The Whole Expelled/Framing Thing

Have you been following this? P. Z. Myers got recognized at a screening of Expelled and was thrown out. Richard Dawkins, who was with Myers, did not get recognized and was allowed in. Hilarious! I think most people would agree with Dawkins’ take:

The blogs are ringing with ridicule. Mark Mathis, duplicitous producer of the much hyped film Expelled, shot himself in the foot so spectacularly that the phrase might have been invented for him. Goals don’t come more own than this. How is it possible that a man who makes his living from partisan propaganda could hand so stunning a propaganda coup to his opponents? Hand it to them on a plate, so ignominiously and so UNNECESSARILY.

Quite right. I recommend the remainder of Dawkins’ lengthy essay as well.

Here at Science Blogs, most people saw the humor in the situation. Not so Chris Mooney, who argued that the contrversy actually helped the forces of darkness. Also not so Matt Nisbet who rained on everyone’s parade with these sorts of sentiments:

As long as Dawkins and PZ continue to be the representative voices from the pro-science side in this debate, it is really bad for those of us who care about promoting public trust in science and science education. Dawkins and PZ need to lay low as Expelled hits theaters. Let others play the role of communicator, most importantly the National Center for Science Education, AAAS, the National Academies or scientists such as Francis Ayala or Ken Miller. When called up by reporters or asked to comment, Dawkins and PZ should refer journalists to these organizations and individuals.

Though the occasion for writing the post was the whole Expelled kerfuffle, the point actually discussed by Nisbet was a You Tube clip from the film in which Dawkins and Myers are critical of religion. For the record, I had no problem with anything they said in the clip, and on this issue Dawkins and Myers speak for me.

Well, P.Z. was predictably unhappy with Matt, and he wrote a short reply (more recently a longer reply here.) I can’t repeat P.Z.’s reply on account of this being a family blog.

This prompted Sheril Kirshenbaum to protest that P.Z. had crossed a line in being so rude. Chris Mooney subsequently backed her up on this in the comments.

Clearly what is needed is for me to step up and lay down the law.

First, on the merits of the Mooney/Nisbet thesis that the whole situation with P.Z. getting thrown out is bad for the good guys, I think Mark Chu-Carroll has a good take. His opening mischaracterizes the views of people opposed to the opinions expressed by Mooney and Nisbett on the subject of framing, (As far as I know, nobody objects to framing as an abstract principle. The objection is to the specific ways Nisbet in particular argued that these ideas should be put into practice) but the rest of the post is spot-on. Orac also has some wise words to say on the matter. I think he lays it on a bit think, but I generally agree with his take.

Basically, I think this is much ado about nothing. The Myers/Dawkins affair is a small, short-term PR victory for the good guys and a black eye for the bad guys. When the movie is finally released there will be some press coverage, and this incident is likely to get mentioned repeatedly. But it’s hardly something that’s going to sink the film or even mitigate very much the harm that it is poised to do.

What about the civility issues? I’m a big fan of civility. Respect has to be earned, of course, but let’s stipulate that everyone here at Science Blogs has, in fact, earned it. Passion and strong words are one thing, but gratuitous insults and motive-questioning are something different. So let me protest some of the invective I’ve seen hurled at Matt and Chris both in the comments to various blog posts and even among certain bloggers. They are not “concern-trolls,” they are not simply pretending to support science while secretly trying to subvert it, they are not closet creationists. They have a not entirely unreasonable position about the best way to promote science and they make some decent arguments on behalf of their view. In the end I’m mostly unconvinced, at least on the specific issue of dealing with creationists. But they deserve better treatment than they’ve been getting from some quarters. So knock it off.

That said, let me disagree with Sheril on this one:

It seems to me, that although you two argue constantly, Matt has always treated you with decorum and respect.

Nonsense. Matt has been consistently rude and condescending towards P.Z., both on this issue and previously. Civility is a two-way street, and Matt would do well to show a bit more tact in making his case.

As for P.Z., I can understand why he would be, well, annoyed with Matt, but this is one case where humor and sarcasm would have been far more effective than outrage. I disagreed with everything Matt said in his post, but I felt some sympathy for him after reading P.Z.’s reply.

So that’s my take on that. On to more pressing issues…

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    March 25, 2008

    When the movie is finally released there will be some press coverage, and this incident is likely to get mentioned repeatedly. But it’s hardly something that’s going to sink the film or even mitigate very much the harm that it is poised to do.

    I hope very much that you are wrong about this, but we should plan what to do in anticipation that you are right.

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    March 25, 2008

    I won’t swear here, since you like to keep the blog family friendly (it escapes why anyone would genuinely want to do such a thing unless it was to keep their higher-ups off their back). But I disagree with you somewhat on PZ’s response, I think it was totally justified. The F-bomb is the most apt word to use in a situation where someone wastes a lot of verbiage telling you, basically, to shut up.

  3. #3 Jan
    March 25, 2008

    Richard Dawkins became an ex-fundamentalist a few nights ago in front of a crowd of 800 at the NY Society of Ethical culture . See Dawkins renounces Darwinism as Religion.

  4. #4 chezjake
    March 25, 2008

    First let me say that I appreciate the even-handed and unemotional approach you’ve taken. I agree with you on most of it.

    However, you said:
    As for P.Z., I can understand why he would be, well, annoyed with Matt, but this is one case where humor and sarcasm would have been far more effective than outrage. I disagreed with everything Matt said in his post, but I felt some sympathy for him after reading P.Z.’s reply.,/i>

    From this and various posts and comments elsewhere, it’s apparent that there’s a great deal of variation in how people perceive PZ’s response to Nisbet. I don’t see any outrage there at all. I saw it simply as a flip dismissal, which was all that Nisbet’s post deserved. Having spent close to 25 years working on a university campus, I’ve heard that phrase used much more often as a casual rejection than as any sort of vehement expression of outrage. YMMV.

  5. #5 J. J. Ramsey
    March 25, 2008

    “Orac also has some wise words to say on the matter. I think he lays it on a bit think, but I generally agree with his take.”

    Maybe he lays it on a bit thick, but he helped me come around on Nisbet and Mooney. I have to admit that when he said to Nisbet “Say bye-bye to a former ally,” I thought, “Ok, if one of our saner voices at ScienceBlogs is that pissed at Nisbet, that’s telling, and maybe I ought to rethink things.” Actually, my thoughts were a lot more disorganized than that, but that’s sort of it.

  6. #6 Wes
    March 25, 2008

    I think PZ definitely crossed a line of civility. And it’s not the first time he’s crossed it–he’s said some nasty and uncalled-for things about Ed Brayton and John Wilkins before too. Of course, to my knowledge, Brayton and Wilkins didn’t post priggish demands for public apology (but that’s a different story).

    However, given that Matt “Silence the New Atheist Noise Machine” Nisbet has been provoking PZ for quite some time now, and given the arrogant, disrespectful, and condescending tone of his call for PZ to be quiet and defer requests for interviews to national science organizations, I can understand why PZ was upset and over-reacted. I probably would have done the same thing if I were the target of such behavior, so it would be a bit hypocritical for me to lecture him on decorum. And I don’t think PZ needs to apologize. If anything, Nisbet just needs to stop riding this hobby-horse of his and start focusing on things that actually matter.

  7. #7 Left_Wing_Fox
    March 25, 2008

    Too often I’ve heard truly despicable statements hide behind the veneer of civility, while offense it taken at the profanity. Too many times I have heard these passive-aggressive people use mocking statements only to be mortally offended when they themselves are mocked. And quite frankly, I’ve seen it enough times that sometimes a ripe F-bomb is a useful way of separating those who want the pretense of an argument from those who are focussed on the argument itself.

    Watch the commentators on Aetiology and Deltoid deal with the trolls there: The derision that drops off some of these trolls is palpable, but it doesn’t stop the regulars from eviscerating the claims with surgical precision. It’s the denialists who whine and take offense when mocked, not the scientists.

    One final comment on all this: I find it incredibly ironic that the two people focussed on “Framing Science” for an acceptable message of promotion managed to completely alienate the rest of the ScienceBlogs community with their “frame”. How can one claim to be a uniter if they can’t even get the support of their allies?

  8. #8 Pierce R. Butler
    March 25, 2008

    Wes: … I can understand why PZ was upset and over-reacted.

    Jebus, a lot of people lead such sheltered lives.

    Myers under-reacted.

    He was being pointlessly heckled by Nisbet after being yanked around by an immature christotwerp (remember, Mathis could have emailed his reneging on the admission deal at any time), and threatened with arrest – after being lied to, quote-mined and slandered – and he didn’t even tell the story about Nisbet’s mama at the truck stop.

    Who else among us could have exercised such restraint?

  9. #9 Chris Hallquist
    March 25, 2008

    PZ’s reply in Sheril’s comments was exactly right: he could have dissected Nisbet’s post at length, showing everyone how stupid it was, but chose to dismiss a bit rudely, but not as harshly as he could of. I always enjoy the first option, but when your opponent’s response to your mildest statements is that you should just be quiet, that it’s bad for you to so much as express your views, the latter isn’t out of line.

  10. #10 Bee
    March 26, 2008

    I tend to agree with what Pierce Butler says: PZ under-reacted, if anything. I think I’m one of the milder-mannered regular readers of ScienceBlogs, and though Nisbet never ‘swore’ at PZ, I noticed with considerable annoyance he was a continual underminer of PZ’s posts, very condescending and dismissive of the importance some of us attach to the promotion of atheism as a reasonable and normal state of mind, as well as understanding science.

    I’d have told Nisbet where to put it long ago.

    Mark Chu-Carroll and Orac have written interesting comments about framing in this context.

    I know Nisbet and Co. don’t seem to understand this, but most people see their manner of promoting framing as a call to be dishonest, to hide the truth and apply spin, and in the process, deliberately silence two of the most popular voices for atheism and biology presently being heard.

    In any other first world country, openly and publicly telling someone to shut up because he’s an outspoken atheist scientist would be considered an appalling instance of attacking individual free speech.

  11. #11 Damian
    March 26, 2008

    The most ridiculous aspect about this whole saga (and there are many), is the fact that Nisbet has asked for PZ and Dawkins to allow others to handle this issue, while seemingly not having a clue that on the website of the primary candidate for that (NCSE -Expelled Exposed), 30% of the posts will simply link those who are looking for information back to PZ and Dawkins! You really couldn’t make this up.

    I won’t spell out the scene, but I am sure that everyone can imagine…..the silence.

    (Thanks to Tulse who bought this to my attention)

  12. #12 RBH
    March 26, 2008

    I am genuinely perplexed. Nisbet presents himself as an authority on framing, which I understand roughly to mean that one should couch one’s position in terms that resonate with one’s audience. Why then is Nisbet, the self-identified expert, so utterly inept at framing his argument in a way that resonates with the audience he is (putatively) addressing, Myers and Dawkins? Is he actually addressing some other audience? If so, who?

  13. #13 NP
    March 26, 2008

    Nisbet seems to erroneously assume that science is a centralized institution.

  14. #14 Matt Penfold
    March 26, 2008

    Jason,

    Do you not agree that when Uncommon Descent link to Nisbett’s post in support of him then something, somewhere has gone wrong with argument. He may not be a creationist, he may not support them, but he does not seem to care he is providing them with ammunition. At the very least he show a level of indifference that means he can no longer be consider to fully be in support of the anti-creationist movement.

    In addition, with regards support for the principle of the idea of framing, when the two people who claim to have come up with the concept are unable to use the technique themselves then that surely must make one question if the principle is even sound. I mean, who would go to someone who is clinically obese for advice of how to loose weight ? If the very people who claim to have invented the technique are so poor at putting into practice then what hope the rest of us ?

  15. #15 386sx
    March 26, 2008

    When the movie is finally released there will be some press coverage, and this incident is likely to get mentioned repeatedly. But it’s hardly something that’s going to sink the film or even mitigate very much the harm that it is poised to do.

    The target audience seems to be liking it so far.

    http://www.newscientist.com/blog/shortsharpscience/2008/03/are-id-proponents-being-silenced.html

    They love having more good reasons to hate something that contradicts their creation story, I would guess. It did come from god after all. Ain’t nothin that can contradict the lord, by golly garsh. Nooo sir.

  16. #16 Craig Pennington
    March 26, 2008

    [Mark Chu-Carroll']s opening mischaracterizes the views of people opposed to the opinions expressed by Mooney and Nisbett on the subject of framing, (As far as I know, nobody objects to framing as an abstract principle. The objection is to the specific ways Nisbet in particular argued that these ideas should be put into practice)

    My problem with Nisbett & Mooney is that they assert without evidence that religion friendly promotion of science would increase general public acceptance of science. At first glance it’s plausible. But the problem is that in the real world it doesn’t seem to be true. Folks aren’t drawn to science in droves by Ken Miller. N&M blame this on the existence of people like Dawkins and PZ. N&M have their model, which must be right, and the absence of evidence for its efficacy is due to confounding factors. Thus their strategy has been to try to eliminate the confounding factor. It can only work if their original hypothesis is true. And, in my opinion, it’s no more true than the assertion that there are a bunch of moderates in the potential population of US voters who are fed up with partisanship in Washington. People who count on their existence don’t do very well in the real world.

    On the topic of effective responses to the anti-Enlightenment hordes I think xkcd said it best. Go with what actually works.

  17. #17 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    March 26, 2008

    As long as Dawkins and PZ continue to be the representative voices from the pro-science side in this debate, it is really bad for those of us who care about promoting public trust in science and science education.

    If there is any evidence that Matt Nisbet cares about promoting anything other than Matt Nisbet, it has not yet been presented.

    Has Nisbet contributed anything positive to this community?

  18. #18 PuckishOne
    March 26, 2008

    Matt Penfold mentioned this first, but I’d like to repeat it, as I think it’s quite (ironically) central to the issue: Uncommon Descent linked to Mr. Nisbet’s post, and not to quote-mine it. For all the talk about the “harm” that would come from the PZ-Dawkins/”Expelled” flap, it was this post that the ID community seized on.

    So who’s causing harm now?

  19. #19 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 26, 2008

    Matt Penfold-

    Any time you criticize a prominent evolutionist the UD crowd is going to chirp and smile. I wrote a post a while back criticizing an essay by Jeryy Coyne and the creationist blogs were all a-twitter about it. Should I not have posted the essay. (Actually, quite a few people told me I shouldn’t have). You can’t constantly worry about how the crazy people are going to react to your blog posts.

    As RBH pointed out, Nisbet ought to take some of his own advice and find a less contentious and condescendig way of making his points. But I also think that neither he nor Mooney have crossed any lines, and I don’t like the spectacle of one Science Blogger referring to another Science Blogger as a “hack.” Save the venom for the creationists.

  20. #20 JimV
    March 26, 2008

    I would have considered PZ’s short reply perfect if he had left out the F-word; with it I can only give him a 9.7. It’s probably my upbringing, but it you think about what profanity means it seems to me to be based on misogynistic, homophobic, superstitious concepts. And if it has just become meaningless pop-culture buzz words, then there still seems to me to be no great value in it.

    While I’m on about personal preferences, I had the same reaction to MCC’s post, so this is my favorite ScienceBlog post on the issue so far.