Sunday, May 03, 2009
Jerry Coyne, at his blog, Why Evolution Is True, may be displaying at least part of real problem some people have with the statements by a number of scientific organizations concerning the compatibility of science and religion. Coyne points to PZ Myers's post on the recent decision in the case brought by Chad Farnan against James Corbett and the Capistrano Valley High School to the effect:
"Corbett states an unequivocal belief that Creationism is 'superstitious nonsense,'" U.S. District Court Judge James Selna said in a 37-page ruling released from his Santa Ana courtroom. "The court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context."
The legitimate secular purpose was, of course, to help students distinguish between science and non-science. If Corbett told his students that homeopathy was medical nonsense, he wouldn't be in trouble. The secular purpose of this statement is precisely the same.
The fact that Coyne cannot discern any difference between "it is scientific nonsense" and "it is religious, superstitious nonsense" may go a long way to explain his inability to recognize the nuances entailed in the so-called "accommodationism."
Labels: Accommodationism Incompatiblism
The unfortunate Mr. Farnan appears to have forgotten all that in this instance.
I too have no great compunction about calling either people or their beliefs stupid (though I'm slower to do so than some in the blogosphere ... and faster than others). But it seems to me that a teacher would have an ethical duty to avoid doing so but, instead, to teach by positive example. Once a teacher accepts taxpayer pay, then s/he has a legal duty to avoid such name calling.
I think my disagreement with Jerry on this latest incident stems from the fact that I approach it as a lawyer-turned-philosopher-of-law-blah-blah, while he approaches it as a scientist. I can see how the judge came to the answer he did, and can even support it. But if there's an appeal it may well turn on the issue that Jerry and others have raised: in what sense is Creationism a religion or a religious doctrine, as opposed to a piece of pseudoscience?
The difficulty that I see for any appeal is that our "side" has been arguing successfully in the courts that Creationism is, in fact, a religious doctrine, and that even though ID pretends not to be ... well, the pretence is a sham. Despite all the argument about the demarcation between science and non-science, at the end of the day that's what I think the cases really stand for and how they should be upheld if a future case ever works its way up the court system. Corbett probably agrees with this, so it will be very difficult for him to appeal. Perhaps he has ingenious lawyers, but he faces a conundrum here.
More generally, I think the social situation we've arrived at since the days of John Locke, or those of the US Founding Fathers, is genuinely difficult, particularly for teachers and for judges who have to resolve disputes like this, and I'm not too worried when the solutions I propose attract disagreement from other thoughtful people. I don't necessarily want to accuse them of being tone deaf - though I must admit that I do sometimes make that accusation when I can see no other explanation.
All that said, there was a lot of jumping at shadows in the blogosphere yesterday. This was one of those occasions when PZ should, perhaps, have taken a deep breath - or read the entire judgment - before plunging in. On the other hand, quite a lot of people who are broadly on his "side" are disagreeing with him over at Pharyngula.
(I also wanted to say something on your latest post about the NAS and will try to get to that as well.)
You have argued that the "tone" of the NAS statement lends support to NOMA. I don't agree but that's not important here. You base that on a nuanced reading of the statement and what you take NOMA to be. On the wider issues, you recognize that there are complexities that are not so easily sorted into neat black and whites. In short, in discussing the issue with you, I think I have a chance of changing your mind and that your position is not merely any ad hoc rationalization of the conclusion you've already drawn.
Coyne is not as bad as some of the commenters at PZ's blog or as bad as PZ occasionally is when he gets his blood up but I have little confidence that Coyne's mind could be changed. That lack of nuance is starkly illustrated by his inability to see the problem with an authority figure telling a high schooler (a teenager ... I don't know the equivalent of high school in Oz) that his firmly held belief is "religious, superstitious nonsense." Coyne has every right to believe it is religious superstition and to believe that that judgment is a scientific result. But I have no confidence in his objectivity when it comes to what is or is not compatible with science or what should be said by scientific organizations on the subject.
I don't think he has a pattern of doing that, though. I thought that was what you were suggesting in your reference to the wider "accommodation" debate. I think he's generally been sensitive to issues of tone; in fact, he's tended to pick up on issues to do with tone while his detractors have often seemed to me to be somewhat literal minded.
Be that as it may, it is clear that the judge's decision at least reasonable and was legally justifiable, while much of the reaction at various atheist blogs (not including Coyne in that) was nearly as off-the-wall and rabid as the religionists' reaction to Crackergate. It was not the rationalist blogosphere's finest moment.