Pseudoscience, Eugenie Scott, NCSE, and the Journal Nature

Eugenie Scott: Berkeley Anthropologist and Director of the NCSE

Dr. Eugenie C. Scott: Berkeley Anthropologist and Director of the NCSE

Anne here …

The eminent science journal Nature devoted its May 15, 2013, editorial to applauding the work of the National Center for Science Education and its retiring director, Eugenie Scott.

Critics of mainstream science frequently dispute evolution or climate change. Whatever their target, a common tactic is to challenge how well mainstream scientists accept these ideas.

In this era of U.S. teachers being “pressured to keep evolution out of the classroom or to teach it as a scientifically controversial theory,” the NCSE has taken the lead to insist that science, not religion and not pseudoscience, be taught in our public school classrooms. It is famously successful in stopping Pennsylvania’s intelligent design law in its tracks in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in 2005. It is working with Zack Kopplin to exterminate the stupidity in Louisiana’s creationism laws, too.

Best of all – and perhaps more encompassing, the NCSE provides resources for everyday science advocates working in the classroom trenches, fighting against not only creationists, but climate change deniers.

Nature’s editorial commended Eugenie Scott’s tireless efforts to make sure that scientists don’t talk over the heads of the general public. “Too often, scientists are ignorant of how students outside their own labs are being educated. In the worst cases, scientists can actually hurt the cause for science education by alienating the people whom they hope to persuade: in their attempts to engage, they may seem condescending or use arcane arguments that fail to connect with teachers, parents, students and other community members.”

The biggest problem I have encountered when talking with creationists is that they don’t understand the science of evolution at all. Often, they simply were not taught it when they were in school. Whether because their teachers shied away from the subject for fear of controversy or, worse, didn’t understand evolutionary theory themselves, for some reason many adults just don’t get it.

NCSE is a fantastic, and necessary, advocate for science, science education, scientists, and science fans. Getting great recognition in such an eminent publication as Nature is no less than what it deserves.

Eugenie Scott is responsible for making NCSE worthy of that recognition. She will be missed.

Crispian Jago and Neil Davies seriously need to make this deck of Skeptic Trumps a reality.


About Anne

Civil rights activist Anne Orsi is one of the spokespeople for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and is the primary organizer of Reason in the Rock, a conference on science, secularism and skepticism. Got a question? Email her at She's a lawyer but may not be licensed in your state. Sending her an email or reading her blog posts does not create an attorney-client relationship. Find Anne on Twitter as @aramink, and read her regular blog at

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Scott has done a fine job leading NCSE in the fight against creationism.

    However, she has also carried the acommodationist banner, speaking on behalf of the idea that science and religion are compatible, in the Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) manner. The arguments she has publicly presented in the defense of this idea are of very poor quality.
    For example, one argument she uses frequently is that many religious scientists exist. When challenged with the fact that people can hold incompatible ideas, she fails to offer a direct or meaningful response.

    • islandbrewer

      You know, I think she did the right thing, considering her job.

      Her job was to (1) defend the teaching of evolution while (2) not alienating theist allies (the Ken Millers and Martin Gardners).

      I can’t think of a perfect solution, but I would have done the exact same thing. When expressly asked about reconciling religion and evolution, I would simply point out that several competent scientists (who are not me) believe in a god, and impliedly point to them to seek a rationale for reconciliation.

      She never expressly said they were compatible, and one could easily deduce that she didn’t think they were, but she kept her personal views out of that conversation for the sake of embiggening the pro-evolution tent. She never actually tried to (or I think wanted to) argue that they were compatible, merely stating that many thought they were, which, yes, amounts to lame accomodationism. But that makes me think she really wasn’t trying to accommodate religion.

      Go ahead and argue that it harmed the cause of evolution teaching in the US, if you think that’s the case, but I think what she did was appropriate for her job.

      • Glodson

        When expressly asked about reconciling religion and evolution, I would
        simply point out that several competent scientists (who are not me)
        believe in a god, and impliedly point to them to seek a rationale for

        I agree. I don’t believe they are compatible. But rather than start a fight over this with people I working with in this case, I would just tell people to find one who is religious and ask them why they believe they are compatible.

        It is more neutral than anything else. In her job, she had to take the more diplomatic route. This is more a testament to her doing her job well. It is easy for me to denounce religion and point out how science and religion aren’t really compatible. I’m not actively working with theistic scientists in a court case.

        • invivoMark

          Except that Scott rather explicitly, and sometimes emphatically, states that they are compatible. She is as accommodationist as they get, including the part that involves her spending more time attacking fellow evolutionists than the religious.

          • Glodson

            In light of that, I have to retract my statement. She still did good work, but I think the acommodationist stance is… well, wrong.

            Edit: Just to make a note, I checked the link you provided in the above reply.

          • invivoMark

            Just to make my position clear, I don’t dislike Scott – I, too, think she’s done good work. I had the opportunity to hear her talk this spring, and she is an excellent speaker. She’s extremely sharp and insightful.

            I think that’s what makes her accommodationist stance so much more painful. It’s hard to see such a great ally take up the wrong position.

      • Reginald Selkirk

        She never expressly said they were compatible

        Actually, yes she did.
        I am with PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne on this; that the NCSE should promote evolution and good science education STFU up about religion, rather than claim compatibility with the more liberal sects. It would be more honest.

        • islandbrewer

          Can you show me? I’ve been hunting both FtB and the NCSE site for any statement where she would have said one or the other.

          I know NCSE has a Religious Community Outreach and a Clergy Letter Project, and they’re run by theists. But that’s decidedly not the same thing, of course, even if it’s worthy of criticism.

          I have very clear memories of Genie Scott in talks, when asked point blank about the compatibility of religion, doing the “many scientists think they are” dance and the “Gould described the NOMA,” without putting her personal imprimatur on either. Of course chunks of my brain meats can’t fit through the intertubez.

          If she ever expressly said they were compatible, I can’t find it.

          • invivoMark

            Here you go:

            Edit: There are more links at Coyne’s site than I care to replicate here, but searching “Eugenie Scott” on his website will give you plenty of other references of Scott saying the same thing.

            Edit #2: More evidence:

          • islandbrewer


            Well … crappity crap. Sorry, I was wrong,

            She did, as Director, lead the NCSE down the religion-coddling Stedmanesque path. (I still want to get defensive and jump up and down and scream “But she personally didn’t say the magic words ‘religion and science are compatible’!” but then I’d have to wear the douchenozzle hat. And I don’t want to be one of those people.)

            I think Larry Moran did a better job at laying out NCSE’s accomodationy leanings. But yeah, those were all some pretty ridiculous statements she made for anyone being “religiously neutral.”

            Well … poop.

          • invivoMark

            This is why being among skeptics rocks. We admit when we’re wrong. No need to apologize for it!

            Edited to add: And I get her reasoning for making pretty much all the statements she’s made, and I get the reasoning behind the stuff Larry quotes from their website. I disagree with it, but I get it.

          • Reginald Selkirk

            The links from invivoMark are probably enough to make the point, but mostly I am recalling sitting through a ~ 1 hour talk by Scott in person. Here are some notes I posted in a local forum:

            She discussed various “Ways of Knowing” people use – adding the caveat that their “knowledge” might not be reliable – science, revelation, personal experience.
            She discussed the unreliability of personal observation, using two videos, the famous basketball & gorilla video, and the Clue crime scene video.
            She defended the ability of science to gain knowledge despite a lack of “Were you there?” personal observation.


            So much for the anti-creationism and defense of science portion; she then switched into the political mode of defending the compatibility of science and religion.

            Exhibit 1: there were and are scientists who are religious.
            Distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism.

            Insistence that science can only investigate natural processes through natural means.

            Insistence that Philosophical Materialism is the enemy of supernaturalism, not science.

            All religious viewpoints, materialistic and religious, are free to draw from science, although in practice they may not be equally effective at doing so.

            The Q&A session was pretty short. Mostly it consisted of me asking:

            1) Is it possible for a person to hold two views which are incompatible?
            This was to undercut her argument that the existence of religious scientists is evidence for the compatibility of science and religion.
            Her response was unsatisfying. Rather than give a straight answer (which of course should be ‘YES,’ she babbled on about how their are various versions of religion, and of Christianity, and some are more compatible with science. In short, she did not answer my question, and reinforced my belief that her compatibilism is a political position, rather than factual one.

            2) She stated in her talk that science holds no position on supernatural questions, such as the existence of an afterlife. And yet, earlier on when she was explaining and defending the scientific method, she introduced parsimony as a part of that method. Now since there is no convincing scientific evidence for the existence of an afterlife, isn’t it fair to say that the scientific position should be that it does not exist?
            Her answer here was at least more direct. She asked me what my experimental control was. I countered that since parsimony was the issue, the relevant question should be what is the null hypothesis (i.e. what do you believe if there is no evidence).

            There was only one other question, about science and ethics.

            If your arguments are so bad that you cannot defend them in a public forum, you should abandon them. If there are no better arguments to replace them, then you are in a tough position. A reasonable person should consider changing their conclusion if they cannot back it up with good rational arguments.

          • islandbrewer

            If your arguments are so bad that you cannot defend them in a public forum, you should abandon them. If there are no better arguments to replace them, then you are in a tough position. A reasonable person should consider changing their conclusion if they cannot back it up with good rational arguments.

            Was the “crappity crap. Sorry, I was wrong” not enough?

          • invivoMark

            Reading Reginald’s post generously, I believe he was referring to Eugenie Scott in that paragraph, not you.

          • islandbrewer

            Don’t stomp on my persecution complex!

          • Reginald Selkirk

            Sorry, the thread is going a bit nonlinear. I appreciation your admitting you were wrong, and wish Scott would do the same.

      • Spuddie

        The “pro-evolution” tent you describe is pretty much the entire worldwide scientific profession. There is no need to argue about the compatibility of science and religion because the issue is inherently loaded. Religion doesn’t belong in science so it doesn’t have to be addressed at all.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    This post at Why Evolution is True seems to fit in here:

    Where the conflict really lies

    (Natalie Angier): Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University’s “Ask an Astronomer” Web site…
    In other words, for horoscope fans, the
    burden of proof is entirely on them, the poor gullible gits; while for
    the multitudes who believe that, in one way or another, a divine
    intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton, there is no demand
    for evidence, no skepticism to surmount, no need to worry.