Should Science Speak to Faith?
Two prominent defenders of science exchange their views on how scientists ought to approach religion and its followers.
Let me make clearer what I mean by reaching out. I do not mean capitulating to misconceptions but rather finding a seductive way to demonstrate to people that these are indeed misconceptions. Let me give you one example. I have, on occasion, debated both creationists and alien abduction zealots. Both groups have similar misconceptions about the nature of explanation: they feel that unless you understand everything, you understand nothing. In debates, they pick some obscure claim, say, that in 1962 some set of people in Outer Mongolia all saw a flying saucer hovering above a church. Then they ask if I am familiar with this particular episode, and if I say no, they invariably say, "If you have not studied every such episode, then you cannot argue that alien abduction is unlikely to be happening."
I have found that I can get each group to think about what they are saying by using the other group as a foil. Namely, of the creationtists I ask, "Do you believe in flying saucers?" They inevitably say "no." Then I ask, "Why? Have you studied all of the claims?" Similarly, to the alien abduction people I ask, "Do you believe in Young Earth Creationism?" and they say "no," wanting to appear scientific. Then I ask, "Why? Have you studied every single coun¬terclaim?" The point I try to make for each group is that it is quite sensible to base theoretical expectations on a huge quantity of existing evidence, without having studied absolutely every single obscure counterclaim. This "teaching" technique has worked in most cases, except those rare times when it has turned out that I was debating an alien abduction believer who was also a creationist!
I like your clarification of what you mean by reaching out. But let me warn you of how easy it is to be misunderstood. I once wrote in a New York Times book review, "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." That sentence has been quoted again and again in support of the view that I am a bigoted, intolerant, closed-minded, intemperate ranter. But just look at my sentence. It may not be crafted to seduce, but you, Lawrence, know in your heart that it is a simple and sober statement of fact.