Say anything

James Hannam re-states his case in a comment on It’s not a majority vote issue.

[L]ooking back, a clear lesson seems to be that the accommodationists got things done. So even if Coyne and Myers are right (and of course, I don’t think they are) about the incompatibility of religion and evolution, prior experience suggests that they should nonetheless respect differences and even hold their noses for the good of science. No one would expect them to hide their views. But at the moment, they give the impression that they are partisans for atheism rather than for evolution.

The first question is: what things did accommodationists get done, and what connection did the accommodationism have with the getting things done? What exactly is the claim here? That accommodationists got things done that they would not have gotten done if they had not been accommodationists? And that the things they got done were more important or valuable than any other things they might have gotten done if they had not been accommodationists? In other words, there are a lot of variables here, and a lot of counter-factuals, and it’s simply not clear that ‘the accommodationists got things done’ says anything as clear-cut or useful as Hannam thinks it does (or rather, perhaps, hopes it does). In other other words it’s a very loose, vague claim, which does not justify that ‘So’ in the next sentence. No, prior experience does not suggest that they should ‘respect differences,’ much less that they should ‘hold their noses for the good of science’ – which in this context has to mean ‘hold their noses and conceal what they take to be the truth for the good of science.’

Of course, one can’t make one’s whole case every time one says anything – but one can avoid making large empty claims such as ‘the accommodationists got things done’ in order to back up a further claim that scientists should conceal what they take to be the truth. One can be more careful than that.

Here’s the problem: You have a group of people who reject evolution because of their religious beliefs. You have a mission to educate these people. Do you:

a) explain that many of their learned co-believers have thought carefully about this issue and don’t think there is a contradiction;
b) say nothing to these people and let the likes of Coyne, Dawkins and Myers convince them that they are right to be scared through other channels.

Now, if you care about evolution, this looks like a no-brainer to me.

Well, that’s because you haven’t thought about it carefully enough. One, the ‘mission to educate these people’ is not the only mission. There are a lot of ‘missions’ in play; educating people who reject evolution because of their religious beliefs is only one of them; it is not self-evident that that one ‘mission’ should trump all the others; it is in any case not self-evident that the only or best way to ‘educate these people’ is by concealing what one takes to be the truth.

Two, a) and b) represent a false dilemma. There are (as so often) more than two possibilities here, and a) and b) are very crude tendentious versions even of the two possibilities they purport to represent. One can, for instance, do a) and do other things too, one of which would be to explain why there is a contradiction, or, if you want to hedge, why many other people think there is a contradiction.

There is a whole range of possibilities, and narrowing it down to 1) talk soothing communitarian wool about what lots of learned people have thought or 2) let those pesky fundamentalist atheists scare everyone into church school, is neither productive nor interesting.

The fundamental blankness behind this way of arguing seems to be a complete blindness to the fact that some people prefer trying to get at the truth to trying to manipulate other people. Over and over we keep coming back to this ‘whatever you think the truth is, you should say that science and religion are perfectly compatible, for purely instrumental short-term reasons’ idea. It’s depressing. It’s tawdry. It’s as if all of life were an endless US presidential campaign, where the only goal is to win and no lie is too gross if only it might win West Virginia.

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