Dozing Atop the Flood Walls

By Chris Mooney | June 4, 2009 11:57 am

Jerry Coyne has not yet responded to my first post, so far as I can tell. But I hope to have up a second one up today, defending the science-religion reconciliationist position from a legal perspective. The basic point that I will develop will be that reconciliationism played a key role in the biggest pro-evolution victory in this decade, Judge John E. Jones III’s ruling in the 2005 Dover trial. This on its own doesn’t make the court-endorsed accommodationist position true–judges are not our ultimate arbiter on either science or philosophy. But it does suggest that if we care about the teaching of evolution, we ought to think very, very hard before undermining a position that has succeeded so well in court.

But that’s just a teaser, an argument to be developed at more length soon. In the meantime, I want to draw attention to my latest Science Progress column, which is on a very different subject–the beginning of hurricane season. It’s supposed to be an average year, not a bad one, at least according to the pre-season forecasts. But it only takes one storm to devastate us, and we all know there will be > 0 storms in the Atlantic this year.  Moreover, Congress continues to fail us when it comes to making much needed new investments in hurricane research. As I put it:

In 2006, following the devastation caused by [Katrina] as well as by Hurricanes Rita and Wilma, the National Science Board released a report observing that “the present Federal investment in hurricane science and engineering research relative to the tremendous damage and suffering caused by hurricanes is insufficient and time is not on our side. The hurricane warning for our Nation has been issued and we must act vigorously and without delay.” Yet the 2007 National Hurricane Research Initiative Act, a response to this report and the general post-Katrina sense of hurricane vulnerability, did not make it out of committee in the last Congress. So much for acting “without delay.”

Legislators will try again to pass a version of this law in the 111th Congress, but by now we have strong reason to question whether making dramatic new investments in hurricane research counts as a congressional priority. One would think such funding would rank high among legislative no-brainers; that hurricane funding bills would pass as easily as resolutions naming bridges and highways. But if our leaders couldn’t act in the wake of Katrina, why expect them to act in the wake of Ike?

Someone ought to tell Congress that while we have the best hurricane forecasters in the world at the National Hurricane Center, their hands are still tied by inadequate scientific knowledge. Numerous factors constrain their abilities, most notably our incomplete understanding of why hurricanes intensify or weaken. Forecasters have become excellent when it comes to pinpointing where storms will go, but they can’t yet tell you with as much accuracy how strong they’ll be when they get there. As strong storms cause dramatically more damage than weak ones, this is a key vulnerability.

You can read the full column here. And again, I have some other stuff to do first, but I hope to have my second reply to Coyne up today.

Comments (12)

  1. Wait, what? I don’t see the connection between teaching evolution and science and the way court decisions are made. If you’re proposing an accommodationist view in the classroom then you’ll have to explain how that’s different than the “teaching both sides” gamut. I see it as identical. In other words, I’m having a hard time understanding what you’re trying to say, because it can’t be that!

  2. Great title though!

  3. I definitely don’t favor teach both sides! More soon…

  4. Jon

    If you think Chris favors “teach both sides” then you definitely don’t know his work. (Argh, so much confusion!)

  5. Chris, I hope I’m not one of the people who you think is “hectoring”. I’ll be away for two weeks from later today, so you’ll be relieved of my comments for awhile. But it’s not quite right to say that an accommodationist line was what prevailed in those court cases. What those cases stand for is the proposition that teaching creationism or ID in public schools would be an establishment of religion, since creationism is a religious doctrine and ID is a sham (it is creationism in thin disguise). There was no need for the courts or the arguments to go any further into the implications of science for the truth of various religious doctrines.

    Moreover, no court can settle whether religion of some kind really is philosophically compatible with scientific findings. It’s plain that some kinds of religion are not, in the sense that YEC makes claims about the age of the Earth, etc., that plainly contradict what science has discovered. It’s also plain, at least to me, that it’s possible to combine deism with a highly liberal approach to the traditions of a religion (making no claims that they are divinely inspired but seeing them as a record of a search for the divine or some such thing, and as containing a mix of wisdom and error) which is compatible with science. People who oppose accommodationism do not deny that some kind of non-literalist-cum-deist religious position compatible with science can be formulated. What we say is that the findings of science are relevant to philosophical examination of the truth of traditional religious claims (such as claims about God’s providence) and that it’s dishonest to pretend otherwise. That is the position you took in 2001 in your Slate article. It’s the position I took in response to Gould’s book Rocks of Ages, and it still seems to me to be the correct position.

    It would be intellectually dishonest for me to take any other position, politically expedient or not. Moreover, I think it’s inappropriate for science bodies to take a stance on whether my position (and yours in 2001) is correct or something like NOMA is correct. I also think it’s unrealistic and inappropriate to criticise people who argue that certain traditional religious positions sit badly with the findings of science. Disagree with them, but don’t get hung up about whether it’s legitimate for them to put their views. That turns into an unprofitable meta-argument (though of course you have every right to insist on pursuing it).

    Incidentally, the person who argues the non-accommodationist case best is probably Philip Kitcher, but I don’t see Kitcher being attacked. My philosophical position is almost the same as Kitcher’s, although I’d probably be less kind than he is about the future role of religion.

    And again, I’m sorry but I still find your thinking very parochial. You keep coming back to what it is politically expedient to say in the United States. For some of us that is simply not the issue. For example, some of us live outside the US and we don’t see the evolution debate as all that important – it’s important, but not of overriding importance. In some cases we are motivated to challenge the authority of the Catholic Church because we are sick of its attempts to interfere in bioethical issues, where it claims (but lacks) special moral expertise.

    I’m afraid that I think you’ve become terribly confused about the issues since 2001 when you seemed to see things clearly. Your vision may have become more complicated since then, but I don’t see it as more nuanced. You’re missing a lot of the nuances of the debate.

    But I’m beginning to despair. You challenged Jerry to a public debate. I don’t think that would be helpful. Public debates are “won” by people with wonderful voices like Christopher Hitchens or superb acting skills (I don’t mean this pejoratively; I mean skills in exhibiting a confident demeanour, etc.) like William Lane Craig. They are “lost” by people with odd mannerisms like Alister McGrath. “Winning” and “losing” in public debates have little to do with the substance of arguments and a lot to do with personal presentational skills. I have no idea what Jerry thinks of your challenge, but it strikes me as irrelevant to all this.

    In my case, I’m not going to challenge you to a debate. But I suspect that talking about it over a beer would make more progress, or at least it couldn’t be any worse than dueling blogs.

    Actually, you’ll notice I have not blogged about this. I’m currently more interested to engage your comments than to pontificate about them on my own blog. I don’t, however, see a lot of engagement from you with the points I’m making.

    I guess I’ll read your book, where you say you make your case more thoroughly. I hope you’ll read mine and get a better idea of where I’m coming from.

  6. Bill C.

    That sounds like a strategic argument, Chris, albeit with a legal context, assuming you’ll point out that Judge Jones was a Christian conservative, convinced by a careful explanation of the boundaries of science, why they exist, and why they do not permit religion to enter. NOMA, more or less.

    That goes a long way toward keeping religion out of the science classroom, but does not address the far more pressing concern of “New Atheists”, which is the unreasonable hijacking of morality and law by those carrying out Christian Doctrine.

    Again, will this all just amount to “We have to be happy with baby steps, one at a time”?

  7. Bill C.

    Perhaps I wear my personal biases too plainly, as I meant “religious doctrine”, not just specifically Christian.

  8. Russell (and everyone)
    I don’t want to leave you hanging…but I’m on a deadline. Hopefully I’ll have more soon.

  9. Russell:

    Our problems with science education in this country may be parochial but do you really want to live in a world with a (even more) scientifically illeterate 800 lb gorilla?

    As a lawyer, I agree with Chris that, as far as teaching science in grade and high schools, some sort of mild accomodationist position is necessary because the subject is going to come up in classrooms and, under our particular (even peculiar) Constitution, government employees can’t tell children that their religion or religion in general is bogus. They can tell them that the Earth isn’t 6,000 old and nobody rode dinosaurs, since those are deemed not to be core religious beliefs but not that god(s) didn’t create them in some fashion or that they are purely the result of blind natural causes. Statements from scientific organizations and educators to the effect that some religions and religious people accept evolution fills this necessary distinction nicely without actually endorsing religion. About the only other alternative is to teach evolution in a comparative religion or philosophy class.

    In any event, I don’t want you teaching your philosophical views about religion in science classes any more than I want someone teaching theology there.

  10. Anthony McCarthy

    The effort to keep public school biology classes free of creationism isn’t helped by atheists who have claimed that evolutionary biology confirms atheism. I’m sure someone here is going to deny that they do that ignoring the comments here that do just that.

    It would help if people would stop pretending that science has a bigger place in the world than it does. It’s a very specialized human activity which has prerequisites and requirements that mean only a small part of our lives can be effectively understood with real science. Evolution, itself, is an enormous subject that has certainly not been understood except in more than a very small part. Which is good news for future evolutionary biologists wanting research funding. When it works science gives the most reliable information we have about those subjects it studies, that reliability is the reason science was invented. When it can’t or doesn’t stay within the methods that produce that reliability, it’s no where near as reliable.

    Science can’t go past the study of the material universe which it was invented and developed to study. No question of a supernatural “designer” can enter into science because it can’t study anything that isn’t material. Period. No possible exceptions.

    Both the biblical fundamentalists and the atheist fundamentalists pretend that science can do what it plainly can’t, confirm or falsify ideas that aren’t based in the physical record.

    You won’t convince every last biblical fundamentalist by arguing that but you don’t have to. You just have to convince an effective majority of the people. Most of whom believe in religion.

    You also have to consider how much of evolution you need to fit into a high school biology curriculum which will have to deal with many other topics, many of them of more practical necessity to the students who are taking the class. Obviously you have to include evolution but it’s never going to be the major focus of a 10th grade biology class. I think that’s something that hardly ever gets discussed in this but according the the two biology teachers I’ve asked, it’s the major part of their everyday reality. It’s also another reason that you can’t “teach both side” “teach the disagreement”, or any of the other dodges of false-fairness proposed by the ID industry.

    And even within the evolution unit, natural selection will have to share some space with genetic drift and other mechanisms as those are discovered and gain prominence.

    As to debating with Jerry Coyne, I wouldn’t count on it. If you do debate him, based on what I’ve seen on his blog, I’d imagine he’d be pretty easy to psych out.

  11. Anthony McCarthy

    That goes a long way toward keeping religion out of the science classroom, but does not address the far more pressing concern of “New Atheists”, which is the unreasonable hijacking of morality and law by those carrying out Christian Doctrine.

    Again, will this all just amount to “We have to be happy with baby steps, one at a time”?

    Bill C. you cay “Christian Doctrine” as if that was any one thing. Most of the Christians I know here are pretty liberal and are entirely supportive of the separation of church and state.

    Having seen and been the recipient of the practical morality of “new atheism”, I’d go with liberal Christians and even a lot of the political moderates who are Christians. They at least aspire to honesty and fairness, standards explicitly rejected by “new atheism”. In fact, I’d go with a lot of the “old atheism” the “new atheists” think is too stodgy and ineffective on that count too.

    Those “baby steps” the new atheists take are going to be steps backward.

  12. John, I respect a lot of what you say in various forums, and I often even agree with you … but you really don’t seem to get it on this topic. Why on earth would I want to teach my philosophical views in a science class? I have never even remotely suggested such a thing. It would help if people would stop attacking straw men.

    What I have said all along is that people teaching science classes should just teach the science. They should NEITHER say that there are philosophical problems with reconciling science and traditional religion NOR advocate an accommodationist doctrine such as NOMA. Bodies such as the NCSE should do likewise (but at the moment the NCSE site hints very strongly that NOMA is a correct philosophical view). I am asking for *neutrality* from science organisations on whether an accommodationist doctrine such as NOMA is true. Leave that issue for philosophers of religion – which can include any individual who wants to wear that hat. If Ken Miller wants to wear his philosopher of religion hat, that’s fine. However, when he does so he is open to criticism from me or Jerry Coyne or anyone else who wants to wear their own philosopher of religion hat.

    I’ve explained this position so many times, in so many different ways. It’s starting to seem as if some people don’t WANT to understand it. But what, exactly, is so unclear about it?

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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