Today on Rational Hub, we have Dr. Eugenie Scott, Executive Director at NCSE, who was kind enough to give us an interview despite her busy schedule. One of the most popular critics of Creationism and advocates teaching of evolution in the public schools, she is also the author of various books, including Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction and Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools.
Thanks a lot for the interview Genie!
1. Despite the battle of NCSE and other organization against creationism and ID, a good portion of people still believe in ID & creationism in America. What do you think is the reason behind this?
The US has a more religiously-conservative form of Christianity than Europe and the UK. About one-third of Americans identify themselves as conservative Christians, and this explains the bulk of creationists of the traditional, young-Earth type and ID proponents. But more people reject evolution than is explained solely by the proportion of conservative Christians: it runs to about ½ of Americans. So there’s a portion of mainstream Christians who reject evolution, too – although they needn’t for theological reasons. For them it’s other issues like not human exceptionalism, which doesn’t have to be religiously based, though it often is. If you understand more about how much humans are linked with all other forms of life, human exceptionalism is less easy to support. So I’d say part of the reason for belief in creationism and ID is a lack of understanding of science. More moderate Christians often can be persuaded to change their minds about evolution depending on how it is presented.
2. Evolutionary biology is an extremely vast and complex field, which biologists themselves find hard to have a good grasp of. Doesn’t that make it hard to communicate evolution to the lay public?
The details of evolution can be complex indeed, but the basic idea, that living things share common ancestry, isn’t all that complicated. Evolution is poorly taught both in high school and at the university, so I am not surprised the public doesn’t understand it very well.
3. Do you think the educational system has failed in nurturing skepticism and critical thinking in children?
I think the K-12 curriculum is crammed with so many things that teachers are forced to choose what to teach and what to omit. Something like critical thinking takes a lot of time to teach, and if a teacher is being judged by how well kids do on a standardized test consisting mostly of recall of facts, critical thinking is going to get low priority. That’s definitely a failure of the educational system.
4. A study (Guillermo et. al, 2009) showed that, surprisingly, 45% of biology non-majors and 32% of majors were for teaching creationism, and intelligent design along with evolution in classes. Do you think the whole – “teaching both side of the debate” is feasible, letting students themselves figure out that ID/creationism is hogwash?
These statistics reflect the ever-popular “fairness” argument. Even some teachers who think that creationism is junk science sometimes propose that it be taught, out of a sense of “fairness” and “balance”. But “teaching both sides” isn’t practical, and definitely not advisable at the K-12 level. At the university level, it’s possible to present evolution and creationist arguments, which primarily are “evidence against evolution” (which they view as “evidence for creationism”). To do it right requires the professor to be sure students have a lot of background in a wide range of topics: geology, stratigraphy, radiometric dating, paleontology, genetics, developmental biology, biochemistry… the list goes on. How much time is that going to take, and what else in the course is going to have to be skipped? A whole course on the subject could do it, but there aren’t that many courses like that being offered.
5. Why has NCSE been quite silent on issues like anti-vaccine movement? Don’t you think they are serious issues that need to be addressed, just as climate change denialism?
There are lots of important issues! We could add the anti-GMO issue, or the use of nuclear energy – there are lots of issues where people on one side or another misunderstand the science. We are a small organization. We have to pick our battles. We picked climate change because of its importance but also because of the parallels to anti-evolutionism.
6. Now a bit on accommodationism. You adopt an accommodationist stance on the compatibility between religion and science. But isn’t a belief in concepts like say – god intervening and guiding evolution, a violation of methodological naturalism? Why is that not a scientific claim?
That’s too broad. It is empirically demonstrable that some religious views are compatible with science, because there are people who profess them. Some religious views are not compatible with science, so you can’t say there is “compatibility between religion and science” without being more specific. Methodological naturalism is the practice of restricting oneself to only natural explanations while doing science. If one believes that God interferes in nature, that’s fine (it’s freedom of religion). If one believes that God interferes in nature, or that evolution is guided, and uses that as part of a scientific explanation, THAT violates methodological naturalism. But I know religious scientists who scrupulously keep the supernatural out of their research, which attempts to understand and explain how nature works, while still believing – from a religious standpoint – that there is an overarching purpose to the Universe, there is cosmic meaning to life, etc.
7. You have also maintained that the concept of supernatural is beyond the realms of science. But wouldn’t that be demonstrably untrue, when it comes to, say faith healing, for instance?
You mean if faith healing were shown to work? Even so, there could be some other reason why the prayed-for had better outcomes – some variable that was being overlooked. Basically the problem is that there is no way to hold constant the behavior of an omnipotent power, and holding constant certain variables is what constitutes a traditional test or experiment. Tests of intercessory prayer are fundamentally misguided. Believers set them up to try to prove that prayer works, and any well-designed study comes up with negative results. Skeptics set them up to try to prove that prayer does NOT work, and if they design their study well, results are negative. Does this prove that intercessory prayer does not work? No. If there is an omnipotent God, who says he has to obey your research design? An omnipotent God could decide THIS TIME not to intervene, although he usually does. And you can come up with lots of other explanations for why negative results occurred. Not that they are good explanations! But I’m still waiting for someone to give me an example of how you can hold constant an omnipotent power.
8. Another criticism of NCSE is its active endorsement of theistic evolution. Do you think it’s healthy to endorse such positions in combating ID/creationism?
Where did you get the idea NCSE actively endorses theistic evolution? We actively endorse appreciation of science. If a religious person shares these goals, we can endorse them together. That’s not the same as endorsing that person’s religious position. Besides, what version theistic evolution should we “endorse”?
9. What is the most rewarding aspect of your career?
Hearing from the teachers and other citizens who tell us how much NCSE has helped them.
10. Were you ever religious before? How did you come to be an atheist?
I was raised in a liberal Protestant tradition, so I was not scarred by religion. By the time I got to university, religion didn’t speak to me anymore.
11. Our belated congrats for winning the Richard Dawkins award this year. But it’s quite amusing to think that you’ve won both RD award and SJ Gould award, isn’t it?
It just shows that I can get along with just about anybody!