BioLogos to scientists: stop advocating

By now we’re familiar with accommodationists attacking scientists as being largely responsible for not only the rejection of science by the faithful (because we’re so clueless about how to frame our work) but also for scientific illiteracy itself.  A few days ago PeeZee posted about a misguided attack by Carlin Romano on Massimo Pigliucci’s new book on pseudoscientific garbage, Nonsense on Stilts.  Romano objected to the certainty with which scientists dismiss pseudoscientific claims—a certainty that, he argues, translates into the public appearance of arrogance.

A new article on the accommodationist website BioLogos makes a similar point.  In “The dangers of advocacy in science”, molecular biologist Steven Benner claims that one reason “why non-scientists often have a difficult time understanding what scientists do” is because when we appear in public to advocate causes, we fail to convey the uncertainty inherent in the scientific enterprise.

When scientists appear in the news, they are generally sought for their advice on a matter of public policy. They are asked for certainty, not to express the uncertainty that is at the core of science correctly done. . .

The temptation to participate in the public dialogue as an advocate is considerable. I myself have been interviewed by reporters who become impatient if I actually practice science before their eyes. It is generally simpler give an answer rather than to present the context, including all of its uncertainty.

For this reason, it is important, here and elsewhere, for scientists to emphasize that uncertainty is central to science, and advocacy is disruptive of it. When a scientist becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use scientific discipline to discern reality.

Indeed!  From now on whenever I defend evolutionary biology in public, I’ll make sure to emphasize that, after all, even though it’s been supported by 150 years of solid evidence and millions of facts, and there is not a single fact to suggest that the idea of evolution is wrong, some day we just might find a fossil rabbit in the Precambrian.  Maybe that public professional of uncertainty will finally make people sit up and accept evolution.

Benner fails to appreciate two things. First of all, scientist-advocates wear two hats: when we’re advocating public policy or some other social change, we are not practicing science. We are acting as humans who have concerns and science-based arguments.  Or are we not supposed to advocate anything because we’re scientists?

Of course we can be fallible (look at the scientists who deny that AIDS is caused by a virus), and we shouldn’t pretend certainty when it doesn’t exist, but do most scientists who go on radio and t.v. really pretend that they know more than they do?  That’s not my impression, and it’s telling that Benner doesn’t give a single example of the failure of scientists to show proper deference to The Great Unknown.  (He mentions doctors putting on white coats when appearing with Obama to endorse health care reform, but that’s hardly the same thing.)  And when the news does show us looking dogmatic, more often than not it’s the fault of sound-bite loving journalists who edit out all the uncertainties.  I’m quite familiar with that!

Second, some scientific advances, including the “theories” of evolution and virus causation of AIDS, are so well established that it’s simply moronic to pretend there are credible doubts about them. Usually—though not always—scientists advocate based on what they feel is reasonably well established knowledge in the field.  Do we really want doctors advocating measures against AIDS to appear on t.v. saying, “Well, you know, there are a very, very few people with Ph.D.s who feel that AIDS is simply the result of a decadent lifestyle”? It’s no smarter to hedge well established science than to hedge any other well established fact used to support a cause.

But wait—there’s a bigger problem.  What about all that advocacy based on religion?  Can we expect BioLogos to also advise the faithful to stop advocating based on their religious views?  Or at least to hedge their statements like this:

“We should prevent all abortions because even one-day-old embryos have souls.  Oh, wait. . . I forgot to add that there’s not the slightest bit of evidence that humans do have a soul.”

“You shouldn’t use condoms to prevent AIDS because God says that birth control is wrong.  Of course, we have absolutely no evidence for God’s existence.”

There’s a curious asymmetry in the views of accommodationists.  They tell us that we’re supposed to be meek, humble, respectful, and always ready to emphasize our uncertainties.  But who has more uncertainty or arrogance than the faithful, who take public stands on abortion, bioethics, conservation and the like based on beliefs for which there’s no evidence?  As always, religion gets a pass in the marketplace of ideas.

Let’s rewrite that BioLogos statement so that it addresses the other side of the faith/science debate:

For this reason, it is important, here and elsewhere, for the faithful  to emphasize that uncertainty is central to religion, and advocacy is disruptive of it. When a religious person becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use faith to discern reality.

UPDATE:  Benner has written two long responses to the critiques of his post that P.Z. and I have written, accusing us of not having read his essay and of ignoring his impressive credentials as a scientist. Rather than have a long back and forth in the comments section here, I refer you to his response at Pharyngula, which you can find here (comments 39 and 40).

My own response is this: I stand by what I wrote. I do apologize for my initial misspelling of Benner’s name (which I immediately corrected when one of the commenters pointed it out). Benner beefs that P.Z. and I did not read his entire multi-part essay. That’s right:  I was not criticizing the whole thing, which I still have not read, but only his one final post on why scientists should not be advocates. It was a sloppy and misguided piece, and my comments on it stand.  And Benner’s text, which is what I criticized, was at odds with what the accompanying cartoon showed.

71 Comments

  1. Tacroy
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Let’s rewrite that BioLogos statement so that it addresses the other side of the faith/science debate:

    For this reason, it is important, here and elsewhere, for the faithful to emphasize that uncertainty is central to religion, and advocacy is disruptive of it. When a religious person becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use faith to discern reality.

    Well, that basically explains everything right there. I wonder what Mr. Brenner’s response to that would be? I bet it involves pleading of the special sort.

    • artikcat
      Posted May 5, 2010 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      The person that wrote the post in question is Steven BEnner, not BRenner. Maybe unconscious reference to Sidney Brenner? (distinguishedest mol biologist?). Should also higlight the really bad -la Trump-hair: what else to expect?

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted May 5, 2010 at 7:40 am | Permalink

        Yes, you’re right. Thanks. I’ve fixed it. However, I can’t resist pointing out that the biologist was SYDNEY Brenner. :-)

        • artikcat
          Posted May 5, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

          Yes, you’re ryght.

        • Posted May 5, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

          Hey, just writing here for a tech curio. Your posts’ RSS feeds go out well before the post itself is actually published. I saw this one yesterday morning. So when I click on the feed link to the post, I get a “not found” error.

      • Posted May 6, 2010 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

        It is remarkable that articat, who is posting on a scientific blog and who (presumably) wants us to think that that he/she is aware of the process of scientific thinking and scientific argumentation, would post this anti-science ad hominem.

        Besides, Sydney’s hair is not that bad.

        • articulett
          Posted May 7, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

          ArtiKcat… (since we’ve segued into name spelling errors)

          –not to be confused with articulett (no K)

          • articulett
            Posted May 7, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

            oops *artikcat (*lowercase a)

  2. puzzledponderer
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    The refutation by simply replacing scientists with the faithful is just fantastic. It’s great how often it can be employed to show the blatant hypocrisy in such statements. I never tire of this method.

    BioLogos needs to rethink whether they want to help or hurt science in the public sphere. Putting their “desired” humble, dubious scientist next to an arrogant, certainty-feigning faithhead will not win science any points. Somewhere they must possess the intelligence to see that.

  3. Sili
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    BioLogos? Francis Collins’ advocacy group? Telling us to stop advocating?

    Damn, but the cognitive dissonance is strong in this one.

    • Posted May 4, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      Sili, once again, you win the Internets! 8)

  4. Grendels Dad
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Ah, more from the tone police. What was it that Shakespeare wrote…

    “But words are words. I never yet did hear
    That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.”

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; as long as you are telling someone that they are wrong about such a fundamental issue they won’t be any happier with the sugar-coated version than they are with the plainly spoken truth. It really is the content of the message, not the tone, that pushes people’s buttons.

  5. Posted May 4, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I think that Coyne shows the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of accommodation.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted May 5, 2010 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      Intellectually bankrupt: certainly!
      But is keeps the $$ rolling in for many a Templeton fellow.

  6. Posted May 4, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    There’s a curious asymmetry in the views of accommodationists. They tell us that we’re supposed to be meek, humble, respectful, and always ready to emphasize our uncertainties. But who has more uncertainty or arrogance than the faithful, who take public stands on abortion, bioethics, conservation and the like based on beliefs for which there’s no evidence? As always, religion gets a pass in the marketplace of ideas.

    It suddenly hit me… I think this is because religions tend to pay lip service to humility and meekness as being virtuous. All of us here know that, you know, claiming the divine creator of the universe gives shit about what you do with your junk is pretty much the antithesis of humility, but they say that they practice being meek and humble.

    In contrast, us atheists don’t usually say we are all into meekness and humility, even though atheism is probably the most humble possible position on faith. (Agnosticism is possibly more humble, but it’s also way meek, and — sorry, Jesus, but — meekness sucks!)

    With this in mind, I suggest a new approach: We should talk about how humble and nice and kind we are, and then just be in-your-face anyway.

    “What the Pope doesn’t understand is that he needs to use a more conciliatory tone. He needs to find a way to understand the other side, and not advocate rash action. See, us atheists, we are much more humble and circumspect. We would never advocate for a radical approach, because we are moderate and willing to compromise and accommodate. Therefore, the Pope should be arrested and thrown in jail to rot!”

    I think it might just work…

    • MadScientist
      Posted May 4, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      Religion has always been a carnival sideshow to fleece the gullible. Unicorn? Hell yeah – and ours returns from the dead even. Bearded lady? We have something better – a virgin who reproduces asexually! Nothing ever goes in, but babies just pop out. Step right up, and don’t forget to hand over all your money!

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted May 5, 2010 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

        The flaw in that analogy is that I have yet to see a carney living a vast palace, sitting on a golden throne, surrounded by artworks and treasures of incalculable value.
        Perhaps we could reverse that, and turn the Vatican City into a real circus?

    • Janet Holmes
      Posted May 4, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

      Science is actually humble (I agree meekness sucks). Scientists admit they don’t know something and then rather than glorifying ignorance like religion does, it tries to find out the answer. That’s the bit the religious don’t like of course …

      • Posted May 5, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        Yes, but us on the side of reason don’t go on and on about how humble we are, and how proud of ourselves that makes us. (irony intentional) We know that doubt is the most humble position of all, so we don’t need to say it. But maybe we should, because it seems like the more you brag about how humble you are, the more people believe it.

        • Posted May 5, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

          “the more you brag about how humble you are, the more people believe it.”

          Hahahaha – great line. True, too.

        • Keith Douglas
          Posted May 6, 2010 at 5:58 am | Permalink

          As an interesting genius says (in song, hence in his case in jest), “Think you’re really righteous? Think you’re pure in heart?
          Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art”

      • Mar
        Posted September 8, 2010 at 7:26 am | Permalink

        This is how you come across, Janet:

        I am a scientist so I am humble. Religion is not humble, that’s why it’s bad. I don’t do bad things like religion. That’s why religion doesn’t like me. I am humble because I admit it when I don’t know something – but I do know all about religion. (And I don’t like it, because it’s bad).

        I don’t glorify ignorance. It’s not ignorance when I don’t know something, it’s being humble. But when religion doesn’t know something, then it’s ignorance, because religion is bad. I try to find the answer when I don’t know something, but I don’t have to try to find an answer about religion because I do know all about religion. (And it’s bad; it’s not humble like me.)

        Sorry, Janet, your comments reveal that you know diddley-squat about religion – and yes, that’s ignorance. And you are wallowing in it. And no, that’s not humble.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 5, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Agnosticism is possibly more humble

      Eh? The agnostic fallacy is based on the religious belief that you can’t test religious belief. That doesn’t seem especially humble to me, as opposed the atheistic fact-based claim that you need facts before you make such claims.

      In fact, agnosticism is the far more serious use of claiming against observation of “non-overlapping magisteria” than any accommodationist use. The former is an outright functional belief applied to the physical world, the later a mere phylogenetic relic of a belief in belief.

      • Posted May 5, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        I guess it depends on the particular flavor of agnosticism. I was thinking of the type that correctly observes that nothing can ever be 100% certain or 100% proven, and then uses that as a namby-pamby excuse to refuse to take a position on the God question.

        It’s humble, because it acknowledges epistemological limitations. But it’s totally lame because one could make an identical argument about, say, the existence of this coffee mug I am about to fill up. What I perceive as the mug could be an elaborate illusion projected by space aliens to trick me into pouring hot coffee on my hand… I acknowledge this possibility as having a non-zero probability. However, that doesn’t force me to be “agnostic” on the Aliens-Are-Tricking-Me-With-A-Fake-Coffee-Mug question. That possibility is so far fetched that I reject it as a practical impossibility, and quite silly to boot. Just like Magic Sky Daddy.

        So IMO the type of agnostic that asserts, “You can never 100% prove anything!” is being humble but exceedingly lame. However, I do agree with you that the “science cannot comment on even the probability of religious claims” form of agnosticism is not particularly humble.

  7. MadScientist
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I agree that (mediocre) scientists often fail to state uncertainties. However, if we take an example such as the 14C analysis of the shroud of Turin, the people involved did state the uncertainties – and we can be absolutely certain that the shroud is not around 2000 years old as claimed. We can also be certain that the depicted blood stains are not human blood (nor god blood, nor even some other animal’s blood). I can’t imagine why people who are so desperate to be absolutely certain that their lies are true would be so upset about people who work so hard to establish and promote the truth. Yeah, scientists should stop advocating science and instead promote bullshit like religion.

    • Tacroy
      Posted May 4, 2010 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      Why must you be so arrogant as to assert that God doesn’t bleed paint? Clearly, your anti-relic advocacy is making you lose sight of reality!

  8. poke
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    It actually annoys me when scientists or science-advocates put too much emphasis on uncertainty. Relative to other matters discussed in public forums, science deals in things that are as near to certainties as we get. You mention religious discussions but this is true of political debate or even common sense assertions. Science is far more certain than any other area of human interest (except possibly mathematics). The chances are that science is more certain than anything else in a typical layman’s range of experience and I think there’s nothing wrong with applying the term “certainty” to established science.

    • articulett
      Posted May 4, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      I agree that science is as close to certainty as we get. We don’t say that gravity “may” exist. Moreover, we don’t say fairies “may” exist either. We say fairies don’t exist. And we speak of gravity as the certainty that it is. Even accomodationists do this. Unfortunately gods and souls fall in the same category as fairies while scientific theories are evidenced like gravity. What the accommodationist are really asking for is special treatment of religious beliefs and a “toning down” of that makes believers uncomfortable (like pointing out that their beliefs are no more supportable than the conflicting beliefs they reject.)

      How hypocritical that believers in the supernatural are so eager to get naturalists to “tone it down”, when it is their own claims that are so very unsupported –and all the sugar coating and coddling in the world can’t change that. Ah well, if they can’t handle the message, they’ll just shoot down the messenger with concern trolling.

      Methinks Biologos doth protest too much. Award them a Dunning-Kruger forthwith!

      • Posted May 5, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        So the basic idea is that things should be in reverse proportion – the less evidence there is for a claim, the more confidently it should be asserted, while the more evidence there is, the more humbly and meekly the claim should be tentatively apologetically uncertainly suggested. I geddit.

  9. oldfuzz
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I have been bothered by the term accommodationist, thinking it was a slur, until I visited the BioLogos website. Whew! What a ration of paycho-spiritual prestidigitation.

    As a former Methodist–never an “old time religion” theist–who now calls himself a secular Christian, if labels are required, I gag and wonder how people can suffer the cognitive arteriosclerosis necessary to read metaphor as fact.

    One of the problems I have is understanding terminology, especially regarding religion, which is too often identified as fundamentalist Christian. Fortunately I found The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions which offers a broad perspective of the varieties of religious views and beliefs.

    Two insightful definition/commentaries are on “religion” and “science and religion”.

    • Janet Holmes
      Posted May 4, 2010 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      WTF is a ‘secular christian’?

      • Tacroy
        Posted May 4, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

        76% of the population of the United States, for a start.

        What, did you think most of them really believe in that God business? If they did, they would act a lot differently, let me tell you. Who needs health care when you have prayer?

        • oldfuzz
          Posted May 4, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

          Pay attention. They do.

          • Tacroy
            Posted May 5, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

            No, I’m sorry, that’s not the case at all. Rational actions in a universe in which God exists would be entirely different from rational actions in a universe in which God doesn’t exist.

            Seriously, just think about it. That guy was doing something that’s entirely rational if God exists. All other avenues of help were shut off, so he was relying on divine intercession.

            And yet for some reason we think “he was kinda dumb, thinking God would help him”.

            • oldfuzz
              Posted May 5, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

              Oops. Sorry I missed your point. My mind was on the question of secular Christianity which creates interesting comments from Christians and non-Christians alike.

              The point is: We are raised in a culture, initially family, then local and, depending on how our life unfolds, a broader group.

              We can choose to think and resolve tensions that come from our increasing comprehension or align ourselves with some group thought. I prefer the former and encourage others to find their personal truth. Adopting mine would be a form of slavery and I can’t afford that burden.

              I have chosen–or so I tell myself–to follow John Wesley’s admonition to “think and let think.”

              My Christian orientation began before I can recall as a Methodist who through my mental development moved away from the “God exists” concept to the “God as mystery” idea at an early age.

              My sixty years of thinking about this has led me to where I am seeing God as Gaia, nature, hence, secular and Christian. It’s where I am. I suggest that all who are interested in the mystery address it in their own way. For those who see no mystery, that’s fine, too.

      • oldfuzz
        Posted May 4, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

        Someone who sees “god” as a word used to label the transcendent, the “I don’t know”, as originally intended who finds a humane meaning system in the core teachings of Jesus.

        Since there is no agreed definition of Christian, an appropriate modifier is required to identify the type of Christian one is.

        The same holds true in science where there are different scientific views; e.g., BBT, BBT2, SST SST2.

      • Jonn Mero
        Posted May 5, 2010 at 2:45 am | Permalink

        Secular christian = a non-superstitious superstitious cretin?
        Gimme a break!

        • Posted May 5, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink

          Enh, I don’t necessarily see a problem with the term secular Christian — I mean, you’ve heard the term “secular Jew”, right? And in fact, one of the big names in atheism, I forget who, once mentioned that he considered himself a “secular Christian” in the sense that he practices Christian traditions, though he doesn’t believe a whit of the myth or dogma.

          Since I married my wife — an atheist Jew — I have found myself quite enamored with a couple of Jewish holidays, particularly Passover. This prompted me to ask whether a gentile can convert directly from atheism to Jewish atheism, which actually inspired Jerry himself to weigh on my blog with a hearty “no”. :D

          • Stan Pak
            Posted May 5, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

            I do not have Jewish roots and might be wrong about that, but I think that you just equivocate “Jew” as a believer in Judaism with an ethnic category. “Jew” has dual meaning. “Secular Jew” to means like “secular German” without region attached to it and I have met many such guys in my life who used that title in that meaning. “secular xtian” is more oxymoronic, because in order to be xtian you are supposed to believe in xtianity. It is clearly religious category and I cannot think about anything else except tradition. But I do not call myself xtian just because we have xmas tree in my house.

            • oldfuzz
              Posted May 5, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

              The underlying question is what is Christianity? Many people–Christian and non-Christian alike–have never studied Christian history.

              First, Jesus was a Jew. Christianity began some time after his death, probably fifty years or so, as small groups gathered to live according to his teachings. We are fairly sure there were three “branches” of Christianity led by James, Peter and Paul respectively. Christianity did not become a significant religious group until the fourth century when Constantine endorsed it.

              Today there are several orthodox denominations and more than two hundred recognized non-orthodox, mainly Protestant, denominations, each originated as the one true Christianity.

              For me to say I am a secular Christian is to say I see the teachings of Jesus to be the basis of an appropriate meaning system, a source of values, in living my life. The secular part means that if I must have a god, Gaia would be it.

              On the other hand, my wife thinks George Clooney is a god.

            • Posted May 5, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

              I think that you just equivocate “Jew” as a believer in Judaism with an ethnic category

              I didn’t mean to equivocate the two, but I do mean to suggest that, when you are talking about culture rather than literal beliefs, the delineation is nowhere near cut-and-dry. Here is some relevant reading material. And while I can’t seem to find the link at the moment, there are actual temples that cater to secular Jews, i.e. they provide a community and the opportunity to attend a weekly service, but without any dogma or mythology. (I know because my wife and I briefly looked into it, but found there are no such temples within a hundred miles of us)

              You are right that it is not an apples-to-apples comparison to the term “secular Christian” because of the relationship to ethnicity, but I still think it is relevant. You can be an ethnic Jew but not a cultural Jew. And you can be either without practicing Judaism, of course.

            • Stan Pak
              Posted May 5, 2010 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

              To James Sweet:

              Thanks for link. I gave it some thought and I agree to the extent that by “secular” we mean only when one desires to keep religion from public decision making and treats it as completely private thing. Then we of course may say “secular X” where X means any belief system and there is no contradiction.

              I have impression that you mean cultural Jewish atheists as secular too, which is fine. However all secular Jews can contain both religious and atheists. I think that people should rather use “cultural Jew atheist” instead of “secular Jew” to indicate their irreligious attachment to tradition.

            • oldfuzz
              Posted May 6, 2010 at 7:12 am | Permalink

              James Sweat. Thanks for the link from me also. One of my recent encounters with a new term differentiated Judaism, as orthopraxy (right practice) and Christianity as orthodoxy (right belief). In my experience many modern, for want of a better word, Christians are moving toward right practice as their core value and seeing right belief in every value system, religious and otherwise, that promotes social justice.

        • oldfuzz
          Posted May 5, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          If ad hominem is your style I have no response; however, a survey of contemporary Christian scholarship reveals the variety and uncertainty of what a Christian is.

          In science, terms are defined narrowly. Even then they can require modifying adjectives or clarification.

          In religion, Christianity to be specific, terms are so vague as to be meaningless without clarification.

          I exchanges email with Michael Ruse previously and he said one could not be a Christian if one did not believe in God. My simple request–Define god–is beyond words.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 5, 2010 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        It seems to me to be another term for “concern troll”.

  10. jose
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    I think Brenner is mixing up two different claims about science. Sure there is uncertainty in every paper ever published. Papers always say things like our results suggest stuff that might help in comprehending certain aspects of… etc. But popular science is not actual research. Popular science writers make science simple and understandable by hiding stuff we don’t need to know to make out the big picture. Since uncertainty is a part of scientific research, it needs to be condensed and made simple as well. Ok, they do that already. Take a look at this.

    Instead of making uncertainty as accesible and understandable as the rest of science as Feynman does in that video, Brenner wants the uncertainty of actual research to be shown to the general public, as that’s what he does when “he practices science before the eyes” of some journalist. Obviously, the journalist gets bored–he doesn’t care about your work, dude. He cares about journalism. That’s why he studied journalism in the first place. Probably he goes to journalists’ conferences and reads grammar books and stuff. All he wants to know about this work of yours is what it is, what it does, and why it’s good for the general public to know about it.

    This point of him has produced a bad outcome: the public is bored. Knowing that, I don’t understand why he still thinks it’s a good idea.

  11. Posted May 5, 2010 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    Uncertainty? I’m not sure. :-)

  12. Matt G
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    As the saying goes, scientists have evidence without certainty, while religious people have certainty without evidence.

    • oldfuzz
      Posted May 5, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Well said. My first reading of this was in the Science and Creationism edited by Ashley Montagu (1984). His exact words were, “science is proof without certainty and bigotry is certainty without proof.” (if my aging memory is working. It’s an oldie, but goodie as we said in my youth.

      • oldfuzz
        Posted May 6, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink

        Note: His use of bigotry was toward Creationism in this case.

  13. Eric MacDonald
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    What really gets to me about this is that the whole silly idea that scientists should be as apologetic and humble as they can possibly be is that it is effectively a defence of both religious certainty and and its expression. Its obvious purpose is to contrast the uncertainty of science with the certainty of religion, the exploratory, hypothetical nature of science with the unchanging absolutes of religious belief.

    In other words, the proposal is disingenuous. After all, religion can’t really be hesitant or hypothetical about its conclusions. Although some theologians have spoken of theology as a quest, in which doubt may play its part, there is no evidential basis for religious claims, so the function of doubt in the context of religion is either a sham – just pretending to be a discipline with an error theory – or a decisive refutation of religion itself.

    So, the idea that science must frame its advocacy in the way suggested by Steven Brenner immediately puts religion at an advantage, since science ends up looking tentative and hypothetical, while religion, on the contrary, is made to seem confident and assured. And of course the religious doubtless prefer this way of stacking the odds in their favour. There should be some acknowledgement, though, that the whole thing is a deliberate attempt to mislead and to deceive. If it’s not that, one has to wonder how anyone gets to be that stupid.

  14. Pete D
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    That’s funny…when I go to Benner’s website at FAME, I don’t see ‘uncertainty’ mentioned anywhere. Nor is the link to ‘Press Coverage.’

    • Posted May 6, 2010 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

      Hmmm. My IT person tells me that there were 58 downloads on May 5 of one of my recent papers on molecular paleontology. As “uncertainty” and its equivalents (like “ambiguity”) appears multiple times in this paper, it appears that if you are one of the downloadees, you did not read the paper.
      Buy my book “Life, the Universe and the Scientific Method” from our web page (www.ffame.org). If you tell Romaine that you are the person who writes blog comments making allegations about papers that you have not read, she will give you a $10.00 discount. Consider it a “win-win-win”. You get a fine book, save ten bucks, and learn a lesson that my father taught me (“Better to be quiet and be thought ignorant than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”).

  15. Pete D
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    correction…”Nor IN the link to ‘Press Coverage.’

  16. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I agree that there is an asymmetry and special pleading going on, as so eminently revealed here.

    The cultural basis for this is, AFAIU, that the medieval support of aristotelian “science” resulted in theologists embracing the inductivist “explanation” of the area. This idea can still be seen underlying many descriptions of science.

    David Deutsch terms it “cryptoinductivism” and explains its philosophical failures. (In short, you can’t just extrapolate trends into theory because failed tests inductively justify the conclusion that inductionism can’t justify conclusions.) Me, I’m just observing that testing survives testing, an eminent bootstrap meta-procedure.

    I am fairly certain by such observations that accommodationists use routine withdrawal from testing their ideas of science to shore up their cognitive dissonance as far as it can take them.

    A means to stress their stance is to point out that, if in fact inductivism was (adopted as) a religious idea somewhere in the 1800s or so, it has problems with testability. For example, we routinely adopt communal criteria for when enough is enough, when we have “tested beyond reasonable doubt”.

    Also, this makes it possible, far earlier than the massive amount of testing that went into, say, evolution, to put away the measure of remaining uncertainty and appeal to “have been tested”. There will be some risk of reversals then, we can be sure [sic!] of that. But we don’t pretend to know more than we do either.

  17. Kirth Gersen
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Jerry. This is possibly your best post on the issue yet — clear, to the point, and cogent enough to make even the self-appointed blogosphere moderators at “You’re Not Helping” sit up and pay attention.

    • Ghyl Tarvoke
      Posted May 6, 2010 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      Vance fan, or extreme coincidence?

      Have you been deserted by your enemies?

      • Kirth Gersen
        Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        Nice one! Yes, I’ve long been an admirer of Vance’s, not the least for his masterful command of the language. As for me personally, I relocated to Texas some time ago from more civilized places… and feel like it’s every bit as wild and bizarre as Gersen’s Beyond.

  18. neil
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Religion is bunk. God is unknowable. Science knowledge (the only knowledge) is provisional, but most of it is much less provisional than is worth mentioning.

  19. Posted May 5, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Nice para by Nick Matzke:

    “Benner also overemphasizes uncertainty and caveats. Sure, uncertainty is fundamental to science. But Benner misses the absolutely crucial point that there are all sorts of degrees of uncertainty. When scientists really do know something pretty much for sure, it is absolute foolery to pretend that there is actually uncertainty about it. And of course there are all kinds of lobbies/forces that like to artificially inflate scientific uncertainty, so it’s not as if society is safer or better off if we push scientists from emphasizing certainty to emphasizing uncertainty.”

  20. Ken Pidcock
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Good post, but I respectfully object to the application of accommodationist to BioLogos. Eugenie Scott is an accommodationist. Francis Collins is something else altogether. Logically, believers cannot be said to accommodate belief.

    Besides, it’s my understanding that, in common parlance, accommodationists are said to be of the party of Chamberlain, not the party of Goering.

    • oldfuzz
      Posted May 5, 2010 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

      I am having a problem with the term accommodationist due to its singular web definition being “someone who tries to compromise with an opposition or accommodates his own stance to fit another’s” at http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/accommodationist

      I would read accommodationist as one who accommodates, a term which has many meanings at web dictionaries I trust more than wiki; e.g., http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/ which lists several usages, the closest to concerns herein being “adjustment: making or becoming suitable; adjusting to circumstances.”

      In contemporary religious scholarship the two extremes are those who read their religious texts as literal and those who read them as metaphors of the period created. It is those who hold fast to a literal interpretation of sacred texts and skew science to fit that I would label accommodationists. Those who embrace scientific knowledge unconditionally–except for the natural uncertainty of scientific theory–then read their texts as metaphors newly informed by facts I would call the truly religious; i.e., those who have created a personal meaning system based on ancient stories which carry an inherent moral message.

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted May 6, 2010 at 5:12 am | Permalink

        In this context, I think an accommodationist is simply a naturalist who pretends that there is no inherent conflict between a scientific understanding of the world and belief in supernatural agency, their intended purpose being to defend scientific research and education from religious assault.

        Or sometimes just to dodge the label atheist. I mean, let’s be honest here.

        • oldfuzz
          Posted May 6, 2010 at 8:20 am | Permalink

          I have a problem with the term atheist for several reasons, but mainly because I can’t say I disbelieve in a deity that defies definition. (It could be the inherent doubt of the engineer in me.)

          My preference is non-theist, meaning I find the concept of deity inconsequential. I embrace the idea of there being phenomena beyond knowing whether they be incomprehensible to the limited human mind or transcendent even to an omniscient one.

          Just as black and white are the poles of illumination, shades of gray exist. Moreover, a black/white model excludes color.

          • Ruth
            Posted May 6, 2010 at 8:57 am | Permalink

            But surely ‘non-theist’ is precisely what ‘a-theist’ means, anyway?

            • oldfuzz
              Posted May 6, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

              While I agree from a purely logical perspective, my choice is one of distancing myself from the usage of atheist as a synonym for anti-theist or anti-religion.

              As with all descriptions it can be a challenge to be clear in light of the multiple meanings.

              But then, my definitions for religion and Religion are specific as well. I offer them for clarity of expression, not recruitment of agreement.

  21. Sean P
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant. Great post Jerry. I think your closing paragraph hits the nail on the head in relation to the imbalance in the discussion. I wonder what will be Mr. Benner’s response

  22. Posted May 6, 2010 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    Scientific approaches often even come with bits which show their own limitations: series solutions to equations with a range of applicability, powers of statistical tests, etc. Where is the “built in” such thing to any religious or theological pronouncement? This is one reason (or one specific version of one reason) why I am firmly in the “incompatible” camp. Science encourages us to state the limitations of our findings; fallibilism is built in a very direct way. Any fallibilism found in the vast majority of religions is ad hoc because it doesn’t integrate in the above wonderful ways. Subsequently there are very profound philosophical differences.

  23. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    The irony.

    In science, the uncertainties involved can often be quantified. “We discovered that X results in Y with an uncertainty of z%” or such. Science papers are full of such statistics, for those who bother to read them.

    Meanwhile, religious apologists are frequently reduced to “retreat to the possible,” i.e. pointing out that while some religious proposition may have an exceedingly low probability, it cannot formally be shown to be impossible.


4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] however, has been brought up again just recently, and is of course the reason for this post: Jerry Coyne put it very clearly when replying to the BioLogos Foundation’s accommodationist stance. [...]

  2. [...] there is so much evidence that there is absolutely no doubt in the mind of any serious scientist. Jerry Coyne gets it right when he brings up HIV denialists. Imagine a virologist or an MD on TV telling you “Yeah, [...]

  3. [...] BioLogos to scientists: stop advocating By now we’re familiar with accommodationists attacking scientists as being largely responsible for not only the re [...] [...]

  4. [...] http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/05/04/biologos-to-scientists-stop-advocating/ [...]

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