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John Rennie – SciAm Editor-in-Chief Dissed by Movers & Shakers

This is an oldie but a goodie. It’s John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American, describing a dinner he attended with captains of industry such as Craig Barrett, CEO of Intel, and more than a dozen university presidents. He took the opportunity to harangue them about the sad state of affairs regarding the Kansas science standards and declining respect for the “fact” of NeoDarwinian theory. Their reaction was to politely tell him to go away as they had more important concerns about science education in America and those concerns had nothing to do with evolution. Rennie’s petulant reaction is just precious.

SciAm Perspectives April 05, 2005
Cowardice, Creationism and Science Education: An Open Letter to the Universities

Click here to read the reply to Rennie from Austin University of Texas President Larry Faulkner.

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18 Responses to John Rennie – SciAm Editor-in-Chief Dissed by Movers & Shakers

  1. Rennie writes:

    Still, no one is asking the presidents to speak against Christianity or any other religion. Quite the contrary. Proponents of ID always insist that their so-called theory has nothing to do with religious creationism. That claim lacks credibility, but if they want to say so, take them at their word. If ID has nothing to do with religion, university presidents should be free to criticize it without antagonizing the faithful.

    Of course, in practice, the Christians will rebel. But it’s precisely because ID is allowed to hide its true colors that the idea even has a chance of infiltrating science curricula, the courts having long since established that religious creationism is impermissible.

    This is quite interesting and very telling. Rennie inplies that if ID is successful in “hiding its true colors”, meaning in disguising or divorcing itself from its religious implications, then it might have a chance of “infiltrating” the science classroom. So, by implication Rennie seems to be saying that if ID can pass itself off as naturalistic, i.e. devoid of any religious content or implication, then it could gain a foothold in a science class. This is tantamount to an admission that science must, by definition then, be wholly wedded to naturalism. Something vehemently denied by many ID critics. Has Rennie let the cat out of the bag?

  2. Its somewhat ironic to me that one of the best science educators I have come across is Forrest Mims III. His books on electronics were the only ones that could convey the purpose and function of the transistor to me as a college freshmen. So, to learn how he was treated by SciAm, and then to hear this, leaves me shaking my head in dismay.

    SciAm was once a great publication that inspired many people to study science. I’m not sure that is the case today.

  3. Sigh. Rennie harps on “evolution is a fact.” Yes, indeed, evolution is a fact. Things are not now as they once were, so evolution is a fact. So what? The question is, Can random mutation and natural selection account for all of life’s diversity and functionally integrated complexity? This is not a fact, and has not been rigorously or even weakly substantiated, yet it is taught as factual.

    Furthermore, real scientists intuitively recognize that Neo-Darwinian theory has contributed nothing to practical research in any hard science like biochemistry or medicine.

  4. Why am I not surprised that this comes from the editor-in-chief of Scientistic Scientific American. Rennie knows he can’t argue against the full force of ID’s claims, so he does what is very common among its opponents and builds a strawman. (And in this case, it’s a real whopper of a strawman!) Consider his petition.

    Suppose we have a petition here that says, “As university presidents, we affirm that evolution by means of natural selection is a demonstrated fact of science. We also assert that any failure to teach evolution, or to teach ‘intellectual design’ as an alternative theory, harms students’ educational standing.” Who here would not sign, and why?

    So ID categorially denies evolution and natural selection as one of its mechanisms, huh? It would be interesting to see him try to support that claim because it’s catagorically false. Of course, he has to make it in order to add weight to this next claim.

    Like Todd, Craig Barrett maintained that evolution was peripheral to raising the scientific readiness and competitiveness of American students, and none of the presidents disagreed with him. Perhaps there would have been more of an argument had the head of a biotech company been present, or the dean of one of the universities’ medical schools, where they undoubtedly teach that evolving antibiotic resistance and the emergence of new infectious diseases are two of the world’s most pressing health concerns. Again, I’m for improving K-12 science education in all respects, but why does teaching evolution become expendable in that plan?

    That’s right. Since IDists deny evolution outright, they must also deny the ability of bacteria to evolve antibiotic resistance or the evolutionary emergence of new infectious diseases. Rennie is lying through his teeth and employing scare tactics in the process.

    Here’s another gem from the article.

    Still, no one is asking the presidents to speak against Christianity or any other religion. Quite the contrary. Proponents of ID always insist that their so-called theory has nothing to do with religious creationism. That claim lacks credibility, but if they want to say so, take them at their word. If ID has nothing to do with religion, university presidents should be free to criticize it without antagonizing the faithful.

    He seems to think the reason that the university presidents didn’t enthusiastically support his anti-ID diatribe must be because they’re trying to tiptoe around hypersensitve Christian fundies. Maybe that’s the case. I have no evidence to offer to the contrary. ID is very popular among Christians for obvious reasons. But is it not also possible that maybe, just maybe, the presidents thought that Rennie was an irrational zealot blowing a lot of hot air? Nah, it can’t be; John Rennie simply CANNOT be wrong!

  5. Gil – evolution isn’t a fact. It’s a theory. It’w a well supported theory but it’s still a theory. Follow the link to UT Austin President Faulkner’s reply (Faulkner is a scientist, Rennie is not) where he informs Rennie that very few scientists will go so far as to call evolution a fact and he says that’s not his opinion it’s an observation.

    John Rennie and PZ Myers are good buddies, by the way. Check this out. They pat each other on the back so much you’d think they were joined at the hip.

  6. Stand by… I just sent a trackback to this article to:

    http://blog.sciam.com/index.ph.....&pb=1

    :lol:

    I saved the web pages to the old SciAm blog where the original article and Faulkner’s response appears, just in case they suddenly disappear.

  7. “Maybe Faulkner misspoke and forgot that the National Academy of Sciences has affirmed that evolution is a fact.”

    Well, I guess that setles it then. If the National AtheistsAcademy of Sciences say that evolution is a fact, we should go home and give it a rest.

  8. “Still, no one is asking the presidents to speak against Christianity or any other religion.”

    Of course not. They are only interested in saying that thigns came into existence by itself, by purely natural means, without any sort of prior Intelligence. I mean, how is that offensive to people who believe that biological systems are the result of Intelligence?

    “Faculty members and students, I also ask that you please press your administration to declare publicly whether it regards the teaching of evolution without phony alternatives as an important part of K-12 science teaching standards.” [Emphasys in the original]

    1. Why should evolutionism be preached…err.. I mean, taught without alternatives?

    2. What constitutes a “legitimate” alternative?

    3. Who decides what is a legit alternative? Those who say that there is are alternative (The National Atheists of Science?)

  9. Correction in my previous post:

    4. (…) Those who say that there are no alternatives? (…)

  10. Erm. Make that

    3. (…) Those who say that there are no alternatives? (…)

    (PS: Remind me never to blog while I am drinking Coke)

  11. From the article, but rewritten to put the shoe on the other foot…

    “Still, no one is asking the presidents to speak against Evolution or any other religion. Quite the contrary. Proponents of Evolution always insist that their so-called theory has nothing to do with a commitment to philosophical naturalism. That claim lacks credibility, but if they want to say so, take them at their word. If Evolution has nothing to do with philosophical naturalism, university professors, students, and presidents should be free to criticize it without antagonizing the faithful or risking their academic standing.”

    So, why not propose a counter petition:

    “As university presidents, we affirm that evolution by means of natural selection, parts of which are well supported by the scientific evidence, is the predominant scientific view. We also assert that failure to teach the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolution stifles critical thinking and thus harms students’ educational standing.”
    To steal a phrase, “Who here would not sign, and why?”

  12. What does it mean to have one’s “educational standing” harmed?

    “Educational standing” sounds subjective and observational. It doesn’t sound like it means that a student’s knowledge, or ability to learn or do science would be harmed. It sounds more like they will not have some accompanying prestige of having been taught evolution.
    Since some of the the presidents were arguing that they didn’t want to bar such students from their universities maybe this is what the hypothetical petition did imply, Rennie’s protestations notwithstanding.

  13. Gil: “Yes, indeed, evolution is a fact. Things are not now as they once were, so evolution is a fact.”

    DaveScot: “Gil – evolution isn’t a fact. It’s a theory. It’s a well supported theory but it’s still a theory.”

    Perhaps I didn’t express myself well enough. The term “evolution” is used so loosely that it can always be deemed a fact. If evolution just means change over time, then even a young-earth creationist would agree that evolution is a fact. I suspect that when Rennie uses the term he’s referring to the blind-watchmaker evolutionary mechanism, which is not only not a fact, it’s not even a theory in a strict scientific sense. It’s a hypothesis at best, but would better be termed a speculation.

  14. Gil, I think you meant: “wild, irresponsible speculation.”

  15. By the way, I should disclose a potential conflict of interest here: It is to John Rennie that I owe a debt of gratitude. His juvenile and pathetic diatribe in the July 2002 issue of SciAm is one of the things that prompted me to look into the whole evolution debate.

  16. sabre,
    I have a few comments. I don’t think that your rewrite accurately portrays the relationship with evolutionary theory and philosophical naturalism. I think it is impossible to deny that certain (many) evolutionary biologists have a materialistic worldview and that many of them do treat evolution as a religious (philosophical) position. And it is really easy to connect the dots between evolution and philosophical naturalism; but the former does not necessarily lead to the latter. People whose worldviews are dualistic think in such terms, ie there is a right way and wrong way at looking at the world and at reality. If you think that scientific materalism is the only way to gain knowledge about reality than evolution and philosophical naturalism go hand in hand and evolution excludes religion. But, if you think the other way you come to the opposite conclusion: if you believe that scientific materialism can tell you absolutely nothing about reality (rather than the “Darwinists” everything about reality) than religion excludes evolution.

    Both views are wrong and they have nothing to do with the strengths or weaknesses of evolutionary theory or the validity of religion as part of the human experience. Evolution is, however, incompatable with certain religious philosophies. And I think that people, especially those with strong religious convictions, need to take a stand against both incorrect philosophies.

    As to your counterpetition, the only sane reason to refuse to sign it is if it were to be used to allow illegitimate criticisms of evolution or to give improper weight to weak criticisms. Other than that, sign me up.

  17. Mjb99, I don’t disagree with you. I rewrote the quote simply to illustrate that the knife cuts both ways. Also, you write that “Evolution is, however, incompatible with certain religious philosophies.” This makes the same basic error that the original author makes, which is to use a definition of “evolution” that is too broad. If evolution is defined as change over time, few have any beef about that. If evolution means unguided and purposeless mechanisms as the explanation of the origins and/or all the complexity and diversity in nature, then yes; that is incompatible with many religious views.

    Regarding your last comment, would you agree then that a sane reason to refuse to sign the Rennie’s original petition would be if it were to be used to disallow legitimate criticisms of evolution or to give improper weight to weak evidence for and against it? The amazing thing about Rennie’s position is the hypocrisy demonstrated by his words. He’s asking others to sign a petition whose implicit purpose is to discourage dissent, and doing it in the name of freedom of speech (i.e. “…university presidents should be free to criticize it without antagonizing the faithful.”).

  18. If evolution means unguided and purposeless mechanisms as the explanation of the origins and/or all the complexity and diversity in nature, then yes; that is incompatible with many religious views.

    This has always sat very wrong with me. I don’t understand how scientific materialism can even address the purpose or guidedness of a natural process. Evolution is, of course, at its core change over time. It is guided, in a sense, by physical laws, the chemical nature of organic material and by interactions of biological organism with their environment. I don’t think you can expect it to say anything about “purpose”. What exactly does one mean by purpose and how exactly could evolution have a purpose, since it is just natural change over time? That is a particular field of philosophy and expecting it to say anything about “purpose” is one of the points I made above, the overreaching of both “wrong” sides.

    Let’s assume for a moment that ID is completely wrong, for argument’s sake, and that evolutionary theory is more or less correct. Which religious views would be in conflict with evolution? Well, any view that presumes to know the mind of God and that presumes that science can point it out. “Random” and “unguided” is how evolution appears to us because we cannot possibly know all the probabilities and variables that have gone into the evolution of humanity, which says absolutely nothing about whether or not God knows them. That evolution can now and possible forever appear to be “unguided” and “purposeless” does not mean that, in fact, God did not have every intention of getting the world exactly how he wanted it. Because science cannot address “purpose”. Or at least it cannot prove a negative; that is, if there is absolutely no evidence of “purposeful evolution”, that does not mean “purpose” doesn’t exist within evolution.

    Properly understood, I don’t think that evolution actually conflicts with that many religious views, only a small subset.

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