Posts Tagged ‘ken miller’

The seduction of compatibilism

August 24, 2008

Dr. PZ Myers writes about a New York Times article about a science teacher in Florida with the gumption to teach evolution in the face of religious opposition. It’s a fascinating story, highlighting the teacher’s uncertainty of how to teach evolution without alienating the students, and the obstinance on the part of some of the students when faced directly with the evidence. The article also exposes the horrifying degree to which community groups attempt to undermine science education. Mention is made of a pastor who handed out copies of the Answers in Genesis tract “Evolution Exposed” to graduating seniors; the pamphlets, of course, ended up circulating in biology class.

As I will begin teaching a biology class of my own for the first time in a few weeks (gasp!), this stuff is especially terrifying to me.

The Pharyngula post, however, does not deal exclusively with the obstacles thrown in the paths of science educators. Rather, it ravages what Prof. Richard Dawkins has called the “seduction approach:” avoiding any offense of students’ faith by assuring them that evolution is compatible with religion. It certainly seems like a sensible approach. One of the creationists’ most handy tricks is to convince believers that accepting evolution leads to atheism, and is therefore a one-way ticket to hellfire. The most obvious counter to this tactic, it would seem, is to contradict it: evolution does not lead necessarily to atheism. This counterattack has the added benefit of being demonstrably true, as there are numerous religious believers who have no beef with evolution, including the oft-cited biologist and Roman Catholic Ken Miller, and the Pope himself.

Dr. Myers, like Prof. Dawkins, has no time for the compatibilist approach, and for good reason. He writes of the ubiquitous call to respect people’s beliefs in this country, and how that exemption from criticism of religion allows creationists to poison the well against evolution. He calls this “the dark evil gnawing at the heart of the American public,” and continues:

It’s an effective evil, too, since most people cower before it and fear to declare it the bane of public education. Even many who don’t believe are reluctant to call it out — it will antagonize the believers, they say, they won’t accept the all-important proximate message of science if we alienate them from their precious myths and superstitions. So we continue this game of science proponents edging delicately around the central issue while the advocates of religion feel no constraint at all, and attack reason by hammering our children with unrepentant, unapologetic lunacy.

Because religion is exempt from criticism, creationists are allowed to preach their ascientific rubbish to our children without rebuke, while those trying to teach good science come under fire. Dr. Myers holds, and I emphatically agree, that it’s time for the critical curtain to fall. Religious claims must be subject to the same rigorous scrutiny that we bring to bear on all other ideas, be they scientific, economic, political, etc. Then, and only then, will creationism die its deserved death, as alchemy and geocentrism have already done.


Ken Miller on Expelled

May 8, 2008

The Boston Globe today printed a column by evolutionary biologist Ken Miller about everyone’s favorite propagandist mockumentary, which I’m sure by now needs neither naming nor linkage. The article feels a little late to me, probably because most of the points Dr. Miller raises have been covered by countless bloggers before. The column makes one important point, however, which is why I bring it up:

Science is under attack in the US.

This much is what I, for one, keep forgetting. Expelled will have very little effect on people knowledgeable in science, but for those who don’t know either way, the effect could be devastating. The film could turn a good part of the US population against science, could convince them that science is a club of elitists who smack down anybody with a dissenting idea. It’s important that we not lose sight of the film’s potential power.

This reminded me of an interview between the people behind Skeptic Magazine’s podcast and Michael Shermer. Shermer went against the typical line on the movie, saying that it was very well-made for its purpose. It had exactly the desired effect on its intended audience, eliciting both laughter and horror in the appropriate places. It is a dangerous piece of propaganda, because it appeals directly to most Americans’ sense of fairness, and to their (our) fears. It also plays to their religion, by trying to tie evolution up with atheism. Dr. Miller, as a devout Catholic, stands as a handy refutation of that particular line of argument.

In any case, I have a lot of respect for Ken Miller. His performance in the Dover trial was brilliant, the article linked above was inspiring (and scary), and I’m off to find more from him. I hear he has a book coming out next month.