Discussing the Framing of Science with Matthew C. Nisbet: Are the National Academies lying to Americans?

In response to my post earlier today on Framing Science endorsing Francis Collins as next Presidential Science Advisor, Matt Nisbet, the man behind Framing Science and the Collins endorsement had this to say:

Ron,
Have you seen the latest National Academies report on teaching evolution & creationism? It’s take on evolution and religion is little different than that of Collins. Would you suggest than that the National Academies and its expert panel is lying to the American people?

My response is yes, I do think the academies are lying to the American people.

Science and religion are incompatible. Science is about having beliefs that correspond to the evidence, following evidence rather than authority or personal preferences, and being honest enough to admit when one does not know something. Does anyone recognize religion in this description?

Religion, on the other hand, relies on faith (i.e., belief on insufficient evidence), arguments from authority (e.g., the Bible, the Pope, or my Priest says…; millions of people believe this and have for a long time so it can’t be foolish, and how dare you for saying that it is!), arguments from ignorance, the selective and hindsight-informed reading of ancient scriptures, easily rebutted arguments from personal experience, and people’s need for community and a sense of meaning and purpose, a set of needs which is fully understandable but does not constitute evidence for supernatural beliefs. Does anyone recognize science in this description?

The two are clearly irreconcilably distinct. So yes, I do think that the National Academies are lying. However, I do not think that these are malicious lies, or lies meant to oppose secularism. I assume that the academies as well as Dr. Nisbet are simply trying to open minds and hearts to science, and feel that this is a necessary step in doing so for many Americans. I, however, have my concerns about this approach as it compromises many of the highly esteemed values of the scientific community. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the act of framing science so as to make it appear to be compatible with religious belief constitutes a dishonest act that receives its power from the authority and trust society accords (well, some of society, anyway) to national scientific boards. Dishonesty and argument from authority are antithetical to what science is all about. Moreover, it could create a whole new set of problems later, as people will have to undue the edifice of deceit perpetrated today.

One could, however, argue that the current situation in America is such that the ideal of being honest about science would not be well received by many Americans, and thus framing, while not ideal, is the best approach that anyone has come up with so far. Just as it is impractical for a crack addict to stop taking the drug cold turkey, but must go to methadone first and then go from methadone to nothing, perhaps presenting science and religion as being compatible is a less-than-ideal but necessary step to encouraging the acceptance of science across America. I am reluctant to conclude this, as it would require contradicting a number of the virtues of science and would likely create a whole new set of misconceptions about science that will need to be undone later, but I remain open to the possibility that this is simply the situation at hand. Lets hope that it isn’t, though, and that the anti-science sentiments that pervade much of America can be remedied without having to compromise any of the principles or integrity of science.

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7 Responses to “Discussing the Framing of Science with Matthew C. Nisbet: Are the National Academies lying to Americans?”
  1. Colin says:

    Ron,

    Is it possible to know anything for sure outside of ‘science’ or ’empirical evidence’?

  2. ronbrown says:

    Yes. That you yourself exist. You may have noticed that I’m not responding to your comments as much as I used to. This is because I view it as often being pointless.

  3. Colin says:

    I ask the question because, as I wrote elsewhere, it turns out that knowledge gained through the scientific method (inductive reasoning) is actually less reliable than knowledge gained from rigorous deductive reasoning.

    You yourself have commented that we don’t really know if the laws of gravity will apply tomorrow or not. Science is ALWAYS tentative.

    A logical syllogism like:

    1. All men are mortal.
    2. Socrates is a man.
    3 Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

    Is actually more reliable than the ‘law of gravity’.

    Despite this, you consistently elevate science to something akin to the supreme source of knowledge and certainly the only trustworthy source of knowledge.

    You still haven’t responded to the cosmological argument with anything more than not liking the conclusion. You have not been able to dispute either of the premisses nor have you been able to show that the conclusion is unsupported.

    I would think that you would at least be able to show that the cosmological argument is flawed in some relevant way considering that your entire worldview is based on the non-existence of God.

    You accuse Christianity of being internally contradictory, yet you seem to hold the following two mutually exclusive beliefs to be true:

    1. Evil does not really exist, it is illusory in the absence of an objective standard.
    2. God is evil.

    You can have one but not the other. If you choose #1, then you throw out your argument that God is evil. If you choose #2, then you throw out your argument that there is no objective standard of right and wrong.

    Your pet mantras that Christianity is based on arguments from ignorance and authority say nothing about the truth of Christianity, only that you don’t like the arguments.

    You accuse Christianity of being absurd, yet you believe the following to be true:

    “The universe came from nothing, by nothing, for nothing.” That is absurdity beyond understanding. You wouldn’t accept that reasoning for anything else that exists, yet you do for the universe?!

    You accuse Christianity of being ridiculous, yet you believe the following to be true:

    “Life came from non-life, all by itself.”

    Your arguments are based on lies and misunderstandings and even if they were true, they don’t support your conclusions, yet you continue with them ad nauseum…and you fancy yourself a free-thinker?!

  4. ronbrown says:

    I almost just skimmed half of this and then said “screw it”, but when I realized how easily rebuttable this would be I thought I’d wing something off quickly.

    Cosmological argument. If we assume a finite universe then something caused the universe. That doesn’t say a lot. If the universe is finite then it has a cause. What particular relevance does this have for your beliefs? You talk about the cosmological argument as if it actually has any real meaning for your stance. It has no more meaning to Christianity than it does to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    You say that my life is based around not believing in God. Um, no. God is simply irrelevant to me. Part of my life is focused on addressing people like yourself who believe in a God for which there is no good reason to believe exists, but that is merely part of my life and it is concerned with a prevalent irrational delusion, not a God.

    You say that I can keep talking about my dislike for the arguments of Christianity (that they’re arguments from ignorance, authority, selective interpretation of vague scripture, and untrustworthy and easily rebutted personal experience) but that says nothing of the truth of Christianity. No, it doesn’t say anything about the truth of Christianity, but it says a lot about the reasonability of believing, and that’s all we have. My arguments against the Flying Spaghetti Monster also say nothing about its existence, but they have everything to do with the rationality in believing. Imagine if George Bush responded the way you might have him respond. “Well, you may not like my arguments for invading Iraq but that says nothing about the validity of doing it”. Reason is all we have. For all we know Christianity is true, but there is no good reason to believe this and I personally think that you and anyone who believes is being irrational, self-deceiving, innocently or willfully ignorant, unthinking, and/or dishonest in doing so.

    Next, when did I say that God was evil? If I said that God was evil, it should have been interpreted as “the God of the Bible that I take to be fictional was an apparently evil figure by our standards, and the only reason people make excuses for him is because they believe that what he does is good by definition because they believe him to be God”.

    Next, when did I ever say that I believe that the universe came from nothing, by nothing, for nothing? When did I ever claim to have these answers? It is you that is claiming to have the answers, not me. I’m just pointing out your lack of evidence for your beliefs. I’m not saying that I have the answers.

    As for life coming from non-life. Well, this is what the evidence suggests. Do I know it for certain? No. But it’s the most plausible explanation that rational scientific and anthropological research has come up with thus far, and thus it is the most rational thing for me to believe in if I believe anything on the matter.

    Yes, I do consider myself a freethinker because I base my beliefs on honest open-minded rationality, I don’t tie my entire identity to beliefs that require having trust in vague cherry-picked scripture which relies on circular reasoning, the criticizing the rationalist and ennobling irrational faith, and arguments from ignorance and authority. I also don’t hold a belief system for which I have to constantly make excuses for—e.g., “the creation stories were just allegory”.

    I’m a freethinker because I am committed to rationality, not to my beliefs as they currently stand. I make an effort not to become my beliefs. To not fuse my identity and meaning with my beliefs, so that I can’t possibly revise them. Rather, I make honesty, rationality and openness central to who I am, and so I’m far less threatened than you by the idea that I could be wrong.

    A piece of personal advice: read some Buddhist philosophy about the dangers of committing oneself to things outside of themselves (e.g., their ideas) and learn to become more independent of such things as beliefs as a source of identity. And in case my recommendation of Buddhist philosophy is perplexing you, don’t misinterpret me. I’m not advocating faith in reincarnation or any such things, but an appreciation for the real liabilities of tying ones sense of self to a belief so strongly that they can’t possibly let the belief go. This practice is making me a truly free thinker because I am actively severing personal attachment to particular beliefs. When one becomes detached but not withdrawn (e.g., emotionally attached to particular beliefs, but committed to the pursuit of wisdom and discernment), they can be as objective, as honest, as free, and as wise as they can be.

    Anyhow, take the advice or don’t.

    As for discussion, I’m going to become less and less willing to respond to you. There are just more important and productive things for me to be doing with my time. I didn’t think I would have put more than 2 minutes into responding to you this time, but here we are.

  5. Colin says:

    Its your blog…you have had the last word. Let the chips fall where they may.

    Regards,

    Colin

  6. Mark R says:

    I do not believe in religion and do understand evolution and realize the truth to it.

    With that said millions of Americans are religious and can’t even explain the first thing about evolution.
    These people can not and will not cold turkey and give up religion for a free thinking approach to life. So in order to have people learn about science that are religious there has to be a merger. This will have an individual moving to science and away from religion which in my mind is where compatibility takes place.

    Some people need religion and I have no problem with that though i do say that we could all live without religion in today’s world if we did not have it but we do. We have to deal with our situation in front of us.

    Tell a religious person they are stupid for believing in a god and then try to sell them science….good luck….

    Just because many ID believers are so against science because they feel threatened does not mean we need to fight fire with fire.

    Lets educate and explain and show ID and Creationism side by side to science, at least we are now getting them to look and compare.

    Many non believers have looked into ID and creationism but how many believers have taken the time to review evolution?

    Lets not become closed minded to understanding what people who have been brainwashed have to deal with.

  7. ronbrown says:

    Mark:

    I understand your point of view. However, even if I were to agree and say we should go down that road, that wouldn’t change the fact that the road is one paved by a lie: the two aren’t actually compatible. It is a misrepresentation of science to say that they are. People like to go with the non-overlapping magisteria that Gould described in his pandering a while back, saying that the two address different questions and don’t overlap. It’s not true—at least not at the fundamental core of whether or not the God is real, on which much of the rest depends.

    The lie of compatibility may be a valuable stepping stone. Perhaps even a necessary one. But given that it involves telling a blatant lie to generations of Americans and will create a society of people who don’t fully understand science—though, as you would probably say, having a good partial understanding is better than having none at all. Given these drawbacks, I’m reluctant to endorse the lie. And I fully sympathize with scientists like PZ Myers and Larry Moran, who do not want their fields misrepresented in order to pander to a willfully ignorant majority of society.

    I’m inclined to seek out other options first, as I’m sure you are, too. And I would greatly hope that this lie doesn’t need to be told. And if it is, well, we can expect to have scientists decrying the political move for its duration.

    As for people needing religion. This really does support my analogy to crack. As vulgar and derogatory as the analogy comes off as, there are meaningful areas of overlap between drug addiction and belief commitment. They both constitute an external dependence. They both thus create a state of unprudent vulnerability, as is witnessed the anxiety observed in the individual looking for their next dose or dealing with doubt or disagreement from others. The more involved in either one gets, the more difficult it is to get off them, and the more irrational lengths one will go to preserve their current comfort zone. I’m sure I could go on futher.

    And these problems are not restricted simply to religious people. Through reading some Buddhist philosophy, other ancient philosophy and modern cognitive science approaches to wisdom, and practicing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I’ve been learning more about the dangers of belief commitment and identification with one’s beliefs. It seems a very risky thing to invest oneself in one’s beliefs. By doing this, one creates a state of vulnerability. Investing oneself in anything outside of the self to the point where one feels that they can’t live or be happy without that thing (or would at least be significantly hindered without it) puts one’s locus of control, stability and happiness outside of them self. It constitutes giving up part of their autonomy and results in creating unnecessary and potentially very severe anxiety, as one has handed over the reigns to their well-being to unpredictable and uncontrollable external forces. This can inspire crippling neurosis which can motivate people to actively close themselves off from increasingly vast parts of their world in order to preserve their comfort zone. In so doing, their comfort zone will get smaller and smaller as the world outside gets bigger and bigger. When one locks them self into a mental closet, the world outside can become more and more disorienting and scary because the individual loses track of it and their ability to maneuver within it. This is a perspective argued by U of T psychologist Jordan Peterson.

    And this is by no means limited to religious belief. It can easily apply to atheists. To the degree to which an atheist commits themselves so strongly to atheism, to the point where they feel anxious when someone seems to be giving arguments for theism that they are having trouble addressing, they can be said to be “in too deep” as well.

    Buddhism, a number of philosophical schools of wisdom, and CBT all endorse awareness of the distinctness between one’s beliefs and oneself. I think that it’s critical that people appreciate this and not get too wrapped up in their beliefs. Rather than being committed to my beliefs, I work to be committed to open-minded rational honesty. I try to keep in mind that I am not the same thing as my beliefs. That my beliefs, even the important ones, can be refuted and I’ll still be me, and I shouldn’t feel bad because I was wrong. And I should never have been so organized around those beliefs that having to consider rejecting them could have disastrous emotional consequences.

    I admit that I still sometimes get anxiety in discussions on theism. This is something that I work on constantly. Constantly reminding myself that my beliefs are just my beliefs, they need not be my livelihood or my identity. Lately when I’m walking I’ve been engaging in walking meditation in which I repeat the mantra “I could be wrong”, “I could be wrong” while I walk, as a constant source of reminder.

    To base one’s identity and life more on things like rational open-minded honesty, genuine curiosity, a desire for wisdom and to experience things and to bond with others, I think is much more psychologically healthy for the individual and is far better for society as a whole. This is one of the reasons why I endorse meditation in schools because it can help people become more independent of external sources of meaning, including their beliefs.

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