Thursday, April 30, 2009

NCSE v National Association of Biology Teachers

There's been a lot of discussion recently about the proper role of scientific organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), The Royal Society, and the National Academies of Science (NAS), in the conflict between science and religion. Many people, including me, think that these scientific organizations should remain neutral on the issue of possible conflict between sceince and religion.

The situation with respect to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is more complicated. I believe that NCSE should also avoid taking a stand in favor of some religions over others, and in favor of religious versus non-religious interpretations of the conflict.

It's worth reminding people of how this issue has played out in the past so I'm posting a brief summary of an incident that took place over ten years ago.

In 1995, the National Association of Biology Teachers issued the following statement.
The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.
A number of theologians and theistic evolutionists objected to the inclusion of "unsupervised," "impersonal," and "unpreditable" since this clearly conflicted with their religious beliefs.

In 1997, NABT reviewed their statement in light of these complaints and rejected them, voting to keep the original statement. At that point, Eugenie Scott, the Executive Director of NCSE stepped in and persuaded the teachers to drop "unsupervised" and "impersonal" from the statement.

Why did NCSE support the theologians and theistic evolutionists against the biology teachers? It's because Genie draws a line between materialistic naturalism and philosophical naturalism and she thinks the biology teachers stepped over that line (see National Association of Biology Teachers incident for a description of the event). She believes that science cannot know whether evolution is unsupervised and/or impersonal.

I suppose she would have been comfortable with the following statement ....
The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: a natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments. Science is unable to tell whether evolution was unsupervised and impersonal or whether it was supervised by a personal god.
That's what she and her allies really want the teachers to say even though they don't insist upon it.

I disagree. I think that scientific evidence points overwhelmingly to a life that was not designed for a purpose. I think there's no evidence whatsoever to suggest that evolution was guided and I don't think we should censor ourselves from saying this.

I think Genie and NCSE are making too big of a distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. Saying that there is no evidence of purpose and direction is a perfectly good methodological statement and the conclusion that, therefore, evolution is unsupervised and unguided is rational based on what we know about science.

It was wrong of NCSE to pressure the biology teachers to change their statment.


  1. Damnit I was having a good day too. Why did you have to tell me how the NCSE helped the likes of Rick Santorum....

  2. It should be pointed out that philosopher Barbara Forrest, no theist she, also makes the distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, particularly in her testimony in the Dover trial.

  3. or... science is unable to tell whether evolution IS unsupervised and impersonal blah blah.

  4. Larry, I think you're little dense.

    It doesn't matter what you think. It matters what you can prove. You cannot prove the negative, or that some improbable entity did not interfere with evolution through, say, apparently random quantum events, or through some other unobservable phenomena. Do I think that happened? Hell no, but I can't prove the negative either. Therefore, the NCSE is perfectly justified in keeping the statement neutral, and sticking to the observable facts. Do do otherwise would be exceeding their mandate.

  5. Anonymous says,

    Larry, I think you're little dense.

    It doesn't matter what you think. It matters what you can prove. You cannot prove the negative ...

    Damn! I forgot. Thanks for reminding me.

    I can't prove that astrology doesn't work so I'd better not say that astrology is bunk.

    I can't prove that homeopathy doesn't work, so I'd better keep my options open next time I get sick.

    I can't prove that nothing was intelligently designed so it would be best not to attack the idiots.

    Heck, I can't even prove that there aren't some species somewhere with an entirely different genetic code so I'd better stop talking about the universality of the genetic code.

    Do you get the picture? Yes, it's true that when you're sitting in a bar discussing philosophy you can have a lot of fun with the idea that you can't prove a negative. It's why people like Richard Dawkins and me have to concede that there's a remote possibility that god exists.

    Things work very differently in the real world. I'm confident there's no such thing as the tooth fairly. How about you?

    When I say there's no purpose in evolution I'm using the same standard that I use when I warn people that they should not skip vaccinating their children and when I declare that bigfoot is a myth.

    You know the old saying; it's okay to be open minded but not so open minded that your brains fall out.

  6. I personally supervised evolution. At least, you can't prove I didn't.

  7. Larry,

    By insisting that you have proved or have concluded that there is no purpose to evolution, you are opening the door to a discussion of purpose, appearance of design and the such like. Creationist IDiots insist that biology is about resolving the question whether the design we see in nature is a result of chance or intelligence. That is absolute nonsense. Biology and science in general are above all a way of conduct. We see patterns and think of design because what is hard to pattern is way too dense for us to make sense of. There is no such thing as purpose and the question WHY? can be be dispensed with and its role be filled in by the H and the other 4 Ws. I see no difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical N, because the latter is simply poppycock. Philosophy is dead and is bunk. Logic and mathematics, yes, and for the rest there is science.


  8. This is an excellent practical example. I agree with you.

    Evolution is impersonal and unsupervised, in precisely the same sense as weather or gravity is impersonal and unsupervised. It is actively misleading, and detrimental to the understanding of science, to alter this straightforward statement out of any theological reservations.

    Theologians are free, IMO, to try defining some kind of personal reality underlying the universe. The nature of the problem for a theologian wishing to recognize the validity of what we learn through science is that processes studied in science – weather, evolution, earthquakes, gravity, orbits, lightning strikes, disease, etc, etc – are all impersonal natural processes that occur spontaneously as a natural part of how the world works.

    The theologian's problem is not one we need be concerned with; and we do theology no favours by redefining science for the sake of bad theology. Evolution is impersonal by any common notion of "personal".

    I suppose the phrase "unsupervised" could be problematic, in the sense that you could easily postulate a "supervisor" who does nothing but watch, or a "supervisor" who hypothetically upholds the entire nature world in a way that makes no detectable or practical difference for science. But pragmatically, evolution is unsupervised in the sense that the process is entirely spontaneous. As long as you have a natural world, evolution works like any other natural process. In fact, "spontaneous" strikes me as the better word here, as a description of how it works. Evolution is an impersonal spontaneous natural process.