Nisbet and Mooney do it again, with an op-ed in the Washington Post … and I’m afraid they’ve alienated me yet further. I am convinced now that theirs is not an approach that I could find useful, even if I could puzzle out some useable strategy from it. In the very first sentence, they claim that Richard Dawkins gives “creationist adversaries a boost” — it’s the tired old argument that we must pander to religious belief. This is their rationale:
Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism. More than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, after all, and many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality (and perhaps even civilization itself). Dawkins not only reinforces and validates such fears — baseless though they may be — but lends them an exclamation point.
We agree with Dawkins on evolution and admire his books, so we don’t enjoy singling him out. But he stands as a particularly stark example of scientists’ failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.
Good grief, this is bogus beyond belief. Let’s pretend: let’s say I shut down my blog, Dawkins refuses to lecture on atheism anymore, Dennett retires to a grass shack in the South Pacific, and Sam Harris converts to Mormonism. Furthermore, every scientist in the country shies away completely from ever mentioning religion, except of course for people like Collins and Miller, who continue their “I’m a scientist, and I believe in Jeeezus!” schtick. We’ll forget about the odious implications for the freedom of speech for atheists in this suggestion, and just ask whether it would make the slightest difference in accommodating the public to evolution.
The answer is no, except perhaps in the negative sense that the religious would feel freer to push their science-free beliefs on the public, and that some of the sharpest, clearest voices in the argument (I’m not counting mine in that praise) would be silenced. It’s not as if the NCSE and ACLU have been pro-atheist organizations, for instance — both are clearly advocates for very specific issues, and are careful to avoid entangling themselves in the anti-religion struggle — but they still get accused of being atheist organizations. We still get the creationists on the ground banking on those fears of the godless. Candy-coating the implications of science has never worked, and never will work.
And it certainly is true that Dawkins puts an exclamation point on godlessness, and good for him. The path we’ve taken in the past, the cautious avoidance of the scarlet letter of atheism, has not worked. Dawkins represents a different, bolder, more forthright approach — we are staking out a place in the public discourse and openly discussing our concerns, rather than hiding in fear of that old Puritan scowl. We will not go back in the closet.
Even more offensive is the accusation that Dawkins is an example of failure to explain. That is entirely wrong. Dawkins has clearly stated his position, and there isn’t any ambiguity there, either in his statements about evolution or atheism. What Nisbet and Mooney are complaining about is not that he has done a poor job of presenting his ideas to the public, but that they and some members of the public are offended by his ideas. I would have been interested if the object of this discussion was to improve our ability to communicate difficult, uncomfortable views to a wary public, but instead these articles have been a call to suppress a subset of those ideas that they don’t care for.
If they wanted to impress me or win me over, a more interesting exercise would have been to explain how ‘framing’ could help us get our message of the virtues of freethought across to that reluctant public. Instead, we get prescriptions to hide away that part of the story, and worse, to hide away the meat of science.
So in today’s America, like it or not, those seeking a broader public acceptance of science must rethink their strategies for conveying knowledge. Especially on divisive issues, scientists should package their research to resonate with specific segments of the public. Data dumping — about, say, the technical details of embryology — is dull and off-putting to most people.
You know, I’m beginning to feel that this is getting personal, and now they’re targeting my own personal interests. Is that all I do, “dump data”? Who just “dumps data”? The details of any science are important and interesting, and should be discussed at an appropriate level, but telling scientists that their work is dull is going to both alienate the people Nisbet and Mooney need to persuade, and affirm anti-intellectual bigotry in the public at large. Thanks, guys. Good framing. “Science is boring”.
And the Dawkins-inspired “science vs. religion” way of viewing things alienates those with strong religious convictions. Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public’s beliefs?
YES! YES! YES! Knowledge is a threat to beliefs held in ignorance. What Nisbet and Mooney are advocating, despite their disclaimers, is that we should hide our appreciation of the consequences of science from the public. We know for instance that increasing education in science leads to a loss of faith (in general), and is particularly destructive to literalist religions. Should we lie about that? Sweep it under a rug? Religious people, even those who believe in particularly nutty faiths, are not stupid — they can see through the pretense. If we slap a gag on Richard Dawkins, it won’t change a thing, except that the world will know scientists can be devious and dishonest. I do not wish to hide my agenda like an intelligent design creationist, thank you very much.
Can’t science and religion just get along? A “science and religion coexistence” message — conveyed in Sunday sermons by church leaders — might better convince even many devout Christians that evolution is no real threat to their faith.
No, science and religion cannot get along. They offer mutually contradictory explanations for the world, and it is bizarrely naive to pretend that people who believe that the literal events of Genesis are an account of the original sin of which we must be redeemed by faith in Jesus can accept a scientific explanation of human origins. The ‘frame’ there is that one side has an account of chance and complexity and an oh-so-awkward affiliation with ancient apes that is based on evidence, and the other side has threats of hellfire if you don’t believe in an Eden, a Fall, and a dead god reborn. Evolution is a strong and explicit threat to that faith.
If Nisbet and Mooney think a non-literal religious faith that allows that humans evolved from apes and are apes is going to be acceptable to every church-going Christian in America, they aren’t very familiar with what we are combating. Proposing that we can sneak support for science into the public’s mind by advocating a lesser heresy than atheism is ludicrously absurd.
Once again, though, what I see in this latest op-ed is vague handwaving bolstered by picking an enemy, those uppity New Atheists, and using them as a goad to get people to support poorly explained “framing”, rather than any concrete explanation of how framing can provide a positive method for winning people over to a position. They did not sell framing; this was an article that had nothing to offer except an excuse for complaining about atheists.
Seriously, guys. Love him or hate him, Dawkins has always put up a crystal-clear explanation of his position, whether it’s evolution or religion; the framing people have put up a lot of fluff and waffling that never even spells out what framing is. Is “framing” another word for obfuscation, or dissembling, or pandering? That’s the only message I’m getting so far. That’s probably very poor framing on their part.
The title of the article is “Thanks for the facts. Now sell them.” I’m still waiting for an article that actually tells me how to better sell difficult ideas with a technique other than simply gagging all the atheists to appease the mob.