Here’s One Answer

By | 2007/05/14

PZ Myers poses a question about theistic evolution and court cases.

The lawyer says, “Mr Matzke (you know Nick will be there, right?), you’ve brilliantly dissected this textbook the Discovery Institute is using, and shown that despite the absence of any overt mention of god or religion, it’s antecedents are derived from the creationist movement, and its authors are all strongly religious and have made statements outside the context of this particular book that strongly imply intent to promote religion. We should not be fooled by the absence of obvious religious advocacy in the book itself, but recognize instead its duplicitous nature and the bad faith arguments of its proponents?”

Nick will humbly reply, “Yes, sir.”

And the DI lawyer will then say, “But half your witnesses are “theistic” evolutionists, and proud of it. They say openly that they believe a God, the Christian God, not even an ambiguous supernatural force, was involved in the creation of human beings. They write books about DNA as the “language of God”. They lecture with considerable force that science and religion are compatible, and more, that science strengthens their faith in the Christian God. Proponents of the evolution position blithely call these people who insert a god into their explanations of origins ‘pro-science’. Your side ignores or even derides scientists who insist on purely natural explanations of our evolution, and promotes those who use religion to sell science to the public.”

“I’m baffled. On what basis are you arguing that this case involves a violation of the separation of church and state when I can scarcely tell the two of you apart, and when it’s your side that more openly embraces religious ideas—when the Intelligent Design proponents show a history of nominally moving away from their religious roots, while your side shows a history of increasing recruitment of church leaders, theologians, and lay advocates of god-involvement in science?”

And Nick will say … I have no idea how Nick would reply. I’m sure it will be clever and devastating, and I’m sure it will explain how the statement that “I believe God is intelligent and I believe he designed the creation” is pro-science while “I do not believe in the sufficiency of random mutation and natural selection to explain the history of life on earth” is anti-science. I’d like to hear an explanation for how “theistic evolution” is less religious than “intelligent design”.

PZ’s role-playing as a DI lawyer is top-notch. He’s got their various misleading, misdirecting bits of rhetoric down pat. But PZ seems to have overlooked something obvious about why lawsuits happen and how they are adjudicated.

Theistic evolution is, of course, not less religious than “intelligent design” creationism. There is no requirement that theistic evolution be less religious than IDC, not even in the hypothetical case given. Theistic evolution is honest about its commitment to theism, though. And in response to the postulated DI lawyering question, what makes the difference between a violation of separation of church and state and something that isn’t is that IDC or whatever the DI ends up calling it is being proposed to be taught as science, and the theistic evolutionists, as exemplified by Pennock, Miller, and Haught in the Kitzmiller case, are not proposing that their views be taught as if science in K-12 public school science classes. Pretty simple, really.

Or, as Matthew P. Wiener used to say on t.o., “Sheesh.”

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6 thoughts on “Here’s One Answer

  1. Austringer Post author

    Speaking of talk.origins and fantasy exchanges with stumper questions, check out this thread.

    I can tell you from experience that being on-the-spot with a bunch of ID-enthusiasts is a far different thing than fantasy exchanges with debating partners that one just doesn’t have the imagination to attribute with either substantive responses or good rhetorical comebacks. While you or I can make critiques of the performances of the E-side debaters on Firing Line, I think it entirely probable that neither you or I would have come away from actual participation in such an event feeling like we had not been scored upon. Give ‘em a break.

    I think I did pretty well in that thread for capturing IDC advocate misdirecting, misleading rhetoric, too.

  2. Glen Davidson

    Yes, it’s a well-done bit of chicanery.

    Who cares if Ken Miller is highly religious (I don’t know if he is, really)? And what if he is used to sell science to those who might otherwise tend toward anti-science?

    PZ’s “DI argument” is the sort of thing that would put Newton’s physics in question. Sir Isaac is a highly religious Arian Xian, who writes long treatises on Revelation and predicts (from Biblical reasoning) that the earth will end in 2060.

    And this has what bearing on his science? Furthermore, let’s say that Sir Isaac and friends are selling their science on the basis that finding out about the universe is the way to understanding God and theology (it’s what he believed, whether or not he tried to “sell” Principia via that means). Does this or does this not actually affect Newton’s science?

    Not direcatly, at the very least.

    Your side ignores or even derides scientists who insist on purely natural explanations of our evolution, and promotes those who use religion to sell science to the public.”

    Sorry, PZ, this really is DI bafflegab, even if it might work in (a naive) court. No one in the vicinity of the NCSE is promoting those “who use religion to sell science to the public,” all you really have are those who are saying that religion doesn’t impinge on science and that religion also doesn’t properly impinge upon science (yes, there are derelictions, like Collins’s belief in cosmological woo, but he’s not recruited for that role).

    The theistic evolutionists are used primarily to say quite the opposite of PZ’s role-play, namely that science stands on its own, and that religion is NOT needed in order to do science. There’s still that Newtonian “use science to know God” idea among many of them, but what these people mean by that is that using real science affects their philosophy/theology, and not the other way around (ok, not too much the other way around, at least).

    Or, shall we say it? For some theistic evolutionists, at least, their religion is taken seriously, and their religion states that God does not lie. Hence their scientific/intellectual honesty is tied in with religion (one may argue the compatibility of religion with science, not whether or not many believe and operate as though it is), and if possible they have a greater formal commitment to being honest about the observed world than us non-theists do.

    PZ gets a lot right, however he seems to have an unmovable block in his assumption that religion inherently must lie about “the world” with which science deals. He doesn’t know how to answer the DI guy he conjured up, mainly because he can’t understand that, for some, religion means a commitment to doing honest science, when science is one’s job.

    And if PZ were right, science would have been impossibly compromised by religion in many of its most “fundamental” understandings, prominently in Newtonian physics (superseded by later physics, which continue to use (and sometimes explain) many of Newton’s observations and “laws”). If theistic evolutionists are somehow inherently fraudulent despite themselves, then so is all of science, for it has not rid itself of the accomplishments done in order to know about God.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

  3. PZ Myers

    There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about that hypothetical grilling at a trial. I am not proposing that all textbooks authored by Christians must be pulled from the schools. I am not suggesting that all science authored by Christians is “compromised”. I am pointing out that the trials to date have all won out on the ability to make a sharp distinction between the religious creationist stuff and the non-religious textbooks, regardless of their authorship, because the creationists have been awfully sloppy about hiding the religious antecedents of their books.

    Now we’re in a situation where that distinction is blurred. We’ve got all these prominent theists emphasizing the compatibility of their science with religion, and the new DI book (you must have seen it already) has very thoroughly stripped out all references to god or design, and instead focuses entirely on purported “flaws” in evolution. If you had a case right now that was fighting over that book, you’d have a tough time doing it on the basis of separation of church and state. It doesn’t matter that your theists have refrained from inserting any religion into the books; their theists have now also refrained from inserting any religion into their books. Given that restraint on the part of the DI, I look at the two of you and I don’t see any difference, except that their book has totally crappy science and our books try to accurately reflect the state of science.

    That lazy reliance on the church/state argument isn’t going to help in an argument about the quality of the books.

  4. Austringer Post author

    Thanks, PZ, for the reply.

    I’m glad to have avoided the misunderstanding about theist-authored textbooks in my replies.

    I am pointing out that the trials to date have all won out on the ability to make a sharp distinction between the religious creationist stuff and the non-religious textbooks, regardless of their authorship, because the creationists have been awfully sloppy about hiding the religious antecedents of their books.

    I don’t think that this is an accurate historical view of things. First, Epperson, McLean, and Edwards were about laws, not textbooks; there was no antievolution textbook at issue in any of those. Second, in Kitzmiller, the ability to compare drafts of the textbook was an aid to the argument that “intelligent design” was a relabelling of “creation science”, but it is not true that the argument would have been withdrawn if that dramatic level of support were not available. Yes, going without the “smoking gun” that the textual analysis that I and Nick Matzke performed would make things more difficult, but I don’t see that as an insurmountable problem. In any event, just as Bayesian spam detectors work by looking at content, so in any case when they get down to it, the DI does still re-use the arguments that are the standard fare from previous incarnations of religiously motivated antievolution. They can’t manage to produce a textbook “critical” of evolution in the very special way they want without doing so; it is that message shared with earlier antievolution that will be at issue in a future court case.

    If you had a case right now that was fighting over that book, you’d have a tough time doing it on the basis of separation of church and state. It doesn’t matter that your theists have refrained from inserting any religion into the books; their theists have now also refrained from inserting any religion into their books. Given that restraint on the part of the DI, I look at the two of you and I don’t see any difference, except that their book has totally crappy science and our books try to accurately reflect the state of science.

    I disagree. So long as the DI book offers as content 1) erroneous arguments that 2) have a clear association with historical religiously-motivated antievolution, it will be straightforward to argue against its use on church-state separation grounds. I think that we agree that the new DI textbook does meet both of those requirements.

    That lazy reliance on the church/state argument isn’t going to help in an argument about the quality of the books.

    That’s the point of a church-state separation argument: it is not an argument about quality, it is an argument about whether a religious doctrine is being favored by the government. Nor is reliance on church-state separation in any sense lazy; it remains the first and best means we have of opposing religiously-motivated antievolution being adopted into public school science curricula. As I note elsewhere, if you have information about some other, better grounds for legal recourse when a case comes up, I would really like to hear about it.

  5. PZ Myers

    You’re missing the point. I don’t have better grounds for legal recourse, and I’m worried about it. From your comment, it sounds like you don’t either, and that what you plan to do when the “Explore Evolution” book ends up in a courtroom is the same thing you did with “Of Pandas and People” … and that worries me even more.

    Seriously, if you have to stretch the connections to find a historical link between a Christian author of a book that doesn’t mention Christianity at all, I don’t see how you can escape the fact that Miller/Levine’s Biology has a Christian author, while the book doesn’t mention Christianity at all. That is not a criticism of Miller/Levine (man, I’m getting irritated at all the frightened Christians who require me to even say that) — but that searching for these increasingly thin connections between the ID position and religious motives is a two-edged sword, and it can be turned against you, not to get Miller/Levine banned, but to discredit your strategy.

    There certainly is a sense in which that reliance is lazy. You don’t seem to be pursuing any alternatives. You’re in a bad situation when you ask me for suggestions, since my answer is the overly ambitious mission of obliterating all religion. Would the NCSE like to join me in working towards that goal?

  6. Austringer Post author

    PZ, your worry is not best addressed by ignoring the facts that aren’t supportive of your position.

    I’m not “escaping” any fact about authorship of textbooks by potential pro-science experts. This idee fixe of yours simply has no basis in any existing case law. There is no basis for exculpating a violation of church and state separation by trying to compare the infringing party’s religiosity to that of the injured party or their expert witnesses. If you want to push this line anymore, please provide a legal citation to back it up. Otherwise, I think it’s painfully obvious that your argument is unfounded.

    I intended my question as a consideration of alternative grounds that could be invoked in a complaint starting a lawsuit. That apparently is not the context that you are talking about, so I will have to explore that larger context now.

    NCSE has been actually getting things done that materially help get and keep evolutionary science in the public school science curriculum. If we are talking about “alternatives” outside the legislative system and courts NCSE is already taking up alternatives, ones that work. NCSE has been a partner with the the Citizens for Science groups that have been instrumental in making things happen in states like Ohio, Kansas, New Mexico, Michigan, and South Carolina.

    I’ve already explained the effort that NCSE put into exploring the legal avenues and strategies available while I was there. The primary alternative strategy to a lawsuit using church and state separation is to work with people involved in flareups to see to it that lawsuits don’t happen. NCSE is clearing dozens of flareups per year. With most flareups involving teachers, what is effective is explaining to the administration what the relevant statutes are and what the likely outcomes are for bad choices.

    As for the suggestion that I personally haven’t been “pursuing alternatives” when you are including stuff that isn’t about finding other legal grounds, I think that’s just ludicrous.

    At least, I hope you don’t intend to suggest that we should use the courts to “obliterate religion”.

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