Monday, October 18, 2010

Telling the "Truth" about Science and Religion

 
Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist recently experienced a "conversion." He used to be an accommodationist but lately he's become more and more sympathetic to the position of the Gnu Atheists. He describes how he sees the dispute in How Pushy Should Atheists Be?.
Here’s the difference between the two sides: You know that courtroom phrase, “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”?

Both Mooney and PZ want to tell the truth about science and evolution.

Only PZ is willing to tell the whole truth — that the logical conclusion of accepting science fully is that you must dismiss any notion of gods, miracles, and the supernatural.

Mooney thinks it’s bad PR for us to admit that — and he may be right — but it’s wrong to let Christians keep thinking science and religion are perfectly compatible when they really aren’t.

I’m clearly on PZ’s side of the spectrum, but I don’t think anyone could realistically call me a “confrontationalist.” I’m not looking to pick fights with theists, I frequently get invited by churches to help Christians understand our perspective, and I’m not calling religious people names just to underscore my point. PZ revels in that.

So the downside of the accommodationist/confrontationalist dichotomy is that it leaves a lot of people with no label. What do you call those of us who might lean to one side but aren’t in one camp entirely?
This is a pretty good analysis of the Gnu Atheist side of the problem. Gnu Atheists think that superstition is the problem and they want to tell the whole truth; namely, that superstitious beliefs are not compatible with a scientific way of knowing.

But here's the problem. Accommodationsts don't necessarily believe that science and religion are in conflict. They aren't avoiding the whole truth, instead, they are telling the whole truth as they see it. Compatibility is their version of the truth, even if they are atheists.

I can respect that even though I believe they are wrong. Compatibility seems to be the position of Genie Scott and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

But what about those atheists who actually believe that science and religion are in conflict but who still want to be accommodationists? Do those atheists have to avoid telling the whole truth? How do they justify that?

Joshua Rosenau has the answer: A Prak-tical guide to confrontationalism and accommodationism.
The point being, it's impossible to constantly be telling "the whole truth," and no audience really wants you to do that. You pick and choose which truths (as you see them) you want to expound. Part of the way you do that is by thinking about how much of the truth you can express without driving your audience insane. Hopefully you also select your slice of the truth based on what will convince your audience that your central point is, in fact, true. Omitting parts of the truth that will drive your audience away (or insane) is not dishonest, and may well be the best service you can do for the truth.
There's a word that's used to describe leaving out part of the truth in order to please your audience. It's called lying. Lying is very similar to framing. Josh probably doesn't think that omitting an important part of the truth is the same as lying by omission.

But there's a more serious issue here. Josh works for NCSE, although he's very careful to point out that he doesn't always speak for that organization on his blog. In this posting he's defending accommodationism of the sort defined by Hemant Mehta. This is not the position of those who believe in compatibility because those people are not hiding the truth.

In this case I hope Josh isn't speaking for NCSE because his statement suggests something pretty ominous. He raises the possibility that there are some people who think science and religion are in conflict but who might be willing to say something quite different in public in order to appease moderate theists. That's not just lying by omission.

I wonder if there are people who think science and religion are actually incompatible but who are willing to lie about their position in order to keep creationism out of the classroom. Is Josh one of those people?


11 comments :

  1. Leaving aside Josh's background and possible biases (I don't know him), the comment about "lying" is just way off base.

    There's a word that's used to describe leaving out part of the truth in order to please your audience. It's called lying.

    Really? If I'm defending my research to, say, a department chair am I really "lying" if I don't mention that I think his tie is ugly?

    If he asks what I think of his tie, and I say it's great: that's a lie. If he doesn't ask, and I don't say: that's just going unsaid.

    There is noting untoward about constructing a well-reasoned argument, and omitting irrelevant - or even tangential - details that detract from the main point.

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  2. Vincent, the definition of lying by omission (via wiki) is as follows. "One lies by omission by omitting an important fact, deliberately leaving another person with a misconception. Lying by omission includes failures to correct preexisting misconceptions. Propaganda is an example of lying by omission."

    So you're right that not all omissions are lies. Leaving out irrelevant or tangential details would not qualify. But do you think telling people that there is no conflict between science and religion when there clearly is (or at least a good argument to be made that there is) should count as omitting an important fact or leaving people with a deliberate misconception? Yeah, I would too. Leaving that bit of information out of any discussion concerning reconciling science with religion is greatly different than stifling an impulse to insult a superior's fashion sense.

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  3. The other thing: this is a one-way process. A 'liberal Christian' or whatever is not accommodating our beliefs, or budging an inch.

    The accommodationists are cynically taking a negotiating position, rather than stating what they truly believe.

    And they've got it wrong. The battleground here isn't the bottom line, the result, the conclusion of the debate. It's not about agreeing to differ.

    The battleground is the set of rules by which the debate is conducted. Let's have a discussion, based on evidence, clearly defining terms, logic and reason. No special pleading for anyone, scientist or priest.

    Let's play that game, stick to those rules. Let's see where that leads us (spoiler: atheism).

    If the non-atheists want to accommodate that, then I'm all for accommodation. They don't, they want to reserve two cards for themselves: 'except God' and 'well, I don't believe in that myself'.

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  4. "Propaganda is an example of lying by omission."

    Which is ironic, given that the origin of both of those terms is the Catholic Church.

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  5. HH asked "But do you think telling people that there is no conflict between science and religion when there clearly is (or at least a good argument to be made that there is) should count as omitting an important fact or leaving people with a deliberate misconception?"

    I don't think there is only one right answer to that question.

    Is it really "clear" that there is a conflict between science and religion? As you say, there is an argument to be made that there isn't. Your point of view on this question will likely boil down to how you define "science" and how you define "religion".

    More to the point, if my aim is merely to help someone see the value in taking a scientific approach to questions that science is well suited to answer then is it really important that I shoehorn in the most extreme view that some (or even a majority of ) scientists hold? I'd argue that it isn't: that it might merely be distracting.

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  6. Vincent asked: "Is it really "clear" that there is a conflict between science and religion?"

    At a minimum, it's clear there is a substantial controversy concerning that point. Failing to indicate that any controversy even exists is an unequivocal case of deliberately omitting key facts for the purpose of leaving people with a misconception.


    "More to the point, if my aim is merely to help someone see the value in taking a scientific approach to questions that science is well suited to answer then is it really important that I shoehorn in the most extreme view that some (or even a majority of ) scientists hold?"

    Well, Vincent. Despite the fact that this approach ignores what motivated people to devalue the scientific approach in the first place, if your only goal is to persuade people, then yes, you may certainly omit relevant details that you feel would undermine your audience's goodwill. Manipulating facts in this manner is called spin or "framing" or propaganda, and many people find it morally repugnant.

    Personally, I can't advocate talking down to certain people and treating them like children because others feel they can't handle a thornier truth. I think "tricking" people into accepting science like this is bound to fail, since eventually conflict will crop up. It's better to deal honestly with this tension than to wallpaper over it and pretend it will go away. It also sets a terrible precedent, since it sends the message that science should be accepted only to the extent that it can be reconciled with religion, which is rubbish. And of course the real goal should be to teach people to think critically for themselves, anyway. Do that and acceptance of science will follow naturally.

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  7. HH said "Manipulating facts in this manner is called spin or "framing" or propaganda, and many people find it morally repugnant. "

    I infer, then, that such people spend an awful lot more time talking to themselves than to other people because "manipulating facts" in this way resembles to me nothing more than ensuring the message suits the audience.

    For example, are you prepared to argue that the science curriculum at your university is "morally repugnant"? Is it not designed to omit relevant details from instruction until students are ready to understand and accept them? Are the lessons in undergraduate texts not designed differently than those in graduate texts? Is this "framing" or "propaganda"? Or is it merely good instructional design?

    Seriously, if the consensus view of scientists is that the message should NOT be tailored to the audience then it is no wonder that science education (and science journalism, for that matter) are in such a sorry state.

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  8. On a side note, anytime I hear about yet another accommodationist desperately reassuring the public that there is no conflict between science and religion, I am reminded of this clip from The Naked Gun:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NNOrp_83RU

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  9. Here's the problem:

    The moderate religious view *is* accomodationism. The belief that evolution's true, but there's possibly some role for saints and angels and gods and the devil and maybe Adam and Eve and Mother Mary, but probably not God's wife, Asherah, who's in the Old Testament (no, she is, honest) ... that's the moderate religious view.

    The moderate religious view *is* the compromise between what their religion says and what reality demonstrates. All a liberal Christian believes nowadays, scientifically, is that God might well be guiding it all.

    So to be accomodationist is to adopt their view.

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  10. Isn't this dishonest accommodationist v. honest atheist line over-simplified?

    There are other good reasons for not going the whole atheist line when arguing for evolution and rationality. One reason is tolerance of other people's views (there is a difference between tolerating and respecting!!) We do have to live together on this world, even if a lot of people seem to be idiots. A second reason is effectiveness: people don't accept arguments from those they see as On The Other Side so going in all guns blazing can be ineffective. For example, one might have naively expected that Myers would have welcomed an unambiguous assertion by the Pope that evolution is correct, but no, it came from an enemy so he had to find a concocted fault with it.

    I'm in favour of diversity: let some say "no gods! no faith!" and others say "you can believe in your religious stuff but still let the light of rationality illuminate the rest of your world". Then we hope that the religious folk listen to somebody. Every journey starts with a single step, even an intellectual one.

    It did make me feel sick when I heard idiot Chilean miners thank god for getting them out of their mine. Can't say I saw any sign of god, only some drilling rigs and welded steel. That's how stupid people can be. And you can't teach them to be unstupid all in one big jump.

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  11. Just a quick comment to those who tend to refer to religious or spiritual people as idiots. The one thing you should understand is that faith is internal, it is not always reliant on external or physical factors. It's something you feel. So when Chilean miners are thanking God, they aren't dissing the hard working crew that drilled them out, I'm sure that crew received many thanks and praises from the miners and their families, they are thanking God for helping them with the struggle internally with the fact that they may not be rescued and could die down there. It was their faith in God that got them through that, whether you like it or not. Please don't undermine that, science observes phenomenon and ATTEMPTS to make a fact or uncover truth. But the one area scientists lack compassion and understanding is for the strength of a person's faith, which again is internal, whether driven by God, ego, family, friends, whatever, science cannot ignore that. You my friend have faith that your way of thinking is fact, that is you being faithful to your belief, and I'm sure you have tons of research to back up that claim. Regardless, faith is variable in every single one of us. So scientists, atheists, those who are eager to revert to childish name calling, remember there is more than the physical world out there and not all phenomena can be explained, only observed. Plus, the validity of your argument goes out the window when you cannot come up with a better way of explaining your position.

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