Backlash? Harming the cause? Where?

Jason Rosenhouse has a short, clear post in which which he briefly exams the polling data to see if New Atheists have harmed the cause of science education, an accusation frequently made. He shows that no, there is absolutely no evidence of such a thing; there may be a trend in the other way, in an increase in the number of science educators willing to say that there is no sign of intelligent guidance in evolution, but he’s also rightly cautious to say that there are a lot of variables at play here, so it would be premature to say there is a positive effect.

It does seem interesting, though, that while many people are wringing their hands over the supposedly pernicious effect of the New Atheists on evolution acceptance and education, the numbers show not the slightest evidence of a backlash. To the extent that the numbers are moving at all, they seem to be going in the right direction.

So Josh Rosenau, one of those people who accuses New Atheists of doing harm, makes a long and confused post in which he disputes Rosenhouse by looking at the same data and concluding…there is no evidence that the New Atheists have harmed the cause of science education. But he does manage to bury the conclusion in a flustered chaos of noise about…a lot of variables at play here. It was a struggle to even extract the point of that post; even Rosenau is reduced to vague splutterings at the end.

As I said before, it may be that careful work with the GSS would give enough demographic controls that you could pick some of this apart. Were there different trajectories in people’s views of evolution in areas with active creationist efforts? How do the many variables tracking religiosity interact with people’s views on evolution? How does that match against demographic trends in polls by Pew, Gallup, and Harris, all of whom have asked the same questions for several years.

I’d like to see someone do this work, and I’d welcome citations of papers which might serve as a basis for such an analysis. But the evidence at hand simply isn’t adequate for what Jason would like do with it. Noting those complications is not shifting goalposts, nor is it making excuses. It’s the way I would think about any challenge in hypothesis testing. If we want to promote science as a way of knowing, I think it behooves us to model good scientific practices, and that’s my agenda with this post and the post it follows from.

Jebus, but Josh can make writing look agonizing.

It’s an enlightening comparison of styles of discussion. One goes right to the point with clarity, the other wallows in obfuscatory noise. One points right to the key data that so far shows no deleterious effect, the other wishes there were damage to the cause of science education, and so goes on and on in the blogging equivalent of stammering “but…but…but…”.

I know which side I’m glad to be on.