Friday, November 24, 2006

Teaching the Science of Evolution under the Threat of Alternative Views

I posted a version of this over at Stranger Fruit but after doing so I thought it might be of interest to others ...

After years of keeping quiet, I was prompted to enter this debate after attending a meeting organized by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology [ASBMB]. The title of the symposium was "Teaching the Science of Evolution under the Threat of Alternative Views". You can see the video by following the link.

Now, it seemed to me entirely inappropriate to emphasize Miller's religion when introducing him at a scientific conference. It seemed inappropriate to invite Rev. Ted Peters to give one of the talks. It seemed inappropriate for Eugenie Scott to praise Miller but take a swipe at Dawkins.

For me that was the tipping point. Now, I know it sounds childish to say "they started it" but it's important to keep it in mind. Atheists have kept their mouths shut for years but the attack on atheistic views—and the praise of religious scientists—have escalated in recent years.

I was getting tired of being told that atheists were not welcome but religious scientists were.

The important talk is the one by Rev. Ted Peters, an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran church. He makes the case for Theistic Evolution. Keep in mind that this talk was given at a scientific meeting and most of the audience were scientists. A good many of them were atheists.

Listen to Eugenie Scott's talk as well. I like the bit about "We are not Darwinists." At the end of her talk she presents the case for appeasement: Dawkins bad, Peters good.


  1. Yes. Brayton et al must realise that it is not an 'holier than thou' attitude that is the problem - it is the sanctification of 'holy as thy neighbour' that is.

  2. As to what is appropriate to discuss at a scientific conference, was it appropriate for the guy introducing the program to be making comments (to applause) about Tom DeLay stepping down? Oh, wait a minute! It was a Public Affairs Forum! Are you really saying that scientists can't discuss public policy? Or they can't discuss how religion affects public policy (whether we like it or not), including how public education treats science? And in discussing religion's effect on public policy, are scientists ears and egos too delicate to listen to a theologian? Please!

    As to your claim that Miller's religion was emphasized in his introduction, the closest that I heard to that was the emcee mentioning Finding Darwin's God and stumblingly calling it "a wonderful collection of ideas that connect evolution and religion," a description that may not be all that accurate, but which hardly constitutes "emphasis." Miller does discuss non-science in that he discusses ID. But since he was there to talk about "anti-evolutionary activity" he has to, almost by definition, discuss stuff that is not part of science.

    But even then, there was not a single word from Miller about his own theology. He (brilliantly, IMHO) made the scientific case against ID, including the best brief discussion of why irreducible complexity is horsehocky that I've ever seen. Miller, at least, can keep science and theology separate in his mind.

    And, BTW, about Rev. Peters' diagram ... listening to his talk (which was the weakest of the bunch) it is clear that the rubric "evolutionary biology (science only)" on the chart designated methodological naturalism. As such, whether it belongs on a diagram about beliefs concerning "Divine Action" is questionable, since it is a methodological stance, not a belief.

    In any case, in his talk (and, as far as I know, in his textbooks), Miller stuck firmly to methodological naturalism, without any appeal to gods or theology. If you are demanding that Miller do more when he is discussing science opposed to theology -- that he should adopt a view that, in order to be a scientist, you must hold that naturalism is all there is -- then you misrepresented your position on the diagram before when you said you fell under the rubric "evolutionary biology (science only)." If that is what you are asking, you are, in fact, an ontological materialist. That's a perfectly acceptable philosophy to hold, based, like theism, on no evidence whatsoever (and, therefore, sometimes described as "faith"), if you so choose. But it ain't science.

    Scott's point, right at the outset, is that you have to address the subject in light of people's deeply held beliefs and emotions. That seems self-evidently correct to me and a basic fact about dealing with other human beings. It is evident even in the reaction of many atheists' to attacks (or perceived attacks) on atheism. There is nothing more certain to guarantee that they will not listen to the opponent and will, instead, argue against any number of past offenses unrelated to the argument before them, than to question their deeply held belief in and emotional commitment to their atheism. In other words, atheists are just like every other human being that ever existed (myself excluded, just like every other human being that ever existed).

    As for the "shot" Scott supposedly takes at Dawkins, it consists entirely of her agreeing philosophically with his materialism but denying that it is a research finding of science. Isn't that the position you told Wilkins you hold -- that you were an agnostic atheist in that you disbelieved without being under the illusion that science demonstrates the nonexistence of gods? Maybe Dawkins doesn't hold the position Scott ascribes to him, but the quote she produced seemed to say exactly that. And if he didn't mean it, then the criticism is rightly made that he should be more careful in his formulations in light of the creation/evolution controversy that he, himself, has joined in.

    Anyway, to reiterate, none of that justifies your labeling Miller as an enemy of science or science education. But I do want to thank you for posting the link to that discussion. I found it well worth the time, even if you didn't.