Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

An evening with Dr. Eugenie C. Scott

Last night I had the privilege of attending a lecture by one of my heroes, and getting to meet her and chat with her afterwards.  Her name is Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education.

The subject of the talk was the relationship between science and religion, a topic that is of great interest both to Dr. Scott and myself.  Dr. Scott has been a passionate exponent of keeping religion out of the science classroom, and her efforts have been instrumental in the overturning of state mandates that high school biology teachers "teach the controversy" regarding evolution (amongst scientists, there is none) or include "alternate explanations" (most often intelligent design, which is a fundamentally non-scientific stance).

Dr. Scott's talk last night revolved around what she called "three ways of knowing" -- authority, personal experience/insight, and science.  Each of them, she said, has its limitations, and is useful in different situations.  Science's limitations in particular include the fact that it only addresses natural processes and natural explanations -- it is silent on issues of the supernatural, and even in the realm of the natural world stops short of giving meaning to what is out there.  In particular, she took exception with statements such as the following by Richard Dawkins (from River Out of Eden): "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference."  Her objection was not that she didn't agree with it -- she is, she said, a philosophical materialist -- but that it is not a scientific statement.

I thought it was an interesting argument, but after letting it bubble about in my brain for twelve hours, I'm not sure I actually agree with it.  Science does attach meaning to things; rightly or wrongly, scientists do more than what she claims, which is to draw inferences from data about relationships between variables.  When a scientist in my favorite discipline, which is evolutionary biology, states that stripes in zebras serve the function of breaking up the animals' profile when the herd is in flight, making it harder for predators to single out one particular individual, (s)he has crossed the line into an unprovable assertion -- albeit a logical, and fairly benign, one.  That stripes are selected for is obvious; zebras have stripes.  What the ultimate purpose of stripes is, is another matter entirely.  And science does often have a lot to say on such matters, although careful scientists are rightly cautious about granting such statements too much weight.

And as far as the difference between natural and supernatural, I wonder very much if that is not itself an artificial distinction.  If things we consider supernatural (gods, spirits, ghosts, demons, and so on) actually exist, it points to some pretty fundamental truths about the universe, and says a lot about how the world around us is put together.  The existence of such entities should leave traces -- evidence -- and that evidence should be accessible to evaluation by scientists.  Dr. Scott's claim that the supernatural (should it exist) is the sole provenance of non-scientific ways of study is, I think, drawing a false dichotomy.  We cannot (as she said) detect god in a test tube; "we have no theometer."  But evidence of a spiritual world's existence would, I think, be detectable in other ways than the notoriously unreliable appeals to authority and mystical insight.  The lack of such evidence drives us to the most parsimonious explanation, namely, that such entities do not exist.

In any case, it was a brilliant lecture, and it was an honor to meet finally someone whose work I have admired for years.  And personally, Dr. Scott is a gracious, funny, and highly articulate woman.  After the lecture, when I went up to shake her hand and thank her for coming to Ithaca, I told her that I had a t-shirt captioned "Skeptical Squares," with wonderful caricatures of nine prominent skeptics.  (If you want one, go here -- you can choose from amongst dozens of scientists and philosophers.)  And one of my nine favorite skeptics was her.

"My goodness," she said, laughing.  "I am overwhelmed by my own fame.  I barely know what to say."  If so, it was the first time that evening that she was at a loss for words.


  1. My perspective:

    1) If God exists and created existence, then our reality is "The Matrix." A construct whose limits are defined by another. In said movie, A.I. uses an artificial reality to placate the minds of humans, who in turn supply electrical output. Swap electrical output with life force (soul), and there isn't much difference (imho).

    2) And even if someone did believe in God... What sense would it make to spend our very finite life worrying about our impending infinity? It just doesn't seem constructive. We have a very tangible reality. We should focus our efforts on it, before diverting our attention to ...possibilities. This shared reality doesn't require you to "believe" in it.

    3) The Bible (or any other religious doctrine) is already written. There isn't anything left to discover. Religion claims to be about discovery, but it's more about understanding and compliance. This Reality on the other hand, has bonafide secrets, discoveries to be made.
    I would rather be mystified by an open-ended universe, than a book that claims to have everything already figured out for me. Religion spoils all the fun.

    Thank you for bringing Dr. Scott into my field of view. I salute her... crusade.

    1. Pascal yearned for God to exist, and yet, he was making some implications of his own. He prescribes an inherent positivity to believing in God, while at the same time referring to God as incomprehensible.

      To use "The Matrix" analogy, those within the artificial reality could believe that beyond that reality was benevolence. Those within "The Matrix" couldn't be more wrong. If they did ...transcend, they were spat out into an even more dismal existence.

      Pascal is using the devil's advocate to say "Hey, belief makes you feel good, so it is good."

      To which I reply: "Get the eff off my doorstep and take back your pamphlet."

    2. I have read your entire page and laughed until I cried over your expressions of wit. I am currently taking a undergraduate class called Philosophical Borderlands between Science and Religion and we address mind body questions and the methods of science when evaluating extraordinary claims. I will pass along your site to my professor. Thanks for the laughs - if this blog were on Wordpress I would subscribe.

    3. Thanks so much... I'm glad you've enjoyed my posts, and I hope your professor does as well!