Coyne vs. Plait

Jerry Coyne provides a sound critique of Phil Plait in Debate postmortem II: Phil Plait goes all accommodationist « Why Evolution Is True. I would, however, like to expand on his post.

Coyne concludes his critique by pointing out that Plait is not a theologist (go read it to find out why). Neither is he an expert on science education or advocacy. At the risk of sounding like Massimo Pigliucci, allow me to remind everyone that people (experts) professionally study stuff like science communication, religion, and what people believe about the relationship between science and religion.

Let’s take a look at some of Plait’s claims.

Plait: “Facts and stories of science are great for rallying those already on our side, but they do little to sway believers.”

Plait’s claim here is difficult to prove. Which believers? In one study, undergraduate biology students—most of whom were raised as creationists—came to accept evolution (in a Christian university setting!). The authors argue that all the “participants that transitioned from creationism to an acceptance of evolution had to reorder their long-held perspectives on the literalness of Genesis and the requisite conditions of salvation.” In other words, they had to change their religious beliefs rather than their beliefs about science.

Plait: “The conflict over the teaching of evolution is based on the false assumption that evolution is antagonistic to religion.”

Plait goes on to argue that the problem is with a particular brand of religion, and that “Evolution takes no stand on the existence or lack thereof of a god or gods.” The authors quoted earlier found that many Christians “decode words like ‘chance,’ ‘spontaneous,’ and ‘random’ as anti-theistic as demonstrated by the many participants … who interpreted ‘arose by chance’ to imply a direct challenge to the legitimacy of God.” Resolving such a conflict would be quite difficult for scientists, even if they were religious. Believers would have to alter their perceptions of God’s place in the universe.

From the cognitive science end of the spectrum, Blancke et al. (2012) challenge the notion that science and religion are compatible. They conclude that it is often necessary for religious people to change their “anthropomorphic God concepts into more abstract notions” to reconcile their “intuitive modes of reasoning that hinder their understanding of evolutionary theory.” One point in Plait’s favor is that the authors agree that “pupils will not modify their beliefs if teachers bluntly confront them with the incompatibility between their faith and evolutionary theory,” but one point in Coyne’s favor is that it is the religious believer that needs to reconsider and revise their tendency to see God as an intentional agent. The idea that a religious believer who already understands the “reality of science” can just sweep in and persuade someone with rigid beliefs is naïve because at the end of the day the less sympathetic believer would need to undergo a significant transformation (the same transformation that atheists desire). Also, science-friendly religious believers can be just as confrontational as science-friendly atheists.

As far as persuasion is concerned, Thagard and Findlay (2010) argue that there are three pedagogic strategies worth considering: detachment, reconciliation, or confrontation. The authors argue that which strategy is best “depends on a host of philosophical, scientific, psychological, and political factors,” which I notice is more compatible with the confrontationalist’s position than the accommodationist’s stance. In my experience, confrontationalists recognize that other strategies might be important depending on context, while accommodationists tend to overwhelmingly support reconciliation. Detachment is the position that science and religion occupy separate realms, which used to be the dominant position taken by scientists, religious or otherwise. Detachment didn’t work out all too well. Although it has political benefits, understanding evolution does not lead to a belief in evolution, that is, people are “unlikely to expend the substantial effort required to overcome the conceptual difficulties that impede understanding.” They learn evolution because they’re required to do so, but they don’t tend to appreciate the scientific value of the theory because there is no pressure to do so.

Reconciliation has its own difficulties. For one thing, it tends to be “highly relativist, asserting that there is not real competition between Darwinian and creationist accounts because they are just different ways of talking about the world.” I don’t think Plait advocates relativism, but that’s mainly because he’s ignorant of what a lot of religious people actually believe. He doesn’t think it’s necessary to threaten their core beliefs to get them to accept evolution, but believers know better. Another problem is that reconciliation forces the science advocate to do some pretty impressive yoga poses to accept science and religion as being compatible.

One approach to reconciliation, similar to detachment, is Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria, but it “fails to deal with conflicts over specific claims such as how the human species came to be,” which, whether Plait likes it or not, is hugely important to many religious believers (not just a small faction). Theistic evolution, which I sort of discussed earlier, requires the religious believer to change their beliefs about God (or gods). For many believers, it will be just “as repugnant as Darwin’s theory, because it violates their deep faith in the literal truth of their favorite religious texts and the ongoing intervention of God in human lives.”

Now we come to confrontation. It won’t work everywhere, especially in places where criticism of religion is prohibited. To be effective it needs to “address cognitive and emotional issues that tend to be neglected by advocates of science.” Skeptics face the same sort of problems when they’re dealing with pseudoscience and the paranormal. Some people in the skeptical movement have decided that science can be taken to “supersede religion when cognitive conflicts about facts and theories occur.” Atheists could take a similar strategy to science education, but they are limited in one important respect: creationists make empirical claims, which are in turn bound up with believer’s values. In these types of conflicts, I think it’s vitally important than scientists stay on message with their advocacy because there’s no way to get around the conflict. Religious moderates aren’t going to be able to do it. Atheists aren’t going to be able to do it either. It’s simply a battle that scientists have to win, and perhaps brute force is the only solution.