In which I defend evolution but claim that denying it is not the same thing as denying gravity or relativity

The Washington Examiner is a conservative website, so when one of its reporters, Eddie Scarry, called me yesterday to talk about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s refusal to give his viewpoint on evolution, I asked if Scarry was himself against evolution. After receiving his assurances that he wasn’t, we then had a long conversation about Walker, and, in particular, a piece by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post, rightfully calling out Walker for his cowardice, pandering, or both. But Cohen, in an otherwise admirable piece said one thing that I found dubious. Here’s a bit of Cohen’s piece, and I’ve bolded the part to which the reporter asked me to respond:

But it was in London that a Brit, somehow overlooking the significance of cheese, asked the governor whether he believes in evolution. This is precisely no different than asking whether one believes in the theory of gravity or general relativity, but Walker would not answer. He said he had come to London to deal not with philosophical matters but, as cannot be emphasized enough, cheese. Good day, gentlemen!

It is in fact different from asking whether one believes (“accepts” is a better word because “believe” implies a religious-like faith) in theory of gravity or generality relativity, and the reason is obvious. The theories of gravity and relativity don’t impinge on anyone’s religious beliefs. Evolution carries implications that no other science does—save, perhaps some branches of cosmology. It implies that humans evolved by the same blind, materialistic, and naturalistic process involved in the evolution of every other species, and so we aren’t special in any numious sense. It implies that we’re not the special objects of God’s creation. It sinks the “design” argument for God—the most powerful argument in the canon of Natural Theology. It implies that we were not endowed by God with either a soul or moral instincts, so that our morality is a product of both evolution and rational consideration. It implies that much of our behavior reflects evolved, genetically-influenced propensities rather than dualistic “free will.” It implies that even if God did work through the process of evolution , He did so using a horrible and painful process of natural selection, a form of “natural evil” that doesn’t comport well with God’s supposed omnibenevolence.

That is why asking about whether people accept evolution differs from asking them about stuff like gravity or relativity: the latter two areas don’t have any implications for or conflict with traditional religious belief. That’s why it’s entirely possible to be pro-science except for evolution, and why a lot of people are. That’s what I told the reporter, though of course I added that the evidence supporting evolution is at least as that supporting gravity and relativity or the “germ theory” of disease. And I noted that while it’s possible to reject evolution and be pro-science, there is a correlation between anti-evolution and anti-science, which is mediated through not just religion (which sometimes promotes anti-environmentalist and anti-global warming views), but also through politics. It’s no coincidence that Republicans are not only the anti-evolution party in the U.S., but also the anti-science party.

As far as I could tell, I gave Scarry a full account of what I thought. But of course reporters have their own agendas, and here’s how it came out in his piece. I am the “Democrat biologist”! (click on screenshot to go to the article):

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 8.16.06 AM

“Democrat biologist”? Really? What does my politics have to do with the issue? I also told him I was a liberal and an atheist, but those labels were ignored. This headline seems to be an effort to politicize my statements about science. Anyway, here’s what Scarry wrote:

Dr. Jerry A. Coyne, an evolutionary biology professor at University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, told the Washington Examiner media desk Tuesday that the question itself lacks substance.

“You can’t tell anything about Walker’s views on science from that question,” he said.

Coyne, who identifies himself as a Democrat, said that it is not inherently “anti-science” to eschew a definitive stance on evolution theory.

As the media storm brewed last week over Walker’s evolution punt, he issued a statement via his Twitter account, saying “both science and my faith dictate my belief that we are created by God. I believe faith and science are compatible, and go hand in hand.”

Coyne said that science is divided into many fields and evolutionary biology is unique in that it stands at odds with many religions.

“Evolution is a particular view point,” he said. [JAC: I said “viewpoint” as one word!] “It’s the one form of scientific research that goes against people’s religious beliefs. You can’t say that about chemistry or physics. … So, you can be pro-science but deny evolution.”

Coyne added, though, that the evidence supporting evolution theory is as strong as germ theory (the assertion that microscopic organisms cause disease in the human body). “It’s irrefutable,” he said.

I suppose that’s generally correct, but the reporter neglected to mention that those who are against evolution are, through group identity with either a faith or political party, on average more against science than are those who accept evolution. That is, I qualified my statement “You can’t tell anything about Walker’s views on science from that question.”

Indeed, although I and others have called out Walker for either his cowardice or his ignorance (or both) for ducking the question about evolution, his views on evolution would tell us with reasonable confidence only if he favored teaching evolution in the public schools. And indeed, he should have answered that question. But if you want to know what Walker thinks about global warming, genetically modified organisms, vaccination, or other issues that are far more pressing for our species than is the teaching of evolution, then ask him about those other issues. You can’t simply use one’s views on evolution to represent one’s views on science as a whole.

82 Comments

  1. bobkillian
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Walker believes whatever the Koch brothers tell him to believe.

    • Posted February 18, 2015 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

      When you put it that way, the Kochs sound like gods.

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 24, 2015 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

        Except far more powerful.

  2. DGA
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I think you are wrong on this. Evolution, gravity and relativity are alike scientifically as overwhelming evidence supports each. The only thing that separates them is that evolution is as you point out on the front line undermining directly creationism, but the others undermine it obliquely then, by eliminating any necessity for the direction of a creator in those areas. And to be against evolution, given the overwhelming evidence for it, is to show a strong anti-science sentiment.

    • Posted February 18, 2015 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      Did you read what I said. Yes, the evidence is as strong for evolution as for the other stuff. But there is a reason to deny evolution’s truth that doesn’t hold for the other areas. So it’s not the same, which you actually admit.

      It’s debatable what you mean by “strong anti-science sentiment”. What I claim is that denying evolution doesn’t mean that you’re against all science. In general, it means that you’re against one area of science, though many Republicans are against more.

      • colnago80
        Posted February 18, 2015 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Case in point, my PhD thesis adviser, who is a born again Christian, rejects the theory of evolution, even though he is a sufficiently capable researcher in elementary particle physics to be a co-author of the paper for which Peter Higgs won last year’s Nobel Prize in physics.

        • Filippo
          Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

          So, if he rejects evolution, what specifically say happened/happens? Does he experience any cognitive dissonance that you can detect?

          • Kevin
            Posted February 18, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

            By definition he experiences cognitive dissonance when he considers the cohesiveness of scientific knowledge: particles make up every living creature. The laws do not stop because he want’s them to stop.

        • rickflick
          Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

          Interesting. I have to wonder if the LHC somehow pumped out something that directly contradicted the bible (stretch your imagination), then he’d have to switch out of particles into some other branch of science. Born again-again.

          • darrelle
            Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

            Well, one glaring thing is that everything the LHC has discovered supports the Standard Model, and so on and so on, which means deep time and no unknown forces capable of accounting for any of the miracles that are the foundation of Christianity.

            But if you believe in magic it just doesn’t matter what evidence, reason and logic mean about your beliefs.

            • Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

              Yes. Particle physics does indeed refute many religious claims, a point Sean Carroll often makes.

      • Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        I would never presume to say “I think you are wrong on this.” I’m confident that what you said was true, but it seems counterproductive to disagree with the statement that “this is precisely no different than asking whether one believes in the theory of gravity or general relativity.” I think the statement was intended as a forceful emphasis of the reality of evolution and the fact that it’s as well supported by evidence as gravity and relativity. His inclusion of “precisely no different” was unfortunate, but focusing on that may have undermined the statement’s effectiveness.

        If Richard Cohen had instead written something like “Evolution is firmly backed by evidence and established to the same degree as gravity or general relativity”, which he would probably regard as just another way of saying what he wrote, you would probably have agreed with the statement without reservation, and framed as a separate issue the fact that people reject evolution primarily because they can’t reconcile it with their religious beliefs.

      • Scote
        Posted February 18, 2015 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        “What I claim is that denying evolution doesn’t mean that you’re against all science.”

        Seems like that phrasing works better, and is harder to misquote.

    • Canoe
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      Agree with the comment. Your response may put too fine a point on it, since we know any response can be misused; hence there are considerations other than mere logic. A better response to the same effect might have been: I can’t answer as to his views on all of science but his views on evolution are directly anti-science.

      I know it’s easier in hindsight, but that answer would have been much more distortion-proof.

  3. Posted February 18, 2015 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    There is also the important difference between evolution (and relativity) and gravity that the effect of gravity is readily observable by anyone, while evolution (and relativity) is much harder to experience.

    • Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      I would say the line gets blurred in medicine, where denial of evolution can lead to bad policies with regard to antibiotic use.

      Bad medicine has much more immediate consequences than denying we walked on the moon.

      I find it interesting that medicine deniers have no political party. California is the capital of medical woo. Mississippi has 99 percent of children immunized.

      Perhaps I’ll get in trouble if I assert that Republicans are tuned in to science in proportion to its immediate implications for medicine and engineering. I bet more Democrats than Republicans have knee jerk opposition to golden rice.

      And that’s an issue that directly affects the lives of millions of children.

      • Ken Phelps
        Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        The Sensuous Curmudgeon has a post today that links to an article whose author uses the phrase “business scientists who invent the products…”.

        I think this is one of the ways people compartmentalize science they don’t like. Good science creates things, which can’t be denied, and don’t need to be. Bad science creates ideas, which can be denied since they are made out of words, and anyone can make a contrary set of those.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      Good point.

  4. Randy Schenck
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    It just supports the fact that these so-called journalist are more concerned about the agenda. If you had said you we an Independent I’m guessing that would have been left out of the headline.

    I can be less scientific because I am not one, so I will say, if it quacks like a duck and it looks like a duck then it must be a republican position. Regarding climate change and the republican standard denial on that, really has little to do with Science. The main point here is no need for any government intervention. If you say climate change is real and caused by humans, the only way something gets done is with government intervention and we cannot have that.

    • Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      To say nothing of their “faith” in fiscal austerity.
      It doesn’t work yet it has been fiscal policy du jour for four decades.
      Apart from the obvious benefit to those already wealthy, I am not surprised that the party of science denial and faith based initiatives keeps repackaging the Milton Friedman follies over and over again.

  5. Sastra
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    You can’t simply use one’s views on evolution to represent one’s views on science as a whole.

    No, I think taking a crank position fueled by religious fervor does indeed represent one’s views of science as a whole. Taken as an entire way of knowing it stands in second place to ideological religious faith-driven dogma.

    But you can’t use someone’s views on evolution to represent their views on specific sciences or scientific views. “Global warming, genetically modified organisms, vaccination, or other issues” need to be addressed one-by-one. And probably should be, given that we already know we’re dealing with someone who doesn’t care that much about accepting the hard-won consensus of expert opinions.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      I am all for identifying each problem, because they are different as you say. Evolution is special among sciences, but it is likely also not good to elevate it as having a uniquely resistant denialist group if it can’t be ascertained. It is a huge and long lived group, but there are other areas where religion is wiggling its bare ass. (Say, on the issue of what constitutes a family.)

      When Jerry notes that it is as least as firmly evidenced process than others, it should help cement the fact that it is a science among others.

    • Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Agree.

      If you learn someone denies evolution, or heliocentrism, or any other individual bit of firmly established science, you can conclude that the person does not acknowledge valid epistemology. They may not have objections to other bits of science, but they certainly don’t value the scientific method.

      I’d say that makes such a person “anti-science”.

  6. lrh0223
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re right about evolution’s unique status, but that’s in large part because most Americans don’t know much science (o tempora, o mores). Astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and geology are incompatible with young-earth creationism, but most people don’t know that. Of course those sciences overlap, but all sciences do. A denier of evolution who finds that some other science supports evolutionary theory isn’t going to accept the latter so as to keep accepting the former; it’ll be the other way around.

    • Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      And neuroscience and physiological psychology are incompatible with psychoneural dualism directly (not even through physics). But …

  7. Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Walker is a lyin’, deceptive, weasely snake, through and through.

    Here’s an additional four things everyone should know about the weasel….. before it’s too late.

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/02/16/1364829/-Four-things-you-MUST-KNOW-about-Scott-Walker-before-it-s-too-late

  8. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    That is why asking about whether people accept evolution differs from asking them about stuff like gravity or relativity: the latter two areas don’t have any implications for or conflict with traditional religious belief.

    Not now, but I would guess historically.

    Before regularities were classified as “laws” (and perhaps some time after that), I would think that they were taken as proof of “higher forces” that granted some order. I.e. an army of ‘angels’, that guided falling stones rather than ‘devils’ that would kick them into the sky at times, or that guided the progression of a cold rather than ‘witches’ that gave incurable diseases. Newton himself imputed a ‘hand’ that guided the planets into stable enough orbits. (But I do not know much of the history of those times.)

    So laws, or even integrative knowledge of whole systems (starting with thermodynamics), must have weakened the scope of ‘monotheist’ religions. Isn’t that why they tried to recoup with the idea that science depended on religious ideas rather than discovery to get started, or that physical laws were convenient methods for ‘gods’ to act?

    However, no conflict has been as intense and long lasting as that of evolution vs ‘design’. Even Darwin predicted the religious trauma and took effort to mitigate what he could. I think that says a lot already there.

    • eric
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      I agree. The law of gravity, for example, would say that the earth rotates about the sun and not the other way around. Yes you can fashion geocentric descriptions of our solar system but they will not obey NM. Or if you want to go back to Galileo, the law of gravity is going to tell you that yes, Jupiter can have its own moons; the RCC is wrong if it claims everything must orbit the Earth.

      Similarly, relativity runs counter to YECism because a non-infinite light speed pegs visible stars at older than the YEC age of the cosmos.

      So, it might be more accurate to say that these theories did, like the TOE, run counter to historical religious claims. The difference is, those claims have mostly since been abandoned (or at least de-emphasized) while the religious claims that humans were specially created by God has not yet been abandoned to the same extent.

      • lrh0223
        Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        Similarly, relativity runs counter to YECism because a non-infinite light speed pegs visible stars at older than the YEC age of the cosmos.

        Ah, but God in His infinite wisdom created the light from those stars simultaneously with the stars themselves, that the majesty of His creation might be manifest. You just have to believe.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      I could argue that the conflict between modern neurology and mind/body dualism is also intense and long-lasting — possibly more so because all Creationists deny this science too. The argument here ropes in the traditional religions, the liberal religions, and the Spiritual.

      The major reason it seems less passionate I think is that mind/brain dependency isn’t directly taught to children.

    • Kevin
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      I think this comment echoes a somewhat fortuitous feature of technology. There are two advantages that sciences, like physics and engineering have:

      1) general lack of religious conflict (not having direct implications to traditional religious beliefs)
      2) and ignorance, i.e., not understanding that technologies have anything to do with science (that may be threatening to people’s beliefs)

      Very religious people can use an iPhone or an AK47 or water fountain or a bridge and feel no heartache about their beliefs and what it means to produce those technologies.

      In many ways this is a disruptive format for society. It segregates humans into people who use technologies from those who make them. I can foresee both good and bad outcomes from this partition.

      As for the dissonant scientists (e.g., Francis Collins); they are better than ISIS, which abhors science, but still uses technology. If the world were filled with, at worst, cognitively dissonant scientists, it would be a much better improvement over what we have.

  9. Randy Schenck
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I think it is safe to say, denial of evolution has two causes in particular. Those causes are Religion, first and foremost and the second cause is politics. The republicans love to sign or swear to ideas or causes. Damn near everyone of them once signed a statement they would never vote on any thing that raised taxes. I would not be surprised if they had one on evolution — either deny outright or refuse to answer at all.

  10. Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Scary reporter. Someone had to say it! 🙂

    Well done; but the reporter always has a way of pitching (I won’t say twisting) it, don’t they?

  11. Filippo
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    ‘I am the “Democrat biologist”!’

    Boy, reporters simply can’t leave that stuff alone. The temptation to bloviate is too strong, apparently.

    I suppose that one could be charitable and assume that his editor chose that as a headline.

    Perhaps one should respond, “The Rationalist Party,” or “The Evidence-Based Party” or “The Reality-Based Party.”

    Perhaps if you had responded “Republican,” it would have given him a lethal dose of cognitive dissonance.

    • eric
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      I can explain it!

      Originally they were going to say “U Chicago biologist…” in the title and “…professor, democrat, and author…” in the text. But they figured a title reference to education would scare away more conservatives than a title reference to democrats.
      😉

  12. peepuk
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    The existing theories about Evolution, Newtonian physics, some parts of neuroscience, thermodynamics, standard model and chemical-bindings are much more important for me than theories and speculations about gravity, general relativity, inflation or many worlds.

    My naive reductionist worldview would fall apart if one of these happened to be wrong. Other theories exist mainly to entertain me, though Grand Unification would be nice.

    • Adrian Burd
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      Ummmm, whilst Newtonian physics is a very good approximation to the world we experience here on Earth (for the most part), it is in many ways wrong as in it predicts the wrong quantitative answer for a large number of phenomena. Indeed, your GPS would give you the wrong answer if it relied on Newtonian physics, rather than incorporated an approximation to general relativity.

      • Posted February 18, 2015 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

        +1 re GPS

      • peepuk
        Posted February 19, 2015 at 1:54 am | Permalink

        Of course, but I see most of natural science as an approximation of reality. I believe Newton does reasonable well until 2/3 of the speed of light.

        But it should all in principle fit in a reductionist framework. In other words Kuhn’s incommonsurability (?) should be false. F.I. a Theory of Evolution would be false if it contradicted (stable parts of) physics.

        • Posted February 19, 2015 at 11:52 am | Permalink

          As it happens, (Einstein) relativity vs. newtonian mechanics is Bunge’s favourite example to show why Kuhn is wrong. Just use a theory of reference. For example, in SR the force function has a “reference frame” as one of the parameters; in N. it does not. So they are comparable (they have all the other parameters the same); so they cannot be incommeasurable. On the other hand, a theory in economics and (say) Boyle’s theories about gases are, as they have no referents in common. Kuhn’s mistake, charitably, is forgetting that proprites are referenced (via predicates, interptable, say, as functions), not just things.

          • Posted February 19, 2015 at 11:52 am | Permalink

            Er, that should be “properties”, not “proprites”.

  13. darrelle
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I think other fields of science, and their theories, actually do discredit religious beliefs in largely the same ways as Evolution does, but the typical religious believer doesn’t know enough about those other fields to understand that. And Evolution is certainly more directly, more “in your face,” in conflict with many core religious beliefs for various reasons. The biggest being that both evolution and religion both deal directly with human origins.

    In the context of the perceptions of the typical religious believer regarding the various fields of science I think Jerry is right on. It may be a matter of degrees and ignorance, but in practical terms I think it is a distinction worth making.

  14. eric
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    although I and others have called out Walker for either his cowardice or his ignorance (or both) for ducking the question about evolution, his views on evolution would tell us with reasonable confidence only if he favored teaching evolution in the public schools.

    Sometimes it doesn’t even tell us that. IIRC, Bush II mentioned teaching both sides in his election campaign but then utterly ignored creationism (and evolution) while in office. IOW, he dutifully blew the dogwhistle to get votes…then did nothing about it.

    I suspect Walker is doing the same. I.e., that altering science education is not something he plans on doing if he gets into office. However, blowing the dogwhistle is still a big mark against him.

  15. dormativevirtue
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    ““It’s irrefutable,” he said.”

    Was that just a bit of hyperbole? Surely the theory of evolution submits to at least one do-or-die test, correct? Surely it cannot accommodate every possibility?

    • Posted February 18, 2015 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      If you’ve been reading here, you know that I often talk about what observations would refute modern evolutionary theory. Clearly you haven’t read those posts. Yes, if I said “irrefutable” (and I don’t remember saying that, but I don’t deny it as I didn’t tape the interview), it was a slip of the tongue. I should have said “Hasn’t yet been refuted despite many attempts to do so.”

      • dormativevirtue
        Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        I have not read those posts. I just wanted some form of clarification on the comment. I suspected you didn’t mean “irrefutable,” although it seemed uncharitable to interpret you as saying something other than what you actually said (or allegedly said). So I queried. And you clarified.

  16. Brygida Berse
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Will all due respect, I disagree. Moreover, I see this way of reasoning as a dangerous concession to a religion-based exception. To recognize that some otherwise reasonable people are conflicted about the science of evolution is one thing, granting them an exception is another. Would you grant the same exception to the proponents of flat Earth, even if they were otherwise reasonable with respect to say, antibiotic use or vaccinations? And what about people who don’t accept vaccinations, but are OK with evolution?

    Of course, one can be a creationist who otherwise claims that he/she “accept science” (that is, accept the scentific consensus on other areas of science). But that acceptance can be only arbitrary and is not a sign of a rational mind. First, because all science is connected. But more importantly, because you either accept the scientific approach to reality (which means that you base your views on available evidence and not myths, fantasies or wishful thinking) or you don’t. Science is not divisible, you can’t pick and choose which parts of it are to your liking.

    • Posted February 18, 2015 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      Who’s granting whom an exception?

      The exception *exists* among those religious who deny evolution while accepting other less (noticeably) religion-unfriendly science.

      /@

      • Brygida Berse
        Posted February 18, 2015 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

        Jerry is granting creationists a religious exception, by stating that it is possible to reject evolution (for religious reasons) and still be pro-science. The exception being that (I assume) he wouldn’t call someone “pro-science” who rejects other scientific findings (e.g. in physics or chemistry).

        In my view, someone who rejects any scientific finding because of religious beliefs, cannot be called pro-science. They may think they are pro-science, but they are not. And it’s precisely the reasons why those people reject evolution (not by being simply misinformed, but consciously deciding that faith trumps evidence) that make them profoundly anti-science.

        • Posted February 19, 2015 at 12:43 am | Permalink

          OK, but I think there’s an implied “otherwise” in there.

          /@

  17. EvolvedDutchie
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I think professor Coyne is spot on. Evolution tears religion apart like no other scientific theory. I once asked a friend of the baptist church if she believed evolution. She said: “I believe animals have evolved, yet I’m not sure about humans.” My jaw dropped to the floor. It’s just very difficult for christians to accept that we are part of the animal kingdom and that our existence is partly a coincidence.

  18. ljbo
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I believe you are right that evolution is more of a problem to religionists nowadays than Newton theory of gravity but it was not always so. Before precisely Newton/Galileo, it was believed that the natural state of any object was rest and that a force needed to be applied constantly for something to move. What/who pushed planets then? The answer was God of course. After the success of Newton, this role of primal mover for God vanished and religionist moved onto the argument of the complexity of life. Newton still believed God was needed to fix the solar system every now and then since he could not explain why it was stable, note.

  19. Les
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    You were smart to look at the Examiner’s website before agreeing to an interview.
    Sorry you were misrepresented in the paper.

  20. paul fauvet
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    The only reason that religious believers accept general relativity is that they don’t understand it. Einstein is much more difficult to grasp than Darwin.

    But the Einsteinian universe has no room for any gods. The physics of relativity is fundamentally in opposition to the theories of physical reality that the authors of the Bible (or the Koran) believed.

    Some creationists have an inkling of the problem, hence the absurd attempts to claim that the speed of light is not unchanging.

    But if the American right made a serious effort to understand Einstein, I’m confident that they would thrust him into the same category as Darwin.

  21. Adrian Burd
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Don’t the consequences of general relativity impinge on some religious beliefs? It’s far less of a threat to those who hold to a religious belief than evolution, but it definitely has consequences for their cosmologies.

  22. Kevin
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Many physicists are envious of evolutionary biologists: they always seem to get the limelight because what they study directly refutes the specialness of man. That specialness is the cornerstone of all religions.

    Alas, gravity is relativity. We have no better theory for gravity than the general theory of relativity. Special relativity, is unique in that it not only informs us of the relation of EM fields, and dynamics of particles (non-interial), but when combined with quantum mechanics generates some of the most important descriptions of our existence: namely the existence of electron spin and antimatter.

    It is not fair to say that relativity is tangential to peoples beliefs. Someone with a physics background (Krauss/Carroll) can easily show that evolution says nothing directly of dualism. But basics physics, determinism, rules it out. It is basic physical observations that rule out the soul; at least make it necessarily a metaphysical claim. Of course, one could argue that evolution also has no evidence for a soul, ergo no soul, but physics fundamentally links our reality with what we know and in between (gaps), there is no room for a soul (except metaphysical).

    Also, fundamental physics, says a lot about the afterlife. If it exists, like the soul, physics has pushed any possibility of the afterlife into the metaphysical. That is, it is more rational to consider the afterlife as something which can never be proven and this comes from physical laws.

    So yes, physics should be a great deal more threatening to believers.

  23. Posted February 18, 2015 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    All empirical analysis, all reductionistic science, attacks mythological religion. The moment you start looking through microscopes and telescopes you will find out things which are different from what religious authorities and traditions have taught you. Also, if a person is no more than the sum of its parts, and is no different from other matter, and is therefore determined by the standard model or some variant thereof, then reductionistic science goes further to attack our everyday sense of selfhood and certainly other minds. The way that most educated people cope with this is to deny it.

    • phil
      Posted February 19, 2015 at 5:27 am | Permalink

      But clearly a person is a lot more then the sum of “its” parts. Remove any significant organ and you have a dead person. Give them sufficient brain damage and while the body may not be dead you have nothing that really qualifies as a person.

      A person is much more than a living organism. What makes a person includes all their experience, and the way life has moulded the personality. There is no good reason to believe that isn’t an emergent property of the particular arrangement of physical matter that we call humans, but it is certainly a lot more than the sum of parts.

      There is the wonder of science, to show how cold physical, chemical and biological processes can produce something as amazing as a human being (or nearly any other living thing for that matter).

      • Posted February 19, 2015 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

        Living… nonliving… to a physicist it is all the same. If I am confident aht physics can completely explain the behaviors of my neighbor, why would I invoke folk terms such as “life” or “consciousness” ? What empirical need do these maneuvers serve ? Does it make any more sense to look at my neighbor this way than it does to look at a rock or a thunder storm this same way ? Pre-scientific peoples saw “conscious agency” behind every phenomenon. If some variant of a reductionist determinist model is true, then we need not trifle with superstitions such as “conscious agency” behind the actions of others.

  24. H.H.
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Liberal is not a synonym for “democrat,” for Christ’s sake. For all he knew, you could have been a member of the Green party or a communist. It’s usually the editor who writes the headlines, but the reporter should have caught the error. That’s shoddy journalism.

  25. Posted February 18, 2015 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Science is like freedom of speech, à la Chomsky’s well-known (?) quotation: If you’re truly pro-science, you have to be pro the science (whose consequences) you don’t like, not just the science you do like.

    /@

  26. Myron
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    “The theories of gravity and relativity don’t impinge on anyone’s religious beliefs.” – J. Coyne

    Yes, they do. According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, space and time are inseparably united as spacetime. If that’s true, it is bad news at least for those theists who are temporalists about God, i.e. who believe that God exists in time (as opposed to the atemporalists who believe he doesn’t). The temporalists also believe (like the atemporalists) that God does not exist in space. But if space and time are inseparably united as spacetime, existence in time entails existence in spacetime, which entails existence in space, so that the temporalists can no longer consistently hold that God exists in time but not in space. That is, if the theory of relativity is true, divine temporalism (plus divine nonspatialism) is logically untenable.
    Moreover, if divine atemporalism is no coherent theological alternative to divine temporalism, then theism is in big trouble. For example, Swinburne argues that “the timeless view is incompatible with everything else that religious believers have wanted to say about God. For example, it does seem strongly that God being omniscient entails that he hears the prayers of humans at the same time as they utter them; yet on the timeless view God does not exist at the same time as (simultaneously with) any moment on our timescale.”
    (Swinburne, Richard. Was Jesus God? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. p. 12)

    • Posted February 18, 2015 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

      Well, you may be right for a certain class of theists who know both the theory of relativity and have that particular conception of God. BUt I can guarantee you that 99.99% of believers aren’t aware of this particular “clash” and so will have no beef with the theory of relativity, even if what you say is true (I’m not a physicist and can’t judge it).

      • Posted February 18, 2015 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

        I’m a(n ex-)physicist, but I don’t know enough theology to know if Myron is right or not… 😆

        /@

    • Posted February 18, 2015 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      Maybe God exists only in those extra dimensions of string “theory” that are “wound up” to create the forces of GR and the SM!

      /@

      • Myron
        Posted February 18, 2015 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

        As far as I know, no contemporary theologian believes that God is located at some point of one of the extra dimensions of space as postulated by string theory.

        • Posted February 19, 2015 at 12:38 am | Permalink

          That’s very unimaginative of them!

          Maybe no theologian knows enough physics to make that shit up… um, I mean, to discern the truth of that insight. And they think themselves Sophisticated™ …

          /@

      • EvolvedDutchie
        Posted February 18, 2015 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

        I would love to see a theologian claim such a thing in a debate with Lawrence Krauss. My chrystal ball tells me that the facial expression Krauss would make becomes a new meme.

    • EvolvedDutchie
      Posted February 18, 2015 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      You may be right, but it doesn’t make a very good soundbite. You’ll lose the crowd at ‘spacetime’. But the fact that humans and apes (generally regarded as silly animals) have a common ancestor can be understood by any simpleton.

      I don’t think many religious people know enough about general relativity to know how it impacts their faith, unlike evolution.

      • phil
        Posted February 19, 2015 at 5:16 am | Permalink

        Can be understood but frequently isn’t, hence the dumb question “if evolution was true why are there still monkeys/apes?”

  27. Posted February 18, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  28. phil
    Posted February 19, 2015 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    “Coyne said that science is divided into many fields and evolutionary biology is unique in that it stands at odds with many religions.”

    I don’t agree that evolutionary biology is unique. It has already been pointed out that climate science, cosmology, geology, and archeology are to some extent “at odds with many religions.”

    Reminds me of an entry in a book I once had called “What the Papers Didn’t Mean To Say”, from a list of items to be auctioned:

    Item 1678 One pair of unique 16th century candle sticks
    Item 1679 Another pair ditto

  29. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted February 19, 2015 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    I disagree with you, Jerry. Unquestionably, the denial of scientific evidence is most often motivated by religion. And I think you have correctly identified why it that is so; the acceptance of evolution (and modern cosmology) undermines the central dogmas in religious origin stories and implicates God as, at best, utterly disinterested in human affairs even if God exists. But other kinds of antiscientific cranks do exist – consider Brian Josephson, who actually defends homeopathy in terms of water memory. (I personally know a lecturer IN CHEMISTRY who also dabbles in homeopathy – she’s an atheist!) Obviously, people who are capable of understanding how chemistry works – including the basic physical chemistry of water – can’t possibly think that homeopathy is anything but nonsense. But Josephson and the lecturer to whom I refer aren’t being any more antiscientific than an evolution denier, they’re just being antiscientific for less common reasons.

    I think Cohen is right and your way of placing evolution deniers in a special category seems, whether you intended to do so, to let evolution deniers off the hook for their retrograde world view.

  30. Sabunim5Dan
    Posted February 19, 2015 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Jerry said, “The theories of gravity and relativity don’t impinge on anyone’s religious beliefs. Evolution carries implications that no other science does—save, perhaps some branches of cosmology.”

    I’d say that the emerging maturity of neuroscience (specifically brain science) carries some deeply corrosive implications for religious belief.

    Within the past few years alone, anesthesiology has advanced by leaps and bounds in accounting for the specific action of general anesthesia on the brain, in inducing reversible coma. Such findings are rendering belief in Cartesian substance dualism — i.e., the existence of an immaterial soul that survives death intact — hugely untenable and incoherent.

    • Posted February 19, 2015 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Okay, I can see why this, and some other examples provided by commenters, could potentially clash with religion. I’ve also said that the deterministic overthrow of free will, at least in the religious/libertarian sense, clashes with religion. The problem—and what I should have emphasized in my post—is that the average believer doesn’t know this, and so don’t find themselves opposed to neuroscience or relativity, or whatever. Evolution, however, is a different matter, for most evangelical or fundamentalists Christians know enough about it to realize that it contradicts the tenets of their faith, and so they oppose it.

      I failed to make the distinction between clashes that are real and instantiated in believers, and potential clashes between science and faith that have either escaped the notice of believers or which are not understood by believers.

      • Sabunim5Dan
        Posted February 19, 2015 at 10:04 am | Permalink

        Yes, that’s an important distinction. If evangelical or fundamentalist Christians came to properly understand evolution in purely naturalistic and scientific terms, with God having no causal intervening role, the clash with the tenets of their faith would be heightened considerably.

      • Laird Popkin
        Posted February 19, 2015 at 10:19 am | Permalink

        I’ll point out that the large majority of religions and religious people do not see a conflict between science and their religion, because most of them are not biblical literalists. That is, the Bible lays down principles and rules to live by that are important, but are sophisticated enough to understand that the phrase “the four corners of the Earth” is symbolic language describing the whole Earth, not a literal statement that the Earth is a flat quadrilateral. And yes, Biblical literalism is inconsistent with numerous easily observed facts, which is why relatively few religions make that their doctrine, despite the emotional appeal of the simplicity. So please don’t equate all religions with the fundamentalist minority.

      • Posted February 19, 2015 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        “most evangelical or fundamentalists Christians know enough about [evolution]”

        Just enough to be dangerous but not enough to !*understand*! it!

        /@


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