I’ve become rather ambivalent about Eugenie Scott — and, indeed, about some of the policies of the organization she heads, the National Center for Science Education. On the one hand, Scott is a really nice person (I used to count her as a friend, though I’m not sure she feels that way about me now!), and, more important, she and the NCSE have done absolutely terrific — and award-winning — work battling creeping creationism in America. The NCSE’s intercession in the Dover intelligent-design trial, for example, was critical in the victory.
But Scott also travels around giving strongly accommodationist talks, reflecting the NCSE’s policy that science and religion, when properly conceived, are harmonious. This is, of course, the NOMA stance. The NCSE has made a tactical decision that selling evolution is most efficacious if you proclaim — never mind what you really think — that religion and science are compatible, occupying their own magisteria.
Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford reports on a talk Scott gave yesterday at Dragon*Con. To be fair, Blackford didn’t take notes, and I haven’t heard the talk. But if his memory is accurate, Scott told the audience that there are many valid “ways of knowing” beyond science. As Russell reports:
. . . In any event, it was the first part of the speech that worried me. This emphasised the claim that science (Scott said “science”, not “reason”) is only one way of knowing. The others that she mentioned were personal insight and authority (I don’t think she was saying that these three are the only “ways of knowing”). She appeared to be happy to count all sorts of ideas gained from personal insight, perhaps assisted by rituals or drugs, as “knowledge”, which is rather odd, since knowledge is, at the least, justified belief. She counted revelation, including the words of holy books, as a sub-set of authority, and explained that the problem is when empirical claims are based on revelation.
Scott also said that science is a limited way of knowing because it can only investigate natural phenomena and can only offer natural explanations for them, and so cannot deal with supernatural claims. She offered no argument for this claim. Indeed, she gave an example of scientific study of truth claims that appeared to refute it. This was a description of a controlled experiment to see whether people really can perform better than chance at dowsing for water. Clearly, if the claim “I can perform better than chance at dowsing for water” is refuted by scientific investigation, it follows, a fortiori, that the claim “I can perform better than chance at dowsing for water by using supernatural means” is also refuted.
Oh dear dear dear. Russell, I, and others have addressed the idea of science and the supernatural many times before (see here, here, and here, for example), dispelling the soothing idea that “science has nothing to say about the supernatural.” That is, of course, hogwash. Science has plenty to say about the Shroud of Turin, whether faith healing works, whether prayer works, whether God seems to be both beneficent and omnipotent, world without end. Science can, as we’ve repeated endlessly, address specific claims about the supernatural, though it’s impotent before the idea that behind it all is a hands-off, deistic Transcendent Force.
Scott admits that there is a problem when empirical claims are based on revelation, but seems completely unaware that empirical claims derived from revelation form the basis of nearly every faith.
I am absolutely sure that Scott is aware of these arguments. But she ignores them, and goes around spreading the same old accommodationism. In this sense she’s like the Twins: she’s heard the counterarguments, but not only has she failed to answer them, she ignores them. What is even more distressing is that Scott is an atheist, so for her, at least, there are no supernatural ways of knowing. Does she think she’s missing out on a kind of knowledge that only the faithful have? I doubt it.
As for “ways of knowing,” my response is always, “What do you find out? What do you “know”? And how would you know if you were wrong? Was Jesus the son of God? Christians’ “way of knowing” tells them, “Yes, of course!” But Islamic “ways of knowing” say, “No, of course not, and you’ll burn in hell if you believe that.” Revelation, dogma, and scripture are not in fact ways of knowing; they are ways of believing. There are no “truths” that religion can produce which are independent of truths derived from secular reason.
With his usual acumen, Russell dissects the problem in detail. Read his post. And I agree completely with his conclusion:
I am not suggesting that the NCSE enlarge its remit to attack religion more generally. That is not its raison d’etre at all. But it can be neutral about such questions as whether science undermines a large amount of religious thinking, far beyond the claims of creationism and Intelligent Design. It can stop relying on an unnecessarily narrow (and very dubious) view of scientific epistemology, designed to leave as much authority with religion as possible. It can stop selling Gould’s intellectually bankrupt principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria on its website.
It’s perfectly clear by now that neither Scott nor the NCSE will ever deal with the ideas that 1) the other “ways of knowing” don’t produce truth, 2) science can indeed address the supernatural, at least some aspects of it, and 3) a lot of people DO NOT find science and faith compatible. By enabling superstition, and giving credibility to irrationality, Scott and the NCSE’s NOMA-ism will, I think, hamper the evolution of a rational America. Yes, we’re on their side vis-a-vis creationism, and yes, I’ll be more than glad to join hands with them in fighting that scourge of rationality. But so long as our allies keep spouting half-truths and untruths about the relationship between science and religion, we’ll keep calling them to task.
Fig. 1. Other ways of knowing: I can’t has cheezburger.