Framing Science

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For scienceblogs.com readers who have never been to an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, you are missing out on the world’s greatest discussion of research and new ideas. In particular, I find that the meetings feature a one-of-a-kind forum for discussion of science and society issues, ranging from policy matters to public engagement. This year’s meetings are in Boston, February 14-18. If the registration seems a bit pricey, believe me, it is well worth it to attend, plus you can build into the cost a year subscription to Science magazine.

At this year’s conference, I have organized a panel that addresses the science and religion nexus and the relationship to public engagement. Titled Communicating Science in a Religious America, the panel features Brown University biologist Ken Miller, Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno, William & Mary anthropologist Barbara King, Kansas science standards chair Steve Case, and University of Wisconsin communication researcher Dietram Scheufele. The panel is moderated by David Goldston, former chief of staff for the House science committee, now a lecturer at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and a columnist for Nature magazine.

As part of the panel, I will be presenting on the topic of “The New Atheism and the Public Image of Science,” a first paper based on a research project I am currently working on here at American University with the help of two graduate students.

Below is the synopsis for the full panel. It’s scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 17 at 145pm:

Over the coming decades, as society faces major collective choices on issues such as climate change, biomedical research, and nanotechnology, scientists and their organizations will need to work together with religious communities in order to formulate effective policies and to resolve disputes. A major challenge for scientists will be to craft communication efforts that are sensitive to how religiously diverse publics process messages, but also to the way science is portrayed across types of media. In these efforts, scientists must adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens, or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs.

Part of this process includes “framing” an issue in ways that remain true to the science, but that make the issue more personally meaningful, thereby potentially sparking greater interest or acceptance. With these themes in mind, the proposed panel combines the insights of scientists who have been successful at engaging religious publics with the findings of researchers on how media messages and opinion-leaders shape the perspectives of citizens. The panelists draw upon their experience working across the issues of evolution, climate change, stem cell research, and nanotechnology.

Comments

  1. #1 Gerard Harbison
    September 14, 2007

    I’m always amused how panelists on panel discussions in academia are almost invariably chosen to make sure real discussions do not occur. Whenever we have a ‘panel discussion’ on immigration here at UNL, for example, people who favor enforcing immigration law are always conspicuous by their absence.

    So your discussion paper is about ‘New Atheism’. Where’s the new atheist to discuss it?

  2. #2 Dark Matter
    September 14, 2007

    Dr. Nisbet wrote:

    A major challenge for scientists will be to craft communication efforts that are sensitive to how religiously diverse publics process messages, but also to the way science is portrayed across types of media. In these efforts, scientists must adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens, or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs.
    ——————————————–
    Nope. There will always be another push, and another push, and another push *after that* by theocracy to find a “compromise”.

    Maybe you should read the fable of the camel and the tent again.

  3. #3 Gordon S
    September 14, 2007

    I dont know anything about Case and Scheufele, but I hope that they are a counter to the opinions of you and the rest of your panel, or it’s going to be a pretty boring discussion.

  4. #4 Globle Warren Terrizm
    September 14, 2007

    That Time cover is truly disturbing. The device starts at the top as a double helix, which I supposed refers to DNA.

    The helices then turn into worry beads, which puzzles me. Is this supposed to mean that anxiety is in our genes? What a stupid idea.

    And then, horror of horrors, the worry beads become a fob for ancient Roman instrument for torturing and murdering the poor. What exactly is the meaning here? Is this a warning that the rich plan to exterminate the poor?

  5. #5 Caledonian
    September 14, 2007

    This looks about as intellectually engaging as a panel discussion organized by the Discovery Institute to discuss the place of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in modern society.

  6. #6 Callandor
    September 14, 2007

    If you’re going to present a paper you should get the title right.

    It’s called atheism, not “New Atheism.” There’s nothing new about it.

  7. #7 tacitus
    September 14, 2007

    In these efforts, scientists must adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens, or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs.

    Give us examples of these examples of condescension. That a few scientists are outspoken atheists is not doubted, but I fail to see where they report their science in condescending tones about the religious.

    The most condescending atheist I know of is Richard Dawkins–as an atheist myself, I am still somewhat surprised by some of his blunt comments–but his outspokenness has always been in the context of the debate between religion and science, and certainly *not* in the reporting of new science.

    What are scientists supposed to do when outfits like Answers In Genesis and the Discovery Institute spin and distort the words and deeds of our scientists? Keep slient for fear of appearing to be condescending to their beliefs?

    The intersection between scientists and the so-called “New Atheists” is vanishingly small, and is not as big a problem as you seem to imply. Sure, the internet will always play home to atheistic firebrands like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, but when you compare those few sites with the hundreds of science outlets available on the web they too are a tiny minority of opinion and reporting on science.

    It would seem that this problem of which you speak is only a problem because of those religious people who choose to be offended by websites and outlets they could easily ignore without any noticeable reduction in the amount of science news available to them.

    And, finally, I’ll second Gerald’s question. Where’s the New Atheist on the panel to discuss their side of the issue?

  8. #8 sailor
    September 14, 2007

    Atheists criticise religious people for starting with with word and then bending everything to fit their preconceived ideas. It seems to me to start a discussion when you already have the following sentence in mind is just the same:

    “In these efforts, scientists must adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens, or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs.”

  9. #9 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 14, 2007

    Tacitus wrote:

    What are scientists supposed to do when outfits like Answers In Genesis and the Discovery Institute spin and distort the words and deeds of our scientists? Keep slient for fear of appearing to be condescending to their beliefs?

    End quoted material.

    That’s exactly one of the main themes of the panel. How can science effectively engage religious publics when groups like the Discovery Institute are twisting science in ways that play on their religious beliefs?

  10. #10 Molly, NYC
    September 14, 2007

    I don’t see anything wrong with addressing the framing issue. One of American science’s biggest problems is how to explain to a huge portion of our fellow citizens why their beliefs are utter crap without, y’know, insulting them.

  11. #11 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 14, 2007

    Gerard and Tacitus,
    As I posted over at PZ’s space, the focus of the panel is the public communication of science. The focus is not on promoting atheism or criticism of religion.

    In your opinion, science and atheism might be one and the same. You have a right to express that opinion, but it is definitely not an official or consensus view of organized science.

    Given that the panel is about science communication and not about promoting atheism, I didn’t think it was necessary to invite a New Atheist to be on the panel.

    Moreover, the paper I am presenting is not a criticism of New Atheism but rather an analysis of how it is portrayed in the media and the implications for how the wider public perceives science, scientists, and science-related issues.

  12. #12 Gerard Harbison
    September 14, 2007

    In your opinion, science and atheism might be one and the same

    No, they might not, because I’m not a complete idiot. Atheism is a conviction there is no deity. Science is a way of investigating the world. The two are not even commensurate, let alone the same.

    Given that the panel is about science communication and not about promoting atheism, I didn’t think it was necessary to invite a New Atheist to be on the panel. Moreover, the paper I am presenting is not a criticism of New Atheism but rather an analysis of how it is portrayed in the media and the implications for how the wider public perceives science, scientists, and science-related issues.

    Regardless, you are discussing the ‘New Atheism’, with a panel of discussants that doesn’t include a ‘New Atheist.’ Of course, that’s exactly what I’d do too, if I wanted to preordain my conclusions. Are you so afraid of including one person who is actually a proponent of the style of communication you’re discussing, on a panel of six? Sad.

  13. #13 PZ Myers
    September 14, 2007

    And as I replied on my blog,

    1. Science is a method and atheism is a conclusion. That makes it very hard for me to equate the two. Are you going to accuse everyone of thinking science and atheism are the same now?

    2. The panel is about “Communicating Science in a Religious America”, you’ve stacked it with religion-friendly panelists, you’re going to be presenting a paper on the “New Atheism”, and the first paragraph of the panel description talks about religion in every sentence. But yeah, it’s only about science communication, and the “New Atheist Noise Machine” wasn’t even on your mind when you thought about putting it together. How disingenuous can you get, Matt?

    And I know it’s not about promoting atheism, nor would I expect it to be. It’s clearly about promoting religion, though.

  14. #14 qetzal
    September 14, 2007

    @Global Warren Terrizm

    Those aren’t worry beads. It’s a rosary.

  15. #15 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 14, 2007

    Matthew-

    Given that the panel is about science communication and not about promoting atheism, I didn’t think it was necessary to invite a New Atheist to be on the panel.

    That’s pretty disingenous. Given the known views both of yourself and of the panelists, it is a sure thing that the “New Atheists” are going to come in for a fair amount of abuse. You should have invited someone to counter that viewpoint.

  16. #16 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 14, 2007

    PZ,
    I admire your commitment to hard headed dogmatism. And as a rhetorician and polemicist, you are certainly skilled.

    1. When I read the hatchet job you did on our Science article, I was at first a bit stunned. Here was a scientist and a professor violating all the norms of his profession, twisting and distorting to fit his ideology and to rabble rouse among his blog readership.

    Moreover, in your complaints, you specifically focused on our suggestion at Science that in communicating about the teaching of evolution, the scientific community should emphasize that many religious leaders see no conflict between evolution and faith.

    From that, I could only assume that you view the implications of evolutionary science as leading to atheism i.e. science and atheism are one and the same.

    2.I don’t understand what you mean by “religious friendly”? By that statement I assume that you think I should have invited someone on the panel who is a “religious enemy”?

    That’s an example of the basic flaw in your logic and rhetoric. You write about science and religion in binary terms, as a battle between black and white, reason and unreason, with nothing in between.

    In reality, there’s no “anti-science public.” Even among devout Americans, when asked in polls generally about science, they perceive it as promoting social progress and the economy. In fact, these are shared values that almost everyone agrees on, and the central reason why funding for science is so strong in the US.

    Sure, several interest groups and leaders have worked against specific science-related issues such as the teaching of evolution. Yet, it’s in part because of the inability of the science community to effectively communicate that these groups have been so successful in building public support for their cause.

    Btw, want an example of the dogma and intolerance you are promoting by using your blog as an echo chamber for Don Imus atheism? Note comment #35 in your discussion thread:

    Why should conversations be made to accommodate the embarrassingly ignorant and foolish? I figure if the religious folks don’t like what I have to say, they can take a hike. But, I’m not going to dumb myself down just to protect their delusions. Why should anyone give the veneer that they care about those delusions anyway?

  17. #17 Nathan Parker
    September 14, 2007

    Matthew C. Nisbet wrote:

    How can science effectively engage religious publics when groups like the Discovery Institute are twisting science in ways that play on their religious beliefs?

    One of the best ways would be not to start off critiques with “you stupid idiot” or “you contemptible liar”. Regardless of the accuracy of those epithets, they are alienating to both their targets and anyone who admires them. And yes, we need to reach some of them.

    Resources structured as “talkorigins.org” are far more effective than the rant-oriented blogs, because it allows those willing to be educated to feed themselves at their own rate, without feeling assaulted. A good step forward would be to professionalize that site; it’s not nearly as attractive or well-organized as those produced by some of the creationist organizations. The NCSE site is somewhat embarrassing, too, emphasizing the difference in resources of the pro-science crowd vs the anti-science.

  18. #18 PZ Myers
    September 14, 2007

    1. There’s very little point in trying to defend your revealed knowledge of my opinion, since I’ve already plainly stated that you’ve got it wrong.

    2. The religion-friendly people you’ve packed your panel with will all begin with the assumption that religion is OK, and will not raise any substantial disagreements with your premise. The conclusion you will come to is foreordained; you won’t even touch the possibility that a critic of religion would bring up, that the scientific method and the religious method do conflict.

    I don’t see any reasonable objection that you’ve made to that quote from one of my commenters. If somebody wants to believe in a cosmic fairy who grants wishes in response to prayers, that is foolish. The comment is neither dogmatic nor intolerant. That that person is quite forthright in saying so doesn’t mean he’s wrong. That you are more devious and less blunt in telling atheists that they must take a hike in this discussion doesn’t make you right.

  19. #19 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 14, 2007

    Jason and Garold,
    Once again: The panel is about communicating science, not about communicating atheism or criticism of religion. The paper is a social science analysis of how New Atheism is portrayed in the media and the implications for public perceptions of science. It is not a critique of the ideas or the philosophy of New Atheism.

    Moreover, the panel will have roughly 45 minutes for discussion and Q&A, anyone is free to attend and promote the New Atheist criticism of religion, though again, that would be off topic.

  20. #20 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 14, 2007

    PZ,
    As a fellow atheist, I am certainly not telling atheists to take a hike. However, while supporting your right to voice your opinion, I have an equal right to draw attention to the impact of your preferred brand of atheism.

  21. #21 aiyiyi
    September 14, 2007

    “Given that the panel is about science communication and not about promoting atheism, I didn’t think it was necessary to invite a New Atheist to be on the panel.”

    Title of session: “The New Atheism and the Public Image of Science”.

    Let me get this straight: you call the session ‘new atheism’ and there is no real representation on the panel? I know, I’ll host a session called “The New Genomics and the Public Image of Science” but I won’t invite any geneticists or biochemists, because, you know, it’s about science communication. So much for the expert representative(s) to help explore what their field / attitude / approach really means, how is it being communicated vs their own reality, and WHY public perceptions are what they are or have gone astray.

  22. #22 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 14, 2007

    Anon,
    To repeat again: The name of the title and topic of the panel is “Communicating Science in a Religious America.” One of the papers presented is an analysis of how the media have covered the New Atheist movement and what it might mean for public perceptions of science. The other five panelists do no address New Atheism specifically.

  23. #23 J. J. Ramsey
    September 14, 2007

    Serious question: If one did want a so-called New Atheist on the panel, who would one invite? And is it realistic to expect one of them to accept the invitation?

  24. #24 "Q" the Enchanter
    September 14, 2007

    “In reality, there’s no ‘anti-science public.’ Even among devout Americans, when asked in polls generally about science, they perceive it as promoting social progress and the economy…”

    This confounds de facto and de dicto antiscience. (It may be that no one self-identifies as “anti-science,” but then no one self-identifies as an asshole, either.)

  25. #25 Brandon
    September 14, 2007

    Give it up, Matthew. These people won’t be happy unless your discussion was called “God doesn’t exist even though I can’t prove it!!!!” Unfortunately I cannot attend, but I wish you the best of luck.

  26. #26 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 14, 2007

    JJ,
    Great point. Given the main focus of the panel, the criteria I used for inviting participants was that they had either done research on religious audiences or that they had been successful in communication with religious audiences about science.

    So given that criteria, who among the New Atheists have been successful at communicating about science to religious publics?

  27. #27 Nathan Parker
    September 14, 2007

    who among the New Atheists have been successful at communicating about science to religious publics?

    Er, Dawkins has written a book or two about biology. Can’t believe that only atheists buy them.

  28. #28 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 14, 2007

    Nathan,
    And unfortunately, with Dawkins’ latest book, the “poet for evolution” has lost credibility with many religious audiences.

  29. #29 Nathan Parker
    September 14, 2007

    has lost credibility with many religious audiences.

    No doubt. ;-) Is that the real reason for not inviting any “New Atheists”? Because of the potential hostility of the religious crowd towards them?

  30. #30 PZ Myers
    September 14, 2007

    In other words, you’d be willing to have a critic of evolution on the panel, except that anyone who criticizes religion has no credibility with the religious, and is therefore excluded. And of course the defining criterion for being on the panel in the first place is that one must not have ever offended the religious with their ideas.

    That’s some catch, that catch-22.

  31. #31 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 14, 2007

    Not at all. The panel is about communicating science to religious audiences. The criteria for speakers were people who have done research in the area or who have been successful in engaging religious audiences. The prominent New Atheists don’t fit that criteria.

  32. #32 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 14, 2007

    PZ,
    Would I invite a critic of evolution? Of course not. The criteria is communication of *science* not pseudoscience. Last I checked, evolution as a theory was almost universally accepted among scientists.

  33. #33 Gerard Harbison, FCD
    September 14, 2007

    No doubt. ;-) Is that the real reason for not inviting any “New Atheists”? Because of the potential hostility of the religious crowd towards them?

    Funny: the AAAS never struck me as a particularly religious crowd :-). Mind you, I don’t know any working scientists who attend their annual meeting, either.

  34. #34 Gerard Harbison, FCD
    September 14, 2007

    So given that criteria, who among the New Atheists have been successful at communicating about science to religious publics?

    Er, that’s ‘criterion’. Gosh, I would expect quite a few religious people had read ‘The Selfish Gene’ and maybe even ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’. So your thesis is that religious people can’t be expected to have read even very widely read popular expositions of science?

  35. #35 oxytocin
    September 14, 2007

    Dear Dr. Nisbet,
    I have sympathies with the positions of both you an Dr. Myers on this important issue. I think your intentions are magnanimous and are to be lauded. That being said, I think one of the strongest features of the scientific method is that if there is a substantive argument to be had, both sides of the argument need to be represented. With all due respect, sir, for you to present a paper on the so-called “New Atheists” without any retort is contrary to the spirit of science. I sincerely urge you to reconsider your stance on this issue. You could very well be right that Dr. Dawkins may lack credibility with the religious community, but I think that he has certainly demonstrated not only a profound grasp of science, but an ability to be even-tempered and reasonable. I also think it’s an empirical question as to whether your assumption is true or false.

    Thanks very much for your time.

  36. #36 Nathan Parker
    September 14, 2007

    Gerard Harbison wrote:

    Funny: the AAAS never struck me as a particularly religious crowd

    I gather that the religious population that is the target for this education isn’t the AAAS, but the non-scientific public.

  37. #37 Nathan Parker
    September 14, 2007

    oxytocin wrote:

    Dr. Dawkins…he has certainly demonstrated not only a profound grasp of science, but an ability to be even-tempered and reasonable.

    That is my impression as well. I think he could stay on-topic if asked to do so. I bet he has greater experience educating the religious public than almost anyone listed, except perhaps Ken Miller.

    Now, if the conference reduces down to atheist bashing, I’m sure it would go much more smoothly without one in the room. :-)

  38. #38 PoxyHowzes
    September 14, 2007

    Isn’t Nisbet starting from, and pursuing, an essentially religious, i.e., anti-science POV?

    [paraphrase]
    Scientists MUST craft communications that are sensitive to how the religiously diverse see things.
    Scientists MUST emphasize shared values and broad appeal among-non-scientist publics.
    Scientists MUST NOT seem (to non-scientists)to condescend to them
    Scientists MUST NOT attack anyone’s religious beliefs.
    [/paraphrase]

    All to the end of “potentially” sparking greater interest/acceptance?

    Aren’t these statements of (religious) dogma? Prescriptions for evangelists? “Holy” writ for True Believers?

    I thought Scientists were supposed to ideate, hypothesize, experiment, test, theorize, and then explain to their peers in a manner that convinces such peers.

    If someone were deeply (or even shallowly) interested in “Framing,” i.e., scientific evangelism as opposed to scientific communication, wouldn’t that someone be best advised to hire an evangelist, a “silver-tongued orator,” who already knows the language of religiosity and is already accomplished in “spark[ing] interest or acceptance” in a religious audience? And shouldn’t said STO be able to wow the masses, appealing with great sincerity to the AUTHORITY of science? Wouldn’t that be far more efficient than collecting a bunch of mush-mouthed white-coats together at a meeting of other MMWCs to share their ignorance on how one acquires a silver tongue?

    My sarcastic point is that if science needs evangelists (a point for which I’ve not seen Nesbit’s evidence), then there are many many practicing evangelists (some of them call themselves marketers, but don’t be deceived) who can probably do the job far better than any or all of the scientists who attend AAAS meetings.

  39. #39 Nathan Parker
    September 14, 2007

    PoxyHowzes wrote:

    Scientists MUST craft communications that are sensitive to how the religiously diverse see things.

    A better paraphrase, IMO, is this:

    If you want to increase the acceptance of science among the population, you need to leave some wriggle-room that allows the faithful to keep their God.

  40. #40 Dark Matter
    September 15, 2007

    The ultimate result of this kind of “compromise” will be
    the kind of high school biology education I had in Texas: a
    biology class in which the word evolution was never
    uttered, with an instructor who made it quite clear that
    the biology textbook chapter on “organic variation” was
    optional reading.

    Dr. Nisbet, do you intend to placate every religious group
    that manages to gather enough members and money to form
    a political lobby group? Should “framing” science for
    believers be extended to accomodate scientologists,
    wiccan witches, satanists, and Raelians as well?

  41. #41 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    But the first class of gods is logically incoherent and is automatically excluded from our understanding of reality, and the second class, while possible, is an unnecessary hypothesis given the current data. If we can explain our observations by not postulating a phenomenon as easily as by postulating it, the phenomenon isn’t supported by the observations.

    There is no wiggle room.

  42. #42 raindog
    September 15, 2007

    Matt

    It would be good if you had an open athiest on your panel who disagrees with your approach. Maybe the best way to “communicate science in a religious america” is to undermine religion and “religious thinking” with constant, calmly reasoned criticism. By religious thinking I mean belief in things for which there is no evidence or which are directly contradicted by evidence just becuase we want those things to be true. This type of thinking is the opposite of science and it underlies many of our greatest problems in America today. This is bigger than getting religious people to grudgingly accept the less offensive aspects of evolution. It is about getting people to accept nature on nature’s terms and reality on reality’s terms. The first step in doing this is to help people to abandon religious and magical thinking. That is where the new atheists are coming from and they are dead right.

    More people can be convinced to drop their religious beliefs than you might think. There are just very few people out there openly expressing skepticism with religion and making a clear compelling and appealing case for atheism. Once there is a critical mass of open atheists I think we could see a major period of enlightenment. There will always be the mentally unstable among us who need to hold on to these irrational beliefs, but they probably don’t make up more than a quarter of the population. I think most people say they believe in God becuase everyone else does and they haven’t really spent much time thinking about it.

    I see your approach to be something like a “Fox News Democrat.” Just going on Fox is giving credence to the claim that they are a serious news organization and not a republican propoganda outlet. Not only that but it undermines real progressives who are trying to convince others that it is a propoganda outlet. Once that version of reality is given credence then it is just he said-she said and people will choose the side that makes them feel the best or that requires the least amount of thought and uncertainty.

    Similarly, saying that religion and science are compatible is virtually the same thing as saying that it is OK to be a fundamentalist. There can be no comprimise between the natural and supernatural approaches to reality. Once we say that a little supernatural belief is OK, then that opens the door for any kind of supernatural belief-even those that are directly contradicted by scientific evidence.

    Atheists need to speak out about their atheism and criticize religion in a calm, appealing and reasoned way as often as they can. Our efforts are much better expended trying to topple religion than they are trying to coddle the religious and get them to accept the little bits of science that doesn’t offend them.

    Raindog

  43. #43 Nathan Parker
    September 15, 2007

    Caledonian wrote:

    But the first class of gods is logically incoherent

    I know it’s a logically inconsistent position for them to take, but most people have a large number of logically inconsistent viewpoints. We’re not trying to turn everyone into scientists; moving large numbers of them from being YECs to theistic evolutionists would be a grand improvement.

    The first goal is to get them to stop obstructing science, even if they can’t fully grasp it.

  44. #44 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    We’re not trying to turn everyone into scientists;

    You’re not trying to turn everyone into scientists. What do you mean, ‘we’?

    YECs and theistic evolutionists both reject reason and the scientific method. What advantage is there to turning the former into the latter?

  45. #45 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    I gotta side with Gerry (see, I don’t hate you Gerry) and PZ here, that you appear to be deliberately missing the point they are trying to make:

    If you only have people on one side of an issue on a panel discussion, a rather large segment of the AAAS population is not heard from, who might have their own productive ideas on how to increase communication, or even bypass the communication issue entirely.

    that you seem to completely discount that as merely “promoting New (?) Atheism” is more than a little disturbing.

    good luck when you inevitably decide in your “discussions” to approach the issue the way Miller does, with the unavoidable conclusion, based on Miller’s own writings, that “compartmentalization works!”

    I see a grand discussion of the past and present, with very little if any discussion of the future in this panel.

  46. #46 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    I see your approach to be something like a “Fox News Democrat.”

    good point, but I would even stretch it to the dems in general, for about the last 10 years, for that matter.

    “I’ll take ‘things without backbones’ for 200, Alex”

    (no offense to actual invertebrates)

  47. #47 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    If you want to increase the acceptance of science among the population, you need to leave some wriggle-room that allows the faithful to keep their God.

    for how long, Nathan?

    until it becomes clear to even the dimmest that this is nothing but compartmentalization?

    I thought we kinda tried that over the last couple of generations already?

  48. #48 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    listen to the words of Sean Caroll, Matt:

    http://cosmicvariance.com/2007/02/14/thank-you-richard-dawkins/

    I’m sympathetic to the argument that atheists shouldn’t be obnoxious and insulting; in fact, I think it’s a good strategy in all sorts of situations. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, etc. But it does not follow that we should keep quiet about comforting illusions because those are the only things standing between the poor dears and overwhelming existential anxiety. If people ask whether, as scientists, we believe in God, we should respect them enough to tell the truth — whatever we think that is. That doesn’t mean we have to go door-to-door spreading the good word of the laws of nature. It just means that we should be honest about what we actually think, giving the best arguments we have for whatever that may be, and let people decide for themselves what to believe.

    THAT is the future, Matt.

    your approach has already failed, even before you begin to discuss refining it in your panel.

  49. #49 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    I thought we kinda tried that over the last couple of generations already?

    Yep, and it didn’t work.

    So Matt’s doing the only thing we can do when our strategy doesn’t work: do it all over again, only trying twice as hard as before. That’s sure to work!

  50. #50 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    do it all over again, only trying twice as hard as before. That’s sure to work!

    LOL

    yes, it sure does seem that way.

    OTOH, it might be a meeting for merely self preservations sake; Miller’s latest defense of his compartmentalization is sure to be on the forefront of discussion.

    oh, btw, is this blog a safe have for Don Imus Atheists?

  51. #51 Nathan Parker
    September 15, 2007

    Caledonian wrote:

    YECs and theistic evolutionists both reject reason and the scientific method. What advantage is there to turning the former into the latter?

    Because the theistic evolutionists don’t actively interfere with the scientific educational process.

    I don’t approve of compartmentalizing either, but not everyone is willing or able to apply rationality to all aspects of their lives, and I don’t think that’s going to change without some genetic manipulation.

  52. #52 Nathan Parker
    September 15, 2007

    Ichthyic wrote:

    for how long, Nathan?

    How long has it taken Europe to move towards its current religious orientation? When did they last have our level of religiosity?

  53. #53 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    and I don’t think that’s going to change without some genetic manipulation.

    Now yer talkin’ SCIENCE!

    *sigh* I guess the bottom line in my mind is exactly what Sean Caroll said, and since I can’t word it any better, I’ll just repeat the bit that fits:

    You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, etc. But it does not follow that we should keep quiet about comforting illusions because those are the only things standing between the poor dears and overwhelming existential anxiety. If people ask whether, as scientists, we believe in God, we should respect them enough to tell the truth

    the idea that we somehow need to change the message science sends shouldn’t even be on the table, science is what it is. It’s the religious that should be having panel discussions to figure out how to deal with the reality of an ancient superstition that has long overplayed any functionality it ever had.

    instead, we find the DI actually winning the apparent media battle, and shaping the discussion, not because of what scientists are doing, but because of what the mainstream religious majority are NOT doing.

  54. #54 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    How long has it taken Europe to move towards its current religious orientation? When did they last have our level of religiosity?

    and when did they start moving away from it (hint, it was quite a while ago)?

    why should we wait any longer, then, becomes the obvious next question.

  55. #55 Bob Johnson
    September 15, 2007

    Well said Raindog.

    Flash – Rational thinking has escaped from the scientific community. Christopher Hitchens is a journalist and Bill Maher is, well, er, a filmmaker. Maybe we could bring back the Hays Code.

  56. #56 leandra
    September 15, 2007

    What I find bizarre about some of your arguments as I see them is the following:

    1. You are not being very specific about your goals (long term and short term) of communicating in a certain way, nor are you acknowledging that others may have different goals. For instance, you and your opponents here would agree that we want the public to have a positive image of science. However, PZ and etc. have a larger, long-term goal in mind of increasing the prevalence of reason, critical thinking, and awareness that a significant contingent of atheists exist (and why it is important to organize). I think in this case you underestimate the power of media- “extremists” and radicals get attention. Would there be attention paid to atheists now if it weren’t for the few who are skilled and willing to speak unabashedly for their cause? I think we need both types of communication strategies- atheist/critical thinking/skeptcism awareness that realizes it must work within the reductive frames of the media, and scientists/communicators who reach out to the public and religious groups so they have a positive view of science and environmentalism.

    2. I fail to see evidence that scientists are radically communicating in the way you describe, for the most part. Some are radical atheists and get attention, but many more in their communication strategies simply talk about science, how cool it is, and why it’s important without delving into religious topics. PZ and etc. are speaking to a base that mostly agrees with them in order to give them tools to increase their and others’ critical thinking. I imagine PZ harbors no illusions that he’s converting Christians with his blog, and he doesn’t need to. That’s not the role he’s chosen for himself.

    I personally believe we need both strategies, for short term and long term goals. We also need to consider the audience. For instance, if I were a science teacher, I wouldn’t tell my students that science is incompatible with faith, even though that’s close to what I believe. In that case, the overriding goal is keeping smart, interested kids to stay in science and not reject it while their minds are still being heavily influenced by parental beliefs. But as a public figure speaking to adults, I could take one of several paths, based on the particular goals I had.

    3. I would like to see evidence that the public, in general, make as strong a connection as you seem to imply between atheism and science. Many well-known atheists use the tools of reason and the scientific method to argue their point, but the main point that gets filtered to an ignorant media and public is not “science is incompatible with religion” even if that’s what Dawkings etc. are more tacitly arguing. Religious people are adept at cognitive dissonance, and can easily see a program on atheism on tv and completely disagree/harbor ill will toward the atheist then see a program on science and appreciate our ability to cure diseases and the amazingness of god’s creation (for instance).

    That said, because I don’t have evidence right now of this point, prove me wrong. I would like to see research asking religious viewers, after seeing a program about atheism, whether this made them less favorable to science. I get the feeling, although I’m not certain, that believers don’t have the same knee-jerk reaction to science that they do to other moral issues. They don’t understand evolution very well, so they see no reason it can’t be compatible with religion.
    For an example, see this discussion.

  57. #57 Brandon
    September 15, 2007

    I have two questions, that might make it easier to understand things from your point of view.

    1. Put idealism aside. Look at the world the way it is, not as it should be. With that in mind, why do you think it’s easier to convince someone to give up God than to convince him to reconcile God and science?

    2. I have no problems with people being outspoken. You should be proud of who you are, and I’m glad athiesm is being talked about in the public square. PZ Myers isn’t just proud, though, he’s an ass. And if anybody suggests that he shouldn’t be an ass, he says the only alternative is to be a meek little sheep. I see a lot of this, people thinking that being loud equates to being a dick.

    Is it not possible to be assertive without being aggressive? You can stand on a mountaintop and yell, “I am an athiest!” without adding, “and everybody else sucks!” Are there any studies showing that throwing insults at people actually helps them come to your way of thinking?

    And before you respond with the obvious: I’m not trying to convince you to think like me, just asking some questions here.

  58. #58 Jared
    September 15, 2007

    Matthew C. Nisbet:

    I have an equal right to draw attention to the impact of your preferred brand of atheism.

    The two forms of atheism that I’m seeing are the open (PZ) and the dishonest* (Nisbet). Of the two, the open stance seems to create more social change since it cannot be ignored just like “coming out of the closet” affected the gay movement. There are still detractors but it is now socially acceptable to be gay which would be a good goal for atheists.

    On the other hand, the two forms of science that I’m seeing are science as a method that results in knowledge (PZ) and as a body of knowledge divorced from the method** (Nisbet). Of the two, I would prefer the public to understand the method more than knowing individual facts from memorization (i.e., people should be taught how to reason with evidence instead of just being taught that these facts are True).

    So, my primary problems with the frame proffered by Nisbet (and co.):
    1. If you’re a scientist and an atheist, it says stay in the closet. Don’t be honest and forthright about religion instead pander to religious biases in order to get support.
    2. It focuses on teaching scientific facts instead of the more useful goal of teaching the scientific method, reason, and critical thinking.

    * By dishonest, I’m assuming that in Nisbet’s opinion an atheistic scientist should publicly respect a religion even when they really don’t.
    ** This conclusion comes from the fact that Nisbet believes that atheism and science can be equated in some fashion which implies that either atheism has a method like the scientific method or science is built of conclusions without a method specified. (see Janus’ comment)

  59. #59 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    Because the theistic evolutionists don’t actively interfere with the scientific educational process.

    They are actively trying to convince people that science and religion are compatible. Even the fundamentalists are honest enough to recognize that there’s a problem there – the two are diametrically opposed approaches to the nature of truth claims and justification. You can’t practice one AND the other, and if you try, you end up practicing neither.

    Theistic evolutionists further believe that specific nonsensical statements have meaning. The erosion of standards and critical analysis that would reveal the meaninglessness of the claim adversely impacts the ability of people to distinguish sense from nonsense.

  60. #60 bullfighter
    September 15, 2007

    Whom you should invite? How about Dan Dennett. A philosopher, so not strictly speaking a researcher, but he has outlined, very thoughtfully, the sorts of questions that research on religion and cognition needs to address to increase our understanding. He is also the most cautious and even-tempered of the so-called “New Atheists”.

    If you are not willing to invite anybody to present the contrarian view, then the message you are sending between the lines is that the best way to communicate science to the public is to exclude from that “public” everybody who has problems with it.

  61. #61 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 15, 2007

    Bullfighter,
    Again, the panel is not about communicating atheism or criticism of religion or what a particular scientist might personally believe is the case against religion.

  62. #62 Morgan
    September 15, 2007

    Matthew,

    PZ,
    Would I invite a critic of evolution? Of course not.

    Based on the rest of PZ’s comment, it seems clear he meant to write “critic of religion” there.

  63. #63 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    Just what is the panel supposed to be about communicating?

  64. #64 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 15, 2007

    Caledonian,
    The panel description is in the post. It’s pretty clear:

    Challenges and strategies for effectively communicating science to a diverse American public. Issues of focus include evolutionary science, science in general, and nanotechnology.

  65. #65 Anonymous
    September 15, 2007

    At this year’s meetings, I have organized a panel that addresses the science and religion nexus and the relationship to public engagement.

    Nexus?

    “Relationship to public engagement” sounds very nice, but what does it mean?

    Over the coming decades, as society faces major collective choices on issues such as climate change, biomedical research, and nanotechnology, scientists and their organizations will need to work together with religious communities in order to formulate effective policies and to resolve disputes.

    Why do scientific organizations need to work together with religious communities to form effective policies. And resolving disputes? Between whom? What do religious organizations have to do with disputes that scientific groups would need to resolve?

  66. #66 MartinM
    September 15, 2007

    In reality, there’s no “anti-science public.” Even among devout Americans, when asked in polls generally about science, they perceive it as promoting social progress and the economy. In fact, these are shared values that almost everyone agrees on, and the central reason why funding for science is so strong in the US.

    And what do the polls tell us about public support for, say, methodological naturalism?

  67. #67 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 15, 2007

    Anonymous,
    What do religious groups have to do with science policy and debates? See for example science education, climate change, stem cell research, other areas of biotech, nanotechnology, environmental conservation, to just name a few.

  68. #68 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 15, 2007

    MartinM,
    The 2008 edition of the NSF’s Science Indicators survey will provide some public opinion indicators related to methodological naturalism, exploring various dimensions of the cultural authority of science. The report is due out in the spring.

  69. #69 MartinM
    September 15, 2007

    Sounds interesting. I suspect what you’ll find is that a fair whack of those who consider themselves ‘pro-science’ are thinking of a substantially different definition of ‘science’ than most scientists, however.

  70. #70 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    (The previous Anon. was me, by the way. Must’ve forgotten to put in personal information.)

    What do religious groups have to do with science policy and debates? See for example science education, climate change, stem cell research, other areas of biotech, nanotechnology, environmental conservation, to just name a few.

    Yes, and why do scientific organizations need the assistance of religious groups in setting policies and having debates on those things?

    I think the idea you want to convey – without explicitly saying so – is that scientific organizations need the cooperate with religious groups in order to influence politicians and public policy. In other words, scientists need to pander to religion so that they can influence the government.

    Does that about sum it up?

  71. #71 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 15, 2007

    Caledonian,
    We live in a pluralistic democracy where collective decisions have to be made about policy and social problems. If we are going to make democracy work and solve these problems, scientists, religious groups, atheists, and others have to work collaboratively together, emphasizing shared values.

    I’m not sure where your use of the term “pandering” fits into that reality.

  72. #72 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    What good is emphasizing shared ‘values’ when there isn’t a shared understanding of reality? Two groups can have absolutely the same values but totally different worldviews and advocate totally different actions as a result.

    Religion includes countless different worldviews that are mutually exclusive. Which of the many different religious systems are you claiming the religious need to reach consensus on, and how do you suggest scientific organizations can assist them in this necessary task?

  73. #73 bullfighter
    September 15, 2007

    MCN:

    Again, the panel is not about communicating atheism or criticism of religion or what a particular scientist might personally believe is the case against religion.

    You directed this comment to me, but how is it connected with anything I wrote? You are supposed to be an expert in communication, but I don’t see you communicating in this thread. You seem to be saying the same thing regardless of what other discussants say.

    So what is the panel about? Your descriptions have been extremely vague. What is the objective? Presumably it is how to “communicate science” effectively, but you haven’t defined “communicating science”. For starters, is it about its results or its methods? Again, what is the objective? Why do we need effective communication of science? Is it so that more kids can do well on exams and get into careers in science and technology? Or is it so that more people embrace critical thinking? Or is it to improve the socioeconomic position of existing scientists? Or something else? Those are varied goals, and the choice of effective methods of communication will obviously depend on the goal.

    The success of your research should be evaluated with respect to its stated goals. If your goals are vague, how can we tell if you are achieving them?

  74. #74 bullfighter
    September 15, 2007

    MCN:

    If we are going to make democracy work and solve these problems, scientists, religious groups, atheists, and others have to work collaboratively together, emphasizing shared values.

    Again poor communicating. What does it mean to “make democracy work”? You should know that that means very different things to different people. Your rhetoric works for politicians, but you can’t sell that to me (and, I suspect, to most readers of ScienceBlogs) as an argument. You are just making an appeal to fear. Ohmygod, if we don’t do X, democracy will not work. Please.

    The rest of your argument only makes sense with a false premise that most people can be defined as belonging to the groups you listed (and other similarly classified groups). But in reality, a person can be a scientist, an atheist, a liberal, an educator, a parent, a Texan, a Greek-American and a tennis player, and that person’s goals in various social contexts will be highly dependent on which of those facets is most relevant for the situation in question.

    There is no reason one should not attack religion in some situations and seek common ground with religious people in other situations. (Hey, how did we win WW2?)

  75. #75 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 15, 2007

    Bullfighter,
    The panelists probably define science communication in different ways, so I will not speak for them.

    But if you want to know how I define science communication, instead of reproducing what I have written or discussed about the topic across multiple outlets, I will draw your attention to where you can find the full text or audio.

    –>You can read our Science and Washington Post articles linked at left in the side bar, our reply to letters at Science, or listen to the NPR interview also linked. Moreover, there is a longer interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast.

    –>The forthcoming cover article at the October issue of The Scientist more fully lays out how I define science communication. In addition, the tab at the top of my blog “Framing vs. Popular Science” also explains my views.

    –>Related to science communication, the link below to a previous Skeptical Inquirer Online article that I wrote explains the multiple meanings of science literacy and public understanding of science, as it is defined in the academic literature:

    http://www.csicop.org/scienceandmedia/definitions/

  76. #76 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 15, 2007

    Bullfighter wrote:

    But in reality, a person can be a scientist, an atheist, a liberal, an educator, a parent, a Texan, a Greek-American and a tennis player, and that person’s goals in various social contexts will be highly dependent on which of those facets is most relevant for the situation in question.

    End of quoted text.

    When you read what I have written about science communication, you will see that this is exactly what I argue. Effective communication turns on understanding under what contexts and issues certain social identities are more salient then others and then crafting a message to resonate with that social identity. I encourage you to read what I have written and report back.

    I’m actually on deadline right now with another forthcoming magazine article, so unfortunately I do not have time to debate much in this comment thread.

  77. #77 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    Some social identities are fundamentally incompatible with certain messages, no matter how they’re expressed.

    So the question becomes: do you try to change the message so that it becomes compatible with the social identity you’re trying to utilize, or leave the message constant and shift to a different target instead?

    If we have to change the definition of science to get religious groups to accept it, we’re not accomplishing anything proscience.

  78. #78 MartinM
    September 15, 2007

    The panelists probably define science communication in different ways, so I will not speak for them.

    Ah. So you won’t commit to a definition, but you’re adamant that the ‘new atheists’ haven’t done it, whatever it is.

    Bloody hell, man.

  79. #79 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    Again, the panel is not about communicating atheism or criticism of religion or what a particular scientist might personally believe is the case against religion.

    and again, Matt, that wasn’t the purpose of the post you are responding to, nor was it the purpose of PZ’s post, nor of the numerous others challenging you to have a more diverse panel which you posted the same non-response to.

    do you enjoy exposing your inability to understand an oft repeated point, or is there some other reason you are applying a stock non-answer that doesn’t even apply to the question?

    for someone with a PhD in communications, it’s funny how much you let your emotions interfere with your judgement on this issue.

    btw, you didn’t answer my question I asked you earlier:

    is this a safe haven for Don-Imus style New Atheists?

  80. #80 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    Bloody hell, man.

    at this point, this about says it all.

  81. #81 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    I’m actually on deadline right now with another forthcoming magazine article, so unfortunately I do not have time to debate much in this comment thread.

    IOW, since you own the ring, you get to ring the bell early to save yourself further embarrassment.

    remarkable.

    I do hope you perform better in actual speaking engagements.

  82. #82 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    We live in a pluralistic democracy where collective decisions have to be made about policy and social problems

    right, so why was it again you chose such a small, narrow panel to discuss such broad concepts at the AAAS meetings again?

    I think you are so very close to accepting the flaws in your reasoning that so many have pointed out here.

    maybe if you were just a little less cocksure of yourself.

    oh well. when the issue is inevitably revisited for the umpteenth time after your latest “new” conceptualizations fail, maybe you’ll be more receptive.

    or there will be someone else taking the lead.

    whatever works.

  83. #83 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 15, 2007

    Ichthyic,
    I appreciate the concern and feedback relative to my communication skills and speaking engagements, but professionally, I appear to be doing okay. ;-)

  84. #84 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    I appreciate the concern and feedback relative to my communication skills and speaking engagements, but professionally, I appear to be doing okay. ;-)

    so is Paul Nelson.

    your point being?

  85. #85 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    oh, btw, condescension becomes you about as much as repeatedly misconstruing and ignoring valid points.

    grow up, would ya?

  86. #86 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    oh, and one more thing, Matt:

    Is this a safe haven for Don-Imus style New Atheists?

  87. #87 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 15, 2007

    Ichthyic,
    PZ likes to direct his swarm of like minded readers to other blog posts that he dislikes. Unlike his site, this blog is moderated. See my comment policy at the lower left of my side bar. I reserve the right to delete comments or ban commenters that violate the policy. So far, I have yet to do that in this comment thread.

  88. #88 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    PZ likes to direct his swarm of like minded readers to other blog posts that he dislikes.

    I read your paper, and the various reviews, and only coincidentally do I find myself agreeing with a lot of PZ’s take on it (not all of it, mind you). In fact, I rather tend to side with Sean Caroll’s take on the entire issue for the most part.

    I also purview a lot of other science blogs, and am a scientist myself (I do work in fish/shark behavior and biology – which might explain the handle to the more observant).

    does that make me one of a swarm of directed readers?

    hmm. Have you considered that maybe you are mistaking popularity of a blog with some sort of “mind control”?

    in your rush to dismiss criticism, or mistake the entire points of specific criticisms, you are only making yourself look bad.

    you really should re-think that approach to communicating, Matt.

    should you be banned from PZ’s blog for equating the readers of his blog to Don-Imus, or PZ to Ann Coulter?

    you don’t think that’s a bit of a hysterical reaction on your part?

  89. #89 Ichthyic
    September 15, 2007

    bottom line, Matt, it appears far too easy to push your buttons and get an emotional instead of a reasoned response from you.

    considering the position you have placed yourself in, this seems rather incongruous, although it would explain the choices for the AAAS panel.

    I could just imagine the unproductive namecalling and finger pointing you would engage in if there were any contrary viewpoints in the direction of science communication present in the panel.

    yes, that would indeed be a rather unproductive panel. Maybe you are right to exclude those viewpoints, but of course, for the wrong reasons.

    maybe with a few years on you, you’ll develop a thicker skin.

    maybe not.

  90. #90 bullfighter
    September 15, 2007

    MCN:

    When you read what I have written about science communication, you will see that this is exactly what I argue. Effective communication turns on understanding under what contexts and issues certain social identities are more salient then others and then crafting a message to resonate with that social identity. I encourage you to read what I have written and report back.

    I am glad to hear that, and I appreciate the links (which I will follow when my kids are asleep). But, assuming that your articles are as reasonable as this last post, they will be hard to reconcile with your vitriolic attacks on Myers and Dawkins.

    BTW, let’s say you asked Dawkins who would be the better expert witness to hire to convince an American jury in a lawsuit about teaching creationism in public schools – him or Ken Miller. I would be willing to bet a moderate amount (say $100) that he would recommend hiring Miller.

    Why am I bringing this point? Because what I notice the most about this debate is that I’ve never seen the so-called “New Atheists” say or write that any of the scientists who are Christians or any of the “accomodationist” atheists should shut up. But the reverse is not true. Why?

  91. #91 J. J. Ramsey
    September 15, 2007

    bullfighter: “Because what I notice the most about this debate is that I’ve never seen the so-called “New Atheists” say or write that any of the scientists who are Christians or any of the ‘accomodationist’ atheists should shut up.”

    No, they just compare them to those who tried to appease the Nazis: Hitler Zombie Massacre over evolution, part 2

  92. #92 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    So, what exactly is the problem with comparing them to the people who tried to appease the Nazis?

    Would you prefer the metaphor of “paying the Danegeld”, instead?

  93. #93 John Morales
    September 15, 2007

    (Disclaimer: I come to this post late, from Pharyngula).

    When I read the post, this stood out to me:
    Part of this process includes “framing” an issue in ways that remain true to the science, but that make the issue more personally meaningful, thereby potentially sparking greater interest or acceptance. With these themes in mind, the proposed panel combines the insights of scientists who have been successful at engaging religious publics with the findings of researchers on how media messages and opinion-leaders shape the perspectives of citizens.

    Am I naive to think that this basically says the panel will seek methods for marketing science?

    There are already big, successful companies that do just that… why would this panel be better than just hiring one and asking how to do this?

  94. #94 Herb West
    September 15, 2007

    I can imagine a classroom with Professor Nisbet at the front teaching a group of average Americans about science. He would probably preface the lecture with something like: “Don’t be afraid to ask me to slow down if I go too fast. I like questions so don’t be afraid to raise your hand. There is no such thing as a stupid question. No one’s going to bite your head off.”

    During the lecture, a student raises his hand and asks a question about evolution. Before Nisbet can answer, the TA (PZ Myers) sitting in the front row turns around and snaps: “What are you? An idiot!? That’s the dumbest question I’ve ever heard. Do us all a favor and shut up.” Laughter is heard from the handful of students that enjoy the TA’s obnoxious outbursts. Humiliated and angry the questioner doesn’t hear another word of the lecture and the other students learn to remain silent. What could have been a productive opportunity for learning has been ruined by the TA.

  95. #95 John Morales
    September 16, 2007

    Herb, I too have a good imagination.

    So what?

  96. #96 Brandon
    September 16, 2007

    Herb: according to PZ Myers, he does not bring up religion when he’s lecturing, and he does not preach his beliefs when it’s not relevant to the discussion. However, knowing who he is, I could not stand to listen to him for an hour at a time. So I have to assume that everybody in his class is either an athiest, has never seen his blog, or has thicker skin than me.

    In other words, in your imagined example, either the student doesn’t exist or PZ Myers (if we believe him) doesn’t act like that in public. There’s a whole field of philosophy on how people act differently in real life and online. It’s good reading if you’re really bored.

  97. #97 Kristjan Wager
    September 16, 2007

    Actually Brandon, if you notice it, PZ doesn’t act differently online and in class in one respect – when he talks about science, he doesn’t bring up religion (the opposite does of course not hold true).

  98. #98 Matt Penfold
    September 16, 2007

    Matt Nisbett,

    Why do you persist in thinking the only part of the world were religion poses problems for those who want to see a secular society is the US ?

    Are you unaware that in, for example, the UK the teaching of creationism is not really an issue but what is an issue for many is the rise in the number of state funded religious schools. Most of those schools are run by either Anglicans or Catholics. In other words the very “moderates” you say we should avoid offending are actually part of the problem.

    In addition in the US some of the so called moderates in the evolution battle are not moderates when it comes to gay rights. Do you propose ignoring gay rights in favour of the evolution battle, or trying to keep the Catholics onside in fighting creationism whilst at the same time making it clear that their views on gays are nothing short of bigoted ?

  99. #99 bullfighter
    September 16, 2007

    MCN:
    OK, I read much of what you listed. Your Science article is good, I can agree with most of it in the context of what I understand its goals to be, but it isn’t about communicating/promoting science at all. All the examples you use are about promoting progressive political positions. I happen to agree with all those positions and welcome the efforts to find effective ways to promote them. That’s our common ground and it seems to me that your work is useful. But you can’t honestly say that it is about promoting science. Same holds for your NPR interview. There is no value-neutral unique logical path from the scientific consensus on global warming to the optimal public policy. I am happy to have skilled people frame the scientific results in a way that promotes the position I strongly believe to be correct, but I am not sure that’s a job for scientists. Truly effective political advocacy in that area may compromise a scientist’s professional integrity. That the reason for it is that the deck is stacked is beside the point.

    I completely fail to understand your reaction to PZ Myers’ blog review of your Science article, which could hardly be characterized as predominantly negative. He was basically saying that what you were advancing was fine, but he was not the kind of scientist that would follow it. Why that was a “hatchet job” is beyond me, but as a reader who doesn’t know either of you beyond your public writings, I can only imagine that there is some personal animosity in the background.

    Your WP article does not rise to the standard of quality set by the Science article. Much of it is just illogical; your criticism of Dawkins fails to show any logical connection between facts and conclusions. It is inconceivable that you would not realize that different books written by the same author can have very different goals, so I don’t understand why you would evaluate Dawkins’ book about religion as if it were a book about genetics or evolution. And if your point is that his readers would be incapable of making the distinction, then I wonder who is being condescending – especially since virtually every reader of Dawkins’ books is in the most educated decile of the population.

    Your Skeptical Inquirer article is the most informative, and your analysis of various aspects of scientific literacy is useful and insightful. But the only kind of conclusions I can draw from that is that there are varieties of scientific communication and, naturally, it takes a variety of people to get all the points across. Undoubtedly, there is room for Ken Millers and for Matthew Nisbets and for Richard Dawkinses of the world, each communicating their ideas as they see fit. What I don’t understand is why the Matthew Nisbets are wasting energy, social capital and common ground on personal attacks on the Richard Dawkinses.

  100. #100 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 16, 2007

    Bullfighter,
    Thanks for taking the time to read the articles and to comment. Over at The Questionable Authority there is another thread going on about these matters, so I won’t cross post but call your attention to my relevant comments.

    For the specifics of the distortions and personal attacks that PZ lodged against us after publishing at Science and then at the WPost, go here.

    As to whether or not I have “personally attacked” Richard Dawkins, I never have, as I explained here.

    That’s one of the distortions that PZ spreads, that somehow I am advocating for censorship or muzzling, or that I am insinuating things about people’s motivations or character. When in reality, as I document, that’s his game.

    In discussing Dawkins, I am actually only following the lead of many prominent atheists, some who happen to be his friends (i.e. Michael Shermer, Paul Kurtz etc).

    While supporting Dawkins’ right to voice his opinion about religion, I have also raised concerns about the possible impacts of his message. Moreover, as a social scientist I consider media coverage of the New Atheist movement to be a very relevant research question.

    As for the context and goals of science communication, as I explain in different places, it depends.

    When I go on the road and talk about framing, I use a slide that details the following possible outcomes, varying by the issue, the audience, the context, and the goals:

    1. Motivate interest and attention to science.
    2. Create messages and media that go beyond polarization.
    3. Shape preferences for policies informed by science.
    4. Enhance trust and respect for scientific expertise.
    5. Shape personal or political behavior.

    As we note in our articles and in our talks, our focus is on how to engage the wider American adult public by way of the media (i.e. Americans who have finished with formal education.)

    Unfortunately, given the nature of the media system and the selectivity of audiences, it is actually very difficult for informal learning to occur outside of the relatively small public of science enthusiasts who possess both the motivation and the ability to pay attention to and make sense of science-rich media.

    In our digital age, given so many competing choices, the information rich get richer, while the rest of the public literally tunes out.

    That’s why informal learning about science, unfortunately, is not on that list of outcomes. The best we can hope for is to use framing to activate and motivate interest among an otherwise disinterested segment of the public so that they start paying attention to the many rich sources of science information found online or in traditional media.

    In other words, we suggest that scientific organizations use framing to grow the audience for the good sources of science information that are out there. (For example, EO Wilson did this in writing Creation, getting religious publics to read what in reality is a popular science book about the environment.)

    Aside from that, the central path to improving understanding of the facts, methods, and norms of science is obviously through formal education. No amount of mediated communication can replace that.

    So while investing in new directions in science communication is vitally important, we obviously also argue for continuing to invest heavily in improving formal science education.

    Btw, regarding a progressive agenda…It just so happens that the issues we talk about at the Science article–global warming, stem cell, and evolution–are also supported by progressives.

    In the forthcoming article at the October issue of The Scientist magazine, my co-author Dietram Scheufele and I focus on examples and research specific to issues that fall outside this coincidentally “progressive domain,” specifically plant biotechnology and nanotechnology.

    In this case, framing doesn’t just help us effectively engage the public on politically contentious issues, but it also applies to potentially nascent debates that lack a traditional partisan or religious dimension.

  101. #101 Ichthyic
    September 17, 2007

    I’m curious, Matt.

    how many actual creationists have you personally spent time arguing with?

    no suggestions being made here, just purely curious.

    how many?

  102. #102 bullfighter
    September 17, 2007

    MCN:
    Do I see a tu quoque defense here!? Are you saying that “Don Imus” is only a (just) reaction to “snake oil salesmen” and only PZ should be held accountable because he started first? I hope I am missing something reading this late at night, because this blame game seems utterly ridiculous.

    Also, it may be difficult for you to continue doing objective scientific research on media reactions to the so-called “New Atheism” now that you have contributed to those media reactions. In natural sciences, it is sometimes possible for a researcher to use himself as a subject, but in social sciences there is a strong presumption against the validity of such setup.

    As for your examples that don’t fit in the politically progressive views, OK, but they are still part of a particular worldview, which may be called “scientific optimism” or “faith in rationality” or something like that. I probably share that worldview, but, objectively, how is it any less controversial than atheism? How does it follow from science any more than atheism does? (If anything, it follows less.) How does it not alienate people with opposing worldview?

    By all means, I support your work on framing ideas from science in the political sphere (broadly defined). But I don’t want you to try to hide the inconvenient truth that most top scientists are nonreligious – and that it is not a random coincidence.

  103. #103 John Morales
    September 17, 2007

    Dr. Nisbet, professor in the School of Communication at American University, explains matters to Darwinfish: “What you call whiny, I call holding PZ, who is a professor and a scientist, accountable for repeated distortions of my arguments and motivations.”

    Dr. Nisbet may wish to consider holding someone else accountable, for someone wrote under his name in PZ’s blog, saying such things to PZ as:
    #8:Your commitment to spinning and twisting my arguments to fit your ideology and to spark a feeding frenzy of anger among your like-minded followers is admirable
    #23:Based on your blog reactions to our original Science article, you’re definitely the expert in authoring sloppy hatchet jobs.
    #39:Btw, want an example of the dogma and intolerance you are promoting by using your blog as an echo chamber for Don Imus atheism?
    etc. etc.

    Hm, I suppose it could be the case this is a technique of framing which seems counter-intuitive to my simple mind, but which predisposes readers to your viewpoint. Or something.

  104. #104 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 17, 2007

    On why scientists are less religious than the public at large is an interesting question that has not really been empirically studied or that is well understood. One exception to the lack of hard inquiry is the study below that appeared at a major sociological journal earlier this spring. I’ve been meaning to blog it.

    Based on a representative survey study of American scientists, the study concludes that it is childhood socialization rather than years of higher ed science that is the best predictor of religiosity among scientists.

    Social Problems
    May 2007, Vol. 54, No. 2, Pages 289-307
    Posted online on May 29, 2007.
    (doi:10.1525/sp.2007.54.2.289)

    Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics

    Elaine Howard Ecklund ?
    University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
    Christopher P. Scheitle ?
    The Pennsylvania State University

    The religiosity of scientists is a persistent topic of interest and debate among both popular and academic commentators. Researchers look to this population as a case study for understanding the intellectual tensions between religion and science and the possible secularizing effects of education. There is little systematic study, however, of religious belief and identity among academic scientists at elite institutions, leaving a lacuna of knowledge in this area. This absence of data exists at a time when the intersection between religion and science is reaching heightened public attention. Especially with increased tensions surrounding teaching evolution in the public schools, understanding what kind of resources scientists have (particularly in terms of their own religious beliefs and practices) to transmit science to a broader religiously-motivated public is crucial.

    Using data from a recent survey of academic scientists at twenty-one elite U.S. research universities, we compare the religious beliefs and practices of natural and social scientists within seven disciplines as well as academic scientists to the general population. We find that field-specific and interdisciplinary differences are not as significant in predicting religiosity as other research suggests. Instead, demographic factors such as age, marital status, and presence of children in the household are the strongest predictors of religious difference among scientists. In particular, religiosity in the home as a child is the most important predictor of present religiosity among this group of scientists. We discuss the relevance these findings have for understanding issues related to current theory and public debate about the intersection between religion and science.

  105. #105 MartinM
    September 17, 2007

    As for the context and goals of science communication, as I explain in different places, it depends.

    <snip>

    …informal learning about science, unfortunately, is not on that list of outcomes. The best we can hope for is to use framing to activate and motivate interest among an otherwise disinterested segment of the public so that they start paying attention to the many rich sources of science information found online or in traditional media.

    Two questions:

    1) Presumably you can see why that idea would go over badly with many scientists, especially those involved in education?

    2) Without encouraging informal learning, how do you propose to deal with those people who think they are already interested in science – e.g. fundamentalist Christians who snap up every creationist text they can get? How do you propose to avoid moving people from the ‘uninterested in science’ group to the ‘interested in science, but using wrong sources’ group without dealing in content?

  106. #106 John Morales
    September 17, 2007

    Clarification: I was going to post my previous comment where the Darwinfish comment was, but then I thought it better to post on this blog. I neglected to amend or link before sending, thus this further post.

  107. #107 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 17, 2007

    Bullfighter,
    In terms of influencing the population of media coverage I intend to study. I could always just analyze twenty years of media trends up to the point I published the Science and WPost essays, though I am not too concerned that those two pebbles have had a meaningful influence on the stream of messages that are out there across the media.

    As for engaging in a tit-for-tat with PZ. Yes, when you enter his blog space, you better be able to argue in the parlance that is preferred there. As I said, the first time I entered the fray was two days ago, only to hold him accountable for repeated distortions going back to our original Science article, documented with links earlier in this discussion thread.

    And as I also wrote, I have no delusions about actually changing PZ’s mind or that of many of his commenters. Up against the perceptual lens of strong ideology, persuasion is a very difficult thing to accomplish.

  108. #108 Russell Blackford
    September 17, 2007

    A study the isolates what factors predict differences within a group is totally different from a study that looks at what factors predict differences between a group and another group. E.g. differences among human beings in number of legs are predicted by such factors as (among others) exposure to severe motor vehicle and industrial accidents. Differences between human beings, as a group, and other mammals, as a group, in number of legs are best predicted by genetic differences between Homo sapiens and other mammalian species.

    I can readily believe that the difference in religiosity within a group of scientists is predicted by the degree of exposure to religious beliefs in childhood. That is a completely different question from the question of why scientists as a whole are less religious than other people in (say) the same geographical region as a whole. The study cited seems to deal solely with the former question, unless the abstract is misleading.

  109. #109 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 17, 2007

    Russell,
    I will be posting more about the study, but the full article does go beyond what you define. Take a look at the article if you have academic library access.

  110. #110 Russell Blackford
    September 17, 2007

    ^Fair enough. If it sheds light on the larger (between-groups) issue, I’ll see if I can find it through my uni library.

  111. #111 Caledonian
    September 17, 2007

    And as I also wrote, I have no delusions about actually changing PZ’s mind or that of many of his commenters. Up against the perceptual lens of strong ideology, persuasion is a very difficult thing to accomplish.

    You won’t try to persuade PZ rationally, but you’re going to try to get a bunch of theists who are concerned that science rejects their ideological dogmas to embrace the method?

    Woo boy…

  112. #112 Richard
    September 17, 2007

    Your criticism that PZ Myers and fans of his blog are not open to argument because of ideology comes across as disingenuous. You seem to be pushing your own ideology while taking a “who me?” attitude when that fact is pointed out to you. Go ahead and grind your ax (these are blogs, after all) but don’t claim you aren’t doing so.

  113. #113 bullfighter
    September 17, 2007

    MCN:
    And as I also wrote, I have no delusions about actually changing PZ’s mind or that of many of his commenters.

    But it is painfully obvious that you have changed the minds of many of “his” commenters. You have turned them off framing in general. Hard to tell how many, but I’d guess there are dozens of people who are now significantly less receptive to your better ideas. Some of those are probably young scientists – precisely the audience you should not want to alienate.

    BTW the article you cite about the relation between science career and religion may be evidence against some of your basic positions. Its “hard” conclusion, based on the abstract, seems to be that scientific education does not cause significant decrease in religiosity. But then why is there a strong negative correlation between a career in science and religious beliefs? If the causality works the other way, religious belief prevents many talented people from studying science. It would then follow that religion is bad for science and, as a corollary, for the prosperity of the society. So we should focus on fighting religion.

    Note that the last paragraph is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I am certainly not saying that the sequence of conclusions is necessary. I am not even pretending to know what the article says beyond the abstract you quoted. I am merely doing a skeptical “but what if” exercise. And all I am truly concluding is, be careful what you use as evidence.

  114. #114 Aloysius
    September 17, 2007

    Wait a minute…Based on your list of possible outcomes above, you seem to think science communication is purely concerned with getting people to like and trust science more, without actually teaching them anything about real science…

    So what happens when oil companies pay big money to get their scientific shills to go on TV and claim anthropogenic global warming is all a hoax? They’re scientists; should people trust what they say just for that alone?

    I thought the ultimate goal here was to get people to engage in more evidence-based and logical reasoning. Maybe I’m just on crack.

  115. #115 Anonymous
    September 17, 2007

    Aloysius,
    Re-read the comment, where I discuss the limits to informal learning by way of the media. Reasoning skills are something you can only realistically build through formal education unless an individual is deeply motivated to engage with science-rich media content (Again, where framing comes in.)

  116. #116 Caledonian
    September 17, 2007

    Reasoning skills are something you can only realistically build through formal education

    Makes you wonder how it was ever developed, then.

  117. #117 Aloysius
    September 17, 2007

    Based on my own experience of teaching college mathematics, I think you’re wrong. Reasoning skills are much harder to build in formalised settings than in informal ones, because building them requires active participation on the part of the learner and formal learning environments, for better or worse, are usually conceived of (by the students!) as top-down affairs. Informal settings are in fact the best, I’ve found, for conveying to an audience the elegance and beauty of a logical deduction. Informal presentations allow for a great deal more interaction with the audience, and also many more jokes. They also allow one to avoid becoming bogged down in technical details which, while absolutely vital to a solid class-passing grasp of a matter, can be summarised for clarity’s sake for a non-technical audience. This can easily be done via blog postings, children’s TV shows, YouTube cartoons, all sorts of media channels, even if nothing else has quite the punch of a one-on-one dialogue.

  118. #118 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 17, 2007

    Aloysius,
    I don’t disagree that reasoning skills can be built via media tools, but the basic problem is getting the public to pay attention to and use such good media in the first place.

    See a previous post I did on the problem of choice:

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2007/04/framing_and_the_problem_of_cho.php

  119. #119 Ophelia Benson
    September 17, 2007

    “In discussing Dawkins, I am actually only following the lead of many prominent atheists, some who happen to be his friends (i.e. Michael Shermer, Paul Kurtz etc).”

    Can you expand on that? What lead? Paul Kurtz thinks Dawkins should pipe down about his atheism lest he alienate US religious believers? That doesn’t sound to me like something Paul Kurtz would say, and I don’t know of any place that he has said that. Can you provide a link or a reference?

  120. #120 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 17, 2007

    For the record, I have never advocated for nor intended to argue that Dawkins or any other New Atheist be censored, muzzled, or “put in a dark closet” as PZ Myers and others claim. Neither have Kurtz, Wilson, Shermer, or Phil Kitcher.

    But I have followed their lead in drawing attention to the harshness of the New Atheist rhetoric and the absence of a positive alternative. Kurtz, for example, is very forceful in saying as much in the latest version of the Point of Inquiry podcast. EO Wilson says the same in his interview with Bill Moyers. Michael Shermer in his column at Scientific American echoes almost exactly our message originally published at Science. See this link:

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2007/08/michael_shermer_on_the_new_ath.php

    I’ve been meaning to type up some of the transcript of the Kurtz interview as well as EO Wilson’s, but you can listen to Kurtz here:

    http://www.pointofinquiry.org/?p=127

  121. #121 Ichthyic
    September 17, 2007

    And as I also wrote, I have no delusions about actually changing PZ’s mind or that of many of his commenters. Up against the perceptual lens of strong ideology, persuasion is a very difficult thing to accomplish.

    so, uh, why did you get into this field again? What is the purpose of the panel discussion again?

    I mean, if you have no delusions about being able to change anybody’s mind and all, regardless of how the issue at hand is framed and what evidence you have to support your position…

    How on earth can you possibly think you will have better luck convincing creationists than actual scientists?

    btw, it’s exactly why I asked you just how many actual creationists you’ve spent time debating directly.

    It bears directly on how you are responding, and why PZ makes the level of criticisms he does.

    but, I personally tire of playing ring around the rosie with someone who feels there is little point in debating the actual merits of his position, so…

    good luck to you, Matt.

    you’re gonna need it.

    I’ll check back after the results of the panel are presented (online or in print).

  122. #122 Ichthyic
    September 17, 2007

    one last thing, so you know that there are quite a few of us who spend time debating the literature in this area…

    when you think about blogging this:

    On why scientists are less religious than the public at large is an interesting question that has not really been empirically studied or that is well understood. One exception to the lack of hard inquiry is the study below that appeared at a major sociological journal earlier this spring. I’ve been meaning to blog it.

    you might also want to consider a paper in science you apparently missed that also gives insight along the same lines as the sociology paper you mentioned:

    P. Bloom & D. S. Weisberg, “Childhood origins of adult resistance to science”, published in Science, May 18, 2007.

    yes, that’s right, many of your critics DO actually spend time reading in related fields, and their opinions have nothing to do with PZ (I know that will come as a shock to you).

    btw, for those without access to Science, there was a nice writeup of the article in Edge:

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bloom07/bloom07_index.html

    much food for thought.

  123. #123 Anonymous
    September 18, 2007

    This link:
    (the first letter says it all … )
    http://comment.independent.co.uk/letters/article2970799.ece

    PZ, please note, as it should kill this religion-friendly nonsense.
    I think we should all remember the one-liner that Prof Dawkins finishes with – quoting a devout (catholic) believer.

  124. #124 Ophelia Benson
    September 18, 2007

    Thanks for the transcribing, Matthew; that’s helpful. Paul Kurtz does indeed say things similar to what you’re saying – so that answers my question, and rebukes my skepticism.

    On the other hand, I think you’re overstating what he says – you’re adding an emphasis and a note of hostility that sounds more like you than like PK. In short you sound pissed off at the ‘New Atheists’ in a way that PK doesn’t. Like so -

    “But I have followed their lead in drawing attention to the harshness of the New Atheist rhetoric and the absence of a positive alternative. Kurtz, for example, is very forceful in saying as much in the latest version of the Point of Inquiry podcast.”

    But Kurtz doesn’t say anything about harshness, and I don’t think ‘forceful’ is the right word to describe what he says at Point of Inquiry. I think you’re reading in your own irritation. For instance -

    “KURTZ: I think they have had a positive impact, and I know most of the leaders, and they publish in Free Inquiry…so they have had positive impact, of course they are criticizing religion.

    However, that is not enough. One has to go beyond that! You can’t talk about abstract atheism, or merely a negative attitude. It is what you are for that counts, not what you are against! So I think on that point, one must affirm a positive humanist morality.”

    Kurtz says it’s not enough, you have to do more – but he doesn’t say you shouldn’t criticize at all. Kurtz says one has to do more, you’re claiming that one shouldn’t be ‘harsh’ at all. “In these efforts, scientists must adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens, or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs.” Kurtz doesn’t say scientists must adopt a certain language or that they must avoid alienating fellow citizens by criticizing (much less ‘attacking’) their religious beliefs; he says one must [also] affirm.

  125. #125 Aloysius
    September 18, 2007

    But if the problem here is choice and people’s unwillingness to choose highbrow intellection, surely the solution isn’t to reframe the discussion but to put Richard Dawkins on television more? He has the kind of fire it takes to break through people’s apathy. People don’t like to pay attention to fiddly technical things by and large, but you say yourself in that previous posting that they love celebrity scientists throwing bombs. If politics has taught us anything, it’s that you cannot win over America by being safe and non-confrontational.

  126. #126 oyunlar1
    January 7, 2008

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  127. #127 Matt Penfold
    February 12, 2008

    Matt Nisbett is rightly critical of creationism/ID and those who push those views. What he fails to take into account is that in the West wide acceptance of creationism/ID and the corresponding push to have it taught in schools is something that is peculiar to the US. In Western Europe creationists are laughed at. Thus the call for Dawkins to soften his approach as it may offend the religious who would otherwise support scientists in the battle against creationists is to engage in special pleading for situation American finds itself in.

    Dawkins has made it clear that the battle against creationism is just one aspect of the battle for rationality over superstition. Why should Nisbett et al assume that the interests of America should come ahead of any other country ? In case Nisbett has missed it, Dawkins has been as outspoken against non-evidence based medicine, astrology and psychics, even wondering why the latter are not arrested for deception. Should we also go easy on those latter groups in case some of them might support evolution ?

  128. #128 ron
    February 12, 2008

    As a teacher that teaches critical thinking, biology and chemistry to high school students this panel sounds like a great idea. It can be difficult to teach when there is active religious opposition, and the panel as described by Matt could possibly give some insights.

    However, speaking as someone in the trenches, the absolute last thing I need is a ‘Neville Chamberlain’ approach. Matt’s responses to concerns on this board suggests I’m not going to find any support or insights from this panel any time soon.

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