Sunday, May 03, 2009


Tone Deaf

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."

Coyne then states:

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.

Well, the court certainly agrees with Coyne that distinguishing between science and non-science is a legitimate secular purpose. It specifically found that this statement by Corbett about creationism was not a violation of the Establishment clause: "It's not science. Scientifically, it's nonsense."

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."


This is something that a lot of people (including maybe, PZ and Larry, and a lot of the old t.o crew) don't seem to get. There is an important difference between saying "This is wrong" and "This is stupid" (and its frequent sequel "...and so are you"). The first is an objective claim, to be supported or refuted by evidence. The second is a subjective value judgement (and the third is a personal attack). While I have frequently gone to the second or third level, and even though I think I was justified in doing so, I recognize that it does not have the same status as the first. I also recognize that, were I acting in some capacity more official than a mere poster to Usenet or the blogosphere, I might be obliged to restrain myself.

The unfortunate Mr. Farnan appears to have forgotten all that in this instance.
That is an excellent way to put it.

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 you're being a bit unfair to Jerry here. He and I disagree about this judgment, but I don't see how he has been tone deaf in the accommodation debate; for example, his sense of tone has been better than those folks who were relying on the use of weasel words to deny that the NCSE site gives support to NOMA.

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.
There is always the possibility that I've overreacted but I don't want to compound it by stating what I meant without reflection. I don't have the time right now so I'll have to come back to it later today.

(I also wanted to say something on your latest post about the NAS and will try to get to that as well.)
Ack! My previous comment should read: "The unfortunate Mr. Corbett....". (Corbett being the teacher with a possible tendency to inflammatory rhetoric, and Farnan his aggrieved student).
Alright, here is what I mean by tone deaf and why I think it is an apt description.

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.
Okay, he does sort of get the tone wrong on this occasion, or he doesn't take it into account as in issue in the teacher/student interaction, perhaps because Creationism is something that really worries for him - for understandable reasons, I'd say!

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.
When I read about this issue over at PZ's blog, I wondered how a judge could have erred as badly as PZ accused this judge of erring. I downloaded the opinion, but didn't get time to read it. Because I didn't know what was going on, I didn't write about it. Glad to see my skepticism was warranted.
Ed Brayton makes the case that the judge was too lienient and should have found a number of other statements as violative of the Establishment Clause, even more than the one Corbett was tagged for. I think the judge was merely following the rule that the government must be extended the presumption of a valid intent unless no possible linkage to a seculare purpose can be found. Part of the problem is that transcripts aren't (easily) available to really see what the context was and that the judge was listening to tapes and may have, consciously or unconsciously, been influenced by tone of voice, etc.

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.
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