Russell Blackford and Telling Science Advocacy Organizations to Shut Up Already

Philosopher Russell Blackford takes issue with various science advocacy organizations pointing out that many people of faith also manage to accept the findings of science when it comes to evolutionary science. Blackford thinks this is wrong, essentially because the science organizations are infringing on philosophical turf:

This leaves aside the arrogance of science organisations appearing to favour particular religious viewpoints. Of course, it’s true that some religious viewpoints are just irrational, in that they plainly contradict well-established scientific findings. Others, even on my account, are incompatible with science only in relatively subtle ways, and reasonable people with those viewpoints could put some kind of case against my position (even though I might not consider that case to be at all plausible). While this is all true, it’s not up the scientific organisations to be saying it. That’s outside their remit.

Blackford expands a bit on what he sees as acceptable science advocacy organization behavior:

Science organisations should stick to the point that certain findings are the result of systematic, rational investigation of the world, supported overwhelmingly by several lines of converging evidence. In putting that case, they can be “religion blind”; they should present the evidence for the scientific picture, but that’s as far as they should go. They should not comment on what specific theological positions are or are not compatible with science. Leave that to the squabblings of philosophers and theologians, and, indeed, of individual scientists or other citizens. We can think and argue about it for ourselves.

This goes further than just what science advocacy organizations say about the religion and science issue (which I think Blackford mischaracterizes in any case). This makes clear that so far as Blackford is concerned, science advocacy organizations have no business with any aspect of public policy. Blackford at least has provided no qualifying statements that would indicate that talking about science and religion is a special case, and his entire argument is structured in such a way that it does not admit of having special cases: Organizations don’t get to have opinions when those cross over into the intellectual turf handled by people outside the science organization’s particular field of interest.

I think that Blackford misses the point pretty completely. The religious antievolution movement is not something that is primarily about the state of the evidence and the scientific theories about that evidence. Instead, it is a social and political phenomenon. Telling science advocacy organizations to only talk about the evidence and theories is not just shortsighted; it is wrong. Science advocacy organizations need to address both the state of the science (to undercut that false claim to intellectual legitimacy that religious antievolutionists make) and also actively engage in the public policy debate. And that means that there will be discussion of the factors that underlie religious antievolution, whether it offends Blackford’s territorial impulses or not.

Blackford could have a point if science advocacy organizations were also advocating religion, and in fact Blackford implies just that:

This leaves aside the arrogance of science organisations appearing to favour particular religious viewpoints.

It could be a real concern, just as Blackford points out that various counterfactuals asserted by certain denominations could have been true, but are ruled out by the evidence. I don’t see any evidence that science advocacy organizations are favoring particular religious viewpoints. What I have seen done is noting the existence and extent of particular religious viewpoints, which is a rather different issue.

All in all, it is pretty ironic that Blackford has chosen this approach, given how various and sundry evangelical atheists have long complained that they have felt pressured not to emphasize their viewpoint of null compatibility between science and religion in the interest of pursuing the public policy goal of obtaining good science education. Is turnabout supposed to be a good thing now?

Be Sociable, Share!
<> 8799 3446 >

14 thoughts on “Russell Blackford and Telling Science Advocacy Organizations to Shut Up Already

  1. Badger3k

    I could see Blackford thinking that, since science disporves some of the claims of fundamentalists, that the organizations are thus favoring the less-literal, more liberal, faiths. Or that, in speaking out against the anti-science groups, they are promoting the “religion” of atheism, or even “scientism.”

  2. Chris Schoen

    This leaves aside the arrogance of science organisations appearing to favour particular religious viewpoints.

    It’s an interesting ideological quirk that converts statements which fail to adopt Blackford’s own blanket anti-religious stance into statements that “favour particular religious viewpoints.” I see no evidence of this favor in the statements that Blackford is discussing (via Coyne). Just neutral statements observing that there is nothing *inherently* anti-religious about science, as much as Blackford and Coyne would like that not to be true.

    There is, of course, an element of self-flattery involved in this, because it implies that so called rationalists, unlike those poor religious saps, have no taboos, no sacred values or ideas that are quarantined from inquiry.

  3. Austringer Post author

    I guess that would be a “if you are not for me, you are against me” stance. Who knew Blackford was so biblical?

  4. Jim Lippard

    I think Chris Ho-Stuart makes a good point at The Panda’s Thumb in response to RBH’s article:

    http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2009/04/generals-who-do.html#comment-184333

    To the extent that the NCSE points out that some scientists have no problem with a conflict between science and religion, that’s all well and good and accurate. To the extent NCSE claims that there is no conflict between science and religion, that’s asserting a particular philosophical position, something like Gould’s NOMA, which I think is dubious at best. The particular quotes that have been brought forward seem to be the former, but Blackford’s complaint is clearly about the latter.

    I take it your response is, essentially, that NCSE *doesn’t* advocate NOMA, and Blackford is mistaken in assuming that it does on the basis of the quotations in question.

  5. Austringer Post author

    Russell,

    You seem to be mistaking a critique of the argument that you wrote as being a “bizarre fantasy”. I haven’t engaged in any attempted mind-reading; that stuff doesn’t work. But I have taken seriously the justification you attempted to give concerning the conclusion you made. Here’s a comment made to another party at the Panda’s Thumb:

    OK, here’s the thing. Russell Blackford is a philosopher. His entire reason for being is to not simply say that things ought to be some way simply because it is his opinion; he provides an argument as to why that should be the case. The argument that Russell provided in the post I linked to, while applied to a specific case, is quite a general one. If the argument does not work well for the other particular cases that it can be applied to, one may well remain unconvinced that Russell has made his case. As you said, the burden is on the person making the argument.

    Yeah, I get that Russell’s opinion is that science advocacy organizations should shut up already on this particular public policy issue. What I haven’t gotten so far is an argument as to why that should be so such that either his argument is itself limited to the particular case (yes, I already know that he has only applied his argument to this case) or is convincing when applied over all the possibly applicable cases (which I am pointing out does not appear to be true). Russell says that science advocacy organizations should not do things “outside their remit”. Russell upholds the primacy of argument on issues among the experts on each particular question. Science organizations shouldn’t take stances that tread on the toes of experts outside the field of science. Why, though, is that only applicable to this one particular public policy issue? Are we already back to it is just his opinion that it should be so?

    There’s nothing there or in my post above that seems to have either bizarre or fantastic properties.

    Now, about RBH’s post… let’s have a look at a section:

    The second main prong of the creationist assault is to equate evolution with atheism. That is a ubiquitous theme from the whole range of creationists, from Kent Hovind’s ravings to the Disco ‘Tute’s anti-naturalism Wedge document. I hear it, every one of us working with local and state boards of education hears it. It’s in the creationist mailers, it’s in their pamphlets, and it’s in their public statements to school boards.

    And NCSE completely appropriately provides information to “parents and concerned citizens” about that issue. It completely appropriately points out that there are believers – self identified Christians – who accept that evolution has occurred (it’s a fact) and that the modern theory of evolution is the best available naturalistic explanation of that fact. Moreover, NCSE completely appropriately points to religious organizations that have stated that they accept that.

    One cannot argue that pointing to the existence of people and organizations that contradict a main prong of the creationist attack on public school education constitutes an “endorsement.” It’s merely pointing to a fact. This is what NCSE says about it in the introduction to its Science and Religion section:

    Can I both accept what science teaches and engage in religious belief and practice? This is a complex issue, but theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

    That’s true, a plain fact, and useful for folks in the field to be able to support via the religious organizations and individuals identified by NCSE.

    Russell’s “main point”, though, was that the way that science advocacy organizations should respond to this issue would be to shut-up-already since the issue is ‘beyond their remit’. How, exactly, is RBH’s statement above consistent with that? RBH does then criticize NCSE specifically for what he believes to be an endorsement of a particular argument, but nowhere does RBH make a statement that he agrees with Russell’s general point, that being that all the science advocacy organizations should shut-up-already rather than get involved in rebutting the “accepting evolution means you can’t believe in God anymore” claim.

  6. Jim Lippard

    Here are a few descriptions of positions on this issue:

    (1) Science advocacy organizations should not take a philosophical position on whether science is compatible or incompatible with religion, such as either NOMA or the views of Coyne, Dawkins, Myers, Blackford, etc. We all here seem to agree with that.

    (2) They should be careful when rebutting the claim that evolution entails atheism (which I think we also all agree is false), so as not to imply that NOMA is the correct view. In my opinion, it’s good and important to point out that there are religions that have no problem with evolution, and the _Voices for Evolution_ book has rhetorical and political power. But it shouldn’t further be suggested that those views *are correct*.

    It’s important to note that the existence of people who accept religion and evolution doesn’t demonstrate, or necessarily even provide much evidence for the position that science and religion are in fact compatible–people can certainly hold views that are logically inconsistent, and I think everybody does.

    (3) Science advocacy organizations shouldn’t even respond to the “evolution implies atheism” argument. If this is really Russell Blackford’s view, then I don’t agree with it–but I think he’s at (2), not (3).

  7. Austringer Post author

    By the conclusion of Blackford’s that I quoted in the post above, I think he’s at (3), or at least the version of (3) that doesn’t allow an effective rebuttal of the claim.

  8. Russell Blackford

    Jim, I’ve been saying for what now seems like a long time that I am not dogmatic about any of this. I am aware of the political exigencies, etc., etc.

    Still, I definitely agree with 1. and generally with 2. As for 3., well I don’t think anyone has said that. I don’t see how I have said anything that goes that far unless someone wants to read something out of context in a literal-minded way. I might prefer they not say MUCH and that it be peripheral, but exactly what, if anything, is up for grabs. Even, Jerry thinks that they might have SOMETHING to say. The live question is just how much, assuming everyone relevant agrees to point 1., which was what I meant by sticking to the science. I’ve been arguing against NOMA for years now, and that was what led me into this.

    I don’t have some sweeping principle as to what falls properly into the remit of these organisations, all of which have slightly different roles from each other anyway. That’s not how it works. In each case (if, for example, a legal dispute arose about ultra vires activities), you’d have to think about their membership, stated purpose, constitutional rules, etc. You approach it from that end. But you also approach it from the end of what kinds of things would it be reasonable to assume are implicitly “out”. E.g. it’s most unlikely that such organisations are there to settle questions as to who their members should marry, no matter how much that would help their mission. It’s also unlikely that they are there to settle questions such as those you describe in 1. That would be a different kind of organisation.

    I’ve astonished at the virulence of the disagreement throughout this debate. Point 1., which was my main point, led to an outcry and very personal attacks (more on Jerry and PZ than on me), but it has now been conceded by Richard Hoppe, who has more or less apologised for his orginal tone.

    As for me, I’ve never said that science bodies should have no role (such as might fall naturally under their own rules, etc., in at least some cases) as lobbying for government funding of science (or improved educational standards, or whatever). The attempt in the original post above to claim that I said something of the kind really is a bizarre fantasy. My whole post was about what should be said about religion in relation to advocating the teaching of evolution. Despite all the discussion since, I think it reads quite well in that clear context. Of course, it had absolutely nothing to do with whether an organisation’s rules, membership, etc., suggest that it should be taking stances in other contexts, such as debates about science funding or whatever else such a body might naturally and properly involve itself in.

    Frankly, I think that my words were twisted in a mean-spirited way, aimed at misrepresenting my position in order to damage my credibility. I think that the owner of this blog owes me an apology. Let’s see if he’s honourable enough.

  9. Austringer Post author

    I suppose a happier alternative is that by Blackford’s stating the he and RBH are now in agreement on his main point, that Blackford is OK with science advocacy organizations noting the existence of religious people and denominations who also accept evolutionary science, so long as they are careful not to endorse any of the means by which those folks attempt to reconcile the two, since that is the import of RBH’s post.

    Works for me.

  10. Austringer Post author

    Let’s recap Blackford’s conclusion that I was responding to:

    Science organisations should stick to the point that certain findings are the result of systematic, rational investigation of the world, supported overwhelmingly by several lines of converging evidence. In putting that case, they can be “religion blind”; they should present the evidence for the scientific picture, but that’s as far as they should go. They should not comment on what specific theological positions are or are not compatible with science. Leave that to the squabblings of philosophers and theologians, and, indeed, of individual scientists or other citizens. We can think and argue about it for ourselves.

    Despite later protestations and self-characterizations of humility and non-dogmatism, the above delivers a shut-up-already message. It is a hard-line stance. The back-pedaling to weighing the value of pragmatism came later.

    This is apparently what Blackford objects to in my original response:

    This goes further than just what science advocacy organizations say about the religion and science issue (which I think Blackford mischaracterizes in any case). This makes clear that so far as Blackford is concerned, science advocacy organizations have no business with any aspect of public policy.[*] Blackford at least has provided no qualifying statements that would indicate that talking about science and religion is a special case, and his entire argument is structured in such a way that it does not admit of having special cases: Organizations don’t get to have opinions when those cross over into the intellectual turf handled by people outside the science organization’s particular field of interest.

    [*] If I had stopped here, Blackford would have a point. But I did not stop there. One does have to read the entire paragraph to see what I am saying and how it is about the justifying argument that Blackford presented for his original conclusion that science advocacy organizations shut-up-already. If Blackford has since retracted the shut-up-already part of his conclusion that’s all to the good.

    Nor is the above the only statement of the same criticism that Blackford had knowledge of.
    I expressed it on PT where Blackford was participating in comments, and by his statement above it is obvious that he read this as well:

    Russell,

    Your argument appears to me to be completely generic, that science advocacy organizations should avoid saying anything other than things completely in the domain of science. After all, for any issue that isn’t completely within science, there will be experts ready to enumerate points of difference; that isn’t unique to religious antievolution. And I didn’t see anything to indicate that you were treating religious antievolution as a special case. So are science advocacy organizations supposed to shut up already when it comes to any public policy issue? We know from experience here on PT that even advocating funding of research through NSF and NIH is a contentious public policy issue that economists and political science people would consider to naturally be their turf. Should science advocacy organizations leave it up to economists and political science people to convince the government that funding scientific research is a public good, and stick solely to discussing the science only?

    There, I’m obviously pointing out a problem with Blackford’s justifying argument, and not falsely attributing a specific application of it to him.

    And I expanded on that in a further comment:

    OK, here’s the thing. Russell Blackford is a philosopher. His entire reason for being is to not simply say that things ought to be some way simply because it is his opinion; he provides an argument as to why that should be the case. The argument that Russell provided in the post I linked to, while applied to a specific case, is quite a general one. If the argument does not work well for the other particular cases that it can be applied to, one may well remain unconvinced that Russell has made his case. As you said, the burden is on the person making the argument.

    Yeah, I get that Russell’s opinion is that science advocacy organizations should shut up already on this particular public policy issue. What I haven’t gotten so far is an argument as to why that should be so such that either his argument is itself limited to the particular case (yes, I already know that he has only applied his argument to this case) or is convincing when applied over all the possibly applicable cases (which I am pointing out does not appear to be true). Russell says that science advocacy organizations should not do things “outside their remit”. Russell upholds the primacy of argument on issues among the experts on each particular question. Science organizations shouldn’t take stances that tread on the toes of experts outside the field of science. Why, though, is that only applicable to this one particular public policy issue? Are we already back to it is just his opinion that it should be so?

    It’s not certain that Blackford saw this on PT, but it is also quoted in a comment of mine upthread.

    Again, it is clear that I am addressing Blackford’s argumentative structure. It is Blackford’s chosen justification that has broader implications than the specific case that he has applied it to. If Blackford wishes to abandon his justifying argument since it leads to untrustworthy conclusions when applied to other cases, that is his decision.

    Blackford did not take any of the opportunities given to request a clarification of my meaning or to take issue with anything — up until his characterization of my participation as being based on “bizarre fantasies”. Does the criticism and explanations of criticism given above appear to be bizarre or fantastic? I’m just not seeing it.

    And, no, I don’t see that I’m the guy whose honor is put in question here. I have quoted Blackford extensively to document his actual argumentation. I set out a fair criticism of his original justifying argument. I didn’t start the insulting sniping here, nor do I think that plainly-stated criticism, such as I have offered, is the same thing as insult. I’m not the one on record in this exchange going for shut-up-already as a conclusion. I am clearly the injured party in the exchange. If someone is damaging Blackford’s credibility, it isn’t me. The nature of a response to criticism, though, is capable of doing exactly that.

    Here’s another example of Blackford’s response to criticism, taken from PT:

    Dave, I know you’re a reasonable person, but the total impression I’m getting here is that a lot of people are just not prepared to accept any criticism of the NCSE, etc., at all. They just want the critics to shut up.

    This ironic statement by Blackford was demonstrably false so far as it may have been intended to encompass my participation, as I documented in a response there. I don’t recall seeing any particular justification for it in the thread it appeared in, either.

    Elsewhere, Blackford states this:

    I don’t think there’s anything destructive in my tone, but it looks as if any criticism at all upsets some people, no matter how carefully and respectfully it is phrased.

    Someone expressing that sentiment should display better openness to legitimate criticism.

  11. Chris Schoen

    They should be careful when rebutting the claim that evolution entails atheism (which I think we also all agree is false), so as not to imply that NOMA is the correct view.

    Here’s where I think Blackford et al want to have their cake and eat it too. Because, clearly, in some contexts, some kind of NOMA *is* the appropriate view. That is to say, denominations (or individual theists) which completely accept the findings of orthodox evolutionary science are able to do so by keeping their scientific peanut butter out of their theological chocolate and vice versa. (You guys had those Reese’s commercials in Oz, too, didn’t you?) Even so mainstream a denomination as Catholicism is very NOMA-friendly on this score.

    From what I’ve read of Russell’s work, he would argue that this compartmentalization is really just a grand case of cognitive dissonance: that a subjective experience of NOMA does not imply an objective philosophical reconciliation between science and religion, even in the limited cases where no conflict is apparent.

    But I think this is a confused view. Science and religion are just words. They are social conventions. I’d expect that the 6 or so people commenting on this thread have slightly differing definitions of what science is, or should be, though we all probably agree on the methodological core of how it is generally conducted. Those definitions would certainly vary far more so when it came time to define what religion is, or should be. And we comprise a mere billionth of the population of possible people who might participate in this discussion.

    This is not relativism, by the way. It is simply an acknowledgment that language is a constant negotiation. We need to show both our premises and conclusions when adjudicating a philosophical argument such as “are religion and science compatible?” At a minimum, we need to start with discussions of the meanings of the second, fourth, and fifth words in that question; otherwise we’re just splashing around in dirty bathwater.

    Russell writes (in the original post on Coyne) that he is “convinced that there really is an incompatibility between important, orthodox positions in Abrahamic theology, on the one hand, and established scientific findings on the other.” This is an unsubstantiated statement that takes for granted the very thing it sets out to establish–that NOMA is a fallacy. But what I really want to note is the qualifications he must employ even to get started: “important, orthodox, Abrahamic.” How far in this simple statement have we already traveled from the notion of the *intrinsically* religious? What of heterodox, or esoteric positions, for example, or those outside the Abrahamic tradition? We have already jettisoned at least a good two-fifths of the earth’s “religious” population with this prevarication.

    Blackford obliquely acknolwledges this when he writes: “Note, however, that this “difficulty” is a philosophical inference, reached after a process of comparison between Abrahamic doctrines and scientific findings. It does not amount to a plain contradiction between religion and science, but is mediated by various assumptions that may (I’m willing to suppose) be debatable.” And indeed, he offers a path:

    [O]rthodox Abrahamic religionists must either abandon their orthodox views (perhaps moving towards deism, or some kind of process theology, or even to an irrealist/metaphorical conception of God).

    We could add to the list. My question is, what is the content of this abandonment? Is it atheism? Is it something which is no longer religion? May the same sacred texts and rituals be employed? What of the many millions of religious people who never cleaved to orthodox Abrahamic religion in the first place? And–most importantly–does this abandonment finally reconcile the incompatibility we are concerned with?

    It’s not my argument that Christian fundamentalism is nothing to be concerned about. There is certainly a doctrinal incompatibility between biblical literalism and biology. And if the statistics are accurate, an alarming number of people adhere to some form of biblical literalism. (Though it’s rarely as absolute as advertised. No substantial Christian sects observe the biblical teachings on slavery, or blood feud, and most feel that the gospels have obviated Jewish dietary injunctions. So there’s the important question of why literalism is so selectively applied, one which undermines some of the simplistic thinking about religious “memes.”)

    Nevertheless, it’s all too easy to generalize on the basis of family resemblance. Much harder to make the scientific case, with rigorous controls, that there is something intrinsic to “religion,” whatever that might be, that is hostile to scientific understanding. I haven’t seen anything even remotely convincing on this score, and I’ve looked hard for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *