Jason Rosenhouse takes a level-headed look at a brewing coynetreversy (a coynetroversy, like the verb, to coyne, involves adding heat, not light, while casting maximal aspersions, ideally to create a controversy where none need exist). Jason explains the situation:
Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers (here and here respectively) have taken note of a session at the upcoming AAAS Annual Meeting entitled: Evangelicals, Science, and Policy: Toward a Constructive Engagement. They object to this intrusion of religion into a science meeting. In the comments to their posts, Nick Matzke has been gamely trying to defend the session.
Coyne objects for various reasons, which I won’t try to catalog in detail. It hardly seems worth it, since he seems disinclined to respond to substantive responses to his pieces. (In the time since my replies were posted, he did bestir himself to write several posts reacting to an earlier, snarky piece, in which he expresses outrage that I’d be snarky and mean to him, rather than engaging with his ideas thoughtfully and nicely. If all he engages is the snark, what’s the incentive to reply with anything else?)
Briefly, then: He repeats that he doesn’t want AAAS engaging with religion at all, as if AAAS were only a science society, rather than a society dedicated to “Advancing science, serving society,” and as if it were possible to talk about science in a broadly religious society without at least passing reference to the ways religion and science interact. He complains that AAAS CEO Alan Leshner used “advancement” in an essay, rather than “advance”: “The longer word is pompous and grating,” he complains, perhaps not noticing that the longer word is also part of AAAS’s name. He makes a point of decrying the use of AAAS members dues and donations for this panel (immediately adding that he doesn’t know what the panel costs, how it’s funded, etc.); aside from the opportunity cost of having that panel (not some other) in that room, I’d guess there’s no significant expenditure of membership dues (AAAS doesn’t pay participants except by comping their registration, the room would be rented for the weekend no matter what the panels it in might be, and the cost of the space is probably covered largely by registration fees, exhibitor fees, and program advertising). He objects that none of the panelists are confrontationalists. He doesn’t agree with the panel abstract or the abstracts offered by the individual panelists.
PZ generally endorses Coyne’s critique of the panel, then sketches out the sort of panel that he’d like to see instead. We’ll get back to this.
Jason scores the pros and cons of the panel, and can’t fully back the Coyne/PZ critique. Looking at the abstract:
I have no problem with a session based on this theme, thought some of it sounds very naive to me. I don’t think a failure to appreciate each other’s concerns is really a big factor in the tension between science and evangelical Christianity. The tension exists because they are genuinely at odds, and all the talking in the world will not change that. The engagement between scientists and evangelicals on climate change has been interesting, but I suspect its impact has been grossly overstated. And on issues like evolution and stem cell research I wonder if evangelical opinion is quite as pliable as is suggested here. Still, I don’t think this description sounds like an unreasonable mixing of science and religion.
He has some concerns about the details of the abstracts for some of the presenters, but I’ll note that those abstracts exist only on the web, and I’ve never looked at them in deciding which panel to attend at AAAS, so I wouldn’t put much weight on them. Jason and I also have a longstanding disagreement about whether science and religion are “genuinely at odds, and all the talking in the world won’t change that,” or if there might be ways to find a happier co-existence, but I’d think a panel like this could be a pretty good way to advance that discussion, as well as others of relevance to the AAAS audience, which is roughly equal parts scientists, journalists, and science policy makers/analysts.
One quibble I’ll make with Jason’s post is his title: “Religion at the AAAS Meeting.” For all the discussion of the panel on evangelicals, I’ve seen no mention of the panel I helped organize: The Challenge of Teaching Evolution in the Islamic World. Alas, that weekend is the same weekend as a family wedding, so I’ll be skipping the conference and the panel I was supposed to moderate. However, the discussion between NCSE’s Genie Scott, Taner Edis, Salman Hameed, and Jason Wiles should be informative and engaging, and could well get to some of the same issues around engagement between science and religious communities that the panel on evangelicals will, though obviously in a global context and with respect to a different religion. Nor do I see mention of the panel on using science and science education as tools of engagement with the Islamic world (if a reader plans to attend, please bring up the issues I raised here regarding science and secularism in the new Egypt). To treat the panel on evangelicals as the only panel addressing religion would be wrong.
On top of the reasons Jason gives for his mostly-positive rating for this session, I’d add one criticism of the Coyne/PZ critique. They are offering these objections 2 weeks before the meeting. If Coyne and PZ wanted this to be rescheduled or reorganized, that’s too late. Both are sharp guys, and they know this. If they think AAAS handles religion badly in general, then I’m sure Leshner would be happy to chat with the president of SSE about a topic of concern, but the weeks leading up to Leshner’s society’s annual meeting are probably not a time when he can give that discussion lots of time and thought. If they think AAAS meetings handle religion badly in general, they have to know that the time to change that is when the next meeting is being planned, not when this meeting is about to start.
These panels don’t emerge, Athena-like, from the head of AAAS. Someone (usually outside the AAAS offices) proposes a panel, someone at AAAS judges that it will draw a sizeable audience and generate a productive discussion or significant media coverage or accomplish some other specified goal, and thus it gets approved. AAAS usually schedules some sort of panel dealing with science and religion in roughly the way the panel on evangelicals does, and it seems to always attract an audience which seems to enjoy it. So they’ll keep scheduling it, and that doesn’t imply any endorsement by AAAS.
Similarly, if Coyne and PZ keep not proposing a panel like this, AAAS will keep on not having a panel of his description. I’d understand Coyne’s beef it he had proposed a session like the one PZ now proposes, and if it were repeatedly rejected, while comparable accommodationist panels were repeatedly approved. But this sort of Monday morning quarterbacking of convention organizing seems to validate the old saying about why academic politics are so vicious.
As I noted above, PZ’s post lays out the framework of a panel and potential panelists for a session AAAS could have about science and religion that wouldn’t offend him. Great. It’s a panel I’d attend if I were at the meeting. But before I or anyone else can attend it, he can’t just lay it out on his blog. He has to get the panelists to agree to be on the panel. Then he has to go to the AAAS website, click the big button shown at the right, read the instructions on proposing a panel, and submit it. Then it might get approved (or not, panels at any conference get rejected all the time, and all the more often at AAAS). Then he has to get the panelists to work the panel into their schedules, possibly finding funding to cover their travel expenses. Then he has to find someone to fill in for people who can’t make it. Then he has to spread the word so that people know the session is happening, and attend. If it works, and people come, and it’s interesting, then AAAS will want more the next year. If not, he can keep trying, looking for different hooks until it succeeds. Skipping all of that just to make a point about what you wish someone else would do seems weak.
I know that the Superbowl was yesterday, and Monday morning quarterbacking is traditional today, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. If there’s more to this, then I look forward to seeing the panel in Vancouver.