples of the Church's enforcement of theological correctness, and have lots of material left over. That deGrasse Tyson chose to narrate only one such atrocity shows more lenience and accommodationism than the Church and its fanbois deserve.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 25 Mar 2014 #permalink

An issue that I don't think anyone made explicit is the distinction between "The conflict thesis is mostly right" and "Galileo is an instance of conflict between science and religion". Either of these can be true or false independently of the other.

Myself, I think the second statement holds up rather well, to the point that opponents of the conflict thesis ought to be calling it an exception to a norm of harmony between the two, rather than saying that the inference of religion-vs-science conflict is as incorrect with the Galileo affair as it is in other suggested examples. After all, any generally positive relationship (such as an alliance between nations, or a marriage) is bound to have rocky moments.

I don't think that's the case with Galileo (I think "rocky" is the default situation) but I can understand such a viewpoint, since there is indeed lots of complexity in the broader picture. I also think that Bruno is a less straightforward case, given that explicitly-religious heresy was his actual crime, and is more an instance of religion in conflict with religion (which relates to other issues that paint religious authority in a damning light, but that's another story).

I would have to look at it in more depth but I don't think that Bruno was making a "lucky guess" as he was thinking about an alternative model of nature. His thinking was, at least in part, based on Lucretius' De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), which is mentioned in the Bruno segment.

I'd recommend Steven Greenblatt's The Swerve for an overview of the reintroduction of this classical Roman Epicurean epic poem to the western "Renaissance" mind and the role that it played in expanding the intellectual framework from the accepted Orthodoxy.

By jimmiraybob (not verified) on 26 Mar 2014 #permalink

And as to the relationship of science and religion in the 15th to late 16th century, it was largely a battle of hypotheses. Bruno's hypotheses regarding the cosmos were every bit as advanced as the Orthodox Scholastic Aristotelian (hypothetical) model. And, it is the scientific method to begin with a hypothesis based on observation, intuition and reason. (Some hypotheses pan out, or "get lucky", and some don't.)

In my opinion, without the means to further test these pre-modern hypotheses (e.g., the telescope, microscope, electronics, mass communications) Bruno was in the vanguard of the proto-modern science that eventually has been firmly established. And the consequences of these untested hypotheses, such as for motion of objects and the infinite universe, were contradictory to the Church (Catholic and Protestant alike) Theological Orthodoxy. So, while it may be accurate to say that the church at that time supported science, it was only the correct science that could be and that had been reconciled with the theology. The conflict was between religion and the scientific method and scientific thinking that removed, to whatever degree, the need for a prime mover....or an everyday mover.

The Bruno story, as an exemplar of a larger movement investigating nature and our place in the cosmos without the necessity of bowing to orthodoxy or even eventually the supernatural, is directly relevant to the relationship between church and science - then as now.

If not for this conflict we'd all still be speaking Aristotelianese.

By jimmiraybob (not verified) on 26 Mar 2014 #permalink

In case it wasn't clear, I was chiefly objecting your proposed pigeonholeing of people: anyone who uses the words "nuance" or "complexity" in a discussion of science and religion is automatically guilty of deliberate obfuscation.

Let's take a look at your defense attorney analogy. The motivations of the attorney are known in advance: he's trying to get his client acquitted.

Do you claim the same holds for historians --- that anyone complaining about historical mistakes or over-simplifications is simply trying to "muddy the waters" with "irrelevant facts"?

Historians try to understand the past as fully as possible on its own terms, not to judge it with present-day criteria. Rebekah Higgitt eludidates why striving for impartiality is desirable for a historian, while acknowledging the challenges this presents.

The posts by Corey Powell and Darin Hayton on the Cosmos program hardly seem motivated by a desire to whitewash the actions of the church.

One more comment on the defense attorney analogy: the law, after all, does recognize nuance and complexity. What would you think of a prosecuting attorney who said, "The question is quite simple. Did he kill her or not? The defense attorney will try to confuse you with irrelevant facts about his intent. Don't let him muddy the waters, but bring back a verdict of first-degree murder."

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 27 Mar 2014 #permalink

Michael --

I do think that a lot of the academic writing specifically on science and religion does come with an agenda to clean-up religion's image. I gave examples in my review of Galileo Goes to Jail, which I linked to in this post. With respect to Bruno and Cosmos, many of the howls of outrage I've seen are based on a complete caricature of what was presented, as I documented in my previous post.

You keep giving examples in which a failure to consider some detail or other causes you to oversimplify a story. One more time, that has nothing to do with any point that I'm making. Nuance and complexity sometimes bring clarity to difficult situations, but they can also bring obfuscation to simple situations. Do you deny that? I'm not addressing the former at all, which is why none of your examples have been to the point. I'm decrying the latter, which I think happens frequently in writing on science and religion.

With respect to Galileo, I"m not criticizing historians for ferreting out the motivations of the main players or for describing the political situation the Church was facing or for anything else. My criticism is of people who toss off a lot of irrelevant facts as though they in some way mitigate what the Church did. If someone claims that what happened to Galileo is a perfect example of a conflict between science and religion, that person is not refuted by showing that some of Galileo's scientific arguments weren't so good, or that Galileo was not politically savvy, or that the Church was feeling especially vulnerable in the early seventeenth century. All of those are interesting observations, but they are not relevant to the question of whether Galileo's story is a straight-up conflict between science and religion. Perhaps you disagree with that assessment. If you explain your reasons why, then you will, finally, be addressing something I'm actually claiming.

Finally, my remark about ignoring people who use the words “nuance” and “complexity” was obviously facetious. The way you could tell is that taking it literally would be to attribute an argument to me that is so nonsensical, it is hard to believe that anyone could possibly hold it. It was one sentence in what is now two long blog posts explaining exactly what I meant.

I do think, though, that very often there are cues in what people write that alerts you to looming crankdom. If someone starts referring to the “proofs and evidences” for evolution, you can be near certain that you are dealing with a creationist, because they are the only ones who talk like that. The situation is not so stark in writing about science and religion, but I do think boasts of nuance and complexity are a big warning sign. Very often what is about to be presented is of the obfuscatory variety, and not of the kind that makes you better understand a complex story.

and I’m the last person who would claim that there has never been conflict between the two
I would like to see examples where Rosenau has claimed there is conflict between science and religion - indeed if he is the last person who would claim there was never a conflict , I should be able to find many examples on his blog where he mentions the conflicts. - but all I remember is examples as to why religion is not really in conflict - or but of course genesis is not literal etc etc...

By deepak shetty (not verified) on 28 Mar 2014 #permalink

Jason ---
Well, when you put it that way...

I'll simply reiterate three points, briefly, and then let it go. (1) Historians delve into the details because that's what historians do. (2) Historians get irritated at errors or over-simplifications in the popular media for the same reason any expert does.

(3) The arguments for enlightenment values such as the separation of church and state, and of science and religion, are plenty strong on their own. Adding dubious history does not strengthen the case.

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 28 Mar 2014 #permalink