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Oct 12 2009

On quoting scientists-1: The numbers game

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I recently received an email the subject line of which said, “Some leading and Nobel prize winner scientists view [sic] on God.” The contents of the email consisted solely of 25 brief quotes, all in support of the existence of god, with no further explanation.

I am not sure what the point of this kind of exercise is since the email author did not explain. Is it to show that there are scientists who are also religious? If so, there is no need to make the case because no atheist denies that fact, so producing such lists serves no purpose than identifying some of the religious scientists by name.

In fact, one should be able to find even more than 25. The National Academy of Science is widely recognized as constituting only the leading scientists. It currently has about 2100 members. In response to a survey, 7% of NAS members said they believe in a personal god defined by the statement “a God in intellectual and affirmative communication with man … to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer.” This is a far more active deity than the Slacker God of some accommodationists, so the email writer should have been able to dig up about 150 members of the NAS who have nice things to say about god.

If the point of the exercise is to impress atheists with the number of scientists who are religious, then this is the wrong way to go, since there are far more skeptics than believers in the NAS. About 72% are outright nonbelievers and another 21% are doubtful or agnostic. So if it comes down to a numbers game, believers lose by a landslide.

This reminds me of the time when the Discovery Institute, the organization that was behind intelligent design, issued a list of 103 people with doctorates in any field who had signed on to the following statement: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” They even placed an ad touting the list as an argument against the theory of evolution.

In response, the National Center for Science Education started Project Steve, consisting of a list of scientists who were willing to sign on to the following statement:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.

The gimmick was that the signatories were limited to scientists who had names that were variations on some form of Stephen, such as Steve, Stephanie, Stefan, and so on. They got 367 scientists (including Stephen Hawking) to sign which, since the name Steve only represents 1% of the population, can be extrapolated to suggest that 36,700 scientists support the statement.

The whole point of Project Steve was to make fun of the idea that numbers of scientists behind a proposition alone is an argument for anything and if someone should think so, it is going to be a definite loser for religious beliefs.

But the email made me think about the uses of quotes by scientists in general. I myself use direct quotes quite often and attribute them to the source whenever I can. Why do I use them? What purposes do they serve?

Next: When do quotes serve as evidence for anything?

POST SCRIPT: Tuesdays with Moron?

Bill Maher speculates on the other ghostwriters who were considered for Sarah Palin’s book and the titles they suggested.

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