A response to Jerry Coyne

by Quinn O'Neill

Last Monday I posted a piece that compared two approaches to protecting the science curriculum from corruption by creationists. The first entailed promoting debate, providing facts and arguments, and appealing to reason, and the second, ridiculing and mocking religious people's beliefs in face-to-face interaction. For many moral people, the less hurtful choice is intuitive, but I argued for the more civil option based on its better evidentiary support and its less risky nature.

At the Reason Rally held last month in Washington, DC, Richard Dawkins advocated displays of contempt and ridicule for religion. It isn’t clear exactly what he had in mind. When he said “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!” maybe he meant “Question them! Challenge them! Where appropriate!” As far as the effects of his actions are concerned, however, what he meant is less important than how it's received and put into practice. With the recent passing of an anti-evolution bill in Tennessee and Dawkins's association with Darwinism, I questioned what effects his increasingly hostile anti-theism might have on public attitudes toward evolution and anti-evolution bills.

Jerry_Coyne,_American_professor_of_biology_at_the_University_of_ChicagoJerry Coyne at his blog Why Evolution is True responded to my piece. Coyne begins by defending Dawkins’s remarks, insisting that he meant for us to mock religious people’s ideas and not the people themselves. Coyne considers the distinction between people and their ideas to be important, but apparently only when it comes to theists. He accuses me of “dissing Dawkins” when I question his advocacy for contempt and ridicule.

If Coyne objects to ridiculing people, it didn’t stop him from portraying Robert Wright as an annoying and humorless “faitheist” in his response to Wright’s piece in The Atlantic. Coyne wrote:

“And it doesn’t help that he seems to totally lack a sense of humor. Once Wright sat next to me at a meeting in Mexico, determined to get me to admit that I had unfairly maligned him in my review of his book, The Evolution of God. I was so shaken by his relentlessness that I approached Dan Dennett afterwards and asked him for a hug.”

Coyne, who’s traumatized by insistent, yet undoubtedly civil, criticism of his own ideas nevertheless defends ridicule and mockery when dealing with religious people. I haven’t read Wright’s book, so I can’t comment on the accusation that Coyne misrepresented his views, but I will say that he misrepresented mine. He writes:

“If Quinn wouldn’t mind, I’d love her to give evidence for her statement that criticizing religious views is much less effective than coddling the faithful in bringing acceptance of evolution.”

I’d like Coyne to provide some evidence that I said this.

I chose my words carefully. When I said ridicule, I didn’t mean critiquing or challenging people’s viewpoints, as Coyne would have readers believe. And there’s a difference between saying there’s better evidence for the effectiveness of a given approach and saying there’s evidence that the approach is more effective. My argument was the former.

Rather than address my arguments, Coyne distorted my position and rationalized ridicule with a trove of anecdotes that mostly don’t support his case. I made it clear that I consider Dawkins’ book The God Delusion to constitute an appeal to reason more so than an example of ridicule. I think its persuasive power lies in the logic of its arguments. I’ve counted the conversion stories of “converts corner”, which most commonly credit The God Delusion, as evidence in support of my position:

“Whether we’re talking about religion or acceptance of evolution, I think both the influence of The God Delusion and the success of Coyne’s class provide some pretty convincing evidence that facts and arguments, appeals to reason, and debate can change people’s minds.”

Coyne accuses me of ignoring these conversion stories. He complains:

“I keep pointing people to Dawkins’s “Converts corner,” in which people testify to a Dawkins-induced conversion, and accommodationists keep ignoring it, saying that it’s only anecdotal evidence.”

It is only anecdotal evidence, but I counted it anyway.

He refuses to consider the possibility that some people may have accepted evolution based on their realization that it’s compatible with their faith. He says “I haven’t seen a single anecdote in which an evolution-denier finally accepted evolution after an accommodationist convinced them that Jesus and Darwin were friends.” That’s probably because he hasn't looked. Curious, I typed “I used to be a creationist” into my handy google search bar and spent a few minutes sifting through what came up. I found too many examples to reproduce here, but here’s an exerpt from the blog Forty-Two:

“I’m still a Christian, but I can no longer accept the Creationist claims. I owe this change-of mind to two books: Language of God by Francis S. Collins and Only a Theory by Kenneth R. Miller. These books showed me that one can believe in Evolution, and still be a Christian. For anyone on the fence, these are great books to start with…”

One commenter at the website RationalSkepticism.org described how his views changed gradually over time:

“I used to be a creationist, then I was an intelligent design/old earth creationist, then I was a day age gap theorist with some evolutionary concepts, then I finally understood what evolution was and then I became an evolutionist. But did this affect the way I viewed God? Nope.”

Coyne reminds us that religious beliefs are the most common reason for rejection of evolution, but forgets that most people who accept evolution hold religious beliefs. There are more than twice as many Americans who accept a theistic version of evolution than an atheistic one. Theistic evolution may not be fully scientific, but its proponents aren’t threatening the science curriculum. But I digress.

I’m not advocating accommodationism, as Coyne claims. I don’t believe that science and religion, as worldviews, are compatible and I don’t believe that evolution is logically compatible with theism. However, if the aim is to ensure that evolution is taught effectively in schools, telling people that it contradicts their entire belief system is a tactical blunder. Acknowledging this is just honest.

Evolution education is vital to many things that most of us value, regardless of our views on religion. The biological sciences have enriched our lives through advances in agriculture and medicine and they depend heavily on an understanding of evolution. Major science organizations consider evolution to be a fundamental, unifying concept that ties together much of biology. As the oft-quoted Theodosius Dobzhansky put it “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Maybe the compatibility or incompatibility of evolution and theism isn’t our only useful talking point.

Coyne says:

“Quinn doesn’t realize that the goal of people like Dawkins, P. Z. Myers, and myself is not simply to get students to accept evolution. It’s to weaken those forms of uncritical thought, born of superstitition, dogma, and revelation, that create many worse harms than teaching creationism in the public schools.”

Actually I do realize this. I wrote in my last post that “I doubt that keeping creationism out of the science curriculum is [Dawkins's] primary objective. He seems to be more concerned with eradicating religion.” My goal isn't simply to get students to accept evolution either, it's also to promote critical thinking. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is through education.

Science education is a vital force in teaching people how to think scientifically, how to evaluate information from different sources, weigh evidence, and make informed decisions. These skills are critical not only to understanding science, but to making sense of issues like climate change and vaccination, which shouldn't be controversial, even in the public sphere. Formal education, when it’s done well, is a potent antidote to irrational and anti-science thinking because of its organized, systematic nature and it’s ability to hone reasoning skills during formative years.

Science education holds the only real hope that the next generation will be able to solve some of the serious problems facing us. Our survival has never depended on science and technology more, and with fundamentalists waging sustained attacks on a cornerstone of science education, it’s disappointing and somewhat ironic that some of reason’s most passionate champions endorse a risky tactic with weak evidentiary support.

In my last post, I proposed a way of addressing creationism without teaching it. This would involve creating a booklet that would contain an evolution vs creationism debate, deconstructions of common evolutionary misconceptions, and a brief section on the nature of science. As I wrote,

“I would have copies in science classrooms and school libraries. Teachers could mention the resource to students and encourage them to read it but still refrain from discussing religion in the classroom. It would be a supplemental curriculum resource not intended to replace coverage of evolution in the curriculum.”

Coyne gives various reasons why it wouldn’t work. He says “It wouldn’t work without a monitor to guide discussion” and he asks “Do we really want to waste time in biology classes with a long segment on intelligent design?” My intention is to reduce or eliminate discussion of creationism in class.

Berkman and Plutzer reported in Science last year that 60% of high school biology teachers are neither strong advocates for evolution nor endorsers of unscientific alternatives. Their data showed that these teachers want to avoid controversy, and the proposed resource might help them do this. Teachers could explain to students “We’re going to stick to evolution in class as the curriculum dictates. There’s a resource in the library that you can read if you’re interested in other perspectives.” It could also contain suggestions for further reading, including books and websites. Coyne mentions some that would be great, like TalkOrigins.

Ideally, I’d like to see the kind of debate that Coyne did in his class (described previously) replicated in pre-college level classrooms, but this would require skilled instructors who have a solid grasp of evolution and who are well versed in creationist arguments. Though there are many excellent teachers, the sort that this exercise calls for may be in short supply. What I’m proposing is, I think, as close as we could come without actually opening the door to discussion of creationism (or ID) in classrooms.

Participating in a debate would probably be more effective, but even watching or reading one can have an impact. A good example is the Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. Though a few of the 2100+ audience members had a chance to ask questions, most were merely spectators. Still, more than a third were swayed against the motion.

There are currently good resources available to supplement evolution education, but I think what I proposed would have a few advantages. A debate with strong representation for each side seems fairer than referring students to resources that offer only a scientific perspective on creationist claims. Additionally, the participation or endorsement of a major science organization might lend the resource credibility and improve its reception.

I previously suggested that representation from the Discovery Institute might work for the anti-evolution side of the debate. Coyne makes the very good point that ID is only one aspect of creationism and there are many varieties. I don’t know how the best representative might be decided, but I’m not sure how important this is either. Perhaps having some creationist students’ views represented would be better than not addressing any.

What I’ve proposed is quite modest. From the perspective of those endorsing ridicule as a tactic, it might seem pretty tame. Less aggressive ambassadors of evolution might see the resource as something they could recommend to creationist friends or colleagues. Some groups, like the NCSE, which have been fighting demands to “teach the controversy” for a while, may see it as a bold move. It's just an idea, but with anti-evolution bills still popping up 87 years after the Scopes trial, maybe it’s time to try something new.

Photo of Jerry Coyne from Wikipedia.