a blog by josef johann

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Accommodation responses

I wrote this as a comment to a post over at the Sensuous Curmudgeon. It seems to me fairly representative of the dispute as a whole, so, with small edits, I'm reproducing it here:

@LC, @Curmudgeon

If not turning these people away from supporting quality science education by refusing to adopt an aggressive atheist position is “condescending” and “patronizing” then that is just too bad. To do so would play right into the hands of the creationists, who love to paint the science establishment as a barrel full of atheist monkeys.

(First, I don’t agree with the premise that the effect is to “turn people away”, but its not the point I’m interested in.)

Regardless of whether a certain behavior “plays into the hands” of creationists, it is only propping up an argument that is going to be false anyway. At a certain point merely stating the truth takes priority over being sensitive to whether you are providing “ammunition” for false arguments.

I think we need to untether “aggressive behavior” from mere “factuality.” I think a cornerstone of the criticism of accommodationism is that it involves a measure of wishful thinking. You end up with problematic statements, like incompatibilities between faith and science being merely “alleged”, which happily prescribes non-engagement with our religious friends.

The principle, that we need to curtail our argumentative behavior bleeds over into the making of statements that are, if not literally false, obscuring legitimate issues. I suggest that, to whatever extent we are going to engage on these issues in the first place, it is necessarily going to involve truthfully laying out incompatibilities.

It may be the case that bringing these incompatibilities to the doorstep of our religious friends, when they haven’t asked for it and weren’t asking for a debate, is counter productive. That issue should, however, be seen as separate from the discussion as to whether these incompatibilities actually exist.

As examples, here are some points from Curmudgeon that, I think, have these problems:

Creationism is, and should remain, a denominational squabble, utterly inappropriate in science discussions.

The above point is great, but it’s represented as though it’s consistent with a hands-off approach. But we all know very well, that anyone who participates in creationist talk views their own issue as anything but a mere denominational squabble.

As to the existence of actual science-religion incompatibilities, we can never say that evolution is consistent with everyone’s understanding of his own religion…

Except that individual believers are often happy to help us on this point. And what happens when they insist in all earnestness that their religious view require a vigorous rejection of science? What should we say then? And what should we say about an accommodationist insisting that there is no incompatibility?

The way Curmudgeon represents this, it seems to me, is that he would indeed engage in such debate if only it were necessary. But, by a happy accident of fortune, it happens that we can’t discover anything about the reconcilability of a particular persons faith with the facts of (say) evolution. I respectfully submit that this is wishful thinking, embraced because of its preferable recommendation that we don’t kick up dust.

Some churches actually enjoy the fantasy that they’re under assault by an evil scientific opponent. If that’s their pleasure, we should leave them to play that game without our participation. Some day they may tire of imaginary martyrdom.

Except that such perceived victimization is often the vaulting-off point for religious ventures into science. It will often unfortunately be the case that their worldview is structured such that well-intended statements about science increase their sense of victimization, even when they are perfectly true. In such cases we are helpless but to continue inspiring them and it would be bizarre to respond to this by prioritizing co-operation over honesty.

I should add to this comment, that I understand I am saying something a bit different from PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, who were concerned with National Academy of Sciences and similar institutions maintaining neutrality over the subject of compatibility.

My comment comes in the context of the actual discussion the rest of us have been having on the actual issue of incompatibility. To the extent that we need to have a conversation, the above is (part of) what we should be saying.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Lots of talk about accommodationism lately. On one hand, there is Lawrence Kauss's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. On the other, there is Chris Mooney's response to Jerry Coyne's book review and the weaving winding coattails of discussion have been with us since.

This is my first post on the subject, so I want to highlight what I think are some problems of accommodationism as well as a few points on anti-accommodationism being a test of "ideological purity," which has been flying around. John Wilkins characterized it as "making science the enemy of religion," and nothing I've read from Mooney, or in the respective comment sections, has been much more charitable. As the back and forth proceeds, the clarity of premises upon which that dialogue was initiated tends to erode. And hence anti-accomodation is represented as "ideological purity."

The extent of our willingness to accommodate is itself the very measure of the reach and influence of ideas we find anti-scientific. This is to say, ideas that cannot be reconciled with science find their grip in that space of tolerance we lend to them, becoming exponentially more empowered than if they were merely advocated by their supporters. Indeed, the Discovery Institute's entire strategy for advancement of ID could be summed up in the fact that they take advantage of this tolerance and essentially stand upon it as though it were a platform built expressly for the purpose of propping them up.

The negative strain on reasonable discourse consists just as much in the constricting effect of accommodationists who see themselves as mediators trying to maintain a happily cooperative equilibrium by talking down those who would take issue with anti-science. And so we end up with the new problem of lectures on civility taking up the space that could, with less-muddied waters, be used to say more about what science is than what it isn't.

I think, contrary to Mooney's claim, you do win hearts and minds when you show an idea doesn't resonate with credible people. Committed advocates like William Dembski and Michael Egnor, are never, ever going to be converted. Nor do I think any concessions will be won from Karl Giberson or Kenneth Miller.

It's people on the sidelines who aren't committed advocates, who are tasked with the problem of parsing the muddied waters of public discourse for ideas that appear to be credible. They aren't helped when ridiculous ideas are put on their plate with the same tolerance and appearance of credibility that is supposed to be reserved for legitimate concepts like evolution.

And so, "tolerance" morphs into an idea that no one in particular should be setting down with clarity what the proper limits of science actually are, and communities not so concerned as the rest of us with such limits can see this open space as a platform for some emotionally satisfying spiritual exercise for "synthesizing" religion and science.

If we are to co-operate, so says the accommodationist, a measure of diplomacy is necessary. That seems to be the takeaway from Wilkinson's post, and that's fine. But in the actual moment of encountering a falsehood, diplomatic gymnastics compromise clarity, and they shouldn't be prioritized over the truth in the actual moments where false things are asserted.

Moreover, it's not clear to me that a forthright approach necessarily precludes the possibility of amicably working with people who don't share the same understandings about science. If the point is to be practical and agreeable with, say, religious groups, why must I assume this is only possible by minimizing or obscuring the existence of points of contention? I find it hard to believe a common sense of humanity and respect couldn't shine through before it got to that point. If it couldn't, there probably was not much possibility for co-operation in the first place.

The whole complaint seems to me to reduce to an atmospheric complaint over style which errs excessively toward caution and indifference.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Erick Erickson has been deservedly knocked around for his early defense of Sanford. What he wrote:

First, we need to be clear on the facts — not the media speculation:

    * Sanford did tell his staff and family where he was going.
    * Because he was traveling without a security detail, it was in his best interests that no one knew he was gone.
    * His political enemies — Republicans at that — ginned up the media story.
    * When confronted by a pestering media, things went downhill.
    * Again though, at all times there was no doubt that Sanford’s staff and family knew where he was.

Now, here is all you need to know about this whole entire story — the reaction from the erstwhile Republicans angry at Sanford for not being a fiscal squish and from the media all go back to their core belief that without Sanford manning the barricades of government at all times, the government will collapse and people will starve, die, and forget how to read and write.

That’s it.

But that did not happen. Life in South Carolina went on. The world did not end. Government did not go off the rails. That the media and politicians would react as they did says more about their world view than anything else.

It is refreshing that Mark Sanford is secure enough in himself and the people of South Carolina that he does not view himself as an indispensable man.

"The world did not end," a defense not unlike nine year old who, upon vaulting themselves off the swing set and over a chain link fence, triumphantly reports that they didn't in fact get hurt. Such a narrow objection says more about the absent perspective.

But Erick Erickson was not (merely) wrong on the narrow facts, which would be unremarkable enough. He was, beyond this, putting the whole cognitive dissonance schematic on display. It's literally a case where circumstance (fortune?) has skimmed off the pretense of factuality but left the coping mechanism.

I glean from this model that the "real" controversy is always the politically motivated rivals who can't get over how great a conservative (insert Republican) is. The controversy additionally reveals some compromising "core belief" belonging to their opponents and its Erick Erickson's job as a blogger set things straight by plumbing the depths of the liberal psyche for these kernels of compromising wisdom.

Critics of Republicans are never merely in need of correction, their context is never in need of adjustment: to make things level, the appetite demands a counter-claim equaling the stature of the original controversy. And so, the very presence of suspicion against a Republican must be symptomatic of a base philosophical defect "proving" the critic out of his depth, or worse.


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