Monday, July 20, 2009

Raining on Other Writers' Parades

Josh Rosenau wonders why people who write books about evolution are both critical of a book lamenting the state of U.S. science education. PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne are both critical of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, despite agreeing with the premise. He writes:

I find it odd that the author of a book intended to bring already published information to a new audience would criticize another author for publishing material already available in the technical literature in a way more accessible to the general public.

I find it doubly odd that PZ would echo this criticism. Not only did PZ rise to fame by rendering the technical literature in developmental biology accessible to those outside his field (adding not argument, but clarity), he is now famous for plowing the fields of atheism with arguments not dissimilar to those already made famous by recent writers Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, Vic Stenger, etc. He is (I believe) writing yet another book in that vein. It is a well-worked vein, with works touting evolution as an attack on theism dating back to Darwin's day, and no discernibly novel arguments in these popular atheist writings since that time. As one student of the field writes: "There's really only a handful of arguments for atheism in the first place."
This kind of squabbling is not helpful at a time when it is becoming clear that the average person knows little about science, even less about biology and next to nothing about evolution. That is exactly the way that groups like the Discovery Institute, the Institute for Creation Research, and Answers in Genesis want it. Why are we trying to help them? A book that is well-written and sourced that is supportive of evolution should be trumpeted.

Furthermore, I have no sympathy for arguments for atheism by evolutionary biologists in the first place. All they do is cement in the eyes of the general public the already perceived link between evolution and atheism. This just makes it harder for everyone concerned who think that evolution and faith can coexist.

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  1. Arguing for the link between evolution and atheism is no worse than arguing for the compatibility between evolution and faith. To me the real public disservice comes when a scientist from either attempts to make his link without making it clear that he's not speaking as a scientist, but merely as an interested citizen.

  2. I heartily agree. One of my favorite books is Science Held Hostage by Howard van Till, Davis Young and Clarence Menninga, who argue that using science to try to support theological constructs in a bad idea in any case. Faith is what it is. You either believe in God or you don't. The problem is that, since the DI is having such a field day linking evolution with Hitler and other malarkey like that, it does not help that writers like PZ Myers roll up all Christians into a ball and say, "look at those idiots."