In my previous post on this subject, I described the main faults I see in the Mooney/Nisbet thesis regarding the importance of proper “franimg” in presenting science to the public. In this post I would like to focus specifically on their Washington Post article. In particular, I would like to chastise them for some rather ill-considered remarks contained therein.
We start at the beginning of the article:
If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do better than Richard Dawkins, the famed Oxford scientist who had a bestseller with “The God Delusion.” Dawkins, who rose to fame with his lucid expositions of evolution in such books as “The Selfish Gene,” has never gone easy on religion. But recently he has ramped up his atheist message, further mixing his defense of evolution with his attack on belief.
For many on the pro-evolution side the sentiments expressed above are taken as an article of faith. They seem to think it’s obvious that Richard Dawkins, in angrily condemning religion, hurts the cause of promoting science in the U.S. I’ve never seen the slightest shred of evidence that that is the case. The idea, it seems, is that religious people are so delicate that even though many of them would like to support good science education, they are driven back to the side of darkness by mean old Richard Dawkins. Frankly, I think Dawkins and his supporters (which includes me) have a higher opinion of religious people than people like Mooney and Nisbet. After all, Dawkins merely engages seriously with their arguments and explains his reasons for finding them mistaken and foolish. It is people like Mooney and Nisbet, by contrast, who seem to believe that religious believers need to be condescended to, and have difficult scientific issues reduced to buzzwords and catch phrases.
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. 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. (Emphasis Added)
As if to prove my point, Mooney and Nisbet here make explicit the condescension that was only implied in their previous paragraph. Just take a look at that bold-face remark. Of course people can be expected to differentiate between Dawkins’ advocacy of evolution and his advocacy of atheism. And to the extent that people are not able to make that distinction it simply reflects badly on them.
To see how foolish that bold-face remark is, just turn it around. Imagine a non-Christian deciding he wants to learn about evolution and picking up a book by Ken Miller, John Haught, or Francis Collins for that purpose. He quickly finds himself reading about how evolution enriches Christian faith, and fits more comfortably within a Christian worldview than it does within an atheistic one. If our reader now comes away saying, “Gosh! I want to support good science education but this evolution stuff is obviously just a cover for Christianity,” would Mooney and Nisbet lament the poor framing evident in books by those authors.? Or would they argue that our reader ought to think things through a bit more carefully?
If atheists and non-Christians are expected to separate the theological views of people like Ken Miller and Francis Collins from their scientific views, why can’t the same be expected from Christians encountering the views of Richard Dawkins?
Mooney and Nisbet tell us to leave aside the merits of Dawkins’ arguments. I’m sorry, but that is a rather large thing to leave aside. The idea that evolution tends to undermine religious faith is not a baseless fear. Rather, it arises from a simple acknowledgement of the fact that an understanding of the world based on four billion years of evolution by natural selection is hard to reconcile with an understanding based on an all powerful, all loving God creating the Earth for the pleasure of humans. No one feels the need to write a book explaining all the ways in which science in general and evolution in particular conflict with traditional religious views. Those conflicts are obvious to everyone who gives serious thought to the issue. Instead, it is the theistic evolutionists who go on for hundreds of pages trying to explain their views to a skeptical public.
If Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris disappeared off the face of the Earth, it would make not the slightest difference to the rates of evolution acceptance among the genral public. In fact, I suspect it would make things worse. Someone has to push back against the relentless tide of religiously inspired nonsense in this society. Our problem is not that religion is challenged too much. It is that religion is challenged too little.
Skipping ahead a bit:
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. 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? Can’t science and religion just get along? A “science and religion coexistence” message conveyed by church leaders or by scientists who have reconciled the two in their own lives might convince even many devout Christians that evolution is no real threat to faith.
In this blog entry Chris Mooney writes:
Frankly, I think we’re having a healthy–if sometimes quite passionate–discussion over all of this. To be clear: Nobody is saying anybody else ought to shut up or stop talking. (I could read this post in that way, but I will not; and PZ should not read our articles in that way either.) (Emphasis Added)
I’m afraid I don’t see how to reconcile that bold-face remark with the WaPo excerpt above. It sure sounds like they’re telling Dawkins and his supporters to shut up. His message, apparently, is alienating potential supporters, and should be replaced with a message that says the exact opposite of what Dawkins believes. Can Mooney really be confused as to why many people read that and think he is telling Dawkins to shut up?
The broader point, as I’ve said before, is that I think I give religious people more credit than do Mooney and Nisbet. I don’t think there are very many people who start out on the fence, then read Dawkins and decide to join the forces of darkness. Rather, those devout Christians to whom they so casually refer are perceiving something genuine when they see a conflict between science and religion. Arguments like those of Ken Miller may look appealing to some, but I suspect to most people they either look like compromises of the faith or like pointless supernatural add ons to a scientific message that doesn’t need them.
Paul Zachary “PZ” Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris…
I didn’t know the Z stood for Zachary. At least I learned something of interest from the article!
We’re not saying that 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.
Okay, back to business. This distinction between “spin” on the one hand and “framing” on the other is a bit too subtle for me. The idea, I think, is that spin is supposed to be fundamentally dishonest. When a politician spins he is not really lying, but he is presenting the facts in so misleading a way that it comes very close indeed to the line. Framing, by contrast, is supposed to represent an effort to help people focus in on what’s important. Rather than present the facts in a misleading way, you are helping people distinguish the really important facts from the less important side issues.
So, yes, intellectually there is a distinction there. But as a practical matter the two are rather hard to distinguish. It’s hard to argue that you’re interest is in good communication when you tell scientists that for strategic reasons it’s important to play up the “science and religion coexistence frame,” while telling the rather large percentage of scientists who demur to be quiet, or at least to soft-peddle their message.
The fact is that it is impossible to reduce complex scientific issues to concise take-home messages without fundamentally distorting the science. Issues like evolution, global warming and embryonic stem-cell research are complicated, and that is all there is to it. So let’s have no illusions about what is being recommended here. We’re not talking about effective communication or presenting science in an engaging way. We’re talking about dumbing it down as a concession to the relentless unwillingness of large segments of the public either to educate themselves properly or to defer to those who have so educated themselves. As a simple strategic matter there may be something to this (though I doubt it, as I explained in my earlier post on this subject). But let’s not hide behind a euphemism like “framing” to pretend that we are somehow being noble.
The main thing I think of when I read essays like the ones written by Mooney and Nisbet is: They’re blaming the victim. When the public displays manifest ignorance of science or gets their facts from right-wing demagogues, the blame is placed on scientists for inadequate marketing. I’m sorry, but at some point people are responsible for their own ignorance.