Category Archives: Education

Book review: Understanding Evolution

I posted this on Panda’s Thumb, but I thought I would repeat it here.

I occasionally get books for review unsolicited, and many of them are not worth noticing. However, Kostas Kampourakis’ Understanding Evolution is a wonderful resource for students of all kinds, including biology students.


Kampourakis, a philosopher at Geneva, has compiled and discussed sensibly a range of topics concerning evolution. He begins with the conceptual difficulties people have in understanding the evolutionary process, and why. In chapter 1, he discusses how we know about evolution, what questions it answers, and considers two cases that are close to home: domestication and epidemiology, the evolution of disease.

The evolutionary questions are about why living things evolved the way they did, about speciation, the process of evolving new species, and the hypotheses that these require. He talks about explanation (especially “inference to the best explanation“) and the use of scientific method in evolutionary biology. The sections on domestication of animals and on epidemiology are satisfyingly complete.

Chapter 2 covers religious objections to evolution, including, of course, creationism and intelligent design. He discusses the arguments made by ID, especially in the context of atheism and agnosticism. Arguments from design in nature are expounded and given a thorough treatment, including “artifact thinking” and complexity.

The he discusses world views in conflict, especially relating to Richard Dawkins’ views, and then more widely the views of both theist and atheist scientists. Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” and Simon Conway Morris’ inevitability thesis are also reviewed. There is a nice discussion of the differences between knowing and believing and various kinds of methodological and metaphysical naturalisms.

Chapter 3 is titled “Conceptual difficulties to understanding evolution”. Here he discusses psychological essentialism in detail, and the “design stance” that Dennett identified. The problems of conceptual change, which I have published on myself, are then discussed. An example he uses is the shift from geocentric thinking to heliocentric thinking, and it is a good case study. The discussion on essentialism and design thinking, especially of artifacts, appeals to the psychological literature in detail.

Chapter 4 gives a complete and up to date account of how Darwin himself came to his theories. In particular he discusses how Darwin thought varieties became species, and gives a nice timeline of Darwin’s intellectual development. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how scientists and the religious reacted to the Origin.

Chapter 5 is about common ancestry. Usually books of this type focus upon natural selection, as if that were where Darwin’s originality lay. Kampourakis knows that Darwin’s true novelty lay in this idea instead. He explains how genealogical thinking allows us to reconstruct and classify the history of nature, and how thinking in terms of a historical tree of life made all the difference (and was Darwin’s first and main problem to solve). There’s a good discussion of molecular evolutionary biology here.

He gives an account of an often misunderstood notion in biology: homology. This is followed by phylogenetic classification and construction, and a discussion of the question of apparent similarities in biology: convergences (analogy, or homoplasy). Many clear and useful diagrams make the chapter even easier to follow. Then he considers the role of developmental thinking, and how evolution often modifies the timing of development.

Chapter 6 is titled “Evolutionary change”. It discusses “deep time” and dating of taxa and their divergence. Here he notes that while selectionist accounts are important, much evolution is stochastic, that is, chance. He discusses the difference of within-species evolution (microevolution) and between-species evolution (macroevolution) and gives a good summary of scientific ideas about these, especially the “major transitions” literature. The “selection-against” and “selection-for” distinction is explained here. Speciation and extinction are also explained. Then he returns to the question of inference, in a historical science like evolution.

Finally, in his concluding remarks, he discusses what evolution does, and does not explain, especially with respect to ethical and religious questions.

Each chapter has a good reading list, and the material is up to date in both science, and philosophy and history. He takes stances throughout but does so explicitly, allowing the reader to decide what to think for themselves.

This is an excellent, and long-needed book. The education of evolution in schools is now so poor in many countries, that this can act as both a primer and as an invitation to think further, and I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone who wants to know what evolution really is and means. It is not cheap, but neither is it as expensive as many books of its kind. Buy a copy.


Filed under Biology, Creationism and Intelligent Design, Education, Epistemology, Evolution, Genetics, Philosophy, Religion, Science, Systematics

Accommodating Science overview

I have done quite a lot of blogging under this heading lately so I thought it might be useful to get all the posts used in order:

On beliefs

On religion
On the arguments
On science and religion

Concluding posts

Many other posts from this blog have been used in the book manuscript, and this is not the order in which they will appear, but you can find your way around from here.

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Filed under Accommodationism, Book, Cognition, Creationism and Intelligent Design, Education, Epistemology, Evolution, General Science, History, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture, Religion, Science

Accommodating Science: What is the problem?

[As I write the first draft of my accommodationism book, I will post chapters here under the Category "Accommodationism". Here is the latest – which comes before Undefining Religion]

The religion-versus-science debate took a special turn in the West because of the existence not only of doctrinal religion but of a monopolistic doctrinal religion that made the crucial mistake of meddling in statements of fact, providing us with a long list of particularly precise, official and officially compelling statements about the cosmos and biology, supposedly guaranteed by Revelation, that we now know to be false. In every instance where the Church has tried to offer its own description of what happens in the world and there was some scientific alternative on the very same topic, the latter has proved better. Every battle has been lost and conclusively so. (Boyer 2001, 320)

In 2009, a blog war erupted among those who saw themselves as defending science, and in particular evolution, from attacks by religious activists in the public sphere, especially in education. There is an excellent, if underfunded, nonprofit organisation in San Francisco, the National Center for Science Education, which for several decades now has been providing information about and to the defenders of science education in schools. One of the main targets until recently has been the unending tide of bills in state legislatures, quite contrary to the United States Constitution separation of church and state, to enforce the teaching of creationism or its stalking horse intelligent design in state schools. The NCSE has provided comparative evidence about the motivation of these bills, which is always based upon a religious (or in the case of intelligent design, quasi religious) foundation.

The then-director of the NCSE, Dr Eugenie Scott (“Genie” to her friends, who are numerous) has always insisted that the task of the NCSE is not to attack religion, but to promote science education and knowledge in the broader community. In fact, the NCSE has, as part of its mission statement, the following passage:

What is NCSE’s religious position?

None. The National Center for Science Education is not affiliated with any religious organization or belief. We and our members enthusiastically support the right of every individual to hold, practice, and advocate their beliefs, religious or non-religious. Our members range from devout practitioners of several religions to atheists, with many shades of belief in between. What unites them is a conviction that science and the scientific method, and not any particular religious belief, should determine science curriculum.[1]

This innocuous statement is inclusive. In short, it doesn’t matter what religious affiliation an NCSE supporter has, so long as they are advocates for good science education and policy. It would seem a fairly agreeable view to take. But some find this highly objectionable. Professor Jerry Coyne, a well known evolutionary biologist who specialises in speciation, took the NCSE to task. He wrote on his blog:

Among professional organizations that defend the teaching of evolution, perhaps the biggest offender in endorsing the harmony of science and faith is The National Center for Science Education.  Although one of their officers told me that their official position on faith was only that “we will not criticize religions,” a perusal of their website shows that this is untrue.  Not only does the NCSE not criticize religion, but it cuddles up to it, kisses it, and tells it that everything will be all right.

In the rest of this post I’d like to explore the ways that, I think, the NCSE has made accommodationism not only its philosophy, but its official philosophy. This, along with their endorsement and affiliation with supernaturalist scientists, philosophers, and theologians, inevitably corrupts their mission.[2]

Coyne argues the following:

… my main beef is this: the NCSE touts, shelters, or gives its imprimatur to intellectuals and scientists who are either “supernaturalists” (the word that A. C. Grayling uses for those who see supernatural incursions into the universe) or who have what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief”—the idea that while religion may be based on false beliefs, those beliefs are themselves good for society. (Among the former are Kenneth Miller and John Haught, the latter Michael Ruse and Francisco Ayala).  Both of these attitudes draw the NCSE away from its primary mission of promoting evolutionary biology, and push it into the hinterlands of philosophy and theology.

If we’re to defend evolutionary biology, we must defend it as a science: a nonteleological theory in which the panoply of life results from the action of natural selection and genetic drift acting on random mutations.

According to Coyne, evolutionary biology is nonteleological: it offers no support for the idea there is purpose in the world. This, however, is not how many (not the majority by any means) philosophers of science and biologists see things. They interpret evolution by natural selection as a purpose maker. In a view called teleosemantics (Macdonald and Papineau 2006), purpose is what you get when something is the result of selection for a trait or property (Sober 1984). Hence, one outcome of evolution, they say, is that natural selection (henceforth just “selection”) gives things purpose. Could this offer a hook on which to hang God? The answer to that varies according to who gives one. Theologically inclined writers think it does. Others, known in the philosophical trade as naturalists, say that it merely gives the illusion of purpose. But it is far from clear that selection, and evolution itself, in nonteleological. We will return to this later. For now, let’s ask this question: does evolution preclude belief in a providential deity? On this one example, among many such scientific challenges to religious belief, hangs a deep issue, about knowledge, belief, rationality, and social policy. It’s not an abstract philosophical issue, but one which has wide ramifications and urgency in the modern world. In what follows, I will attempt to get at the heart of this issue.

Science is one of the best and probably most enduring of all human activities, if not the best. Where once we widely believed that the world was made of an undifferentiated “substance” to which “form” was applied, now we are dealing with the most fundamental aspects of reality, creating physical conditions in our laboratories and supercolliders that haven’t been seen since the Big Bang. We can explain why physical bits of stuff behave the way they do to a very high degree of accuracy and precision. We explain why stars form, why planets orbit stars, and why some bits of stuff on the surface of at least one of those planets reproduces and evolves. We know more now than we ever have, and perhaps more than will be known anywhere else in the universe. That ain’t hay.

And there is no apparent contender to the pre-eminence of science. If there is a way to correct or revise the ideas that science has produced, it is only by science that we can do this. Science, or something that is very like it, is the sole way to know about the universe. The role of religion, often in the past and in pre-scientific cultures, has been deprecated to being an observer of knowledge creation, rather than a source of it. I won’t go into the history of this. There are many very good introductions to it from a historical and philosophical perspective, and we do not need it for what follows. All I will say here is that if we know something about the world, we do so through science.

So the religious are left with a quandary: either religious traditions are not sources of knowledge, or they conflict with the knowledge we get from scientific investigation. So they either have to say that religion doesn’t actually help you understand how the world is, and reduce their scope of authority, or they must challenge the belief that science does help you understand how the world is. Both strategies have been employed, sometimes simultaneously. I take it that we have no better metric of knowledge than that something has been properly investigated scientifically. I will not challenge the role of science in this book, but take it as a provisional given.[3] Of course, there are deeper philosophical questions about whether that is true, or warranted. Some of these will come up later. But we will start, as Coyne does, with the view that science is how we know things about the world, and that if we teach our children and advise our policy makers, we must do so based on that knowledge, and not some other claimant to know.

Thus far, we agree with Coyne and those who he makes common cause with. But they take it a step farther. Only science is relevant when we know the world. Since religion has beliefs that are either contrary to science or unnecessary for doing it (science is a verb as well as a noun), we must eliminate these from consideration in formulating education and policy. This is a much more restricted claim.

The term “accomodationism” has been used to label the idea that science and religion are compatible, although there are some wrinkles we’ll get to shortly.[4] The contrary view is sometimes called “anti-accommodationism”, which is cumbersome and defines a position solely in terms of it not being what another view is. I will therefore divide these views up in another fashion.

The argument goes roughly like this (for instance, as given in the Boyer epigram at the head of this post):

  • Science acquires knowledge through observation and experiment, and is subject to revision in the light of new evidence.
  • Religion acquires its beliefs through the process of supposed revelation, and is not revisable except through further revelation.
  • Science believes in testable entities and processes.
  • Religion believes in things that are either not testable, or have been tested and found not to exist.
  • Therefore religion is not compatible with science.

Now many religious beliefs are not based upon revelation – for example, the Protestant doctrine of sola scripture is not to be found in the Bible or any personal revelations,[5] but then neither is it revisable in the light of experience and evidence. So incompatibilist critiques of religion often focus on the implications of these beliefs. For instance, if the Bible teaches that mental illness is due to demons (Luke 8: 26-39), and we have learned scientifically that mental illness always has a physiological basis, then belief in the Bible must be abandoned. However, not only do religions not abandon those beliefs, they often double down and assert that science is false, or incomplete (which amounts to the same thing; an idea cannot be only a bit true. It is either true or false[6]).

The accommodationism debate, however, has several aspects. One is whether or not religion can be made compatible with science. It can. All that has to happen is to change the religious beliefs. That this is not a popular choice among the religious is obvious. What it does not imply, however, is that we could reach a rapprochement by changing the science. Many so-called compatibilists try to do this, and we’ll look at that later. The problem with doing it, though, is clear: by what criteria would religion evaluate the knowledge claims of science? If they are religious criteria alone, then they deny that science is, in fact, our best way of knowing the world, and deny the facts one way or another. Nobody seriously considering this issue can accept that. If they are experiential, by which I mean based on observation and experiment, then those criteria are properly scientific anyway. It is just possible that a religion encodes in its doctrines the outcomes of some protoscientific investigations that science has not yet studied or attempted independently, in which case that religion would be contributing to science, but the historical evidence is against it. I suppose William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (James 1902) comes close, but James was a scientist and religion merely the subject of his psychological investigations.

The harder problem here is whether the changes that need to be made to religion to accommodate science could be made without destroying the basic core tenets of that religion. There is no real answer to this. For a start, the core beliefs of religions change over time anyway as they adapt to differing social, economic, and political circumstances. At one point, the God of the Tanakh, El[7], was one among many gods who “owned” as it were the tribes of Israel (see Psalm 82 for an example). Later, Judaism evolved after the Israelites were exiled in Babylon and they encountered Zoroastrian dualism, and when they returned to Palestine, their deity was the only one in existence, although there was a demigod, Satan, who gave him a run for his money. The very core belief of modern “Abrahamic” religions was once a revision to the religion itself (Smith 2001). What core beliefs change and how they do so is not something one can speak of in general terms. It really is up to the believers of a religion to decide what they can revise without damage, not anyone else.

Another issue, often mixed in uncritically with the former question, is how to promote peaceful coexistence of religion with science. The so-called “warfare hypothesis” first promoted by Draper (1875) and White (1896) in the nineteenth century, that science and religion are and always have been at war with each other, was constructed in the context of debates over the secularisation of education (Brooke 1991), and is widely regarded as at best overstated and at worst, quite false. And yet, there are enough cases of actual conflict to raise the issue for us. Critics on both sides take from history what they need: accommodationists find cases of affable cooperation and scientists who were devout, and anti-accommodationists find cases of religion impeding or even blocking entirely avenues of scientific work.

A counter argument presented by many religious believers and some scholars (see the overblown case made by Stark 2005) is that religion caused science. Usually this is the more specific claim that Christianity caused science. There is both truth and falsity in that claim. It is true that the religion in which science developed, and the cultural tools of which were used to do so, was Christianity. Most if not all scientists in the western tradition prior to, say, 1900 were Christians of one kind or another (but as we shall see in the next chapter, it pays to attend to the kind of believers they were). Some go so far as to say that Christianity is a rational religion and so it is a prerequisite for science to develop, or even (as we shall see later) to do science at all!

This borders on the inane. The tools used to develop science were the tools developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, along with a large dose of Islamic philosophy mediated to the Christian West around the 12th century. Science had to develop somewhere if it did at all; it happened to develop in a quickly industrialising and capitalising society, and that was the Christian west, but prior to that science was being done by Greek “pagans” and philosophers of all kinds, Romans, Muslims, Chinese, Indians and so on. What happened in the west was largely a socio-political change: science was being done in the open, publicly, due to trade links between competing societies.

Christians can be proud of their heritage, however. When all is said and done, it was scholars within the Christian tradition who discovered or established heliocentrism, chemistry (out of another Christian tradition – alchemy), taxonomy, anatomy, physics (by that mystic unitarian, Newton), and so on. But there is a curious pattern in each case. While Christians were the ones who, on the whole, did the work, the religious institutions were often cautious or even hostile to these novelties. Copernicus’ views were represented contrary to his own position as a hypothetical method for computation of the positions of the planets by his Lutheran “editor” Osiander. Galileo was banned from teaching his version of heliocentrism as fact by the Catholic Church authorities who tried him. Chemistry and anatomy were constantly resisted by various church figures. The record is not unequivocal.

The Warfare Thesis has some bite then. Again and again it depends upon who you count as “religious”.

A history of accommodationism

The view known as “accommodationism” has a past history of some note, and we had better get that out of the way before we consider the modern debate.

The word accommodationism has two prior meanings, tangential to this question. One is: the accommodation of religious practices and beliefs within a secular society. This is a legal use, and refers to states either permitting or assisting the religious in carrying out things that are either regulated or prohibited for the non-religious (Brady 1999).

The other, which is more relevant, has to do with how to read the Bible. In the Christian period before the modern age, science was often discovering facts that contradicted the literal meaning of the Bible. This goes right back to the beginnings of Christianity; it isn’t new. As science fluttered into existence during the late medieval period, this posed a problem for theologians and Christian scientists,[8] who adopted what they called the “accommodatory language” view. God spoke the truth, but in terms that people of the day could understand, and so He used words that implied falsehoods in strict scientific terms. Thus, the words that have the earth fixed, with pillars rest in the waters, and a fixed and hard heavens, used in various places in the Bible, were of no more account than the vernacular use of “the Sun rises in the East” means that we think the Sun, not the earth, revolves.

Notice that this latter meaning is relevant to our topic. When facts (science) contradict the Biblical passages, then our interpretation of the language used in the Bible must give way to them. This approach was adopted by Galileo, Copernicus and others all the way back to Augustine (Moran 2003). In fact, the default view of the Catholic tradition has always been to do this. A parallel tradition that took a hard literalist approach, known as the Antiochan tradition, never got that much traction in the broader Christian tradition, and those who took scripture to be literally true, like Lactantius (third century) or Cosmas Indicopleustes (sixth century) and so asserted a flat earth, were few and generally ignored by educated Christians, who had read their Aristotle or their Plutarch (Toulmin and Goodfield 1962). But when Christian theologians began to engage with the best science of their day, they did not trim science to suit doctrine, but reinterpreted doctrine to not conflict with science. And the means by which they did this was called allegory: finding the hidden meaning in the stories told in the Bible that led to a theological or deeper truth. However, the default view was also that if there are no reasons not to take the scripture as literally true, especially in claims of the events and people described, like Noah or Moses, then you must do. It reminds one of the passage from T. H. White’s Once and Future King, where the Wart is transformed into an ant, and as he enters the nest sees a sign “Everything not forbidden is compulsory”.[9]

As science began to infringe upon some of the more treasured core doctrines of religion, however, the tensions began to rack up. When Galileo, naively thinking that he was well within the usual practice of the Church, wrote his Dialogues, he expected that the Church authorities would reinterpret doctrine once again. His timing was awful. The Church was in the midst of dealing with the Lutheran schism as they saw it, and Galileo unfortunately tried to lecture the Church on how to interpret scripture, which was their and only their domain of expertise in Christendom at the time (which of course the Lutherans challenged). He got roundly slapped down. It took the Church over 500 years to “apologise”, although how good an apology is to a man 500 years dead is disputable.

Tensions continued as the pace of scientific discovery increased. One of the more significant challenges to doctrine was the discovery of chemical elements. According to the key issue, apart from the authority of the pope, that separated the Catholic Church from the Lutherans, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the physical aspect of the Host (the consecrated bread and wine) was replaced when the bell was rung in the consecration with the physical substance of Jesus’ body and blood. This relied upon the Aristotelian distinction between substance and form: the outward properties of a thing were given by its form, and the substance was a propertyless gunk that only bore the form. In Catholic doctrine, the outward form, called the “accidents” or “species”, of the bread and wine remained at consecration, but the gunk was now fully Jesus.

When Dalton proposed his atomic elemental theory of chemistry in 1802, the properties of things were now the result of the inherent properties of the elemental particles and how they were arranged. So the doctrine of transubstantiation no longer made any sense. Change the elemental particles, and instead of bread-like stuff, you would now have something that literally looked like it had been carved off a living organism. The wine would taste of blood. It was no longer possible to be scientific and Catholic. For a little while, that was. In the 1870s, when Catholics began an attempt to become relevant in intellectual life, they quietly redefined “substance” and “accident” so that the former was some kind of metaphysical stuff, and the accidents now included the physical stuff bread and wine were made of (Artigas, Glick et al. 2006). Ironically, Catholic doctrine did not settle on a response to Darwin for some time later.


Stephen Jay Gould was a pluralist in many things. He was a palaeontologist who wrote wonderfully literate and humanistic essays in Natural History, the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Shortly before his death, he gathered some of these together and published and Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1998) and then Rock of Ages (1999) in which he argued that science and religion each had what he called “non-overlapping magisteria” (abbreviated by him as NOMA). A magisterium is a domain of appropriate authority in which one may speak as a specialist or teach. While he did not deny that science and religion did fall into conflict, historically, he characterised this as “bump[ing] right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border” (Gould 1998). In short, they were politely passing each other on a crowded sidewalk. This view, he thought, resolved the question of the compatibility of science and religion. So long as each cobbler stuck to his last, there was no professional dispute to be had.

Now this view was widely applauded by many religious thinkers, but it was not at all liked by incompatibilists. Religion has forbad science to investigate some things, and instructed scientists in what to teach or think. Buffon, who did the first empirical experiments on the age of the earth, was forced to recant by the theologians of the Sorbonne. Richard Owen, sadly remembered today only for being anti-Darwin, in fact proposed a kind of evolutionary theory before Darwin (there were many pre-Darwinian evolutionary theories) only to be severely chastised by Adam Sidgwick, a devout Christian and geologist, and his patrons at Cambridge University for heterodoxy bordering on heresy (Rupke 1994 chapter 4). Ironically, when the Origin came out, he anonymously reviewed it, saying that it was wrong, and anyway he had come up with the theory first (he hadn’t, not really).

The idea of magisteria is a kind of epistemic division of labor. It assumes that we do not all have the time, inclination or capacity to investigate each and every domain by ourselves. We have instead specialists who do the work on our behalf (and who we fund, some of the time, from the common purse), and whose results we rely upon when they are needed. This applies to science in spades. Specialists can be so narrow as to spend their lives cataloguing, describing and studying a single group of organisms, or even just the one. Or they can be specialists at a higher level of abstraction than even most scientists would be willing to consider. We alway must appeal to some specialists when we are doing or learning science.

This is sometimes cast as a religious decision: you have your authorities and I have mine. However it is more like the idealised notion of an economic market in which there are butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, and each sticks to their own task and makes their products available for sale. We have to trust each specialist that they will make a good product, since we cannot make all the things we need ourselves. Likewise, specialists in science produce what we expect will be good science. Sometimes it isn’t, either because of fraud or because there is a broad problem with the techniques used. As an example, the very nature of statistics in science is presently the subject of much criticism, especially in the biomedical sciences (Cumming, Fidler et al. 2007). But there is still nothing that we can replace the specialists’ work with that is any better.

The notion of magisteria gets murkier when we move outside science. It is obvious that a theologian of some sophistication and note is a better source of religious ideas than a tent preacher, if by that we think there is some specialty they better express. However, the notion that the theologian has his domain and it does not intersect with the domain of the scientific community is at best wishful thinking and question begging, and at worst ignorant and contrary to the historical record. Many of the key issues in science (how did this get here? What is its importance?) are also key issues in theological debate, and it is inevitable that in these cases when both sides offer solutions, they will come into conflict.

Another issue is when the scientists make claims that the philosophers and theologians properly consider to be their domain. For example, Victor Stenger, a physicist, has published a number of books in which he claims that the “God hypothesis” has failed and science has shown this (2007; 2009; 2009). However, he does this by evaluating the “God Hypothesis” as a scientific hypothesis. That this is question begging is obvious, although it is true that a number of theological writers do treat religion as a kind of scientific hypothesis. Another example is Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape, in which he makes the case that morality is just human flourishing, a view that goes back to Aristotle, and that science can determine what that means. Philosophers rightly object that showing that something contributes to human flourishing is quite distinct from establishing that it is good or moral. As a final example, consider the physicist Lawrence Krauss (2012), who argues against philosophy being necessary on the grounds that science tells us how something comes from nothing (where “nothing” means quantum fields, which is not nothing to a philosopher). Similarly Hawking and Mlodinow (2010) claim that philosophy is dead because science has answered all the philosophical questions. Philosophers consider this arrogance borne of ignorance of their field. Theologians often make the same point about scientists who criticise theology. We will return to this later.

Trimming science

One oft-made claim is that accommodationism requires trimming science to fit religion, not the other way around. And if you read some of the popular books on how science confirms this or that religion (often eastern style religion) that is a fair claim to make. Ranging from “physics confirms Buddhism” to “science is fine except for evolution”, religious thinkers (rarely scientists themselves) have argued that religious belief sets a limit on science and what it may assert. This is not so much an accommodationist thesis as it is religious exceptionalism. If that is how religious believers have to go in order to deal with science, that’s their business, but it has no weight whatsoever to those who are not within the theological tradition and community concerned. It is, in other words, special pleading.

The problem with this was pithily dealt with in another context (morality) by Bishop Joseph Butler (Butler 1749 Sermon VII):

Things and actions are what they are, and consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived?

If Christians or any other believer must deny what things are in order to believe, then they have a real problem, and one we do not need to attend to unless we are also of the same mind. Few if any accommodationists in the present debate would allow religion the right to deny facts or our best theories in order to include religious believers among the pro-science group, for in doing so, this deprecates the very idea of science. And to that we now turn.

What is “science”?

As much as religion is a confusing and heterogeneous category, so too is science. It has numerous meanings and supposed shared properties and methods. Much of the accommodationism debate relies upon these ambiguities and different interpretations.

Often one will read, in a textbook or popular treatment, that science has a “method”, usually capitalised to show its importance: The Scientific Method. However, when you start to look at the flowcharts, decision diagrams, and other such representations, it becomes very clear that there is no single pathway to doing science accepted by everyone who calls themselves “scientific”. This is a widely discussed topic in the philosophy of science.

If science were done by recipe, that is if there were a Scientific Method, then there would be an easy test whether a claim was scientific or not. But science, it turns out, is not so easily demarcated from nonscience; this is called the Demarcation Problem (see the introduction to Pigliucci and Boudry 2013 for a summary of the issues). A commonly appealed to Demarcation Criterion was proposed by Karl Popper, who said that something is science if it is open to empirical falsification (Popper 1965). The trouble with this was immediately noted by other philosophers and scientists. As the nineteenth century physicist Pierre Duhem (1954[1991]) had already noted, when you test a hypothesis, and get a negative result, you are onto just testing the hypothesis by itself but all the other hypotheses used in the test: how the equipment works, other theoretical assumptions, and any methodological assumptions (like the use of statistical inference) that are employed in the research. You know that something must be wrong, but what it is, is not immediately clear.

Popper applied his Criterion to psychoanalysis and Marxian economics, and saw it as a simple way to show these were false. He wanted to isolate science from the boundary “sciences” popular in the 1930s when he came up with it. Since then, many scientists have exhibited a kind of multiple personality disorder: when they do science, they do not behave the way they criticise nonscience. Popper, for example, argued that science is not inductive: that it did not do lots of observations and then draw general rules or laws from the observations (I include the making of formal models as induction here). Instead it came up with hypotheses (any old how) and tried to falsify them, that is to show they are false by counterexamples. This is referred to as falsificationism in the philosophical literature.

Now when those who adopted a sociohistorical approach to actual “science” considered Popper’s view, they discovered that this Criterion was in fact not often, if at all, applied, even within physics, which Popper took to be the very exemplar of scientific investigation. Instead, as Paul Feyerabend, an Austrian philosopher who moved to America after the second world war and saw himself as a gadfly among the philosophers, wrote, if there is a Method in science, it can only be the rule that “anything goes” (Feyerabend 1975). Of course, Feyerabend qualified this claim with the more nuanced view that in fact there were scientific methods, but that they formed a cluster of approaches, and not a single Method. Moreover, he rejected the idea that these methods were subject to any central ruling principle. The science historian Thomas Kuhn (1962) went even further: what rules the rules is a worldview, which he called a “paradigm” (one of the most abused of all philosophical terms ever). A paradigm set what counted as evidence, what counted as confirmation or disconfirmation of a theory, and even what the very terms used in a theory meant.

Duhem’s point was taken up by the American philosopher Willard Van Ormand Quine (Van to his friends), who generalised it to the point that we test entire sets of beliefs when we test a hypothesis, not the one hypothesis (Quine 1953). Consequently, science was like a genetic complement being subjected to natural selection, tested as a whole and rejected when it failed to work out. He explicitly drew the parallel with natural selection (not original to him, though. Thomas Henry Huxley had made exactly the same point shortly after Darwin had published). Science evolves, not through revolutions as Kuhn had asserted, but by gradual adaptation of the entire set of beliefs and techniques.

What this meant was that there is no point at which a proponent of a theory can be said to have become irrational or unscientific, even though there are clear cases, like phlogiston, phrenology and land bridges in geology, where they have clearly ceased to be good science. Like pornography, we can’t define bad science or nonscience, but we know it when we see it.

This is significant in the case of science versus religion, because all the positions taken by, say, the Catholic Church, in such disputes were previously accepted as good science. What was at issue was a host of hard-to-define issues like whether a novel approach solved more problems than it raised, and the promise of the new theory being fruitful in future research, a set of issues that are very much alive within science itself. There were also questions of doctrinal or philosophical concern, but often, the “religious” were also well educated in the science of the day, and saw themselves carrying out a scientific debate, only with the authority and power of the ruling elite.

When opponents of accommodationism criticise the religious for their failure to accept science, there are therefore many things to keep in mind. What exactly counts as science in this case? Is it the best theories of today (as determined by whom)? Is it what experts put into textbooks (and who are the experts)? Is it something like a consensus of those who work in the particular field? When does an idea cease to be acceptable within the science?

Generally, curricula for schools are determined by specialists in the field being taught. In the United States, however, this is reviewed by elected nonspecialists, often with no scientific training at all (or if they have a “science” degree, it is likely to be in medicine or dentistry or some other vocational field that claims scientific foundation). This unique system is not shared by any other western democracy of which I am aware, and it causes massive downstream effects in those other nations, since the current curriculum publishing business model tends to begin with American sources and modify them to suit local needs. Often textbooks are given a light editing by a local specialist and published as the “Australian” edition or the like. The School Board system if the United States thus influences, subtly or overtly, how science is taught elsewhere in the world. For this reason, the battles over what is included in the textbooks approved in Texas or California are of global importance.

Scientists also have their regional differences in emphasis or subject matter. Since scientists are typically educated into their specialty in one nation, they are very likely to adopt as a given whatever ruling views are adopted by authoritative scientists in their country. So for a long time, French biologists tended to downplay Darwinian evolution in favour of their countryman Lamarck’s notion of evolution (Burian, Gayon et al. 1988), until the molecular biologists Jacques Monod (1972) and François Jacob (1973) promoted the Darwinian synthesis extensively.

Given all this, what is the “science” that the religious believer must accommodate to? It is not so clear when a scientific field is in a state of flux, either because the progress of discovery in that field is rapid, or because there are within the scientific field itself multiple interpretations and theories in play. Especially in highly abstract general theories like modern quantum physics, it is not clear what must be taught at schools, or what the import of a theory is for religious believers. But the real conflict lies at a much lower level, usually. This is why it is not quantum mechanics that causes real problems for believers, but theories of psychology, biology and environment, which are areas that affect everyone. Do we have free will? Is there a purpose in the living world? Is our environment going to remain stable or change? How old is the world? Such questions raise problems for believers in a way that quantum foam and entanglement, as fun as they may be to think about when one is a teenager (or the equivalent in later life), do not.

If we cannot identify “the science” that must be accommodated, can we at least identify the issues that are controversial to a believer? That will be the subject of later posts.


Artigas, M., et al. (2006). Negotiating Darwin: the Vatican confronts evolution, 1877-1902. Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Boyer, P. (2001). And man creates God: religion explained. New York, Basic Books.

Brady, K. A. (1999). “Fostering Harmony Among the Justices: How Contemporary Debates in Theology Can Help to Reconcile the Divisions on the Court Regarding Religious Expression by the State.” Notre Dame Law Review 75: 433-577.

Brooke, J. H. (1991). Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, Cambridge University Press.

Burian, R. M., et al. (1988). “The singular fate of genetics in the history of French biology, 1900-1940.” J Hist Biol 21(3): 357-402.

Butler, J. (1749). Fifteen Sermons … To which are added Six Sermons preached on public occasions. The fourth edition, pp. xxxiv. 480. Knapton: London.

Cumming, G., et al. (2007). “Error bars in experimental biology.” J. Cell Biol. 177(1): 7-11.

Draper, J. W. (1875). History of the conflict between religion and science. New York, D. Appleton and company.

Duhem, P. M. M. (1954[1991]). The aim and structure of physical theory. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Feyerabend, P. K. (1975). Against Method. New York, Verso Editions.

Gould, S. J. (1998). Leonardo’s mountain of clams and the Diet of Worms: essays on natural history. New York, Harmony Books.

Gould, S. J. (1999). Rocks of ages: Science and religion in the fullness of life. New York, Ballantine.

Hawking, S. W. and L. Mlodinow (2010). The grand design. London, Bantam Press.

Jacob, F. (1973). The logic of life: a history of heredity. New York, Pantheon Books.

James, W. (1902). The varieties of religious experience; a study in human nature. New York, London, Longmans, Green.

Krauss, L. M. (2012). A universe from nothing: why there is something rather than nothing. New York, Free Press.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Macdonald, G. and D. Papineau (2006). Teleosemantics: new philosophical essays. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Monod, J. and A. Wainhouse (1972). Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, HarperCollins Publishers Limited.

Moran, B. T. (2003). “God’s Two Books: Copernican Cosmology and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science (review).” The Catholic Historical Review 89(2): 302–304.

Pigliucci, M. and M. Boudry (2013). Philosophy of pseudoscience : reconsidering the demarcation problem. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Popper, K. R. (1965). Conjectures and refutations: the growth of scientific knowledge. New York, Basic Books.

Quine, W. V. O. (1953). From a logical point of view: 9 logico-philosophical essays. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.

Rupke, N. A. (1994). Richard Owen: Victorian naturalist. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.

Smith, M. S. (2001). The origins of biblical monotheism: Israel’s polytheistic background and the Ugaritic texts. New York, Oxford University Press.

Sober, E. (1984). The nature of selection: evolutionary theory in philosophical focus. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.

Stark, R. (2005). The victory of reason: how Christianity led to freedom, capitalism, and Western success. New York, NY, Random House.

Stenger, V. J. (2007). God: the failed hypothesis: how science shows that God does not exist. Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books.

Stenger, V. J. (2009). The new Atheism: standing up for science and reason. Amherst, N.Y., Prometheus Books.

Stenger, V. J. (2009). Quantum gods: creation, chaos, and the search for cosmic consciousness. Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books.

Toulmin, S. and J. Goodfield (1962). The Fabric of the Heavens: the development of astronomy and dynamics. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

White, A. D. (1896). A history of the warfare of science with theology in christendom. New York,, D. Appleton & Company.

[1] accessed 16 February 2014.

[3] Science is, in the end, a human activity, and so it has fashions, failures and fictions. However, given that it is our best source of knowledge, there is no other standard we can apply to claim of knowledge about the world. Hence we should rationally accept science, in a provisional fashion, as being true. If there were some other standard source of knowledge, we might be able to assess science by that. But this is not to say we think all our science is correct or true, nor that we need to take it on, one might say, faith.

[4] The term was introduced, as far as I can tell, by Professor Lawrence Moran, a biochemist at the University of Toronto, on his blog Sandwalk <>. He informs me that he chose it to replace the term “Chamberlainists” introduced by Richard Dawkins in his God Delusion, which he felt was unfair on Neville Chamberlain. Thanks to Josh Rosenau for help tracking this down.

[5] Claims to the contrary, based, for instance upon 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” which cannot refer to itself, are based on a prior belief in the inspiration of the canon chosen at the Synod of Hippo Regius in the fourth century, which was ratified in subsequent councils with variation. Early Christians used the “Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) as “scripture, along with a choice of gospels and letters.

[6] Of course, philosophers spend a lot of ink on that very question. A belief can be held with a degree of confidence, or to cover a part of a statistical sample, or perhaps the Law of the Excluded Middle in logic, which says that either the sentence A is true or A is false, is itself wrong, and there can be sentences that are neither true nor false. Have fun with that. It doesn’t affect us here.

[7] There were a number of gods who were folded into the final God of the Bible (I use Tanakh to denote what Christians call the Old Testament, since the Jewish view is that it is not old or superseded). El was the generic term for “god”, and was usually given a place or tribal name such as “El Yeshrun” or “El Yisrael”, or some power, such as “El Shaddai” (the mighty god) or “El Tsaddik” (the righteous god). In the west semitic religions in which the Bible writers wrote, El Elyon was the “most high god”, the supreme deity of the pantheon. YHWH was the southern tribal deity. These and the plural form of El, Elohim (the gods), were collapsed into a single entity after the Exile. Female gods like Ishtar or Asheroth were dropped or reinterpreted as “wisdom”. See Smith 2001 for a summary of these developments.

[8] Although they were not then called “scientists”, as that term wasn’t invented until 1834. The two fields of what we would now call science were then natural philosophy, which broadly covered physics and astronomy, and natural history, which broadly covered biology, geology and geography. Sometimes the former were referred to as “mathematicians”, although that could also mean “astrologer”.

[9] Even as a kid I knew that ants recognise nest mates by their smell, so the Wart should have immediately been torn apart by the soldier caste guarding the nest. But if you are going to accept that a human can be made into an ant and retain all his cognitive abilities, why not that Merlin could simulate the pheromones of that particular nest?


Filed under Accommodationism, Cognition, Education, Epistemology, Evolution, General Science, Logic and philosophy, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion, Science

Science outreach: A conversation

From the Freethinkers Blog Con:

With PZ Myzer and Aron Ra.


by | February 2, 2014 · 10:41 am

Why do believers believe silly things? The function of denialism

Bishop Butler wrote in a sermon in 1729:

Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why, then, should we desire to be deceived? [Sermon 7]

It’s an interesting question. Why should we seek to be deceived about the consequences of our actions and the world? And yet, many people do. Current conservatives take it as a measure of ideological purity that climate change is either not real or something out of our control. They deny evolution. They deny the minuscule danger in marijuana and most drugs and ignore the major danger of tobacco and alcohol. What is going on here?

A long time ago I worked with a member of the Exclusive Brethren, a sect of the Plymouth Brethren, who are as fundamentalist as it is possible to be. I would try to talk to him about his beliefs, but he simply refused to engage. The Exclusive Brethren have withdrawn from all conversation with the secular world (which, in their view, includes all other Christians) except for business. I wondered at how a clearly intelligent person could believe what he believed, and then it hit me: he couldn’t speak to outsiders, because they just looked at him with their jaw open and shaking their head. His beliefs isolated him from those outside his community, and therefore, by implication, strengthened his involvement within the community. If you believe silly crap, then the only people you can talk to are those who have the same silly beliefs.

This might help explain why it is that no amount of reasoned argument with evidence can sway such folk. Think of this as a kind of investment: one spends a long period developing one’s beliefs and social connections. If you are challenged in your beliefs, you put at risk your social networks with those who use the silly beliefs you hold as a test of inclusion, and therefore risk your social connections. To start again will cost you time, effort and resources that could be better spent. It takes a real crisis of faith to be forced to reconsider these core beliefs. Few people will find themselves challenged when they are honest, costly and hard to fake signals of community inclusion.

In the case of climate denialism, or creationism, it is not the content or topic of the beliefs that matters, but the fact that in order to hold them and assert them, you have isolated yourself from the external community as a show of faith. To abandon them simply because they are false would cost too much. And so you face up to the cognitive dissonance and rationalise your beliefs and the facts that challenge them.

What does this mean for practical purposes? How do we counter these false beliefs? There is no simple answer. In the short term we can insist that our functional bureaucracies and social institutions do not give credence, but that will only harden those who deny the facts in their beliefs. At best it will slough off the fence sitters, and reduce the core denialists to a rump. That is one good thing, but we want people to face reality when it really matters. A better, but longer term solution is to insist that education teaches not the facts, but the methods by which we understand those facts, in order that people can develop their cognitive stances appropriately. This denies the next generation of denialists their replacements, until they become at best an extremely small minority. Education is the solution, which the denialists well understand. This is why we have objections to even discussing these “controversial” matters in schools, and why the denialists (whether of evolution, global warming, or whatever) continuously try to insert their agenda into public education. An uneducated community is more easily controlled and manipulated.

The development of beliefs is not merely a metaphor: it is a literal developmental process. Just as an organism that has been fed a nutrient poor diet will not fully recover as an adult even if their diet is improved, neither will a conceptually poor education be entirely overcome once someone has reached a reflective equilibrium in their beliefs. If contrary core beliefs cause a crisis in a person such that they do abandon their silly beliefs, they are just as likely to replace them with other silly beliefs rather than more educated and rational beliefs. So the answer in the long term is to ensure that we do not educate people into the wrong beliefs.

As I said (and as I have argued in my paper “Are creationists rational?”) simply teaching facts, which are themselves seen as competing belief claims by the believers, will not do. They are just a matter of competing authorities. I will prefer my authorities over yours, no matter how credible they are in objective terms. Instead, we need to give developing minds confidence in the facts, and the way to do this is to show that the methods used, by scientists and other disciplines, work. The way to do that is to have the students do the work themselves and see that they work. After all, of all the inbuilt heuristics we have, we believe our own experience over the reports and instruction of others. Give developing believers confined that the methods work, and they will have confidence in the results of those methods.

I believe, from my own experience, that it would be best to simply make children observers and experimenters, and ignore teaching to tests until they reach mid-adolescence. If they don’t have confidence by then in the propriety of science, it will no longer matter, but if they don’t have that confidence at all, no amount of science education will change the silly beliefs. Nor will science communication (which, being a form of journalism, is largely about the manipulation of attitudes than information impartation), nor campaigns of this or that kind. The silly belief-holder can rationalise these approaches as being the preaching of a competing (and therefore false) religion or ideology.

Finally, note that the real reasons people hold the beliefs they do is rarely due to careful consideration of the facts and arguments. This is a form of rationalisation, that which Marx correctly called “false consciousness”, and it is usually a matter of social function serving the interests of those who hold the reigns of power. Parenthetically, Marx’s own solution was just as much a false consciousness as that which he critiqued. If we want reasonable people holding true beliefs, because things will be what they will be and we will all be bitten in the arse eventually by reality, then the real solution is to make rational people who can find out and think for themselves.

Late note:

I posted the following on PZ Miskatonic’s Pharyngula as a reply, which may clarify some of the things I have said here:

It wasn’t about the Plymouth Brethren as such. That was just how I came by the insight.

This is part of what I think of as the Developmentalist Hypothesis of Belief Formation (the capitals make it true). We do not just acquire our beliefs in one step, but accrue them as we develop into adults. There is a cost to this, and so to move someone from their core beliefs and values, you have to make it something that would outweigh the costs involved in acquiring and maintaining those beliefs.

Denialism has a strong function in making communities of those who hold a particular belief more cohesive. As such, one has to ask, why does that community exist in the first place? As a proto-Marxian I think the reason is about the social and economic functions such beliefs play. Those whose sociopolitical interests are served by denying the facts, either because some influential class benefit, or because there is a deeper underlying fear of modernity or change the community represents, need these beliefs to defend their own (imagined?) way of life. The reason, for example, why many conservatives vote against their objective interests, has to do with their loss of community and cognitive investment if they change. The “narrative” they have developed to justify their beliefs is what Marx called “false consciousness”, and so pointing out the harm they do to themselves will not be effective. If we want to shift what the population believes to make it more reality-based, simple engagement, as valuable as it is, will not be widely effective.


Filed under Accommodationism, Education, Epistemology, Politics, Science, Social evolution

Why anti science?

Over the past few decades there has been an increasingly negative attitude by governments, pundits, religiosi and faux philosophers against science. We have seen an increase in denialism about climate change (one of the most well supported scientific models of the day), vaccination, evolution, medical research in general, and the ancillary aspects of science like museums, education, and expert opinion. At the same time we have seen an increase (I believe) in the number of pseuodoscientists claiming scientific credentials they do not have, such as cancer quacks, non-members of the House of Lords claiming to be climatologists, and celebrities opposing this or that public health measure, along with Oprah-style “doctors” of medicine or psychology. What in the merry hell is going on here?

As Goldfinger once said “Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time, it’s enemy action.” Who is the enemy here? I think the answer has to be more than a few conspiracists or plutocrats funding astroturf campaigns. The answer has to do with the basis of modern urban society. It’s the money, honey.

Since the end of the second world war we have seen the freedoms and pro-education values of the time slowly but inexorably eroded. It has been known for a while that the majority of scientific research done in the United States, for instance, is done by the Department of Defence or allied organisations. We know that corporations are well involved in this – and the reason is that the money is to be found in military expenditure (the US spends more on its military and intelligence activities that pretty much the rest of the world). Corporations have but one motivation these days – to “maximise shareholder value” – and so they will employ any and all techniques to achieve this. If it involves science, then they will use science, but if it involves corrupting science, and it does, too often, then they will do that. At the same time the myth has taken root in the west that corporations must flourish for society to flourish (a deeply erroneous myth). So governments have followed the money trail, and taken many steps that promote anti science.

Some people are anti science for psychological reasons. I think of these as “anti modernists”; they fear the change that science will bring. Since science involves, of its very nature, a challenge to the status quo, those who are fearful of changes from the “”way things were” (i.e., in their childhood) will fear also science. These people tend to be those who benefit from the status quo; that is, they tend to be the ruling classes. If science tells us, as it does, that the use of oil and other fossil fuels is bad, the ruling classes who own much of that industry will object, and take steps overtly or covertly to destabilise science.

We have seen this in more than in science. Teaching on what used to be the “humanities” has been defunded. I was chatting to some people recently who were reminiscing about the days when European languages, history and philosophy were well funded university courses. Now there aren’t enough people in my city (Melbourne) to run a frequent seminar series on these topics. The problem is not that science alone is being treated so harshly, but that intellectual life is. Yesterday (and this is what inspires this post) I was told by the vocational counsellor appointed for me by the unemployment agency that “nothing that I know has any value”, meaning that I was unemployable as an intellectual.

What causes this is the focus, purely and simply, on money and its acquisition. The idea that we might take steps as a nation (in my case, Australia) that could in any way interfere with this economy of plutocrats is simply unthinkable to that class. Consequently, science, along with all the other intellectual activities we used to hold dear in a liberal democracy, are now otiose; they simply do not contribute to the Holy Economy. The minister for education in Australia, for example, has said he will personally decide which grants are “useful” when funding academic research. This follows the past thirty years since a notionally progressive government reduced all education to “vocational” education by collapsing the education system into one system, so that vocational education was now the main task of universities (previously, vocational tertiary education was done by non-university colleges).

We live now in a deeply anti intellectual world, at least in the west (there are other problems in the developing nations). It is not because the populace wants no intellectual activity – the many pro-science and pro-intellectual groups that spontaneously form on the internet show that. But instead of it being done properly, the plutocracy has made it into “infotainment”. Instead of shows that actually explain scientific processes and theories, such as we had int he 1960s, we now have Brian Cox or some other pretty face giving us “gee whiz” science, with no explanation or underlying principles at all. But we get some pretty graphics.

For example, in the climate change “debate” I have never seen any mention of Arrhenius’ nineteenth century proof that the earth will warm. Arrhenius used what is now called a “single pixel” approach – treat the earth as a single system and measure the input of energy against the reflection of energy and show that there is an imbalance. What is debated now is the role that parts of that system, like the oceans, play in sequestering heat or recycling it, but the overall sum doesn’t change. We are and can only be seen to be, warming the globe. The rest if detail, and there is no damned debate whatsoever, just about the role different “pixels” play in the way it will happen.

But this is to explain the science, and the media doesn’t like that, because the proprietors, whether state or corporate, do not like that to happen. The reason we live in one of the most stupid of societies for generations si simply that it doesn’t suit the money makers. I have little hope we will oppose this in any way soon.


Filed under Australian stuff, Ecology and Biodiversity, Education, Epistemology, Freedom, General Science, History, Journalism, Politics, Pop culture, Science, Social evolution

Education, Journalism and Science

My last rant was perhaps somewhat intemperate. Carl Zimmer, who along with Ed Yong I really respect as a science journalist, tweeted it with the line:

@carlzimmer: Man, @john_s_wilkins does not like newspapers. 

This is not quite true. I like some newspapers. I do not like the newspaper industry. I worked in various media positions for thirty years. In that time I have seen the best and the worst of journalism (and Carl and Ed are the best). The point of the Twain quote in the last post was that only one in fifty “newspapers of the average pattern” was a virtue. The standard justification for a free press is that they are mostly okay. They mostly aren’t.

But this does not detract from the very good work done on occasion or by good magazines like National Geographic. It is possible to report science without dumbing down or misrepresenting. Carl once interviewed me about a subject I spent ten years working on, species concepts, and his piece in Scientific American (a patchy magazine sometimes) covered the territory well and without distortion.

So what was I getting at? Very simply this: if you want an informed population, put not your faith in the mass media, but in education. No amount of good or ordinary science journalism will improve the public understanding of science. This is hardly a novel view, and it is largely the consensus view in science communication studies.

But let us first ask what legitimate functions science journalism does play, and how it can be done well. First of all, what is meant by the phrase “science journalism”? This covers, in my view, everything from garish front page stories about the latest “breakthrough” in cancer research and “genes for” this or that, through to well written books like Brian Switek’s Written in Stone, or Richard Conniff’s The Species Seekers, to name two recent excellent books. Carl himself has one or two excellent books, including his recent Evolution or A Planet of Viruses (still waiting for the review copy ;-) ). What differentiates bad from good science journalism?

In my mind, the difference lies between “gee whiz” and “this is why”. Science is not a list of discoveries or results; it is a process of discovery and getting results. There is reasoning and work involved, and if you don’t understand the principles behind the reports, you don’t really understand the reports. Any book that just says “scientists have discovered that…” is bad journalism. It tells you something, of course, but doesn’t give you understanding. Good journalism (in science or any other field) tells you why things are what they are and how they came to be that way. It involves narratives, of course, and I never said that narratives, where they are called for, are bad. But good journalists tell narratives where they are required, and not merely for the sake of having a narrative.

For example, there is a narrative, beginning with Arrhenius in the late 19th century, about how we got to understand global warming. But if the goal is to provide understanding of global warming, all that history and personal development is simply drama for its own sake. If you want to understand climate and the reasons why we think the earth is warming, instead focus on the models of energy sinks and sources, ocean transport, the hydrological cycle, etc. The story merely gets in the way. A good journalist will tell only so much of the story as is needed to explain these facts and inferences. A bad journalist will ignore the facts and inferences for the story and personalities, simplifying down to stupidity the actual science, or even just dropping it altogether. As Einstein once wrote:

Anyone who has ever tried to present a rather abstract scientific subject in a popular manner knows the great difficulties of such an attempt. Either he succeeds in being intelligible by concealing the core of the problem and by offering the reader only superficial aspects or vague allusions, thus deceiving the reader by arousing in him the deceptive illusion of comprehension; or else he gives an expert account of the problem, but in such a fashion that the untrained reader is unable to follow the exposition and becomes discouraged from reading any further. If these two categories are omitted from today’s popular scientific literature, surprising little remains. [Quoted in Fahnestock  1986: 276, from 1948]

So what must a good science journalist do? If they are not to write an academic tome, they must select and report what they think is relevant and important, but whatever else they do, they absolutely must report facts. There is no need to make them dramatic if they aren’t. The reader can be asked to do a bit of work. As Terry Pratchett once said, education is Lying to Children, simplifying and paring away complexity, and then adding it back later as the students advance. A science journalist must Lie to the Reader to an extent, but not by adducing opinions from the ignorant in order to maintain interest, nor by lazily using tropes like “gene for”, but by fairly and clearly reporting on the, you know, science.

The industry doesn’t support that. Few are able to make a living like Carl or Ed, researching, talking to the scientists carefully and extensively and not merely a ten minute chat to get some pull quotes to fit a story they already have written in their head, nor just topping and tailing press releases (often written by ex-journalists now posing as university public relations experts) and putting a byline on them.

How does education get around this set of limitations? In an ideal world, by building on increasing understanding of the processes – the methods and reasoning styles – of the actual science. Instead I see evidence that too many pre-university curricula are based around passing exams, which is to say, focussing on the results. However, we know how to educate, even if we don’t do it properly a lot of the time. Educators do not need my advice, but they do need me and everyone else who gives the policy makers their marching orders to support extra funds and resources to do it.

And there’s the problem right there. We have been so acculturated into expecting the media to educate us in an entertaining fashion that we have increasingly defunded and removed opportunities for good science education, and moved to “infotainment” and high technology in schools. We do not know how ignorant we are, and so we do not ask the policy makers to support education properly. Instead we think that by adding another computer based technique we can solve the problem amusingly, with drama, to pique interest.

Another rant I shall make one day is on the industrial nature of education today (shades of Illich!), but the point now is that we are misled by media to think media is the solution, when it is the problem. How to do this better? Stop thinking that communication is the solution to the misunderstanding of science. Start teaching better.

Next, I shall issue a solution to world peace…


Fahnestock, Jeanne. 1986. Accommodating Science: The Rhetorical Life of Scientific Facts. Written Communication 3 (3):275-296.


Filed under Education, Epistemology, Journalism, Rant