Re: [asa] Number of biologists who are TE

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Tue Sep 19 2006 - 11:19:59 EDT

Jack's thoughtful post merits a reply--I hope also a thoughtful one, but a
reply in any event.

Absolutely right, Jack, historians have changed our understanding of Newton
over the years--and sometimes at great resistance from the scientific
establishment. For a prime example of this, see Richard Popkins' tale about
wholly unsuccessful efforts a quarter century ago to get NSF or NEH funding
for a scholary edition of Newton's theological and alchemical papers. It
was to be edited by Popkin (a world class historian of ideas), the late
Betty Jo Dobbs (the leading historian of Newton's alchemy at the time), and
the late Richard S Westfall (my former thesis adviser and the leading Newton
scholar of the past century). I quote from his account, in "Newton and
Newtonianism: New Studies," ed. James Force and Sarah Hutton (2004), p. 20:

"We were convinced that the people who had not wanted anything to do with
Newton's religious and alchemical opinions and wanted to preserve his
position as a pure scientist, were behind this [refusal to fund the
project]. Westfall and Dobbs had had many run-ins with the scientific
establishment in England and America. I went to Washington to try and find
out what happened and to reinstitute applications for funding. I went to
see the director of historical work at the NSF. He calmly indicated that he
had told the NEH not to fund the project. As I tried to draw him out as to
why he was so adamant, and why he did not want this material of Newton's to
be available to scholars, he told me he would be willing to fund making a
mircofilm of all of Newton's manuscripts and placing the microfilm at the
University of Northern Alaska, where any scholar could look at them, if he
or she wished."

Popkin is hardly a follower of the Edinburgh strong programme or some other
type of social constructivism. Westfall was a hardcore defender of
scientific rationality--he actually believed (wrongly) that Newton's
theology did not influence his science, and (wrongly) that Newton had been a
sceptical deist rather than a bible-believing non-trinitarian Christian (if
that's not an empty set). They weren't the usual suspects when it comes to
promoting "science wars."

Yet the very attitude that sank this Newton project, it seems to me,
underlies Prof Silver's comments--not only his comments about Newton, whose
immense historical importance gives greater signficance to Silver's
erroneous point than it otherwise would carry, but also his larger point
about science and religion today. Genuine scientists, he is saying, just do
not allow their religious beliefs to influence their work. Period. And
Newton is a nice case in point, he wrongly affirms for the world.

Let me respond also Jack's point here:

One of the major changes in ASA (and Science and Religion in particular)
is that most scientists have been forced out of the
discussion over the years as philosophers, theologians, sociologists and
historians have taken over - the ones with degrees in
a science and one of the humanities - who no longer do science. This
has been good because the topic covers all of
culture. Yet, we may be turning off science people because they may
not understand the vocabulary or are not really
interested in what they see being discussed in the /PSCF/. Perhaps this
is a reason that the ASA has seen a declining membership.

Ted responds:
Fascinating point, and it might be partly right. Rightly or wrongly, my
own view (no surprise) for more than 30 years (going back to my days
teaching high school science and math) has been that HPS is the most crucial
discipline for "science and religion." That's why I left high school
teaching to get a doctorate under Westfall: I wanted to enter the dialogue
with expertise in the core field. I saw so much being written that was so
wrong, in the service of a cultural agenda that was dangerous to Christian
faith, that I was eager to start getting on with the job of rewriting the
history of religion and science; to clear away the underbrush, as it were,
to make it possible to "get it right" in the future.

It seems to me, however, that declining interest in our journal might well
reflect generational issues, esp the career challenges faced by the current
generation entering scientific fields. Immense pressures placed on postdocs
and other junior scholars to work themselves to death and to focus very
narrowly on advancing their own careers through serving the reputations of
the project directors who are bringing home the bacon. It's harder for
folks in such situations to see much beyond the next experimental
horizon--and I am not being critical of them as individuals.
Science-and-religion is a highly interdisciplinary field, with the larger
questions really coming out of humanities perspectives (whether or not they
are raised by scientists themselves, as they often are). It should be no
surprise that people with graduate training in the humanities (whether or
not they also have training in the sciences at any level, though it
certainly helps to have it) are often leading the way.

My blessings, Jack, and my gratitude for all you have done to make the ASA
website a key resource for the church and others.


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Received on Tue Sep 19 11:50:56 2006

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