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Is she doing her job in a satisfactory fashion?

Jerry Coyne has an interesting post about Jennifer Wiseman, who heads the  “Dialogue on Science, Religion, and Ethics” (DoSER) program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest scientific organization in the world.

I was recently informed (by someone likely to know) that the top people at AAAS are all Christians. I didn’t realize this – or possibly I once did and forgot it.

As I’ve posted before, DoSER is sponsored by not only the AAAS, but by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Smithsonian Institution. These are government organizations, so some of your tax dollars may be going to support a brand of theology. And, of course, the whole shebang is funded by the Templeton Foundation to the tune of 5.3 million dollars.

Not just a brand of theology but a particular, and bad, epistemology. Tax dollars are going to support claims that “faith” can know things just as science can know things, but by a different methodology or “way.” Really. If that claim is true, then it would seem reasonable for tax dollars to finance bridges built according to faith, medical research conducted according to faith, agricultural technology discovered by faith. Tax dollars pretty much don’t do that though (except when they do, as with “complementary” medicine). Why is that? Because “faith” is not in fact a way of knowing. Therefore, tax dollars shouldn’t be used to support claims that it is. Lying should be left to the private sphere.

DoSER is headed by Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, Senior Project Scientist in charge of the NASA Hubble Space Telescope, and, notably, the former head and now Executive Board member of the American Scientific Affiliation,  an association of evangelical Christian scientists.   The organization is pretty hard-line, for it takes some bizarre stands for an organization of scientists, especially one that includes Wiseman with her AAAS program meant to reconcile the truths of modern science with the beliefs of the faithful.  The problem is that the ASA doesn’t seem to accept those truths:

  • According to their website, “The ASA has no official position on evolution; its members hold a diversity of views with varying degrees of intensity.”

A “diversity of views”? With “degrees of intensity”? It’s all about holding views with degrees of intensity, and nothing to do with cumulative evidence? It’s just a matter of opinion? That’s the kind of faithy stuff that’s totes compatible with science?

JC sums up:

[Either Wiseman should] resign from the ASA, or the AAAS should find someone less embarrassing to head their accommodationist program. Actually, they should deep-six this execrable Templet0n-funded program, for its science “outreach” explicitly endorses a form of theology.

A very odd comment says

I cannot resist. Disclaimer: I am not a Christian. Questions:

(1) Is Wiseman performing her duties at NASA in a satisfactory and secular fashion?

(2) Do her religious beliefs literally interfere (not presumed, suspected or anticipated)with those duties?

If “yes” and “no”, where is the “disgrace” and why the prurient interest in her personal beliefs, writings and activities?

NASA has nothing to do with anything, but let’s assume it was a typo for AAAS; the comment is still very odd. No, of course Wiseman is not performing her duties at AAAS in a satisfactory and secular fashion; that’s the point. You can’t advance science by promoting a worthless epistemology. You can’t advance science in a secular fashion by promoting a worthless epistemology on the grounds that it is religious and therefore special and different but nonetheless reliable. You can’t advance science by running a program that says it’s compatible with bullshit. That doesn’t advance science.

Comments

  1. says

    Oh yes, I know, and there was Chris Mooney to leap up and cry “what about the new atheists?!” Then he expects us to believe he’s just talking about the best strategy. [rolls eyes]

  2. says

    Just followed the above link to Jerry Coyne’s site. Most interesting.

    I don’t commonly do this, but I still have the comment I posted there on my clipboard.

    *****************

    “We believe that in creating and preserving the universe God has endowed it with contingent order and intelligibility, the basis of scientific investigation.”

    It’s a pity then that the Good Lord did not inspire whoever it was to include a bit more about antibiotics, anaestheics and a few surgical procedures (amongst other matters) among the first few chapters of the Bible.

    It could have been called The Book of Recommendations.

    But I must take issue with you Jerry over the following:

    “Actually, they should deep-six this execrable Templet0n-funded program, for its science ‘outreach’ explicitly endorses a form of theology. Were I a member of the AAAS, I’d resign.”

    This is a political contest, and there is an old maxim governing such which says “never resign.” Resigning in protest carries far less political clout than does disagreeing publicly to the point where you force them to sack you. The latter generates controversy, while the former never does.

    **************************

    FOOTNOTE: I always put comments on the clipboard before clicking on the ‘post comment’ button. On too many occasions I’ve laboured devotedly over some lengthy comment, clicked the button, and found to my horror that the thing has gone forever into the darkest depths of the cybertrench.

  3. says

    Yes, that’s a good plan with comments, although I don’t usually bother. I did while at the Hyatt (with its utterly crappy Wifi) with a little notebook laptop though, because in that situation comments (and posts) did keep being eaten. It was rarther annoying.

    About resigning – doesn’t it perhaps make a difference if the resigner is a Name?

  4. says

    Ophelia: “About resigning – doesn’t it perhaps make a difference if the resigner is a Name?”

    Of course. I didn’t say resigning has no effect. But whoever you are, forcing them to sack you takes that effect and multiplies it very significantly. IMHO. Hence the old slogan of the experienced political campaigners: never resign.

    I might add here that Christian theology is just one of the numerous theologies around, and all have the status of unverifiable hypotheses. Hence they have all hung around as hypotheses for hundreds and thousands of years, not even advancing to the status of theories. So they remain as the Jehovah hypothesis, the Allah hypothesis, the Vishnu hypothesis, the Ahura Mazda… etc. And those are just the monotheisms. Then when we include the animistic beliefs of our distant forebears, we start talking tens and hundreds of thousands of years, if not more.

    And there they will all stay. Forever. The whole lot of them, bar some radical development like Judgement Day.

    I have no reason to believe that Jennifer Wiseman is anything other than a very competent scientific worker in the field she is in. But I would argue that she has no business publicly favouring one untestable hypothesis over the untestable others, and using her publicly funded position to promote it, if that’s what she does.

  5. says

    Michael: Thanks for the link, at which site we read: “In this interview [‘Faith vs science ?’], Jennifer Wiseman was speaking in a personal capacity and not as a representative of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”

    Presumably she does not speak of NASA’s discoveries about exoplanets etc in merely a ‘personal capacity’.

    I can think of no other explanation: the ‘personal capacity’ bit is a consequence of the untestability of the divine hypotheses in general, and not just the particular trinitarian variant that she discovered for herself, or was more likely born into.

    As for me, I am a polytheist. But out of all of them, the gods I favour most are those that fly round the heavens dressed up in navy blue.

    And guess which is my favourite colour.

  6. Wayne says

    I followed the links at the AAAS to the DoSER link “Read About DoSER’s “Beyond Evolution” Event at the AAAS Annual Meeting”. In effect, the recommendations ask teachers to address meta-physics along with their treatment of the subject at hand. This is solely for the purpose of accommodating students whose religious indoctrination causes them to be worried about the possible offenses to various gods (I expect that the christian god is over-represented) and the “truth” as they are taught it in a church.

    This will have three negative effects:

    (1) It will slow the class down for those students that are there to learn the topic. If this delay could be used effectively by the teacher to reinforce understanding of the scientific method, as the DoSER meeting participants did suggest, that might not be all to the bad. However, there cannot help but be classes where the teacher won’t be able to do this effectively, and those classes will be derailed.

    (2) There will be a subset of students, conditioned to be combative about perceived threats to their religion, that will take advantage of the inherent “respect” accorded to them to further derail the class. While they can only tie up a teacher’s time and energy to the extent the teacher allows, a teacher answering to a school administration in Kansas might feel it safer to allow this kind of abuse than one in another state where religion has less immediate political influence.

    (3) Devising methods to deal with religious objections to established science, at least in publicly funded educational venues, is a tacit admission that separation of church and state can be challenged in the classroom under the guise of “scientific” inquiry. Like Ken Ham training children to challenge opponents of YEC, as soon as the fundamentalist churches figure this out, science classes will become a new battlefield for the religiously motivated.

    Perhaps they already are, but the function of DoSER doesn’t address this issue. Instead, its function seems to guarantee that, in at least some places, the science classroom will become a new front for the fundamentalist war on science.

  7. Michael Fugate says

    I see this as straightforward apologetics – a way to protect one’s faith from the wider world of science and competing religions. The more one learns about the world the harder it is to maintain that child-like faith so valued by the Bible. So who better than those who have managed to be successful in science and yet remained religious to provide lessons for the kiddies? The problem is that this only benefits religion. Science organizations should not be promoting religion as another way of knowing unless they can demonstrate to us how religion knows.

  8. julian says

    The ASA has no official position on evolution; its members hold a diversity of views with varying degrees of intensity.

    A good reminder you can’t trust believers when they claim to be trying to spread scientific thinking. Here we have a religious organization (as it clearly is. It is composed of believers with a distinctly religious goal in mind.) of scientists and with a perfect opportunity to spread scientific thinking.

    But they do not. Instead we have a very broad, non-committed answer. We have the answer we would expect the head of a large church to take if they did not want to alienate their ‘flock.’ What would result in the least friction and the fewest members either leaving the church or the faith all together.

    If the religious are honestly interested in encouraging scientific thinking they need to stop worrying about retaining faith. Some of us lose faith when we learn more and that has to be something they are willing to at least tolerate. Much of faith, as I’m sure the more honest among believers know, today is the result of ignorance and indoctrination. Education, sorry for the cliche, expands our horizons with the knowledge we gain especially the knowledge of the outside world. The knowledge of what things look like from a different perspective.

    I know apologists know this, which is why so many commit themselves early on to creating a religious path to evolution or science in general. But that isn’t encouraging scientific or critical thinking. Not only is it cutting us off from key aspects of education it’s re prioritizing goals so that maintaining belief takes center stage.

  9. says

    If that claim is true, then it would seem reasonable for tax dollars to finance bridges built according to faith, medical research conducted according to faith, agricultural technology discovered by faith.

    As someone who used to do government work, I would have loved that. The software I provide didn’t work? Clearly you don’t believe enough. That network connection keeps failing? Say ten Hail Marys, and really mean it this time, then see me next Friday.

    And don’t forget, no meat on Friday, or web service will be down.

  10. cpt banjo says

    “You can’t advance science by promoting a worthless epistemology. You can’t advance science in a secular fashion by promoting a worthless epistemology on the grounds that it is religious and therefore special and different but nonetheless reliable. You can’t advance science by running a program that says it’s compatible with bullshit.”

    Didn’t Isaac Newton do a pretty decent job of advancing science while holding religious views?

  11. Michael Fugate says

    Didn’t Isaac Newton do a pretty decent job of advancing science while in spite of holding religious views?
    His religious views did nothing to advance his science and probably detracted from it. Scientific organizations should not be in the apologetics business because there is no means of determining if their religious views are correct.

  12. dirigible says

    “Didn’t Isaac Newton do a pretty decent job of advancing science while holding religious views?”

    Rather than advancing religious views while…

  13. says

    Didn’t Isaac Newton do a pretty decent job of advancing science while holding religious views?

    I dunno – I would say that Newton subverted science in favour of his religious mysticism when he put “indigo” in the list of rainbow colours (since he thought there needed to be 7 to match the notes of the scale etc).

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