On Intellectual Courage and Accountability, Ron Eglash

Author Information: Ron Eglash, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, eglash@rpi.edu

Eglash, Ron. “On Intellectual Courage and Accountability.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 3 (2015): 36-39.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1Wb

Please refer to:


Image credit: Nishanth Jois, via flickr

I was disappointed to see that Steve Fuller’s essay of December 25, 2014 takes the proposed public statement by the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S), which would officially condemn the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in public school science classes, as a personal attack. As the main author of the petition, I can assure you that few scholars better embody the concept of intellectual courage than Steve Fuller, and I had sent an email to him saying as much many years ago. In his essay Fuller refers to Voltaire’s statement, “protect me from my friends.” But it was Evelyn Beatrice Hall, best known for her biography entitled The Friends of Voltaire, who captured the definition of intellectual courage which I believe is strongly shared by both Fuller and myself: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Fuller has every right to continue to appear in court and declare that defense of teaching creationism and intelligent design in public school science classes is a fundamental consequence of STS principles, just as those of us who support the resolution have the right to that form of expression. 

I have some minor quibbles with Fuller’s essay, as well as points of agreement. He describes the proposed resolution as concerning “science classes”, whereas it actually specifies “public school science classes”—an important distinction since privately funded schools are not restricted from teaching creationism in the US. The fact that millions of dollars in public funding are now being funneled into these private schools that teach creationism underscores the on-going importance of this issue. Another quibble is that he claims this is “without precedent.” To the contrary, the organization CASTAC, the anthropological committee on science and technology studies, passed a very similar public statement that has been available on the STS Wiki for many years. Many prominent 4S members are also CASTAC members.

The literature of STS also includes related perspectives. In her cyborg manifesto, Donna Haraway famously argued that since evolutionary theory is now fundamental to understanding the relations between the human and non-human inhabitants of our world, “teaching modern Christian creationism should be fought as a form of child abuse.” In his essay “why has critique run out of steam” Bruno Latour argued that STS should not passively lend itself to appropriation by groups that promote skepticism in science for socially detrimental purposes. Analyzing how the symbols of science are abused by non-science groups, Chris Toumey’s Conjuring Science notes that creationism fits a familiar appropriation pattern. An alternative path with similar outcomes can be found in Harry Collins and Robert Evans’ “Third Wave” approach, in which “all parties to the construction of the legitimacy of a technological decisions come to accept that the mechanism renders it just even where they disagree with the outcome.” Perhaps most broadly, there is a recent body of STS scholarship formed around the deliberate production of ignorance and deception, including creationism and its variants. This includes Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger’s Agnotology, Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner’s Deceit and Denial, David Michael’s Doubt is Their Product, James Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up, and Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science. The proposed public statement, far from being unprecedented, is simply reflecting the growing importance of STS in protecting the public’s health, environment and social well-being against these deceptive abuses.

As for points of agreement, I am in partial agreement with Fuller’s contention that this writer (referring only to myself) is “out of his depth” as he puts it. Partial that is, because I can’t possibly compete with the breathtaking depth of philosophical knowledge commanded by Fuller. But I am not out of my depth when it comes to applying STS principles to science education, nor the relation of that interaction to religion. My entire career has been primarily focused on integrating indigenous knowledge—mostly Native American and African—into science education and application. Since these societies traditionally stress the spiritual connections of both daily life and esoteric knowledge, religion has been an important part of that work (see for example “Computation, Complexity and Coding in Native American Knowledge Systems”).

One of the objections to the resolution I have heard is the mistaken claim that it would prevent Native American schools from integrating their traditional beliefs into science classes. In the US I have worked with schools serving indigenous students and teachers in Yupik, Navajo, Shoshone, Potawatomi, Ute, Onondaga, and Lakota nations. All of these schools have courses such as “Native Studies” in which students learn traditional origin stories, and all of them have biology courses where they learn the theory of evolution; the two get along just fine. I asked Kim TallBear, widely regarded as the preeminent STS scholar on the subject, if I was missing something. She said she had come to similar conclusions in her interviews of native scientists, as noted in this 2014 paper on indigenous bioscientists:

Rather than being stumped by incompatible knowledge forms—as a Creation vs. Evolution discourse would have us believe things are—these Native American scientists expressed a more fundamental sense of unease with perhaps what could be described as social differences between traditional scientific versus traditional tribal relationships with knowledge. There is a right-to-know ethos, a notion of intellectual autonomy that is a taken-for-granted good in science. Yet in the tribal worlds tribal scientists move in and out of, some knoweldges are reserved for some social actors, and not others.

Most of my STEM education work has been around indigenous knowledge in Africa. Like traditional Native American religion, traditional African religions often feature a trickster god which produces uncertainty and bottom-up emergence: a better fit to evolution than the Christian god of top-down design and perfection. Thus Intelligent Design is not a generic representation of religious belief in relation to science, but rather one made specifically for the Christian god who embodies the perfection of top-down design; and in accordance with an imperative to impose their faith—an imposition familiar to many indigenous people whose children were forced into English-only boarding schools or violently coerced into religious conversion. Of course science too has been part of colonial and post-colonial oppression; conversely there are wonderful Christian traditions of social justice, such as the civil rights activism of Quakers, Unitarians and similar groups. But the remarkable indigenous educational achievement of balancing science education, social justice and religious pluralism needs to be acknowledged; their schools are not in need of “saving” by creationists.

While Native American tricksters tend toward bottom-up emergence via stochastic variation, the African ones tend to use recursion for their bottom-up emergence; hence the prevalence of fractals in African design. We have found that science and math lessons based on this fractal connection to African spiritual traditions shows statistically significant improvement in math and science learning for children of African heritage, both in the US as well as Africa. In his recent work, Fuller suggests that we think of protestant Christianity as a model for open source code, DIY bio and similar important trends. But like evolution, these are also largely bottom-up, emergent practices. Open source founders such as Eric Raymond made the explicit connection to indigenous culture as early as 1998 (e.g. “The Hacker Milieu as Gift Culture”). Our own work shows that this is not merely metaphoric; specific social structures for open source projects and indigenous “common pool resource” economies share the same emphasis on “generative justice.” The design trends of interest to Fuller are indeed connected to spiritual inspiration, but indigenous cultures provide better models of these bottom-up processes, not the top-down approach of a transcendent, all-knowing designer.

One reading of my differences with Fuller would see it through the lens of social construction versus positivism. Another could be sociology versus anthropology. But I don’t think either is accurate. Rather, I would contend that both our approaches are “Fullerian”—an appreciation for the deep imbrication of science and its social context, including religion. However we selected different religious traditions to examine in relation to science. I cannot imagine Navajo religious leaders telling the Shoshone that they have to adopt Navajo spiritual beliefs into their biology classroom. Given this respect for the spiritual beliefs of others, it only makes sense that their science classrooms would be taught using concepts consistent with the scientific community, even when accompanied by social critique or cultural enrichment. The Christian model, in contrast, often comes with the injunction to convert all cultures to their faith (Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”). That injunction might imply to some that scientific culture, like that of indigenous people, must also undergo a forced conversion. Surely our differing policy recommendations have been influenced by that different exposure. If we truly believe in social epistemology, then it applies to STS as much as any other science.


Collins, Harry M. and Robert J. Evans. Rethinking Expertise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

TallBear, Kim. “Indigenous Scientists Constitute Knowledge across Cultures of Expertise and Tradition: An Indigenous Standpoint Research Project.” In RE: MINDINGS: Co-Constituting Indigenous/Academic/Artistic Knowledges, edited by Johan Gärdebo, May-Britt Öhman, and Hiroshi Maryuama, 173-191. Uppsala Multiethnic Papers 55. The Hugo Valentin Centre, Uppsala University, Uppsala, 2014.

Categories: Comments

Tags: , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. This was really good. I never thought to consider the colonial implications of Christianity-centric ID. One thing that has occurred to me reading through this, is whether the problem is not one of “should we teach ID or not?” but that the idea of placing young minds in contact with religious ideas of any kind is somehow a threat to their develop. As a (junior) philosopher I don’t really find the idea of exposure to any religious view particularly threatening (I realize that’s not the case for everyone). Perhaps the problem isn’t so much whether or not we should encourage religious thinking, but instead, whether or not we are equipping student’s with the proper critical tools to negotiate with both religious and scientific truth. There’s a push locally (Brisbane, but in a number of other Australian cities) by Gilbert Burgh, Liz Fynes-Clinton and Peter Ellerton to introduce philosophy and critical thinking education into schools at both the primary and high school level and so far it looks quite successful.

    We held a World Philosophy Day event at the University of Queensland where we had two sessions.

    The first, at the beginning of the day: a “reconstructed” primary school classroom with about 15 students (aged around 10, by my guess) who participated in a group inquiry session around the topic of “imagination”. Students here were free to ask each other questions, as well as create and share their own ideas. At every opportunity to speak their minds, every single child’s hand would shoot up with incredible enthusiasm. A pedagogical miracle! It was a beautiful thing to witness and the children’s spontaneous thinking around the subject was actually strikingly sophisticated for what you would expect at that age.

    The second at the end of the day: a handful of senior high school students as a panel. They were all super bright and displayed a command over philosophical questions equal to that of a third year undergraduate student.

    I think the point is that, equipping student’s with a capacity to think critically beyond the received material might actually be the way to go as far as curbing any “perceived dangers or excesses” associated with introducing any theologically motivated view about science such as ID. As someone who teaches first year science students basic epistemology and ethics, it seems to that adjusting the way that science is actually taught in schools to include more critical thinking about methodology, history and its relation to other forms/ways of knowing might play a significant role in changing the atmosphere of the ID debate. It seems like getting students to practice lab experiments without a substantial understanding of how they actually prove anything is conceptually no different from teaching them how to assemble a Big Mac! Presenting science as a fixed body of truths to students at the high school level (because we deem them not sophisticated enough to grapple with more difficult questions) seems to /create/ a political situation where the question of including ID in high school science ed is perceived as an ideological battleground, where various positions with respect to this issue accuse one another of attempting to brainwash children. Perhaps we should start giving our kids a bit more credit (look at how bored so many of them are!) and try equipping them with the tools they need to think critically and negotiate ethically with whatever gets thrown their way.

    • I completely agree about the importance of introducing “philosophy and critical thinking education into schools at both the primary and high school level.” But no one proposes doing that using philosophy created by frauds or crackpots. The same should apply to science curricula. I think you are absolutely right when you point out the importance of students learning to think for themselves in both science and philosophy, but they aren’t going to be able to do that with books and materials that fail to teach what those professional communities have to offer. –RE

  2. I will be publishing a full-blown response to Eglash’s piece, which (putting it charitably) displays a certain ‘incommensurability’ with I originally said.

  3. The proposed resolution is rather slippery. And the FAQs don’t help much and veer way off track. But I’ll respond only to the proposed resolution here, which apparently would be (please correct this if wrong) only the 4th in the past 14 years at 4S, and the 3rd in the past year (http://www.4sonline.org/resolutions_reports – as if now 4S welcomes more social-political activism?).

    The ‘neutral stance’ position is of course a myth, which SoS among other fields has revealed. Does Dr. Eglash think the proposed resolution displays a ‘neutral stance’? It sure doesn’t look that way to me.

    Example: So-called ‘methodological naturalism’ exclusively privileges natural causes/effects; it only addresses those and no other kinds of causes/effects (covering social, cultural and even technological with ‘natural’). Should we soon expect a proposed resolution against methodological naturalism by Dr. Eglash’s activist team to show more ‘neutrality’ or ‘balance’ and to protect narrow-mindedness (or “philosophy created by frauds or crackpots”) from USA schools?

    Let me state openly that I am not a supporter of Discovery Institute’s current double-talking uppercase ‘Intelligent Design’ theory, nor a believer in ideological creationism (leaving aside creation and origins stories). However, ‘evolution’ and/or ‘evolutionary theory’ *is* pretty much undeniably and importantly a triadic science, philosophy and theology/worldview ‘controversy’ (meaning: ‘prolonged public dispute’). 4S and STS are (can) both (be) relevant interlocutors in this controversy. Otherwise they would appear to be closed off both to philosophy and theology/worldview, which is a rather narrow (and dehumanising) position to hold.

    The wider problem, which provoked these reactionary IDists (neo-creationists), rightly or wrongly, is ideological evolutionism (cf. sociobiology, eVo psych, universal Darwinism, etc.), not strictly biological evolutionary theories. Should we expect a proposed 4S resolution against evolutionism spearheaded by Dr. Eglash? Dehumanising dangers to society lurk proudly and loudly among evolutionists (who promote not just evolution, but also evolutionism) these days; easily seen and heard if one turns their attention away from criticising only IDism and/or creationism.

    I wouldn’t necessarily say the resolution lacks courage, but only that it displays a particular blindness to extra- or non-scientific issues that matter to a whole lot of people’s lives beyond what STS was lowercase ‘(un)intelligently designed’ to face. Imo, Fuller’s approach is more humanising and uplifting than that. It would make 4S look shallow and empty (along with USA-centric) to support this resolution as it stands.

    What would be more productive from Dr. Eglash, in my opinion, would be to acknowledge that there are several varieties of ‘intelligence’ + ‘designing’ (and even a still widely popular natural theological ‘design argument’) and to work together with Dr. Fuller and other proactionary scholars around the world, most of whom reject the Discovery Institute’s almost entirely backwards-looking (‘historical science’) IDism and instead look at present and future ‘designs’ with a post-Darwinian paradigm. Darwinian ‘foresight’ is, after all, surely too ludicrous to maintain in 21c. Charles R. Darwin’s methodological naturalism simply won’t make the cut in SS, PoS, SoS or STS today.

  4. this is a beautiful article. obviously useful article.


  1. Who Needs the Science Wars When You’ve Got This on the Homefront? Steve Fuller « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective
  2. Steve Fuller’s False Hope in IDism: The Discovery Institute’s Anti-Transhumanism, Gregory Sandstrom « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

Leave a Reply