Field of Science

Religion in the journal Nature

Kudos to Sam Harris - author of The End of Faith - for writing a letter to Nature (Nature 448, 864, 23 August 2007) criticizing the editors of Nature for their support of supernatural beliefs; i.e., religion. Harris first points out the hypocrisy in Nature's publication of an earlier opinion piece (in the July 12 issue) that argues that Islam has "an intrinsically rational world view." Ironically, the author of the earlier piece (Z. Sardar) acknowledges that "science in Muslim society has suffered a drastic decline," and he seems to genuinely believe that the Islamic religion is consistent with scientific thought, and that science can "reunit[e] reason with revelation." Harris points out that Islam - just like Christianity - regards its holy book as something that "cannot be challenged or contradicted, being the perfect word of the creator of the Universe" - which is a supremely un-scientific attitude. Harris also criticizes Nature for their favorable editorial about Francis Collins' recent book on his own personal religious (Christian) beliefs, and he includes some choice quotes pointing out how un-scientific that book is.

Harris' criticism of Nature is right on the mark. We are inundated with writing about religion, and religious people have a huge number of highly visible outlets to express their views. Religion is discussed daily in the mainstream media as well as countless specialized publications and television shows. We have a President here in the U.S. who constantly talks about religion, and he is supported by a fundamentalist movement that wants nothing more than to impose their religion on the rest of the country. Science, on the other hand, has a far smaller number of venues, and has much less of the public's attention. Scientific publications - especially those with a large readership, such as Nature - should focus on science and science policy. Harris is right when he says: "There are bridges and there are gangplanks, and it is the business of journals such as Nature to know the difference."

Or, to put it another way, the title of the journal is Nature, not Supernature. If the editors of Nature want to publish articles about supernatural phenomena, they should change the title of the journal.

5 comments:

  1. I agree that beliefs themselves do not ordinarily fall under the purview of a journal entitled Nature. But books like Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell explain religion as a natural phenomenon, suggesting that these authors' hypotheses may be discussed--and indeed are welcomed by people like Sam Harris--in the pages of scientific journals.

    Would it not be right, then, for books that argue against these hypotheses to also be discussed in scientific journals? Granted, these books' "evidence" is not what is normally seen in scientific journals, but neither is the "evidence" in Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which mostly amounts to invective and highly selective anecdotes.

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  2. Couldn't agree more - I was very happy to see the letter from Sam Harris in Nature; it was well written and hopefully made someone in the editorial department think what the publication should be all about.
    You mention that religion has many venues to get it's story out...but interestingly you forgot to include churches...every town has many...but there are much fewer scientific meeting places where people congregate to discuss topics from the scientific (non supernatural) realm...

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  3. Steven,

    Whole-heartedly agree with you that kudos do need to go to Sam Harris for succinctly but thoroughly putting Nature (and it's editors) into question. The quite passing of the Francis Collins book review and the Sadar commentary are two of many examples that nonscientific rhetoric all too easily pervades our lives, and not entirely in beneficial ways. "The End of Faith" as well as "god is not Great" by Christopher Hitchens are absolute musts for both scientists and non-scientists alike.

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  4. I must say that I disagree on that issue. I am clearly not a religious person, but I cannot see why it would hurt to have Nature review a book on religion/science aspects written by a prominent scientist.

    In particular, I don't understand your argument: "We are inundated with writing about religion, and religious people have a huge number of highly visible outlets to express their views".
    This might be a phenomenon restricted to the US and to certain Islamic countries, but certainly not worldwide. I think that in most European countries, you have a far greater media exposure to science (well, what the public media call "science") than to religion. Actually, I'd have to think hard to remember any kind of religious exposure outside of a church (where you won't find me).

    From a purely cultural perspective, I find it very interesting to see how actively working scientists are arguing to reconcile religious beliefs with science. I think that reporting on this topic is absolutely suitable for Nature and other science journals. Please don't forget that there is a world outside the USA, and that Nature is not a pure US publication.

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  5. Harris has no credibility sufficient to criticize Nature other than his own beliefs about religion and your agreement with him.

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