Adventures in Ethics and Science

In light of all the recent discussion about the “framing” of the Expelled! expulsion, it occurs to me that maybe part of the reason that the argument seems so unproductive is that the parties involved haven’t really agreed on what, exactly, they’re trying to communicate to the public at large.

Here’s my suggestion for a message worth communicating clearly: science isn’t politics.

The community of scientists is not like an organized political party. There isn’t a Ministry of Information. When things are working as scientists think they should, all the voices are heard — and each person putting forward a view is required to put up the evidence to support that view. The point is not so much to win arguments as to work out what various bits of the world are really like — a hard project where we’re better off with help, especially from the people who disagree with us (since they’re more likely to see our subjective biases, which are invisible to us because they’re ours).

That scientists share a common goal with the scientists with whom they most strenuously disagree — the goal of building a body of reliable knowledge about the world — makes science a very different kind of activity then politics. For many of us, this is central to science’s appeal. Why not lead with this strength?

As I understand it, Matthew Nisbet’s big worry about the Expelled! publicity is that it will convince the public that science leads inevitably to atheism (a view I’ve argued against). On that basis, Nisbet has stated that PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins ought to be laying low rather than speaking out against the filmmakers’ dishonesty.

I don’t think the gagging of Myers and Dawkins — even were it voluntary, in response to Nisbet’s advice — would help at all in convincing the public that science operates differently from politics.

To the extent that scientists who are theists have an interest in persuading the public that being a good scientist is not a straight shot to atheism, the answer is not to prevail on Myers and Dawkins to shut up. Indeed, shushing them tends to undercut the message that science is supposed to be a free exchange of ideas backed by evidence. If you undercut such a strong selling point of the enterprise, the anti-science framers have won.

This means that, while Myers and Dawkins are having their say, theistic scientists should also speak up. They should explain to non-scientists how their belief and their scientific activity can coexist. And, they should explain how the scientific discourse can work — and how it can be tremendously productive — while involving scientists with such divergent views on things like faith.

Getting the public clear on the scientific rules of engagement might, as an added bonus, help people figure out how to set up other dialogues that are similarly productive, rather than vicious and destructive. Having alternatives to the political model of engagement might be the kind of thing the public could appreciate.

However, since science doesn’t have a centralized speakers bureau, this places the burden of speaking up on the scientists who disagree with Myers and Dawkins on the relation of science and belief (while agreeing with them on the power and productivity of the scientific approach to scientific questions). Honestly, though, the burden was already there. You can’t assume, as your default, that the public will understand science the same way you understand it if you make no efforts to communicate with the public about science.

Scientists know what makes science worthwhile (and cool). What’s the point of keeping that quiet? Tell the public. Everyone will be better off.

Comments

  1. #1 kevin
    March 30, 2008

    “That scientists share a common goal with the scientists with whom they most strenuously disagree — the goal of building a body of reliable knowledge about the world — makes science a very different kind of activity then politics. For many of us, this is central to science’s appeal. Why not lead with this strength?”

    That is an outstanding statement. It also means that science is a very different kind of activity than religion. Unfortunately, too many people of faith believe they already have a body of reliable knowledge about the world, and take violent exception to anyone that challenges their claims.

  2. #2 Dan S.
    March 30, 2008

    This is a much better version of some of what I was trying to say in comments here

  3. #3 bill
    March 30, 2008

    The point [of science] is not so much to win arguments as to work out what various bits of the world are really like — a hard project where we’re better off with help, especially from the people who disagree with us (since they’re more likely to see our subjective biases, which are invisible to us because they’re ours).

    That’s beautiful. Seriously. I get a feeling from that view of science which I imagine must be similar to the one that people of faith get from their religion: a sense of awe, a feeling of belonging, the comfort and uplift of being part of something larger and more important than oneself.

    I wish Nisbet, Mooney, Dawkins, Myers and all the other loud-mouth attention whores would get that entire paragraph tattooed on their bodies, somewhere that they can reread it every few minutes.

  4. #4 jprapp
    March 30, 2008

    Janet – a lifetime’s worth of work.

    You wrote – “I don’t think the gagging of Myers and Dawkins — even were it voluntary … would help at all in convincing the public that science operates differently from politics.”

    I agree. And coerced gagging would not only smack of politics, but remove too much color from the colorful spectrum of scientific voices. As a believer, I’m deeply indebted to Hume, Kurtz, and Dawkins. I heard Dennett argue recently for something like “differential atheism” – something many believers have privately held for many years. These contrary and cranky voices make me reflect, refine, and modify parts of my faith. I want to hear them.

    And I want dissenting scientists to publish dissent.

    The ethical value of free speech isn’t exhausted by its benefits to politics, but to the whole polis.

    You wrote – “To the extent that scientists who are theists have an interest in persuading the public that being a good scientist is not a straight shot to atheism, the answer is not to prevail on Myers and Dawkins to shut up. Indeed, shushing them tends to undercut the message that science is supposed to be a free exchange of ideas backed by evidence. If you undercut such a strong selling point of the enterprise, the anti-science framers have won. … theistic scientists should also speak up ..explain to non-scientists how their belief and their scientific activity can coexist .. how the scientific discourse can work .. involving scientists with such divergent views on things like faith.”

    Yes. I agree. One practical problem for research and bench scientists is that a lack of time due to work demands, plus a lack of familiarity with theological discussion, and maybe even simple awkwardness and social caution in theological discussion – all limit blue sky approaches to open-discovery kinds of religious discussions. Better to start, try, refine, recalibrate — than do nothing. Me-thinks.

    The dynamics are difficult. Sociological studies of things like denomination-switching, changes in religious values and judgments across a lifetime, the difficulties in composing scales of theological beliefs, and some attribution studies that question whether theological convictions make any difference in perceptual judgments about natural events (e.g., Weeks, M., and Lupfer, M. B. (2000). Religious Attributions and Proximity of Influence: An Investigation of Direct Interventions and Distal Explanations. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 39(3), 348-363, and infra) – the dynamics of change in theological judgments would involve scientists in conversations about convictions that aren’t necessarily fixed, nor stable. Scientists too need freedom to explore, change, not over-commit to positions, and have discovery-based conversations.

    Discovery aside, I wonder whether humans may be bound up in limitations of ecological reasoning, and bounded rationality, so that we simply resort to simplified heuristic judgments in order to get about, even in our religious environments/ecologies (see e.g., Gerd Gigerenzer, on ” Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart”)? — so that after open discovery, even our religious convictions become heuristic-bytes? — this isn’t pessimism, just wondering? Again, doing nothing is the alternative.

    Religious thinkers do not have a common, agreed and shared language, like mathematics for physicists who can re-normalize their mathematics by agreed canons when they get infinite results (early quantum). Religious conversation potentially suffers (and benefits) from an infinite-like sea of results, with Babel-like confusion in religious language, trying to express bewildering infinite-like matters of cosmic and metaphysical questions – another reason for reduction to simple heuristics. My point is that scientists themselves would need great encouragement to enter such a hoary domain.

    And encouragement to keep at it.

    And yet, I think it would be a great contribution to the common polis.

    And it’s good to see someone trying.

    Cheers,

    Jim

  5. #5 PhysioProf
    March 30, 2008

    Janet, this is a really wonderful post!

    The point is not so much to win arguments as to work out what various bits of the world are really like — a hard project where we’re better off with help, especially from the people who disagree with us (since they’re more likely to see our subjective biases, which are invisible to us because they’re ours).

    A related point is that having protracted, strenuous, even heated, arguments can be an essential mechanism for us to work out how things work. We might even say “fuck”!

  6. #6 chezjake
    March 30, 2008

    Oh, excellent! Others here on ScienceBlogs may be very intelligent and clever (and say some very good things), but you are intelligent, clever, and wise. Well done!

  7. #7 Martin
    March 31, 2008

    If you were in the room now I would hug you.

    I’m sick and tired of the endless counter-productive debate that’s been raging on ad infinitum – it makes the whole community look bad. It’s refreshing to read somebody actually write something sensible about the whole thing. Sadly, your peers still seem more interested in posturing like a bunch of creationists.

  8. #8 Melinda Barton
    March 31, 2008

    Terrific post. While I agree that telling Myers and Dawkins to shut up is counterproductive, I think I have to add a different slant to the whole issue.

    Myers and Dawkins should feel free to speak; however, wisdom would require that they be careful about how, when and to whom they express their views. In other words, their “messages” should be a bit more carefully crafted and targeted (“framed” if you will). It seems that groups like those who made Expelled! pick these two for the very reason that they are good “straw men” for science. Their anti-religious rhetoric is a convenient way for dishonest charlatans to paint science as anti-religious rather than what it is, nonreligious. Perhaps they should stick to the science when these groups invite them to be interviewed rather than giving them really good anti-religious quotes that can be used against science.

    This is not to say that Myers and Dawkins are responsible for the abhorrent strategies used by said charlatans, only that they should recognize that they’re being played and take the wind out of the charlatans’ sails by not giving them what they want.

  9. #9 Hap
    March 31, 2008

    Ms. Barton,

    I’m not certain that that argues for Myers and Dawkins to be quiet – rather, it argues more strongly for theistic (particularly Christian) scientists to speak up. The Expelled creators rely on the favorable credit that people have for Christianity in American society to gain power, in this case the power to determine the appropriate (valid) interpretation of the Bible and to enforce that interpretation on all. The internal inconsistency of that interpretation (Genesis 1 + 2 Eve creation stories, which is sort of apropos considening that that section is what imposes on them their beliefs on evolution) is only the beginning of the problems the creators have (and wish to unthink them out of existence). The people developing intelligent design and publicizing it have been intellectually and morally dishonest in developing and publicizing it and attempting to enforce its teaching. ID is also inconsistent with the faith its proponents lay claim to (they sem to believe that if everyone believes in ID, it will somehow become true and make God real). They want to use the positive associations and credit that Christianity has in America to prevent people from critizing them and their power grab, though they do more to defame Christianity than nearly anyone else.

    Myers and Dawkins aren’t going to stop speaking about this fiasco in any case, becasuse the stupidity of ID (as implemented by the Expelled producers) supports their claims that religions are falsehoods which are detrimental to humanity. The publicity is unlikely to help Expelled – people who didn’t believe in them before are being shown the dishonesty of ID and its advocates, and are unlikely to believe it in the future. It seems much better for Christians who believe that science is not inconsistent with their faith to speak up – we are those in whose name ID advocates claim to speak, and whose societal credit they intend to use to gain power (and ultimately, to silence us). Such would provide the appropriate counterpoints to Myers and Dawkins while potentially cutting ID off from its source of credit (its claim to speak for God and Christianity), leaving ID and its advocates to stand on their own nonexistent merits.

    As was written above.

  10. #10 Amber
    March 31, 2008

    Thank you so much for this post. As a theistic person who thoroughly enjoys science (and was never discouraged by my religion to disregard science), it is daunting and discouraging to read ScienceBlogs. Where are the theistic scientists? Are there any? Are they immediately unheard and disrespected? Where is their voice? Is there any chance that a scientist can be theistic and spiritual (or is that somthing different) and also be included as a peer in the scientific community? Until this post, I had no hope that I could be considered a serious scientist unless I was an atheist. Perhaps, (moderate, I’m not talking IDers) theistic scientists don’t have as loud of voices because believing in God is not immediatly or obviously relevant to their research on say, curing cancer. So it just doesn’t come up. Because when they are talking about their cancer research they don’t tend to delve into the God realm.
    I’m trying to clarify my thoughts and hope I’m making some sense. I’m trying to truly understand.
    How is it even possible for scientists who disagree with Myers and Dawkins to speak up??

    Janet wrote:
    “This means that, while Myers and Dawkins are having their say, theistic scientists should also speak up. They should explain to non-scientists how their belief and their scientific activity can coexist. And, they should explain how the scientific discourse can work — and how it can be tremendously productive — while involving scientists with such divergent views on things like faith.”

    I am very interested in what this would look like because I have yet to see any examples of it on ScienceBlogs (Please, someone prove me wrong). I think that what you say would be remarkable and contribute a great deal to science. However, asking theistic scientists to speak up seems to be asking them to sacrifice their standing as scientists. Am I seeing this clearly?

  11. #11 Amber
    March 31, 2008

    Darn double negatives! In the parentheses of the second sentence it should read: (and my religion never discouraged me from science)

  12. #12 Bill Habr
    April 1, 2008

    “That scientists share a common goal with the scientists with whom they most strenuously disagree — the goal of building a body of reliable knowledge about the world — makes science a very different kind of activity then politics.”

    What a wonderful sentiment (and very naive statement). In the world of science today the object has become to declare your side to be the winner and the other side to be no scientists at all but pretenders.

  13. #13 JSinger
    April 2, 2008

    Until this post, I had no hope that I could be considered a serious scientist unless I was an atheist.

    One of the most enjoyable parts of research is the diversity of the people you work with: scientists from all over the world, and from all over the local country, with all sorts of customs, beliefs, foods and whatnot. As a result, there’s a strong live-and-let-live attitude on the one hand, and a lot of trying not to step on other people’s toes on the other.

    The ranting and bile spewing you see here is completely unlike anything I have ever encountered in research in real life, and the people mentioned above who conduct it aren’t actually researchers. (OK, Dawkins is, or at least was, a real researcher, albeit a self-promoter whose scientific contributions are wildly exaggerated.) It would really be a shame if people like you were scared away from a science career by people like them.

  14. #14 Amber
    April 2, 2008

    JSinger: Thank you. It is good to be reminded that there are a whole lot of scientists out there and that “The ranting and bile spewing you see here is completely unlike anything I have ever encountered in research in real life.” Must remember that. …and maybe not read the ranting and bile spewing anymore :)

  15. #15 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 2, 2008

    Amber, to second what JSinger says, there are definite sampling biases in the blogosphere. In real life, I know plenty of scientists (who are smart, successful, and employed) who are religious, plenty who aren’t, and quite a number who may or may not be religious but I couldn’t tell you because it never comes up in our conversations about science or the training of scientists.

  16. #16 jprapp
    April 2, 2008

    Real scientists, in real life –

    I can’t say how I fell into this extremely fun job, but I had the coolest time for a few years meeting daily with resident and visiting bench scientists at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Lawrence Livermore Labs, Raychem, Genentech, and a half dozen other labs – where I did mostly modest level (but a little hifalutin) work with metering instrumentation and design. Over time, scientists with a range of faith orientations (panpsychists to evangelical Christians) would openly talk to me, on site, or at lunch, about all kinds of fun speculations concerning the interface between their otherwise private faith and their work. I feel that this open conversation happened accidentally, fortuitously, or just in ways I can’t explain. I never took the initiative (despite my love, and formal training in science, theology, comparative religions, law). I really just hung out, and mostly listened. All kinds of stuff just popped out. Great fun.

    One physicist at SLAC once told me, “I sometimes feel like I’m on house arrest, like Galileo, when I’m told what I believe by theologians who refuse to hear me when I say I don’t believe it.” [I forget the immediate flap: something like how theologians insist that science is on par with religion because science presupposes faith in the natural order: sorta like the recent Paul Davies flap - but, I foget the context]. House arrest in that case simply meant that scientists talk together in-house, to each other. And they quit talking to theologians. I don’t blame them. Again, I have no magic formula for how these scientists opened up and explored their faith so openly, and how many of them kinda cut loose and did all kinds of creative, imaginative thinking, about faith. All I know is it was fun.

    I got the feeling that there is an ambient willingness to talk, explore, have fun. But, I’m really worthless for specifying the conditions to make this happen.

    Beats me.

    Jim

  17. #17 costanza
    April 3, 2008

    A thoughtful and thought-provoking post However, I’ll make two somewhat “real world” observations:

    (1) In actual practice (de facto as contrasted with de jure) the point IS to win arguments. Since scientific knowledge is provisional by its nature (and we all too often delude ourselves into believing otherwise), the issue is to determine who has the winning approximation. It’s only when one takes the long view (something that most tenure track scientists have neither the time nor the inclination to do) that the over-all progress of scientific knowledge becomes obvious.

    (2) There is a tendency (sometimes) for scientists, when caught in a public debate on something juicy such as creationism in schools or global warming to retreat from public discourse w/ an (altogether reasonable, perhaps) attitude of “I can’t win.” (cf some of the folks at RealClimate). If what we do is as important as we believe it to be, we can’t afford that luxury. And, let’s face it people, the public trough is what allows most of us to do this great stuff; we owe it to the public to keep at it, to let them know what we do, how we do it, and why it’s worth doing.

  18. #18 Melinda Barton
    April 3, 2008

    Hap,

    As I wrote: Myers and Dawkins should feel free to speak; however, wisdom would require that they be careful about how, when and to whom they express their views.

    What I mean: I’ve been invited to speak numerous times on gay issues. If I suddenly got an invite from an anti-gay group or a group known for misrepresenting gay issues, I’d realize they may be picking me for an inappropriate reason, try to figure out what that is, and (if I agree to the interview) try to avoid allowing them to bait me into giving them something they can use to put gay people in a bad light.

    I think Dawkins and Myers should recognize that these groups are picking them to represent the science side for a nefarious reason and find a way to communicate the science without giving these groups the easy opportunity to paint science as anti-religious using their own words as proof. They could try, for instance, giving the kind of answers Dr. Freeride would, defending science reasonably without producing rabid anti-religion quotes or claiming that only an atheist can be an honest scientist (as both Dawkins/Myers have claimed).

    Now obviously, in other circumstances, Mr. Dawkins and Myers should feel free to be as anti-religion as they want to be BUT when they’re “supposedly” being interviewed by the charlatans as representatives of science, they might want to stick to science and not give them quotes that can be used to “confirm” the charlatans’ preconceived biases.

    This isn’t necessarily “framing” per se, just not letting yourself be played as a chump. To be honest, that is the very thing that Myers/Dawkins tend to fall for with these groups. They get played as chumps and pretend that they’ve scored some kind of brownie points for it.

  19. #19 JSinger
    April 3, 2008

    To be honest, that is the very thing that Myers/Dawkins tend to fall for with these groups. They get played as chumps and pretend that they’ve scored some kind of brownie points for it.

    I think you’re simultaneously giving them too much and too little credit. They know exactly what they’re doing; it’s just that promoting science isn’t it.

  20. #20 Melinda Barton
    April 4, 2008

    JSinger,

    You’ve got me there. I think. I say: Dr. FreeRide for Official Science Spokesperson!

  21. #21 Hap
    April 4, 2008

    I’m not certain that they’re being played for chumps – it depends how other people view the situation. I think they took the ID people at the word, and the ID people showed themselves to be dishonest – even if it gets them money with the movie, if enough people see that the promoters of ID are dishonest, they (and their cause) will lose in the long run. The taint of steroids sticks to Mark McGwire like a set of barnacles, even though he was never found to have used them (well, other than dihydroandrosterone, which wasn’t illegal, and I think he took orally, making it not very useful).

    The other problem is that the arena for discussion is one-sided. I don’t think that the ID people (and to (perhaps) a lesser degree, the Republicans) care about the existence of an a reasoned debate – they want to win, at whatever cost. People normally have an incentive not to lie – their messages might be partially discounted for their dishonesty, limiting their ability to achieve their ends. I don’t think this incentive applies to ID – they don’t care about their appearance in rational debate or the existence of such in the future, because it isn’t going to help them anyway. The appearance of reasoned discussion, however, hides their actual activities and gives them a legitimacy they can use to achieve their ends. If their dishonesty in discussion is blatant enough, however, it removes the appearance of rationality from further discussion, and limits any legitimacy they can hope to gain from it. Naked force is unattractive to most people, and being wielded by the dishonest won’t make it any more attractive to onlookers.

    One might be able to lie more effectively to get something if your victim knows you have a gun in your pocket and will use it if you don’t get what you want. There is no requirement on the victim, however, to pretend that the lie is actually truth and is motivating him to act consequently – showing the lie to be false forces the threatener to either show his gun or to concede – either the person with the gun is forced to show more of his nature (his willingness to use violence to get what he wants) than he would like, or he won’t get what he wants. Another example might be the actions of police wearing taped-over badges while breaking up a peaceful (well, before they got there) protest in Tompkins Park, NY – they ended the rally, but the tape of the incident made their willingness to use force for evil (to suppress dissent) overt and tarnished their reputation for years (which indirectly made their jobs more difficult).

    I think that a lot of the point of events like this is driven by promotion of atheism rather than simply science, and in some cases (the false dichotomy between religion and science) it is actively hostile to the cause of science. However, in this case, I think their actions show the nature of ID advocates in a way that will probably help science – people can see the nature of ID advocates in a way that makes their lack of honesty abundantly clear, and will factor that into subsequent arguments.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!