PZ Meyers and Guillermo Gonzalez

It’s not that I’m in love with Gonzalez, tenure or Intelligent Design; it’s just that this is the only topic that drives up hits to my pretend blog. So here we go:

Even though PZ Meyers and I agree on all the substantial facts about the world, we disagree about the interpretation of those facts. I think religion in general and intelligent design specifically are wrong but not irrational. But I’m a Neville Chamberlain atheist.

But Meyers’ new comments on the Gonzalez case show why I think humility is important; it keeps basic mistakes at bay. There’s some double-quoting going on (from a Nature article on the case), and for that I apologize.

First Meyers quotes from the original article:

Gonzalez, who has been at Iowa State in Ames since 2001, was denied tenure on 9 March. He is now appealing the decision on the grounds that his religious belief, not the quality of his science, was the basis for turning down his application. “I’m concerned my views on intelligent design were a factor,” he says.

Meyers’ response:

His “views on intelligent design” were his “religious belief”? OK, that’s good enough for me. No tenure.

Of course, from the quote it’s unclear whether the words “religious belief” are Gonzalez’ own our are interpolations by the writer. Can Meyers even pretend to be unbiased if he bases his “no tenure” pronouncement on a grammatical ambiguity?

Of course, Meyers doesn’t even pretend to be unbiased. And, as I’ve mentioned before, that makes it difficult to make the case that science — as a value-free inquiry into the structure of nature — should have pride-of-place in public life and public policy. If science is intrinsically anti-religion, many people will happily jettison science and keep their faith. The world will be worse for it. But science isn’t intrinsically anti-religion, only certain scientists are.

Second mistake belongs to someone quoted in the Nature article:

But Park says that a researcher’s views on intelligent design cannot be divorced from the tenure decision. Anyone who believes that an intelligent force set the Earth’s location doesn’t understand probability’s role in the Universe, Park argues. Such a person is hardly qualified to teach others about the scientific method. “We’re entrusting the minds of our students to this person,” he says.

That Meyers quotes this can be taken as an endorsement, so my criticism applies to him by association. To say that intelligent design proponents ‘misunderstand’ the role of probability in the Universe is to confuse the two kinds of probability: objective, frequency-distribution probability versus epistemic, degree-of-belief probability. We don’t know with certainty that the Universe is random rather than designed. Rather, given our epistemic situation, we assign a very high probability to the randomness of the Universe. But the kind and structure of the Universe predicted by design proponents exactly matches the kind of Universe we do in fact see around us. So it’s not that Gonzalez “doesn’t understand probability’s role in the Universe”; it’s that Gonzalez disagrees with the prevailing orthodoxy about the probability that the Universe is random. To say otherwise is itself a mistake; it is to assign a probability of 0 to a possibility which can only be absolutely excluded on non-scientific grounds.

But, in Meyers defense, he does end by quoting this paragraph from the nature article:

Eli Rosenberg, who chairs Iowa State’s physics department, concedes that Gonzalez’s belief in intelligent design did come up during the tenure process. “I’d be a fool if I said it was not [discussed],” he says. But, he adds, “intelligent design was not a major or even a big factor in this decision.” Four of twelve tenure candidates have been turned down in the past decade, he says. “We are a fairly hard-nosed department.”

If this is so, then everything is hunky-dory; it means there is nothing to see here and and everyone — from Meyers to the Discovery Institute — should be quiet and move along. To say that it is good that Gonzalez was denied tenure — simply because he believes something outside the political mainstream — is itself a wholly political claim that goes against the norms of scientific practice. And it makes Gonzalez an ally and martyr for our real enemies: the non-scientific, wholly political and dishonest ID proponents like the Discovery Institute.

I want to briefly expand that last point and then I’ll stop ranting: we pro-science Darwinians should be trying to drive a wedge between smart people like Gonzalez and the intellectually vacant Discovery Institute contingent. Sometimes the religion versus science debate is framed in terms of reason versus superstition. I think it should be seen in terms of those who think knowledge should reflect truth and those who think it should be a hand-maiden to politics. If Gonzalez is as smart a scientist as his co-workers say he is, is seems to me he should be embraced by our side rather than forced into the arms of the enemy. Even though they disagree about what the truth will likely turn ought to be, Gonzalez, Meyers and Dawkins all probably have more in common with each other about the methods used to find it than Gonzalez has in common with the post-modern, anti-science vultures in the Discovery Institute.

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