I suspect that everyone reading this has heard the story of what happened when P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins tried to attend a screening of Expelled in Minneapolis last week. Short version: P.Z. got recognized and was not allowed in. Dawkins was not recognized and was allowed in. If you’ve been living in a cave for the last week you can check out P.Z.’s post here. Then scroll through the remainder of his recent posts to hear about the fallout.

There are many aspects of this worth discussing, but here I am interested in only one. Matt Nisbet, you see, is once more beating his favorite dead horse. That’s the one where he protests that people like Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers (and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett) are hurting the cause of promoting good science education. They make people think that science and atheism are intextricably linked, you see, which causes fence-sitting religious moderates to side with the forces of darkness and ignorance.

I’ve discussed this point before at this blog. I see the argument Nisbet (and others) are making, but in the end I do not agree with it. Frankly, I think we need hundreds more just like Dawkins and Myers. That, however, is not the issue I want to raise right now.

Virtually everything in Nisbet’s post deserves a response, but since I’m a bit pressed for time I will only focus on one. Nisbet writes:

So Richard and PZ, when it comes to Expelled, it’s time to let other people be the messengers for science. This is not about censoring your ideas and positions, but rather being smart, strategic, tactical, and ultimately effective in promoting science rather than your own personal ideology, books, or blog. (Emphasis Added)

This reminded me of something I once read in a Dave Barry column. Sadly, I no longer have the precise quotation, but it was something like, “While I would certainly never blame a complex situation on a single entity, I believe the New York Times is solely and completely responsible for this.”

Matt, of course you’re calling for censoring their positions and ideas (which are largely my own, incidentally). It’s one of the main themes of your writing that every time Myers and Dawkins open their mouths they’re hurting the cause of good science education. You’re telling them to shut up and let other people do the talking. You write:

When called up by reporters or asked to comment, Dawkins and PZ should refer journalists to these organizations and individuals.

So even if they are specifically asked for their opinions by a journalist they are not supposed to answer, but are instead supposed to refer the journalist to an organization less hostile to religion.

How can you then turn around and say you are not calling for censorship?

Comments

  1. #1 royniles
    March 23, 2008

    The Nisbet post says:
    “The simplistic and unscientific claim that more knowledge leads to less religion might be the particular delusion of Dawkins, Myers, and many others, but it is by no means the official position of science, though they often implicitly claim to speak for science. Nor does it stand up to mounds of empirical evidence about the complex relationship between science literacy and public perceptions.’”

    I thought that the beauty of science was that it doesn’t take any specific position en masse, official or otherwise. “Complex relationship” used in this context smacks of some conspiracy to deceive the public when it’s for its own good. Isn’t that more for religion to do than science?

  2. #2 Badger3k
    March 23, 2008

    I also thought that many studies have shown a relationship between less religiousity and greater education (although others have come to different conclusions, but I suspect their methodology). If so, then Myers, et al are certainly correct. The problem is, many other people don’t want to hear that – they are emotionally invested in their beliefs and don’t want to hear anything challenging that (I know this from personal experience(, and this seems to be Nisbett’s thrust. Like you, I disagree completely with his conclusions. Heck, as Dawkins himself said at his presentation in Austin this past week, he may not be the best person for the “mission” but he feels that both types of people are needed. I agree with that, we need both the louder and the concilliatory spokepeople, expecially since our goals are slightly different. Some people just want better science education, and some of us want to eliminate the delusions that are at the root of the resistance to science education (and education, and critical thinking, in general).

  3. #3 HP
    March 23, 2008

    I think there is a linkage being forged in the public’s mind by events like the Myers expulsion. But it’s not a link between science and atheism — it’s the link between anti-science and dishonesty.

    As for Nisbet, I think there’s more than enough evidence for people of good will to begin openly questioning his motives. I used to think he was merely a grossly incompetent communicator, but I think we need to seriously begin considering the possibility that he’s playing for the other team.

  4. #4 SLC
    March 23, 2008

    Prof. Nisbets’ sockpuppet, Mr. Chris Mooney has also weighed in on the issue with the same Myers and Dawkins should shut up routine. Mooney used to be an okay guy but then he met numbnuts Nisbet and was brainwashed by him. Too bad he didn’t move to Los Angeles 2 years earlier.

    http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2008/03/expelled_screenwriter_wants_to.php

  5. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    March 23, 2008

    Nisbet: Dawkins, Myers, and many others… often implicitly claim to speak for science.

    And just whom or what does Nisbet implicitly claim to speak for?

  6. #6 pough
    March 23, 2008

    He’s not calling for censorship, he’s merely expressing himself in a way that he hopes will lead to a total and complete reduction of expression on the part of Dawkins and Myers. I think the difference is word count.

  7. #7 LLL
    March 23, 2008

    Here’s a qualified defense of Nisbet. It’s not clear that what Nisbet’s calling for is censorship. He wants Dawkins and Myers to voluntarily refrain from speaking on the subject, but does not think that their viewpoints should be systematically excluded. That is, he does not seem to think that people should refuse to print them, etc. He is calling for self-censorship, but that’s not necessarily invidious.

    I said this is a qualified defense, and here’s the qualification. None of what I’ve said makes Nisbet’s claim any less insulting, inaccurate, or acceptable. It also doesn’t make his position any more justified. Nisbet’s position is wrong and criticism of it is deserved. But we need not criticize him for things he didn’t say.

  8. #8 PoxyHowzes
    March 23, 2008

    In the video, airc, both Dawkins and Myers respond to a question about the development of their personal beliefs. Both say (essentially) that for them personally, more education (more science) led to less religious belief, until ultimately there was none left.

    (sarcasm) So next time they’re asked, they should answer: “you’ll have to ask Matt Nesbitt how I became an atheist — he spins it…uhh, frames it…so much better than I do!” That will make a great case for science and science education!(/sarcasm)

  9. #9 J. J. Ramsey
    March 23, 2008

    HP: “I think there is a linkage being forged in the public’s mind by events like the Myers expulsion. But it’s not a link between science and atheism — it’s the link between anti-science and dishonesty.”

    I think that may depend on how things shake out. Norman Doering suggested on Mooney’s related thread that we lay it on the line and make concrete predictions as to what to expect, and based on the somewhat polarized nature of modern media, this was mine:

    There will be two stories circulating, one where PZ Myers is portrayed as hypocritically barred from seeing a movie, and one where he was rightfully barred from disrupting a movie. The former story will circulate in the mainstream media, which will comfort us, while the latter story will be disseminated by Fox Noise and WorldNutDaily and circulate among evangelicals, which will incite sympathy and curiosity among Christians.

    If Fox Noise doesn’t sop to the Christian Right, we may luck out. Of course, there is also the matter of whether the people behind Expelled benefit more from getting the movie mentioned in the papers than they lose from the accusation of hypocrisy, even if there is no alternate story.

  10. #10 Pseudonym
    March 23, 2008

    royniles:

    I thought that the beauty of science was that it doesn’t take any specific position en masse, official or otherwise.

    That’s true up to a point. Certainly, every publication from every “official body” on the role of evolution in science education (such as the recent NAS one), if it mentions religion at all, indicates that the beef is not with religion, but anti-evolutionism. So to the extent that there’s a consensus amongst scientists on the topic, it’s that.

    Badger3k:

    I also thought that many studies have shown a relationship between less religiousity and greater education (although others have come to different conclusions, but I suspect their methodology). If so, then Myers, et al are certainly correct.

    Assuming that the relationship exists (your qualification is noted), then Myers et al can only be “certainly” correct if you confuse correlation with causation.

    There are also studies, by the way, which show a positive correlation between homosexuality and education.

  11. #11 Kevin
    March 23, 2008

    “official position of science”

    wha? that does not make any sense..

  12. #12 Rien
    March 23, 2008

    Here is a nice take from Cosmic Variance: PZ and Dawkins are not after being politicians, they are after speaking the truth.

  13. #13 royniles
    March 23, 2008

    I agree that a consensus often exists and necessarily so, but not at the expense of requiring a stifling of dissent or a particular dissenter. I suppose an exception can be made for ridicule which sometimes has the same effect. But I’ve never seen evidence that ridicule has moved from consensus to official position of science either.

  14. #14 PalMD
    March 23, 2008

    Speaking truth (and that’s what PZ and Dawkins do) includes the whole truth.

    The truth is, there is no evidence to support, well, God, just as there is no evidence in the Easter Bunny or homeopathy.

    Basically, scientists here are being asked to tell some truths and not others to satisfy some vague rhetorical purpose.

  15. #15 Explicit Atheist
    March 23, 2008

    Knowledge is neutral in the sense that it doesn’t have any pro-religion or anti-religion goal but it isn’t neutral in the sense that it won’t have pro-religion or anti-religion outcomes or implications. Just like the distinction between equal opportunity and equal outcomes, our ethical obligation is provide for the former, not the latter. Trying to squeeze knowledge into the box of religious neutral outcomes is no good, that is counter-productive simply because knowledge doesn’t fit into that box and no whining from Nisbet or Mooney against the people who point out the reality of this misfit is going to change this fact that knowledge never has been and never will be religiously neutral because religion relies on or makes fact claims that can be, and sometimes are, false.

    Instead of criticizing people who accurately point out the conflict between modern knowledge and ancient religion’s false claims, Nisbeth and Mooney would do better to criticize the many people who insist that knowledge never contradict religion and who insist that if knowledge does contradict religion then knowledge is an enemy that should be defeated. We need to put an end to this bad practice of being intimidated into self-censorship by popular anti-intellectualism and of targeting public expression of knowledge as a problem. Either Dawkins et. al. are factually wrong or they are justified for publically speaking the facts no matter how inconvenient those facts are for religious ideologues.

  16. #16 Jim
    March 23, 2008

    Of course, there is also the matter of whether the people behind Expelled benefit more from getting the movie mentioned in the papers than they lose from the accusation of hypocrisy, even if there is no alternate story.

    If you believe Dawkins take, who actually got into the screening that night, a mass viewing of the film could be the worst thing for it. Dawkins describes the film-making approach itself to be very shoddy. Really everything about the film, he says, is 2nd rate (right down to using a Lord Privy Seal technique).
    Then there’s the small matter of the film maker, apparently, using the same Harvard multimedia film that Dembski was using before they asked him to stop. Maybe P.Z. writes about this on his blog (I havent’ got there yet), but it seems that, as a nice little twist, the film-maker silenced the Harvard soundtrack & added his own little creationist dub-over. It is hard to imagine that the Harvard group gave permission for that. So, it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.
    As a slight side-note, one has to wonder if there is a new wave assault on “the new atheists”. I’ve noticed subtle movements that appear to be a gear-up from religious moderates/agnostics-who-don’t-want-to-ruffle-feathers. For instance, Chris Hedges has a new book, “I don’t believe in atheists”. Here’s a sample of what he has to say:
    http://alternet.org/rights/80449/?page=entire

  17. #17 J. J. Ramsey
    March 23, 2008

    PalMD: “Speaking truth (and that’s what PZ and Dawkins do) includes the whole truth.”

    Excuse me, but one bit of the whole truth that Dawkins and PZ leave out is that not everyone buys that understanding science naturally leads to atheism, and that in practice, it often doesn’t work out that way.

  18. #18 PalMD
    March 23, 2008

    It’s not that science inevitably leads to atheism (although it does), but that it at least leads to the fact that there is no evidence for God, and that God is irrelevant to science, even if religion is not.

  19. #19 Blake Stacey
    March 24, 2008

    Over at Pharyngula, MAJeff (of the Order of the Molly) lays his sociologist finger on a key irony. Once again, Nisbet is confusing the particular message he wants to send with the general body of knowledge which goes under the name “framing”. To wit:

    What Nisbet doesn’t seem to understand is that PZ and Dawkins are framing all of this quite successfully–and they have opponents who are helping them out.

    Throughout, they have been focusing on the dishonesty of the folks who’ve made the movie–in the contracts, in their attaching of Darwin to Fascism/Nazism/Comunism, in their “reportage” of the situation involving ID in the academy, on their use of “Big Science” conspiricism. Consistent in his response to these folks, PZ has focused on their dishonesty. It’s almost as though he’s strategically selecting one particular aspect of all the things that are happening and using them in a strategic fashion in order to discredit the folks who made the film as dishonest…..

    The wonderful thing is that by focusing on this particular aspect, is that they just keep on reinforcing this particular “the producers are liars” frame…He could focus on the minutiae of the science, as Nisbet would have him, but framing his opponents as liars who are not to be trusted undermines their entire message, which also happens to be mostly lies.

    Full comment here.

  20. #20 John Hasenkam
    March 24, 2008

    As an Aussie I find the evolution-creationism debate strange and comical. Ironically a key creationist is an Aussie (Ken Ham) yet here in Aus the issue doesn’t even make the public radar. We just don’t care but then we don’t fanatics trying to change our education system to suit a religious ideology. Not quite right, the fanatics are there but we just don’t listen.

    Strictly speaking science can’t lead to atheism. I like Dennett’s approach but I found Dawkins approach too arrogant and he went too far in his arguments. In some sense or the other we are all deluded. Dawkins deluded many with The Selfish Gene, a very simplistic and misleading portrayal of evolutionary dynamics.

    The big challenge for the likes of Dawkins and Myers is not to appear as arrogant and condescending as the creationists. They need to think more about their audience than their protagonists. The latter will probably never change their minds, with the audience there is hope. I don’t think they are harming science but they might benefit from some PR expertise.

    Let creationism come out of the closet, let all and sundry be exposed to its idea. Then it will die.

  21. #21 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    March 24, 2008

    Oh C’mon, fess up: Nisbet and Mooney are really concern trolls, aren’t they? Did you think Scienceblog readers would not be smart enough to figure this out?

    A concern troll is a pseudonym created by a user whose point of view is opposed to the one that the user’s sockpuppet claims to hold. The concern troll posts in web forums devoted to its declared point of view and attempts to sway the group’s actions or opinions while claiming to share their goals, but with professed “concerns”. The goal is to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt within the group.

    The only remaining question is, who is pulling the strings?

  22. #22 Martin
    March 24, 2008

    I don’t mean to come across as a “concern troll”, but I do think that Dawkins is less than relevant.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy, he’s brilliant, I have all his books, I’m a member of the fan club,

    The trouble is, he’s made himself into such a polarizing figure with titles like “The God Delusion”, that the way I see it, he suffers from “Science Blog Syndrome”. The only people who pay attention are the pro-science fans, and the anti-science… erm… is “anti-fans” a word? Anyway, my point is, how exactly does anyone think that Dawkins does in the moderate/ambivalent camp?

  23. #23 bmkmd
    March 24, 2008

    I went over to the Expelled site at http://www.expelledthemovie.com/playground.php
    and was impressed with the production values and skill. The content was the same old stuff about scientists loosing their jobs becasue they expressed unpopular, anti-Darwinian arguments and published(?) papers of the same ilk.
    I was struck by the disingenious arguments of fair play and democracies protecting all opinions, as if scientific conclusions are just a matter of democratic political debate.
    It was really sickening. I wanted to scream as I watched it.
    Over and over I kept thinking, this is the pot calling the kettle black. Where are scientists preventing the expression of religion but in a non-religious classroom, a science classroom?
    How can people be so stupid?

  24. #24 J. J. Ramsey
    March 25, 2008

    Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD: “Oh C’mon, fess up: Nisbet and Mooney are really concern trolls, aren’t they?”

    Yes, I can just see it now. The creationists in a round table in a dark, smoky room:

    Crea. #1: I got an idea! Let’s send in a mole to ScienceBlogs.
    Crea. #2: Uh, how are we going to do that?
    Crea. #1: Pray really hard?
    Crea. #3: What’s he going to say?
    Crea. #1: How about this: Evolution and religion don’t have to conflict, and Ken Miller is a really swell spokesman for science.
    Crea. #3: Uh, how’s that going to help us?

    I think your hypothesis needs work. I suppose that it’s a bit more plausible than demolition experts wiring the Twin Towers with explosives while they were still occupied, which isn’t saying much. If you are going to start paranoid rumors, I suggest that you think them through more carefully.

  25. #25 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    March 25, 2008

    A repeat for those who suffer from poor reading comprehension:

    A concern troll is a pseudonym created by a user whose point of view is opposed to the one that the user’s sockpuppet claims to hold.

  26. #26 J. J. Ramsey
    March 25, 2008

    My reading comprehension was just fine, thank you very much. Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD, you were pretty clearly insinuating, nay, saying outright, that Nisbet and Mooney were creationist shills pretending to be against creationism. Now it is one thing to troll on a web forum where anyone can register and conceal one’s real identity. It is a whole other thing to set up a publication history spanning several years and then get lucky enough to set up shop on ScienceBlogs. That means that it’s highly unlikely that Nisbet and Mooney could have been shills all along. If you are suggesting that Nisbet and Mooney were started working for creationists some time after they got on board ScienceBlogs, then I suggest that you come up with, you know, evidence?

  27. #27 Badger3k
    March 26, 2008

    Sorry it took so long, but Pseudonym, do you have these (preferably in PDF format):

    There are also studies, by the way, which show a positive correlation between homosexuality and education.

    The only ones that I am aware of show an acceptance of homosexuality, and the only ones that I am aware of dealing with greater incidences of homosexuality seemed to have some realtions to twins and men with older/many brothers. If you see this and have such studies, or citations, please let me know. I’d like to read them.