GR reader contributes a little ghost-spotting of his own

GR reader contributes a little ghost-spotting of his own March 24, 2014

You know that cliché about some stories writing themselves? Well, sometimes a reader fairly writes stories for us, too.

It came this past week with a brief e-mail by James Stagg, a friend of this blog. He called our attention to mostly excellent interview with the Rev. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory. Not without its issues, though. See below.

The Q&A-style interview, on, has an adept triple news hook. For one, many people would be surprised that the Vatican even has an observatory. For another, as a priest and scientist, Coyne is chairman of religious philosophy at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school. And the college is in Syracuse, providing a local angle for the interview.

Coyne also gives a “snappy interview,” in Stagg’s words. We’re treated to inside info such as:

* The Vatican has two big working telescopes, neither of them in Italy.

* All 15 staffers with the Vatican astronomers are Jesuits.

* A meteorite laboratory and a library are part of the Vatican Observatory.

Why was the interview “mostly” excellent, then? Because of a “major ghost”spotted by Stagg himself. In the second-to-last paragraph, we see Coyne saying:

I have been a vocal opponent of intelligent design. It is not science, although it pretends to be. I am concerned that fundamentalist religious beliefs might continue to influence the role of science in the modern decision-making process.

“The reporter missed a BIG discussion about why Father Coyne opposes ‘intelligent design,’ which, as a Catholic priest, he should support in some form,” Stagg writes. “What he is actually opposed to is probably the teaching of “creationism,” which is fundamentalist in belief. BIG hole; otherwise good article.”

Stagg is right. A basic premise of journalism is not to raise any questions you don’t answer. For instance, “How is intelligent design unscientific?”

I wonder if the reporter set up for an antagonistic answer in her question: “How do you feel about intelligent design, or the theory that rejects evolution, instead saying the physical world was created by an intelligent designer?”

This is a false choice. Michael Behe of Lehigh University, a champion of intelligent design, has said himself that he doesn’t oppose evolution. He does teach “irreducible complexity,” that some structures of living things — analogous to the parts of a mousetrap — could not have developed separately. But he has also said that, creation or evolution, the process had help from an intelligent source:

… it is important to understand that a hypothesis of intelligent design has no quarrel with evolution per se — that is, “evolution” understood simply as descent with modification, but leaving the mechanism open. After all, a designer may have chosen to work that way. Rather than common descent, the focus of ID is on the mechanism of evolution — how did all this happen, by natural selection or by purposeful intelligent design?

A second point that is often overlooked but should be emphasized is that intelligent design can happily coexist with even a large degree of natural selection. Antibiotic and pesticide resistance, antifreeze proteins in fish and plants, and more may indeed be explained by a Darwinian mechanism. The critical claim of ID is not that natural selection doesn’t explain anything, but that it doesn’t explain everything.

If Father Coyne didn’t know these counter-arguments, then he hasn’t explored the thinking of this pioneer of intelligent design. But I suspect that the Syracuse reporter hasn’t, either.

Other stuff? Yeah, there’s some. The reporter says that Pope Pius XII ruled in 1950 that “Darwin’s views could be embraced as ‘serious hypothesis’ but not as certain doctrine.’ ” If she means Pius’ encyclical Humani Generis, the phrase “serious hypothesis” appears nowhere in the English translation. It does appear in a 1996 address by Pope John Paul II.

Second nitpick: The reporter quotes Coyne as saying he retired as director of the Vatican Observatory just before Pope John Paul II’s death in 2006. John Paul actually died in 2005. Coyne probably said actually that he left after the pope’s death.

The third: The article says Coyne retired from the Vatican Observatory in 2012. Then how could he have stepped down as director several years earlier? The answer is that he stayed on as president of the foundation, leaving in 2012 for Le Moyne College.

These are all comparative nitpicks, as I say. Overall, the reporter showed alertness and news sense to interview a first-rate authority in her own back yard. And James Stagg was alert, and kind, to give an assist to GetReligion.

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10 responses to “GR reader contributes a little ghost-spotting of his own”

  1. Coyne has written and spoken much on the topic. I heard him in Houston a few years ago. He rejects any idea of God intervening in the process. He believes evolution to be, of necessity, totally random and totally free–and would regard even an evolutionist like Behe to be a “creationist” because he allows for intervention by God even in the limited sense of packing design into the protomaterial of the universe prior to the Big Bang many billions of years ago. That’s not “creationism” in the sense that any knowledgable person would use the term, of course. Here’s one of Coyne’s talks:

    • Please articulate how Behe’s views on Irreducible Complexity and ID can be distinguished from Progressive Creationism. Behe’s position is not merely “allow[ing] for intervention by God”, it is that Irreducible Complexity (an argument widely debunked by the scientific community) is evidence of this intervention.

  2. YES, Michael Behe “rejects evolution” as being the source of the diversity of lifeforms that we see on this planet (i.e. the Theory of Evolution, originally formulated in Charles Darwin’s ‘Origins of Species’. In his widely-debunked books ‘Darwin’s Black Box’ and ‘Edge of Evolution’, he attempts to create (fallacious) gaps in evolution for his ‘God of the Gaps’ designer to inhabit. Attempts to present this as not “oppos[ing] evolution” is tendentious in the extreme. And what Behe “teach[es]” is disavowed even by his own department — as the “Official Disclaimer” on his webpage confirms.

    NO Mickey, bald assertion of intelligent design is most certainly not a “mechanism of evolution”, and ID-advocates never ever propose a substantive alternative hypothesis of “how did all this happen”.

  3. “Intelligent design” in our modern common discourse is a theory about science. It is so well known that it needs no further introduction. Father Coyne rejects it as the wrong way to think about the nature of science, seeing it as no different from creationism. This post’s effort to ding the reporter for not making a distinction there is not convincing.

  4. “If Father Coyne didn’t know these counter-arguments…”
    Trust me, Father Coyne is well versed in the ins and outs of this conversation. He simply does not find Behe’s view to be convincing and did not choose to go down that rabbit trail in this interview. That hardly constitutes a “ghost” per the GR definition.

    “’How do you feel about intelligent design, or the theory that rejects evolution…’ This is a false choice.”
    Not really. Intelligent Design advocates commonly set up “Darwinism” as their bête noire.

    “The reporter quotes Coyne as saying he retired as director of the
    Vatican Observatory just before Pope John Paul II’s death in 2006. John
    Paul actually died in 2005.”
    The word “before” should have been “after.” Coyne retired in 2006, just after JPII’s death. We’re getting pretty niggly here.

    “The article says Coyne retired from the Vatican Observatory in 2012.
    Then how could he have stepped down as director several years earlier?”
    Quite easily. The director of a scientific institution is usually chosen from among the staff scientists. Coyne retired as director in 2006, reverting to the position of regular staff scientist. He retired entirely in 2012.

    Final grade: This post succeeded in identifying a copy editing error (the word “before” somehow replaced “after”), but every other criticism is not really convincing.

  5. Sorry Jim, but this business about how the reporter must have misunderstood Fr. Coyne because Fr. couldn’t have meant that he disagreed with Behe et al. is fallacious. Why can’t we take Father Coyne at his word? There are all kinds of reasons to find ID to be bad science and bad religion.

    You are right to notice that the reporter cut a corner in the “serious hypothesis” attribution. That idea is consistent with paragraph 36 of Humani Generis, but the quoted phrase comes from the JPII address.

  6. Michael Behe of Lehigh University… does teach “irreducible complexity,”

    But that hypothesis hasn’t stood up to scientific scrutiny. None of the example he’s put forth have held up under investigation. Not the bacterial flagellum, not the clotting cascade, and most famously and publicly not the vertebrate immune system. To the extent that ID is scientific, it is – so far, at least – failed science. Perhaps Behe might eventually come up with an example that stands up to scrutiny, but until then saying ID isn’t science is perfectly reasonable.

  7. Touchy, touchy.

    First, thanks, Jim Davis, for the additional scrutiny of the article which the reporter admits is space-limited. After all, we are focused on writing ABOUT religion, and that information should be accurate and………complete.

    It would seem that the question touched a nerve….somewhere….and resulted in piling on one point of view on Intelligent Design. Oh, the absolute horror that term stirs in the (supposed) souls of so many.

    As should be obvious to all the commenters, there is “Intelligent Design” and “intelligent design”.

    Father Coyne would not be a Catholic priest if he denied that God created everything we have today from scratch. That view of “God’s creation” is Catholic doctrine. The means by which He did it is open for discussion and for various scientific theories, and I do emphasize the word “theory”

    Thanks for the reference to one of Father Coyne’s talks. Here is a quote from the talk, which belies the fiercely-high fence being erected between religion and science:

    “The great British intellectual and Roman Catholic Cardinal, John Henry Newman, stated in 1868: ‘The theory of Darwin, true or not, is not necessarily atheistic; on the contrary, it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of divine providence and skill.’ What a marvelous intuition and one which we shall see fits very well the implications to be drawn from our scientific knowledge of an evolutionary universe.”


    • Actually, it seems like Jim Davis was being touchy, perceiving ID as being dissed.

      (Oh, and “theory” in science doesn’t mean “hunch” or “guess”. The closest word in science to the popular connotation is “hypothesis”. For example, it’s still the “germ theory of disease”. I actually see a fair number of journalists miss that.)

  8. BTW, we should link this article to the one by tmatt on 3/22:
    Pod people: To the end of the secular universe and beyond!