# Templeton Millions

I’m still on vacation for a few days, but will take a quick break from sitting in a hot tub watching the Northern Lights here in Iceland for a short blog entry.

The Templeton Foundation has just announced a plan to honor the centenary of the birth of Sir John Templeton by giving $5.6 million dollars to physicists and astronomers willing to work on four “Big Questions” of a philosophical sort about cosmology. The multiverse is of course one of them. This program will be run out of the University of Chicago and led by astronomer Donald York, who surely was chosen for this partly because he’s an evangelical Christian: …plenty of scientists are religious. Take Donald York, PhD’71, the Horace B. Horton professor in astronomy & astrophysics, the Enrico Fermi Institute, and the College. Founding director of both the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Apache Point Observatory, York is also an evangelical Christian who served as Intervarsity’s faculty sponsor from the mid-’80s through mid-’90s. “I don’t try to make the literal resolution” between science and Christianity, he says. “We’re always changing and growing, and some things are acceptable at different times.” To him, “Science is a story just like the religious stories.” A commenter points out here that DAMTP at Cambridge has just posted a job ad for Templeton-funded hiring in “Philosophy of Cosmology”. Note that this hiring is not in the Philosophy department but in the physics department. The announcement says that there will also be a similar job at Oxford. The “Philosophy of Cosmology” grants used to fund this and similar positions in the US seem to involve at least a couple million dollars, more here and in my earlier blog entry about this. Normally I try and avoid editorializing directly about news like this, but this time I’ll make an exception. I think what is going on here is very dangerous. The Templeton Foundation’s agenda is not the advancement of science, it is the advancement of a particular religious point of view about what science is and how it should be done. They are very cleverly putting large sums of money into backing theology and pseudo-scientific research at the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. One reason that these places are happily taking the money is because public funding is drying up. The organization is extremely wealthy, and now led by Templeton’s son, who when he isn’t spending his father’s money on this is spending it on promoting Rick Santorum’s political career or other far-right causes (see here for example). At least in physics, some of those who can usually be counted on to do battle with the forces of religion have gone quiet. See for example Sean Carroll’s posting about this recent funding, where he discourages commenters from criticizing the source of this money, since it’s being spent on something he approves of. Seems to me that people in this field need to start seriously talking about the implications of this large new funding stream and its source, not suppressing such discussion. Update: I’d be curious to hear from anyone at the University of Chicago who knows what the university’s involvement with this actually is. The main page claims it is a project “led by the University of Chicago” and their logo is all over the site, but Donald York is the only University of Chicago affiliate listed (actually, he seems to be the only person listed, others are just “honorary”). Who at Chicago would have had to approve this, and is the university getting part of the grant funds from Templeton? This entry was posted in Multiverse Mania. Bookmark the permalink. ### 52 Responses to Templeton Millions 1. Deon Garrett says: Part of my problem with this sort of thing is that I know that it’s very purpose is to promote things I think are ultimately harmful. That’s the major issue I have, and it’s enough for me to oppose this sort of thing on its own. But even if you take Carroll’s approach, there’s such an overt agenda here that even if all intentions are honorable, it just invites skepticism. If you’re going to do a real study showing that tobacco use isn’t correlated with cancer risks, you can’t work for a cigarette manufacturer. By the way, how are you enjoying Iceland? I’ve been here about 1.5 years, and I’m always interested in other people’s impressions of the place… 2. Nex says: I don’t have the problem with this as long as I am getting my share of the money 😛 No, but seriously, it does invite skepticism but I still think the balance is positive. I mean it’s not like those funded by templeton will be able to sneak some false premises past their peers or falsify some data, all their work can be easily scrutinized by everyone else. The only valid risk I see is in promoting nonsense to the public, but that has been going on even without the templeton. Also I am genuinely interested if anything sensible can be said about some of the topics they fund and I don’t see anyone else paying for that that kind of research. 3. birth cry says: Robert Millikan was a devout Christian (Baptist I think). He honestly believed that cosmic rays were a signal of the `birth cry of the Universe’, from the Book of Genesis. There is a Wiki page about this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birth_cries_of_atoms Millikan was quite serious in his belief, and went to Chicago (his hometown) many times to give public lectures to raise money for his cosmic ray experiments (this was in the 1920s or so). Whatever his motivations, and the source of his funding, Millikan produced serious science on cosmic rays with the money. Eventually Carl Anderson and others at Caltech had to distance themselves from Millikan. Millikan eventually recognized the indisputable scientific results from his work. He produced serious science whatever his personal religious beliefs and motivations. I suppose the big difference is that Millikan set his own agenda (of science) and found people to fund it. The difference today is that the funding agency (Templeton foundation) sets the agenda. It remains to be seen what actual science is produced, and if it does not support any evidence for the Templeton foundations religious point(s) of view. Yes this is all very much a product of the drying up of public funding. The science labs/institutes have to get money from somewhere. In earlier years (pre WW2?) eminent scientists did get funding from religious sources. 4. Bernhard says: Following Sean Carrol’s logic we should accept science being funded with drug money as well. If we continue on this path we will end up in the dark ages again. 5. Foster Boondoggle says: I think the main issue for scientists or other academics is the provenance of the funds, not what other things the Templeton foundation might support. The$ came from building a mutual fund company – not from selling addictive drugs or some other nefarious business.

And the funds aren’t being used in some lame attempt to bribe practicing scientists to change their beliefs. No thoughtful person is going to decide to become a fundamentalist Christian just because they get offered a grant – or if they do, they’re unlikely to retain the respect of their peers, and they also don’t care what you think about them. From googling around about what science Templeton has spent on to date, it seems definitely biased towards origins and foundational questions, but hardly for trying to convert people. Religion seems to be a basic feature of human society – you find it everywhere and in all cultural histories. Atheist though I am, I see no real problem with scientists taking money from believers to do their (the scientists’) work, on the modest condition of showing up at conferences to talk across the divide about the philosophical implications of their studies. 6. Peter Morgan says: Although you imply that the “point of view about what science is and how it should be done” is a “particular religious” point of view, I take ideas such as Donald York’s, that “Science is a story”, to be culturally more widely held than merely religious. Comparable ideas are, to limit it to my first hand experience, fairly common amongst academics in the humanities. Some of the claims one hears for various mathematical models are fabulous enough to be generously open to critique by a rhetorician. 7. In economic terms, it’s probably a positive thing that these funds are being circulated from the religious sub-economy into the scientific, rather than the foundation just sitting on them, or spending them strictly within their own sect in a “buy-” mindset. If there’s a net cash flow from religion to science, too, that seems like a better direction for the deficit than the other way. When scientific institutions and foundations start financing religious research to the extent that the net flow goes the other way, we should worry more. Like all that money Steve Forbes spent on presidential campaigns, rational reflection recognizes it to be a waste in terms of first order return on investment, but all the baristas and bus drivers and advertisers on the second and extended orders of economic activity supported by those funds benefited. 8. Alp says: Surprisingly, I find that the scientific goals of such scientists might often align with the rest. For instance, from the movie Religulous: Maher meets with both a Vatican astronomer and a priest, both of whom challenge the stereotype of Catholics. Maher asks why the Vatican would have an astronomer or be interested in science and the priest says that “Well, I can tell you that we are not here trying to find other planets just so we can get to them and convert everyone — and beat the Mormons to it. Even though I am not religious and I would be happier it did not happen, I have no right to impose my views on what others should choose as worthwhile. I acknowledge that people have every right to support *any* kind of research with their own funds. After all what good would wealth do if one cannot support the ideas one believes in? This is also true for funding of political candidates. I see this as a consequence of sacred economic liberties. On the other hand it’s quite dubious if people have any right to spend others’ wealth for a particular kind of research (i.e. taxpayer funding). Although it’s sad that appointments might’ve been made not entirely by merit, that is often the case in many academic research positions. It’s easy to see the hypocrisy of liberal academic establishment when they choose to ignore certain elements deciding research. Politics, just like religion, play a tremendous role in research. Just look at what motivates the so called climate science. 9. Brathmore says: Peter, Normally I’m a staunch supporter of this blog and your viewpoints, but this time I think you’re over the top. It almost sounds like you’d like to blacklist any scientist with a specific religious belief, which seems at odds given that you’re upset about the blacklisting of physicists who criticize string theory. You refer to the “dangerous…advancement of a particular religious point of view.” And what, precisely, is that “particular” point of view? Evangelical Christianity? Christianity more broadly? Theism? Any belief in God? It’s hard for me to believe that the Templeton Foundation is really now a front for Evangelical Christianity. (Surely you recognize that there are widely different strains of Christianity, right? To equate an evangelical christian with a Catholic, for instance, is as absurd as a lay person equating a physicist and a biologist, simply because both are scientists). In my view, dogmaticism itself is an evil – whether it be found amoung the religious believers or scientists. One should be careful that in attempting to replace religious dogmaticism, one doesn’t simply replace it with dogmaticism of a different kind. Your most recent post seems to do just that. 10. TCSF says: I’m sorry to comment in a thread that’s rapidly decaying (we already have the usual attempts to deflect the slightest criticism of religion with accusations of dogmatism, and it didn’t even take 10 posts for what looks like climate denialism to show up). However, I think Peter Woit is spot on. Templeton millions pumped in is going to make it less likely people will feel free to speak their minds if they are critical of religion. The Templeton people have an agenda, and there’s no question that buying some scientists is meant to favor that agenda–whether or not there are explicit strings attached. Now they (Templeton) are free to do what they want with their money, but can’t people be free to criticize them–and their agenda? 11. Dan D. says: I also very much enjoy this blog, but I also disagree with Woit’s stance on this. I don’t see how the mere funding of physics research by a religious institution is dangerous in and of itself, no more than any government funding for applied research where a certain end goal is envisioned is dangerous. Actually, I was about to say that I appreciated some of the comments that were defending religious believers, or at least not outright attacking them. I’m more used to science blogs these days taking potshots at them whenever they can, and the comments section being a cesspool of irrational anti-religious rage. I found this thread to be on the whole balanced by those who both agree and disagree with the idea of Templeton funding physics research (though I agree with TCSF regarding the climate denialism). I myself am a scientist who is also a religious believer. Now I’ll be the first to admit that there is a fundamentalist anti-science strain in Western Christianity these days, and I’ll link arms with my non-believing colleagues to promote the cause of science over and against these influences. But, I part ways when I start hearing non-religious scientists imply (note: NOT saying that Woit is doing this) that to be a “pure” scientist, one has to eschew religion, or even that being religious and a scientist at the same time is grounds for suspicion of one’s scientific integrity (though, I sometimes get the opposite from certain religious circles!). I would think that folks would welcome religious institutions becoming interested in science again and wanting to fund it, or at least not immediately cry foul. After all, for the vast majority of the history of science, this was often the case. There are other models for the relationship between religion and science other than just warfare. Not every religious institution that wants to get involved in science is doing it for nefarious reasons. Maybe Templeton is, maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I guess it remains to be seen. My0.02.

12. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

If the researchers can ignore the source of funding, it’s not dangerous. If they can’t, it is. The latter possibility is a legitimate criticism of research being funded by pharmaceutical companies, and the intense scrutiny such research is subjected to is warranted. I figure the same standard should be applied to any funding agency which has other mandates besides the advancement of pure science. Whether it be a profit motive to satisfy shareholders or a philosophical motive to satisfy a particular religious viewpoint, vigilance is hopefully a reasonable countermeasure. I’d stop short of advising people to refuse the money. If one can get both the money and assurances that the research needn’t make the funding entity happy, then there’s reason to be optimistic a healthy balance can be struck. In essence, I’m saying if the recipients of these funds can be good at gaming the funders, why not take the money?

13. Roger says:

How can it be bad for Templeton to spend money on multiverse research when the NSF and others are spending 10x or 100x as much on it. Do you want the govt to be funding the foolish research for some ideological reason?

14. harryb says:

I have to say I am with Peter on this one. And in many ways the concerns this blog has with String Theory is the concerns it should have with Templeton-Science (I suggest we distinguish it clearly).

Freeman Dyson commenting in this months New York Review of Books on Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe notes that the weirdness of the theories proposed (including in Wertheim’s view ST) is “what happens when imagination loses touch with observation”.

When this happens religion and other faith-based obsessions eg circlons, ethers, etc are as good as any science, because neither has to provide observable evidence.

Religious belief and Multiverse theories are thus inter-changeable, and the Templeton funding, clearly recognising this, will provide the impetus for unconstrained conjecture via “faith-based” science. Watch this space.

I believe ST, Templeton-funded, and other faith-based science should be clearly labelled as such.

One will argue that great science (as Dyson does in the article above) especially in frontier fields, often uses imagination and creativity about things yet unknown and unseen. Fine.

But those pursuing those answers should at least declare up front – I believe in a traditional Christian position (or other equivalent religious story) about ultimate truth which underpins my over-arching theory about life, and the universe, and my personal moral and intellectual belief-system, and/or am funded by a trust so disposed –

Or,

I am not religious, do not believe in a Christian or any other diety, and am not funded by any religious or quasi-religious group, and have carefully, objectively, as far as is possible on this earth, produced this paper for your consideration.

15. Alp says:

harryb said:

I believe ST, Templeton-funded, and other faith-based science should be clearly labelled as such.

But the entire problem is who decides what is faith based and what is not. Some would say ST is a religion and some would say the same for Keynesianism or warming activism.

This appointment in question is an entirely voluntary. If Mr. York was not happy with the strings attached, he has every right to seek alternative employment.

Surely one can pass judgment on the credibility of the research. But people have a right to research whatever they want to, especially if somebody but the taxpayer is willing to fund it.

16. harryb says:

@Alp

I don’t disagree – of course – that you are free to research what you will.

My concern is more basic.

If Templeton millions are passed into faith-based science, then it is very likely that such science will grow in importance in the public debate, which is in America at least , pre-disposed to that way of thinking.

String theory – indeed, I made the same point and I am very depressed by ST having lead us to this predicament – the string theorists have let imagination, images of mathematical “beauty”, and so on take the fundamental of physics into a meta-physical minefield. It used be said that if a scientist from the 1700s walked into a science lecture today, he would be utterly bemused, but a philosopher from that era would see the same debates underway in today’s lectures. I think now Saint Thomas Aquinas may be very comfortable attending Strings 2012.

– Keynesianism – fair enough, but no-one is invoking biblical stories in economics (much)

– Climate activism – now there is the problem. Chip away at particle physics, and you can have a go at it all. Super-luminal neutrinos – hah, the scientists got it wrong again! Oh wait, its been corrected – but anyway, they’re probably wrong again so why believe in light’s speed anyway. Evolution, same thing. And so it quickly goes.

No-one seems to argue about eg the tensile strength of steel, and inorganic chemistry. These seem to be value-neutral science pursuits. Albeit they rely on particle theories.

But take cancer therapy – that’s still hotly debated, and in the Emperor of All Maladies Siddhartha Mukherjee notes how the ideology of radical surgery pursued by physicians possibly held progress back for decades due to their unswerving faith in the procedure, resistance to data and so on

So I agree we should sniff out biased (faith-induced) thinking wherever we see it.

My point is the Templeton approach just exacerbates and supports that style of bad science – data-free, issue-fixated – in potentially a confrontational way.

And propels it towards an American public already clearly predisposed to hear that science that conflicts with their moral / life-style belief system is not worth listening to and shoul be actively resisted eg climate change, evolution, stem-cell therapy, (and vice-versa – if creation myths are as good as or better than Big Bang – says a scholarly article funded by Templeton – and, even better, written by a declared Christian, why then should the believing public at large resist and question it? Its better than that string nonsense…)

We created the science method surely to stand outside that situation and it has brought us many gains. But, as David Deutsch notes in the Beginning of Infinity, Enlightenments in science and thought are by no means certain to survive, and historically all previous instances were eventually snuffed out by pessimistic ideologies.

It may be an exaggeration to state that ST and Templeton-Science could start the process whereby our present scientific advances back inside the ideological tent, and stifle progress once more.

But it may not, and our sensitivity to even the chance of it should remain high.

Let’s see where the $5.6m dollars-worth of articles and conferences etc takes us in the coming months and years. I hope to be proved clearly wrong in my cynicism – but the balance of proof is with Templeton-Science for now. 17. Eric Habegger says: Bait and switch is a time honored tactic not just in advertising, but in all human affairs. Many of the tactics written about by Machiavelli for overcoming ones adversaries were simply variations on this theme. While many people claim reasonable people can come together on important topics such as science it should be noted that people both fundamentalist scientists and atheist scientists who investigate and theorize about the multiverse have a lot in common: they have both given up the ground that science must ultimately be about things that have the potential to be observed and measured. Who is to say that some time in the future after everyone has been cajoled into believing that the multiverse is science that both fundamentalist and atheist sides agree that both heaven and hell are legitimate subjects of science to investigate as part of the multiverse environment. What’s next? How many angels are there on the head of a pin? 18. Alp says: @harryb Good points and I definitely understand what you are getting at. I gave the examples ST, Keynesianism, climate debate just because I see credible people on both sides of the argument — despite some academics would disagree. For the same debates, I also see examples of data fudging/truth distorting to fit the desired intentions. All of these people would claim they were being as objective as possible as well as the racial scientists of world war 2 era. Even though I’d like to agree there must be good criterion for testability as to what good science is, I am more worried if we push in this direction we may end up with a future where science is decided by the government or elites and debate is suppressed. This is not as farfetched a nightmare as I often see academic bullies who want to suppress contrary opinions on ST/Keynesianism/warming debates. I always thought Peter has been a victim of such behavior by others and that is why his post surprised me. As I mentioned before I am not religious. But we are all human and being entirely objective is often impossible. Should the government have warned Einstein when he said “God does not throw dice” because he was letting religion cloud his judgment? Every researcher comes with their own baggage of bias. And often times such bias might’ve been instrumental in their reaching unique results. Shouldn’t we let the results speak for themselves? Anything else would be self righteous. 19. Typhoon says: Grant-whoring has a long and venerable tradition in the sciences. The Templeton Foundation is simply making good use of this reality. 20. Ryan Budney says: Rather than looking at this through the eyes of using grant money to endow a particular religion or religious perspective with the approval of a research institution, you could turn your perspective on its head, Peter. This could be an admission that the multiverse as an idea is inherently religious. The acceptance of religious funding frees them from the constraint of living up to scientific standards, in a certain formal sense. 21. Peter Woit says: A few quick comments from Reykjavik. I don’t have any particular problem in general with religion or with religious people as scientists or funders of science. I do think though that it is very much in the interest of scientists to keep religion and science separate, and this is why an organization spending as much as hundreds of millions of dollars on a well-targeted campaign to erase distinctions between the two seems to me problematic. Hi Alp, I’m not calling for suppression of the ex-Sir John Templeton’s right to have his money spent on whatever research activities he wanted. I’m just exercising my own right to criticize what he and his heir are doing and encourage others to think about the issues involved. Roger, On the whole, NSF/DOE panels mostly refuse to fund multiverse grants, because most physicists think this is not science. With Templeton funding of multiverse studies probably long ago passing the$10 million mark, it’s Templeton that is putting up a large fraction of the money promoting this. The goal of course is to make this subject academically respectable and well-entrenched at leading institutions. Once that happens, the NSF/DOE panels will change their behavior. So, this is seed money targeted to changing the facts on the ground.

Deon Garrett,

It’s a spectacularly beautiful place (and the hot tub thing was not a joke, pretty amazing experience…) Just got into Reykjavik this evening, will see more of it tomorrow.

22. z says:

About Iceland — is it true what they say about the water and showers – does it stink?

23. Peter Woit says:

z,

At a high-end hotel in the middle of nowhere, no (excellent water conditions in the hot tub). In Reykjavik, yes.

Tis the stink of satanic sulfur….and I meant it humorously.

25. Joy says:

As other major science funding sources include DOD, DOE, DARPA, DHS … I am hard pressed to consider Templeton as being any more toxic to humanity or science than the others.

@Bernhard
Re: “science being funded with drug money” Just ask the researchers at Columbia University Medical Center who pays their bills. I suspect you meant to say illegal drugs. However, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, annual US deaths due to prescription drugs now exceed deaths due to motor vehicle accidents. Not an innocent funding source either.

26. Chris says:

@Peter Woit
,,I don’t have any particular problem in general with religion or with religious people as scientists or funders of science…. but you would prefer the money to come from the taxpayer via the government with the choices being made by atheists whose views on what is acceptable science conform with your own.

27. Paulibus says:

I note that to Donald York, who will run the Templeton scheme, “Science is a story just like the religious stories.” Science is indeed a story (that’s what evolution has conditioned us to do; talk stories, endlessly). But science is a quite different story to religion. Except for outbreaks of la haute poppicocquerie (as the French might call string theory), science is based on the Baconian tradition of observing nature and making verified predictions about it. Religion makes some predictions about the physical world (often that it will end soon) but generally shuns this risky occupation. Perhaps that’s why religion is fragmented, while science trends towards unification.

Better the two cultures each tend to their own knitting. Financally as well as morally.

28. Peter Woit says:

Chris,

I don’t care much about the source of science funding, and not at all about whether atheists or believers are making funding choices. I do care if pseudo-science is funded and promoted as science, with the goal of institutionalizing it as such.

29. harryb says:

@Chris

You suggest funding from “atheist taxpayers” would be as problematic as Templeton funding. OK, as a thought experiment, let’s say I win a major lottery and come into $100million. I decide to set up a 10 year funding of$10million a year on the following basis:

– no declared follower of an organised faith is acceptable – so Donald York, sorry no, and indeed LeMaitre in years gone by, but there you go, I am sure he would have got Templeton-esque funding, science would have got by
– no multiverse or ST allowed – well-funded already (see above) – unless it meets the next condition
– only Baconian principles of at least testifiability in some form in the near future – (this will be judgmental for sure)
– declared atheists acceptable / encouraged to apply – no need to be coy about it. People of uncertainty in religion fine as well, otherwise we have entered Orwellian territory.

Now. No doubt much to antagonise folk here – but let me note that as a card-carrying non-religious person, I would personally feel uncomfortable taking Templeton funding and wondering what type of peer review I would actually be coming under from Mr York et al. Its not that I would try to block its funding – but I am within rights surely to attempt to impose an alternative world-view as well.

One will argue that there is no such thing as objectivity and hence any ideology above is just as constrictive as any religion.

That is indeed a real problem the experiment exposes. But I would argue the key difference is this fund starts out with a belief in Nature that is objectively testable. And I would argue assessing criteria for fund money will constantly be a hot debate and so it should be – any faith-based person can go to Templeton with stories if they want. This fund ought to constantly test its own principles to ensure its not slipping down an ideological slope – hence testifiable / potentially testifiable ST is in.

It does not attempt as a starting point that ST, multiverses, or for example, Christian religious teachings, are received wisdoms, and hence undeniable. And it does not set the bar so low that any untestable multiversey landscapey billion-dimension stuff gets dollars.

I actually take a stronger position than Peter on this, because I think overtly religious funding with such low criteria will just expand bad science – watch next for a flurry of intelligent design arXiv papers. Almost by definition religion / faith is bad science and I have always had a problem with the attempts to reconcile the Two Magisteriums as Stephen Jay Gould tried.

I see I am heading towards Dawkins territory – so be it. I think both religion and science can handle such a fund being created.

The fund runs of course the risk of missing great strides in ST – but again Science sees no such risk as Templeton etc funding will allow ST to carry on.

Anyway – young physicists, whose million do you take ?

30. Giotis says:

But the multiverse refutes the apparent intelligent design as a mere illusion.

Normally Templeton should fund anti-multiverse research.

So Peter’s allegations don’t make much sense to me.

Question: FQXi is controlled by Templeton?

31. Peter Woit says:

Giotis,

Not all religious people reject evolution and embrace intelligent design. In particular, the Templeton Foundation explicitly supports evolution research and rejects intelligent design. Their agenda is to institutionalize not fundamentalist religions, but their “theology and science are all the same thing” philosophy (which is fine with the multiverse and evolution). They’re having great success at getting even scientists like Sean who don’t like theology to get into bed with them. Enough money will do that…

FQXI was started with Templeton money and seems to have been mostly funded by that in recent years. I don’t know what the current situation of FQXI’s funding is, and would be curious to hear from someone who does know.

32. BJM says:

Re:
Peter Woit says:
“I don’t care much about the source of science funding, and not at all about whether atheists or believers are making funding choices. I do care if pseudo-science is funded and promoted as science, with the goal of institutionalizing it as such.”

This seems at odds with what I thought was your previous concern that believers making funding choices could muzzle scientists on the subject of religion. If your real problem is any funding of pseudo-science, this is not how it was presented in your blog.

33. Danny says:

There’s a difference between Templeton funding researchers and Templeton funding Oxford/Cambridge researchers. As a result of smoking-causes-cancer, climate change, and a zillion poorly-excuted-but-overstated psychology experiments, the public is skeptical of scientists; however, the top academic brand names retain respect. I’m disappointed the heads of Oxford, Cambridge, and the other universities are willing to allow their brand to be attached to the sort of papers and headlines we’ll surely be seeing.

“Oxford physicists prove existence of God”, and so forth.

34. harryb says:

I read the pingback reference on Templeton funding to Jerry Coyne’s blog at whyevolutionistrue web site. In the reference he points to the Metanexus foundation website, part-funded by Templeton. If this website is the future (well-funded) face of science, then oh dear.

Chilling mix of spiritualism, brief riffs of scientific comment and then back to religious poetic sentiment. What to do with all that? – But many solid names have signed up, and no doubt will sign up.

Lot to be said for contrarianism.

35. Peter Woit says:

BJM,

“I think what is going on here is very dangerous. The Templeton Foundation’s agenda is not the advancement of science, it is the advancement of a particular religious point of view about what science is and how it should be done. They are very cleverly putting large sums of money into backing theology and pseudo-scientific research at the most prestigious academic institutions in the world.”

As anyone who has followed my blog for a while can tell, I have zero interest in arguments about the existence of God, or who believes what on that topic.

36. pakri says:

Whatever the agenda maybe, surely the people who attend these meetings, and I
assume they are scientists, will have to decide for themselves what they want to
achieve in their life as researchers in science and what else in their more personal
religious life. Whether the foundation continues to receive their support will depend
on the scientists only.

37. Peter,

I am a much more rabid atheist than you are: I grew up attending a fundamentalist church and am still angry about being subjected to years of threats of eternal torture in Hell (I never did agree to join the church as a child, but I did have ongoing nightmares due to the constant threats of Hellfire).

Nonetheless, I am much less concerned than you about the Templeton matter for a very simple reason: they are going to fail. I myself am a bit fond of occasionally musing over questions such as “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, but we all know that such questions have pretty much nothing to do with serious, contemporary science.

All that Templeton is going to do is to add a small amount to the meaningless nonsense already published on such subjects, not just in the popular media but also coming from many academics in philosophy, theology, literary theory, etc.

Templeton will get some scientists to announce that God might exist? Old news – anyone who looks into the issue already knows that some scientists think God might exist. Maybe most scientists think God *might* exist, even many of us who think he probably does not.

The major war between science and religion is already over: old-time, literalist religions is dead for good among intelligent, educated people. Templeton cannot change that (and does not even seem to want to). All Templeton can do is encourage vapidly pointless declarations of the possibility of some higher “spirituality.”

If I understand you correctly, your main fear seems to be that this will divert scientists from real, productive scientific work. First, the Templeton spiritualism really should not take much time, energy, or effort: playing soccer twice a week should hardly interfere much with scientific productivity, and it is hard to see why churning out some vague nonsense for Templeton should be much more demanding. And, any scientist who really has a good idea (not that common!) should find it so consuming that Templeton is unlikely to really distract him much.

I have trouble seeing Templeton as anything more than a very tiny addition to the cultural pollution in which everyone is already immersed.

Dave Miller in Sacramento

38. Friend says:

Peter,

I think you may be a little too dismissive. It’s entirely possible that Templeton’s religious views may inform them to seek the truth, whatever that may be, with the expectation that it will ultimately justify their faith at least in some part. That’s their prerogative and does not interfere with scientific truth. It’s difficult to prove the existence of something that is not well defined. The concept of “God” is not well defined. Some think in anthropomorphic terms which may seem silly to scientist. And others may think that God is some overriding principle of reason that governs how the universe works, which may seem like the antithesis to some religious views. So I don’t think one can prove or disprove the existence of God. Ultimately we will have to judge by what is predicted by whatever theory is proposed by science or religion. Let’s wait until we have all the facts or until we have mathematical proof one way or the other. Thanks.

To sum up my opinion: Galileo Galilei. He took his “grant money” and took his chances with more a potential downside than not being funded next year. But (in line with what I think D. Miller implied), Galileo (perhaps apocryphally) died saying “and still it moves”. This is always the choice of a scientist…to take patronage but to remain independent nonetheless. And we pardon those who cannot sacrifice themselves…and those like Galileo who compromise a wee bit. Because they have been better than we probably could ever have been.

I posted a link to this on Chris Mooney et al.’s “Intersection” Blog at scienceprogress (was at scienceblogs, then Discover) He got a more proper Templeton grant, but it seems it’s time to bring them up again.

41. Sammy Coleridge says:

Hello Peter:

There are many decent people who are concerned that the public schools seem to be teaching their children that they are no more than sentient robots existing briefly in a pointless universe. Scientists need to find neutral ground on which to engage these people in civilized debate. Analytical philosphy, which addresses words like the first person singular nominative pronoun and, again, ‘universe’ is that ground.

Great website, thanks.

SC

42. chris says:

wow.

the blog comments are a true testament of how far right the us has moved recently.

thanks peter for keeping it up and don’t worry, there are readers who understand that perfectly simple and valid point you are making.

43. Christian Takacs says:

Hello Peter,

Your latest blog entry is a bit puzzling for multiple reasons.

#1. Newton, Descartes, Einstein, Bernhard Riemann, Pascal, Yes… even Galileo, Maxwell, Faraday, Cantor, Planck, etc… all of them and many, many, more believed in Religion and God. You would be wise to refresh yourself with the beliefs of a few of your predecessors in the fine sciences of Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Astronomy, etc. if only to gain some perspective of whose shoulders you are presently standing on, and perhaps realize that many before you found their Belief a source of inspiration, not an irrational impediment to understanding as you would entertain.

#2. Your elitist disdain of religion is quite evident, borderlining on contempt… But Peter, you are yourself a follower of a set of beliefs/premises based mostly in the completely abstract numerical reasoning you favor that entertains creation ex nihilo or Big Bangs from timeless voids, point particles that have zero extension but are assigned infinite mass, treat infinity like a mere number that can be operated on, and sing praises about quantum mechanics which requires renormalization in order to even function, a process it’s own creators admitted was ‘dippy’ or wasn’t mathematically valid.

#3 Your reaction to research being funded by the Templeton Foundation reveals your dog in the hunt, or political bias. Yes, you too have an axe to grind Peter. I am well aware of what politics pervades most universities, and how they depend from their mostly governmental sponsors. ( You should review the farewell speech of President Eisenhower when he warned of the intellectual stagnation and group-think nepotism which would result from government funding of research.) You dislike the idea of anyone you are politically/philosophically opposed to competing with you for favor in your field. I’m kind of amused by this considering the irony of you going on at some length in your book about ‘diversity’ as being a possible solution to the present impasse in the field of physics. Perhaps you should have defined ‘diversity’ differently to keep the riff-raff out of your ivory tower.

#4. You have written a book about how ridiculous and wacko things are getting in the house of physics. Endless multiplying Multiverses, time travelling nonsense, logical paradoxes and contradictions galore, extra-dimensional loop de loops tied up with super strings… This was all done with your fellow peers in peer reviewed approval in your ‘correctly’ funded research, just the way you like it.

For you to look down on other people who are scientists, physicists, philosophers, and happen to have religious beliefs as corrupting and ‘pseudo-scientific’ when your own non-religious peers believe in things they can’t prove, and want to redefine science so they don’t have to, and fund it with the taxes of people ‘clinging to their guns and bibles’ whom it would both you and your peers have contempt for … it boggles my mind how you can’t see the hubris and hypocrisy of your own argument.

44. Peter Woit says:

Christian,

I don’t know how many times I need to keep repeating this: unlike many scientist bloggers I’ve nothing against religion in general or religious people, or religious belief. My attitude about theological issues is very simple: I just don’t care at all. Other people do, with variable results.

I do care though about what people’s religious beliefs cause them to do that affects our society in significant ways. The culture war going on in the US driven by fundamentalist religion is a big problem and one look at this year’s US presidential campaign should convince anyone of that. About Templeton, I don’t care at all what they believe, I do care about what effects their beliefs have on a field that I care about, and I’ve explained what my concerns are repeatedly here.

And, obviously, I’m well aware that Templeton is not the only problem here. There are very unfortunate tendencies in modern theoretical physics, that I go on and on about here and elsewhere. The Templeton problem is that they’re effectively putting their money to work to make things worse.

45. Friend says:

Peter, it might help if you could point to at least one example where the influence of the Templeton foundation has lead to scientific error. Thanks.

46. Peter Woit says:

Friend,

The problem isn’t “wrong” science, it’s “not even wrong” science. More specifically, pseudo-scientific studies of the “Multiverse”, masquerading as science, something that I’d guess Templeton has spent over \$10 million dollars supporting in recent years. It’s hard to quantify how much effect Templeton money has had, but the rise in Multiverse Mania has been significant, and the Templeton money behind it is part of the story. This topic has been exhaustively (some would say, obsessively, way beyond what is necessary…) discussed on this blog.

47. person says:

@ Friend:
Here’s one example where Templeton funding has led to scientific error.

http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/14990.html

In this case the error stems from a misunderstanding of statistics and of the scientific method. Templeton apparently funding motivated someone with no understanding of science to “try their hand at it”. It gives an example of what garbage can result when a science funding organization has a non-scientific agenda.

48. Spencer Tracy Jr. says:

Times sure have changed.
I used to say: “Show me someone trying to bridge the gap between science and religion and I will show you a religious person.”
Now we have to add physicists shamelessly looking for a payday to the list.

49. harryb says:

Person,

Thanks for the post, depressing though it is. Takes us right back to the fundamental point of this blog and Peter’s book.

Not even wrong – and I blame string theorists for letting this metaphysical claptrap get a more serious outing (and funding) – as they have played into its hands. The more Templeton funds ST receives, the more they should be viewed as contributors to the metaphysical / spiritual realm – Not Even Physics.

As a partial antidote I read Ian Stewart’s 17 Equations that Changed the World. The familiar ones are all there – but the point he makes it that these equations (either relating two quantities, or providing information regarding an unknown quantity) really have impacted the world – for good, sometimes ill. Some writers suggest plausibly over 30% of US GDP is now indebted to QM.

Point is – where is all this well-funded conjecture / spiritualism type research taking us? I am not advocating a simplistic show the immediate pay-back type approach. But I worry the other extreme could take hold – well funded introspective guff about spirituality and hidden meanings. And whilst they fiddle about on this, research into other areas such as condensed matter that could improve people’s daily lives may go abegging. So if Templeton wants a moral high ground, they ought to be careful of their preachy graciousness in this context.

They have no equations.