Framing Science

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In his Sept. column at Scientific American, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, echoes the very same warnings about the Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign emphasized here at Framing Science and in our articles at Science and the Washington Post. He argues against the irrational exuberance of the New Atheist Noise Machine for the following three main reasons:

1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.

2. A positive message about what it means to live life without religion is absolutely critical. Other than selling books and further polarizing the public, where is at all going? To what end?

3. It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind. Most importantly we alienate many moderately religious Americans who otherwise agree with us on most social and scientific topics.

Comments

  1. #1 Jon Eccles
    August 21, 2007

    The New Atheists discuss religion with the same language that is habitually used in all other areas of public discourse. They argue very clearly for a positive stand for scientific humanism and the right to choose.

    They’re also quite capable of forming tactical alliances. Dawkins, for instance, issued an anti-creationist statement with the Bishop of Oxford, a personal friend of his.

    But there is a limit to how far you can go. Evangelists think the voices in their head are real, and we think they’re deluding themselves. Homeopaths think they prescribe medicine, we think they prescribe water. Muslims think their holy book has been misrepresented, we think it’s they who misrepresent it. To take this positions you have to tell people they’re wrong, and conflict is bound to result.

  2. #2 Anonymous
    August 21, 2007

    1.
    See anti-enslavement movement, anti-nazi movement, anti-racism movement, anti-patriarchy movement for past examples of varying degrees of success

    2.
    - Every “new atheist” (shudder) book has included a lot on the positive aspects of being an atheist, other than the obvious “it’s true”, and they’re just being willfully ignored.
    - To what end? Well, I suppose, stripping superstition of its wrongly held place in public discourse, for starters.

    3.
    How about you stop just making this claim and start making a convincing argument why? Nobody’s ever gotten anywhere in this country by being meek – I was reminded of that vigorously when I made a similar “why don’t you be more polite” comment on Zuska’s blog.

  3. #3 jeffk
    August 21, 2007

    Sorry, that wasn’t supposed to be anonymous.

  4. #4 G. Shelley
    August 21, 2007

    1.
    I think this one is demonstrably untrue

    2.
    To encourage people not to keep their disbelief secret and to show those with doubts that they don’t need to keep believing because the alternative is too scary.

    3.
    This happens anyway, besides, the argument that we should hide and not tell the truth because people might not like it is a weak one

  5. #5 James Hrynyshyn
    August 21, 2007

    Sorry Matt (and Michael), but those three points just don’t hold water.

    1. “Anti-something movements” represent the impetus behind just about every example of progress in human history. Slaves opposed slavery; democrats opposed taxation without representation; even religious reformers opposed Church dogma.

    2. “A positive message” can be found in every one of the “new atheist” books. Like the notion that Dawkins is angry and can’t be polite, this argument can only be made by someone who hasn’t read the literature or listened to the advocates.

    3. The case that “it is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude” is a straw man argument. Since when is it irrational or condescending to carefully and rationally draw attention to irrational (and condescending) aspects of another way of thinking? No one gets anywhere by ignoring the essentials of the problem.

    Again, this whole argument is predicated on the assumption that “new atheists” are hoping to change the minds of hard-core religious fundamentalists. As any read of Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett (H2D2) will show, they explicitly acknowledge the futility of such an approach, and instead attempt to engage those who are still open to reasoned debate — those on the skeptical fringes.

    Political campaigners have learned this lesson: their messages are aimed at “swing voters” and soft partisans, those who haven’t dug in their heels. We all recognize the wisdom of this strategy and it’s time to give H2D2 and the other intellectual leaders of new atheism at little credit for doing the same.

  6. #6 Mark Nutter
    August 21, 2007

    I just have 2 questions for the pro-framing folks:

    1. Whom have you convinced, and
    2. What have you convinced them of?

    I’m curious whether proper framing is actually proving more effective at achieving the goals of the “New Atheist Machine” than the NAM itself is.

  7. #7 Matthew C. Nisbet
    August 21, 2007

    James,
    Actually that’s been my central point from the beginning. The New Atheist Noise machine risks alienating the swing voters, moderately religious Americans who otherwise agree with atheists on most issues.

    –Matt

  8. #8 Booker
    August 21, 2007

    Well, I suppose that you would not be writing these anti-atheist posts if Dawkins, et. al. had been unsuccessful at framing their positions. A reactionary response to their success and popularity is to be expected.

  9. #9 Anonymous
    August 21, 2007

    I’m still waiting for these “moderately religious Americans” to speak out against the fundamentalist perversions of “their” faiths. It will require a consensus of the moderate majority to push back against the encroaching Endarkenment, and without the moderate religious voices, we “noisy” atheists are left with having to fill that void. If these moderates agree with us “on most social and scientific topics,” why do they not speak up? Until that occurs, I will continue to be (somewhat) noisy and encourage my fellow travelers to do likewise.

  10. #10 MartinC
    August 21, 2007

    You could apply the very same arguments against fellow Chris Mooney’s latest foray into climate change politics.

    1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.

    Just give up Chris, you’ll never have an effect on man-made global warming.

    2. A positive message about what it means to live life without destroying the environment is absolutely critical. Other than selling books and further polarizing the public, where is at all going? To what end?

    Come on Chris, you’re just out to sell books, aren’t you ?
    Give it up.

    3. It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward current environmental views of the public because by doing so we virtually guarantee that people will respond in kind. Most importantly we alienate many moderately Americans who otherwise agree with us on most social and scientific topics.

    Leave our SUV’s alone Chris, you tree hugging hippy!

  11. #11 PuckishOne
    August 21, 2007

    I’m still waiting for these “moderately religious Americans” to speak out against the fundamentalist perversions of “their” faiths. It will require a consensus of the moderate majority to push back against the encroaching Endarkenment, and without the moderate religious voices, we “noisy” atheists are left with having to fill that void.

  12. #12 gerald spezio
    August 21, 2007

    It has been established; Anything negative or anti will fail, period. i.e. Galileo collared by the holy church, sweet baby Jesus hung up on a branch, Finkelstein denied tenure, anti-framers shown to be anti-yuppie, anti-market, and so very anti, etc. QED.
    Paulie Coluccio’s Granny warned; “If you cain’t say something nice, you keep your trap shut, you torment.”

  13. #13 Russell Blackford
    August 21, 2007

    Talk about a dog with a bone.

  14. #14 Ahcuah
    August 21, 2007

    I think the title of this entry (and of another entry) illustrates just why so many people are suspicious of the whole “framing” debate.

    The New Atheist Noise Machine.

    This is an attempt at framing all the discussion as mere “noise”. And the discussion isn’t really coming from people, but is just part of the output of some “machine.” Right from the word go, the “framing” is an attempt to denigrate one side of a discussion, and to minimize any critical comments regarding the content of the article.

    In essence, it is being used in a dishonest fashion to try to influence the discussion.

    Now, I agree with other statements that framing does not have to be dishonest, but when one of its stronger proponents does so without second thought, it illustrates why so many people are suspicious of it.

  15. #15 MartinC
    August 21, 2007

    The original article by Shermer was well meaning but essentially vacuous nonsense.
    “Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion.”
    So then, who defines ‘freedom’?

  16. #16 Ian
    August 21, 2007

    1. Atheism is not anti-god or anti-theist. Itís pro-reason and rationale. Your persistent framing it otherwise makes you dishonest.

    2. Most every atheist is a positive message about what it means to live life without religion, and the quiet ones have been so for centuries. Your overt hostility to the writings of people like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens actually makes you a hypocrite.

    3. A good many theists have already and historically taken hostile or condescending attitudes toward atheism before atheists did anything to merit it. Your dishonesty in persistently ignoring this is shameful. Moderate theists are not going to be alienated by atheists requiring fair treatment. If they are, theyíre not moderates. Duhh!. Please do the blog world a favor and get a clue.

  17. #17 6EQUJ5
    August 21, 2007

    Shermer is dead wrong about hostility and condescension.

    For a useful illustration, try this: You have a co-worker who at every turn will try to peddle his Amway products — ten, twenty, thirty times a day. Explaining yourself to him calmly will get you nowhere. You have to yell at him or laugh at him to trip up his pitching. Being ‘nice’ loses, and you certainly do want to alienate him, to the extent he quits talking to you at all.

    BTW, someone who mostly agrees with you on scientific and social topics, but seeks to interject his own personal brand of elective insanity at every opportunity, actually does not agree with you on anything: he is simply limited in his abilities to find opportunities to sabotage everything he doesn’t like. If someone insists that all life is sacred, and so we must save every fetus, kill every abortion doctor, and never let stem cells replicate, do you want this person making decisions for you? Do you want him on your jury? Would you trust him to work on your project?

  18. #18 js
    August 21, 2007

    See: all previous commenters. I only tune into this blog occasionally, and I feel like I’ve read the same wrongheaded, straw-man-full post (amply corrected in the comments) every time.

  19. #19 MarkH
    August 21, 2007

    I tend to agree with what has been said. Your first point is patently false, your second is a big fat straw man, and the third I think is of potential truth.

    How about some data to back it up?

    The times when I find the framing stuff most interesting is when you actually go out and do PR-like studies to show which messages are most effective. You could prove, for people with already-formed opinions at least, which ways to convey the message are more effective.

    However, even if the data were to bear out your argument, one also has to remember that a great deal of what these people are trying to do isn’t influence fundamentalists. It’s trying to inform the debate of the next generation that there is more than the one world view that the one learned at home or in bible camp.

  20. #20 James Hrynyshyn
    August 21, 2007

    Matt,
    So where is the evidence that the New Atheists are turning off the moderates, the swing voters? This is a scientific forum and to be blunt I don’t see one data point to back you up. I see big sales for the H2D2 books. I see feature stories in the newsweeklies and appearances on the TV talk shows circuit. I see them talk calmly and reasonably and make excellent points without being unnecessarily offensive or rude. How is this a bad thing?

    I really think you’re not looking closely enough at what the New Atheists are doing. Sure they annoy fundamentalists, but as has been said, that’s a straw man.

    On another note, it is silly for commenters here to attack your arguments by calling out Chris Mooney for not following your advice. But it is interesting that a book with the provocative title of the Republican War on Science would sell so well. Does it turn off Republicans? Sure, but would it have done so well if it was called just Science under Siege?

  21. #21 B8ovin
    August 21, 2007

    I think confining arguments to Shermer’s statements and Matthew’s position is too limiting. Let’s examine their stance:

    Prior to these books being published atheists were the least trusted minority in the U.S. This, after what, 40 something years of a more diplomatic approach to outreach? Not only have we made NO inroads, in the past 28 years since the rise of Falwell’s moral majority, the fundamentalist theocratic political machine has made stark and frightening advances.

    There is no question that there is a place for Matthew’s position, a more tempered voice. But to deny the strategy of a strident position is ridiculous in the face of all the increased conversation about atheism in general, and the now ubiquity of such authors in the media calmly portraying their message, where before there were none.

    If was a history of advance for Shermer and Matthew to point to I might agree with them somewhat. But where is the success of the quiet revolution?

  22. #22 EnzoAntonius
    August 21, 2007

    New Atheist Noise Machine = strawman (with the possible exception of Hitchens)

  23. #23 Colugo
    August 21, 2007

    I’m an “appeaser” atheist myself, but even most New Atheists are milquetoast compared to Charlie Brooker and Shalini Sehkar.

    Charlie Brooker, The Guardian, 8/11/07:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguide/columnists/story/0,,2145124,00.html

    “”Spirituality” is what cretins have in place of imagination. If you’ve ever described yourself as “quite spiritual”, do civilisation a favour and punch yourself in the throat until you’re incapable of speaking aloud ever again. Why should your outmoded codswallop be treated with anything other than the contemptuous mockery it deserves?”

    Shalini Sehkar, 7/2/07, addressing “appeaser” atheists:
    http://scientianatura.blogspot.com/2007/07/appeasers-spineless-pushovers.html

    “Religion is threatening the every foundations of our society and if left unchecked, it will destroy science… Why should we encourage the malignant tumour of religion? Why, appeasers? Because you people are a bunch of spineless pushovers? … Appeasers, try as you might to lie about frame the fact that science is a threat to religious beliefs, be assured that the religious will be able to see right through it.”

  24. #24 Anonymous
    August 21, 2007

    “Actually that’s been my central point from the beginning. The New Atheist Noise machine risks alienating the swing voters, moderately religious Americans who otherwise agree with atheists on most issues.”

    In some people have failed to notice Dawkins is NOT American, and whilst I suspect he cares about the outcome of US elections I also suspect he cares about the outcome of many others. There is a world outside the US and it is about time those who complain about Dawkins understood that.

  25. #25 steve
    August 21, 2007

    Dawkins’s book is a ‘noise machine’?

    It would help if Matt stopped writing his posts from the “Matt Nisbet is a jerk” frame.

  26. #26 Hans
    August 21, 2007

    Iíve been wondering lately, whether Sherman isnít just an agent of the religious right. Christianity and Islam have become the most powerful religions thru centuries of killings and terror and he is whining about hostile and condescending attitude toward religion ??

  27. #27 Don
    August 21, 2007

    Memo to self: don’t say anything that might offend moderately religious American swing-voters, don’t say anything that …

    Hang on, I don’t actually give a fuck about moderately religious American swing-voters.

  28. #28 Loc
    August 21, 2007

    I don’t agree with all of Shermer’s points, but I necessarily don’t agree with much in the comments section either. I think there is a debate on which road to take. I’m all for the one which leads to more tolerance and/or less restraints on scientific inquiry. I don’t think that its been proven either way.

    Don, you do care though. You will be effected one way or another.

  29. #29 Don
    August 21, 2007

    Loc,

    I don’t, mate. I really, really don’t.

    And I have no truck with any debate whose terms are moderated by focus groups.

  30. #30 PuckishOne
    August 21, 2007

    Just noticed that I somehow double-posted this morning…take your pick, Anonymous or Not. ;)

  31. #31 Oran Kelley
    August 21, 2007

    There is a world outside the US and it is about time those who complain about Dawkins understood that.

    Well if this “world outside the US” were at all relevant we’d have invaded and subjugated it by now, surely.

  32. #32 Jim Lippard
    August 21, 2007

    The advocacy of Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris only undermines pro-science arguments directed at the religious if there are no other advocates of pro-science arguments who aren’t also arguing for atheism. But of course there are, and they distance themselves from the atheists.

    So what’s the problem here? I advocate a diversity of approaches, and I find value in what the above authors do as well as what Kenneth Miller, Robert Pennock, and Eugenie Scott do. I don’t want any of them silenced. H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain, and Ambrose Bierce pissed a lot of people off, but their writing is still quite enjoyable to read. If the framing advocates successfully persuaded them to be polite to the religious, we’d be denied some great works.

    I agree with the commenters who have pointed out the success of purely negative campaigns (and I’d add opponents of abortion to the partially successful list–that they call themselves “pro-life” doesn’t change the fact that they’re simply trying to stop something). I also agree with those who observe that there are people giving positive answers about life without gods (including at least Dennett and Dawkins). And if taking a “hostile or condescending attitude” towards religion is guaranteed to have negative consequences, refusing to have a questioning or critical attitude towards religion–or giving it an undeserved exemption from scrutiny–is far worse.

  33. #33 B80vin
    August 21, 2007

    Well done Jim. At this point, Matt, I think we can safely say, that many disagree with you and are, rightly, disgusted with the state of religious confrontation,if not the outright assault by the strident religious on atheists, government, society, and each other. While I respect the work you do, and the way you do it, I do not find in your argument against aggressive activism and attitude much merit for those you disagree with, or myself, for that matter. This is the time and place for strident objection, and in the US most of all (you Europeans must excuse us American atheists. Have you seen the list of countries that most reject evolution? We’re second behind Turkey).

    James Randi has never been shy as a skeptic, nor patient when attacking the evangelicals (he has a column in Shermer’s magazine, by the way). While you may disagree, I see no difference between the idiocy of the conspiracy clods, the psychic set, or the chakra chic and the supernatural beliefs of the religiously righteous. And I have no more respect for them, perhaps less, as they push into the arena of affecting, through terrorism, laws, and the advocacy of anti-science, the entire world.

    I recall you writing an article sharply confronting the influence of “The Phantom Menace” on the gullible. Your thesis was that these minds could be swayed by a movie. You presented my letter in rebuttal, in which I argued that the soft minds are already gone and we might assume, in the case of others, some sense of respect for reality. I see no reason not to assume the same here. You probably know that the majority of America is irreligious- either atheist, agnostic, or undecided. Granted it’s a small majority but it’s worthwhile to remember that.

  34. #34 J. J. Ramsey
    August 21, 2007

    jeffk: “See anti-enslavement movement, anti-nazi movement, anti-racism movement, anti-patriarchy movement for past examples of varying degrees of success”

    The anti-slavery movement wasn’t a pure negative. They were appealing to people’s sympathies and the notion of human dignity. The same can be said of civil rights movements. By contrast, the anti-abortion movement has been about as successful as the anti-alcohol movement.

    jeffk: “Nobody’s ever gotten anywhere in this country by being meek”

    Not being hostile or condescending is not the same as not being meek.

  35. #35 Leni
    August 21, 2007

    JJ you are really just… rude. I don’t know why you think your attitude would be appealing to the other side, but it really isn’t.

    It’s divisive. People like me don’t find your arguments convincing, we find them repetitive, noisome and lacking evidential merit or philosophical depth.

    The anti-slavery movement wasn’t a pure negative.

    Neither is “the atheist movement”. What is this obsession with the word “negative”, anyway?

    Is it because atheism is sometimes referred to as a “negative belief” that you think atheism in general is negative?

    They were appealing to people’s sympathies and the notion of human dignity.

    And atheism is an appeal to your intellect and sometimes, even, to your sense of human dignity. Especially if, like Dawkins, you think there are wholly and only naturalistic explanations for our presence.

    Allow me to permit Dawkins to explain:

    We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

    If you can read and comprehend this without understanding why we are as special as we are than you are a bigger fool than I even would have thought.

    The same can be said of civil rights movements.

    Which ultimately succeeded because of the force of the legal arguments behind it, and the force of those making the arguments.

    By contrast, the anti-abortion movement has been about as successful as the anti-alcohol movement.

    The anti-abortion movement has been successful, unfortunately.

    Not insofar as constitutional amendments perhaps, but try to find clinic that performs abortions in some counties and you’ll find they’re as good as dry. You combine that with poverty and lack of transportation and you’ve got success. For the anti-abortion movement anyway.

    No they haven’t swayed all of America, they’ve just made it really really difficult for *some* of us to get the same medical care others have.

  36. #36 learning
    August 21, 2007

    Thank you to Jon Eccles, James Hrynyshyn, jeffk, G. Shelley, MartinC, Ahcuah, Jim Lippard, and others – all points that resonated with me.

    I have only recently been able to “come clean” about my lack of belief in a deity to some members of my family and close friends. I have been living a lie for well over 40 years of my life due to the ubiquitous faithful in my family and community who see non-believers as worse than “repentant pedophiles” and the undue influence that has had on me to remain quiet. (You may be surprised to know that I live in a big city – not a small town – and yet the pressure to believe and conform is still very high). I am not proud of this history – even raised my own children to believe… I believe I as what is termed a moderate Christian.

    The pressure to believe in America is real – I have lived it. I give you this brief background so that you can understand the following: It took what I call a “two-by-four” to finally give me the strength and courage to admit my lack of belief. You should know that this force was all of you – all who wrote on these blogs and didn’t allow yourselves to be shamed into silence by the vocal and, (dare I say it… ignorant minority), the way I did for years, for fear of being mistrusted and maligned. Those of you who have spoken out on the many blog sites I have visited in the last two years have given me the courage to speak up against that which is simply accepted without (reasoned) question. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    This brings me to the following opinion: While I understand perfectly (after all, I think it’s common sense) that one must consider the audience when delivering a message, (so that a mode of delivery can be carefully chosen to maximize once chance of a positive outcome), we must also consider the fact that, sometimes, different people respond in the same way but to different modes. This simple understanding must be taken into account in the New Atheist movement. I was one who happened to need several kicks in the butt (via the writings of many bloggers and their very eloquent and reasoned thinking) before I could come to acknowledge, privately and publicly, that I too lacked faith, and that faith was not the virtue I had been brainwashed to believe. Yet I am just as sure that this approach can, and has, (as I’ve witnessed for myself of some blog sites) enraged others rather than enlightened them. In short, different strokes for different folks. As a result, I don’t believe there is one perfect approach in this, or any, movement.

    Matt is right that some will be alienated by what is being (incorrectly) characterized as a counter-productive approach (and I say “incorrectly” because, again, it may only be true for some, as I’ve already acknowledged, but not for all). I’ll even go as far as to say that for a period of time I found myself so busy defending attacks against the religion I was raised to believe that I didn’t stop to think about WHAT I was defending – it was like a knee-jerk ignorant, survivalist type of reaction. This gives credence to what Matt is conveying in his “Framing” arguments. We risk this by being as forward and forthright about our atheism as, say, Hitchens is, but I think we risk much more by not doing so. We may lose some, but I think we will gain others – those who are ready to hear reason despite it contradicting childhood indoctrinations. And for those that require a more gentle approach… well, there is Matt.

    So, yes, we must consider our audience if we wish to gain trust, reason, and understanding from believers, (what Matt terms “framing”) but for some the best way to “frame” our position is precisely to be “in your face” about it.

    Thanks for reading! I never write, but when I do, it’s a book!

  37. #37 Russell Blackford
    August 21, 2007

    Re-reading Shermer’s piece, I really wonder what he was smoking when he wrote the stuff about the importance of freedom. Does he really think that the people to whom he addressed his open letter are advocating that the state’s power of fire and the sword (in modern times, the power of pistols and prisons) be used to suppress religion? Even if someone did think this (and I’ve seen the occasional illiberal suggestion, I admit, but not from Dawkins, etc.), does he seriously believe that that is currently a social possibility? Surely it is the religionists who so often want to use police and prisons to get their way.

    I can imagine a context in which it would be wise to remind fellow unbelievers of the virtues of tolerance in the public policies that they advocate, even when tolerance allows behaviour that many of us dislike or despise, but addressing such a message to these four people in a high-profile open letter – as if it were urgent to beat Dawkins and the others into a semblance of liberalism – is a serious misjudgment that will only damage Shermer’s own credibility. I normally have a lot of time for him, but he made the wrong call this time.

  38. #38 Dirkh
    August 22, 2007

    from Nisbet and Mooney in the Washington Post:

    “Scientists excel at research; creating knowledge is their forte. But presenting this knowledge to the public is something else altogether….
    ——————–
    As most of the above posts make clear, it’s hard to explain to scientists what they’re doing wrong when they make aggressive and condescending arguments about the belief systems of non-scientists. As a general rule, they’re really terrible communicators.

    Dawkins isn’t speaking to some fence-walking fringe, he’s preaching to the choir. And he certainly gets well-patted on the back for it….

  39. #39 HD
    August 22, 2007

    Scientists are such bad communicators that they aren’t even willing to admit they are bad communicators. Which makes things fairly hopeless.

  40. #40 G. Tingey
    August 22, 2007

    Ah, so I can’t even get from home to the bottom of the local market and back – a total distance of about a kilometre, without (usually) being hassled by at least one or another variety of god-botherer.
    Then there’s the insane (US-directed) “church” round the corner, annoying all the neighbours …

    And the good little dhimmi atheists should shut up and be quiet should they?

    Grrrrrrrrr …..

  41. #41 MartinC
    August 22, 2007

    “Scientists are such bad communicators that they aren’t even willing to admit they are bad communicators. Which makes things fairly hopeless.”

    I know exactly what you mean, HD. Just the other day I finally found out about vaccination, the germ theory, antibiotics, blood transfusion, transplantation surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, electricity, radar and computers.
    These sort of things sound like they will make a huge difference to the life of the average person – so why on earth have scientists been keeping quiet about them?

  42. #42 Tulse
    August 22, 2007

    Dirkh:

    it’s hard to explain to scientists what they’re doing wrong when they make aggressive and condescending arguments about the belief systems of non-scientists.

    It sure seems to me that terms like “New Atheist Noise Machine” just drip with aggression and condescension. And it is quite easy to explain to scientists what they are doing wrong when you present evidence. All I have seen from Nisbett, who claims to be an academic engaged in serious discourse, is a lot of name-calling and pearl-clutching, along with some vague claims shored up by the most tenuous chain of indirect reasoning. I have yet to see any hard datapoints, such as surveys, that actually support his positions.

    If this is a vitally important point, then research it — formulate hypotheses and collect data to examine them. But in such a politically contentious issue don’t just spout armchair platitudes that are nothing more than personal biases. Give us data and we can talk as real social scientists do — until then, don’t pretend that personal opinion is established fact.

    And as for condescension to non-believers, it seems to me that it is the New Atheists who have enough respect for the intellectual claims of religion to actually address them and argue them. What is condescending is to pat the religious on the head and say “there there, you believe what you want, and as long as you don’t cause any trouble and help us scientists out fighting fundamentalism, we won’t challenge your beliefs”.

  43. #43 stmarnock
    August 22, 2007

    What I find so depressing about this whole “framing science” approach is that it invites scientists to act in bad faith apeing the tactics of the enemies of science. Just as the ID movement have their “wedge” strategy, the framing strategy asks us to disguise our privileging of rationalist epistemology and scientific method in order to form a wedge between “moderate theists” and fundamentalists. A few points:

    i) Who are these “moderate atheists”? Are these people useful allies if the price they demand for opposing fundamentalism is that Dawkins et al. give up their right to freely state their views that a theistic world view is fundamentally irrational?

    ii) More troubling to my mind is the insistent ideologicalisation of science in the framing view. If the biggest denomination in the U.S. were the followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, would scientists have to engage with their concerns, self-censoring their views to accommodate the sensitivities of this religious group?

    iii) Lastly, science is about following the evidence, constructing theories, observing phenomena in order to find out what the world is like. Just because 64% of the population choses not to accept a scientific concept does not make it invalid. Throwing a tantrum that the world does not fit our idealisations and desires is not part of the scientific process. To ask the scientific community to act like Sophists (cf. Plato’s Gorgias and Protagoras) denigrates our work and, paradoxically, demeans the value of science in the wider community.

    Framing is ideologically corrupt, methodologically suspect, and treats the marketplace of ideas like a brothel. Lying about who we are and what we stand for will do us no good in the long run.

  44. #44 J. J. Ramsey
    August 22, 2007

    Leni: “The anti-abortion movement has been successful, unfortunately.

    “Not insofar as constitutional amendments perhaps, but try to find clinic that performs abortions in some counties and you’ll find they’re as good as dry. You combine that with poverty and lack of transportation and you’ve got success. For the anti-abortion movement anyway.”

    Point taken.

    That said, Shermer is on to something about negative movements, although it isn’t quite the problem that he described. Movements that just focus on getting rid of something can become toxic if little regard is given for what replaces what is gotten rid of. The U.S. had gotten so caught up in anti-communism that it had supported third-world tyrannies, a stark contrast to the pro-liberty ideals that spurred anti-communism in the first place. The movements to make abortion illegal certainly are glossing over the negative consequences of what happens if they win. (Coat hangers, anyone?) The so-called “new atheist” movement risks doing likewise. It is nominally supposed to be a rationalist movement, with atheism as simply the by-product of a critical evaluation of religion. However, there has been far more emphasis on who is on what side than on trying to be accurate. As an end result, we get the “appeaser” rhetoric nonsense. We get the stale rhetoric trying to paint believers as stupid and/or deluded (with occasional unconvincing denials that this is what is happening). How can this approach possibly even hope to replace irrationality with rationality?

  45. #45 Dirkh
    August 22, 2007

    The point is, the New Atheists really DO believe that churchgoers are stupid cows. That’s fine, but the contempt shows through, and sorely compromises their otherwise mostly valid arguments. They want to conduct the debate on the old Leibnitzian grounds: We disagree about transcendentalism and theism? Well then, sir, let us calculate.

    It’s not that kind of issue. It’s philosophy, not hard science. Hard data points won’t get you where you want to go, except when debating the ultra ID’er fundamentalist fringe.

    I would love to see the New Atheists concentrate on shoring up the separation between Church and State, rather than congratulating themselves on their IQ scores.

  46. #46 Tulse
    August 22, 2007

    Dirkh:

    It’s philosophy, not hard science. Hard data points won’t get you where you want to go, except when debating the ultra ID’er fundamentalist fringe.

    Bullpucky. Nisbet makes a very specific empirical claim, which is that the “New Atheist Noise Machine” somehow impairs the ability to fight against the extremes of religious fundamentalism in science. Regardless of your beliefs about the philosophical propriety of the New Atheist approach, that specific empirical claim is what is being debated. The issue is not whether New Atheists are nice, but whether their approach is effective at changing public policy.

    And there are plenty of ways to gather evidence about that claim — some data that speaks to that claim indirectly are the levels of religious intrusion into scientific issues in the US over the past several decades (which has arguably increased, suggesting that trying to accommodate religious moderates hasn’t been terribly effective), and the relative popularity of New Atheist books and the appearances of their authors in the popular media (suggesting that there is by no means an overwhelming resistance to these views). More direct data would look, for example, at whether and how the opinions of religious moderates regarding scientific issues have shifted after exposure to Dawkins et al.

    The point is that this is an issue that can be addressed by social science research, and you’d think that Nisbet, as a social scientist, would at least suggest that the issue is somewhat open until such work is done, instead of repackaging armchair speculation and personal biases as academic rigour.

  47. #47 decrepitoldfool
    August 22, 2007

    I was stunned when I read Shermer saying “atheists can’t define themselves by saying what they do not believe”. Of course we can; that’s the whole point. We simply don’t believe there’s a god, period. Most of us go on to make other assertions as well along a humanist line, but the core idea of atheism is simply “no god”.

    And what was that about “championing science and reason”? The unfailingly polite Dawkins is the best-known lightning rod for religious response for some reason, but I have a stack of his books championing science and reason, along with other people who are now known as “new Atheists”.

    But politeness should not be confused with meekness, or with self-censorship.

  48. #48 Gordon S
    August 24, 2007

    As lucid as I think Shermer is on most issues (global warming excluded, until recently, btw), it’s unfortunate he has fallen into your silly interpretation of this movement, Mr. Nisbet.

    The first two points you make are not simply silly, they are obviously not true. And the third misses the point.

    The first, that a negative campaign cannot succeed, is both historically wrong even on the most laymans terms, and wrong because the New Atheist movement (or whatever contradictory name you’re giving it this week), doesn’t simply offer negative arguments. It offers positive ones. I don’t feel the need to detail what those are, they are readily apparent to anyone without hilariously ridiculous preconceptions.

    The second is a non-issue, since your first assertion is clearly incorrect.

    The third point you attempt and fail to make, that the New Atheist movement is lacking in powers of conversion, is at worst wrong, and at best a strawman. The problem we face is largely the result of moderates who defend truly religious people because they ‘believe in belief’, something Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens talk about in their book, and all of them reference Dennett. Hitchens and Harris especially attack this argument, and in my own anecdotal experiance have done so successfully (granted, to only one person of three I’ve convinced to read, but there you go). What, exactly, is your evidence to the contrary?

    Do you have evidence that these attacks actually strengthen belief among those who are on the edge, or among self-described religious moderates? Or do you, as I suspect, simply pull this stuff out your ass?

    I have strong doubts as to who’s side you are on, to be honest. I think you offer more support to the forces of irrationality than you do to people who want a reasonable approach to problem solving in our world.

    This horse is dead. You’ve failed to make your case, and you simply repeat the same arguments, unsubstantiated, ad nauseum. How about next entry you include something to support your assertions?

    At least we on the New Atheist side admit our evidence is anecdotal. Your assertions come with no such disclaimer, and it hurts your argument considerably.

  49. #49 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    August 24, 2007

    1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.

    I am sorry to hear that the abolition movement to end slavery failed.

  50. #50 Caledonian
    August 24, 2007

    Give Nisbet credit where credit is due. No matter how many people point out his errors, complain about his message, or downplay his goal, he stays on-message at all times. He doesn’t deviate from the gameplan, reconsider his position, or even bend to popular opinion. He just repeats the same thing, over and over and over.

    He’s not particularly skilled at communication – but damn if he isn’t good at propaganda!

  51. #51 Jim Lippard
    August 27, 2007

    Dirkh: “It’s not that kind of issue. It’s philosophy, not hard science. Hard data points won’t get you where you want to go, except when debating the ultra ID’er fundamentalist fringe.”

    I think it’s as much a mistake to draw a hard line like that between philosophy and science as it is to draw one between science and religion (non-overlapping magisteria). Yesterday’s philosophy is tomorrow’s science, and at least when I was a graduate student in philosophy (just a decade ago), naturalized epistemology was a hot topic in my field. The best philosophy is *at least* informed by science, if not guided by it, in my opinion.

  52. #52 Hank Fox
    December 26, 2007

    Well, I only just found this post, so it’s probably not worthwhile to enter a long comment.

    So I’ll just say this:

    Nisbet, this business about the “new atheists” is just silly. If you think adopting the insulting epithets of the opposition and applying them to the people who would otherwise be your allies is a way to make headway, be my guest.

    But to me it sounds like appeaser horseshit.

  53. #53 Joe
    December 13, 2010

    Anti-something movements did quite well on Novemeber 2nd.

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