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Nov 28 2012

Wasn’t Ron Lindsay just pinin’ for the days of the Accommodation Wars?

Yes, he was. We could happily bring them back, though, because Nicholas Wade is still writing for the NY Times, as Jerry Coyne mentions today.

Wade’s column is practically an exercise in nostalgia, harking all the way back to 2005. He’s very concerned that people are bashing poor Marco Rubio for not understanding that there is no confusion about the age of the earth — it’s 4½ billion, not 6000, years old. Wade is almost Mooneyesque in his tribute to the old tropes. Look here:

The inevitable clash with science, particularly in the teaching of evolution, has continued to this day. Militant atheists like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins beat the believers about the head, accomplishing nothing; fundamentalist Christians naturally defend their religion and values to the hilt, whatever science may say.

There’s Richard Dawkins! He’s militant! He’s beating up the Christians, who are all just meekly defending themselves!

I swear, I thought we fought our way past those old stereotypes years ago — only the terminally clueless still refer unironically to “militant atheists”. But have no fear, Wade has a solution to the conflict between scientists and creationists: all we need to do is admit that evolution is a theory.

By allowing that evolution is a theory, scientists would hand fundamentalists the fig leaf they need to insist, at least among themselves, that the majestic words of the first chapter of Genesis are literal, not metaphorical, truths. They in return should make no objection to the teaching of evolution in science classes as a theory, which indeed it is.

It’s like one of the oldest creationist misconceptions in the book! Of course it’s a theory, but it’s a scientific theory, which means that it is a broad explanation that encompasses all the available evidence and has excellent predictive power to guide research. It’s not going to console creationists, unless we plan to also encourage them to continue believing that it means “just a guess”. And seriously, Wade believes that that’s enough to make all the creationists in the world simply fold up shop and go back to church, blissful and happy in a world full of singing angels and magic spun sugar fairy-tale castles? That is quite possibly the dumbest resolution of a chronic problem in the conflict between science and religion that I’ve ever read.

Hey, I’ve got an idea: we can solve all the problems in the Middle East by just getting the Jews and Christians and Moslems to admit that they’re all worshipping the same god. Presto! The fighting ends! (Sorry, I just felt my own words were a challenge and had to come up with an even dumber idea.)

And please, if you’ve ever read the Book of Genesis, practically the last word you’d ever apply to it is “majestic”. Petty, tribal, vicious, demented, small-minded, violent, bizarre…those are better words. And the first chapter isn’t really great poetry, I’m sorry to say — if you think otherwise, you’ve been brainwashed by the repetition. I’m really not prepared to abandon a commitment to scientific evidence just so some dim bumpkin can cling to his cherished belief that a poem saying a magic man poofed everything into existence is a deep insight.

I save the worst for last.

A scientific statesman, if there were such a person, would try to defuse the situation by professing respect for all religions and making a grand yet also trivial concession about the status of evolution.

I’m no statesman, but…you will never catch me lying and saying that I respect all religions. I do not, sir. Religions are systematic collections of threats and cajoling lies intended to bully a population into living in fear and supporting a parasitic priestly caste. They do not deserve respect. What they need is dismantling.

You will also not catch me making concessions about science simply to appease pious politicians. I will state the strengths and limitations without regard for the sensibilities of ignorant charlatans.

Damn, I really am not a statesman. But if that’s what a statesman does, you shouldn’t be able to find a scientist so willing to compromise on their principles to be one.

45 comments

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  1. 1
    jamessweet

    Really, the dumbest thing about all of this is the false idea that nobody has already tried that. “A scientific statesman, if there were such a person…” What the fuck is he talking about? The mainstream approach has been exactly what he is calling for, for decades! It’s just silliness… I suppose one could argue that the gnu approach is just as ineffectual, but acting like the old way is some brilliant new insight? Ignorance.

  2. 2
    Alverant

    Ever notice how it’s science that always has to give ground, religion never has to comprimise?

  3. 3
    prospect151

    Brilliant post, PZ. Thank you!

  4. 4
    composer99

    I’m no politicologist, but I’m pretty certain statesmen don’t bring people together through superficial pandering & dishonest compromise.

  5. 5
    Greta Christina

    So much wrong here, it’s hard to take a stab at it without just foaming at the mouth and ranting. But what it really comes down to for me is this:

    It is not fucking well a “trivial concession about the status of evolution” to insist that it really happened.

  6. 6
    Goodbye Enemy Janine

    A scientific statesman, if there were such a person, would try to defuse the situation by professing respect for all religions and making a grand yet also trivial concession about the status of evolution.

    For some odd reason, that reminded me of a line from David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly.

    Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first… insect politician.

    But seriously, why show respect for a system of thought that cause harm to people?

    Oh, wait, he has a Templeton award.

  7. 7
    epikt

    By allowing that evolution is a theory, scientists would hand fundamentalists the fig leaf they need to insist, at least among themselves, that the majestic words of the first chapter of Genesis are literal, not metaphorical, truths. They in return should make no objection to the teaching of evolution in science classes as a theory, which indeed it is.

    Of course. Because fundamentalists are such reasonable of people. Apparently it never occurs to Wade that doing as he suggests would simply give fundies another weapon to use in their eternal attempts to force dpgma into science classes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a guffaw-inducing example of naivete, at least in anyone more than five years old.

  8. 8
    Marcus Ranum

    I believe Galileo made a pretty decent attempt to reconcile science with religion. In fact, a great number of scientists, through the ages, have.

    Really, the problem is that The Universe is unfairly dogmatic in its nature. Scientists are just reporting the terrible set of facts that are there for the observing.

  9. 9
    maudell

    Flashback to the “theory” debate. Ugh. This is sad.

    I can’t decide whether this guy is honestly not understanding what a theory is (he’s supposed to be a science writer for the NYT), or if he’s just being dishonest by changing the meaning of words to make 2 mutually exclusive things (science and christianity) cohabit in his own head.

    I wonder if he also wishes schools taught the theory of gravity and germ theory as “just a theory”, with room to teach the controversy with the “Satan made me sick and unable to fly” theory.

  10. 10
    chrislawson

    Respect all religions? Even The Westboro Baptists and the Lord’s Resistance Army? What about the old Aztec religion? How about doomsday cults like Aum Shinrikyo or Heaven’s Gate? How about murder-suicide cults like the Order of the Solar Temple or the People’s Temple (aka Jonestown)?

  11. 11
    Amphiox

    Of course evolution already is taught as a scientific theory in science classes, as is everything else.

  12. 12
    Richard Smith

    By allowing that evolution is a theory, scientists would hand fundamentalists the fig leaf they need to insist, at least among themselves, that the majestic words of the first chapter of Genesis are literal, not metaphorical, truths.

    So is he actually acknowledging that fundamentalists have something to hide regarding their perpetual misuse of “theory”? Or did he actually mean a more accommodationist olive branch?

  13. 13
    chigau (違う)

    fig leaf / olive branch
    meh
    One biblical metaphor is the same as any other.

  14. 14
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Don’t worry, Ron Lindsay. I’m happy to tell both the accommodationist gnu-bashers and the misogynists and their assorted enablers and cheerleaders to go jump in a lake.

    ***

    I’m just finishing (finally – started it quite a while ago and then drifted away) Endless Forms Most Beautiful. The distance between the actual knowledge and evidence scientists have of evolution and its spectacular mechanisms and the level of understanding that would lead someone (a science writer!) to encourage them to “concede” that it’s “just a theory” is truly stunning.

  15. 15
    OlliP

    I have a principle that would make this impossible: I will not show more respect toward or better accommodate beliefs (or those with beliefs) than beliefs will show to facts.

  16. 16
    naturalcynic

    Nicholas Wade is to science reporting as Judith Miller was to international reporting a decade ago.
    The old grey lady should be blushing.

  17. 17
    anathema

    The mind boggles. How could anyone think that characterizing evolution as “only a theory” would be enough to mollify creationists? The only way that Wade could possibly write this with a straight face is if he hasn’t been paying attention to anything that creationists have been saying or any attempt to counteract them.

    Which makes me wonder, why on Earth is Wade writing an article on a subject he clearly knows nothing about?

  18. 18
    anathema

    If Wade thinks that just saying “evolution is only a theory” is enough to make creationists shut up, then he clearly hasn’t been paying attention to anything that creationists have said or any of the attempts to counteract them.

    I just want to know why on Earth Wade felt he could write an article on a subject he clearly knows nothing about without doing any research.

  19. 19
    nohellbelowus

    Ron Lindsay’s post was about accommodationism?

    Balderdash. Two examples.

    Teenager: Mom! PZ Myers is going to be speaking at a conference tonight down at the university auditorium! I just love him! Can we go? I learn so much from him about biology, and his jokes about religion make me laugh!
    Mother: No, I’m sorry dear, but Professor Myers cancelled his speech at the last minute because a person he really dislikes was also asked to speak at the conference.
    Teenager: What? Are you kidding? Why would he do that? Can’t he just ignore whoever this person is? He doesn’t have to share the stage with her, right? Grrr! That totally SUCKS.
    Mother: Yes it does, honey. Sometimes even adults find it difficult to play nice together.

    *****
    49er Lineman: Coach Harbaugh! Can you find somebody else to play next to me on the defensive line? I can’t stand that Jackson dude!
    Coach Harbaugh: Pardon me, son? I don’t think I quite heard you.
    49er Lineman: But Coach, he sometimes says stuff in the locker room that makes me wanna puke.
    Coach Harbaugh: Young man, if you don’t get your whiny candy-ass back out on that field in two seconds, puking will be the least of your worries, believe me. The team is BIGGER than you, son, and so are our fans. Now hustle!

    ;)

  20. 20
    johnradke

    Seems like Mr. Wade is suggesting equivocation as a tactic of appeasement.

    “Yes, Mrs. Fundie, you’re right, it is a theory! [winks and nudges fellow scientists] Yessiree, just a teeny little *coughcough* scientifically-valid-and-well-evidenced-theoretical-framework *coughcough* theory!”

  21. 21
    michaeld

    @17 Doesn’t your example 2 depend on what he said? Was he talking about his date with his boyfriend or was he talking about clubbing stray dogs to death over the weekend. Either one could make one puke but one is possibly action worthy (definitely disturbing) and one isn’t.

  22. 22
    Sastra

    Wade is advancing the institution of a deepity, a word or phrase with two different meanings which are then confused and substituted for each other, back and forth, back and forth. Religious thinking is rife with this sort of equivocation — often unconscious because being fuzzy and sloppy are translated into being virtuous. You’re exhibiting an open mind, reaching towards transcendence, making deep connections, and/or being diplomatic. Let others choose the interpretation THEY want, and you choose what YOU want. Everyone happy. It’s all holistic.

    In this case, then, theory means “opinion.” It’s all a matter of point-of-view, of prior commitments and personal paradigm. By scientists allowing that evolution is just their opinion, this allows the creationists to have their own opinions — opinions based on the Word of God, instead of the standards of humans. Everyone happy. Everyone has the right to their own opinion.

    It’s not just that Wade wants “theory” to mean “guess.” He apparently wants to go deeper than that, into the land of “It’s-All-Faith.” That’s only a scary place if you 1.) think whether religion is true or not matters and 2.) don’t think it’s true. Otherwise, it’s a happy land.

  23. 23
    nohellbelowus

    @19:

    Either one could make one puke but one is possibly action worthy (definitely disturbing) and one isn’t.

    Call the police? I’m unsure how your example mirrors a difference of opinion (even an ugly, vociferous one) between two speakers at a conference.

  24. 24
    michaeld

    @21

    It had nothing to do with the conference it had to do with your analogy needing work. If you want to create a situation with a difference of opinion you should have one in your analogy instead of leaving it vague. For example including in it what the other foot ball player was saying.

  25. 25
    nohellbelowus

    @22:

    Well, I suppose the two football linemen could have had a dispute about feminism in the locker room, to make it more realistic. *Cough*

    ;)

  26. 26
    nohellbelowus

    @Sastra #20:

    Wade is advancing the institution of a deepity, a word or phrase with two different meanings which are then confused and substituted for each other, back and forth, back and forth. Religious thinking is rife with this sort of equivocation — often unconscious because being fuzzy and sloppy are translated into being virtuous.

    So true. The following is a statement a creationist made recently during our debate on his blog:

    I believe that natural laws are reliable. I just don’t believe that natural laws constitute the deepest fundamental “layer” of reality. In other words, I have a larger picture of “the natural world” – which makes a lot more sense if one replaces the word “supernatural” with “supranatural”.

    As you implied, it’s virtually impossible to debate this kind of “holistic” nonsense.

  27. 27
    Rey Fox

    “Now I know what a statesman is; he’s a dead politician. We need more statesmen.”
    Bob Edwards

  28. 28
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    You know, there is this guy…he wrote a book…it’s about being a faithiest. He might be best suited to playing nice with religion.

  29. 29
    anathema

    And yet, bizarrely, the creationists don’t seem to have changed their minds.

  30. 30
    michaeld

    @23

    See at least there you have a better analogy. If its not clear I have a pet peeve about sloppy analogies.

  31. 31
    mnb0

    In continental Europe it’s common to say that evolution is a theory – just like gravity is a theory. Nobody has ever observed gravity – what you observe is objects falling down.
    I use it as a main argument against creationism – which is partly not a theory (not falsifiable) and partly a bad theory (by far doesn’t cover as many empirical data as the evolution theory and contradicts a few others).
    Wade is plain silly. Creationism is crap. Calling evolution a theory or a fact doesn’t change that a bit. You accept the scientific method or not.

  32. 32
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    A theory, when advanced by a competent scientist, is an elaborate and detailed attempt to account for a series of otherwise disconnected and apparently unrelated observations. It is based on numerous observations, close reasoning, and, where appropriate, careful mathematical deduction. To be successful, a theory must be confirmed by other scientists through numerous additional observations and tests, and where this is possible, must offer predictions which can be tested and confirmed. The theory can be, and is, refined and improved as more and better observations are made….

    What is a theory not? it is not “a guess.”
    —Isaac Asimov, 1982.

  33. 33
    w00dview

    You know, I always thought that gnu atheists at least treat the religious like adults and tell them straight up what their problems with religion are. The accommodationists on the other hand, seem to prefer coddling them and telling them what special snowflakes they are. It is infantalising and condescending.

    Also, it is quite obvious that playing nice with fundies does not work. Roll over for them and they attack your belly. Admitting evolution is “just a theory” won’t make them give up on their efforts to force bullshit into the classroom. Accommodationists vastly underestimate how dangerous the religious right are.

  34. 34
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    Evolution is not a theory. The theory of evolution is a theory. A scientific theory.

  35. 35
    Kagehi

    The mainstream approach has been exactly what he is calling for, for decades! It’s just silliness… I suppose one could argue that the gnu approach is just as ineffectual, but acting like the old way is some brilliant new insight? Ignorance.

    Maybe he’s a Republican, since its their logic: I think we should try trickle down. What, it didn’t work, then lets try supply side economy. What, still not working? Hmm, how about we let the job creators keep even more money, so they create more jobs?

    Same logic, and the same, glassy eyed, “What do you mean its been tried before?”

  36. 36
    krubozumo

    Myers, Dr. Myers, professor Myers or whatever the hell your avid minions like to call you, I’ll stick with Myers, you have done yourself proud. This is a quality rant by any standard.

    I would, however, say that you did not go far enough. You edged up to the truth but didn’t quite embrace it. The fact is, the simple certain reality is that unless humanity, that immense seething mass of individuals with strong brains but deadly wrong ideas, sheds the absurd delusion of religion, we as a species, and plenty of other species, perhaps even all life on earth, are playing a losing game.

    Unless we can get rid of belief in magic, we will never be able to content with the demands of reality.

  37. 37
    krubozumo

    That would be contend. I didn’t use preview. Rash youth.

  38. 38
    Akira MacKenzie

    Kagehi @ 32

    Same logic, and the same, glassy eyed, “What do you mean its been tried before?”

    Well, of course, it hasn’t been tried before! If it really had been tried, it would have worked! ;)

  39. 39
    John Morales

    krubozumo:

    The fact is, the simple certain reality is that unless humanity, that immense seething mass of individuals with strong brains but deadly wrong ideas, sheds the absurd delusion of religion, we as a species, and plenty of other species, perhaps even all life on earth, are playing a losing game.

    The fact is, the simple certain reality is that humanity, that immense seething mass of individuals with strong brains and ideas both warranted and unwarranted, has as a species been playing that game since time immemorial.

    (Yet here we are)

  40. 40
    lither

    “A statesman is a dead politician. Lord knows we need more statesmen.” (Opus’s reflection)

  41. 41
    chigau (違う)

    krubozumo
    wow
    How old are you?
    I’m 57.

  42. 42
    bradleybetts

    “making a grand yet also trivial concession about the status of evolution”

    I love the fact he thinks that is in any way a trivial concession. It’s not, what it is is caving to the pressure of the ignorant and deliberately suppressing the truth in order to allow a bunch of wackjobs to believe their own lies. That’s not trivial in any way, it’s massive.

  43. 43
    Worldtraveller

    PZed:

    You will also not catch me making concessions about science simply to appease pious politicians.

    Well, yes, but you’re a poopyhead. We all know that.
    Alverant@2:

    Ever notice how it’s science that always has to give ground, religion never has to comprimise?

    Purely coincidence, I’m sure.

  44. 44
    ianm

    but the theory of evolution doesn’t propose that the world is 4.5 billion years old. It is the facts that do.

  45. 45
    Nogbert

    I suppose creationists rather rigid (and erroneous) approach to language explains why so many of them prefer Newtons law of gravity to Einsteins general theory of relativity.

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