Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Compatibility of Religion and Science


At the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler endorses the correct belief that science and religion don't have to be regarded as incompatible, but then (as is his wont) extrapolates into the absurd.
Evolution does not purport to answer the question of how things began, or whether there was a Prime Mover who initiated the evolutionary process or perhaps even guided it. It is a scientific explanation about the natural world that we experience. When evolution advocates embrace atheistic evangelism, they not only misrepresent evolutionary theory, they also undermine their ability to communicate with a largely God-fearing public.
While giving due respect to Adler's bromide that scientists need to speak differently to the public than to other scientists, this is not a debate scientists can win simply by following "Speech 101" precepts of knowing their audience.

Within the context of evolution, the primary subject of Adler's post, certainly it is possible to propose "evolution without atheism". But even if a scientist follows the suggestions Adler endorses, he should spend some time thinking about the obvious limitations of scientific advocacy of evolution.
Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public's beliefs? Can't science and religion just get along? A "science and religion coexistence" message conveyed by church leaders or by scientists who have reconciled the two in their own lives might convince even many devout Christians that evolution is no real threat to faith
For a public which attends churches which view the Bible as allegorical, and are receptive to the idea that God might have had a hand in creating or guiding evolution, that can work. But that's not the primary audience that needs to be persuaded to the possibility of evolution. The problematic audience for scientists is the population of religious individuals who view a religous narrative of creation (which may be more elaborate than the literal Biblical account) as irrefutable fact.

Even assuming that a scientist can work up a simple explanation of evolution which is largely compatible with religion, yet consistent with known science, problems would arise with follow-up questions, ranging from how the scientific explanation is compatible with specific religious teachings to the inevitable "Do you believe in God and Creation" gotcha. It is also naive to believe that such a simplistic construct would be particularly educational - a narrative of evolution which is non-threatening to religous belief is not one which is likely to win any converts from those who prefer their pre-existing religous explanation. Further, this explanation won't occur in a vacuum, and thus would invite the question, "If this guy is right, why are all those other scientists making arguments which are inconsistent with my religous beliefs."

The article Adler endorses also seems to conflate religiousity with the Republican Party:
Global warming is another issue on which scientists continually fail to reach key segments of the public. The real inconvenient truth here is that scientists aren't doing a good job of packaging what they know. No matter how solid the science gets, there remain "two Americas" on the subject: A strong majority of Republicans discount the science and the issue's urgency, while an overwhelming number of Democrats believe the opposite. Once again, the facts aren't driving opinions here. Instead, selective interpretations - delivered via fragmented media and resonating with the public's partisan prejudices - are winning out.

Thus, despite ever-increasing scientific consensus, prominent GOP leaders such as Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma still use conservative media outlets to describe climate science as too "uncertain" to justify action. If scientists and their defenders seek to answer such charges by explaining how much we know, they become enmeshed in the technical details (for instance, does climate change really contribute to more intense hurricanes?). And this only creates new opportunities for Inhofe and his flat-earth friends to sow doubt.

So once again, scientists and their allies would be better off shifting their emphasis, as well as the messenger. For example, church leaders can speak to the evangelical community about the necessity of environmental stewardship (a message that's already being delivered from some pulpits), even as business leaders can speak to fiscally oriented conservatives about the economic opportunities there for the plucking if Congress passes a system for trading carbon dioxide emission credits.
Those two examples leave not room for the scientists. This argument appears to be, "Scientists can't win this one, because when they are asked about the details of scientific theories they answer scientifically, so they should let church leaders and businesspeople make religious and economic arguments to achieve their desired end, even though neither will do a jot to advance scientific understanding."

To the extent that shifting public sentiments have shifted toward stem cell research, I don't agree that the shift has resulted in a change in how scientists address that issue. It has shifted because some powerful interests, including pharmaceutical companies and advocates for people with brain and spinal injuries (as well as celebrities suffering from neurological injuries and illnesses) have worked hard to change the public's perspective. The acknowledgement that some of these proxies for scientists overstate their case follows inexorably from the fact that they are neither scientists nor trying to make a scientific case.

In a sense, this argument reduces to, "Scientists should stay out of the way, except perhaps to try to coax advocates of the position most compatible with science to refrain from overstating their case (too badly)." Will this work with evolution? I very much doubt it. Nor do I think that the shift in public opinion is based on a greater understanding of science or a regard of science (such as stem cell research) as compatible with religion, as opposed to compassion or a reflexive cost-benefit analysis ("If I get paralyzed, I want there to be a cure").

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