Wednesday, April 01, 2009


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by Jerry Coyne

Reposted from

Jerry Coyne's Bio Page


[JERRY COYNE:] Must we always cater to the faithful when teaching science?

As long as I have been a scientist, I have lived with my colleagues' view that one cannot promote the acceptance of evolution in this country without catering to the faithful. This comes from the idea that many religious people who would otherwise accept evolution won't do so if they think it undermines their faith, promoting atheism or immoral behavior.

Thus various organizations promoting the teaching of evolution, including the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education, have published booklets or websites that explicitly say that faith and science are compatible.
In other words, that is their official position. The view of many other scientists that faith and science (or reason) are incompatible is ignored or disparaged.

As evidence for the compatibility, the most frequent reason cited is that many scientists are religious and many of the faithful accept evolution. While this proves compatibility in the trivial sense, it doesn't show, as I've pointed out elsewhere, that the two views are philosophically compatible.

As an example of the "official position" of some groups on compatibility, an alert reader sent me the URL of a site at The University of California at Berkeley, Understanding Science 101, that discusses the nature of science and how it's done. There are a lot of good resources at this site, but perusing it I found, to my dismay, a sub-site that pushes the compatibility between science and faith:-

"With the loud protests of a small number of religious groups over teaching scientific concepts like evolution and the Big Bang in public schools, and the equally loud proclamations of a few scientists with personal, anti-religious philosophies, it can sometimes seem as though science and religion are at war."

News outlets offer plenty of reports of school board meetings, congressional sessions, and Sunday sermons in which scientists and religious leaders launch attacks at one another. But just how representative are such conflicts? Not very.
The attention given to such clashes glosses over the far more numerous cases in which science and religion harmoniously, and even synergistically, coexist. In fact, people of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion.

Many simply acknowledge that the two institutions deal with different realms of human experience. Science investigates the natural world, while religion deals with the spiritual and supernatural — hence, the two can be complementary. Many religious organizations have issued statements declaring that there need not be any conflict between religious faith and the scientific perspective on evolution.
"One of the greatest tragedies of our time is this impression that has been created that science and religion have to be at war.'
— Francis Collins
Francis Collins (wiki) is a Christian who lead the Human Genome Project.

Furthermore, contrary to stereotype, one certainly doesn't have to be an atheist in order to become a scientist. A 2005 survey of scientists at top research universities found that more than 48% had a religious affiliation and more than 75% believe that religions convey important truths.
Some scientists — like Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and George Coyne, astronomer and priest — have been outspoken about the satisfaction they find in viewing the world through both a scientific lens and one of personal faith.

It seems to me that we can defend evolution without having to cater to the faithful at the same time. Why not just show that evolution is TRUE and its alternatives are not? Why kowtow to those whose beliefs many of us find unpalatable, just to sell our discipline? There are, in fact, two disadvantages to the "cater-to-religion" stance.

1. By trotting out those "religious scientists", like Ken Miller, or those "scientific theologians," like John Haught, we are tacitly putting our imprimatur on their beliefs, including beliefs that God acts in the world today (theism), suspending natural laws. For example, I don't subscribe to Miller's belief that God acts immanently in the world, perhaps by influencing events on the quantum level, or that God created the laws of physics so that human-containing planets could evolve. I do not agree with John Haught's theology.

I do not consider any faith that touts God's intervention in the world (even in the past) as compatible with science. Do my colleagues at the NAS or the NCSE disagree?
2. The statement that learning evolution does not influence one's religious belief is palpably false. There are plenty of statistics that show otherwise, including the negative correlation of scientific achievement with religious belief and the negative correlation among nations in degree of belief in God with degree of acceptance of evolution.

All of us know this, but we pretend otherwise. (In my book I note that "enlightened" religion can be compatible with science, but by "englightened" I meant a complete, hands-off deism.) I think it is hypocrisy to pretend that learning evolution will not affect either the nature or degree of one's faith. It doesn't always, but it does more often than we admit, and there are obvious reasons why (I won't belabor these).

I hate to see my colleagues pretending that faith and science live in nonoverlapping magisteria. They know better.
Because of this, I think that organizations promoting the teaching of evolution should do that, and do that alone. Leave religion and its compatibility with faith to the theologians. That's not our job. Our job is to show that evolution is true and creationism and ID aren't. End of story.
In 25 years of effort, these organizations don't seem to have much effect on influencing public opinion about evolution. I think that this may mean that the USA will have to become a lot less religious before acceptance of evolution increases appreciably.
While going through the Berkeley website Understanding Science (discussed yesterday), I found something more of interest. It's a page called "Astrology: Is it Scientific?", which sets out a checklist of questions that the student should answer to see if astrology is indeed a science. Here's part of the checklist:

Here we'll use the Science Checklist to evaluate one way in which astrology is commonly used. See if you think it qualifies as scientific!
Focuses on the natural world?
Astrology's basic premise is that heavenly bodies — the sun, moon, planets, and constellations — have influence over or are correlated with earthly events.

Aims to explain the natural world?
Astrology uses a set of rules about the relative positions and movements of heavenly bodies to generate predictions and explanations for events on Earth and human personality traits. For example, some forms of astrology predict that a person born just after the spring equinox is particularly likely to become an entrepreneur.

Uses testable ideas?
Some expectations generated by astrology are so general that any outcome could be interpreted as fitting the expectations; if treated this way, astrology is not testable. However, some have used astrology to generate very specific expectations that could be verified against outcomes in the natural world. For example, according to astrology, one's zodiac sign impacts one's ability to command respect and authority. Since these traits are important in politics, we might expect that if astrology really explained people's personalities, scientists would be more likely to have zodiac signs that astrologers describe as "favorable" towards science. If used to generate specific expectations like this one, astrological ideas are testable.

Relies on evidence?
In the few cases where astrology has been used to generate testable expectations and the results were examined in a careful study, the evidence did not support the validity of astrological ideas. This experience is common in science — scientists often test ideas that turn out to be wrong. However, one of the hallmarks of science is that ideas are modified when warranted by the evidence. Astrology has not changed its ideas in response to contradictory evidence.

The page concludes by saying:
Astrology is not a very scientific way to answer questions. Although astrologers seek to explain the natural world, they don't usually attempt to critically evaluate whether those explanations are valid — and this is a key part of science. The community of scientists evaluates its ideas against evidence from the natural world and rejects or modifies those ideas when evidence doesn't support them. Astrologers do not take the same critical perspective on their own astrological ideas.
It seems to me that some of the claims of many faiths are similar to those of astrology–the four ideas given above. Religion focusses on the natural world (at least some of the time), purports to explain it, uses testable ideas (e.g., efficacy of prayer), and relies on evidence (Scripture, archaeological findings, etc.) Like astrology, religion fails all of these tests.

I'm not trying to say anything portentous, except that scientists are really keen to denigrate astrology while at the same time bending over backwards to respect religion, even though there is the same amount of evidence supporting each. This is a point that science writer Natalie Angier makes in her wonderful essay, "My God Problem."

Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University's "Ask an Astronomer" Web site. To the query, "Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?" the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, "modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions." He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of "God intervening every time a measurement occurs"

before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn't—and shouldn't—"have anything to do with scientific reasoning."

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. "No, astronomers do not believe in astrology," snarls Dave Kornreich. "It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary."

Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science "one does not need a reason not to believe in something." Skepticism is "the default position" and "one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something's existence."

In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them, the poor gullible gits; while for the multitudes who believe that, in one way or another, a divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton, there is no demand for evidence, no skepticism to surmount, no need to worry.

A couple more points of clarification about the last post:

1. I am by no means denigrating the worthwhile achievements of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education in pushing back the tide of creationism. Their effects (especially the NCSE's) in court cases and school-board hearings have had a real and positive effect on keeping evolution in the schools. My beef is that these effects are temporary ones.

Creationism is like herpes: it keeps coming back again and again until you extirpate the root cause. The court cases and school board hearings are outbreaks of herpes, which are stanched by our colleagues. But until the underlying virus is extirpated (that is, the kind of faith that is incompatible with evolution), the outbreaks will continue to occur.

2. The NAS and NCSE seem to always trot out the "religious scientists" or "scientific theologians" when they need to sell evolution: John Haught, Ken Miller, Michael Ruse, etc. I would feel better about the whole issue if they'd also trot out Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the many other evolutionists who represent a non-accommodationist point of view.

3. By saying that we should leave the reconciliation of faith and science to theologians, I am not endorsing the idea that they can or should be reconciled. Personally, I don't think they can be. I'm saying only that that reconciliation is not the job of scientists or pro-evolution organizations.

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher
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