In the Year of Darwin, Anticipating the Dawkins Problem

Next year, as the science community celebrates the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, leading organizations such as the AAAS, NIH, and the National Academies will be participating in coordinated efforts to reach out to new audiences, emphasizing the value and importance of teaching evolution in schools.

They will be using innovative techniques such as the AAAS YouTube video produced above. And as the National Academies did last year or as AAAS does in the video, they will be focusing importantly on the frame of religious compatibility, reassuring and confirming for many key audiences the compatibility between evolutionary science and the great majority of religious traditions.

Yet despite these communication efforts, the loudest voice on evolution threatens to be Richard Dawkins and other New Atheist pundits who will be arguing their maverick view that evolutionary science undermines the validity of religion or even respect for the religious. Dawkins, in particular, when on his US publicity tour for his forthcoming book, is likely to engage in his trademark rhetoric, comparing belief to a virus of the mind, child abuse, and fairy tales. In the process, he will continue to send confusing messages about the important differences between science, atheism, and religion. As he admits in the film Expelled and elsewhere, his personal beliefs about atheism are likely to do damage to the cause of defending the teaching of evolution in schools.

On April 13 (details forthcoming), as part of a lecture series in DC hosted by the National Academies and co-sponsored by NIH, I will be talking about the communication challenges on evolution, the recent innovative strategies on the part of several organizations, and the public outreach problems generated by Dawkins and the New Atheist movement. For a preview, see this interview segment I did with Big Think this past summer or this forthcoming book chapter.

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By any chance, will your talk address the combative tone you've adopted here, and its nonutility in settling any issues at all?

I'd be most interested to hear how efforts to communicate science will successfully navigate around some of the loudest voices of obfuscation and self-promotion - pundits such as Nisbet et al who persist in sending confused messages and arguments depending on what best suits their careers and egos at the time.

I hope the efforts of those interested in communicating science are successful in the task ahead of them.

By Captain Obvious (not verified) on 12 Dec 2008 #permalink

"As he admits in the film Expelled and elsewhere, his personal beliefs about atheism are likely to do damage to the cause of defending the teaching of evolution in schools."

The reason why evolution is taught in school is straightforward: biology is taught in schools and evolution is an integral part of biology. That biology is strictly based on science and has nothing to do with religion.

Of course, there are some fine scientists who speak out how their religious beliefs are compatible with their scientific views. There are also fine scientists who speak out about how the increase in scientific understanding has strengthened their atheistic beliefs. That's how things proceed in a pluralistic society where free speech is valued.

I can understand that religious scientists ("good guys") are helpful when selling science for religious people. But is the constant whine about the "bad guys" absolutely necessary for a successful sale? As you probably have noticed, such polarizing rhetoric has made a large fraction of the natural science community highly skeptical towards your ideas of how to sell science to the layman.

If every Christian in the world decided that there were no conflict between their religion and evolution, would that advance the state of science? If some Christian sect decided made evolution a part of its catechism, would that advance the state of biological knowledge?

I say no. The problem isn't that the religious believe that science is compatible or not with their religious beliefs, but that they think that that should matter. And the goal of biological education isn't to spread assent, but understanding. The conflict between science and faith is most exposed in the opposition to evolution. But it runs far broader and deeper.

The AAAS movie will create confusion about evolution theory. Ms. Miller states she believes that "God created the world through evolution" while a bit later, ms. Roseman claims that scientific theories do not invoke supernatural explanations and that therefore ID is not science. But then why is theistic evolution? That also evokes a supernatural explanation, doesn't it? Viewers will be confused about the apparent contradiction.

I know what they want to say, but the movies messes it up, becauses it puts some rather complicated philosophy of science in a few soundbites. It should be made clear that evolution theory depends only on falsifiable natural causes (which in turn might be caused by unfalsifiable supernatural causes.)

Also I found the music rather distracting.

Would you care to quickly explain how belief in religion is different from belief in hobgoblins? There is no evidence that either belief is true.

Why does it matter if people accept evolution? One of the goals of science education should be to create understanding, not to get as many people on your side as possible.
The important thing about evolution is for people to understand it. If they understand it and aren't crazy, they will almost surely accept it.
Dawkins is not lecturing about religion in classrooms. Where exactly is he supposed to voice his views and opinions if he wants to engage an adult audience?
Is the world better off today because of people like Voltaire and Paine? Worse off ?
"Common sense is not so common," so we'd better have at least some people around stating the obvious.

One of if not the primary reasons that Darwin didn't publish his work for 30+ years was because it negated religious thought. It does the same now. And that's how I like my evolution; truthful, soulless, and god-free.

Russel wrote:

If every Christian in the world decided that there were no conflict between their religion and evolution, would that advance the state of science?

Absolutely, on at least two counts. First, the dishonest campaign to indoctrinate children that evolution is a lie, is "only a theory," is "weak," is equivalent to atheism, etc. would grind to a halt. Creation pseudoscience would go the way of geocentrism, and places like the Discovery Institute, the Institute for Creation Research, and Answers in Genesis would fold. Students would be far more inclined to develop a trust in the scientific method and support science later in life. Second, scientists and science advocates could stop wasting time and energy defending against the same tired canards that are constantly trotted out by proponents of creation pseudoscience. Communicating the importance of science to the public is still critical, of course, but antievolution efforts severely hamper the effort.

You're making this too complicated. The threats to evolutionary science and knowledge aren't from the people who already understand it (like Dawkins), but from the people who have turned denial into a social and political ideology (like many of Dawkins' critics).

Creationists have based their whole movement on the notions that teaching evolution caused the Holocaust and other human rights abuses. They are not dealing with reality; their statements are fantasies, about a bigger fantasy, and so the actual characteristics of any real opponents they face--whether it's Dawkins or someone else--does not matter.

James, you're assuming that evolution is the only sticking point, that for the religious inhibits "a trust in the scientific method." (Assuming, for the moment, that such trust is what science is about.)

My view is different. My view is that there always will be conflict between science and popular belief. Look around. There is AIDS denial. Homeopathy is a big business. Celebrities condemn vaccination.

And when some religious group does accept some claim of science, that does not mean it suddenly is friendly to science. The Catholic Church teaches there is no conflict between Catholicism and evolution. Indeed, the Church has long claimed to uphold Reason. But that doesn't make Catholicism friendly to science. Nor to reason. People raised in the Catholic faith go through the same personal struggles as those from fundamentalist sects, when engaging science. Why is that? Because the core conflict isn't with a tenet of faith, but with the practice of faith. A sect can help its adherents compartmentalize their thought, by eliminating more obvious conflicts. But it can't eliminate the cognitive dissonance from that practice.

I appreciate the thought behind this video but, to me, Francis "triune waterfall" Collins ain't the man to tout the view to "put the battles to rest", a sentiment with which I agree, and "get back together in the middle ground". There AIN'T no middle ground. Sorry (not really). Science is reality-based and religion isn't. By all means, keep your faith. I don't want to take it away from you. BUT. Keep your faith away from science and don't use your faith to justify banning abortion, stem cell research, deny global warming, or anything else that affects all of us living in reality. Alan Leshner puts it best in the video when he says pitting science against religion is a gimmick to enhance the credibility of religion "to imply that religion has scientific content" when it CLEARLY doesn't.

It isn't the job of scientists to reconcile scientific conclusions with religion, and those scientists who claim that religion and science are compatible are engaging in dishonest double-think. It may be true that you could, in theory, devise a religion that does not contradict science, but that does not assure that the religions that exist today are like that, and to claim that they are without even looking at the evidence (the doctrines that they advance) is an article of faith.

Take the Catholics, as an example. They've said that it's not a problem to believe in evolution, but they also claim that we all inherit original sin from a literal descent from Adam and Eve. Well the question of whether or not all of humanity descends from a single breeding pair is inherently a scientific one, but Catholicism seems to find a need to have its own doctrine about the matter. It isn't hard to see why: no Adam and Eve, no original sin, no need for Jesus, so then what is Christianity for? don't have to follow the reasoning far to see the radical incompatibility between the religion and a complete retreat from the supposed scientific magesterium.

Should we just pretend that these issues don't exist? Or worse, deny their existence, like those who deny the evidence for evolution? Wouldn't it be better to insist that religion actually stop trying to make scientific claims before we just declare them compatible?

By Rex Lunae (not verified) on 16 Dec 2008 #permalink