Sunday, March 23, 2008

PZ Myers, ID nonsense, and the larger context

If you follow any science blogs, you have probably heard about the expulsion of evolutionary biologist, P.Z. Myers from the special screening of Intelligent Design movie Expelled! (yes, yes, everyone has already noted the irony). And the fact that his guest, Richard Dawkins, managed to get in unnoticed. Heck, even the New York Times is tickled by it:

The movie the two scientists wanted to see was “Expelled,” whose online trailer asserts that people in academia who see evidence of supernatural intelligence in biological processes — an idea called “intelligent design” — have unfairly lost their jobs, been denied tenure or suffered other penalties as part of a scientific conspiracy to keep God out of the nation’s laboratories and classrooms.

Dr. Myers asserts that he was unfairly barred from the film, in which both he and Dr. Dawkins appear, and that Dr. Dawkins would have been, too, if people running the screening had realized who he was — a world leader in the field of evolutionary biology.

Read the full article here, and here is P.Z. Myers' take on this incident and the New York Times article.

But wait. Thanks to this electronic age, you can also see Dawkins and PZ Myers talking about the incident:

All of this is well and good. But what does it do to the larger issue of science & religion debate? From the segments I have seen of the film and what I have gathered from Ben Stein's interviews, there is not much of intellectual value in the movie. But the creators of the film would probably love some controversy. The coverage in national newspapers, even for something idiotic, will be welcoming. So its tricky to cover this issue.

On another related thread, Matthew Nisbet at Framing Science, is of the opinion that this PZ Myers Affair is really bad for science. He also refers to the following segment from the film:

Here is Nisbet on the clip:

If you haven't seen this clip yet, above is a preview of the central message on how "Big Science" views religion in the documentary Expelled. There's little work needed on the part of the producers, since the message is spelled out via the interviews provided by PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins.

Notice the very clear translation for audiences as to what supposedly establishment science believes:

A) Learning about science makes you an atheist, it "kills off" religious faith.

B) If we boost science literacy in society, it will lead to erosion of religion, as religion fades away, we will get more and more science, and less and less religion.

C) Religion is a fairy tale, similar to hobgoblins, a fantasy, and even evil.

The simplistic and unscientific claim that more knowledge leads to less religion might be the particular delusion of Dawkins, Myers, and many others, but it is by no means the official position of science, though they often implicitly claim to speak for science. Nor does it stand up to mounds of empirical evidence about the complex relationship between science literacy and public perceptions.

I think he is right about the problems associated with this position. In this particular instant, both scientists and creationists agree that evolutionary ideas necessarily lead to atheism - and this is a bad way to sell evolution (and this is an unscientific claims). However, Dawkins, Myers, and Atkins were mislead about the intentions of the film when they were interviewed. So they did not take the mantle of representing science themselves (at least in this instance). It is ok if they take this position on evolution - but I think other scientists who disagree with their interpretation should speak up about it. I have also been thinking about this problem for Muslim countries - as any link to atheism will lead to a rejection of evolution, without getting a fair hearing. For the time being, the emphasis should be on (methodological) naturalism - and leave atheism (philosophical naturalism) for open interpretation. But we should be prepared to say that philosophical naturalism is a matter of opinion/belief/interpretation, and not an empirical result. More on this later.