Framing Science

Over at Chris Mooney’s Intersection, there is a lively discussion going-on of our Washington Post article.

I thought this comment was especially interesting, from scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson, director of Flock of Dodos, (airing next month on Showtime).

I’m a big fan of Randy. He’s a scientist who is using his USC film school training to engage wider audiences on topics ranging from the teaching of evolution to ocean conservation. In the process, he’s also raising important questions about how scientists can better communicate with the public. Randy, along with places like San Francisco’s The Exploratorium, are examples of what I call “Science Communication 2.0,” people and institutions who are figuring out innovative ways to tell the story of science to diverse publics.

Here’s what he has to say in reaction to the Post op-ed:

Richard Dawkins is symptomatic of the lack of leadership in the world of science. If there was strong and effective leadership, there would be a strong voice reprimanding him for what he has been doing, and the backlash against him would be as strong and loud as it has been against intelligent design. They are both examples of scientists speaking forcefully, stridently and dogmatically about ideas that are no more than intuition.

The NY Times Book Review of Dawkins book said that on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is clear proof of God, and 7 is clear proof of no God, Dawkins openly admits he’s only at 6. That means he has no science to offer, only his gut feelings — his intuition. Which is the same deal as intelligent design. The world of science should do a little better housekeeping in making clear that Dawkins writes only as a citizen, not a scientist, when it comes to atheism. Or even better, everyone should watch the South Park episodes that really show the similarities in these two ends of the spectrum.

Posted by: Randy Olson, Head Dodo | April 15, 2007 11:39 AM

Comments

  1. #1 Corkscrew
    April 15, 2007

    The NY Times Book Review of Dawkins book said that on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is clear proof of God, and 7 is clear proof of no God, Dawkins openly admits he’s only at 6. That means he has no science to offer, only his gut feelings — his intuition.

    I call equivocation between “no proof of God” and “proof of no God”.

  2. #2 Wes
    April 15, 2007

    The NY Times Book Review of Dawkins book said that on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is clear proof of God, and 7 is clear proof of no God, Dawkins openly admits he’s only at 6. That means he has no science to offer, only his gut feelings — his intuition.

    Uhhhh…no it doesn’t. When the IPCC says it is “almost certain” that man is causing global warming, only a dishonest climate “skeptic” would try to construe that as “no science to offer, only a gut feeling–an intuition.” Almost certain is what Dawkins calls a “six”. That’s why chapter 4 of his book is called “Why there almost certainly is no God.”

    Olson is really, really misconstruing Dawkins’ words. I disagree as well with Dawkins that science is capable of proving or disproving the existence of God (it might be someday, but right now it isn’t–we don’t have enough info), but many of the criticisms I see of him are so wide of the mark that I wonder if his critics even read his book, or are just relying on soundbites and cliches.

  3. #3 steppen wolf
    April 15, 2007

    Dear Nisbet (and Mooney),

    Sorry, but the latest Dawkins book was really more about belief in God/atheism than evolution. Are you saying that people should pretend not to be atheists so that others can get to like the theory of evolution? This is nonsense.

    Dawkins is entitled to write a book on atheism regardless of whether he is a scientist. I thought we were talking about framing science, not about being closeted atheists for the sake of science communication – which is a perversed idea.

    Personal beliefs should stay out of this. If we want to attack or defend them, let’s do so because they deserve it in their own right, not because we are doing it “for science’ sake”.

    About the “scale”: people keep talking before reading. In “The God Delusion”, Dawkins states that he is between 6 and 7. As a scientist, we would not expect him to take a position of absolute certainty –

    – because that is the problem, isn’t it? All results in science, even if they are used to support a hypothesis, can make that hypothesis likely (or very likely) to be true, but never 100% true.

  4. #4 MartinC
    April 15, 2007

    What exactly is leadership in the world of science ?
    Is that like a Science Pope or something ?
    What a remarkably silly thing for Randy to say and yet he manages to then get sillier ! Dawkins says he is a 6 on the scale precisely because it is unscientific to claim to ‘know’ for sure the answers to these questions. You can only go by the probabilities. There is no good evidence for the existence of the traditional personal God and so the probability is that such an entity doesn’t exist. He is simply calling himself an agnostic on this matter.
    The fact that the US has a problem with the public acceptance of empirical evidence is not because big bad Richard Dawkins is being mean and nasty again. Its because you have a large population of evangelical christians who are scared, not only of what Dawkins work is implying but also the work of non atheists like Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins. But don’t worry, the US is only a small part of humanity and a lot of us, including Richard Dawkins, live in non fundamentist parts of the world. You lot can cringe behind the sofa all you like. The rest of us will speak our minds.

  5. #5 J. J. Ramsey
    April 15, 2007

    “The NY Times Book Review of Dawkins book said that on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is clear proof of God, and 7 is clear proof of no God, Dawkins openly admits he’s only at 6. That means he has no science to offer, only his gut feelings — his intuition.”

    I second that this isn’t really fair. One can certainly argue that God is unnecessary as an explanation of the evidence of the present and the past, and that the various bits of evidence presented for God, such as the Bible, the Quran, personal experiences, poorly verified miracle reports, are more parsimoniously explained as being of human rather than divine origin. That is less than perfect certainty but more than just gut feeling.

  6. #6 Tyler DiPietro
    April 15, 2007

    Randy Olson’s comment is profoundly silly.

    He implies that we need stronger “leadership in the world of science”. So science needs it’s own Pontiff and College of Cardinals nowadays, to reprimand the voices of people like Dawkins nonetheless?

    Dawkins book is primarily about atheism versus theism and rationalism versus superstition. Evolution is of secondary importance in the book, and he’s hardly claiming to speak for all biologists or scientists. Furthermore, he goes on quite a bit more than “gut feelings” and “intuitions” in his arguments against theism and anti-science attitudes.

    The most embarrassing and painful aspect of the comment is the implication that because Dawkins is only at a 6 on the atheism-theism scale, he has no science. This is the same bogus logic used by AGW deniers when scientists claim they are only “90 percent” certain of AGW (in the IPCC AR4). The whole point of Dawkins argument is that it’s wholly unscientific to talk in terms of absolutes instead of probabilities. (As well, perhaps Mr. Olson should actually read the book rather than rely on second hand sources like the NYT).

    This whole debacle has been a slow motion trainwreck, Olson has just provided the finale.

  7. #7 Badger3k
    April 15, 2007

    I guess he’s never actually read the book, or discussed any of the reasons why people are atheists. This is more of the same “I wish those atheists would shut up”. That way, we can teach evolution for another year until the newest incarnation of creationism appears.

  8. #8 JGW
    April 16, 2007

    What utter rubbish! If comparing Dawkins’ position to that of Intelligent Design is what is really meant by your and Chris’s idea of “Framing” science, then it’s no wonder you’ve both come in for some serious flack.

  9. #9 J. J. Ramsey
    April 16, 2007

    “That way, we can teach evolution for another year until the newest incarnation of creationism appears.”

    Although I have to wonder how much the creationists can really rejigger things. When “scientific[sic] creationism” got struck down by the courts, the strategy was to dilute creationism to the set of weaker claims that we know as intelligent design. There isn’t much more dilution that creationism can suffer.

  10. #10 HP
    April 17, 2007

    So Randy Olson bases his opinion of Dawkins from what he read in the NY Times Book Review and then reffers to South Park.

    And this you think is a good argument?
    Is it still April 1st?

  11. #11 Randy Olson, Head Dodo
    April 17, 2007

    Greetings from the Wizard of Silly (according to everyone here). I was once an academic, then I lived in Hollywood for a dozen years and acquired a little different perspective on life (and yes, you’re welcome to ridicule me over that, but the fact is my movie, “Flock of Dodos,” is about to air on Showtime on May 17 to its 5 million subscribers, and your movie isn’t).

    One of the things I’ve come to see fairly clearly is the problem academics (i.e. you folks here) have with the difference between perception and reality. The problem is, in today’s society, perception IS reality. Which means it makes little difference what the technical details are of Dawkins argument (though they are certain important for the academic discussion). The perception is he is out there arguing forcefully for the absence of God, yet has no proof. Don’t get me wrong, I think he is a great and important voice to have present in the discussion. But again, so is intelligent design.

    And yes, I read the book. The book is the reality. But what interests me more is the perception — way it is perceived by the broader audience, for which the NY Times book review is very representative.

  12. #12 Randy Olson, Head Dodo
    April 17, 2007

    Okay, I found the NY Times Book Review of Dawkins book. Here’s the exact quote, “On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certitude that God exists and 7 is certitude that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6: “I cannot know for certain but I think that God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption he is not there.”

    And yet, what is the title of Dawkins’ book? “The God Delusion.” Do you need any further proof of the fawlty broad logic of his argument? A bold proclamation for his title (it isn’t titled, “The Possible God Delusion”), followed by equivocation. I’m sorry, but if you’re talking about broad communication, you need to accept that audiences do indeed judge books by their covers, and this one has a very loud and confident statement on it.

    It’s a textbook study in the voice of an academic who shouts out, “You people are all wrong!” and then when questioned, equivocates as he fills in the details of what he meant, “Well, I mean, technically, I think that when you look at the facts, in my opinion, I think it is very improbable that you’re right.”

  13. #13 windy
    April 18, 2007

    I’m sorry, but if you’re talking about broad communication, you need to accept that audiences do indeed judge books by their covers, and this one has a very loud and confident statement on it.

    Indeed. And you made a ‘loud’ and confident statement that, taken at face value, implies that science is about having absolute certainty. When called on it, you say you *really* meant to criticize the book title. Works both ways ;)

    (Although a blog comment is considerably less loud than a book title, of course.)

  14. #14 windy
    April 18, 2007

    It’s a textbook study in the voice of an academic who shouts out, “You people are all wrong!” and then when questioned, equivocates as he fills in the details of what he meant, “Well, I mean, technically, I think that when you look at the facts, in my opinion, I think it is very improbable that you’re right.”

    Isn’t that academic simply framing his message? Instead of droning on in typical egghead scientist manner about “look at the facts … technically … very improbable that you are right … however…”, he left out the boring details and framed his message as a catchy sound bite: perhaps slightly inaccurate but capturing the essence. And now you get on his case about it. Very confusing.

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