This is a response to Critiquing the “Critique” and the “Critique of the Critique” of Bill Nye’s Video at UrbanAstro.org. In that post, FURYGuitar addresses both Critiquing the Critique of Bill Nye’s Video by me and Bill Nye’s “Don’t Teach Creationism…” Video Dissected by Business Communication Expert in which scientist and marketing expert Marc Kuchner writes in a guest blog for Scientific American Blogs an interview with communication expert Patrick Donadio.

The background is that Bill Nye made a video called Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children that some viewed as controversial because of Bill’s approach, which is a bit strong-sounding. In addition, Kyle Hill wrote, on Scientific American Blogs, Bill Nye is Not a Businessman). Additionally, this conversation has drawn a number of interesting comments on those blogs as well as on Google+ and Facebook.

First I want to thank my colleagues in the blogosphere for the simple fact that this conversation has two characteristics rarely found together: 1) People are saying things that are in potentially strong contrast with each other; 2) People are keeping the conversation very polite by any standards, especially Internet standards, even if the remarks made by various commenters are somewhat edgy at times.

Responding specifically to FURYGuitar’s comments about the audience, in which it is noted that Nye was speaking at Big Think, I’ll reiterate what I said on that blog with some additional information.

Big Think is a giant somewhat elite meta-blog that has a couple of thousand contributors that produce content that is culled based on the editor’s ideas of “significance, relevance, and application.” (see their about page.) The topics are diverse and the political views of those who’s work is highlighted is fairly broad. And, there is a certain amount of meta-blogging going on there, including this analysis of the reaction to Bill Nye’s video which oddly ignores all of the blogospheric discussion and focuses on sources such as The Onion. So much for “significance, relevance, and application”!

My contention is that Bill Nye is in part talking to a certain audience, which is a portion of the people who are most likely to pay attention to Big Think. These are people who are generally well educated, interested in learning, all that, but who also happen to be in professional (or other) areas that don’t focus on Life Sciences and happen to include a lot of people I would call “Casual Creationists.” I’m reminded for instance of several engineers I used to know fairly well (my sig-oth worked for their firm). These guys ranged from liberal to conservative politically (this is the context in which I attended various liberal-leaning fundraisers and it is also where I learned the phrase “a bullet costs nine cents” as an argument for skipping the appeals process in Death Penalty cases). The centrist-to-conservative among them probably got their political views from the usual places, and probably learned that it was appropriate to accept some form of creationism. Young Earth creationism would be absurd to them but a god-of-the-gaps variety, or a divine guidance or even mild Intelligent Design system might have worked for them as well, had they not thought about it much. So, if asked in a survey or in some other context what they felt about evolution, they would likely have been tallied in the database as “creationist” of some form or another. But they are also smart guys who are in fact in the business of “intelligently designing” things that are complicated, and are probably less woo’ed by the idea that some things are beyond imagination in complexity, and they have some sort of science background and above all, they don’t want to look stupid.

So, if the context they palpably live in when the question arises (the survey about evolution, for instance) they may well give creationist-sounding answers. But if prior to this they are primed by people like Bill Nye or some other thought-leader type person to take note of the fact that creationism has broader meaning than just some detail about evolution, that it is stupid and that it makes you look stupid when you embrace it, etc. etc. (all the stuff Bill Nye says or implies in his video), they may well come down on the other side, with answers to the surveyor’s questions that cause them to get tallied into the “not creationist” column.

Much of the conversation about this topic asks how we can most effectively speak to people who have this or that belief. But I don’t think that is the appropriate question. The appropriate question is how do we make “acceptance of evolution” something that is normal and desirable and not embarrassing to profess, and at the same time “belief in creationism” something that IS embarrassing to profess, and better left unspoken.

It is a little like racism. In large sectors of Western society, saying racists things is seen as a negative, so even people with racist thought learn to STFU, as it were. In this way, the next generation grows up with a larger percentage of people who don’t learn to be racists as completely and overtly as they otherwise might. We don’t rid a society of racism by convincing everyone it is wrong (though that would be nice). Rather, we rid a society of racism by using social pressure to make everyone who has racist thoughts keep them to themselves.

Bill Nye’s video, I think (but I’d love to hear is opinion on it!) serves the role of encouraging that middle ground of potential “casual creationists” to keep it to themselves more than they otherwise might, helping, potentially very significantly, to move the conversation in the right direction.

Comments

  1. #1 Justin Starr (furyguitar)
    NY, NY, USA
    September 4, 2012

    Greg,
    Excellent post. My biggest complaint is that you referred to me as “Furryguitar” as opposed to “Furyguitar.” ;-) A common mistake – my old band was called The Fury and what I played is self-explanatory.

    I found your analogy to racism to be quite interesting, and it too crossed my mind. A more pertinent analogy may be the adoption of the Heliocentric model of the Solar System (then Universe) over the Geocentric, much to the Church’s chagrin. In the end, evidence – predictions, observations, validation of predictions – won out. I’d like to believe that with consistent “social pressure,” as you put it, the Truth will win out.

    I don’t know about you, but I am an atheist. I mention this because I do believe extinguishing a deity from the equation will remain difficult and most likely impossible. One may accept the universe is nearly 14b years old, the earth 4.5, bat evolution is the answer, et al – and yet, a deity can always hide in the nook of being non-interacting and yet driving force behind everything. What defense is there against that except “It’s more likely NOT to be the case”? But, even if people committed to this type of spirituality, it would at least not fly in the face of isotope dating, fossils in sediment, etc. In other words, I doubt it would necessarily distort one’s world view, nor damage prospects in the STEM fields to the extent that outright Creationism does.

    Always good to chat with you ;-)
    Justin – FURYguitar
    tw: @UrbanAstroNYC
    web: UrbanAstro.org

  2. #2 Joe
    September 4, 2012

    Oh dear. I don’t think it’s a successful tack to use the analogue of civil rights to push religious intolerance. Sorry.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    September 4, 2012

    Damn. I always get furries and furies mixed up. That can cause some serious problems.

    I think the racism model is distinctly different from the heliocentric model in important ways. The heocentric/solar system transition and similar cases were based on evidence, and society following along with scientific thinking. That is the ideal, but it is not what has happened. I too would like to believe that “truth will out” but I don’t think it can when the debate is in its current state. Kids who grow up not hearing racist commentary from the adults are more likely to understand racism as a bad thing eventually, but first they need to learn that racism is not normal. That’s what I’m suggesting specifically.

    The use of things like good education and scientific reasoning is critically important, but it is something of a falsehood to think (and I’m not saying that you are saying this, but many do) that this is a failing of our educational system. Critical reasoning and thinking and scientific knowledge have been part of our educational system for a very long time, educators have recognized that new ways must always be sought to engage students, etc. etc. But quality education and a strong public discourse in science needs to have the social and cultural milieu in which it can thrive.

    Joe, I’m not pushing religious intolerance. I’m pushing science. But, as a non-religious scientist when I mention such things even quietly and politely (as I did) it sounds to the religious like I am a screaming banshee. This is because of the privilege of religion. That has to stop.

  4. #4 Joe
    September 4, 2012

    Look, I grew up religious, and still am–I’d generally fall into that group your described at the beginning of that post, I’m an engineer–and so I agree with your goal of getting creationism out of schools. It’s religion, not science. But the methods that you choose to use…this is not how you’re going to win the battle. This is a dead end.

    You cannot go and equate religious thoughts to racist thought. You can’t do that and have an effective message. That’s just the way it is. I don’t care if the analogy holds in terms of the way ideas are passed from parent to child–you cannot make a statement like that and maintain any shred of credibility to anyone outside of your existing spheres. I’m telling you this because I want you guys to win.

    The only way to keep on doing that is to keep the high ground, fight the good fight, and do your best to effectively teach evolution. If you think that the way to win this battle is to ridicule and suppress religious thought until those inconvenient Creationists just go away, then go take another look at history. It’s not going to work. We don’t win our arguments by suppressing the other side, and we never will.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    September 4, 2012

    I was not equating religious thought with racist thought at all. I was using the case of making racist dialog improper in modern society with the case of making creationist dialong improper in the context of education policy.

  6. #6 Michael Kelsey
    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
    September 4, 2012

    @Joe: Greg’s article most assuredly does not equate “religious thought”, and not even creationism, with racism. What he _does_ do is to point out that the beaviourist approach to social engineering (i.e., create social mores for public behaviour) worked in the case of racist speech, and therefore _could_ work for the case of creationism.

    Greg could have equally chosen “public smoking” as an example. When I was young (the 1970’s), smoking was not just “allowed,” but encouraged, pretty much everywhere. Today, it is not only not allowed in public places, but in many areas, it is considered socially suspect, even in private. Smoking is still a multibillion dollar industry, but in significant parts of the industrialized world, it is a marginal activity, and looked down upon by those in power.

    If it makes you feel more comfortable, try rereading Greg’s article again, substituding “smoking” for “racist thought” everywhere you find it. The approach he advocates is the same.

  7. #7 gwen
    September 4, 2012

    1. ‘Fury’ makes so much more sense than ‘furry’!
    2. Joe, you missed the point completely. Take a deep breath and reread the article. Michael’s suggestion to replace racist/racism with smoker/smoking is a good one.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    September 4, 2012

    Smoking is also an excellent example. I happen to chose racism because there is a current ongoing conversation I’m involved in regarding the change in what is normal for racialized discussions, so it is on my mind.

  9. #9 Joe
    September 4, 2012

    Replacing racism with smoking is a good suggestion, although you’re still correlating religion with a life-threatening habit, which isn’t really necessary. Anyway, that was exactly the point I was trying to make–throwing on the racism bit at the end demeans what is otherwise a well thought-out post. It’s not inconceivable that a right-leaning or religous blog could sniff a post like this out and use it to pump up THEIR supporters. A whole lot of progress we’d have made then, right?

  10. #10 Drivebyposter
    September 4, 2012

    Joe:
    The right and religious don’t need to point to anything real to pump up their kooks. Who gives a crap what they do? Everything is a propaganda tool because their audience is too stupid to care or know the difference between reality and imagination.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    September 4, 2012

    I was not equating or correlating smoking or religious thought with racist thought.

  12. #12 marclevesque
    September 5, 2012

    “We don’t rid a society of racism by convincing everyone it is wrong (though that would be nice). Rather, we rid a society of racism by using social pressure to make everyone who has racist thoughts keep them to themselves.”

    It is not one or the other.

    “The appropriate question is how do we make “acceptance of evolution” something that is normal and desirable and not embarrassing to profess, and at the same time “belief in creationism” something that IS embarrassing to profess, and better left unspoken.”

    If you are following the long+short term frame model of change and are referring to the need of setting the stage for the future, I don’t disagree. Where I diverge, and I think from @07. Bora Zivkovice also, is on the usefulness of things like derision, e.g.: it is one thing to not speak of xyz because most people around you will argue strongly against your point or disagree, it is quite another to not speak about xyz because you fear derision.

    As a rule derision is not a productive tool to set the stage for, or promote, learning or change, and its value doesn’t depend on the intended audience. And that’s partly because it’s not possible to contain its use, i.e.: if derision is used to partly make point x, it’s use will spread elsewhere, in this case maybe only slightly, but it will spread elsewhere, especially when coming from an authority figure. Do we want more derision used in social discourse at the expense of reasonable arguments ? Do we want to facilitate intimidation ?

    Again the derision in Nye’s video is very light, it even contains touches of humor in my opinion, but if asked if the video could be more effective, if the derisive components could be skipped, I say yes, of course, there’s lots of options, stronger ones and to better effect.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    September 5, 2012

    You are right that it is not one or the other, sorry if I gave you the impression that I was thinking that. You don’t rid a society of racism by convincing everyone it is wrong. You start by stemming the flow of enculturation into racist thinking, and at the same time keep up the argument from ethics, logic, etc.

    I would like to see the critique of what you are calling “derision” applied to creationists by someone on this thread. It is a primary tool of theirs, but it is so normal coming from religious quarters that it is rarely commented on.

    But actually, I would not call what Nye is doing derision. It is clearly shaming. (Perhaps shaming is derision with a purpose…)

  14. #14 marclevesque
    September 5, 2012

    On racism. I think racism starts from faulty logic, the derision and dehumanisation follows, and racism recedes as the faulty logic is pointed out and as new facts emerge that contradict the racist beliefs, and the ongoing stemming of the enculturation of these racist ideas is concurrent to these changes in logic and everything else that is also changing in society.

    I’m using derision as a synonyme of words like in Zivkovic’s comment: “Nobody wants to be on the side that is mocked, laughed at, or denigrated” and I’m also assuming this definition from an etymology dictionnary : c.1400, from O.Fr. derision “derision, mockery” (13c.), from L. derisionem (nom. derisio), noun of action from pp. stem of deridere “ridicule,” from de- “down” (see de-) + ridere “to laugh.”.

    I agree that derision is rampant in a lot of religious present and past commentary, and it’s also part of our cultural ethos: it’s in internet comments on most any subject, its a radio style, its a lot of what fox news is, etc. And in our culture most everybody, even if they don’t use derision overtly, have trouble not slipping derision into their arguments using subtle allusions or tonal shifts.

    But usage does not make it justified, not that you said it does, and if I look at groups who use a lot of derision I think it is safe to say that it is not very effective when you look at the big picture.

    When Nye says things about the craziness of religious people or that in a couple of centuries their world view won’t exist, I think that is derision, you can even see him wanting to say crazy again but he stops himself opting instead for long winded and roundabout ways of saying the same thing.

    On the main issue of the video, making parents who believe in a religion, or some facts of some religions, to “think of the children” and Americas future, I doubt he is having any real effect, and I don’t think aiming to shame parents, if that was that means to the end, has better side effects than derision. If the video created guilt, and did it ethically, I might agree, but the video needs a lot more (and less statements that are speculative, or open to debate). So the more I think about this and view the video the more I think what the video really has going for it is Bill Nye, nice editing, a simple format, and the wish to reduce belief in creationism.

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    September 5, 2012

    I have no doubt that racism is faulty logic, but I’m not sure if you mean that the racism we experience today originated as faulty logic. A lot of different historical threads come together to become modern American or Western racism.

  16. #16 marclevesque
    September 7, 2012

    By the way I really like the feel of spontaneity in Nye’s video.

    I used the word logic loosely, to include things like argumentation or informal logic, reasoning or Bayesian logic, etc

    In that sense I did claim all racism has resulted from faulty logic, but I haven’t any thing to back that up other than the fact I can’t think of a counter example.

    I’m curious what you are referring to by different historical threads and modern American or western racism.

  17. [...] I suggest you join in if interested. The next day, three additional posts were put up. There was another one from Greg Laden, adding points to his first post: Much of the conversation about this topic asks how we can most [...]

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