Sunday, January 24, 2010

PZ does Davis

The Q&A session

You may have heard the expression that some town is merely a “wide place in the road.” This applies in a major way to the city of Davis, a small town into which someone dropped a major university. As you approach Davis from the west, Interstate 80 widens into six lanes, accommodating the peak hours of traffic from UC Davis and the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. I found a parking space in one of the public lots ($6 for a 12-hour permit—I wanted to go back the next day to use it again!), grabbed my umbrella, and trekked across the campus.

It was raining steadily on Thursday night when PZ Myers arrived in Davis to talk about creationists and their inanities. The venue for his appearance was 194 Chemistry, a large lecture hall I've been in before. It was on that very site back in the eighties when I was privileged to hear Duane Gish hold forth at length on the imminent death of the theory of evolution, which had been overthrown—according to Gish—by the second law of thermodynamics. (Curious how selective creationists are in the scientific facts they accept.) It was while Gish was talking that I realized he had undoubtedly heard why it was invalid to use the second law to argue against evolution, but he persisted because it was a useful ploy with which to impress the ignorant.

The creationist game hasn't changed much since then. PZ was going to hold forth on “A few things I've learned about creationists.” At least, that's what it said on his first slide. When he spoke, however, he rendered it as “Stuff that really pisses me off about creationists.”

While the audience was assembling for the talk, I took the opportunity to introduce myself to PZ. I asked him if he would be “holding court” later in the evening. “Is that what they're calling it these days?” (PZ is obviously unused to folks who talk with my arch and slightly archaic second-language manner.) “Well, it's the way that I say it, although it's a bit pretentious.” PZ appeared momentarily nonplussed. It later turned out that the second slide of his talk bore the word ”pretentious,” the first in a series of adjectives he would use that evening to define the nature of creationism and creationists. Perhaps he suspected I had seen his talk the night before in UC Santa Barbara, but that was really too far away. It was just an odd coincidence. Spooky!

The crowd settled down when “Mr. Deity and the Science Advisor” appeared on the lecture hall's projection screen. (Guess who plays the science advisor?) After an interlude of a few minutes for late arrivals to drip dry in the lobby and get seated, PZ launched into his talk.

As I mentioned the framework for his talk was a series of adjectives which PZ used as jumping off points for describing various creationist fatuities. It worked well, although it appeared that PZ could have spoken for an entire hour on any one of the adjectives. I presume PZ has been using the same basic spiel at each of his California stop. The Q&A that follows, however, will be unique to each venue.

The following report is a paraphrased narrative, not a literal transcript—except where I dare to include quote marks. (I'm afraid I lack the chops of a courtroom reporter.) I hope that I captured the essence of most of the exchanges.

Questions & Answers

Q. Michael Behe has dismissed Joe Thornton's brilliant work on gluticosteroid receptors as “piddling.” What's so great about Behe's own work?

A. Behe has published credible research on histones. It might also, however, be described as piddling—as is PZ's own work. “But much of scientific progress is just the aggregate of great amounts of piddling research.” The Biologic Institute was spawned as the research arm of the Discovery Institute, but its impact on actual science research is invisible.

Q. Have you heard the argument that natural selection may be real, but that's not proof that evolution is real?

A. That position is often taken by those who argue for a distinction between so-called macroevolution and microevolution. Natural selection is allowed to make small changes in their view, but it's supposedly incapable of transforming a creature's “kind”—the non-biological term used by creationists based on biblical phrases contained in passages like Genesis 1:25, “God made the beast of the earth after his kind.” The distinction is false, as if arguing that someone who could walk across a city could certainly never walk across a county.

Q. Do you get creationists in your classes at UM Morris?

A. “All the time. I treat their questions with respect and I encourage class participation in answering them. The better students leave the creationist arguments in shreds. As the professor, I get to stand back and be the referee. It's great fun.” It's extremely important that teachers make a distinction between the argument and the student, since someone in a position of authority can too easily make life miserable for students who are merely trying to convey dogma that others have inculcated in them. Besides, most students are in-between and may be willing to listen to new information. “I have occasionally planted doubts in their minds, causing them to think.” Sometimes, however, those wearing the armor of God are just too casehardened to do any critical thinking, such as those who filled out teaching evaluations that said, “This class made me love Jesus even more.” Those may well be hopeless.

Q. Isn't it counterproductive to label peoples' beliefs as nonsense when you're trying to engage them in scientific thinking? Isn't confrontation a bad way to influence people?

A. There are plenty of people trying to go the conciliatory route. The more accommodating science writers do not appear to be having significant success in promoting rational thought.

Q. Intelligent design creationists and theistic evolutionists think that a god or a designer needs to interfere in the natural world to create the life we see today. Do they ever specify where God does his tinkering?

A. Most appear to be focused on the notion that it's important to distinguish between the evolution of humans and the evolution of other animals. About half of the United States is okay with the idea that man evolved in some way, speaking broadly. However, about three-quarters are okay with the idea that dogs evolved. That suggests that God needs to be present to give humans their special characteristics. Other than that, most don't seem to care exactly where God does his tinkering. They just know that he does.

Q.Do you agree with Richard Dawkins when he says that evolution is corrosive to religion?

A. “Actually, I believe that all science is corrosive to religion.” Science is based on evidence and critical thinking, which are contrary to received doctrine and dogmatic thinking. Michael Ruse has wondered whether the courts could eventually decide that religion must be protected from science. Is there a fundamental right to religiosity that courts will rally to defend? It's not as though courts base all of their decisions on logic. Purveyors of religion, such as youth ministers, fret that higher education will deprive young people of religious beliefs. Science teachers should be direct in their response. If classes in science and logic and critical thinking cause young people to turn away from the religious ideas that they were taught, the implication is clear. The earth is not 6000 years old. The Grand Canyon was not gouged out overnight by Noah's flood. Jesus did not have a pet dinosaur when he was a young man. “It means that you [the youth ministers] have been lying to them all their lives.” No wonder that they turn away when they find out.

Q. Where is the creationism in practical technology?

A. As in the Salem hypothesis? That's the observation that engineers who are creationists like to describe themselves as scientists. Not all engineers are creationists, but those who are seem to think they should claim that they are scientists.

Q. No, I mean where are the technological applications of creationism? If it's a science, there should be applications.

A. But they aren't. Creationism is a belief system rather than a science.

Q. What are species, exactly?

A. There are many different biological formulations. It pleases creationists that the definition of species is fuzzy, because they can attack different aspects of it. Breeding isolation is an important factor. New species are emerging all the time, such as the breed of mosquito that lives in the London Underground. Clearly that's a species that arose recently, since the Tube has not been there very long.

Q. Why is Behe a creationist?

A. Probably religion, because religion is a comfort to many people and involves friends and family members. Religion is one of the older systems of social organization and contact, a predecessor to Facebook and Twitter. And the thought of burning in torment in hell for eternity can be quite persuasive. It compels compliance.

Q. Do you believe in the historicity of Jesus?

A. Richard Carrier says that Jesus is a myth. He has a forthcoming book in which he sets out his arguments. I agree with him. There may well have been a real person named Jesus about whom the myth was constructed, but it's mostly myth.

Q. Is evolution goal-directed?

A. Evolution's “goal” is better adaptation to survive in a given environment. Our language is full of words that suggest intent and purpose, which can be misleading, but evolution is the natural selection of randomly occurring advantageous mutations.

Q. Religion can be a comfort. Is that why some people don't care about science?

A. There's more comfort in the thought that there is no cosmic jailer! “People also say that religion is a crutch. Throw away your crutch and walk! That would be liberating. It's patronizing to suggest that most people are too weak to do without religion.

“Personally, I'm looking forward to the arrival of the first gay, female, atheist president.”

Q. Religion is used mostly to manipulate people.

A. Thomas Frank documented in his book how Kansas used to be a radical state, but religious extremists were part of the movement that pre-empted the moral high ground and persuaded people that they had to vote against their interests in order to be “good.” As a result, Kansans now regularly oppose programs and policies that would benefit them.

Q. Are you aware of Conservapedia's Bible project?

A. “I brought it to the world's attention. It's a project to remove the ‘liberal’ parts of the Bible.”

Q. Is there a direct correlation between the level of atheism and the amount of scientific thought? Does that mean we should be concerned about an increase in non-scientific thinking?

A. Science has a lot of authority, which is why people try to co-opt it in support of their positions. That's why advertisements say things like “9 out of 10 doctors recommend.” That's why a mockery of science like the Creation Museum exists. The United States is not science-positive in the sense of correct science. We need to exploit the validity of and power of science in order to diminish the influence of pseudoscience.

Q. Are atheists poorly organized?

A. Yes, but there is strength in diversity. There is no official dogma of atheism. “There is no pope of atheism—except for Dawkins.” There is no requirement that atheists subscribe to a particular set of political positions. Some atheists are in favor of abortion. Some are opposed—“even though that's where we get our babies to barbecue.”

Q. Ray Comfort seems to confuse spontaneous generation with evolution.

A. Ray Comfort doesn't even know where the first dog came from. He would say it's creation.

Q. We should tell our science students that they need to understand evolution in order to qualify for good-paying jobs in the future.

A. Would they believe that? It's better to tell them that understanding evolution makes other things easier to understand. For example, ecology makes a lot more sense if you've understood evolution first.

Q. Creationists often attack the radioactive dating of fossils.

A. The dates conflict with the young-earth idea. Therefore they say that you can't assume that decay rates have been in the past what they are today. If they were faster, then everything could be a glowing mass today. Creationists are willing to pay the price of invalidating all of physics in order to make their point.

Q. what about abiogenesis?

A. It's mostly straightforward. “All of biology is chemistry and there is no magic in molecules.” Study chemistry if you want to know how life could have arisen. Read Robert Hazen's Genesis for more.

Q. What is your opinion on humanity's ability to be a responsible steward of the biosphere?

A. We're balanced on the edge. The United States is not a good role model for the developing nations of the world because the U.S. is not sufficiently committed to adopting a sustainable way of life. Despite some hopeful optimism that people are beginning to wake up, things could definitely go in a bad direction.

Q. Why do so many creationists refuse to acknowledge that religious people can believe in evolution? Many Christian denominations have no problem with evolution. One example is the Catholic Church.

A. Many creationists would deny that Catholics are Christian. The Creation Museum contains displays that attack liberal Christians who don't accept young-earth creationism. They define creationism as part of their Christianity.

Q. What about Islamic creationism?

A. In countries like England, which has never had a significant problem with creationism, communities of Islamic immigrants are agitating in favor of creationist beliefs. Turkey, for example, is a very secular nation on paper, but in reality the influence of Islam is very strong. It's like the United States, officially secular but really very Christian.

Q. I fear the rise of a charismatic creationist leader from the fundamentalist ranks, someone like [Heinlein's] Nehemiah Scudder, who creates an extremist theocracy.

A. We need charismatic atheists, but that's not our strong suit. “Perhaps the recent coming out of Brad Pitt as an atheist gives us cause for hope.” Our best response is to concentrate on educating the children, making them critical thinkers. Teach your children. And if you don't have children, consider adopting.

Q. How does altruism fit into an evolutionary scheme of things?

A. This is a community. [indicating the audience] Social cohesiveness is important to our lives and comfort. We work together to maintain our environment. To live well, we rely on cooperation, which is the basis of morality. And we don't eat babies—no matter how delicious.

Q. I am a public school science teacher and some of my students reacted negatively when I introduced the astronomy topic of stellar evolution. I was called into a conference with my principal.

A. Is stellar evolution in your state standards? Point this out to your students and your principal. Tell your students they don't have to believe, but they have to understand. It's a requirement. Tell your principal he doesn't want to be out of compliance with state standards.

Q. Should we teach the flaws of creationism in the science classroom?

A. I do. It can be difficult for a public school teacher whose students might take offense, but I use a historical approach to science. I demonstrate that evolution was not established by atheists who were in league with the devil. Devoutly religious scientists like Lyell realized that the earth was at least millions of years old because that's what the evidence showed. Science is a product of both believers and nonbelievers.

Q. What about the God gene?

A. I don't believe that there are specific genes for emergent properties like belief in God or homosexuality. Those are too complex to be simply identified with genes.

Q. What is creationism's pre-Cambrian bunny rabbit?

A. If someone found a rabbit fossil from the pre-Cambrian, it would not immediately invalidate evolution for me. I would want to do a lot of investigation first. However, creationists do not point to any specific item of evidence that would cause them to abandon creationism. “Creationists work around the evidence.” Nothing persuades them. And they don't understand evidence, pointing to things like the “crocoduck” as a missing link that evolutionists would expect to find. [PZ was resplendent in his crocoduck tie.]

Q. Do religious leaders sometimes go too far and destroy the faith of their followers. Do they commit errors that are faith-crackers?

A. No, hardly ever. Look at Pat Robertson and his statement on Haiti's earthquake being the consequence of a pact with the devil. Most of his viewers probably agree with him. Persistent education is needed to overcome a mindset that lets people agree with pastors no matter what stupid things they say or do.

Q. Why are people susceptible to magical thinking?

A. It's part of our nature. We don't like the thought that some events are not purposeful. People like narrative and they want causal relationships. Magic covers the gaps.

Q. Atheists should move away from “believing” in evolution and emphasize “accepting” it on the basis of evidence.

Q. Right. Our language implies causes where there are none. We say that certain biological features are “designed” for certain functions when we do not mean to imply any designer other than natural selection. It can be misleading. However, we also lose our audience when we speak over-precisely, so there's no good remedy. We have to be as careful as we can, within reason.

51 comments:

unapologetic said...

Why do so many creationists refuse to acknowledge that religious people can believe in evolution? Many Christian denominations have no problem with evolution.

I think this can be turned around. Why do so many opponents of creationism refuse to acknowledge that many Christian denominations (Catholics officially, and also main-line protestants AFAIK) have no problem with evolution?

Wouldn't it help the policy fight against creationist thrusts to make allies on that side of the aisle? "We don't agree on theology, but we both agree that it's not science and should be kept away from the classroom, so let's work together to stop them."

Richard Hart said...

There is an awesome amount of wisdom and knowledge being presented here. Living in the backward state of Oklahoma, it's extremely refreshing to hear intelligent discourse for a change.

Thanks for posting the Q & A.

_richard

llewelly said...


“Personally, I'm looking forward to the arrival of the first gay, female, atheist president.”

Greta Christina in 2012!

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Zeno, since I couldn't attend any of these, I really enjoyed being able to read about it. Thanks for posting this!

Scott Hatfield

Rorschach said...

Thanks for the write-up, gives me an idea what PZ does in all these taks !

Kathy Orlinsky said...

What is creationism's pre-Cambrian bunny rabbit?

Excellent question, and one I've never heard a creationist answer. At best, they admit that such a thing does not and cannot exist for them, at worst, they jump to a non sequitur counter attack.

tomh said...

unapologetic said...
Why do so many opponents of creationism refuse to acknowledge that many Christian denominations (Catholics officially, and also main-line protestants AFAIK) have no problem with evolution?

Actually, the most recent Pew Forum poll shows that 49% of mainline Protestants reject evolution as the best explanation for the origins of human life. And while officially the Catholic church accepts evolution, 42% of Catholics deny it.

Lee Bowman said...

Good questions, not always the best answers, however. This would not be a function of intellect or lack thereof, but of some weaknesses in atheist thought. PZ is a great blogger (covers a multitude of subject matter), but like Dawkins, faces problems defending abject materialism (atheism). Dawkins has stated that he's 6 on a scale of 1 to 7 (slightly agnostic), but that he in no way could ever embrace theism of any flavor. I would rate PZ as a 'seven'.

Regarding the last question and answer, should "atheists … move away from "believing" in evolution and emphasize "accepting" it on the basis of evidence[?]

I agree with PZ (and Zeno), that 'belief' is not a valid qualifier. But when PZ goes on to say that using the design/ designed terminology can infer false inferences, I agree, except that the inferences may well be valid. There is no proof one way or the other for or against design intervention. Both evolution (sans adaptation), and ID are not verifiable, since both are forensic investigations. While there is strong evidences from the data that species have evolved, the means of radical speciation (my term for macroEv) has not been substantiated. And thus, there actually is an element of 'faith' in both camps.

Regarding the problem of evos using the design term without meaning design per se, I enjoyed seeing this example of that (slipped remark). My comment is regarding the 'slip' at [6:35].
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZ23tDyzyZY&NR=1

My camp, by the way, is that of investigative ID, and NOT Creationism based on scripture. I hold to the possibility of MDT (multiple designer theory) as well.

Alpha Bitch said...

But there are heaps and heaps of scientific evidence for evolution, with all of its flaws. There is no scientific evidence for ID whatsoever. Sure, neither theory is completely, irrefutably proven, but evolution is light years closer than ID. How can you put them on the same plane? Put them in a bar graph based on evidence, then you'll see the difference.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Bowman;

No, there is no evidence which completely refutes the possibility of design in nature - if you want to be utterly technical in your logic. Neither is there evidence that man cannot flap his arms and fly. however, i suggest that you limit your behavior to principles learned empirically, and not throw yourself off the rim of the grand canyon. Let me spell it out a little clearer for you benighted engineering types - by definition, negatives cannot be 'proven'. Whether in engineering (which is not science) or in science (which is not religion) the standard of proof is sufficiency - not absolution . Certitude only exists in abstract exercises such as mathematics and (Zeno, help me here) not really even then. PZ is talking about 'accepting' evidence when it is 'sufficient' for the task at hand (such as explaining the damage done by pseudo-science, or the formation of a diploid cell, or the differentiation of a novel species . . . etc.)

And speaking of evidence, I call you out on the Salem Hypothesis. Troll much?

Anonymous said...

A further hint for Mr. Bowman . . . I was being snarky in my use of the word 'absolution' . . . My intent is to ridicule the notion that religion and science are equivalent belief systems. But for the sake of clarity, let me add that science has long since triumphed over religion as a methodology for understanding the world. Hence all the IDiots, and all their spawn, including you, you pathetic sod.

Bruce Gorton said...

I think this can be turned around. Why do so many opponents of creationism refuse to acknowledge that many Christian denominations (Catholics officially, and also main-line protestants AFAIK) have no problem with evolution?

Name one of those opponents.

Seriously, try to name one of them.

Wouldn't it help the policy fight against creationist thrusts to make allies on that side of the aisle?

The experience in what amounts to the entire lifespan of the NCSE, where cuddling up to the religions which don't dispute current scientific fact has simply been shown to lend credibility to those that do.

After all, those religions still say faith in and of itself is good and don't really make any more sense than the fundies do.

The strictly neutral "Don't care, this is what the evidence says" position preferred by the non-accomodationists may well be more effective - or at least, more honest.

Bruce Gorton said...

I would rate PZ as a 'seven'.

And we should care what you rate PZ as? Surely where PZ falls on that scale is for PZ to say - not you?

In fact your entire argument is simply masturbatory waffling - you say there is no proof and yet what would you qualify as proof? Your basic stance is such that any proof that was found would be excused away.

It is unfalsifiable and thus almost certainly false. It is also why when examining claims we take the null hypothesis.

We don't have to prove there isn't an interventionist God, you have to prove, or at least provide evidence that there is one.

If you can't do that we can assign the same belief in your God as we assign to Sagan's pet invisible dragon.

Bruce Gorton said...

Should read

,where cuddling up to the religions which don't dispute current scientific fact is their policy,

DEEN said...

"There is no proof one way or the other for or against design intervention."
1. There is no scientific evidence of design intervention (but quite a bit of evidence of sub-optimal or even outright crappy design).
2. There is no known mechanism for design intervention.
3. Design intervention is not necessary for speciation and adaptation by natural selection to occur (both mechanism and evidence are available).
4. Therefore, science gives us good reasons to reject design intervention, and none to accept it.

"Both evolution (sans adaptation), and ID are not verifiable, since both are forensic investigations."
Except that the forensic detective of evolution has the DNA that shows that the butler did it, as well as the bullet traces that suggest what gun you may expect to find in his bedroom. Meanwhile, ID can only whine that there is no video of the act, so maybe the maid did it, even though there's no evidence she was even in the building that night.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, I think creationism is a wicked belief which hijacks the religious and cultural traditions of Judaism and Christianity, robs us of the heritage and discredits the accomplishments of stone-age man, and exploits the ignorance and vanity of its adherents. Proponents of creationism lie routinely, repeating its lies even in the face of exposure and do so in the righteous belief that their lies serve a higher purpose - their god, their god being a reflection of their own twisted souls.

Rieux said...

DEEN wrote:
Except that the forensic detective of evolution has the DNA that shows that the butler did it, as well as the bullet traces that suggest what gun you may expect to find in his bedroom. Meanwhile, ID can only whine that there is no video of the act, so maybe the maid did it, even though there's no evidence she was even in the building that night.

No, no, no. Not "the maid." The Easter Bunny. Or maybe space aliens. ID teaches us that we've always gotta look out for space aliens.

John Armstrong said...

@Bruce: PZ has gone out of his way to pick fights with and offend Catholics. Dawkins calls theists "delusional". This is beyond "don't care", and it does material harm to efforts to get more people behind anti-creationist policy goals.

Even if it's only half of Catholics and main-line protestants, that's a huge constituency that could be marshaled to help stop creationist advances. But they're not likely to be very interested in helping people who go out of their way to treat them with such contempt.

Paul said...

PZ has gone out of his way to pick fights with and offend [people who made death threats towards a poor kid who removed a cracker from church premises. These people happened to be] Catholics.

Fixed that for you.

Casey said...

Zeno, I've been lurking around here for quite awhile, but you do good work. Im glad we're in the same area. I'll be at the Sac City and Sierra talks of PZ', I hope you're there!

John Armstrong said...

@Paul: I agree that those people were way out of line and should have been denounced. However, they were hardly the only ones to whom PZ's actions were offensive. The story at that point became about him and how he was behaving. If anything, he took focus off the original bad actors by his stunt.

But oh wait, I forgot: all members of a group are equally culpable for the bad acts of some of them, and there is no sense in distinguishing between them. It must be nice, Paul, not to be a member of any group that has ever done anything objectionable. I'd say it's very saintly of you, but you probably wouldn't take it well.

tomh said...

John Armstrong said...
This is beyond "don't care", and it does material harm to efforts to get more people behind anti-creationist policy goals.

Do you have any evidence that this is true? Just what material harm do you refer to? "they're not likely to be very interested" is not a very convincing argument.

Anonymous said...

@ Bruce:

But I do have the same belief in Sagan's pet dragon. And the Easter Bunny, and all the rest of them. Why is it so hard to accept a position that, philosophically speaking, we cannot *know*? But we can act in accordance with the evidence in front of us anyway.

I'm just frustrated with always having these examples of pet dragons or Easter Bunnies brought up, as though the agnostic would never have thought of that before. Of course, the Easter Bunny and the like are the whole point.

I talk about what, philosophically, we can know.

Marcel Kincaid said...

"they were hardly the only ones to whom PZ's actions were offensive"

Gotta love the intellectual dishonesty, switching from "PZ has gone out of his way to pick fights with and offend Catholics" to simply that anuses like Mr. Armstrong were offended. These people are offended by the fact that Christianity doesn't dominate every single aspect of human society and that not everyone is a Christian.

The fact is that "X was offensive to Y" is a statement about Y, not about X.

Marcel Kincaid said...

I think this can be turned around.

Ah, yes, the tu quoque argument -- the most dishonest of fallacies. Before changing the subject with your turnaround, how about addressing the point?

Why do so many opponents of creationism refuse to acknowledge that many Christian denominations (Catholics officially, and also main-line protestants AFAIK) have no problem with evolution?

Liar.

Wouldn't it help the policy fight against creationist thrusts to make allies on that side of the aisle?

Yes, and such allies have been made. You surely, know, for instance of Ken Miller, and how his role in the Dover trial has been lauded by people like Myers and Dawkins.

Marcel Kincaid said...

I agree, except that the inferences may well be valid. There is no proof one way or the other for or against design intervention.

So you don't understand the difference between inference and proof. Science deals in the former, not the latter, and all evidence and logic support an inference against design intervention and none supports an inference for it.

I talk about what, philosophically, we can know.

Philosophically, you're clueless. Given your concept of "know". you can't even know your own name.

MikeTheInfidel said...

John Armstrong said:
"This is beyond "don't care", and it does material harm to efforts to get more people behind anti-creationist policy goals."

John, you do realize that Dawkins' and PZ's approach is largely the result of INCREASING distrust of science, despite the best efforts of people willing to coddle the anti-science religious? It wasn't working.

John Armstrong said...

@Marcel, did you even bother to read what I said? I mean, if you're going to call me names you should at least have the reading comprehension skills to know that I'm opposed to creationism and the social dominance of Christianity.

As for turning it around, I even agree with PZ's response on the forward point, to the extent that he answered it at all. He did sort of dodge acknowledging himself that religious people can believe in evolution. I'm just making the question run symmetrically: the atheist/theist distinction and the evolutionist/creationist distinction are not identical.

In point of fact, there are evolution-believing theists, and they seem to rankle both sides. Some creationists would rather they not provide an example of evolutionists who aren't godless heathens (though as PZ points out they do tend to throw Catholics into the heathen category anyway). Some atheists would rather they didn't provide an example of theists who aren't blindly irrational morons. Both extremes have difficulty acknowledging the existence of a middle, and they proceed to call anyone who points it out an "anus" and disregard whatever is actually said.

But I further contend that evolutionist atheists do have something to lose here, and I would rather they not lose it. Specifically: evolutionist theists could be a strong voice in the efforts to oppose creationism, but it seems that many outspoken atheists would rather remain ideologically pure even if it means relegating themselves to the political minority. Do you reach across one aisle to court the ambivalent "swing vote"? or do you let the other side claim those reinforcements?

tomh said...

John Armstrong said...
evolutionist theists could be a strong voice in the efforts to oppose creationism

Who is stopping them? In fact, people like Miller and Collins are strong voices in opposing creationists. They write books, they make speeches - Dawkins, Myers, et., al., do nothing to quiet them.

it seems that many outspoken atheists would rather remain ideologically pure even if it means relegating themselves to the political minority

Are you serious? You really think that's what is relegating them to the political minority? Atheists add up to about 10-15% of American population, and upwards of 60% of Americans say they would never vote for an atheist. Do you really think it's because they're so outspoken? That's an assertion beyond all reason.

Elwood said...

"...evolution is the natural selection of randomly occurring advantageous mutations."

Perfect.

Anonymous said...

As a South African, I'm unlikely to hear PZ any time soon. So I really appreciate this account of the Q&A. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Do you teach the shortcomings of the evolutionary theory as well as its strengths?

Do you teach the strengths of ID and or Creationism?

How do you safeguard your itinerary from being biased (being filtered through your preconceived naturalism slant)?

It is rare to find a scientist who can play referee fairly; usually they tend to favor the side which mirrors their own belief system. How difficult was it for you to learn and accurately articulate the ID arguments without succumbing to anti-creation rhetoric?

I applaud your efforts in the classroom, but why do you take such a different tactic on your blog?

Not trolling, just curious,

Steve

Zeno said...

Steve, you appear to think that one can "referee fairly" between evolution and creationism as if they are equal competitors in a contest. Not so. Science is the pursuit of knowledge of nature. Natural, not supernatural. Miraculous explanations obey no rules and are not part of science.

The "strengths" of ID and other forms of creationism is that they can explain anything by resorting to an unexplained designer (who most ID creationists admit is just another name for the God of the Bible). Again, not science.

In brief, the only competition between evolution and creationism is rhetorical and political. Creationism doesn't belong in the science classroom except as an example of non-science.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Why does no one ever ask why those religious who accept evolution don't fight creationists ON THE OWN, simply because their religion is wrong?

I have a guess: It's because, as Mitt Romney tried to convince us, any religion is better than no religion.

If reasoning Christians (or whoever) would rather be allied with those who insist the world is 6000 years old than those who don't, how is 'reaching across the aisle' to them going to help?

It's a hard fact, but it's true: Science is indeed incompatible with some brands of religion. And as long as any religion takes that as an attack on all religion, that religion will want to be seen to be allied with atheists on any point, even if they do agree about something.

unapologetic said...

At long last, Blogger allows me to load pages again. First things first:

@tomh: Nobody is stopping them, but like most areas of human behavior it's a game of carrots and sticks. Some people acting like jerks is a stick to them, that outweighs (to them) the stick that you and I see in creationist advances. I think we need more carrots and fewer sticks. Miller and Collins are good, but they show the need for more people like them rather than that the situation is fine as it is.

Incidentally, carrots and sticks tend act as accelerations rather than as velocities. Just because the situation (or at least the observations on the surface) isn't improving doesn't mean it hasn't been getting worse more slowly, on its way to a reversal. Some things take time. And no, I'm not saying atheists should just shut up and be patient; I'm saying that effecting change is a slow process in the best of circumstances.

As for "political minority", I'm sorry. I'd tried using "political" as an adjective relating to policy as the closest parallel to "ideological" as one relating to ideology. And it clearly didn't come across. I'm talking about actual, on-the-ground policies here, not about being liked. Yes, it's unfair and unwarranted that atheists are held in such low esteem, and I agree with you that it should be different. But I think it's a losing battle to ask people to like you.

Did African-Americans find it more important that they be able to eat in the same restaurants and attend the same schools as everybody else, or that they be liked? Does the homosexual community find it more important that they be able to visit their loved ones in the hospital and inherit property from them, or that they be liked? Actual, real-world policies matter; being liked doesn't. And just because someone wouldn't vote for an atheist doesn't mean they don't agree that creationism shouldn't be taught in public schools.

But then, maybe as people find themselves in more contact -- on the same side of more and more policy fights, say -- they just might start to like each other more.

-----

Now, since Ridger has come along since last night when I tried posting (something isomorphic to) the above:

You're misrepresenting the situation a bit. You present the choice as between "those who insist the world is 6000 years old than those who don't". My entire point is that the choice is actually between those who insist the world is 6000 years old, those who call all theists delusional and go out of their way to offend them, and simply shutting up and doing nothing. As I said above, there are some who are willing to overlook the offensive rhetoric and join in the policy battle, but there need to be more to man the barricades. It's unfortunate, but in terms of policy battles "don't care" from the middle is a win for the creationists.

On the other hand, you do better than many in your perception of granularity, in that you recognize that "some brands of religion" are different from others in their actual policy positions. But then you unfortunately treat those "brands" as monolithic units.

tomh said...

unapologetic said...
Some people acting like jerks

What you call acting like jerks is actually just people voicing opinions and speaking their minds. The idea that they should tailor their remarks so as not to offend sensitive believers, in the imagined cause of some greater good, seems rather arrogant.

Miller and Collins are good, but they show the need for more people like them rather than that the situation is fine as it is.
They show no such thing, since there is no evidence that they have had any impact at all in persuading people to give up creationism, or whatever it is that they are arguing for. And, in fact, there are far more people like Miller and Collins than there are outspoken atheists, like Dawkins or Hitchens, for instance.

carrots and sticks tend act as accelerations rather than as velocities
I know nothing about carrots and sticks, but I do know unsupported speculation when I see it, for example, "Just because the situation ... isn't improving doesn't mean it hasn't been getting worse more slowly"
Of course it doesn't, just as it doesn't mean that it has been getting worse more slowly. Or staying the same. Or any other permutation you can dream up.

I'm not saying atheists should just shut up
That's exactly what you're saying when you suggest that people tailor their speech to fit your notions of what would be an effective strategy.

I'm talking about actual, on-the-ground policies here
I have no idea what you mean by policies, since there is no overriding body that can set policy. If you're talking about laws, these are already in place - it's illegal to teach creationism in public schools, etc. The struggle is against believers circumventing these laws.

unapologetic said...

What you call acting like jerks is actually just people voicing opinions and speaking their minds.

PZ desecrated a host. Specifically because it would piss people off.

If that's not acting like a jerk in your book, we have nothing to discuss.

tomh said...

If that's not acting like a jerk in your book, we have nothing to discuss.

So you only discuss things with people who agree with you. Interesting.

unapologetic said...

It's not about disagreement. It marks such a drastic split in notions of basic decency that I sincerely doubt any sensible communication can take place.

Neither would I advocate trying to change the mind of an entrenched young-earth creationist. Some people's world-views are so off-kilter that they can't be reasoned with.

tomh said...

Wow. Some guy crumbles a cracker and it becomes an affront to human decency for you. Overreact much? Maybe you should evaluate your priorities, they seem a bit skewed.

unapologetic said...

It's not what he did, tomh, it's why he did it. And I don't expect you to understand the difference, or to even try to. You've got your opinion on his actions and I have mine, and I don't really expect there's any hope of a common understanding.

Thus: we have nothing to discuss.

tomh said...

unapologetic said...
we have nothing to discuss

You keep saying that.

It's not what he did, tomh, it's why he did it.

You lose me there. Earlier, you were appalled that PZ would desecrate a cracker (as if such a thing were possible) - now it doesn't matter what he did, it's why he did it, or at least why you imagine he did it. You sound confused, as if you haven't really thought this through.

Anonymous said...

Zeno,

You have correctly identified science as being the study of the natural world. Science is not the ascent that the material world is all there is to reality; that is naturalism. This would be a philosophical claim which natural sciences honestly can not comment on. If a supernatural event/being is outside their boundaries of study scientists would be wise to maintain a relationship based on fidelity to their area of credibility. Science studies the natural world, but it is only a tool to do so; the tool does not define the world.

It is important to remember that natural sciences increase our understanding and knowledge, but not our reality. What is real remains real if it is studied or not, if it is understood or not. For example before astronomy as a disciplined study was practiced celestial bodies and solar systems existed, they were just not understood. In other words science is dependant upon reality and will always be subordinate to existence and therefore as science advances it will only ever be able of attempting to explain; it is a tool of measurement and categorizing but not defining.

Evolution as an explanation for the diversity of creatures living and fossilized is not a matter of observable science but relies heavily upon the historical science disciplines, such as archeology. Biologists should not misapply their standards to the historical data.

You have stated “Miraculous explanations obey no rules and are not part of science.” Remember evolutionists currently have no demonstrable working model for abiogenesis for them to build a natural explanation of RNA/DNA off of. Macroevolution is still only a theory with great explanatory power but very little discernable empirical data, most data fits better into a microevolution/adaptation model not dependant on increased information at a genetic level occurring by random chance mutational changes over time. Sometimes what today can only be described as miraculous is really better described as the unknown. A critical look at the observable components of neo-Darwinian evolution sees a theory which is filled with miraculous elements currently accepted but not yet explained.

Science is not allowed to discount a theory because they are afraid they know where it may lead. Saying ID may lead back to God does not make it unscientific. This again is where a philosophical naturalistic worldview must acknowledge it has reached its boundaries and can neither confirm or deny the identity of the designer, but allow for the possibility to remain on the table.

If you are unable to teach an unbiased look at Intelligent Design do you at the very least teach the weaknesses and the flaws of the current state of the evolutionary theory?

Thanks again,
Steve

tomh said...

do you at the very least teach the weaknesses and the flaws of the current state of the evolutionary theory?

That would be an odd thing to do since the first three words of our host's "About Me" on the home page say, "I teach math".

Anonymous said...

Unapologetic said, "PZ desecrated a host. Specifically because it would piss people off."

No, he didn't. He nailed what he regards as an ordinary cracker to the wall. You insist he "desecrated" something you call a "host".

It's obvious that anybody who can't understand something that rudimentary is liable to be pissed off. But PZ isn't responsible for the shortcomings in your intellectual capacity either.

Anonymous said...

Unapologetic also says, "It's not what he did, tomh, it's why he did it. And I don't expect you to understand the difference, or to even try to. You've got your opinion on his actions and I have mine, and I don't really expect there's any hope of a common understanding. Thus: we have nothing to discuss."

Well, lessee. Let's take these absurd claims one at a time.

Unapologetic: "It's not what he did...it's why he did it".

Is that right? Really? Then you must also accept PZ's OWN reason for "why" he did it. HIS reason for doing it was to demonstrate that a cracker is nothing more than a cracker and that crackers (or anything else) are not invested with supernatural properties of any kind.

You are simply "pissed off" because you fail to accept HIS reasons for "why" he did it, which obviously clashes with YOUR PRESUMPTION for "why" he did it.

To support HIS reason for the "why" behind his conducting the demonstration, you will recall that he subsequently tossed the cracker, along with a copy of the Koran, a copy of "The God Delusion", some banana peels and used coffee grounds into the trash. According to

YOUR OWN thesis, he must therefore also have mightily offended Muslims, atheists (specifically a certain Richard Dawkins...not to mention book sellers and publishers), banana peels and used coffee grounds.

Perhaps even the poor trash can that might associate itself as the ignominious receptacle of such blatant blasphemy has had its feelings hurt.

So where's your outrage on behalf of Muslims, atheists, banana peels and used coffee grounds?

PZ's reason "why" was entirely in the form of a communicative demonstration - you know, an exercise in "teaching" people just like you - to show that matter is just matter and that supernatural appendages are just figments of your startlingly limited powers of comprehension. He's a teacher, you know. A good one who knows his chops. It's evident you aren't, and don't.


Unapologetic: "And I don't expect you to understand the difference, or to even try to."

You are quite presumptive in your expectations, considering you couldn't even tell the difference between a simple demonstration and a "sacrilege".


Unapologetic: "You've got your opinion on his actions and I have mine, and I don't really expect there's any hope of a common understanding."

Indeed. But the problem may not reside entirely in those whom you've pointed your crooked finger at, as you presume. While there is a small (non-zero) chance that you might open your eyes just enough to admit a little light of actuality to inform a mind that has formed the habit of restricting any evidence or information which might enlighten it, I do not really expect there's much hope of you coming to an understanding that is consistent with natural reality.

You can throw the red herring of the need for a "common understanding" out with the banana peels and used coffee grounds into the same offended trash can as a wildly inapplicable (if not false)requirement...or do you really and truly think such "common understanding" might be acquired without the slightest movement on your part?

No, I don't suppose you might have considered that potential responsibility, huh?


Unapologetic: "Thus: we have nothing to discuss."

Ah, yes, that repeated declaration would be quite consistent with the fact that you continue to "discuss" it.

One can only be moved to appreciate the possibility that there must be something about religious devotion that scrambles the ability of devotees to employ rudimentary logic. Don't take it personally. That sort of baggage tends to piss people off.

Anonymous said...

The OTHER Anonymous? Who rhetorically asks, "If you are unable to teach an unbiased look at Intelligent Design do you at the very least teach the weaknesses and the flaws of the current state of the evolutionary theory?"

Science already critically examines itself all the time, bub, and whatever reappraisals that modify scientific consensus are generally passed on to students by teachers that teach science.

But if you have any problems with "evolutionary theory" because of what you identify as "flaws", you will be required to pose them as refutable claims in a sufficiently well-accredited scientific forum. Otherwise, it is incredibly dumb to imagine that any religious argument has any bearing on this issue, or any other that begs for a competent appraisal of evidence, for that matter.

"Intelligent Design" is a hypothesis in search of a subject. So are extraterrestrial organisms ("aliens")...but at least the latter is absolutely positively testable within a finite time. Intelligent design is a guess by someone who doesn't "like" that the very nice summation expressed by PZ, that "evolution is the natural selection of randomly occurring advantageous mutations" DOES, as a matter of FACT, very well conform to the evidence which you, as a matter of selected opinion, refuse to acknowledge.

You can tell us all about all those nasty "flaws" in "evolution theory" AFTER you explain how spotless, compelling or otherwise profound the basis of intelligent design is in explaining ANYTHING.

We're waiting...

Anonymous said...

The OTHER Anonymous also said, "Remember evolutionists currently have no demonstrable working model for abiogenesis for them to build a natural explanation of RNA/DNA off of."

Neither does "intelligent design" provide any "demonstrable working model" for abiogenesis...YET. But at least real biochemists enjoy the actual opportunity to play with "inanimate chemicals" to see how replicators like "RNA/DNA" might have evolved naturally out of a pre-biotic chemical soup. Any attempt to demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt that an intelligent agency was responsible for the abracadabra you insist bridges the perceived gap between chemicals and chemicals will require a specific description of the recipe God (oops) intelligent being used. I'm afraid that invoking magic will be found wanting, if not hilarious.

unapologetic said...

Whichever anonymous refuses to sign his own name to attacking me, there's far too many unfounded (and plainly false) personal assertions in there that's plainly false or projected to even both with. Either calm down or set up shop at the state fair with the rest of the caricaturists.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I am the other anonymous. Since I posted my name as Steve in my first post I thought it was evident. Again did not mean to be a drive by commenter.

Again, I'm not sure if you are unable to understand or unwilling, but I think all my points still stand on their own and no one has really refuted any of them. I didn't think they would be accepted, but I thought logic might me employed to dispute them.

Anyways thanks for reading and for your posts; it is always good to keep abreast of counter schools of thought and see if anything new has developed.

Steve

Marcel Kincaid said...

"@Marcel, did you even bother to read what I said?"

How ironically thick.

"In point of fact, there are evolution-believing theists"

Yeah, I obviously am not aware of that because I named one.

Fool.