Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Why Jerry Coyne is Right

Jerry Coyne's most recent book is Why Evolution is True.

Coyne is an evolutionary biologist and professor at the University of Chicago. Along with other scientists -notably Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Pinker - Coyne takes on those who either deny the validity of scientific method or insist that science and revelation are just two equal, but different ways of viewing the world.

Coyne argues powerfully in his blog, and elsewhere, against the claim that religion and science are compatible in any other than a superficial way: "First of all, nobody doubts that science and religion are compatible in the trivial sense that someone can be a scientist and be religious at the same time. That only shows one’s ability to hold two dissimilar approaches to the world simultaneously in one’s own mind."

Recently in the LATimes, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum argue for what they call the accommodationists - scientists who allow that religion and science may be compatible in more than the superficial way Coyne describes, and they see no need for a "holy war" on religion. According to the pair, the accommodationist way will be more successful in convincing more Americans that science, in general, and evolution, in particular, are reasonable.

I find the LATimes article misleading in a couple of places.

For instance, Mooney and Kirshenbaum use a quote from the National Academy of Sciences which basically says that some religious denominations accept evolutionary biology and that some more fundamentalist denominations believe more literally in the bible. They use the quote to support their claim that the National Academy of Sciences has "the stance that science and religion can be perfectly compatible."

I don't know whether that is true or not, but I do know that the quote used to support this claim simply doesn't. All it says is that some religious denominations find science and religion compatible (and that some don't).

Further on, Mooney and Kirshenbaum claim that the Faith Project of the National Center for Science Education "seeks to spread awareness that between creationism on the one hand and the new atheism on the other lie many more moderate positions." To me, this strongly implies that the Center promotes moderate positions between creationism ( the concept) and evolution (the new atheists' position). I don't think they suggest that at all.

Peter Hess (NCSE Faith Project Director) actually wrote: "...the dichotomous view represented by creationists and antireligious atheists leaves out a large range of more moderate views." Hess writes about the range of views, not about moderate positions between two competing ideas. Quite different.

While Mooney and Kirshenbaum's project is well intended, the slippery arguments make me suspicious. One hopes it's just sloppy writing. But considering their view about science and good communication in their recent book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, the less than precise language and arguments are unfortunate.

I agree that we don't need a holy war against religion, just some rigorous secular reasoning, like that provided by Jerry Coyne.

I would like to invite Jerry Coyne to my soiree.


Jerry Coyne said...

o.k., but can we have crumpets?

ChrisJ said...

Crumpets it is!