Cobb & Coyne quote mine Nature

I'm not really a fan of the Templeton Foundation. In the past they've contributed quite a bit of money to the intelligent design crowd and folks who want to foster a teleological view of evolution, and the work resulting from the funded projects appears to be generally unimpressive. When John Templeton, the figure that started the foundation, died last month Nature ran an article about the foundation and what Templeton set out to achieve. Discussing Templeton's aims, the article reads;

He believed institutional religion to be antiquated, and hoped a dialogue with researchers might bring about advances in theological thinking. The foundation's substantial funding of science and religion departments around the world is directed towards those ends.

While it seems that recipients of Templeton funds have sometimes tried to cram nature into a particular theological viewpoint, if the article is correct Templeton intended for the "book of nature" to help illuminate scripture. It is arguable whether this is possible (especially in our present climate where the "warfare" model reigns supreme), and the Nature piece turns a skpetical eye to the questionable research the foundation has supported. The piece even ends on a note of caution, suggesting that John Templeton's son, who now heads the organization, is not as theologically liberal as his father and could put the group on a fundamentalist bent.

Now along comes a letter by Matthew Cobb and Jerry Coyne who use the article on the Templeton Foundation to launch into an attack on religion. The somewhat sneering tone of the correspondence suggests that Nature tacitly supported the aims of the Templeton Foundation, whereas a reading of the original article shows that this is not so. Cobb and Coyne try to support their position, however, by quote mining the original article. They write;

You [the author of the piece on Templeton] suggest that science may bring about "advances in theological thinking". In reality, the only contribution that science can make to the ideas of religion is atheism.

As revealed above, the sentence from which the phrase "advances in theological thinking" was plucked was a description of John Templeton's motivation, not a statement of belief by the author. Whether existing religions are in any way able to reconcile themselves with the realities of science is a debate that has been going on for a long time and that I expect to continue indefinitely, but I would have expected better of Cobb & Coyne than quote-mining a scientific journal to push the warfare model.

More like this

At the risk of seeming to further propel a tempest in a tea pot, I'll note for those interested that Richard Dawkins' site has a post that contains the full text of both Cobb & Coynes letter (in the body of the post) and the original editorial (down in comment #4).,3040,n,n

I'd say that the issue is a lot grayer, because the editorial does imply some sympathy with Templeton's goals (but tempered with skepticism as well).

It does seem strange to me that they published Cobb & Coynes letter. Surely there are more important and interesting issues that could have occupied that space.

It does seem strange to me that they published Cobb & Coynes letter. Surely there are more important and interesting issues that could have occupied that space.

Surely. But controversies mean readership, don't they? Sigh.

Actually, in reading the original Nature piece, I find stuff to which I object and which Cobb and Coyne's letter doesn't touch. I'm not exactly happy with that editorial, although I think Cobb and Coyne didn't address the key points either. Consider:

For those many scientists with a faith, promoting the compatibility of science with faith is a prudent and even necessary goal. Strict atheists may deplore such activities, but they can happily ignore them too.

How can "strict atheists" ignore the promulgation of shoddy thinking and factual errors which, the aforesaid atheists will insist, make the job of science education harder and provide a veneer of false respectability for the truly deranged mystics? "We tried ignoring the promotion of 'spirituality' as science," they'll say. "We've been trying that for decades. Look where it's gotten us!"

The foundation's scientific agenda addresses 'big questions', which has sometimes resulted in work that many researchers regard as scientifically marginal. One field popular with the foundation is positive psychology, which seeks to gauge the effects of positive thinking on patients, and which critics argue has yielded little.

"See?" ask the strict atheists. "When you're an active promoter of pseudoscience, you're not a friend of science no matter what protests you make to that effect. And the implicit claim that the rest of science doesn't address 'big questions' is, frankly, blithering lunacy."

Also heavily supported are cosmological studies into the existence of multiple universes -- a notion frequently criticized for lying at the edge of falsifiability. The concern is that such research has been unduly elevated by the foundation's backing. But whatever one thinks of positive psychology and the like, the foundation's support has not taken anything away from conventional funding. And in the field of cosmology at least, it has arguably yielded some new and interesting ideas.

"I want to see an actual investigation here," grumbles a strict atheist. "Which papers by which researchers published in which journals and having what impact were produced with Templeton funding? Are they claiming credit for a field which would have been substantially the same without their tainted gold? Given that it's always easier to accept your source's claim than dig through the acknowledgements of ten thousand journal articles, I suspect this is just Templeton sales talk."

"Sweet zombie Jesus!" curses a nearby string theorist. "What in the blazing circles of Hades is with these people who keep going on and on about that 'multiverse' business? It's a small fraction of our field. Look: here I am, applying the AdS/CFT correspondence to understand what happens when you smash atomic nuclei together at stupendously high speeds. And I'm just one girl in a crowd of theorists attacking the problem. We're even finding out that we can use these same tools to understand ultracold phases of matter — where's a blackboard, I need to explain Feshbach resonance. . .

"Oh, sod it," she says. "You'll always go with what's easiest. Understanding gauge/gravity duality is hard. I mean, you have to think about math. Screw that — let's go shopping! Talk about this 'multiverse' idea, though, fits into your standard narratives about ivory-tower theorists with their heads in the air, about faith clashing with science, and so forth. It's an easier story to tell, so the coverage of my field will always be biased. People will believe that all of string theory depends upon Templeton money, when in fact the science which excites us doesn't need it at all."

"I hear ya," says a population geneticist. "We've got real problems in my field — real fun problems, which will take hard work to figure out. How limited are the techniques of the spatial ecologists by their restriction to a linearized region of phase-space dynamics? How do game-theoretic models map onto the pathogen/host and predator/prey simulations in which spatial separation leads to localization of Malthusian catastrophes? Can we treat lineages as players in an evolutionary game, or should we be speaking of temporally extended phenotypes? But no, all anybody wants to write a story about is Nowak took Templeton money, faith v. science, faith v. science . . ."

The egghead intellectuals continued to chatter amongst themselves. Our reporter, having already had a well-balanced and judiciously moderate story before entering the room, made his excuses and left.

and hoped a dialogue with researchers might bring about advances in theological thinking

Sure. The way the discovery of oxygen brought about advances in phlogistonic thinking.

By Kalia's little… (not verified) on 28 Aug 2008 #permalink

Peruse the list of Templeton Prize winners some time. You won't find any prominent scientists who are critical of the compatibility of science with religion (e.g. Dawkins, Weinstein, Stenger). You will find YEC Charles Colson.

By Kalia's little… (not verified) on 28 Aug 2008 #permalink

I did a quick Google Scholar search for physics papers which acknowledged Templeton money (you know, "This work was funded by Templeton Foundation grant #666", or whatever). My overall reaction: "Meh". It looks like Andrei Linde of Stanford got a grant (938-COS273, to be specific), but his papers have co-authors who brought in other sources of funding, as is typical in the field. Consider the acknowledgements for Shamit Kachru et al.'s 2003 paper "de Sitter vacua in string theory", which is the most highly-cited one I could find with Templeton money involved anywhere:

This work was supported in part by NSF grant PHY-9870115. The work by A.L. was also supported by the Templeton Foundation grant No. 938-COS273. The work of S.K. was also supported by a David and Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowship for Science and Engineering,
NSF grant PHY-0097915 and the DOE under contract DE-AC03-76SF00515. S.P.T. acknowledges the support of the DAE, the Swarnajayanti Fellowship, and most of all the people of India.

Yeah, I think John Templeton really deserves all the credit for that. </sarcasm>