Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Friday, June 08, 2007

No More NOMA

I used to have a lot of respect for Stephen Jay Gould as a science writer. I still do enjoy his books, but more recently I've come to recognize a tendency he sometimes had for oversimplification of debates and distortion of other points of view. The first thing I read in his books that bothered me, though, was his espousal of what he calls the NOMA principle.

"NOMA" stands for Non-Overlapping MAgisteria--the principle, according to Gould, that science and religion deal with discrete subjects, and cannot come into conflict simply because, when properly treated, they do not overlap. Science deals with facts. Religion deals with morality. As long as they are properly confined to the appropriate spheres, there's no reason there should ever be a disagreement between them. Gould made much of NOMA, which he called "a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to...the supposed conflict between science and religion". He claimed it "follows a strong consensus accepted for decades by leading scientific and religious thinkers alike"--and cites as an example Pope John Paul II, whose suggestion that elements of the creation story may be best taken figuratively marks him, according to Gould, as a proponent of NOMA.

Now, at the time I first read this, I still considered myself a faithful Mormon, and Gould's NOMA argument struck me as absurd. Of course religion purports to deal with matters of fact. Whether or not Jesus Christ ever existed historically (quite apart from the issue of whether he really was the son of God) is a matter of fact, and one that's very important to Christianity. If a prominent historian claimed to have proven that no such person existed, I'm quite sure that few if any Christians would shrug their shoulders and say that, well, it doesn't really matter; that's beyond the scope of their religion. The (alleged) fact that Jesus Christ existed is quite important, and indeed fundamental, to Christianity. Claiming John Paul II as a proponent of NOMA is preposterous; conceding that one particular story in one's religious texts may be largely symbolic is not at all the same thing as conceding that all the stories in one's religion are symbolic or allegorical and that the church will confine itself to morality. He may have made some allowances on creation, but I assume John Paul II still supported the idea that Christ was born of a virgin, that miracles can and do occur, and so forth--questions of fact that entirely violate Gould's NOMA principle.

Gould was not, of course, alone in espousing these ideas, though he's the one who gave them a catchy(ish) name. Michael Shermer, for instance, makes much the same mistake in his book Why People Believe Weird Things, when he writes that creationists, by interpreting Genesis literally, "missed the significance, meaning, and sublime nature of myth", and "took a beautiful story of creation and re-creation and ruined it". Their literal interpretation of scripture, Shermer says, is "an insult to myths, an insult to religion, and an insult to science". Now, again, when I first read Shermer's book, I still considered myself a faithful Mormon--but I certainly did not consider myself a creationist. (Well, more specifically, I may have believed in divine creation, because that's what the church taught, but I recognized the evidence for evolution enough to try to reconcile the two rather than denying that evolution had happened.) So I wasn't among the group Shermer was attacking, those who denied evolution because it contradicted their scriptural account. Still, it seemed to me Shermer was speaking nonsense. Myths (in the religious/mythological sense) were originally meant to be, on at least some level, believed--that's what distinguishes a myth from a mere story. Literal interpretation of scripture isn't an insult to religion, if that's what the religion teaches, and if the scriptures are meant to be interpreted literally. The "beautiful story of creation and re-creation" that Shermer refers to was originally intended to represent a factual account (even if different denominations today may quibble on the details of just to what extent), and if taking it as literally true is ruining it then it was already ruined from the get-go.

I think to some extent it's clear what Gould and Shermer were trying to do. They were trying to keep religion from attacking science, while still ceding it a place of its own in the hopes that the religious would be mollified and accept the limitations that NOMA imposed. And certainly the goal of fending off religious attacks on science is a laudable and important one; today, in America in particular, the fundamentalist attacks on evolution and cosmology and an ever-expanding set of scientific theories are relentless, and their success would mean a scientific stagnation and regression with dire consequences for the well-being both of society as a whole and of the individual. But fighting religious advances by trying to convince the religious that fact isn't part of their "magisterium" simply won't work. Religion has always dealt in fact--or in what the religious believed to be fact--and it presumably always will. It has never been only a matter of morality. And any attempt to suggest that it should be only a matter of morality cannot help but be perceived by the religious as an attack. It's not going to help, and it's only going to come across as dishonest, or even as a threat--"you stay off our turf, and we'll stay off yours".

Now, so far, I've been talking about my impressions of NOMA from a religious perspective--what I thought about it back when I still considered myself a faithful Mormon. Now that I'm an avowed atheist, though, I have other reasons for thinking NOMA is dangerous. As I said, religion does purport to deal in fact, but of course its track record for getting the facts right isn't very good. The problem is, its track record when it comes to morality isn't much better. Christianity had no problem in this nation's youth coexisting with the evil of slavery. The atrocities committed by the "chosen people" in the Bible hardly need recounting. And, of course, today, on "moral" principles, the religious right fights gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, and other matters that would ease and improve many lives. If we claim that morality is the sole domain of religion, we're ceding religion the right to decide all these issues, since the religious consider them moral matters. I don't think we really want to do that.

Now, obviously--contrary to the bizarre assumption some theists seem to have that all atheists think as a group, and that what one atheist says all atheists must believe--NOMA isn't a principle that's managed to catch on as widely as Gould hoped it would, even among atheists. Dawkins--while I'm still a little undecided what I think of him (and one of these days I probably ought to read The God Delusion)--deserves some credit for distancing himself from such wishy-washy views and staking out a clearer stand. But some shadows of NOMA still show up occasionally, like those in Shermer's book previously cited. I think we'd do better without such pretense.

Religion does purport to deal with fact, and that isn't likely to change. Pretending otherwise is not only useless, but counterproductive, as it both offends religionists, and gives them more ammunition to use in their attempt to impose their own version of "morality". If we're going to try to resist the impositions of religion on all aspects of life, we're much better off being honest about exactly what it is we're opposing.

So please. No more NOMA.

16 Comments:

At 6/08/2007 9:51 AM, Blogger MiguelChavez said...

If Gould can accuse Dawkins of encompassing all of evolution in terms of adaptation, then Dawkins can equally criticize Gould for encompassing all of religion in terms of ethics. Evolution is more than natural selection, surely, but Gould failed to realize that religion says more about the world than how we ought to behave in it. However this is a road all of us must follow. If Gould's insistence of NOMA has lead you to somehow loose a good deal of your respect for him, I would argue, conversely, that you have fallen into the same trap. Gould spoke far and wide on a diverse number of subjects. He is bound to be wrong every so often, and we shouldn't crucify him for that. All the best, Miguel Chavez - The Stephen Jay gould Archive

 
At 6/08/2007 10:24 AM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

I didn't say that Gould's promotion of NOMA was what made me lose respect for him (though I suppose I can see how my juxtaposition of those topics may have given that impression). At the time, I thought Gould was wrong, but it seemed an error with good intentions behind it--and certainly it didn't reflect on him as a science writer.

What really made me rethink my opinion of Gould was when I started reading what other scientists thought about him, and realized that much of what Gould presented as established fact was, in fact, still very much a matter of dispute. The biggest factor that gave me a different impression of him was when I reread his review of Dawkins' The Selfish Gene after having read that book. (And this was before my deconversion, and before Dawkins' espousal of militant atheism (or at least before I was aware of it), so Dawkins' brand of atheism had nothing to do with it.) Gould misrepresents Dawkins' arguments so grotesquely in his review that it's hard to see how it could be anything but an intentional distortion--either that, or Gould was so blinkered by some personal agenda that he wasn't seeing straight.

All that being said, I certainly haven't lost all respect for Gould. I still think his books are well worth reading. I still respect him a great deal; I've just, I suppose, recognized his fallibility, and I don't hold him in quite the exalted regard I used to.

 
At 6/09/2007 2:58 AM, Blogger Akusai said...

I think you're right on with this post. One thing you didn't cover that's always bugged me about NOMA and similar approaches is that they, in relegating a corner for religion, also artificially limit science.

If you say "Science is X, religion is Y," no matter how expansive X is and how limited Y is, you're making the claim that there is something science cannot cover, some sacred ground it cannot tread, something that cannot be known through careful study and observation. But that's absurd.

Science is simply the careful study of reality. Everything that exists exists in reality, and so everything that can be known can be known through science. To say "Science doesn't deal with morality/warm fuzzies/feelings of oneness with the cosmos" is to speak nonsense. These things exist. Science can study them, and give a better and more satisfying explanation than any old made-up story.

If Sagan was good at espousing the majesty and, dare I say, divinity (so to speak) inherent in science, Gould's NOMA attempts to downplay that and leave science with "physical mundanities" or somesuch, removing from it all the grandeur it has and rightly deserves.

 
At 6/09/2007 5:49 AM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Gould had a tendency to create straw men so that his own position would look stronger than it really was. I'm not saying he was wrong in his positions, but that he exagerrated the positions of others. It's a weakness in his writing.

He also suffered from the tendency to pronounce on subjects he didn't know much about (for instance, English grammar and syntax - he was dead set against the passive, but his example of it simply aren't passives). As Feynman said, scientists outside their area of expertise are as dumb as the next guy.

Which doesn't mean Gould wasn't intelligent and a good writer and didn't make significant contributions to his field; it only means you have to read him as carefully as you do everyone else.

(ps - you should read The God Delusion if you intend to talk about Dawkins. Primary texts, when available, are much better than other people's opinions - as your experience of Gould's review of a book you had actually read should tell you.)

And finally, NOMA can't work if religion won't accept the little corner it's assigned to (regardless of whether it should work or not). You're more generous to Gould than I am in assuming he had a good reason (that he was "rying to keep religion from attacking science, while still ceding it a place of its own in the hopes that the religious would be mollified and accept the limitations that NOMA imposed"). I've always figured he was just unwilling to get labelled an atheist. But whatever the rationale behind NOMA, and whether it's a good idea or even a valid strategy, it simply won't work. Most religious simply won't admit that their god doesn't act in reality. And frankly, what sort of "God" would that one be?

 
At 6/11/2007 7:31 PM, Blogger MiguelChavez said...

I hear what you're saying, but I can't help but think that it is unfair to single out Gould for this very common shortcoming. I have caught not very few scholars mischaracterizing the views of their colleagues and historical predecessors. In most cases I don't think their motivations are nefarious, but rather this is a defect we all share, stemming from quick and imperfect readings. Reading comprehension is more challenging than most scholars are willing to recognize; and is influenced by large measure by the readers preconceived idea of what the author is trying to say. We must also recognize that writing is an art; an imperfect expression of what the author thinks at any given moment. I think we ought to owe up to our limitations here and become more careful, humble, and overall better readers (Gould and everybody else included). If I have learned anything in my personal studies, it is that frequent and repetitive readings, with careful notes, is the only way to genuine understanding. I would bet money that Gould did honestly not know that he was distorting Dawkins views (just as Gould's critics are unaware how frequently they mischaracterize his). All the best, Miguel Chavez

 
At 6/11/2007 9:56 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

Okay, this is getting out of hand. If you're going to post here defending Gould, that's fine, but can you please do so without being so terribly condescending? When you talk down to everyone here by writing things like "I think we ought to owe up to our limitations here" and making pronouncements about what "We must...recognize", you're not helping your case; you're just coming off as pompous and insulting.

Anyway, obviously it's common for people to misunderstand each other's views, but not everyone does it to the same degree, and Gould definitely seems to have misrepresented the views of others more than most. Whether he did it intentionally or not I'm not, of course, qualified to say, but it is a fault in his writing. Trying to pass it off by saying it's "a defect we all share" is disingenuous; it's most certainly not a defect that most scholars share to anywhere near Gould's degree.

Again, I'm really not trying to attack Gould here; as I said, I still consider his books well worth reading. I just don't have quite the inflated opinion of him I used to. Yes, he's a good writer, and yes, he's certainly made valuable scientific contributions. But he has his flaws. That's all I'm saying here, and I confess I'm a bit confused as to why you seem to find this so objectionable.

 
At 6/11/2007 10:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no idea where all that is coming from, and honestly, I am somewhat baffled. You have misunderstood me completely. Which only renforces my point, I suppose. All I was saying is that misappropriation is a common phenomenon in evolutionary biology, and anyone worth his salt knows this. If you think Gould is somehow a special case, you're mistaken. Best, Miguel Chavez

 
At 6/11/2007 10:50 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

You have no idea where all what is coming from? The charge of your coming off as insulting? You just did it again, with your statement that anyone who disagrees with you is not "worth his salt". Whether you intend them to be or not, your posts are extremely condescending.

And no, mischaracterization of opponents' views is simply not as rampant in science writing as you claim. It happens, of course, but Gould does it more than most. Whether you're willing to admit to it or not, Gould is a special case in that regard. Again, he was a good writer and a good scientist, but he does seem to have had this one flaw. If you want to convince me otherwise, you'll have to do better than just insist that I'm mistaken without producing any evidence. (Can you give comparable examples of such distortions from other prominent science writers?)

 
At 6/12/2007 12:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Off the top of my head, Ayala, when he equates punctuated equilibrium with quantum evolution, is displaying an enormas mischaracterization and ignorance of both theories (one of which is a theory of cladogenesis at the species level, the other about discontinuity at a vastly higher tier, and relying upon a totally different mechanism). Mayr in the Growth of Biological Thought where he conflates punctuated equilibrium with Goldschmidt's hopeful monsters. Ruse and Dennet when they mischaracterize the intellectual history of punctuated equilibrium (from a misreading of his famous 1980 paper). Penny when he levels the accusation that Gould deliberately misquoted Darwin, when in fact (unknown to Penny) he was simply using a different edition. Dennet when he distorts the issue of spandrels, ignoring the fact that alternatives do not take away from the fact that spandrels arise by structural, not functional, necessity. Conway Morris where he pretends Gould was impressice on his meaning of contingency regarding the evolution of consciousness. (If you look past the rhetoric, however, Dawkins usually gets it right, but I think he borrows explicitly from Maynard Smith.) Just to name familiar examples. Finally, I'm still somewhat confused as to how I came off as arrogant or offensive. If anything, I honestly took pains to be as fair and reasonable as possible. I think you have deeply misjudged my intentions, and without further argument, I will leave it for others to decide. But I will say this much for myself: I'm no slouch either, and I know the literature well enough to know that misappropriation in science is more common than generally admitted. To pretend that the onus rest solely upon Gould is to distort the debates into a simplistic and dogmatic caricature. Finally, I would like add that your last reply has been significantly altered from its original form, therfore that might explain why my subsequent reply is somewhat inapplicable. Take care, Miguel Chavez

 
At 6/12/2007 8:22 AM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

Finally, I would like add that your last reply has been significantly altered from its original form, therfore that might explain why my subsequent reply is somewhat inapplicable.

This is true; I did rethink my comment, delete it, and repost, but I did it almost immediately, which is why I didn't feel the need to mention it--I thought it very unlikely that anyone had seen the original comment in the very brief time it was there (and I certainly didn't realize that you had seen it, and that it was the deleted comment that your reply was in reference to). For the record, though, to give context to your latest comment, here was the comment I deleted:

Okay, this is getting ridiculous. I understand you're apparently a big fan of Gould and want to defend him, but please refrain from attacking the posters here when doing so. Your comments are very condescending, and frankly somewhat offensive.

As I've said, I still like Gould's books, and consider them worth reading; I just don't have quite the inflated opinion of him I once did. I'm sorry if that bothers you, but I don't think it's appropriate for you to try to defend Gould by insulting everyone else.


I changed this because I thought maybe I was being a little too harsh, but the truth is that you do come across as arrogant and offensive. I'm not speaking to your intentions, as I can't judge those, just to how you come across. I've given specific examples in my previous comments as to where you do it. You don't think it might come across as insulting when you assert that anyone who disagrees with you is not "worth his salt"? You don't think it might come across as arrogant to hold up your method of "personal studies" as an example to all, and say you've learned "the only way to genuine understanding"? Again, I don't know your intentions, but regardless of your intentions the impression you give is one of arrogance and condescension. Admittedly, I don't take well to condescension, so you've kind of pressed some buttons of mine, which is why I've responded to some things as severely as I have (especially in the deleted comment), but I really don't think I'm seeing something in your comments that isn't there--whether or not you intend it to be.

Off the top of my head...Just to name familiar examples

Fair enough, and I appreciate the time you've taken to compile that list. I could still argue that this list represents just one isolated example from each author, and that Gould still does it more than other authors--but after sleeping on the matter, I think I've gone too far in my arguments. In my reaction to your perceived condescension, I kind of went to extremes in my own arguments against you, and staked out a more immoderate position than I really held, so I'm going to recant a little.

The fact is that whether or not Gould is responsible for more misrepresentations than other science writers is really beside the point I was originally making. Once again, I wasn't saying he was a bad writer or a bad scientist. All I was saying was that I had lost the exalted opinion I had once had of him--but that opinion was overinflated to begin with, not because of any fault of Gould's but because really I shouldn't have taken the writings of any scientist as noncritically as I was originally taking his. It's as the ridger, fcd said in his comment: "it only means you have to read him as carefully as you do everyone else." (emphasis added) I wasn't doing that, and so when I realized that Gould made mistakes in his presentation of the matterial (as of course every writer does), it changed my opinion of him because that opinion was unfounded to begin with--not because of any specific shortcomings of Gould, but because the works of any writer should be taken with some grain of salt rather than accepted uncritically.

So that's all I originally meant--that I had recognized Gould's fallibility (and of course any scientist--or anyone else--is fallible). In my later comments admittedly I did try to argue that Gould was a special case, but, as I said, that was because your apparent condescending attitude had irritated me enough to make me leap to an extreme position against you. Obviously, I shouldn't have done that, but I guess I'm showing my own fallibility here. ;)

So, again, that's all I meant to say in my original post and my first comment (though I admit I went astray in my subsequent comments). Not that Gould was more unreliable and more misguided than other science writers, but only that he was sometimes unreliable and misguided--as is anyone else. So can we at least agree on that?

 
At 6/12/2007 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Off the top of my head, Ayala, when he equates punctuated equilibrium with quantum evolution, is displaying an enormas mischaracterization and ignorance of both theories (one of which is a theory of cladogenesis at the species level, the other about discontinuity at a vastly higher tier, and relying upon a totally different mechanism). Mayr in the Growth of Biological Thought where he conflates punctuated equilibrium with Goldschmidt's hopeful monsters. Ruse and Dennet when they mischaracterize the intellectual history of punctuated equilibrium (from a misreading of his famous 1980 paper). Penny when he levels the accusation that Gould deliberately misquoted Darwin, when in fact (unknown to Penny) he was simply using a different edition. Dennet when he distorts the issue of spandrels, ignoring the fact that alternatives do not take away from the fact that spandrels arise by structural, not functional, necessity. Conway Morris where he pretends Gould was impressice on his meaning of contingency regarding the evolution of consciousness. (If you look past the rhetoric, however, Dawkins usually gets it right, but I think he borrows explicitly from Maynard Smith.) Just to name familiar examples. Finally, I'm still somewhat confused as to how I came off as arrogant or offensive. If anything, I honestly took pains to be as fair and reasonable as possible. I think you have deeply misjudged my intentions, and without further argument, I will leave it for others to decide. But I will say this much for myself: I'm no slouch either, and I know the literature well enough to know that misappropriation in science is more common than generally admitted. To pretend that the onus rest solely upon Gould is to distort the debates into a simplistic and dogmatic caricature. Finally, I would like add that your last reply has been significantly altered from its original form, therfore that might explain why my subsequent reply is somewhat inapplicable. Take care, Miguel Chavez

 
At 6/12/2007 3:55 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

Um...why did you just repeat your previous comment? Was that unintentional?

 
At 6/12/2007 6:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for the double post. My reply didn't show up on the main page and I thought it got lost.

I see your point about how I might have come off as condescending. It wasn't my intention, but I will take it to heart. I just want to make it clear that my point about becoming better readers comes out of personal frustration from the frequency in which (all) authors mischaracterize the views of others (especially Gould's views, since I am intimately familiar with his work). If it is not intentional -- and I don't trust that it is -- it must arise from rushed and uncritical readings. I am not saying I am above this, I am not, just that these techniques have helped me greatly in reducing the frequency of this terribly bad habit we all share.

I appreciate the honesty you shared in your reflections about Gould, and how you've now come to asses him. I can relate to it well. It creeps up on you slowly -- whoever your hero is -- and then you realize that these great thinkers, and by large measure they are, are just as fallible as we are. And it's sort of liberating to know that you have to play an active role in process, and that onus rest upon you, the reader. Best, Miguel Chavez

 
At 6/15/2007 10:00 PM, Blogger MiguelChavez said...

I was reading Sociobiology: Beyond Nature/Nurture? today and came across this great line from David Hull's paper "Sociobiology: Another New Synthesis."

"One scientist distorting the views of another? Incredible."

I laughed. For those who aren't familiar with Hull he is a prominent philosopher of biology, and has published widely on the so-called Darwin Wars. Hull continues: "Distortion is not only routine in science, it is a hallowed method of debate. Darwin's opponents consistently castigated him for claiming that natural selection was all-sufficient when he never did. Darwin in turn argued in the Origin (1859) as if the only alternative to his theory was miraculous special creation when it was not. If scientists throughout history have consistently caricatured the views they oppose and show not the slightest inclination of doing otherwise today, it is about time we admit it." Amen.

 
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