Thursday, September 18, 2008

Richard Dawkins on the Michael Reiss Affair

 
Here's a letter that Richard Dawkins sent to New Scientist [Letter: Richard Dawkins on the Royal Society row
The Reverend Michael Reiss, the Royal Society's Director of Education, is in trouble because of his views on the teaching of creationism.

Although I disagree with him, what he actually said at the British Association is not obviously silly like creationism itself, nor is it a self-evidently inappropriate stance for the Royal Society to take.

Scientists divide into two camps over this issue: the accommodationists, who 'respect' creationists while disagreeing with them; and the rest of us, who see no reason to respect ignorance or stupidity.

The accommodationists include such godless luminaries as Eugenie Scott, whose National Center for Science Education is doing splendid work in fighting the creationist wingnuts in America. She and her fellow accommodationists bend over backwards to woo the relatively sensible minority among Christians, who accept evolution.

Get the bishops and theologians on the side of science – so the argument runs – and they'll be valuable allies against the naive creationists (who probably include the majority of Christians and certainly almost all Muslims, by the way).

No politician could deny at least the superficial plausibility of this expedient, although it is disappointing how ineffective as allies the 'sensible' minority of Christians turn out to be.

The official line of the US National Academy, the American equivalent of the Royal Society, is shamelessly accommodationist. They repeatedly plug the mantra that there is 'no conflict' between evolution and religion. Michael Reiss could argue that he is simply following the standard accommodationist line, and therefore doesn't deserve the censure now being heaped upon him.

Unfortunately for him as a would-be spokesman for the Royal Society, Michael Reiss is also an ordained minister. To call for his resignation on those grounds, as several Nobel-prize-winning Fellows are now doing, comes a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste.

Nevertheless – it's regrettable but true – the fact that he is a priest undermines him as an effective spokesman for accommodationism: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he!"

If the Royal Society wanted to attack creationism with all fists flying, as I would hope, an ordained priest might make a politically effective spokesman, however much we might deplore his inconsistency.

This is the role that Kenneth Miller, not a priest but a devout Christian, plays in America, where he is arguably creationism's most formidable critic. But if the Society really wants to promote the accommodationist line, a clergyman is the very last advocate they should choose.

Perhaps I was a little uncharitable to liken the appointment of a vicar as the Royal Society's Education Director to a Monty Python sketch. Nevertheless, thoughts of Trojan Horses are now disturbing many Fellows, already concerned as they are by the signals the Society recently sent out through its flirtation with the infamous Templeton Foundation.

Accommodationism is playing politics, while teetering on the brink of scientific dishonesty. I'd rather not play that kind of politics at all but, if the Royal Society is going to go down that devious road, they should at least be shrewd about it. Perhaps, rather than resign his job with the Royal Society, Professor Reiss might consider resigning his Orders?
I agree with Dawkins that the position taken by Michael Reiss was not "obviously silly." In fact I think it was a really good idea.

I disagree with Dawkins when he labels Michael Reiss as an "accommodationist."1 Yes, there's an aspect of accommodation in what Reiss said, but mostly he was saying that we should confront creationist nonsense in class and explain why creationism is not science. To me, those people who want to avoid ever addressing the controversy between science and religion are the accommodationists. They are granting to religion (creationism) a privilege that they would never grant to astrologers, holocaust deniers, and advocates of quack medicine. I hope everyone agrees that the stupidity of those positions should be made clear to our students. Creationism doesn't deserve special treatment just because the basis of the silly belief is religious.

I agree with Dawkins that scientific societies like the Royal Society, the National Academies, AAAS, and even NCSE should not be promoting the false idea that science and religion are always compatible. I find it ironic that some of the same people who were most vehemently opposed to Michael Reiss are strangely silent when American societies jump into bed with religion.

Dawkins worries that forcing Micheal Reiss to resign "comes a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste." Perhaps that's how Dawkins feels. Maybe I'm more squeamish than Richard Dawkins because I think it was a witch-hunt and I deplore the actions of some of my fellow scientists.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the witch-hunters turn their attention to the leading religious spokespersons for the National Academies and NCSE. Kenneth Miller, and Francis Collins might find themselves getting fewer speaking engagements. God only knows how they will react when they learn about Francisco Ayala. Ayala is a biologist who Chaired the National Academies Committee on Revising Science and Creationism. That's the group that published the accommodationist book Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a book that promotes the irrational Doctrine of Joint Belief.

According to a report from the University of California, Irvine, where Francisco Ayala is a Professor of Biology, he gave a lecture last May (2008) where he was asked an important question [Biology Professor Addresses Evolution and its Opponents].
When asked if religion should be removed from science courses, Ayala gave a surprising answer.

“Religion is not science, but the fact that science is compatible with religion is an important thing to state in science classes,” Ayala said.
Franscisco Ayala is not only a good biologist, he's also a Dominican priest former Dominican priest. Oops. Can you say "hypocrisy"?

I meant to imply that those who attacked Reiss are hypocrites. Where were they when the National Academies caved in to religion?


1. John Wilkins addresses this same letter and weighs in against the "accommodationist" charge. Unfortunately, his posting [Dawkins on the nose again] isn't as good as most of what John writes. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was under the weather when he wrote it.

9 comments :

  1. No, Ayala is not an hypocrite, he express his ideas almost clearly.
    But he is an accommodationists and I think he is wrong about the compatibility between science and religion, and he keep it as fuzzy as Reiss kept it fuzzy about 'creationism'.

    Compatible on what? Sya, when it comes to discuss about the origin and the consistence of souls? And the miracle of ensoulment? Certainly not. Don't you think?

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  2. Re Ayala: "... he's also a Dominican priest."

    Actually, unless I am much mistaken, he has done what Dawkins suggested Reiss should do and given up his Orders (though not for the reason Dawkins suggested). However, you do remain technically correct, since the Catholic Church maintains that once a priest, always a priest. So even if "defrocked," Ayala is still a priest of the Catholic Church.

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  3. The 'religion is compatible with science' line that is so beloved of the framers and many national organizations is true in a technical sense, just not in the sense that the general public would recognize. Everytime I hear it I am reminded of Bill Clinton saying "I am not having an affair with that woman" - it might be true on technical grounds but its just a way of hiding a nasty lie.
    The Einsteinian/Spinozan pantheistic type of religion IS pretty much compatible with science, in my opinion, although the percentage of the public who adhere to this particular form of religion is miniscule (but big enough, apparently for the theists to hide behind).
    A truer, although probably more politically dangerous, statement would be 'some forms of pantheistic religion are compatible with science'.

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  4. oldcola says,

    No, Ayala is not an hypocrite,

    My mistake. I didn't mean that Ayala was a hypocrite. He is not.

    I meant to accuse those who hounded Reiss out of his position but remained silent when the National Academies caved in to religion.

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  5. martinc says,

    A truer, although probably more politically dangerous, statement would be 'some forms of pantheistic religion are compatible with science'.

    Even truer would be "most religious beliefs are not compatible with science."

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  6. I think one of the practical reasons why it may not actually be possible to confront creationism in class and point out problems with it is simply because it would be an endless refutation, because the problems with creationism are simply too many to address in class, and because creationists will keep on coming up with new assertions no matter how much you disprove their other ones.

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  7. Ashutosh says,

    I think one of the practical reasons why it may not actually be possible to confront creationism in class and point out problems with it is simply because it would be an endless refutation, because the problems with creationism are simply too many to address in class, and because creationists will keep on coming up with new assertions no matter how much you disprove their other ones.

    So, the situation is hopeless and we should just give up? That doesn't sound lik a very good solution.

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  8. No, but I do think that it needs to be done selectively and with panache. My point is that some assertions about evolution are extremely certain (for instance the fact that it has happened) and creationists should not be allowed to question such an assertion in class ad nauseum. Then there are others (such as their assertion of intelligent design) for which debate might be more productive.

    For what it's worth I don't think it's worthwhile battling a young earth creationist in class especially because as Stephen Jay Gould said, creationists always seem to have the upper end in public debate because of their rhetoric. IT might make sense to just ask them for evidence and take it from there.

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