Edge 186 — June 22, 2006
(6,700 words)



LETTER TO MEMBERS OF CONGRESS RE: INTELLIGENT THOUGHT [6.22.06]

[ED. NOTE:] Last week, the sixteen scientists who contributed essays to Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement, wrote a letter that was addressed individually and sent with a copy of the book to every member of Congress. — JB


June 16, 2006

To Members of Congress:

            We, the authors and editor of Intelligent Thought, are sending you a copy of the book in hopes that you will consider its message.  The book is largely about Intelligent Design (ID), the latest incarnation of creationism. ID is a movement that threatens American science education and with it American economic predominance and credibility.
            The recent federal court decision in Dover, Pennsylvania found that ID was not a scientific theory, but a form of religion in disguise.  Judge John Jones III, a churchgoing Republican appointed by President Bush, concluded that teaching this doctrine in the public schools represents both bad education and an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. President Bush’s science advisor, John H. Marburger, has affirmed that ‘evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology’ and ‘intelligent design is not a scientific concept.’  And Newt Gingrich has stated that ID has nothing to do with science and shouldn’t be taught in science courses.’
            Reason and law triumphed in Dover.  But ID and its spinoffs continue to threaten American education by ignoring the massive evidence for evolution—the central principle that unites all the biological sciences— and by substituting adherence to religious dogma for the scientific method.
            Our country cannot afford substandard science teaching. Indeed, a national science test just administered by the Department of Education showed a decade-long erosion of scientific proficiency among American high school seniors.  We won’t cure this problem by questioning scientifically established facts (evolution) and theories (natural selection) and replacing them with unsupported conjectures based on faith. 
            The controversy over ID vs. evolution is not a scientific controversy.  Every scientific body in the US has opposed ID and affirmed the reality of evolution. The “controversy” is about whether sectarian religious views should be taught in the science classroom.  Most theologians readily accept evolution, finding it compatible with their faith.  In 1996, Pope John Paul II officially endorsed evolution, and even with a recent change in Vatican leadership, the Catholic Church’s position has remained unchanged.
            As the world grows more complex, and we face scientific challenges such as addressing global warming, developing sustainable energy sources, and preventing the spread of pandemics, it is critical that America remain in the forefront of science.  And the key to our preeminence is education. The study of evolution has practical benefits:  it is the basis for breeding food crops, choosing animal models that can be used to treat human disorders, conserving species and their habitats, predicting which vaccines should be made to prepare for epidemics like avian flu, and manufacturing those vaccines.  Science education that incorporates unscientific issues like ID is a sure path to America’s failure against competing countries. Conversely, given its importance for biology and for science in general, evolution deserves to be properly taught in American classrooms.
           
            Respectfully yours,

            Scott Atran
                        Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique
                        Paris,
                        Department of Psychology
                        University of Michigan

            John Brockman
                       Publisher and Editor
                        Edge (www.edge.org)
                        New York City
           
            Jerry Coyne
                         Department of Ecology and Evolution
                        The University of Chicago

            Richard Dawkins
                        Oxford University Museum

            Daniel Dennett
                        Center for Cognitive Studies
                        Tufts University
           
            Marc D. Hauser
                        Departments of Psychology and Organismal and Evolutionary Biology
                        Harvard University

            Nicholas Humphrey
                        London School of Economics
                        London, UK

            Stuart Kauffman
                        The Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics
                        The University of Calgary,
                        The Santa Fe Institute
                       Santa Fe, New Mexico

            Seth Lloyd
                        Department of Mechanical Engineering
                        Massachusetts Institute of Techology

            Steven Pinker
                       Department of Psychology
                        Harvard University

            Lisa Randall
                       Department of Physics
                        Harvard University

            Scott Sampson
                        Utah Museum of Natural History and
                        Department of Geology and Geophysics
                        University of Utah

            Neil Shubin
                        Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy
                        The University of Chicago,
                        The Field Museum, Chicago

            Lee Smolin
                       Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics
                        Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

            Frank Sulloway
                       Institute for Personality and Social Research
                        The University of California, Berkeley

            Leonard Susskind
                        Department of Physics
                        Stanford University

            Tim White
                        Department of Integrative Biology and
                        Human Evolution Research Center
                        The University of California at Berkeley



STUART KAUFFMAN

I'm so glad this book has come out and gone to Congress. Of course, the energy behind Intelligent Design is deeper than a debate about evolution. It is, in part, a profound fear among its advocates that without God, values and ethical conduct will find no basis. Even if we inhabit a "nice" universe only by virtue of the Weak Antrhopic principle, the wonders of this, our universe, and co-evolving biosphere invite reverence and stewardship. I hope this will come, some day, to be the received view of many, and serve to quiet the distress of the religious fundamentalists at least on this broad and fundamental front.


SCOTT ATRAN

What an intelligent take on the book by The Orlando Weekly, and I share the sentiments. But there is such a long way to go. I'm just out of Azad Kashmir where there are beheadings galore at the moment (unreported in the press) for political reasons (carried out with the connivance of the Pakistani intelligence services, ISI) but in religion's name (jihadi groups, though officially banned, drive around in vehicles provided by the army).

BTW, here in Pakistan there is no teaching of evolution allowed. And this is America's great ally.



It is vitally important, however, that in these difficult and contentious times the Catholic Church not build a new divide, long ago eradicated, between the scientific method and religious belief. We are writing to you today to request that you clarify once again the Church's position on Evolution and Science, that you reaffirm the remarkable statements of Pope John Paul II and the International Theological Commission, so that it will be clear that Cardinal Schönborn's remarks do not reflect the views of the Holy See.

HOW DO YOU FED-EX THE POPE?
A Talk with Lawrence Krauss

If you woke up on July 7, 2005 to a strange grinding noise, you may have been in the proximity of one of those scientists who were gnashing their teeth over breakfast that morning while reading the New York Times OpEd page essay "Finding Design in Nature" by Christoph Schönborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, and a close colleague of the current Pope. The loudest sounds probably came from a Cleveland suburb where Lawrence Krauss was reading the Cardinal's endorsement of "Intelligent Design" as an alternative theory to the fact of evolution

[more...]


news



[5.4.06]

"I can't fucking believe I'm having to write this."

ARTS&CULTURE
Review of: Intelligent Thought


SCIENCE VS. STUPID
By Jason Ferguson

The worst kind of argument to have is one with someone who Just Doesn't Get It. The debates that find your well-reasoned points countered with the tautological equivalent of "nuh-uh" or "because, that's why" may not make you feel like you lost the argument, but you certainly don't feel like you won, either. Especially when the topic you're disagreeing on isn't even something that should be up for debate.

That's the overriding sense one suspects the writers of the essays in Intelligent Thought were experiencing when they put pen to paper. More than one of them, I'm sure, muttered to himself: "I can't fucking believe I'm having to write this."

...

By elegantly and eloquently explaining the airtight science behind Darwinism (not a theory anymore, by the way, but a scientifically proven fact) and deftly swatting away the distortions and dogma that define ID, Brockman and the other contributors to Intelligent Thought may not end the "debate" with this book, but they've managed to provide an excellent and readable primer on evolution and the power of the scientific method.

[...continue]



[6.26.06]

THE LESSONS OF THE ASHKENAZIM
Groups and Genes

by Steven Pinker

...But pride has always been haunted by fear that public acknowledge of Jewish achievement could fuel the perception of "Jewish domination" of institutions. And any characterization of Jews in biological terms smacks of Nazi pseudoscience about "the Jewish race." A team of scientists from the University of Utah recently strode into this minefield with their article "Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence," which was published online in the Journal of Biosocial Science a year ago, and was soon publicized in The New York Times, The Economist, and on the cover of New York magazine.

The Utah researchers Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending (henceforth CH&H) proposed that Ashkenazi Jews have a genetic advantage in intelligence, and that the advantage arose from natural selection for success in middleman occupations (moneylending, selling, and estate management) during the first millennium of their existence in northern Europe, from about 800 C.E. to 1600 C.E. Since rapid selection of a single trait often brings along deleterious byproducts, this evolutionary history also bequeathed the genetic diseases known to be common among Ashkenazim, such as Tay-Sachs and Gaucher's.

The CH&H study quickly became a target of harsh denunciation and morbid fascination. It raises two questions. How good is the evidence for this audacious hypothesis? And what, if any, are the political and moral implications? (Registration required)

[...continue]


New Books
June 20, 2006

Intelligent designer? No: we have a bungling consistent evolver. Or maybe an adaptive changer. Rather an odd chap, that God... more»



[6.19.06]

Scientists Take on Intelligent Design
By Paul R. Gross

Science journalism is a demanding profession, and the list of its great practitioners is not long. Even shorter, however, is the list of professional scientists who write engaging and accessible prose - who write, in short, excellent popular science. The literary agent for a large subset of that group is John Brockman, himself an author as well as literary entrepreneur. In "Intelligent Thought" (Vintage, 272 pages, $14), he has assembled a set of 16 essays, each responding to the current, anti-evolution Intelligent Design Movement (IDM), and the authors include some of the best-known science writers.

The war (it must be so named) between science and the fundamentalist faith-driven IDM is of a deeply troubling import for science education, and for science itself - thus inevitably for contemporary culture. How serious the implications are has only recently been recognized, probably too late for a reasonable cessation of hostilities. The wake-up call seems to have been national coverage, in all the media, of the "Dover" trial, which ended in December, 2005. In it, the plaintiffs - parents and teachers in the Dover, Penn., school district sought relief from an action of the district's Board of Education, which had in effect mandated the addition of Intelligent Design Theory (so-called) to the public school biology curriculum and classrooms. Presiding over the lengthy trial was U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, III. An extract from his painstaking and scholarly opinion is an appendix to this book. It is perhaps its most immediately valuable contribution. What are these often eloquent essays about, are they needed, and are they helpful?

...

We need this book because its authors have name recognition with the general reading public, because they write well, and because the fight will not end any time soon. Humanity needs to come to grips, sooner rather than later, with its biological meanings, and with the values and anti-values of its religious belief systems. The fight is just beginning. If the real values of religion and spirituality, which include humility before the wonders of nature, are to survive our rising tastes for religious war and destruction, then more than just an elite among us must understand science - and what it yields as description of physical reality through deep time. The more often the small faction of us who read can pause to browse engaging books like "Intelligent Thought," the better is the chance that we can stop the impetus of Homo sapiens toward self-destruction.

[...continue]



[6.17.06]
A Look at the Editorial Changes on Wikipedia
Posted by ScuttleMonkey

prostoalex writes New York Times Technology section this weekend is running an extensive article on Wikipedia and recent changes to the editorial policy. ...

by ryrivard First, it wasn't just the "technology" section, it was on the front page of the National Edition.

Second, Wikipedia is damned in both directions by the media: They are either too open and so all sorts of loonies can post whatever they want. Or, when the close up a bit, they are abandoning their own principles.

Anyone who hasn't read it needs to read DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism by Jaron Lanier [edge.org] and the spirited reply [edge.org]...

[continued...]



Munich [6.16.06]
FEUILLETON —  Seite 11
Digitaler Maoismus
Der Trugschluss des Kollektivismus im Internet
Von Jaron Lanier

(Translation and Introduction by Andrian Krey)
In the early 90's computer scientist and musician Jarnon Lanier was one of the first visionaries of a digital cutlure. He taught computer sciences at Universities like Columbia, Yale and NYU. At the end of the 90's he was leading the work on the academic Internet 2. As a musician he has worked with people like Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman and George Clinton. Jaron lanier has written the following essay 'Digital Maoism' for the series 'Original Edge Essays' for the online forum of the same name (www.edge.org), where the text launched a heated debate about the cultural qualities of the internet with the participation of wikipedia founders Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales, computer expert Esther Dyson and media thinker Douglas Rushkoff.



It is vitally important, however, that in these difficult and contentious times the Catholic Church not build a new divide, long ago eradicated, between the scientific method and religious belief. We are writing to you today to request that you clarify once again the Church's position on Evolution and Science, that you reaffirm the remarkable statements of Pope John Paul II and the International Theological Commission, so that it will be clear that Cardinal Schönborn's remarks do not reflect the views of the Holy See. 

HOW DO YOU FED-EX THE POPE? [6.22.06]
A Talk with Lawrence Krauss

Introduction

If you woke up on July 7, 2005 to a strange grinding noise, you may have been in the proximity of one of those scientists who were gnashing their teeth over breakfast that morning while reading the New York Times OpEd page essay "Finding Design in Nature" by Christoph Schönborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, and a close colleague of the current Pope. The loudest sounds probably came from a Cleveland suburb where Lawrence Krauss was reading the Cardinal's endorsement of "Intelligent Design" as an alternative theory to the fact of evolution.

Krauss, a physicist/cosmologist, at Case Western is an activist with regard to promoting science and rational thought in American schools. He is willing and able to go into the belly of the beast and lecture at conservative and religious colleges and universities where he the presents the case for science. Usually, he says, the response is on of appreciation.

He is the right scientist to take on the task of communicating on an important scientific matter with the Pope as his words and his tone will be such that the letter may have a positive effect.

In the case of Christoph Schönborn's OpEd piece, Krauss decided that something had to be done. He wrote a letter to Pope Benedict with two coauthors, the eminent biologists Francisco Ayala and Kenneth Miller, both devout catholics.

"I knew The Times was planning to write a story on the letter," Krauss says, "so I knew I had to get it to the Pope before the Times ran the story. I discovered that the Pope had an email address, so that was very helpful.  Most of the difficulty in trying to write the hard copy letter was trying to figure out how to address the Pope, both literally and metaphorically — what do I call him? And where do I send the Fed-Ex?" 

"I found what I thought was the right address, and the right salutation, and I got it off in a Fed-Ex box but I realized I forgot to put the attachment in the Fed-Ex box. I went back to the box and waited for the Fed-Ex driver — and had it all made up, new attachments and everything, ready for him, and said, "please let me just put these things in. This is important; it's going to be in the Times tomorrow, it's going to the Pope and it's about evolution".

I quickly found out the Fed-Ex driver was a creationist. We had a long discussion. At the conclusion, I said, "please send it". He replied: "Of course I'll send it. Believe me, I take my job seriously."

JB

LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS, a physicist/cosmologist, is the Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of The Fifth Essence, Quintessence, Fear of Physics, The Physics of Star Trek, Beyond Star Trek, Atom, and Hiding in the Mirror.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS 'S Edge Bio Page


Lawrence M. Krauss
Ambrose Swasey Prof. of Physics and Astronomy
Director, Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics
Dept of Physics, CWRU

July 12, 2005

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
00120 Vatican City

Your Holiness:

In his magnificent letter to the Pontifical Academy in 1996 regarding the subject of Evolution, Pope John Paul II affirmed that scientific rationality and the Church's spiritual commitment to divine purpose and meaning in the Universe were not incompatible.  The Pope accepted that biological Evolution had progressed beyond the hypothetical stage as a guiding principle behind the understanding of the evolution of diverse life forms on Earth, including humans.  At the same time, he rightly recognized that the spiritual significance that one draws from the scientific observations and theory lie outside of the scientific theories themselves.  In this sense, claiming that evolution definitely implies a lack of divinity, and/or divine purpose in nature is as much an affront to science as it is to the Church.

The Holy Father also recognized: "It is important to set proper limits to the understanding of Scripture, excluding any unseasonable interpretations which would make it mean something which it is not intended to mean. In order to mark out the limits of their own proper fields, theologians and those working on the exegesis of the Scripture need to be well informed regarding the results of the latest scientific research. "   Since scientific investigations have repeatedly confirmed evolution by natural selection as a guiding principle for understanding the development of the diversity of life on Earth, theologians who are interested in exploring such questions as human dignity and purpose must take this mechanism into account in their considerations. As he put it, quoting from Leo XIII, truth cannot contradict truth.

These principles were reinforced more recently in explicit statements by the International Theological Commission, headed by you before your election as Pope.  As the Commission document explicitly states, "God is…the cause of causes. "  As a result, "Through the activity of natural causes, God causes to arise those conditions required for the emergence and support of living organisms, and, furthermore, for their reproduction and differentiation. "  Finally, referring to evolution as a "radically contingent materialistic process driven by natural selection and random genetic variation", the commission nevertheless concluded "even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God's providential plan for creation. "

Scientists have been pleased to see a convergence between the views of the Catholic Church and the scientific community on these issues, in particular on the compatibility between the results of scientific investigation and Church theology.  One of us recently wrote an essay in the New York Times, for example (see attached), praising precisely the Church's understanding of the compatibility of scientific investigation and religious belief, even when the process being investigated, like Evolution, appears completely contingent.

This week, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, however, appeared to dangerously redefine the Church's view on Evolution.  In an essay, also published in the New York Times (see attached), he claimed that "Evolution in the Neo-Darwinian sense… is not true".  Moreover, he argued that if divine design was not "overwhelmingly evident" then the associated claims must be viewed as ideology, and not science.   He attacked not only Neo-Darwinism, but also the multiverse hypothesis of modern cosmology, both of which he claimed were "invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science".   Equally worrisome, in his effort to claim a line between the theory of evolution and religious faith, Cardinal Schönborn dismissed the marvelous 1996 message of Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy, calling it "rather vague and unimportant".

It is vitally important, however, that in these difficult and contentious times the Catholic Church not build a new divide, long ago eradicated, between the scientific method and religious belief.   We are writing to you today to request that you clarify once again the Church's position on Evolution and Science, that you reaffirm the remarkable statements of Pope John Paul II and the International Theological Commission, so that it will be clear that Cardinal Schönborn's remarks do not reflect the views of the Holy See. 

We thank you for your consideration to this request, and wish you continued strength and wisdom as you continue to lead the Catholic Church in these difficult times.

Sincerely,

Lawrence Krauss

on behalf of:

Lawrence M. Krauss
(Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics, Professor of Astronomy, and Director, Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics, Case Western Reserve University)

Prof. Francisco Ayala
(University Professor and Donal Bren Professor of Biological Sciences, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science, University of Calfornia, Irvine)

Prof. Kenneth Miller
(Prof of Biology, Brown University)

cc. His Eminence Cardinal Christoph Schönborn,
His Excellency William J. Levada, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith


HOW DO YOU FED-EX THE POPE?

My letter to the Pope was actually the second round. The first piece I wrote caused my wife to say I totally sold out. That piece was for the Times, arguing that science and religion were compatible. I used an example which I is one of the best examples of the relationship between science and religion. It involved Georges-Henri Lemaître, who was a Belgian priest, who was also a cosmologist, a physicist. He was the first to recognize that Einstein's equation had a solution that implied a big bang, which was the beginning of the universe — that really flew in the face of science at the time. Einstein didn't believe it. He came around eventually, but early on he was very vicious in his criticism of Lemaître, and this viciousness with regard to people who disagreed with him was a trait from his youthful days that few people know about.

Lemaître had discovered that you could have a beginning of the universe, and a big bang, and what happened at the time was that Pope Pius picked up on that and wrote this grand letter saying science has finally proven Genesis. And Lemaître wrote the Pope and said, 'Stop saying that': this is a scientific theory, it makes predictions — take from it whatever metaphysical or religious implications you want —take from it that it vindicates the story in Genesis — take from it that there is no God, that you don't need it, that the world works without it — interpret it however you want. But the science, the predictions, are independent of your interpretation of the results!

I thought that was a less-charged example, but still incredibly apt for evolution. Evolutionary biology exists, it happened, and it describes the universe. Whether you take it to mean, as Richard Dawkins might, that there is no God, or, as two religious biologists that I got to sign on my letter to Pope Benedict — that there is a God — it's up to you.

It was an innocuous piece. Nothing much happened from that, I didn't get any hate mail, and the piece disappeared. Then an OpEd piece appeared from Cardinal Schönborn in the New York Times, and I told my wife that I thought it was a response to my piece. And she said to me, "The world doesn't revolve around you". And I said, "you're right, it's crazy".

The next day the Times called and told me that the Cardinal's piece was written in response to your piece, and we're doing a story. I decided, okay, I really need to act here. It's not that I care about what the Catholic Church does, except that I worried that it was like the Lord of the Rings. I didn't want the 'forces of darkness' in some sense to converge. We have these misguided evangelicals in the United States arguing against evolution, and I felt that by showing that the Catholic Church wasn't opposed to evolution, I could point out something very important, which was that you don't have to be an atheist to believe in science. And I do think that's important. I've debated it with Richard Dawkins, in fact.

It was important that misguided but influential evangelicals and misguided but influential Catholics not converge together, because if the Catholic Church appeared to be on side of the evangelicals, it would be a disaster in term of the efforts of those of us who are trying to convince people that science is worth learning.

I studied the Catholic theology, and the International Theological Commission, and wrote the letter. Francisco Ayala, a prominent biologist, who had previously been a priest, signed onto it, along with Ken Miller. a well-known biologist who's also a devout Catholic and who was a key witness against Intelligent Design in the Dover trial. Then I sent it the letter to the Pope. Or, better said, I tried to send the letter. But, how do you Fed-Ex the Pope?

The Times was planning to write a story on the letter so I knew I had to get it to the Pope before the Times ran the story. I discovered that the Pope had an email address, so that was very helpful.  Most of the difficulty in trying to write the hard copy letter was trying to figure out how to address the Pope, both literally and metaphorically — what do I call him? And where do I send the Fed-Ex? 

I found what I thought was the right address, and the right salutation, and I got it off in a Fed-Ex box but I realized I forgot to put the attachment in the Fed-Ex box. I went back to the box and waited for the Fed-Ex driver — and had it all made up, new attachments and everything, ready for him, and said, "please let me just put these things in. This is important; it's going to be in the Times tomorrow, it's going to the Pope and it's about evolution". I quickly found out the Fed-Ex driver was a creationist. We had a long discussion. At the conclusion, I said, "please send it". He replied: "Of course I'll send it. Believe me, I take my job seriously."

The Fed-Ex package is on it's way. Five days later I get a call from Fed-Ex in Italy, saying, we have a Fed-Ex envelope here for Pope Benedict in the Vatican; we can't find this person.

I said, "do you mind if I buy futures in Fed-Ex and then announce that you can't find the Pope in the Vatican?" They thought that was amusing. Two days later Fed-Ex calls saying, we need a street address.

I had a street address, of his palace, and gave it to them.

Two more days go by and I get a call: "we need a phone number". Amazing. Then they told me that the Pope's office had refused the letter.

At the same time, I had been working through colleagues and friends in the Pontifical Academy in the Vatican, to figure out how to formally do this, and, through this channel, I had also sent the letter  to the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. That organization, which Benedict had run, has an illustrious history and a better known name: The Inquisition. And that is the official way to reach the Pope. That Fed-Ex letter went through no problem.

They wouldn't accept the Fed-Ex package at the Pope's office because there's probably a policy for the Pope's office, that they won't accept packages sent directly to the Pope; that they have to go through the proper channels.  I know it arrived before the Times wrote the story about it.

I've been in the Vatican, and it's an interesting place. I was at a meeting at the Pontifical Academy, and I was leaving late at night, and I got locked into the Vatican. The Vatican guard said you have to go underneath the cathedral to get out — there's a tunnel under there. So they take me to this tunnel, and right underneath the cathedral is an ATM machine. I wanted to stop and see if you had to put a card in or not.

In any event, I did have an important reason for writing to the Pope. I felt that it was very important that he validate what the Catholic Church had said under John Paul, which was that they had no problem with evolution. In fact they call it contingent phenomena, by which they mean random mutation, and it's okay with a belief in God. They see God as the 'cause of all causes', as John Paul put it, and therefore God can choose to work through natural selection, and even  'random mutation', or as they put it, contingent phenomena.

That's the point that I tried to explain to Richard Dawkins, when we were up in Buffalo together at a meeting. Dawkins  and I hate to put words in his mouth, but we discussed this) gave a talk in which he said something to the effect that religion is bad science. That's a disastrous thing to say. I totally disagree with it, because it exactly plays into the hands of those people who want to suggest that religion is somehow scientific. He's argued that if people say that life is highly improbable, then God is even more improbable. But that misses the point that God is beyond the bounds of physical law, and you can't use physical law to describe God. That may be, if you're Dawkins, one of the reasons why religion appears so silly, but nevertheless it obviates the whole effort to scientifically estimate probabilities associated with God.

So I wrote the Pope, and I didn't expect the him to write me back. I thought he might write the two Catholic biologists. But more importantly I wanted to provide him the motivation, and the Catholic Church the motivation, to make some public statements.

And they did.

But, I don't know if my request to the Prefect that they burn Cardinal Shoenburn at the stake had any impact.

A key question that we all had is the relationship between Schönburn and the Pope. Schönburn was closely allied to Benedict. And he has gotten more conservative as the Pope rose to prominence in the Church. Was he getting any prodding to do this? This was worrisome, because previous to that the Pope had made statements that were of concern.

He made a statement that the church's actions against Galileo at the time were correct. We were concerned, and I wanted to see if the Pope had changed his views. When he was head of the International Theological Commission, that organization had come out with the statements backing evolution, so it seemed like he was on the right side in that regard. 

But in the end, the good news is that Schönborn has since recanted. The papal newspaper has produced several articles saying that evolution is compatible with the Catholic theology.

It's interesting that Schoenborn's piece was published by The New York Times, which is arguably one of the best newspapers in the country, and most scientists agree it's science reporting both in the daily paper and in "Science Times" is first rate, yet incorrect or silly anti-science too often makes its way onto the other sections of the paper.

This all comes down to the failure of our educational system to provide students with a well-rounded education. I spend a lot of my time when I'm not doing science, talking to people about science, and trying to get them to understand it and be interested in it. One big problem is that most middle school science teachers don't have any science background. Equally serious is the fact that the people that we label as cultural role models, as intellectuals, are proud to proclaim their scientific illiteracy. This is equally important — because you've got all these bright young kids who are looking at role models, and the role models often aren't scientists — are in fact often anti-scientists. And I think that is a huge problem.

For someone like me — what I spend a lot of my time trying to do is bridge — as do you, I know — is to bridge the gap between science and popular culture. Teaching is selling. Writing is selling.  The biggest mistake you make is to assume people are interested in what you have to say. When you assume that, immediately you've lost. What you have to do is reach people where they are. And I believe that is the case with writing as well.

As a working scientist I try and balance my time, and I often wonder if something is worth my time, but I do think that the work I do trying to explain science, or get people excited about science — and also fight off attacks on science, which unfortunately is a greater percentage of my time now than it's ever been before — is perhaps one of the more useful aspects of my time. I do it because someone has to do it. But again, the sad part of it is, I used to spend my time trying to get people interested in science; now in the last 6 or 7 years or decade it's spending more time trying to fight off overt attacks coming from Washington, or from the church, or from misperceptions of religion and science.

And it is very frustrating, because we do such a bad job. The National Academy of Science just produced a document, "The Gathering Storm", and we really desperately need to do a better job.

A couple of decades about I could not have predicted we would be in this situation.  By the same token, I have certainly evolved in my thinking, or certainly in my actions — I believe that it's vitally important, and this is where I disagree with Dawkins as well — and maybe Dennett a little bit — it is vitally important not to needlessly offend certain religious sensibilities in one's writing. There's nonsense theology, and that you should offend. You should offend those people who say the earth is 10,000 years old, because it's not. It's just not. There's no debate, You don't have to try — there's no compromise when it comes to scientific facts like that.

But if we are trying to convince people that science is useful and interesting, we defeat the whole purpose if the very first thing we do is attack their personal beliefs. And if you say, 'you're stupid, now listen to me'. That just doesn't work. You have to recognize that a lot of people, and in fact in this country most people, have for one reason or another, spiritual beliefs. And since I have come to recognize that it is of profound importance that science doesn't often really address questions of purpose and design — I mean ultimately it can — as I often say, if tomorrow night when I look up in the sky I saw the stars suddenly rearranged saying 'I am here', hey, I'd buy design. That's I think a clear example of an empirical test that would suggest that there's design.

But short of those things, if science doesn't find evidence for design — and it certainly hasn't, that's overwhelmingly clear; there's no evidence for design in spite of all this nonsense that is promulgated—but the lack of evidence for design doesn't mean that the world wasn't designed, or that there's no purpose in the universe. Whether you believe that, again, just like LeMaitre, is a philosophical. I tend to see no evidence for design and see no reason that the universe is designed, but that's a personal view.

But I do worry about scientists who take this one step further and say, because there's no evidence for design there was no design, because that is a non-scientific statement. And the minute you're making it, you're getting on the same ground, the same water, as the intelligent design advocates — who are trying to misrepresent science. So we have to be very careful about the fact that science has limits. And as a physicist you have to be more careful. Because the physicists are the most obnoxious and pompous of all the scientists. Why? Because we're the best, of course.

Physicists — especially particle physicists — are dealing with the fundamental stuff — and I grew up in that culture. But we really have to work hard to try not to convey the notion, as we do, often, that science is everything, and if you're not doing science, you're not doing anything useful. Because I think it's self-defeating to do that. There is a natural tendency for scientists to behave this way. I have evolved in my speaking and my writing, from being somewhat controversial on one side, or really provocative, in terms of trying perhaps to put down people, to realizing that to effectively convey information one has to reach people again where they are. If they're coming from a deeply spiritual background, you have to reach and try and understand where they're coming from.  You can write something cute and intelligent and witty, but if you actually want to reach them and convey information you have to recognize where they're coming from.

But you have to go after some people.  Today I will use a quote from Bush in a speech I'm going to give later this morning in Staten Island. If you look at what Bush said, he didn't endorse intelligent design; what he said was, 'I think both sides of the debate should be taught'. Now a priori, unlike most things Bush says, that's not stupid. It would be a correct statement, if indeed there were both sides of the debate. What it represents is a profound misunderstanding of the science that there are two sides. And so what we have to go after them for is not the stupid statement they make, but rather they don't understand the science. What we have to do with those kinds of people is educate them.

But Frist knew better and should be attacked. There are others who should be attacked, and I've thought about writing a piece about this. I made the mistake of going on Hannity and Colmes after Bush made his statement, because of my piece in Times or whatever, I became a poster child for getting on these evening programs.

I agreed to go on against the one of the heads of the Southern Baptist Convention, and — I didn't know much about him, I just went on. And you know the way they work, if he didn't interrupt me when I was trying to make a point, they would. But I came away from this saying that we should respect people of faith who are honest about the faith, and who try and accommodate, obviously, what we know about the world.

But people like this guy at the Southern Baptist Convention — we should go out and attack them, I think, and say to people of faith, 'if you believe in God, you should choose a sect, or a religious group, that doesn't lie!". You should leave the Southern Baptist Convention and join a group whose officials don't lie about and distort science. And I thought, maybe we should attack them in the same way that they're attacking scientists.

What really upset me and really offends me about these people is that they would rather children be ignorant than be exposed to knowledge that might — quote unquote might — weaken their faith. And that attitude of course is the same with the Taliban.

I do believe the greatest threat to our freedom, in a democracy or not in a democracy, is sort of the censorship that controls information. And knowledge, one way or another, breeds freedom. And so for me, to actively promote ignorance is the worst thing you can do.


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