Attempted TfK Smackdown watch

Stephen Suh responds to the discussion of Stephen Johnson, the creationist EPA administrator:

Stephen Johnson, Bush's EPA Administrator, doesn't see a "clean-cut division" between religion and science.

This is actually not quite right. He doesn't, according to the original article, see a division between "creation" and "evolution." He told the Inquirer that "If you have studied at all creationism vs. evolution, there's theistic or God-controlled evolution and there's variations on all those themes." Which is true, but since he "declined to elaborate" on his own views, we don't really know where he stands (other than that his college, to which he is devoted, teaches creationism). In any event, this confusion isn't Suh's, it's ThinkProgress's, and one that got picked up widely.

Suh proceeds to say that:

Faiz Shakir and Brad Johnson at ThinkProgress have a problem with this thinking, as does PZ Myers and Josh Rosenau. To them, this lack is what allows Johnson to reject the scientific consensus on global warming, advocate for the teaching of Creationism in public schools and generally allow corporations to do as much damage to the environment as they want.

This actually misstates what I said, at least. I didn't take issue so much with his theology as with his claim that "as a practical matter [creation/evolution] has not been an issue." I responded that "I dare say it has, though. Johnson's administration of the EPA has been marked by a willingness to set aside scientific evidence in favor of the received word of his superiors."

Which is why I'm surprised that Stephen thinks I need to be advised:

to define the problem in the context of elevating religious opinions above scientific thought rather than there being a problem with a lack of distinction between science and religion per se.

I rather thought that's what I did. I even came back to this theme at the end, writing:

So, on evolution, he rejects scientific evidence in favor of the opinion of his authority figures. On climate change, he again rejects the scientific evidence in favor of the opinion of his authority figure. On the ethics of human testing of pesticides, on the appropriateness of using atrazine, on the environmental risks of mega-farms, and on value of a human life in cost-benefit analyses, Johnson has consistently ignored his scientific advisors, going along with the opinions of his political superiors.

My point was that this is not about religion, but about an attitude towards evidence. And I was glad to see that PZ Myers, whose views on science and religion don't generally align with my own, quoted that same passage in his discussion of the problem, and also avoided the error that Suh warns against.

Which brings us to the really problematic bit of the attempted smackdown:

Unless, of course, everyone would like to admit that science has no ability to prove, or more importantly, disprove the existence of the Christian God or the validity of any other religious belief system. If there is a "clean-cut division" between religion and science, that would preclude either one's ability to trump the other's claims. This is what allows people like me to have religious beliefs while accepting the scientific consensus on things like evolution, global warming and pretty much everything else. The Bible, which is authoritative for me, simply isn't a science or history textbook. And unlike Stephen Johnson and PZ Myers in particular, I do accept a "clean-cut division" between science and religion, elevating neither one above the other in the same way that I don't elevate red seedless grapes above passenger-side airbags.

Again, people who want to claim that science is able to disprove religious beliefs, who want to claim on the basis of scientific advances that religious belief is inherently irrational and primitive, would do well to change the focus of their criticism of people like Stephen Johnson. Unless, of course, they're comfortable with being guilty of exactly the same thing, just from the other side.

While PZ is certainly a legitimate target for such criticism in general, his actual comments in this instance do not set science above religion, or mingle the two inappropriately. I simply observed (and PZ followed by quoting me) that someone responsible for setting policy based on science ought to be able to separate arguments based on authority (religious authority or political authority) from arguments based on empirically testable evidence.

I see an inescapable parallel between Johnson's willingness to reject evolution with his willingness to be swayed by the unanimous advice of his scientific staff only to reverse himself suddenly, telling the staff simply that "he had been reminded of the president's policy preferences."

Stephen Suh's points about science and religion are fair and legitimate. And PZ is usually a good target for criticism on such points. But on this one, he wasn't. This is a time for positive reinforcement. I think PZ would be a lot more effective if he took this tack on a wider range of issues. It's possible to attack creationist nonsense and buffoonery inspired by religion without attacking religion. He did so and did so well. To criticize PZ for using this as an excuse to elevate science over religion rather seems to miss the point that PZ didn't, and to punish his success in this instance with his failure in others.

To lump me in with that criticism makes even less sense.

Suh calls for "consistency, please." Me, too. I don't think science can disprove religion, nor that religion is inherently primitive and irrational. And I didn't make the argument attributed to me.

I suspect that I got lumped in like that because scientists (and science bloggers) are stereotyped as anti-religion zealots, and sensible religious moderates feel the need periodically to decry that stereotyped being periodically.

For instance, last April, Pastor Dan of Street Prophets, responding to my praise of Obama's statement against ID creationism in an interview with the York Daily Record, referred to me as one of those "scientistic types," and wondered:

I am a bit baffled that this should be considered at all exceptional. This is how many, if not most, Christians think about such matters.

I suspect that to be true, and I wish it were unexceptional that a candidate would take as nuanced a view as Obama does of science and religion. Heck, in the post Dan linked to I had written "That Obama opposes teaching ID and other nonscience in science classes is hardly surprising, but it is nice to have him clearly on record backing real science."

Bear in mind that Senator Brownback had, not long before that, penned an op-ed in the New York Times which was far less nuanced, and as with so many things, George W. Bush had already defined Presidential expectations way, way down. So one need not be scientistic (i.e., believe that science is the only form of knowledge) to find it pleasant that a candidate would take a firm stand on the matter. It's possible that the "scientistic" reference was a joke, but in the context of Suh's lumping me in with my more scientistic colleagues, it's worth making clear that no one should assume that scientists and science bloggers in general are scientistic. Just as one should not assume that religious people are all science-denialists.

More like this

The Surgeon General urges that creationist dumbitude only be viewed through the StupidVu 9000 or other approved viewing device Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson is a very ignorant man. Sorry, he might get offended by that. Allow me to be more accurate: he's a…
Please go away, Mr Bush. And please, President-elect Obama, clear away the rotting debris of this ghastly administration. The latest example of dreadful Bush appointees: Stephen Johnson, head of the EPA. Asked about the evolution/creation debate, this is what he had to say: It's not a clean-cut…
The Philadelphia Inquirer profiles EPA head Stephen Johnson: Johnson majored in biology. At Taylor [University, one of the oldest evangelical universities in the country], that includes discussion of creationism. Taylor biology professor Timothy Burkholder, who was Johnson's adviser, said, "We…
Those who follow creationism carefully know that after it became clear that Intelligent design would fail in court, the new strategy which took the field often simply called for "critical analysis" of evolution. The practical effect is the same as when creationism is forced into the curriculum,…

Josh: it was indeed a joke. I meant something like "science-y," but didn't like that particular word. So I went with "scientistic," which I stole from a reggae song and honestly thought was a nonsense word. Just goes to show how careful you have to be with terminology, I suppose.

I'll refrain from comment on the larger matter, other than to say that I'm one who has never quite understood why scientific thought and religious belief should be thought of as mortal enemies.

Question: Since when did "consensus" (meaning all are in agreement) come to be distorted to mean a majority is in agreement, with many still not in agreement?

Answer: When atheists and agnostics "got religion" (i.e. evolutionism)and fanatically at that, and decided that from now on, whatever they believed constituted a "consensus", whether it really did or not.

Case #1: A majority of scientists believe in evolution, therefore there is "scientific consensus" for evolution. Must be true, just ask the evolution "prophet" Charles Darwin. Never mind all those scientists who disagree, they must all be crazy. Yep, we got ourselves a "consensus", all righty! After all, the evidence is in and we got the truth! No more dissent needed, no more dissent tolerated! Just ridicule anyone who doesn't buy into our "consensus".

Case#2: A majority of scientists in one UN-constituted body believe human-produced CO2 is causing global warming, therefore there is "scientific consensus" for CO2 global warming. Must be true, just ask the CO2 "prophet" Al Gore. Never mind all those scientists who disagree, they must be crazy. Yep, we got ourselves a "consensus", all righty! After all, the evidence is in and we got the truth! No more dissent needed, no more dissent tolerated! Just ridicule anyone who doesn't buy into our "consensus".

Case#3: A majority of scientists believe that the continents are fixed in place and have never moved, therefore there is "scientific consensus" for stationary continents. Must be true, just ask the (uniformitarian) stationary continent prophet, Charles Lyell. Never mind all those scientists who disagree, they must be crazy. Yep, we got ourselves a "consensus", all righty! After all, the evidence is in and we got the truth! No more dissent needed, no more dissent tolerated! Just ridicule anyone who doesn't buy into our "consensus".

Oh drat, that's right, we don't believe that last one anymore. Discovery of mid-ocean ridges and all that. Darned if that doggoned Alfred Wegner wasn't right after all. The continents do appear to have moved. Pity we gave Wegner such a hard time, ridiculed him as an crazy ignoramus etc. Pity for us that is, since he was right all along and we were wrong as it later turned out, and we just couldn't see through our "scientific consensus" arrogance. KL

By Kenneth Lawrence (not verified) on 12 Dec 2008 #permalink

Is the distinction between creationism and evolution not synonymous with the distinction between religion and science? I have trouble seeing it.

If someone said "I don't see a clean-cut division between frogs and cats," it would be fair to say that person doesn't see a clean-cut division between amphibians and mammals.

Creationism is received religious belief; evolution is a scientific theory.

By Brad Johnson (not verified) on 13 Dec 2008 #permalink

Brad: Yes, the two are pretty synonymous, but it's conceivable that Johnson might have been making a sophisticated point. I doubt it, of course.

But theistic evolution is a real thing and a viable form of theology, one employed by the Catholic church and by many mainline Protestant churches. TE holds that evolution is the mechanism God uses in creating life (details vary between theologies; this is a very cursory definition). Thus, one can study science without invoking theology, but the two overlap in a certain way.

I doubt that's what Johnson thinks. He notes that this approach exists, but does so in a way that's fairly vague, as if he were not citing his own feelings, just mouthing other people's words.