Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mixing Science, Religion, and Politics

 
The first draft of the human genome sequence was announced on June 26, 2000. There was a huge press conference in the East Room of the White House with Craig Venter, President Bill Clinton, and Francis Collins. British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared via videolink from London.

The event is recounted on pages 2 & 3 of Francis Collins' book The Language of God. It's worth recalling because it reminds Americans of what they can expect if Collins were to become head of NIH.
But the most important part of his speech that most attracted public attention jumped from the scientific perspective to the spiritual. "Today," [Clinton] said, "we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."

Was I, a rigorously trained scientist, taken aback at such a blatantly religious reference by the leader of the free world at a moment such as this? Was I tempted to scowl or look at the floor in embarrassment? No, not at all. In fact I had worked closely with the president's speechwriter in the frantic days just prior to this announcement, and had strongly endorsed the inclusion of this paragraph. When it came time for me to add a few words of my own, I echoed this sentiment: "It's a happy day for the world. It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God."

What was going on here? Why would a president and a scientist, charged with announcing a milestone in biology and medicine, feel compelled to invoke a connection with God? Aren't the scientific and spiritual worldviews antithetical, or shouldn't they at lest avoid appearing in the East Room together? What were the reasons for invoking God in those two speeches? Was this poetry? Hypocrisy? A cynical attempt to curry favor from believers, or to disarm those who might criticize this study of the human genome as reducing humankind to machinery? No. Not for me. Quite the contrary, for me the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship.


26 comments :

  1. Aren't the scientific and spiritual worldviews antithetical?No, at least according to nearly half practicing US scientists. Yes, if you're a "bright"

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  2. Have a reference for that "nearly half", Marc? NAS and AAAS, of which most reputable American scientists are members, report percentages in the single digits. I don't consider a scientific worldview antithetical to a spiritual one, but the blending of the two involves some serious compartmentalisation or poor application of logic. Neither Miller nor Collins can justify their beliefs using anything scientific; The quantum nonsense the two of them have dreamed up is nothing more than Behe repackaged at a different level of organisation, something to which Miller has admitted during Q&A at his talks.

    "Belief" without evidence isn't rational, pure and simple... you're entitled to hold them, but I by no means have to respect them. Honestly, I would hope someone would be kind enough to point out if I were labouring under comparable fallacies.

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  3. Yes, the worldviews espoused by religion and science are opposed. Religion says that something can exist outside the laws of physics. Therefore, religion precludes science from being correct.

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  4. Would Collins have been so rapturously fawning if Clinton had said "Today, we are learning the language in which Pangu created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of Pangu's most divine and sacred gift." Would he be so giddy about this occasion of worship?

    Yes, yes, I know: everybody in the world actually believes in the Creator Deity, it's just the Jews and Christians who've got his name and particulars right.

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  5. No, at least according to nearly half practicing US scientists.I'd sure be interested in how they make them compatible, then.

    I suspect a lot of scientists who believe this actually compartmentalize these worldviews. That's a bit beyond me, though. I try to apply my rationality consistently, regardless of my feelings or the results I get.

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  6. Marc said...Aren't the scientific and spiritual worldviews antithetical? No, at least according to nearly half practicing US scientists. Yes, if you're a "bright"So more than half of practicing US scientists are Brights?

    I find it hilarious how religious people can call themselves the most self-aggrandizing names they can come up with (God's own chosen people, etc.), but when someone tried to give atheists and skeptics a positive label it was attacked as offensive. And even though no one I know identifies as a Bright, people like Marc are still banging that drum. You'd think their fragile egos would have recovered by now.

    Scientific and spiritual worldviews are absolutely antithetical if one cares about such things as intellectual honesty and internal consistency. If one doesn't, then any irrational article of faith can be integrated by special exemption. Consistent? No. But it sure can be emotionally pleasing for those who demand a spiritual crutch.

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  7. It would be bad if this guy got into office, but nothing can be as bad for science as the Bush years.

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  8. Hi everyone; here is a source which supports the idea that nearly half of American scientists believe in a more or less active God. http://ncseweb.org/rncse/18/2/do-scientists-really-reject-god

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  9. Eugene> Check out the remainder of your source.. you know, that part where the numbers from the NAS are 7% believe in a personal god, 72% state complete disbelief in a deity at all, and a further 20% say they aren't sure ? Those are rather different numbers from the Gallup Poll... hmm.. I wonder which are more accurate? Either way, yes, there certainly are scientists who believe, the numbers drop preciptiously when you discuss biologists, and rise when you include engineers. There are also scientists who support eugenics, amongst other horrendous ideas... am I to accept that without evidence as well?

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  10. "A cynical attempt to curry favor from believers, or to disarm those who might criticize this study of the human genome as reducing humankind to machinery? No. Not for me."

    Well, perhaps not for you, but yes, this speech definitely sounds like it has believers in mind. Also, to keep from sounding ridiculous, you might replace the trenchant, loaded term 'machinery' with something like 'chemistry' or 'the product of evolutionary processes'.

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  11. IST, you're right that the NCSE article refers to a poll specifically of NAS members. But the article's primary purpose is to show that that particular poll is unreliable due largely to its wording. NAS members didn't overwhelming deny belief in "a personal god" generally, but in a "God in intellectual and effective communication with humankind, i.e., a God to whom one might pray in expectation of receiving an answer" specifically. The two are rather easily distinguished. You can, of course, argue that the NCSE is biased in favor of a theistic perspective and that such a bias has slanted their take on these polls, but that seems rather unlikely.

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  12. Aren't the scientific and spiritual worldviews antithetical? No, at least according to nearly half practicing US scientists.
    This is simply an argumentum ad populum.

    That's really the best the xians can do these days.

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  13. "God in intellectual and effective communication with humankind, i.e......the god described in the xian bible.

    just stop it already.

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  14. @IST - you don't have to accept anything without evidence that you don't want to. That doesn't mean that it's impossible for some people to accept some classes of ideas only with evidence, and some classes of ideas only on faith.

    I find it amazing @H.H., et al, that so many people believe this is impossible... ummm... without any evidence.

    I say, keep science out of it & let the philosophers & theologians wage the territory wars on morality, purpose, meaning, and the supernatural. Science has a very nice territory staked out with nature and the empirical, and should defend that territory to the death. What stake does science have in those soft territories of the theologians and philosophers?

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  15. Dear Anonymous,

    It seems that you have some unresolved issues... I'm glad you had the chance to let it out.

    You wrote "Yes, the worldviews espoused by religion and science are opposed. Religion says that something can exist outside the laws of physics. Therefore, religion precludes science from being correct."

    Would you say math exists outside the laws of physics? Or logic? None of those "within the laws of physics"... does it mean that they are necessarily antiscientific? Have you ever heard of the term "scientism"?

    If you look closely, you'll find that great many of the most important evolutionists were either christian or agnostic (ex. Darwin). Just lumping all of the non-atheists as idiots, dishonest, etc. because the atheist position is the only rational position is simply naive (and rather convenient, if you're a "bright").

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  16. Eugene Curry> I gathered the point of the article... the wording isn't unclear, the separate set of numbers was from 1914! The scientist in question don't typically believe in a deity that answers prayers, they do at times buy into the powerful designing entity that isn't currently involved (ala Ken Miller, although he's since gone into god as a quantum mechanical tinkerer). Collins is unusual in that he's an evangelical, which most scientists find hard to reconcile. I'm not denying that there are scientists who believe, I'm stating that it isn't as high as "nearly half", based on poll data. The problem is that NO poll is especially valid as a data collection instrument. However lousy the language was, you can't do anything but shift some/all of the 20% that come off as agnostics into the first category. And, for the record, while NCSE is certainly not going to promote religion, they do bend over backward to accomodate it... Their take is that one can accept both Ev. Theory and be Christian, because they don't want to alienate theistic evolution supporters in the battle to avoid having to teach creation myth in science classes. I don't necessarily agree, but I can understand.

    @smijer> No, I agree that it isn't impossible to accept some classes of ideas based on evidence and others based only on faith, I'm saying it's IRRATIONAL to do so. The little skeptic in your mind should be screaming and jumping around at such cognitive dissonances.
    Morality is rooted in the evolution of social behaviour...Science has a stake in determining where those roots lie, and good philosophy is welcome to debate the rest of it, as that's its role. Theology has no place because it has no truth claims that can be verified... What can be asserted without evidence (or at least logical support) can be dismissed without it as well. I honestly could care less what you or Collins or whoever else believes, so long as you don't attempt to impose the the rules of your jealous Bronze Age desert deity on the rest of us. Everyone has their own little illogics and delusions, and most of us need some of those to deal with the life we have to endure... it's not my place to take that from anyone. That doesn't mean I have to sit back and accept it when theologians claim to have a say in someones else's private life. Thou shalt not murder? fine.. that harms others... Thou shalt not sleep with someone of thy own gender? None of your frackin business (and no, for the record, I'm not gay, but it irks me to no end to have to listen to backward bigots deny people their happiness based on a myth).
    So we agree... sort of... I'd hypothesize, based on the NOMA you just espoused, that you'd like theology to have a valid say. The best parts of theology can be contained in philosophy, and the supernatural nonsense can be left as well, hypothetical discussion. If you can keep that from impacting reality, and from justifying the actions of those who would like it to BE reality (read: fundamentalists), go right ahead.

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  17. Don't get me wrong @InfuriatedSciTeacher, the little skeptic in my mind does get upset with the irrationality of religion. But that's the little skeptic in my mind. The little scientist in my mind is paying no attention whatsoever.

    Yes, science can make a claim on the ontology of morality to some degree or another. It cannot make any claim whatsoever about the substance of morality.

    So we agree... sort of... I'd hypothesize, based on the NOMA you just espoused, that you'd like theology to have a valid say.I don't think we can keep theology from presenting a side in morality. I agree with you that the best parts of theology are subsumed by philosophy and natural human intuition wrt morality... and some nasty elements are unique to religion. So, when theology makes its claim, if it doesn't measure up to my moral standards - I reject it. But it is me - the human... the moral philosopher... the member of society... not "Science" that is doing that rejection.

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  18. @smijer> I suppose the shorter version of my point is this: Theology is rooted in religion. When religion makes claims about the nature of the physical world, it is stepping into the realm of science, and can be disproven using scientific methods. How many of the bases of religion need to be disproven before it has no reasonable place in a debate about, well, anything. You can't begin a reasonable argument on a false premise. That is the role that science plays in this discussion. The rest of it should certainly be the realm of moral philosophy, we're agreed on that point.

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  19. yeesh.. Sorry Larry, I feel like I'm stepping on toes here... I'm too used to Pharyngula.

    smijer, and whomever else, I'll start a thread on my blog if you'd like to continue this discussion... it should be linkable through my name.

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  20. InfuriatedSciTeacher said...
    And, for the record, while NCSE is certainly not going to promote religion, they do bend over backward to accomodate it... Their take is that one can accept both Ev. Theory and be Christian, because they don't want to alienate theistic evolution supporters in the battle to avoid having to teach creation myth in science classes. I don't necessarily agree, but I can understand

    That's a big strategical mistake and it is very sad that they don't understand it. The most they will achieve by accommodation is having to fight that battle for decades, possibly centuries (assuming there is still a civilization where such a debate can exist at that time) in the future.

    The only way to make sure that science, good science, and nothing else is being taught in school, or at least that even if this is not happening, that is not because of religion, is to get rid of religion altogether. All you do by accommodating religion is keeping it alive. An aggressive "You either choose religion or science" position would be much more appropriate.

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  21. "An aggressive "You either choose religion or science" position would be much more appropriate."

    However appropriate it might or might not be, it would be incorrect. That's a false dichotomy. To me, the very fact that it is untrue is enough to make it inappropriate.

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  22. Why untrue?

    The fact that there are people who do science and who are also religious does not mean that the scientific way of thinking and religion are compatible. They are clearly not and it is only the unfortunate fact that science exists both as a way of investigating the world and a profession that allows this.

    Using practicing scientists who are religious as an evidence that you can be a "real scientist" (for lack of a better term) and believe in God is the fallacy, not the "false dichotomy" between science and religion.

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  23. We can observe the truth of this statement:

    A person can evaluate one class of ideas (say, those about the general operation of nature) scientifically without it becoming impossible for them to evaluate another class of ideas (say, specific miraculous events having taken place in the distant past) through the lens of religion.

    In fact, it is easy to imagine a person evaluating a single class of ideas using both science and religion, albeit with conflicting results.

    I think the dichotomy you correctly perceive is this: An explanation that includes religious (in the sense of supernaturalist) thought cannot be called scientific. So, one may be both religious and scientific, may posit some religious explanations and some scientific ones, but any specific, single, consistent explanation must be one or the other and not both.

    So, yes - when Collins, et al posit a Cosmic tinkerer, they are not doing science - they may think they are, but they have chosen religion for that particular account. Yet, they are still capable of choosing science for other, more specific or more general, or unrelated accounts.

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  24. If you are a scientist, you are not allowed to choose which ideas to evaluate scientifically and which ones to evaluate through the lens of religion. And one of the reasons you are not allowed to do this, is that what you chose to evaluate scientifically and what you chose to look at religiously is your choice; and it is not at all clear whether you will know where to shift modes, as Larry's quote from Collins' book demonstrates so well.

    Again, a scientist is not made by his degrees, papers published, positions held or anything like that, those are all social constructs. It is the way of thinking that defines science and once you allow the supernatural into your thinking, you have crossed the line

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  25. Ok... I meant to clear up the semantic difficulties at the outset, but I see I didn't get around to it. This might help:

    "The fact that there are people who do science and who are also religious does not mean that the scientific way of thinking and religion are compatible."

    In what sense do you claim they are incompatible? Do you believe that science is also incompatible with aesthetics, or do you believe it is compatible. In what sense?

    The rules of chess are incompatible with the rules of checkers - if by that you mean that intermixing them on a chess board yields incoherent results. But that doesn't mean that a person cannot learn both games and play them at different times.

    In that sense, the two games are clearly not incompatible, and one need not choose between them.

    Put simply - this statement "You either choose religion or science" - interpreted to mean that one cannot choose both - is very easily falsified.

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  26. "Again, a scientist is not made by his degrees, papers published, positions held or anything like that, those are all social constructs. It is the way of thinking that defines science and once you allow the supernatural into your thinking, you have crossed the line"

    A carpenter isn't made by his hammer either. That doesn't mean he can't pick up a paint brush and do landscapes. He might get sued for false advertising if he sold you a door frame, then delivered a canvass titled "Lilies of the Field"... but he is allowed to do both carpentry and painting.

    I suppose you think a scientist is disqualified from having political opinions as well, since there is no way to tell whether "Obama '08" is the result of an empirical investigation or of political persuasion?

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