a blog by josef johann

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.