The battle over NCSE

It’s still going on. Jerry Coyne repeated our common criticism that the NCSE spends too much effort promoting Christianity; then Richard Hoppe fires back, complaining that his comment was held in moderation (Coyne has been sick for a while, you know…I wish people would have more patience), and then repeating the common and misguided defense that NCSE is not an atheist organization. We know. We’ve both agreed on multiple occasions that the NCSE should not be an atheist organization. But still we get this same tiresome objection.

NCSE’s main remit is defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools. That defense is both legal (think Kitzmiller) and political (think the Dover PA school board election after that trial but before the verdict was in). One cannot win political battles without accepting alliances with groups with whom one does not agree on all aspects of all issues. To imagine otherwise is to live in dreamland.

Yes? Please look in a mirror, Richard!

As I’ve said before, said just above, am saying again, and will no doubt have to say a hundred times more, no one is asking the NCSE to become an atheist organization, and no one is saying that the NCSE shouldn’t make strategic alliances with religious organizations. I’d put it in 72 point type if I thought it would help, but I doubt that anything will.

The problem is that the NCSE is not neutral on atheism vs. religion, but has clearly taken a side in preferring one particularly fuzzy, liberal, soft version of Christianity as its ‘acceptable’ religious belief. I have a preference for it myself — it’s what I was brought up in, and I think the country would be in far better shape if there was more widespread support for a faith that quietly defers to science on material matters and supported progressive ethical values — but that does not justify exclusively endorsing it, especially since I think promoting atheism would have even better consequences for the nation. If the NCSE is to be respected as an honest broker, supporting only better science education, it can’t do so by this weird sectarian favoritism.

What raises hackles is that once again NCSE is caught promoting a cult event, a group of theologians and preachers gathering to babble incompetently about evolution. As usual, they’re being selective: Spong and Giberson and their ilk will always get a thumbs-up from the NCSE, but they don’t seem to appreciate that they are almost as great a minority as atheists, and that supporting this one slippery version of Christianity is not going to suddenly win over the majority to their side. The fact that most of the participants at this conference are generally nice people is not a reason to argue that they’re right.

Here’s what would make me content, and satisfy me that the NCSE was not turning into a religious organization. It’s only two things, and it does not involve sticking a knife in the back of any Christian groups, and none of it involves adding an atheist bias to the center.

  1. Demonstrate some rigor in who they’re going to promote. Right now, it looks like any religious group that announces that they’re OK with evolution, for any reason, gets the happy-clappy treatment from the NCSE. It doesn’t matter if what they’re doing is pushing teleology and a history of godly intervention — if they say their faith is compatible with evolution, no matter how much they distort the science, they get the thumbs-up. Have some standards; don’t allow your logo to be slapped on a gathering of theologians of the acceptable faith, unless there is going to be some critical thinking encouraged, and honest evaluation of the evidence.

  2. Be more equitable in distributing information. The most glaring discrepancy in NCSE’s current policy of so-called alliance-building is that atheists are left out; I presume their support is taken for granted. But I will note that some ditzy conference by Biologos-types gets front page attention from the NCSE, while Richard Dawkins can tour the country giving talks on evolution (if anyone had been paying attention, they’d know that most of his talks are about science, not atheism) and be completely ignored. It’s as if the biggest, most popular promoters of science in the world do not exist, simply because they aren’t liberal Christians.

    Why? Apparently because the alliances they are trying to build are with delicate bigots who will balk if the NCSE even occasionally acknowledges that atheists are sharing goals with them. It doesn’t help to pander to such fragile souls, especially if you’re going to turn around and use their sensitivity to accuse atheists of refusing to work alongside Christians on the issues of science education. We aren’t the ones threatening to abandon science education because Christians are involved in it, please notice; we aren’t the ones refusing to cooperate with religious people who want to better teaching in this country. Instead, we’re the boogey men the NCSE would like to hide in the closet.

Note that I agree that the principle in point #1 should also apply to #2. There are plenty of atheist conferences that address evolution, and many of them are using it to lead the cheer for atheism in the same way that Biologos uses it to promote Christianity. The NCSE is under no obligation to promote every atheist meeting. But I think if they’re going to push anything as aiding the cause of science education, it ought to be events that feature science and education. Right now, it’s science and education and friendly theology. That latter addition represents mission creep, and a growing bias towards promoting a version of religion.

Jerry is precisely right. NCSE is becoming Biologos, and Biologos is an openly and honestly sectarian organization that evangelizes for a specific version of Christianity. That makes NCSE the secretive and dishonest version of the same, and as a long-term supporter of the NCSE (and someone who never will support Biologos), I object. Get back on track with an honest neutrality on the conflict between science and religion, please.

And do I need to say it again? That doesn’t mean promoting atheism. I know what that looks like, and I do it myself all the time, and it’s not what anyone is asking the NCSE to do.

We are not Geoffrey Beene’s Kids!

Jerry Lewis, the comedian, hosts a yearly telethon to raise money for children with muscular dystrophy. I find it entirely unwatchable, because it comes across as patronizing and condescending, and seeing Jerry Lewis mug for the camera and present himself as the loving, maudlin hero trying to save these pathetic, pitiful wretches makes me want to kick him in the balls. I think he means well and he does want to raise money for a worthy charity, but by turning the ill into their disease he diminishes them. And by talking down to them and referring to people with muscular dystrophy as “Jerry’s Kids”, he doesn’t make them look better — he holds himself above them and trivializes the human victims of the disease. It also backfires; the term “Jerry’s Kids” has become an insult. Just ask the Urban Dictionary.

Jerrys Kids is a derogatory reference to the the socialy retarded, mentaly challenged, inbred looking, trailer park hilbillys that appear on the Jerry Springer or individuals of simular appearance show. taken from the Jerry Lewis chairitable telethon.

(Whatever incompetent wrote that, by the way, makes himself look like that which he describes. It isn’t even a good description of a muscular wasting disease.)

Dignity isn’t something that can be bestowed on another, it can only be taken away. And Jerry Lewis has been stripping away people’s dignity for a long, long time.

Marty Robbins has exposed a similar campaign on behalf of scientists that can similarly only harm. The Geoffrey Beene Foundation had the well-meaning but entirely awful idea of trying to help the image of scientists by having them pose with a collection of third-tier or has-been rock stars. Oh, look at these sad, uninteresting nobodies who never do anything exciting. How can we help them? I know! We’ll let them get their picture taken with Debbie Harry or Jay Sean…that’ll add a little glamor to their dull, drab lives.

It sends a message. Scientists aren’t interesting in their own right, so they can be lofted out of pitiful obscurity simply by snapping their photo with someone who is really accomplished, you know, a pop star who can look pretty while rhyming. I’m sure it was very sweet for Heart and Elizabeth Blackburn to pose together, but it is incredibly condescending to think that a frickin’ Nobel Prize winner needs a photo op like that to enhance her reputation. She doesn’t need celebrity endorsements.

Yes, I know: Americans are stupid, they don’t know a thing about telomeres, but they admire Dolly Parton’s bust, so you could argue that we need to bootstrap science into the public consciousness by first appealing to what they do know. I actually think that’s a reasonable idea. But running ads in GQ magazine is a bad way to do it. There is no connection made between interesting people doing exciting science, no attempt made to communicate science in a way that people could understand — instead, we get a throw-away gimmick of having smart people stand next to popular entertainers, as if glitz were infectious.

How does this work? Do the scientists win when one gets to appear in a Lady Gaga video, when Angeline Jolie adopts one, or when P. Diddy lets one into his entourage? Being associated with pop stars does not improve science education one whit unless what makes them cool is their science, not their association with a famous non-scientist.

I’m not alone in feeling that this is futile and patronizing. Other scientists are reacting the same way: ERV doesn’t like it, and Jerry Coyne is unimpressed. Ophelia Benson thinks it is superficial, and she’s right. The only people who think this is a winner of an idea are the rockstars of accommodationism, who’ve always been light on the substance anyway.

Try again, Geoffrey Beene. You’ll get praise for your work in popularizing science when you can let scientists shine by their own light, instead of merely reflecting the dim luster of a few remote stars.

Wanna go to a science workshop?

But you can’t afford the expensive registration and travel costs? Here’s the deal for you: a workshop without walls that you attend and participate in over the internet. The subject of this one is Molecular Paleontology and Resurrection: Rewinding the Tape of Life, a discussion of origins of life research. It should be cool; set aside your afternoons on 8-10 November.

Does everything have to be laced with religion?

The Smithsonian has opened a new permanent Hall of Human Origins exhibit, which means I need to get out to Washington DC sometime. Unfortunately, it gets a mixed review from Greg Mayer. It sounds like the museum faced the standard dilemma of whether to emphasize information or interaction, and parts of the exhibit steered a little too far in the direction of interactive fluffiness. It also has some underlying weirdness: the hall was funded by a Tea Party bigwig, David Koch, and it also had a “Broader Social Impacts Committee” of mostly religious advisors, which is just plain odd — what was their purpose? Was the USNM trying to intentionally filter the information, somehow?

Jerry Coyne looks a little deeper at that part of the exhibit, and there is a lesser subtone of pandering to religion, and while it doesn’t overwhelm the story at all, there’s still an element of turning an exhibit on the science of evolution into an opportunity to promote theology. Which may partly explain why a wealthy kook like Koch was willing to throw money at it.

SciFri on the chopping block?

I will suspend my contempt for the HuffPo for one brief moment to link to an important message: Science Friday is being starved to death. Here’s what Ira Flatow says:

We at SciFri are facing severe financial difficulties, i.e. raising money. NSF [National Science Foundation] has turned us down for continuing funding, saying they love what we do, we are sorely needed, but it’s not their job to fund us. At the same time, NPR has said the same thing, telling us that if we want to stay on the air, etc, we now have to raise all our own money. Despite what listeners may think, NPR only gives us about 10 percent of our funding.

Oh, man. This month I’m hitting you up to contribute to DonorsChoose, and now I have to suggest that you might also donate to Science Friday. It’s as if our culture is busily throwing away our science education infrastructure, and it’s all being thrown on the backs of a few. A few elites, of course, but still…

The science media make my head hurt

First, read this parody of science journalism. It’s the template for just about every science story you’ll find in a newspaper, and it’s so depressing.

Second, imagine something even worse. Hint: it’s the media’s coverage of every scientific “controversy” you might think of. It takes a few of the tropes mentioned in the parody, like “shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist” and “quotes from some fringe special interest group of people who, though having no apparent understanding of the subject, help to give the impression that genuine public ‘controversy’ exists.” and “Special interest group linked to for balance” and expand those to fill the allotted space. There is no possibility that a journalist will actually examine the evidence and show which side is clearly bonkers.

For an example of this phenomenon in action, examine this article about a teacher in Modesto, Mark Ferrante, declaring that he will teach intelligent design in biology classes. It’s a moist sopping wallow in the so-called middle ground, getting quotes from teachers on both sides of the issue, and making special care to include a theist teacher mumbling platitudes about “Let science tell us what and how. Let religion tell us who and why.”

And of course, they go to the Discovery Institute for their story about ID, and set them against the NCSE, as if these two groups have an equal investment in the scientific truth. They do not. Intelligent Design has no credibility, no empirical support, and no reasonable proposals for scientific investigation. When will the media wake up and realize that their constant pushing of a false equivalency is a major factor in feeding this pseudo-controversy?

To top it all off, then they do something quite common that the media parody forgot to include: they included a poll. Of course they did, because that’s how you settle an issue in modern journalism…whatever view the majority holds must be true.

Should “intelligent design” be taught in public schools?

Yes, it should be taught in science classes 37%
Yes, but only in religion or culture classes, not in science 18%
No 44%

The school district is taking the correct route and has declared that ID will not be taught. Why can’t the local newspapers recognize reality?

Who do you trust?

SciAm has a nice report on a survey of people’s trust of authority figures. On a scale of one to five, with five being the most trustworthy, they were asked who would provide accurate information on a range of scientific issues. Look at these results: scientists are highly regarded, while religious authorities are deeply distrusted.


Before you get too happy about this, though, check out the source of the survey: this was taken of readers of Nature and Scientific American. Can you say sampling bias, boys and girls? That’s disappointing; I’d rather see how the general public views these authorities, since we can already assume that fans of science would rate scientists most highly. It’s rather like posting a poll about the greatest musician of the age on a Justin Bieber fan site…you couldn’t really rely on the results for much of anything.

I notice that the views of scientists on evolution get the highest trust scores, and I can explain that. No matter what you hear from church pulpits, evolution is settled science — any debate on that matter has been resolved for almost a century. This is entirely why the evolution ‘debate’ today is so hot and furious, because it takes remarkable ignorance and fanaticism to disagree with it anymore. It’s also the case that of all the topics listed, evolution actually has the oldest, most firmly established answer among the bunch, so yes, informed people are comfortable with the views of pro-evolution scientists. It’s only the denialists who have to be crazy.

The rest of the article discusses more details of international views on various issues, and mostly they are positive. Just keep in mind — these data are from a well-educated and science-friendly audience, and probably aren’t representative of the citizenry as a whole.