I don’t like getting involved in internecine warfare, least of all amongst my SciBlings. But a recent OpEd in WaPo by two fellow bloggers I admire, Matt Nisbet of Framing Science and Chris Mooney of The Intersection prompts me to set fingers to keyboard. It is Richard Dawkins that provoked it. Good for Dawkins. Once again he is exposing muddled thinking. And he didn’t even have to write about it:
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. (WaPo)
Nisbet and Mooney argue that just presenting the facts in favor of evolution or climate change isn’t sufficient. As a university teacher for 40 years I couldn’t agree more. It’s a matter of good pedagogy, which isn’t just displaying facts. If it were, we wouldn’t need teachers. But the implication that good teaching is “packaging” — aka, “spinning,” although they prefer to think of it as “framing” — doesn’t follow, unless all good teaching is called “framing,” in which case all we have done is substitute one word for another.
Nisbet and Mooney deny they are advocating spinning, of course. They understand to advocate spinning wouldn’t be a very good argument:
We’re not saying scientists and their allies should “spin” information; doing that would only harm their credibility. But discussing issues in new ways and with new messengers can be accomplished without distorting the underlying science. Good communication is by its very nature informative rather than misleading. Making complicated issues personally meaningful will activate public support much more effectively than blinding people with science.
Global warming is another issue on which scientists continually fail to reach key segments of the public. The real inconvenient truth here is that scientists aren’t doing a good job of packaging what they know. No matter how solid the science gets, there remain “two Americas” on the subject: A strong majority of Republicans discount the science and the issue’s urgency, while an overwhelming number of Democrats believe the opposite. Once again, the facts aren’t driving opinions here. Instead, selective interpretations — delivered via fragmented media and resonating with the public’s partisan prejudices — are winning out.
The argument seems to be that if you want people to read your splendid book teaching evolution you shouldn’t also write a splendid book arguing against religion, because the people you are trying to reach will then stop listening to your cogent explanation of evolution, and worse, will associate evolution with atheism. Like Nisbest and Mooney, I won’t engage in an argument about Dawkins’s arguments against religion (although I happen to like them), but will observe he doesn’t seem to have turned too many people off who weren’t already in the “off” position. His latest book, The God Delusion, has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list for over 6 months. Last week it was number 13. This week it is number 8. This isn’t someone who is losing the public. True, his book isn’t being bought by evangelical Christians. I’m guessing Chris Mooney’s book, The Republican War on Science, isn’t either. Is his title supposed to entice Republicans to pick up his book?
I’m an atheist of the Dawkins stripe. My style is different than Dawkins but I do one of these atheist Sermonettes every Sunday. I also oppose the War in Iraq and did so even before its start. Should I have refrained from saying it so that I could more efficiently alert people about bird flu? I’m not sure if any loyal (and I would add, valued) readers who disagree strongly with me left because of these other opinions, but if I decided not to write about something I have such strong feelings about I wouldn’t be the same person. Maybe the blog would be better, I don’t know. But I don’t have that option or desire.
This is Nisbet and Mooney’s bottom line:
Thankfully, scientists seem increasingly aware of the need to better convey their knowledge. There is even a bill in Congress that would allocate funding to the National Science Foundation for training scientists to become better communicators. That’s a start, but scientists must recognize that on hot-button issues — even scientific ones — knowledge alone is rarely enough to win political arguments, change government policies or influence public opinion. Simply put, the media, policymakers and members of the public consume scientific information in a vastly different way than the scientists who generate it. If scientists don’t learn how to cope in this often bewildering environment, they will be ceding their ability to contribute to the future of our nation.
Thankfully, yes. Thankfully Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and countless other scientists didn’t pander to the most retrograde opinions of the “public.” Let’s see if Francis Collins will convince Bush to support stem cell research. I doubt it.