A well known physicist espouses accommodationism in Smithsonian Magazine

Think Big
As I’ve said repeatedly, for some reason that I don’t fathom, major “sciencey” magazines like National Geographic, Smithsonian, and even (ugh!) Nature are showing increasing osculation of religion’s rump, espousing a harmony between these two incompatible areas. I have no idea why they do this—perhaps in an era of click-bait journalism, they think it will draw readers.
The latest case, and an execrable one, is in Smithsonian Magazine. It’s an interview of physicist Sylvester James Gates by Summer Ash, and is called “Why theoretical physicist Sylvester James Gates sees no conflict between science and religion.”
Gates (photo below) is identified this way:

 [as] the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he studies the fundamental nature of our universe through the lens of supersymmetry—a theory that predicts twice as many fundamental particles as the Standard Model and could be the next step towards a grand unified theory. He’s also the first African-American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major research university in the United States.

He also seems to be religious.

And I have to say that I envy this bit of his bio given in Wikipedia:

On February 1, 2013, Gates was a recipient of the National Medal of Science.[5] Gates was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013. As of 2015, Professor Gates has a base salary (9 months not including grants and other income) of $339,254.78 and taught 1 class in 2015 and none in 2016.

What is sad is how such an accomplished and well-paid professor has such a nebulous, almost incoherent, view of why science and religion aren’t in conflict. Though most of Smithsonian’s interview isn’t about that issue, the relevant part is at the end, with Ash’s question in bold and Gates’s answer below it:

In science, both mathematics and physics play large roles in describing and probing the earliest stages of our universe. But some people view the question of where our universe came from as the sole domain of faith or religion. What do you think about how science and faith are often pitted against each other?

I have never found a schism in my life between doing science and having religious beliefs. Evolutionary biologist Steven J. Gould explains why faith and science don’t conflict using the phrase “non-overlapping magisteria.” I find this idea fascinating, because if it’s correct, there ought to be mechanisms in each sphere of belief—whether it’s in faith or in science—that are responsible for this property of the non-overlapping attribute.

I spent some years thinking about it and it occurred to me that science seems to have one such mechanism. In science, not only do we tell people our best estimation about what’s going on in the universe, we also pay rigorous attention to what we don’t know. This is quantified in science as what are called “error bars” or “confidence bars.” We pay just as much attention to these uncertainties as we pay to that measured values of things around us. And there will always be uncertainty in any argument based on science.

That’s interesting in the context of faith because just as there will be uncertainty in any belief we may have, we will also have uncertainty in any disbelief we have. In my mind, this is the protection mechanism that science has built into it so that it does not intrude into faith-based belief systems.

In religion there’s a different protection mechanism. Saint Augustine, a Catholic saint mind you, said that people of faith must recognize that when people talk about the natural world and honestly record and observe phenomena that are in opposition to their belief, it is their belief it has to give way and not the other way around.

In my mind there’s this beautiful symmetry about why Gould got it exactly right. They don’t overlap, they’re just very different things. I believe that both faith and science are essential for the survival of our species.

I’ve explained in Faith Versus Fact (pp. 106-112) why Gould’s view of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) doesn’t work, and in fact has largely been rejected by theologians for its claim that the domian of religion doesn’t include statements about “the factual character of the natural world.” In fact most religions do at bottom depend on facts about God, about the afterlife, about heaven and hell, about Jesus, about Muhammad, what constitutes sin, and so on. Has Gates not thought about that? Apparently not.

As for the rest of Gates’s “accommodationism,” I find it hard to understand. It seems to be that both science and religion have “protection mechanisms” to assure the truth of what they find. In science that seems to be the use of statistics to affix a degree of uncertainty to our claims, and in religion it seems to be that one’s beliefs must be susceptible to the findings of science, so that one can retain and protect those beliefs not invalidated (or not addressed) by science.

But 64% of Americans have said that if a scientific fact invalidates a tenet of their religious beliefs, they’ll jettison the fact and keep their belief. In other words, religion’s “protection mechanism” doesn’t work very well, and not at all in the case of the 42% of Americans who are creationists.

I’m puzzled by how fuzzy Gates’s thinking is. If a student were to hand me an essay in which she gave Gates’s answer for why science and faith were compatible, I’ll mark it all up and say “think harder and try again.” But it all goes to show you that even a smart and well known scientist goes all wonky when he starts talking about religion and its compatibility with science. Gates says he’s religious, and he must therefore find a reason, however weird, for how he can have his science and his Jesus too.

As for religion (“faith”) being essential for the survival of our species, well, them’s just fancy words, for our species can survive just fine without religion. If it didn’t, Denmark and Sweden would be toast.

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Sylvester James Gates (photo from Smithsonian)

 h/t: Jente

40 Comments

  1. Ian Clark
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps send Gates a copy of Faith vs. Fact to help him out of his confusion…

  2. Mark Cagnetta
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    The reason we are inundated with religion is simple: Dominionism! They want to infect every aspect of our lives. Just look at all the religious movies being made; Ben Hur, Methuselah, God’s Not Dead I and II. Science is on their checklist.

  3. dabertini
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    “If it didn’t, Denmark and Sweden would be toast.”

    IMHO you forgot NORWAY.

    • Claudia Baker
      Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      And Iceland!

      • Dave
        Posted November 18, 2016 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

        Those countries don’t count. They’re all still under the protection of Odin, Thor and Frey, who’ve decided to overlook the population’s 1000-year flirtation with Christianity, and are hopeful of making a comeback when the time is ripe.

      • nicky
        Posted November 18, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        And Holland and France and Hungary and
        Japan and …all majority atheist countries.

        • dallos
          Posted November 20, 2016 at 2:02 am | Permalink

          “According to new polls about Religiosity in the European Union in 2012 by Eurobarometer found that Christianity is the largest religion in Hungary accounting 71% of Hungarians.[3] Catholics are the largest Christian group in Hungary, accounting for 58% of Hungary citizens,[3] while Protestants make up 7%, and Other Christian make up 6%. Non believer/Agnostic account 21%, Atheist account’s 1%.[3]

          In the Eurostat–Eurobarometer poll of 2005, 44% of the Hungarians answered that they believed there is a God, 31% answered they believed there is some sort of spirit or life force, and 19% that they do not believe there is a God, spirit, nor life force.[4]”

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Hungary

          • dallos
            Posted November 20, 2016 at 2:13 am | Permalink

            “At the 2011 census[1] 39% of Hungarians were Catholics, “

  4. Marilyn
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I think I’ve seen this guy on NOVA programs??

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted November 18, 2016 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      I think I’ve seen this guy at my university. Can’t remember the specific occasion, something to do with science and religion. (A Darwin day celebration?) I do recall not being impressed by him. He tried to pull a fast one, essentially claiming that freedom of conscience is freedom from criticism, not freedom from compulsion.

  5. Darrin Carter
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I noticed,right under the headline, that the article is “Sponsored Content”. want to guess who sponsored it.

    • Taz
      Posted November 18, 2016 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      Good catch – Templeton strikes again. Here’s what The Smithsonian has to say about “sponsored content”:

      – Every reader is entitled to fair and accurate news and information
      – The value of magazines to advertisers depends on reader trust
      – The difference between editorial content and marketing messages must be transparent
      – Editorial integrity must not be compromised by advertiser influence
      – Marketer-provided content, including native advertising, should be prominently labeled as advertising, and the source of such content and the affiliation of the authors should be clearly acknowledged. The term “Sponsor Content,” already in use on some websites, can be used to label native advertising.
      – Native advertising should include a prominent statement or “What’s This?” rollover at the top of the advertising unit explaining that the content has been created by a marketer and that the marketer has paid for its publication
      – Native advertising should not use type fonts and graphics resembling those used for editorial content and should be visually separated from editorial content.

      So they openly admit that this is a marketing message, purchased to sell religion.

  6. eric
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    In religion there’s a different protection mechanism. Saint Augustine, a Catholic saint mind you, said that people of faith must recognize that when people talk about the natural world and honestly record and observe phenomena that are in opposition to their belief, it is their belief it has to give way and not the other way around.

    In my mind there’s this beautiful symmetry about why Gould got it exactly right. They don’t overlap, they’re just very different things.

    This made me LOL. While it is very much Gould’s idea and it is a somewhat common mainstream religious view, it still makes me laugh to hear people say “they’re perfectly compatible! Just as long as all the observational stuff is ceded to science.” These folks seem to have no clue that (a) they themselves reject this type of compatibility for narrow cases, such as the miracles of Jesus, and (b) their more religiously inclined bretheren don’t see that as compatibility at all, and don’t accept it even in principle let alone practice.

    This sort of ‘compatibility’ is just science’s compatibility with deism. Which I guess makes it a fine idea if you’re a deist, but there really aren’t many of them around. Its certainly not compatible to believe in a God that does observable acts, while saying all human observational analysis belongs to science not religion.

    • deadweasel
      Posted November 18, 2016 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

      “In religion there’s a different protection mechanism. Saint Augustine, a Catholic saint mind you, said that people of faith must recognize that when people talk about the natural world and honestly record and observe phenomena that are in opposition to their belief, it is their belief [that] has to give way and not the other way around.”

      What this or that religious authority says is irrelevant; what is relevant is how people actually behave. How do people of faith react to conflicts between their faith and facts? Two ways: deny the facts (the young-earth creationist method) or special pleading (every other religious apologist, ever.)

  7. nickswearsky
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    “But 64% of Americans have said that if a scientific fact invalidates a tenet of their religious beliefs, they’ll jettison the fact and keep their belief. ”

    This explains a great deal of American behavior and culture. I have had students tell me “they choose to believe” things that they have been shown are factually untrue. They also do not fully grasp the difference between opinion and fact.

  8. merilee
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    aarrgghh
    I choose to believe that chocolate is one of the major food groups, full of all the essential amino acids and vitamins;-)

  9. busterggi
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    2 + 2 = 5.

    It must because I have faith that it does.

    • deadweasel
      Posted November 18, 2016 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

      Ah, but when faith and facts collide, faith must yield, according to a dead saint.

      Until the apologist responds, “You must understand, there are transcendent values of 2, above reason, which, due to the existential transposition of metaphysical substance, unify the values of 2 hydrostatically to arrive at a special value of 4, which is 5.”

      • steve
        Posted November 19, 2016 at 5:27 am | Permalink

        A Catholic one mind you. What’s with that?

        Are there any other kind?

        • Draken
          Posted November 19, 2016 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

          Saint Ronald of Reagan.

          And perhaps Simon Templar.

  10. Carolinacurmudgeon
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Gates’s answer is both inconsistent with the evidence (that religious beliefs DO come in direct conflict with scientific evidence), and at the same time, incoherent. My reaction after reading several of the paragraphs was “huh?”.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 19, 2016 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

      Seemed incoherent to me, too. I thought about giving it a second reading, but couldn’t really see wasting the time…😉

  11. Merilee
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    And ✔️✔️

  12. Mark Reaume
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    What is it with String theorists (he is one according to his wiki page, and Dr. Kaku from yesterday) that brings out these strange ideas?

    I guess it takes a lot of imagination and suspension of disbelief to accept string theory and also to believe in gods.

  13. keith cook +/-
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    It has been documented that when simple fishermen (in this case) got further from the island of their origin and especially when they lost sight of their home, they displayed more and more superstitious behaviours, they were fearful and this fueled uncertainty, superstition increased.
    Gates seems to be wobbling under this phenomena, the more he learns the more questions and uncertainty he faces.
    Like the fishermen his way out of easing this discomfort? superstition, the supernatural couch of comfort!
    He labours under the idea that we humans are important to the universe, that these (Science and religion) are two ways of knowing, that we are it’s purpose as told by god.. he is, i suggest have to harden the fuck up and marvel at it’s wonders and uncertainty without resorting to anthropomorphic fairy tales.

  14. nicky
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    I find it remarkable that physicists (and engineers) are so often more prone to this kind of nonsense than biologists.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted November 18, 2016 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

      I find it remarkable that supposedly hard-headed rationalists feel comfortable making this kind of accusation with nothing more than anecdote to back it up.

      • Craw
        Posted November 19, 2016 at 8:26 am | Permalink

        There is some basis for what Nicky says. If you look at the stats the most atheistic scientists are molecular biologists and brain researchers. So there are more physicists who believe than that kind of biologist at least.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted November 19, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

          “More physicists who believe” is one thing. “More prone to this kind of nonsense” (i.e. publicly promoting NOMA) is something else, for which nicky has provided no evidence.

          Perhaps a literature search of pro-NOMA articles will turn up more by physicists than by biologists; perhaps not. I haven’t done that search, and I’m guessing nicky hasn’t either.

          But let’s not forget that the inventor and most famous promoter of NOMA was a biologist, so biologists are scarcely in a position to sneer.

  15. Kevin
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen Gates on Nova but I would hardly call him well known in physics…certainly to the public.

  16. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Saint Augustine, a Catholic saint mind you, said that people of faith must recognize that when people talk about the natural world and honestly record and observe phenomena that are in opposition to their belief, it is their belief it has to give way and not the other way around

    Why should I give a flying bleep if Augustine is considered a saint by the Holy Roman Catholic Church? He either had something interesting to say, or not. Unfortunately the “wisdom” relayed here by Gates seems to be garbled. Change “it” to “that” and it would make some kind of sense, but as is, it suffers from an uncertain antecedent (is it the observation or the belief that has to give way?)

  17. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    At a minimum, you have to overtly reject Christian fundamentalism for this to even begin to make sense.

    In earlier eras, advocates of similar positions, have been willing to pronounce at least some forms of religion as just plain wrong (William James).

    But now we are very cuddly and unwilling to offend anyone, so we talk about religion-in-general.

    I see little conflict between science and Unitarianism, modernist Western Buddhism, or Quakerism. There is a LOT of conflict between science and classical Christianity, and much of the Biblical narrative.

    William James argues one can have transcendental “over-beliefs” not fully justified by evidence (since they make sense of one’s moral intuitions), but he openly castigates religious who believe things contrary to clear natural evidence (which he calls “under-beliefs”).
    It’s that latter caveat that is missing from most modern accomodationists today.

  18. Posted November 18, 2016 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Religion can screw up even fine minds.

  19. Dimitris Klaras
    Posted November 19, 2016 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    When you ask for acceptance and success (especially as a black guy – I think blacks are more religious if considered as a community in US) why to brake it? You can have the two worlds completely separated and when you are in one you forget the other. It is simple and it is working. You can even speak about evolution to someone if it is permitted to keep God/religion too somehow. If religion stays in a separate (social) world and science can do its job unobstructed, why bother go in to no needed fights? To some looks as a strategy that has more value than the “other thing”. The “other thing” looks to them mostly as a “controversy show” that leads to nowhere and have no joy to it.

  20. Tom
    Posted November 19, 2016 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    Since there seems to be a muted feeling amongst the faithful that Mr Trump is Reagan reborn, I think that there will be more of this as scientists attempt to forestall a possible onslaught by the religious and pretend their willingness to accommodate at least some christian beliefs… or am I being too cynical?

  21. Posted November 19, 2016 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    Just another lame attempt by the Elaine Ecklund school of accommodationists. Apparently their goal is to convince us that we must believe things that are untrue in order to survive, or at least make sure that the “little people” do.

  22. Craw
    Posted November 19, 2016 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    People believe for emotional and social reasons. Intellectuals though like to pretend they have a reason for all they believe. So they try to come up with a way to square the incompatible.it cannot work, so they end up spouting incoherencies.

  23. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted November 19, 2016 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    NOMA = Nay, Another Mind-numbing Asininity!?

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted November 19, 2016 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Oh, and I should also add that supersymmetry doesn’t seem to kick in at LHC scales as expected. It can still be in “a hidden valley”, but that doesn’t save physics from multiverses as the simplest explanation for the finetuning of the particle fields.

      Sort of the antithesis of Gates’ NOMA attitude.

  24. Posted November 21, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Ugh.

    Accomodationism is also insulting to believers, since it claims they don’t hold what they in fact do.


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