Our next podcast will feature a special guest, my friend Genie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, the premiere organization fighting for sound scientific educational standards in this country, and a permanent thorn in the ass of creationists and IDers nationwide.
Genie is a physical anthropologist by training, and enjoyed an academic career at the University of Kentucky, University of Colorado and California State, before devoting her efforts full time to a constant front-line fight against irrationalism. For this she has been rewarded not just with six honorary degrees (at last count), but also with the first Stephen Jay Gould prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution (an award that I am proud to say I helped establish when I was Secretary of the Society), and most recently with the prestigious National Academy of Science Public Welfare Medal. She has also authored the excellent Evolution vs Creationism and co-edited (with Glenn Branch) Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools.
But let me tell you about my first encounter with Genie. This was more than a decade ago, I was still at the University of Tennessee, and we were among the first to organize grassroots Darwin Days to fight back against creationist nonsense. I invited Genie, together with my friend Will Provine from Cornell, to be speakers at one of our events. At that time, the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) had just passed a controversial resolution to change their definition of evolution, dropping wording that explicitly referred to it as a “natural unsupervised” phenomenon. The resolution was in response to pressure from ID quarters (in particular the Discovery Institute), and I thought it was insanity. Then I discovered that Genie and the NCSE actually supported the move!
Since it’s not in my nature to shy away from confronting, as politely as I can, people with whom I disagree, I greeted Genie’s arrival in Knoxville with a petition to convince the NABT to reverse its decision. Needless to say, Genie wasn’t pleased, though we managed to maintain a cordial relation throughout her visit.
She tried to explain to me that the NABT may have been moved by pragmatic considerations to diffuse the controversy, but that the original definition was a bad idea to begin with. After all, we don’t define Newtonian mechanics as a theory based on naturalistic principles that describes how planets move in an unsupervised manner, do we?
Moreover, Genie told me, there actually was an intellectually sound, philosophical reason for the move: the well known distinction in epistemology between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Naturalism, of course, is the idea that natural laws and phenomena are all there is in the universe. To be philosophically naturalistic means to be an atheist: based on philosophical reasoning, one thinks that nature is it. However, science does not need to make that strong epistemological commitment (which, while philosophically sound, cannot actually be defended on empirical grounds), because it functions perfectly well within the realm of methodological naturalism: whether there is something beyond nature is irrelevant to science, because science is concerned with — and epistemically confined to — the natural world.
Of course at the time my philosophy was pretty naive, as it is in general for most scientists, so I simply didn’t buy it and thought she was being rather sophistic about the whole thing. The issue, however, kept nagging at me, and I went on to read more deeply into the philosophy of science. In particular, a thoughtful article by Barbara Forrest convinced me that Genie was right: as Barbara (whom I’ve since had the privilege to meet and chat with) puts it, “the relationship between methodological and philosophical naturalism, while not one of logical entailment, is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion.” In other words, the reasonable position is, in fact, that of the philosophical naturalist (atheist), just like myself. But that position is not logically entailed by methodological naturalism, i.e. it is not strictly speaking a logically required metaphysical assumption in science.
At that point I sent an email to Genie telling her of my change of mind, to which she responded very graciously. We’ve been friends ever since.