Jerry Coyne’s Confirmation Bias

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Dr. Jerry CoyneOne of Jerry Coyne’s chief complaints about religion in Faith Versus Fact is that it’s overly subject to confirmation bias. This, he says, stands in contrast to science, which has protections against bias built in to it. He might be overly optimistic about the social psychology of scientists there, but I’ll let that pass for now. What’s immediately interesting in this context is that this isn’t a science book, and therefore Coyne doesn’t have scientific methodology protecting him from his own confirmation bias in it.

That’s unfortunate for him, not to mention any readers who might think he’s speaking objective facts. He isn’t, at least not consistently.

Plantinga’s Contradiction?

I’ll illustrate with an example from page 64:

It appears that theologians are ambivalent toward the empirical claims of religion. When writing for academics or liberal clerics, they downplay those claims, but when talking to “regular” believers, they affirm that faith rests on assertions about what’s real in the universe. Alvin Plantinga, for instance, argues in one book that the literal truth of the Bible is subordinate to its moral lessons:

The aim is to discover what God is teaching us in a given passage, and to do so in the light of these assumptions; the aim is not to determine what is true, or plausible, or well supported by the arguments.

But only a year earlier, Plantinga claimed not only that God exists, but that he has definite humanlike qualities:

In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, theism is the belief that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good immaterial person who has created the world, has created human beings “in his own image,” and to whom we owe worship, obedience, and allegiance. . . . Now God, according to theistic belief, is a person: a being who has knowledge, affection (likes and dislikes), and executive will, and who can act on his beliefs in order to achieve his ends.

The first quote is from Plantinga’s 2011 book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. The second is from Plantinga’s 2010 entry on Religion and Science in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Some Easy Observations

My first observation is that the SEP is an odd place to demonstrate how “theologians” change their tune when speaking to “regular” believers. How many “regular” believers do you suppose really go to the SEP for, say, their Sunday School lessons?

My second observation is that Alvin Plantinga is known as a philosopher, not a theologian, and a world class one at that. How did Coyne decide to label him incorrectly that way? Could there be some bias in play here?

My third observation is that the first Plantinga passage quoted here raises a couple of obvious questions: the aim of what, and which assumptions? Is Plantinga really giving some kind of “nudge-nudge-wink-wink” inside information to the intelligentsia, telling them he doesn’t really care what’s true? Or is something else going on? No one could honestly claim to know from this excerpt. Coyne has provided us only enough information about Plantinga’s point for us to know that we don’t know what his point is.

Coyne should have realized that what he’s quoted here is so obviously incomplete, it demonstrates nothing whatsoever, least of all a contradiction. How did he miss that? Could it be confirmation bias?

I note in passing that the world of religion is nowhere near as insular or ignorant as this alleged contradiction would imply. If Plantinga were in such obvious disagreement with himself, the word would have gotten out long ago. How could Coyne fail to see that? Bias, maybe?

(This isn’t the only place where Coyne displays his disconnectedness from his subject material. Elsewhere in the book he labels David Bentley Hart a “liberal theologian.”)

Placing It In Context

Anyway, as I said, Coyne’s first quote is obviously lacking in context. I’m happy to supply that information for you, beginning a page or two earlier in the source material where Plantinga affirmed, “Now what the Lord teaches is of course trustworthy; therefore this entire book so Christians think, is authoritative.” He goes on shortly thereafter to ask,

Just how does this work? Just how does this inspiration happen? Just how can it be said that the Bible is divine discourse? Traditional Biblical commentary tries to answer questions like this….

The enterprise [traditional biblical commentary, that is] is characterized by the assumption I mentioned just above: that God is the principal author of all of the books of the Bible and that it is therefore authoritative. It’s important to see, furthermore, that those who engage in this enterprise also accept and take for granted, in the project, the main lines of Christian belief. Here there may be a bit of diversity; a Roman Catholic commentator will not take for granted precisely what a Protestant commentator does, but the agreement will be much more extensive than the disagreement. The aim is to discover what God is teaching in a given passage…

From there he proceeds into the words Coyne quoted.

Is this downplaying the empirical claims of religion? Hardly. Plantinga is talking about commentators who, by whatever means, have already settled the question of Scripture’s authoritative truth in their minds, and who are working on something else: exegesis and explanation, not apologetics. He’s talking about scholars who believe not that the Bible’s “literal truth is subject to its moral truth,” but that its moral truth derives from its being generally, authoritatively true.

In other words, Coyne turned this passage’s meaning completely upside down. It’s hard to imagine how he could have gotten it so wrong, except by seeing what he wanted to see in it–through confirmation bias.

His book is replete with this kind of thing.

Coyne’s Confirmation Bias

Christian theology, apologetics, and philosophy of religion have their own checks against confirmation bias built in. Coyne seems blissfully unaware of the vigorous debate and sometimes contentious disagreement through which scholars outside science check each other’s work. He seems equally unaware of the fact that his book stands outside that error-checking tradition.

So I close with a question for Jerry Coyne. Dr. Coyne, do you really believe the advance of knowledge depends on its being protected from confirmation bias? Really? If religion is as epistemically challenged as you say it is, your book has done nothing to help.

Image source: Wikimedia.

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6 Responses to “ Jerry Coyne’s Confirmation Bias ”

  1. This fits my experience with Coyne. I always come back to the same question that I have about the other New Atheists:

    Coyne tends to be open about both the fact that he doesn’t understand theology (ignorance)—and that he has a strongly felt personal mission to attack Christianity (bias). Given this, why do so many people listen to him as if he were a valid source of insight on the subject of religion?

    At least, it’s hard not to conclude that there is something other than “reason” and “evidence” going on here.

  2. @Tom

    My second observation is that Alvin Plantinga is known as a philosopher, not a theologian, and a world class one at that. How did Coyne decide to label him incorrectly that way? Could there be some bias in play here?

    To be fair to Coyne, it’s not altogether clear nowadays where the line between theology and philosophy of religion should be drawn.

    From the SEP entry:

    “philosophers and theologians alike are now coming to use the term “analytic theology” to refer to theological work that aims to explore and unpack theological doctrines in a way that draws on the resources, methods, and relevant literature of contemporary analytic philosophy. The use of this term reflects the heretofore largely unacknowledged reality that the sort of work now being done under the label “philosophical theology” is as much theology as it is philosophical.”

  3. @bigbird,

    I suppose, but to be fair to Tom, it’s pretty clear that Plantinga is a philosopher, and that Coyne is reading him very uncharitably.

    If someone were to refer to Coyne as a chemist who contradicts himself in his defense of certain theories, I would be suspicious of that person’s credibility. It would be understandable for Coyne to remark that this someone, who doesn’t seem to appreciate the difference between a chemist and a biologist, is probably not a good critic of science.

    In that case, it is of no help to the critic to point out that there is a fuzzy edge between chemistry and biology.

    But it is worse than that. Imagine that this same critic went on to quote Coyne out of context, complaining that he sometimes says that it is unimportant whether or not evolution is true—what matters is what it entails—but at other times demands that it’s being true is very important.

    In that case, it would be fairly obvious that this is someone who is simply quote-mining out of some vendetta—not someone who should be taken seriously. I’d completely side with Coyne if he were outraged by that. I’d also side with him if he dismissed the critic as not worth bothering about.

    As such, I don’t see any reason to take Coyne as a legitimate critic of Plantinga.

  4. @Debilis

    I suppose, but to be fair to Tom, it’s pretty clear that Plantinga is a philosopher, and that Coyne is reading him very uncharitably.

    I don’t disagree at all that Coyne is treating Plantinga uncharitably, and I agree with most of Tom’s post. It is only a fairly minor point Tom is making about Coyne’s use of “theologian”.

    I just want to point out that philosophy of religion and theology have considerable overlap, and calling Plantinga a theologian isn’t necessarily that inaccurate, as he has many publications in the area of philosophical theology. It might just be confusion on Coyne’s part. I’m reading a philosophy of religion text right now and a considerable portion of it is Christian theology.

    Having said that Tom may well be correct in that it might be some kind of bias of Coyne’s that is labelling him as a theologian rather than a philosopher (and a world-class one at that).

  5. I thought I’d check out Coyne a bit further on this, and it seems a long standing confusion of his about Plantinga being a theologian, not a philosopher.

    See here for example, from three years ago.

    Maybe it is confirmation bias, but I suspect he really doesn’t know the difference between philosophy of religion and theology.