Sunday, July 19, 2009

Are all Scientists on the Same Team?

I want to be like Janet D. Stemwedel when I grow up.

She has an amazing ability to think clearly and it's combined with an equally amazing ability to get her clear thoughts down on paper (or monitors). She is one of the reasons why I like all most some philosophers.

Her latest example is a discussion of Unscientific America, the book by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum that's causing so much turmoil in the blogosphere. I strongly urge you to read her posting from late Friday night called Unscientific America: Are scientists all on the same team?.

I posted a comment on Adventures in Ethics and Science in response to her posting. What I'm trying to do is explain why it is wrong for scientific organizations to take a position that excludes a large number of scientists. I'm including my comment here so that Sandwalk readers can have their say.
Excellent post, Janet. I agree with everything you say—except maybe for a few minor quibbles.

Chris and Sheril have missed the point about scientists having multiple goals and that's why many of their criticisms are misguided.

What can we do to find common goals that all scientists can share? I'd like to make one small suggestion. Scientific organizations such as AAAS, NAS, NIH, NSF etc. should remain strictly neutral with respect to religion. They should never take a stance on whether science and religion are compatible or incompatible. They should never promote the views of theistic scientists as being examples of excellent science BECAUSE these scientists are religious.

We all know that AAAS and NAS don't behave this way. They specifically use Francis Collins and Ken Miller as examples of good scientists who are also religious. They explicitly support the philosophical position that science is compatible with evangelical Christianity (Collins) and Roman Catholicism (Miller).

If all such organizations refrained from taking sides then ALL scientists, atheist and theist alike, could get behind their goals and support them. As soon as they start promoting the philosophical position of science/religion compatibility, they lose some of their potential supporters. The supporters they lose are the atheists who believe that science is not compatible with many of the beliefs of established religions.

The strict neutrality that I advocate should extend to the leadership of these organizations. Leaders of scientific organizations should not be prominently identified as supporters of religion or opponents of religion. This applies to the Director of NIH as well as other leadership positions.

Personally, I would extend the goal of strict neutrality to organizations like the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). If they maintain a big tent then all scientists, atheists and theists alike, can support their main goals. As soon as an organization like NCSE starts to promote the compatibility of science and religion by favoring theistic evolutionists over atheists—especially atheists who are opposed to compatibility—they create divisions. I don't think it is necessary for them to abandon and antagonize the vocal atheist scientists. NCSE disagrees, they have made a political decision to choose compatibility over neutrality because it advances their primary goal, which is separation of church and state.

These are complex issues. I don't get the impression that Chris and Sheril are aware of the complexity.


  1. Allow me to disagree.

    I think we all agree that scientific organizations have to have a firm position against a number of irrational things. Why should religion be the one given more respect than it deserves?

    I don't advocate for scientific organization to say "There is no God", because it is a scientifically unjustified claim, but to state the correct scientific position, which is "We can't know whether there is a God or not but there is absolutely no evidence in support of his existence. Also, all religions as practiced today have been shown to be wrong in a very significant part of their teachings"

    The above should also be the default position in schools.

    If we agree that what defines science is its set of epistemic rules, with the body of knowledge accumulated being also very important but coming secondary to them, then the job of science organizations and educators should be to to promote and develop that kind of thinking. Getting people to accept evolution will be a lot easier if we achieve that goal first.

  2. And please allow me to disagree with you, Georgi. The "we can't know whether there is a God or not" claim is only true for particular gods (that is, gods with a certain property or set of properties). It is not true for all gods, so to make the claim is to make an unjustified generalization... unless the capital "G" indicates the possession of the alluded-to properties. However, if it does indicate such, it is not obvious to everyone that it does, for "god" and "God" are, each of them, used to mean very different things.

    If anyone is to say anything at all, they should say "we can't know whether or not there is a god if, in principle, the god is unknowable--however, the existence of many gods is knowable in principle." Even then, you'll run afoul of philosophical views which state that that which is unknowable in principle does not exist.

    Unless scientific organizations take a strong metaphysical stance as per the type of view I just mentioned, it might be better if they just remained silent on the issue of some--or maybe even all--gods.

  3. I am not particularly keen on diving into philosophical discussions because very rarely something useful comes out of them. And because the vast majority of people over whose minds the battle is being fought don't do that either. What I said is was precise with respect to the type of God people believe in in real life and is what the official scientific policy towards the issue should be.

    I stick to that.

    I don't see any reason why the God hypothesis should be given the amount of respect it currently gets. One thing is that if it weren't for all those thousands of years during which it was the only view of the world, we would not be discussing this right now and we would do something more useful instead. Thought experiment - imagine a society that start from the point where we are now in our development scientifically and technologically, but the God hypothesis does not exist. Would it appear and how much credence would be given? My bet is that someone will inevitably think of it, but no one will take it seriously.

    In other words, the only reasons why we are having these debates is the thousands of years of indoctrination to which we have been subjected. That's not a good reason to respect an idea.

    Which reminds me of the Eugene Scott video that was circulating a week or two ago where she was talking about how the existence of religious scientists somehow proves that religion and science are compatible. She also mentioned how science isn't compatible with flood geology, which was pretty much the only sensible thing she said. The question is, why did she use the Grand Canyon as an example of an outrageously silly religious idea and would she ever talk about the virgin birth in a similar manner? There has been no documented virgin births in history. It is just as safe to assume that this is an impossible event as it is to assume that the rate of geological change, the speed of light, etc. has always been similar to the observed today. But no, she will never say that the virgin birth is nonsense because it is possible to be a Christian and not believe in flood geology, but the virgin birth is such a central pillar of Christina theology that it is too sacred of a cow to be touched.

    This type of intellectual dishonesty has to stop, otherwise we will never make any progress.

  4. I would prefer that official statements about important (to the public) topics such as deities be accurate, since some people really do have some different ideas of what "god" means. In addition, if the statement is made more accurate, it might get people thinking about the coherency of their concept of deity, and about whether it makes sense to believe in such a thing.

    As to your second paragraph, I agree completely, except for this fact: the reason the god hypothesis is given "respect" is because the people scientists (theistic and atheistic) interact with tend to think the god hypothesis is plausible. It's not a good intellectual reason, but it's a good social reason.

    But yeah, if it weren't for those ancient people and their weird ideas, if things started in the state they're in today minus theism, things would probably go better. I've had the same thought experiment, myself, and the reality of the situation is disappointing.

    Regarding the virgin birth story, I haven't heard anyone rule out human parthenogenesis. Admittedly, however, the story shouldn't be believed uncritically.

  5. Larry, I wonder if you would comment on something that bugs the hell out of me. One constant refrain from the accomodationists- whether the "friendly" ones like the NCSE, or the aggressive ones like Mooneybaum- is that their pablum will help defuse opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools. Does it annoy you as much as it does me that none of them, very definitely including Mooneybaum and their claque, ever present a shred of evidence for this article of faith?

    More than that, since the problem comes almost entirely from fundamentalists, and since there is not the slightest reason to believe that fundamentalists can be budged even by the most thoroughly religion-soaked "compatibilism" a la Collins, the claim that accomodationism is an effective tool for supporting the teaching of evolution strikes me as very implausible indeed.

  6. Steve LaBonne asks,

    Does it annoy you as much as it does me that none of them, very definitely including Mooneybaum and their claque, ever present a shred of evidence for this article of faith?


    But, in fairness, the evidence may be hard to come by so I would settle for a simple rational argument in support of the claim.

    Waiting .....