Eugenie Scott: The Dover Trial and the Scientist Hat

It is the fifteenth anniversary of the Dover Trial, so let's revisit Eugenie Scott's "scientist hat." Fifteen years ago, a public drama unfolded in Dover, Pennsylvania. In 2005, a school board tried to mandate teaching Intelligent Design (ID) in high school science class. This moved provoked a lawsuit. The Dover Trial was billed as the Scopes Trial of this century, taking place 80 years later.

The Dover Trial itself is quite a story, but it was not the whole story. At the same time, a board in Kansas decided to showcase Intelligent Design by holding hearings on evolution of their own. The Kansas Hearings did not provoke a lawsuit. Some ID leaders see the Dover Trial as a regrettable mistake, while pointing to the Kansas hearings what they really hoped for. Most scientists, however, were not happy with either Dover or Kansas.

In December 2005, the Dover Trial came to an end, and could not have been worse for ID. A Republican judge ruled against them. This was in a federal court, so this ruling impacted ID's prospects in the textbook wars across the nation. ID would not find its way into high school biology class.

Nathan Lents and I are interviewing Eugenie Scott about the Trial. Eugenie is a scientist. From 1986 till 2014, she was the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a non-profit science education organization. She played a pivotal role in engaging ID though the 1990s and 2000s.

In the aftermath of the Dover Trial, Eugenie offered an olive branch:

Properly understood, the principle of methodological [naturalism] requires neutrality towards God; we cannot say, wearing our scientist hats, whether God does or does not act.

Certainly methodological naturalism is contested among creationists, but her interpretation of it was irenic. She was offering an olive branch, and I was ready to take it. She is an atheist and a scientist, but she is not anti-religious. Perhaps there could be a way to peaceful science here.


If the Dover Trial held in Nigeria, evolutionary biologists would have lost. I doubt many would even buy GAE over here.

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Great conversation. Very enjoyable. I hope you get to talk with Eugenie again soon.

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There is an enormous overlap of people who are both Christians (and believers in other religions, for that matter) and effective working scientists. There is no inherent contradiction, and it’s valuable to push back on the ‘gnu atheists’ like Dawkins who claim there is.

It’s just that these scientists don’t invoke supernatural action in their scientific work. The explanations they use for natural effects are natural causes and causal links.

But in their personal lives, and their beliefs about what happens after we die, and their attitudes toward their fellow human beings, they are sincere religious believers.


Great conversation.

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Does Dawkins, or any other prominent ‘New Atheist’, explicitly state that religious people cannot be effective working scientists (citation please)? I’d suggest that the ‘contradictions’ they see are elsewhere.

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The link in the post immediately below is oddly labeled for spring 2003, which is obviously incorrect, since the trial didn’t happen until Sept 2005 and the article was published in the Winter 2006 issue. [I wrote this after the one below, but it has for some reason been published first.]

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I live near Dover, PA–it’s the school district just south of mine–and I was asked to write a magazine article about the trial. So, I attended several days. Reporters called me often during the trial, about issues related to science/religion and the larger cultural issues–not the biochemistry, where I know nothing. I didn’t want to be quoted, but I was deep background for stories in both York (PA) papers, which were the papers of record, the NY Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer (one of their reporters took me to lunch). I also met one of Darwin’s great-grandsons, who is a writer in the UK.

Here’s the story I did myself: RELIGION IN THE NEWS Spring 2003


Finding chapter and verse for that particular meme might be difficult, but similar memes aren’t hard to document. For example, the late Will Provine famously liked to say that scientists who were religious (by implication, who were Christians, since he referenced churches in his phrasing) had to “check their brain[s] at the church-house door.” His former student Betty Smocovitis writes about this here: William B. Provine: The Evolutionary Theorist Even Creationists Loved | | Observer

In other words, you can’t consistently be a good scientist and a sincere Christian. That’s close enough for me. Or, consider how Jerry Coyne sought to undermine the legitimacy of having some who believes in the Resurrection (Francis Collins) as head of the NIH.


Provine’s statement that “if you believe in evolution you have to check your brain at the church-house door” would appear to be more indicative of an opinion that scientists have to ‘turn off’ their scientific skepticism when contemplating religion (similar to a process known in psychology as ‘compartmentalisation’) rather than claiming that they’re either bad scientists or insincere Christians. It is certainly well short of claiming an “inherent contradiction” between being “both Christians … and effective working scientists”.

Coyne’s views on Collins’ appointment can be found here:

Although it expresses some ambivalence (due to Collins’ outspokenness about his support of religion), it is explicitly benefit-of-the-doubt (“give the guy a break”) and “wait-and-see”. Again, well short of seeking to undermine his legitimacy, let alone stating an “inherent contradiction” between being “both Christians … and effective working scientists”.


That’s not what it means. They’re talking about compartmentalization. You can be both as long as you don’t subject your Christianity and your science to the same standards and methods. NOMA. Of course, using different standards isn’t consistent.


John, I do read this differently–putting Provine’s statement in the context of his life and beliefs. As you may know, he told students in his classes that they had to choose between evolution and religious faith; he told me that much himself, and others confirmed it for me. You’re too generous to Provine, IMO. He wasn’t talking about mere compartmentalization, the NOMA-style approach you allude to. He found fundamental, unacceptable inconsistency between religion and science. Expecting scientists to turn off their brains in church goes well beyond mere NOMA.

You may be right about Provine, though I met him only once, and he didn’t seem unreasonable. But it should be possible to turn your brain off in church and back on again when church is over, so I don’t see a conflict with NOMA there. One may argue that the magisterium of religion has nothing important to teach, but that still doesn’t deflate the NOMA concept. It seems a model that can work by compartmentalization. I think Jerry Coyne believes so, even if Will Provine didn’t.


Cognitive Dissonance is overrated. Adult minds are capable of holding conflicting thoughts with or without fully accepting them.


I myself have been able to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.


Incidentally, another person with a similar professional profile to Will Provine also did the same thing in his classes: he told students they had to choose between evolution or religion. I mean Gar Allen, who taught for decades at Wash U: Garland Allen | Department of Biology

Gar and I were on a panel about creationism at a prof meeting in the late 1980s. It was either during the session, or in a conversation shortly afterwards, that he said this. Subsequently I was told the same thing by one of his former TAs.

I’ve interacted with Gar a more few times over the years, especially with regard to his expertise as an historian of biology in eugenics and other aspects of social Darwinism. On that subject, he’s the master and I’m the pupil.

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Speaking just for myself, I don’t consciously turn off my brain when entering church, though some of my friends don’t understand why I believe in God. As for NOMA, I’m not a big fan: it’s basically the Andrew Dickson White “warfare” view writ large, as Stephen Jay Gould himself realized.

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For what it’s worth my comment about Dawkins and his ilk was a throwaway, not well supported with evidence, and I’m happy to withdraw it.


We’ve been through this before, Tim. Coyne actually came onto this forum asking @Eddie to apologize saying that he had ever opposed Collins’ directorship due to his religious beliefs. He also specifically claimed that he had never called for Collins’ resignation from the post:

Eddie actually apologized to Coyne for not checking his words carefully. Yet later another blogger searched through more blogposts of Coyne and found clear evidence that he had called for Collins’ resignation.

He also found lots of evidence which showed that Coyne did express resistance to Collins’ appointment to NIH director which was related to his religious beliefs and his public expression of them. Yes, Coyne probably never explicitly said, “I opposed Collins’ position at the NIH because he is a Christian,” but in my opinion there’s enough evidence in the link there to show that he strongly insinuated that.