My Storer Lectures are online

They don’t mess around here at Davis: the morning after my second Storer lecture, the videos of both had been put online. And they did a good job; the lecturer (i.e., me) is on a split screen alongside the slides, so you can watch both at once.

The whole archive of past Storer lectures is here, and you can watch them by clicking on their names either at that site or, to see mine, below. (As usual, I haven’t watched mine because I can’t abide seeing myself on video.)

The first listed below, from April 10, is a straight research talk—probably my last ever in this genre. The second, given the day before, is on science vs. religion. The fulsome introductions to both talks were tendered by my old pal Michael Turelli, who greatly exaggerated!

I thank the Storer family, who endowed these talks, and to Luke Mahler and Michael Turelli, my hosts in Davis.

I do love returning to Davis, as I have many friends here and the weather has been gorgeous every day: sunny with highs about 80° F high (cooler at night). I took a lot of photos that, with luck and time, I’ll post next week when I’m back in Chicago.

April 10, 2014

TWO FLIES ON AN ISLAND; SPECIATION IN DROSOPHILA ON SAO TOME

April 9, 2014

FAITH IS NOT A VIRTUE: THE INCOMPATIBILITY OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION

This science/religion lecture ends at 1:05 in, and then there’s a Q&A, which was way too short. I would have preferred an hour of discussion, but there were drinks and dinner waiting. At dinner, though, I got a fair amount of criticism from nonbelieving faculty who, while claiming to share my atheism, argued that religion is still beneficial to some or that science is afflicted with some of religion’s flaws.

One philosopher of science, for instance, argued that when we trust physicists like Steve Weinberg or Brian Greene about new findings in physics, that’s the same kind of “faith” that religionists use when trusting their own priests or religious authorities. My response was that our confidence (not “faith”) in these people is based on their track record of being right, or telling verifiable truths or at least accurate descriptions of the field, whereas, for instance, the Pope has no more expertise than any ordinary Catholic in the supposed nature of the divine.

It was clear to me that many scientists here have a reflexive sympathy for religion that they haven’t thought through very clearly. But I love such challenges, for they it enable me to rethink as well as hone my arguments.

29 Comments

  1. Barry Lyons
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    That retort about confidence is probably the best you could make. I can’t imagine a better response.

    Yes, this “reflexive sympathy” for religion from scientists (who should know better!) remains a puzzle to me.

  2. Posted April 13, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Thanks to the Davis crowd for the promptness in processing!

    …which reminds me…any sign of Richard’s recent appearance in Chicago that you hosted / moderated / whatever? I don’t remember any recording of that one surfacing….

    b&

  3. MAUCH
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    The assertions of a scientist is accepted because they are armed with evidence. Since when has the Pope presented not some meaningless scripture but real evidence for anything?

  4. Andrikzen
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    … science is afflicted with some of religion’s flaws.

    I think it is easy to lose sight of the common factor in the religion – science debate and that is people. It is people, humans, doing science that can be afflicted with the same cognitive flaws that one encounters in religion. Science is a tool, which depends upon the skill and discipline of the person using it to produce reliable, repeatable results.

    • darrelle
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 6:05 am | Permalink

      Absolutely but, and I’m sure you are already fully aware of this, the methods of science have been purposely designed to mitigate the problems caused by those human cognitive flaws when attempting to figure out aspects of our cosmos. No such effort is made in religion. In fact several of those flaws are celebrated and held in high regard.

      That is the difference. One admits the flaws and finds ways to marginalize them, actually makes that the primary goal, and the other does neither.

  5. Posted April 13, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    So…the high-altitude hybrids are presumably born in the lower hybrid zone and migrate to the higher altitude?

    b&

    • Posted April 13, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      …and you tested temperature preferences, but did you have any way to test barometric pressure or humidity preferences? There’re also changes in the spectral power distribution of sunlight at low and high altitudes….

      b&

  6. Sastra
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    My response was that our confidence (not “faith”) in these people is based on their track record of being right, or telling verifiable truths or at least accurate descriptions of the field, whereas, for instance, the Pope has no more expertise than any ordinary Catholic in the supposed nature of the divine.

    Good answer, but it’s more than that. Confidence in science is deliberately and consciously provisional.

    Calling this “faith” is a sloppy habit of casual language and the pious know that. It’s pragmatic reliance, not religious faith. When push comes to shove we don’t trust the message OR the messenger: we trust the method. If we’re wrong, we want to change our minds. We know what would change our minds. We place our confidence in an open and self-refereeing system which literally forces us to adapt. Method, method, method.

    Contrast this with religious “faith” and its emphasis on moral commitment. You stand by a conclusion as if you were proving your own loyalty or virtue. In this system, when it looks like you’re wrong you adapt the evidence to fit the conclusion, not the other way around. Belief, belief, belief. Believe, believe, believe.

    The easiest way to illustrate the distinction is to consider what it would mean to have faith in your doctor — and then imagine what it would mean to have a religious faith in your doctor — to believe in your doctor’s abilities like people believe in God. That physician could now do no wrong. If they run through a hospital with a machine gun you will “struggle” to keep believing, falling if you must on your own ignorance and accepting that your doctor must have been right in a way you can’t understand. Then you’d think of that as humility instead of what it is: epistemic arrogance.

    When secular people find “good” in religion it has to be secular good or we couldn’t find it or think it was good. When that happens I don’t grant “religion” any particular merit — just as I don’t give credit to “alternative medicine” because some homeopaths recommend vaccinations.

    • NAY
      Posted April 13, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      “Amen to that” – if you’ll pardon the expression!

    • Posted April 13, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Your example of the types of faith one might have in a doctor is one of the absolute best I’ve encountered, and I suspect strongly I will steal it most shamelessly, hopefully remembering to give due credit….

      b&

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 13, 2014 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      I do like that machine gun example! Very true!

  7. Posted April 13, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    This is the difference in another words: you can always replicate some experiment or observation to revalidade scientific knowledge, at least in principle. If need be, you could go over all the knowledge a physicist claims to possess and verify yourself everything. You don’t do that because you have confidence (but you know that you could). In the case of religion you can’t. Nor in the case of astrology, or any other pseudo-science.

  8. S. McAndrew
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    The religion talk was great. There is not one thing in the bible – moral or scientific – that was not commonly accepted by the people that wrote it. Think of the good that could have been done over the last 2000 years if the supposed all knowing god had mentioned something about the germ theory of disease, that torture are slavery are wrong, that the gender of a child should be blamed on the father not the woman, etc.

    I would love to see a “Why Evolution is True” course on Coursera!

    • S. McAndrew
      Posted April 13, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      Note – I wasn’t trying to violate Da Roolz with the Coursera comment. The Q&A in the video reminded me of the forums in some of the Coursera science courses. Explaining science to those that won’t even read the Intro to Evolution Wikipedia article is always fun.

      • js
        Posted April 13, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think that would be a violation as I am pretty sure that I first heard about Coursera on this site, possibly from Dr. Coyne himself.
        The genetics course I did on there was run by one of Dr. Coynes PHD students I believe.

  9. gbjames
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Many thanks to the Davis folks for making these available.

  10. aljones909
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    “One philosopher of science, for instance, argued that when we trust physicists like Steve Weinberg or Brian Greene about new findings in physics, that’s the same kind of “faith” that religionists use when trusting their own priests or religious authorities. ”

    Straight out of the fundamentalists playbook. Very depressing to hear it from an academic.

  11. Steven Obrebski
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Loved both lectures. Perhaps some of the background papers ON Drosophila speciation could be posted in print in WEIT blog?

  12. Doug
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a difference between “faith” in science and faith in religion: when a scientific idea is shown to be false, it will be rejected. No scientist today believes that the Piltdown man is a genuine fossil. Compare this to the Shroud of Turin, which was likewise shown to be a fake; I doubt that many believers changed their minds because of the evidence. Their faith “tells” them that the shroud is real. No scientist would say that about the Piltdown man (or phlogiston, or the canals of Mars, etc).

  13. bembol
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Very nice talk

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Re “I got a fair amount of criticism from nonbelieving faculty who, while claiming to share my atheism, argued that religion is still beneficial to some or that science is afflicted with some of religion’s flaws.”

    The latter strikes me as an utterly bizarre position.

    One can simultaneously believe that religion is beneficial (here and there/now and then) and !*also*! believe that humanity in the long run pays too high a price for those benefits and that humanism is still the better option. S.T.Joshi holds that even when religion !*is*! beneficial it comes with the price tag that it undermines clear thinking.

  15. Tien Song Chuan
    Posted April 13, 2014 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry:

    Where can I obtain a copy of the “Phylogeny of World Religions”?

    Thanks.

    Tien
    Singapore.

  16. Diane G.
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    I agree with you, Jerry, that Q & A sessions are one of the most interesting parts of a presentation and that they are generally truncated far too early. But the subject on which it concluded here happened to be a wonderful, profound note to end on. You made such an eloquent and convincing case for the total superfluity of religion and for the superiority of humanistic values; it couldn’t have been scripted better!

  17. darrelle
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    “One philosopher of science, for instance, argued that when we trust physicists like Steve Weinberg or Brian Greene about new findings in physics, that’s the same kind of “faith” that religionists use when trusting their own priests or religious authorities.”

    This post is probably dead already, but damn, I can’t help but comment on this. That a philosopher of science would make such a comment is just pathetic in several ways.

    First it is so obviously wrong. Nearly as obvious as, “no I didn’t eat the chocolate cake,” while chocolate cake crumbs are clinging to your lips and frosting is smeared on your cheeks.

    Second, given how obviously wrong it is, and given that this person has a degree in the philosophy of science, it seems that possible causes are limited to willful ignorance / willful self deception, or a truly wasted education.

    Third, following from number two, what does it say about higher education that this person, who is educated specifically on science, so obviously misunderstands it at such a basic level?

    Two things amaze me about this. That this person could say that with a straight face, and that their position on this is not uncommon even in the sciences.

  18. Tom M
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Darelle,

    You forgot to mention what exactly is wrong about the statement about testimony? I am open to the possibility that it is wrong, but say why.

    After all, to non-experts, which is most of the general public, they are trusting authorities in science. Take the recent BICEP 2 studies in cosmology. How do I check up on this if I am not an expert and don’t even understand the math? I trust what the experts say — which just are the people I perceive to be experts. If someone is religious, they might not understand the relevant arguments/evidence/they trust the perceived experts — say religious professors who claim there is evidence. Now perhaps there are no religious experts and no good evidence for the divine — but that would require a level of understanding that many lack, if we’re talking about most people.

    For those who lack first-hand awareness or understanding of the evidence, they are left with trusting perceived experts

    This might be wrong (perhaps there are indirect ways of checking for expertise and perhaps religion fails those tests); but the burden of proof is on those who say that it’s obviously wrong and crazy to explain why. That’s my main point.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      The difference is that the majority if scientists that work in the field, agree about the BICEP2 results no matter what culture they are from or what language they speak. You cannot find such uniform acceptance with religion. With science, you can accept something as true without understanding at the same level as the experts because they will 1) explain it in away you can understand, uniformly and 2) they have self corrections and proofs built into their process that you see when other experts question the team on their findings and the team defends their findings by showing evidence of how they compensated for errors or bias. With religion, there is no questioning or self correction, just revelation that no two religions completely agree on.

    • Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      The difference is that science never says, “Trust me,” but that’s the core of religion.

      You can confirm for yourself a great many of the fundamental properties scientists claim are true about the universe. The acceleration of gravity is easy. Absolute zero is not hard. Measuring the speed of light is a bit more tricky, but there are easy experiments you can do (including melting chocolate in a microwave) that will confirm it. The Cosmic Microwave Background is not too hard to detect, especially if you’ve got a friend who’s into amateur radio operations. Galactic redshift measurement is well within the realm of modern amateur astronomy, though it’s again a bit more involved. You could build your own particle accelerator and Wilson Cloud Chamber in your garage if you’ve got some mechanical and electrical skills. And that’s just the physical sciences!

      But what do the priests say they do and that you should do as well to confirm their claims?

      Have faith. Just trust them; believe that what they’re telling you is true, no matter what, even if you have good reason to think otherwise. And pay no attention to that man behind the curtain while you’re at it.

      Cheers,

      b&

  19. derekw
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Physicist Alan Lightman of MIT makes use of the ‘sharing faith’ argument in his review of the new book by mathematician Amir D. Azcel “Why Science Does Not Disprove God.”
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/book-review-why-science-does-not-disprove-god-by-amir-d-aczel/2014/04/10/4ee476ec-a49e-11e3-a5fa-55f0c77bf39c_story.htmlLightman while arguing for naturalism states that (with regard to fine-tuning explanations, ” Both the theological explanation and the scientific explanation require faith. To be sure, there are huge differences between science and religion. Religion knows about the transcendent experience. Science knows about the structure of DNA and the orbits of planets. Religion gathers its knowledge largely by personal testament. Science gathers its knowledge by repeated experiments and mathematical calculations, and has been enormously successful in explaining much of the physical universe. But, in the manner I have described, faith enters into both enterprises.”I feel that there is no difference in the actually word/noun ‘faith’ whether it is regard to ‘faith in a religious belief’ vs. ‘faith in your doctor.’ Faith is just belief or confidence. What evidence that faith falls upon is open to the debate. Now ‘blind faith’ is an altogether different beast.

    • derekw
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Opps link formatted incorrectly remove the ‘Lightman’ at the end.


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