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.