Eugenie Scott: The Dover Trial and the Scientist Hat

It is the fifteenth anniversary of the Dover Trial, so let’s revisit Eugenie Scott’s “scientist hat.” Fifteen years ago, a public drama unfolded in Dover, Pennsylvania. In 2005, a school board tried to mandate teaching Intelligent Design (ID) in high school science class. This moved provoked a lawsuit. The Dover Trial was billed as the Scopes Trial of this century, taking place 80 years later.

The Dover Trial itself is quite a story, but it was not the whole story. At the same time, a board in Kansas decided to showcase Intelligent Design by holding hearings on evolution of their own. The Kansas Hearings did not provoke a lawsuit. Some ID leaders see the Dover Trial as a regrettable mistake, while pointing to the Kansas hearings what they really hoped for. Most scientists, however, were not happy with either Dover or Kansas.

In December 2005, the Dover Trial came to an end, and could not have been worse for ID. A Republican judge ruled against them. This was in a federal court, so this ruling impacted ID’s prospects in the textbook wars across the nation. ID would not find its way into high school biology class.

Nathan Lents and I are interviewing Eugenie Scott about the Trial. Eugenie is a scientist. From 1986 till 2014, she was the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a non-profit science education organization. She played a pivotal role in engaging ID though the 1990s and 2000s.

In the aftermath of the Dover Trial, Eugenie offered an olive branch:

Properly understood, the principle of methodological [naturalism] requires neutrality towards God; we cannot say, wearing our scientist hats, whether God does or does not act.

Certainly methodological naturalism is contested among creationists, but her interpretation of it was irenic. She was offering an olive branch, and I was ready to take it. She is an atheist and a scientist, but she is not anti-religious. Perhaps there could be a way to peaceful science here.

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Dr. Swamidass is the founder of Peaceful Science. He is an associate professor at Washington University in Saint Louis where he runs a computational biology group using artificial intelligence to explore science at the intersection of biology, chemistry, and medicine.


Notable Replies

  1. There is an enormous overlap of people who are both Christians (and believers in other religions, for that matter) and effective working scientists. There is no inherent contradiction, and it’s valuable to push back on the ‘gnu atheists’ like Dawkins who claim there is.

    It’s just that these scientists don’t invoke supernatural action in their scientific work. The explanations they use for natural effects are natural causes and causal links.

    But in their personal lives, and their beliefs about what happens after we die, and their attitudes toward their fellow human beings, they are sincere religious believers.

  2. Finding chapter and verse for that particular meme might be difficult, but similar memes aren’t hard to document. For example, the late Will Provine famously liked to say that scientists who were religious (by implication, who were Christians, since he referenced churches in his phrasing) had to “check their brain[s] at the church-house door.” His former student Betty Smocovitis writes about this here: William B. Provine: The Evolutionary Theorist Even Creationists Loved | | Observer

    In other words, you can’t consistently be a good scientist and a sincere Christian. That’s close enough for me. Or, consider how Jerry Coyne sought to undermine the legitimacy of having some who believes in the Resurrection (Francis Collins) as head of the NIH.

  3. I myself have been able to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

  4. For what it’s worth my comment about Dawkins and his ilk was a throwaway, not well supported with evidence, and I’m happy to withdraw it.

  5. Avatar for dga471 dga471 says:

    We’ve been through this before, Tim. Coyne actually came onto this forum asking @Eddie to apologize saying that he had ever opposed Collins’ directorship due to his religious beliefs. He also specifically claimed that he had never called for Collins’ resignation from the post:

    Eddie actually apologized to Coyne for not checking his words carefully. Yet later another blogger searched through more blogposts of Coyne and found clear evidence that he had called for Collins’ resignation.

    He also found lots of evidence which showed that Coyne did express resistance to Collins’ appointment to NIH director which was related to his religious beliefs and his public expression of them. Yes, Coyne probably never explicitly said, “I opposed Collins’ position at the NIH because he is a Christian,” but in my opinion there’s enough evidence in the link there to show that he strongly insinuated that.

  6. Eddie,

    Your request is fair, and graciously worded. I’ll take your two points (Gould then Hunter) in reverse order.

    You’re right, that I don’t agree with Cornelius “George” Hunter, when he says that BioLogos endorses A D White’s infamous “warfare” view of science and religion. I did indeed write a couple of columns responding to him, the current forms of which are Here’s What’s Not Going on with BioLogos | The BioLogos Forum - Blog Posts - The BioLogos Forum and Conflicts ≠ CONFLICT: My last word on Cornelius Hunter’s Misunderstanding of the History of Science and Religion | The BioLogos Forum - Blog Posts - The BioLogos Forum (the original columns with images on the main part of the site are apparently no longer available).

    OK, so how is my take on the warfare thesis different from Hunter’s? I agree with Hunter, that many liberal Christians bought White (and so did Gould; see below); and I agree with Hunter that White’s narrative is historically bankrupt (I should say that Hunter agrees with me on that, since I’ve written about that before). But, he charged BioLogos with the same error, when in fact we don’t take that route at all: we don’t share White’s view that traditional theology never had a productive conversation with science, and we reject White’s fundamental belief that “religion” has a future only insofar as it casts aside “dogmatic theology,” White’s pejorative term for nearly all traditional Christian beliefs. (It’s interesting how that adjective “dogmatic” and the noun “dogma” still have negative connotations that really aren’t inherent those words. I would contend that NY State Senators like White and California US Senators like Feinstein have core beliefs of their own, not to mention scientists like Sagan or Dawkins, that function no less as “dogma” for them, than Christian doctrines function as core beliefs for Christians. But, let’s leave that aside for now…) Hunter missed that vital nuance, somewhere.

    I develop further the notion that many liberal Christians swallowed White’s warfare thesis whole in a separate column for BL that is no longer anywhere I can find, not even in the dialogue area that went with it: How Liberal Protestants Bought White's Conflict Thesis and Lost Their Faith - Blog Posts - The BioLogos Forum. I’ve asked someone there for help, and I’ll add the link below if they can find it.

    What about Gould? He wrote about White in Rocks of Ages (1999) and maybe earlier in Natural History columns that I haven’t searched for right now. He deserves praise for properly understanding White’s intentions, at a time when nearly all Christian authors failed to understand it. Before I saw Gould’s book (which was already published), I wrote an essay about this very idea for Zygon: The missing BL column takes it much further. Here’s what Gould says in Rocks of Ages pp. 99-104):

    Gould correctly states that White saw theology as an obscurantist force in the history of science. Only if theology “cedes this disputed ground to the rightful occupants of science [will] the river of progress flow gently on …” Furthermore, Gould understood better than most other authors that “White did not formulate his [warfare thesis] primarily to advance the cause of science, but rather to save religion from its own internal enemies.” Then, he goes on to say, “While we can only applaud White’s intentions, his influential model of warfare between two inexorably opposed forces vying for the same turf … has generated unfortunate consequences for the perennial discussion of relationships between science and religion. Although White meant only to castigate dogmatic theology … his thesis has usually been read in a superficial and self-serving manner as a claim that human progress requires a victory of science over the entire institution of religion.”

    Gould was on target with all this analysis. Since then, however, historians have come to realize the degree to which White’s massive book was driven by his own type of liberal religion, what amounts to the religion of Mathew Arnold and many other 19th-century people who held a type of vague theism that was only loosely tied to the Bible, a type of theism that wholly rejected core Christian “dogmas” like the Deity of Jesus, the Incarnation, and the bodily Resurrection. White and others enlisted “science” (as they presented and interpreted it) as an ally in their battles against traditional Christians. White’s almost wholly fictitious picture of the history of science and theology in “Christendom” is simply the most famous example of that much larger effort.

    Gould’s NOMA is about religious values, not theological beliefs. He and White shared the view that religious values need not conflict with science, but theology does; and Gould famously argued that science itself can’t give us those values but religion can. Hence, NOMA.

    So—I don’t really care for Gould’s NOMA, although I fully agree with his emphasis on the importance of a separate magisterium for values. I think he bought White’s historical picture more than he should have. Usually his historical instincts were very reliable, such as when he helped debunk the stupid “flat earth” myth. But, in this instance, I just think he was constitutionally incapable of granting that theology (as vs values) could also be an independent magisterium, or that theology has often motivated the practice of excellent science or even contributed directly do it—as with people like Kepler, Cantor, or Faraday (to cite just a few examples). If I am missing something, please help me see what I’ve missed.

    I won’t have another spare hour soon to respond to each and every comment, but I’ll try to follow the thread if there are any such.

  7. Avatar for NLENTS NLENTS says:

    I’m just seeing this now, so I’m glad that @John_Harshman was quick to catch this. “Devolution” is not just not a proper term, it is seriously misguided. Before I address your other question, please read this article to understand why the ID use of this pseudoscientific term reveals their near-complete misunderstanding of evolutionary theory itself:

  8. Avatar for NLENTS NLENTS says:

    Uhh… in this matter, there really IS a solidly right and wrong position, not in the validity of the theory, but in terms of whether someone understands what the theory holds, regardless of whether its right or wrong. They definitely don’t understand it if they think that “devolution” is a valid concept within that framework. It’s not. As for my own understanding of evolutionary theory, they have hurled all kinds of insults at me, but as far as I know they haven’t ever accused me of not understanding evolutionary theory. They think I am mistaken in affirming it, but they haven’t said that I don’t understand it, as far as I know.

  9. I am not surprised you wrote this despite the comments from actual population geneticists on PS which not only disagree with Sanford’s arguments, but details why his arguments are baseless.

    I can wake up tomorrow and tell all protein chemists that goblins or fairies fold proteins, which would explain why it is difficult to predict the 3D structure of a protein from its primary sequence, but if I don’t provide serious evidence to support my claim, it will forever remain a conjecture.

  10. Sanford was not at Dover. Can you please take these thoughts back to any of the open threads which do discuss Sanford, so that every single topic that touches on genetics does not get muddled into yet another GE rehash.

    In you find Lents engaging, please do avail yourself to these very fine publications.

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