The Intersection

Following the Science piece, there has been a great need for Nisbet and I to expand upon our arguments regarding “framing.” Matt did so the other day on NPR, and now we have a joint piece in the latest Washington Post outlook section that goes further.

In the Post, we focus on one of the most obvious examples of badly framing the defense of evolution–tying it to criticism of religion. Richard Dawkins is the most prominent example in this regard, and we single him out accordingly. I want to emphasize that I grew up on Dawkins’ books; they really helped me figure out who I am. But nevertheless, over the past several years I’ve grown increasingly convinced that his is emphatically not the way to make many Americans (people very different from me) more accepting of science.

I know I’m not the only one who thinks this.

In the Post we were also given space to respond to some of our blogspheric critics, especially PZ. Incidentally, I find it hilarious that due to Post style rules, we had to call him “Paul Zachary Myers.” Who does that? (Grin.)

Anyway, the Post piece is here. Hope you like it.

P.S.: The piece is already getting nastily slammed by Larry Moran. My reaction to this is primarily one of sadness. After all, I’m an outspoken defender of evolution, like Moran is. I’m also not personally religious; neither is he. These two things already give Moran and I a heck of a lot in common, especially when you compare us with most of the rest of the people in the ‘verse.

Moran’s slamming of Nisbet and I kind of reminds me of the battle between the “Judean People’s Front” and the “People’s Front of Judea” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. And it suggest to me that here in the blogosphere, our little communities have become far, far too fragmented and polarized.

Comments

  1. #1 Karl
    April 14, 2007

    I think that a good example of the way that scientists need to communicate with the public was given by Richard Feynman at the hearings investigating the Challenger(?) disaster. Instead of spending a lot of time talking about properties of rubber under different temperatures and writing a bunch of equations on a board, he dunked an o-ring in a glass of ice water, hit it with a hammer and SHOWED what happens. It’s not a question of simplifying the science but of simplifying the presentation of the ideas.

  2. #2 Dan
    April 14, 2007

    From the outset of the Post piece:

    Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion.

    With all due respect, I think that this approach that you take follows a bad precedent – ignoring the validity of an argument, in my mind, requires a lapse of intellectual integrity. Perhaps I have too much of Carl Sagan’s skepticism on the brain (having read a handful of his books in the last month), but skeptical inquiry is one of the most vital capacities that we as human beings possess, and asking Dawkins et al. to exempt religion from skepticism isn’t doing anyone any favors. If a given religion is so fragile as to be incapable of refuting Dawkins’ criticisms, then perhaps it is a belief system not worth buying into anymore.

  3. #3 Zeno
    April 14, 2007

    there has been a great need for Nisbet and I

    “Nisbet and me,” Chris.

    Well, not me, as such, but I’m sure you get the idea.

  4. #4 coturnix
    April 14, 2007

    In the disinction between short-term and long-term aspects of framing (the topic of my first post on the topic), Dawkins is the best there is in the long-term efforts (moving the Overton window over the time-frame of years and decades) and sucks in short-term (persuading the uninterested, uneducated and more-or-less-religious folks to get on the right side of science-related political issues of the day): other people are good at short-term, though and we need more of those.

    In other words, we need people who can make the busy, ADHD-riddled, uniterested people mentally prepared to even start listening to Dawkins. Such communicators need to be gentle to the fragile, fearful egos of the audience and to gradually prepare them for the harsh truths delivered by Dawkins. This takes skill and time.

  5. #5 hoary puccoon
    April 14, 2007

    Dawkins and PZ may have a valid argument, but they don’t represent the only possible reasonable position on the relationship of science to religion. Many people who accept the reality of evolution are also devout theists. I suspect, too, that a large number of people are simply nonreligious, in that they don’t care much one way or the other.
    The IDists strongly imply that the views of Dawkins and PZ are an integral part of the modern theory of evolution. That’s a lie. And that lie needs to be countered– whether you, personally, agree with Dawkins&Co. or not.
    The bottom line is, no responsible member of the scientific community, regardless of his or her personal beliefs, advocates the teaching of atheism in public schools. It is only certain radical religious groups who are trying to force their beliefs on school children. That is the truth, and that truth needs to be stated again and again and again.
    If Dawkins&Co. want to discuss their own (non)religious beliefs on other forums like books or the Internet, they should be free to do so (assuming they continue to stay out of public school classrooms, of course.) But that’s a completely different issue.

  6. #6 pough
    April 14, 2007

    His slamming Nisbet and I kind of reminds me of the battle between the “Judean People’s Front” and the “People’s Front of Judea” in Monty Python’s Life of Bryan.

    That scene was funnier. Splitter!

    And it suggest to me that here in the blogosphere, our little communities have become far, far too fragmented and polarized.

    I don’t think so. I just think that in areas where people feel strongly they can get away with voicing their opinions more strongly in print than they might in person and so arguments get a little more vitriolic than they otherwise might. There are really just a few areas where people disagree. That doesn’t make for fragmentation, IMO.

  7. #7 Hank Roberts
    April 14, 2007

    For an example of explaining the living world to an audience of religious people, look to E.O. Wilson. Listening to audio of some of his recent talks, I don’t think he’s “framing” or “windowing” — he sounds like he’s decided to be clear and succeeding.

    Back in the 1940s, my dad’s major professor in biology used to travel around the rural South speaking about biology and about evolution —- carrying “lantern slides” to project on the walls. My dad talked to church-school audiences every year I was in grade school about biology, one way or another.

    Framing sounds wrong; maybe it’s the only way to approach an invisible, asynchronous readership or audience, but I fear it leads to omitting the footnotes and omitting teaching the habit of inquiring not what the speaker/writer believes but where he got his information, and failing to teach the habit of always looking for newer information by tracking the cites forward.

    With the web so handy, my idea of “framing” would be for all the science writers to agree that, from here on, they’ll put up a page for each story giving their notes and cites online so people can question where they looked and what news comes along to change them. Distinguish the science writers from the entertainment writers who don’t dare risk ‘peer review’ because they make shit up or conflate opinion with fact.

    That is, frame _yourselves_ not your audience, who are in the unknown future and who need to look not just at what you wrote way back ‘now’ but at what you relied on so they can check your ideas.

    Dang, now I need a footnote for credibility; will this do?
    http://homeworktips.about.com/od/homeworkhelp/a/iandme.htm

  8. #8 Larry Moran
    April 14, 2007

    I think religion is the problem and I’ll continue to make the case against religion and superstition. One of the many ways where you and Nisbet go wrong is to assume that people like PZ, Dawkins, and me are primarily fighting for evolution. That’s why you argue that in the fight to save evolution it’s “wrong” (e.g., not part of your frame) to attack religion.

    When are you going to realize that our primary goal in many cases is to combat the worst faults of religion? Asking us to stop criticizing religion is like asking us to give up fighting for something we really care about. That’s not “framing,” it’s surrender.

    Now, I’m not expecting you to agree with our position. You’ve made that very clear. What I’m asking is please stop pretending that we are really stupid. You make it sound like we have no idea what we’re doing and all you have to do is point out that some people are very sensitive about their religion. Do you really think we don’t know that? Do you really think that sending us off to read some papers on framing is going to make us abandon the issue? That’s either very silly and condescending or very disingenuous.

    You and Matt have been reluctant to engage in serious debate on your blogs. You’ve left most of the discussion to surrogates (most of whom get it wrong). Publishing an article in the Washington Post may seem to you to be an adequate substitute for debate between colleagues but it doesn’t look that way to me. To me it looks like you’ve taken advantage of your connections to take a very public poke at PZ because he disagreed with your Science article.

    You have completely misunderstood what this fight is all about from the Richard Dawkins’ perspective. In other words, you have failed miserably to understand his kind of atheist “frame” and respond appropriately. Isn’t that ironic? If you had made even a half-hearted attempt to understand what your critics have been telling you in the past two weeks then you would not written such a bad article for the Washington Post.

  9. #9 Chris Ho-Stuart
    April 14, 2007

    I think you are missing a very obvious point, Chris.

    Look at Larry’s response, which so “saddens” you. Now Larry is a curmudgeon. He’s quite up front about that, and deep down we all love the irascible old coot.

    You’re going to have to get past how Larry has chosen to “frame” his comment, because the meanness of it may be obscuring a very simple point.

    Larry and you have different objectives!

    That’s all there is to it, I think. Larry, and Paul, and Richard, and Daniel, and quite a number of other folks, see religion as the primary problem. They are explicitly concerned to fight against irrationality and foolishness and religion. They see religion as the primary reason for the failure of people to get the science — which I think is correct — and they consider that this is intrinsic to religion itself, as a structure that inevitably fosters sloppy and irrational behaviour.

    So there’s no point asking them to frame the debate differently with respect to religion. They frame it thus quite deliberately, and they will to continue to do so.

    You may be right that Dawkins’ approach is not the way to make many people (religious people in particular) more accepting of science. But it probably is the way to make people less accepting of religion.

    I’m with you; if it matters. I don’t place any great importance on undermining religion, except where there is an immediate association with specifics in the science wars. I agree that religion as the single major cause of the active movement to undermine and degrade science education. But I don’t see that as an inevitable feature of religion, so from my perspective it is a good thing to have religion being reconsidered from within in ways that are compatible with science. For me, Ken Miller and Francis Collins (for example) are especially valuable colleagues in my fight; because they are particularly good for helping religious believers shift to a more reasonable faith. But Larry et al will consider that something of an oxymoron; since they see religious faith as inherently unreasonable.

    If you put yourself in the shoes of Larry and Paul and Richard and so on, you may be able to understand their frustration with you. These guys are some of the absolute best in the world at making science accessible to lay readers. Dawkins is brilliant at framing, in my view. And yet they are being told to change their approach so as to be more tolerant of religion, because that will help the science get across better.

    Perhaps it might; but you need to respect their position that religion itself is the problem, and that effective framing for them is going to undermine religion, deliberately.

    Cheers – Chris Ho-Stuart

  10. #10 Larry Moran
    April 14, 2007

    Chris says,

    My reaction to this is primarily one of sadness. After all, I’m an outspoken defender of evolution, like Moran is. I’m also not personally religious; neither is he. These two things already give Moran and I a heck of a lot in common, especially when you compare us with most of the rest of the people in the ‘verse.

    We have two things in common: evolution and non-belief. What we don’t have in common is a view of what’s causing the problem in society. I think it’s religion and that’s why I support Dawkins on that issue.

    You disagree. Why does that make you sad? If you disagree then make your case. What do you think is behind the anti-science movement and what do you propose to do about it?

  11. #11 Badger3k
    April 14, 2007

    Like some others, I agree that both kinds of voices, and styles, are needed. You need people like Ken Miller to work on the short term defense of rationality against creationism, but people like Dawkins, Harris, PZ and others are needed for the long term goal – the promotion of critical thinking over superstition. Sometimes direct confrontation is the only way to go. It’s all a matter of what the overall goal is. Personally, I side with the more vocal critics of superstition and unreason, and while keeping creationism out of the classroom in the short term is good, unless we eliminate the irrationality behind it, we’ll be doing this again, and again, and again. The problem will take many voices and many different styles and tactics.

  12. #12 NickC
    April 14, 2007

    I agree that many presentations of science are confusing. They appeal to “scientists” and “scientific method” in a way that is exactly isomorphic to appeals to priests and holy scripture. Some presentations are so poorly done that I’m inclined to dismiss them on general principles, even if I agree with the facts!

    But rather than dressing it up better, I think we need to popularize a simple, non-circular definition of a science that we can communicate effectively.

    And it’s actually not that difficult. A scientific theory is, at its heart, a recipe (that is, a description of a technique that anyone can, in principle, follow) for predicting future observations.

    It’s this aspect of prediction which is central to science and Popper’s concept of falsifiability. It’s also central to science’s usefulness. The more frequently and specifically a theory makes predictions, the more (potentially) useful it is. And the easier it is to prove wrong. A theory that makes such predictions, and make them correctly, is a very useful theory indeed. A theory that does not make predictions that we will ever encounter (as some complain about string theory), or whose predictions are so vague they they say nothing at all (like horoscopes) cannot be said to be right or wrong; it is simply useless. As Pauli famously said, it’s “not even wrong.”

    While some sciences are easily create the circumstances necessary for interesting observations, even fields like history, paleontology, and astronomy are sciences to the extent that they predict future observations of evidence left by past events.

    Scientists are simply people who make a career out of making and testing theories. But anyone can do it, just as you don’t have to be a professional chef to cook.

    Likewise, the scientific method is a technique that has been found to come up with good theories, even in the face of the human tendency to self-deception. But it isn’t central either. What matters is whether a theory makes good predictions, not how it was developed.

    Neither does science make any inherent distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” causes; I wish people would stop including those words (and the resultant semantic arguments) in definitions. Whether your theory describes itself in terms of protons, neutrons and electrons or angels, devils, and fairies is irrelevant. What matters is whether the predictions come out right. If you do this, you can can call the fundamental building blocks of the universe “charm” and “strange” if you like.

    Scientists commonly take the short-cut of trying out a new theory against old observations. Or adjusting the theory to fit some new observations. But these are both vulnerable to self-deception. If there’s risk of observer effect, or debate about the meaning of the experiment, you have to be more careful to predict before observing. Randi’s paranormal challenge is an extreme example of this, and thus an excellent illustration of the principle.

    In the real world, one often has to combine many theories to predict a single observation. If the observation fails to come true, you then have to look and see which of the theories is to blame – or did you make a mistake combining them?

    For example, the paleontologists looking for transitional fossils between fish and amphibians predicted that, if they were to be found anywhere, they’d be found in Devonian rock about 420 million years old. And that was known to be accessible in three places on earth, two of which had already been thoroughly searched. The spotty nature of fossil formation meant that they weren’t guaranteed to find any fossils at all, but if they did find anything, they knew a lot about what it should look like. And verily, they looked in the third place for fossils, and they found Tiktaalik roseae, and it fitted neatly into the gap between bony fish and amphibians.

    Now, suppose that the search had turned up some very strange fossils that didn’t fit the sequence? Then, there would be debate: which theory is wrong? Is the rock not the age it was thought to be? Or are the fossils a different age than the rock? Or is there in fact some problem with the currently understood evolutionary history of amphibians? (Or did someone sneak a fake fossil into the expedition?)

    Finding such a fossil wouldn’t necessarily prove that evolution was wrong, but it would show that something was wrong. Then there would be a new theory, which would be asked to predict something new beyond the unexpected fossil already found, and it would be subject to test.

    There are many examples I could give, but the basic idea is very simple: science is prediction. If it’s not observable, it’s irrelevant. If it’s not specific, it’s useless. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. What survives is science.

  13. #13 Norman Doering
    April 14, 2007

    …we focus on one of the most obvious examples of badly framing the defense of evolution–tying it to criticism of religion. Richard Dawkins is the most prominent example in this regard…

    One of the things that gets lost in the analysis of the creationist/evolution debate is that it’s usually the ID folks and creationists that are the ones who are linking atheism to evolution and attacking that atheism (often called “materialism” or “naturalism”) more than the theory of evolution. Naturalism and atheism deserve a defense from such unfair attacks.

    I think if you cared to get into the nitty gritty of a specific argument between most ID/creationists versus the standard science you’ll find out it’s usually the “evolutionist” who is trying to undermine that frame which connects atheism to evolution.

    There is only one attack on one specific version of Christianity delievered by evolution: Genesis can’t be taken literally. No one takes it farther that I know of besides those in the ID/creationist camp.

    Can anyone find counter examples against my claim? Anywhere in Dawkins work especially.

  14. #14 Chris Mooney
    April 14, 2007

    Thanks to all for the comments. Let me address Larry, since I kinda went at him a bit.

    First of all, on not responding: 1) Nisbet and I were deluged; 2) I have been on the road more or less continuously since the Science piece came out; 3) Your and some other folks’ criticisms (and especially your latest one) were not always couched respectfully, and in general I ignore such swipes. (This is an noteworthy exception.)

    On the broader point: Yeah, our article was called “Framing Science,” not “Framing Religion.” We’re trying to advance and defend the goals of the scientific community, not dismantle belief systems that have endured for thousands of years. Moreover, as Matt and I have repeatedly said, we’re trying to explain how to advance, defend, and explain science on hot button issues that are playing out over the next several years on a political time-frame.

    So a lot of this dispute is clarified by identifying the differing perspectives involved. Frankly, even geography explains a lot of it: Matt and I are in Washington, land of pragmatism and political give-and-take. I suspect–no, I know–that our viewpoint really strikes a chord there.

    Let me end with a recent quote from a Christian:
    “After all, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Bart Ehrman, the ‘Jesus Tomb’ folks and many other very smart people think all of us Christians are basically misinformed crackpots, or worse.”

    http://www.centredaily.com/220/story/67413.html

  15. #15 Chris Ho-Stuart
    April 14, 2007

    Norman writes:

    There is only one attack on one specific version of Christianity delievered by evolution: Genesis can’t be taken literally. No one takes it farther that I know of besides those in the ID/creationist camp.

    Can anyone find counter examples against my claim? Anywhere in Dawkins work especially.

    Good grief, Norman! Dawkins is quite definite that evolution itself undermines the idea that God creates the human form. That’s not an attack on literal Genesis; it’s an attack on the whole idea of a creative design at all! And he goes further. He argues that God is necessarily complex, but that evolution shows complexity arises by development from less simple origins. God has no such explanation, and must be deemed very improbable indeed.

    In his recent book, The God Delusion, Dawkins singles out chapter 4 (Why There is Almost Certainly No God) as contining the central argument of the book. (p 157). In this chapter, he uses evolution as an argument that there is no design, and no need for God to do anything, and even more importantly, an indication that there is no adequate explanation for how such a thing as God could exist.

    Whether you think htis is a good argument or a bad argument, it is definitely an argument used by Dawkins, based on evolution, and attacking the whole idea of God; not just limited to attacking literal Genesis.

    Cheers — Chris Ho-Stuart

  16. #16 ERV
    April 14, 2007

    This is getting painful, guys. Stop. Seriously. Stop.

  17. #17 hoary puccoon
    April 14, 2007

    Dawkins argues that evolution predicts there is no god– but note that he is using god as a dependent variable. You can teach the entire body of knowledge in evolutionary biology, current to COB next Tuesday, without once mentioning god, gods, or lack of god(s.) If you do this in a public school classroom, some kids might reach the conclusion that the bible is not literally true. (But they could figure that out by simply reading the bible.) It’s even possible that some kids would reject religion as a result of their biology classes– but there would be nothing in the biology class that would force them or indoctrinate them into taking that position. They could just as easily lose their religion by learning about the Black Plague or Attila the Hun or the death of Elvis. For that matter, they could read The God Delusion at night with a flashlight under the covers. That is no excuse for lying to them in the classroom– which is exactly what the creationists are advocating.

  18. #18 Norman Doering
    April 14, 2007

    Good grief, Norman! Dawkins is quite definite that evolution itself undermines the idea that God creates the human form. That’s not an attack on literal Genesis; it’s an attack on the whole idea of a creative design at all!

    No, it is not. You are using very confusing terminology (perhaps on purpose). This “whole idea of a creative design” skims over what exactly creativity and design are. Why not say “evolution is a creative designer”? Evolutionary algorithims are used in artificial intelligence.

    I don’t think Dawkins has said it the way you do. I think you’ve taken him out of context. You’ve distorted the meaning of his argument. Find a quote from Dawkins. He’s not saying what you claim. Here’s a quote from Dawkins saying he is open to the idea of a kind of god-concept and “creative” design:

    My mind is not closed, as you have occasionally suggested, Francis. My mind is open to the most wonderful range of future possibilities, which I cannot even dream about, nor can you, nor can anybody else. What I am skeptical about is the idea that whatever wonderful revelation does come in the science of the future, it will turn out to be one of the particular historical religions that people happen to have dreamed up. When we started out and we were talking about the origins of the universe and the physical constants, I provided what I thought were cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea. Refutable–but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect. I don’t see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.

    You say:

    He argues that God is necessarily complex,…

    Are you going to say that God isn’t necessarily complex? Are you going to say that God, that creative intelligence can be a simple concept and force like gravity or something?

    …evolution shows complexity arises by development from less simple origins. God has no such explanation, and must be deemed very improbable indeed.

    Complexity, in the algorithmic sense, in Shannon’s sense, arises from entropy. “Functional complexity” arises from evolution. Evolution is more of a filter on complexity than a force driving complexity.

    And it depends on what you mean by God. Why couldn’t gods evolve too? Maybe humanity itself is evolving toward a kind of godhood?

    … he uses evolution as an argument that there is no design, and no need for God to do anything, ….

    And what exactly would God need to do? Maybe set up the universe itself so evolution can occur?

    All of that is just common sense stuff once you accept methodolical naturalism and the theory of evolution. Do you want to avoid common sense?

    … it is definitely an argument used by Dawkins, based on evolution, and attacking the whole idea of God; not just limited to attacking literal Genesis.

    Nope. That stuff is, in the end, only an attack on a literalist biblical God, the God of Genesis. In the first chapters of Dawkins’ book he spells out the kind of gods he is not talking about. You’ve taken it out of context.

  19. #19 cbart
    April 14, 2007

    Chris, I think you’re making a big mistake here. For years, there were not many scientists who wrote for the public other than people like Sagan and Gould. Since the ’90s or so, though, we have seen an explosion of outstanding books on evolution, philosophy of science, and much else. Dawkins, for all his occassional obnoxiousness, is foremost in that group. The problem is no longer one of scientists disdaining to write for the public and doing so in clear, meaningful ways.

    I teach at a community college in Missouri – the real “front lines” of evolution-creationism and science education (not to mention other elements of education). It is true that some students and citizens fear that science means atheism. I try to be gentle with such thinking, but being gentle does not mean distorting the truth. I tell students that literally millions of Christians find ways to reconcile evolution and other science with some sort of Christian beliefs, but that it is also true that science shows us that while there may be a god, one is not necessary to explain the world we inhabit. I can tell you, too, that I’ve had about the same number of students who are relieved and excited that they *can* be allowed to think outside of their religion as I have had students who are defensive about their beliefs.

    That said, your approach has become more strident in the wrong direction. Creationists are not reading Dawkins; they are not reading any science, in most cases. Science – and journalism – seek to understand and express knowledge and insights. Your call for essentially silencing the expression of knowledge is chilling and short-sighted – and not what I would expect from the author of the Republican War on Science. I agree with those who think that religion *is* the problem, but under any circumstances to suggest self-censorship so that knowledge and opinions do not offend people – my god, Chris, what are you thinking? That, not Dawkinsian atheism, plays into the hands of the crazies.

    Sorry, but I’m with Dawkins, PZ, and the rest on this one. There is room for them, and Ruse, and the late SJ Gould, and even Miller, I suppose.

  20. #20 Norman Doering
    April 14, 2007

    Another important point: Dawkins argues that “God is improbable” not that “God is impossible.” The world is full of improbable things. Why should theists object to that?

  21. #21 Chris Mooney
    April 14, 2007

    Come on, nobody is talking about censorship here, that’s a red herring. I’ll have more once I get off another reply to PZ.

  22. #22 itchy
    April 14, 2007

    I agree with Chris and Matt and Larry and PZ. Does that make me part of the problem?

    I think both frames are valid.

    Educating the public about specific hot-button issues would give power to the scientific point of view on the most important and urgent decisions. But obliterating religion (and all irrational thought, for that matter) is more of a big-picture approach, aiming to stop the game of whack-a-mole with sellers (and buyers) of the supernatural.

    I can also see where they might undermine each other in some ways.

    I have no doubt Dawkins turns off many people who might otherwise have made better choices on specific issues with a ‘softer’ sell. OTOH, tolerating superstition in order to advance specific goals gives credence to the idea that science and irrational thought are equally valid methods for explaining phenomena.

    Personally, I’m OK with both strategies being used simultaneously, even if they sometimes get in each others’ way.

  23. #23 PZ Myers
    April 15, 2007

    My primary complaint with both your articles is that you claim to be advocating a method for accommodating people to difficult ideas, but what you’ve actually done in both is advocate a position, an anti-atheism, that simply waves away the ideas that people find most difficult. And it’s very peculiar.

    Here’s a suggestion: the opposition to the science of global warming isn’t so strongly tied to the religious views of the critics (although, of course, there is a correlation). If you wanted to make an argument that did not stir up all those high profile “New Atheists”, why didn’t you focus on AGW? Can you even make a case for a solid ‘framing’ that would represent a good strategy for persuading the public on that one?

    By instead putting so much effort into slamming what you think is an incidental side issue, our efforts against religion, you’ve effectively alienated a vocal core of people involved in the anti-creationism fight. Of course, you may also have cozied up to the religious people who outnumber us, so maybe this was a smart strategy after all…but you can’t expect people like Larry Moran to let you kick them to curry favor with a theistic majority and still support you.

  24. #24 Chris Ho-Stuart
    April 15, 2007

    Chris quotes an irritated Christian.

    Let me end with a recent quote from a Christian:
    “After all, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Bart Ehrman, the ‘Jesus Tomb’ folks and many other very smart people think all of us Christians are basically misinformed crackpots, or worse.”

    Shug. Yes, that does seem to be what they think. Chris Mooney and Chris Ho-Stuart (me) and others might, on the other hand, have a less sweeping dismissal.

    So what are you going to do? Well, it’s going to vary.

    Some folks think that all Christians are misinformed crackpots; and that religious crackpottery is the root source of the problem with science education. And frankly, many people with this extreme negative perspective on religion are some of the best framers around.

    Some of them are getting rather annoyed with this whole debate, and I think they have good cause! Their concern is that all this worry about “framing” is really about trying to get them to keep quiet about their views on religion, and aim for a way to achieve happy reconciliation.

    That is, framing is just an excuse that presumes without any good argument that they are wrong to tackle religion head on as the main cause of the problem.

    My advice is that those of us who are NOT strongly anti-religion need to stop worrying about persuading Dawkins and PZ and others to change tack. We need to focus on ourselves.

    There’s one good thing about the strong anti-religion crowd for us appeasers; it provokes Christians who are active in real science to speak up more. That’s a good thing! The Christian you have quoted, for example, has been motivated by what he sees as unfair criticism, and that’s GOOD! We can take the opportunity to encourage them; to play a bit of good cop bad cop. Not as a deliberate deceit; we really are good cop bad cop as far as Christians are concerned.

    So let’s stop beating up the bad cop and focus on encouraging religious believers to demonstrate that their God is not linked to pseudoscience and ignorance.

    When Christians are concerned that PZ or Dawkins or others say unkind things about their beliefs; let’s us appeasers show them a bit of sympathy. Tell your Christian friends that you don’t agree with PZ and Dawkins and so on and hold up some examples of Christians that you think might stand as counter examples. Collins, Miller, Dobzhansky, Polkinghorne. Now PZ and Dawkins might disagree and think these guys are also crackpots, but hey. We can disagree on that without coming to blows. The point is that Christians who are stirred up by the criticisms from hardline atheists will find these guys as the best available counter examples, and they will also find that getting a better understanding of science is a way of refuting the horrible things said by the hardliners.

    I am pretty sure that without the hardliners, you are going to have much less motivation from believers to get involved in the subject. Why else would they get involved in science, and show that a Christian can be consistent with science, unless to show Dawkins a thing or two?

    I echo the call to stop beating up on others. For us, that means stop beating up on PZ and Dawkins. They are doing a frankly magnificent job for science education. Most of we appeasers have a ways to get to catch up. I’m trying… I am currently in a debate on a Christian discussion board, where I am accepted as a constructive and valued member despite my atheism, on the merits of irreducible complexity. I deliberately hold up Francis Collins as an example of how a Christian can believe in a divine design without wanting to treat the designer as a kind of alternative to natural processes. PZ will no doubt think this is a load of tripe, but disagreement on such things does not bother me, and I don’t demand that PZ adopt my approach. I know he disagrees with it.

    Cheers – Chris Ho-Stuart

  25. #25 coturnix
    April 15, 2007

    Good point, Itchy. That is why different people need to do different things. Dawkins and other vocal atheists make the deicussion of religion permissible. Miller and those like him can move the tenative a step closer – perhaps to the point where they can become receptive to Dawkins.

    Chris Ho-Stuart: some good ideas, but I want to nip in the bud a frame thet emerges in your comment, that of conflating two related but distinct debates. Reading your post out of context, one may conclude that ‘framer’='appeaser’ and likewise ‘anti-framer’='vocal atheist’.

    I, for one, am strongly in the Dawkins/Myers/Moran camp in the battle to marginalize religion. Anyone who hints otherwise will get a virtual blooded nose – I am a freaking vocal atheist.

    But I am also strongly in the Nisbet/Mooney camp in the framing debate, i.e., the battle to move large swaths of society very fast to accept (without necessarily understanding any of the underlying science) a reality-based position on hot-button political issues like global warming and stem-cell research so they can put pressure on politicians to do something about it.

    So, keep those two battles separate. The former is a long-term goal (decades). The latter is a short-term goal (seconds to minutes). It requires two different strategies and two different sets of people to fight them.

  26. #26 Roy Crocket
    April 15, 2007

    In the open sentence of this blog I’m surprised to see misuse
    of ‘I’ which I think should be ‘we’.
    Often I hear newscasters saying ‘I’ when they should say ‘we’.
    But you’re a writer.

  27. #27 Bob O'H
    April 15, 2007

    For me a big problem with PZ’s and Larry’s approach is it’s often not clear whether they’re talking about science or religion. I feel I have to be cheeky and say that this sums up my concern:

    I wish they’d get their story straight. Are they complaining about how we scientists teach science or are they complaining about our opinions on other issues such as the influence of religion or what we should do about global warming? Who knows?

    It’s clear to me that Nisbet and Mooney are talking about science education, and advocating a strategy of trying to disengage discussion about science from discussion about religion.

    Larry lays it out clearly that he thinks defeating religion is the way to help science, hence the focus should be on religion. But then the debate is about religion and not science. Fine, so then why get upset when someone is talking about debating science, if you’ve already moved the goalposts to theology?

    I thought the WaPo piece was very clear, and was about communicating science and suggesting that we shouldn’t conflate it with religion, because that will make it harder to get the message across to the religious. It looks to me as if Larry’s view is that this is impossible. Ultimately, differences seems to be about views of the relationship between evolution and religion, and the crucial point seems to be whether it is possible in practice to persuade people that they can be Christian and still believe in evolution.

    Bob

  28. #28 Bob O'H
    April 15, 2007

    I thought I’d make a separate comment about this:

    And it suggest to me that here in the blogosphere, our little communities have become far, far too fragmented and polarized.

    I feel the evidence suggests the opposite. PZ and Larry have both responded on this blog, and you have responded to them. Although you disagree, you are discussing and communicating, so there isn’t fragmentation, and polarisation will only occur where it’s inevitable anyway. Otherwise, I think most people will find a position some way between the extremes.

    Bob

  29. #29 Larry Moran
    April 15, 2007

    Chris writes,

    So a lot of this dispute is clarified by identifying the differing perspectives involved. Frankly, even geography explains a lot of it: Matt and I are in Washington, land of pragmatism and political give-and-take. I suspect–no, I know–that our viewpoint really strikes a chord there.

    Perhaps you’re right but you never said anything like that in your Science article or in your Washington Post article. Instead, you condemned every scientist in the world and lectured them on how they should behave like a Washington politician. Are you still wondering why many of us were insulted–especially the ones who aren’t American?

    Now, if you want to change your position to make it clear that you are pandering to the “American politician in Washington” frame, then please go right ahead. You won’t get any argument from me. You can do that if that’s what it takes to get “respect” in your particular local environment. Just don’t expect Richard Dawkins to go along, or PZ, or me.

    (BTW, I’ve been watching people advocate the so-called “bipartisan” frame for 45 years. You seem to be a big fan. Is there any evidence that it works?)

  30. #30 Pierce R. Butler
    April 15, 2007

    There have been some surprisingly (for this continuing and generally futile debate) good comments made here, but so far nobody seems to have attempted an answer to Larry Moran’s key question:

    Larry Moran: What do you think is behind the anti-science movement and what do you propose to do about it?

    I see little hope of progress in the pro-science atheist/antiatheist argument without more clarity on this point.

  31. #31 Randy Olson, Head Dodo
    April 15, 2007

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

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

  32. #32 Michael
    April 15, 2007

    We’re trying to advance and defend the goals of the scientific community

    Which is another way of saying: this is politics. We are talking about politics when we talk about the goals of the scientific community in regards to education and research policy.

    So Chris is completely right: political goals cannot be approached the same way as intellectual goals. This isn’t a debate, its a power struggle.

    Ralph Nader is right about just about everything. Yet 0% of his agenda is being worked on right now because he, apparently, doesn’t have an ounce of political strategy in his repertoire.

    I think taken in its best light, these guys are arguing that we are retards if we don’t use a little strategy in our arguments. Winning with subtlety and nuance is better than losing with bull-headed “we’re right and you’re wrong”.

    It’s not appeasement, it’s trying to identify those paths which actually get us closer to our goals. If people continue to think science=atheism, our agenda will be less successful.

    I disagree in that, we don’t need existing voices to change, we just need new voices, too, which are better at navigating the political strategy side of this game.

  33. #33 Ebonmuse
    April 15, 2007

    Hello Chris,

    If I may, I’d like to echo a question asked by PZ and others: What exactly are you recommending that we do? I happen to be an atheist myself, and I do not believe that faith and reason are equally valid methods of understanding the world. Are you saying I should lie about this, that I should say something I don’t actually believe? Or are you saying I should censor myself and not speak my mind? If you’re not saying either of those things, then what are you saying? Can you give an example of how a properly “framed” argument would look?

    Here’s the reason I take umbrage at this proposal: Atheists are perceived as an immoral, untrustworthy bunch by the public, I don’t deny it. But you seem to be saying that this opinion is immovable – that we should accept this and make our accommodations with it, rather than trying to change it by speaking out against it. That’s the message I get from reading your essay, that you’re advocating giving in to anti-atheist bigotry. If I’m wrong and that’s not what you’re saying, then please correct me and tell me what you really mean.

  34. #34 Kristjan Wager
    April 15, 2007

    The world of science should do a little better housekeeping in making clear that Dawkins writes only as a citizen, not a scientist, when it comes to atheism.

    Randy, I love your movie, and I think you raise many good points in it, but you do the same mistake as I thought you made in your argumentation for how to debate with Creationists and the ID crowd – you fail to understand, or least to take into account, that they are dishonest (something I think I mentioned to you when you were here in Copenhagen).

    Dawkins has always made clear that his book is not science, though his arguments are based upon science. The only ones who want to make it sound like Dawkins, and his book, represents science, is the anti-science crowd, who use the US dislike of atheism to try to tar science.
    Scientists should not distance themselves from Dawkins, since there is nothing to distance them from, and trying to so, makes it seem like there is something wrong with atheism.

  35. #35 Hank Roberts
    April 15, 2007

    Again: E.O. Wilson. He speaks very clearly and as far as I’ve heard quite _acceptably_ to religious people, in particular about biodiversity and conservation.

    His presentation has evolved over time. Attention to how would be, I suspect, a useful contribution from those writing in favor of ‘framing’ — study how it’s done _right_, and write that up.*

    Compare this early piece (widely reprinted during the latter part of the last century of the previous millenium, cites below), with the easily found very recent speeches.

    Note the improvement. Teach the improvement, folks, don’t criticize, educate and improve, eh?
    Is Humanity Suicidal – EO Wilson, FB Baird Jr

    New York Times Magazine May 30 1993
    Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis, 1999 http://www.resurgence.org/resurgence/186/wilson186.htm
    http://www.amazon.com/HUMANITY-SUICIDAL-Statistical-Data-Included/dp/B00099PET4

    Recent:
    Science 1 December 2006:
    Vol. 314. no. 5804, pp. 1392 – 1393
    DOI: 10.1126/science.1135704

    Prev | Table of Contents | Next
    Books
    ENVIRONMENT AND RELIGION:
    Hoping to Establish Common Ground for Saving Biodiversity
    Steven Bouma-Prediger

    The Creation — An Appeal to Save Life on Earth
    by Edward O. Wilson
    Norton, New York, 2006. 185 pp. $21.95, C$27.50. ISBN 0-393-06217-1.
    Constructing the book as a letter to an imagined Southern Baptist preacher, the author seeks to ally religion and science in an ethic of “honorable” self-restraint toward the natural world…..

    _________________________________

    * B.F Skinner: reward changes behavior; punishment doesn’t.

  36. #36 windy
    April 15, 2007

    The NY Times Book Review of Dawkins book said that on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is clear proof of God, and 7 is clear proof of no God, Dawkins openly admits he’s only at 6.

    ‘Only’ at 6?? That’s a pretty big only. It seems to be a step in Dawkins’s direction if people even admit that there is a scale.

    That means he has no science to offer, only his gut feelings — his intuition.

    I must have missed that day at scientist school when they taught about the necessity for absolute certainty in science. In fact, I seem to remember the opposite being taught – that we would never reach a full 7 on the truth(iness) scale.

  37. #37 steppen wolf
    April 15, 2007

    Dear Mooney (and Nisbet),

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

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

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

  38. #38 J. J. Ramsey
    April 15, 2007

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

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

  39. #39 Chris Mooney
    April 15, 2007

    Hello all,
    Thanks for the many comments on this post. I’m just unable to answer them all, given the volume, but I did put up one overarching response to a recurring criticism here:
    http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2007/04/details_details_details.php

    Thanks.

  40. #40 Trinifar
    April 15, 2007

    PZ asks,

    If you wanted to make an argument that did not stir up all those high profile “New Atheists”, why didn’t you focus on AGW? Can you even make a case for a solid ‘framing’ that would represent a good strategy for persuading the public on that one?

    Here’s one: “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change” which is the title of a report to be released tomorrow by a collection of retired senior military guys. Both the title and background of the authors create a great frame to get the attention of the people who deny or want to take no action with respect to AGW. See NYT article.

  41. #41 TG
    April 16, 2007

    First of all, there’s a difference between ‘polarized fragmentation’ and ‘debating’.

    I think the ‘let’s all just compromise’ idea that you propose about being quiet about the actual implications of science upon personal faith and just try to sneak it in the backdoor is indeed disingenuous.

    If we take your argument to the extreme you’re basically saying that it’s alright for anti-scientific religious people to get medical treatment, get insulin, drive cars, use computers, fly in airplanes, etc. when the opposite ought to be what we’re trying to do.
    If you truly believe that your personal faith overrides the scientific facts that the entire infrastructure in the world around you are based on, I think you’re the one who has to adjust, not the world.

    Nisbet and you are trying to bury facts and you’re trying to bury history if you let religious people dictate the playing field.
    You are willing to give religious people all the benefits of science without also forcing them to think about where all this came from because it is inconvenient to their faith to do so.

    It is not the job of scientists to fit the facts into everybody’s world view, it is up to each person individually to shape their faith and their personal religion into one that accommodates the world.

    The two can indeed be compatible, but only to a certain point and only in certain areas. Evolution is most definitely NOT one of these areas.

    The way to spread scientific knowledge is not to partially suppress it. I think that you will most certainly get a lot more skepticism and critical thinking from the younger generations if you do indeed force them to realize that the reason they are NOT living in a country with a 60% infant mortality rate where bears roam the countryside and where everyone dies from a tooth infection at the age of 35, is directly due to science.

  42. #42 cmf
    April 22, 2007

    Hey Nisbet/Mooney: you sure are getting some grief from certain of those bio-evoloutionists pundits! I think you need to educate them a bit more on the basis ofseveral things:
    1) mass media information delivery methods
    2)mass media terminology
    3)the difference between a free press and a partisan one– in this case the leveraging certain atheists are employing to engage you.
    4) it certainly couldn’t hurt to point out to one of your critics, Meyers, that ‘there is no such thing as bad PR” and especially in reference to all the nitpicking of your ‘ controversy framing and media’

    Generally great discussion tho.

  43. #43 ordinarygirl
    April 27, 2007

    Chris said:

    “P.S.: The piece is already getting nastily slammed by Larry Moran. My reaction to this is primarily one of sadness. After all, I’m an outspoken defender of evolution, like Moran is. I’m also not personally religious; neither is he. These two things already give Moran and I a heck of a lot in common, especially when you compare us with most of the rest of the people in the ‘verse.”

    But what if you replace a name, a few words, and think of it from Dawkin’s point of view:

    “P.S.: My book is getting nastily slammed by Chris Mooney. My reaction to this is primarily one of sadness. After all, I’m an outspoken defender of evolution, like Mooney is. I’m also not personally religious; neither is he. These two things already give Mooney and I a heck of a lot in common, especially when you compare us with most of the rest of the people in the ‘verse.”

    What really is the difference? You want to argue your point, but then when someone argues against you, you stoop to this level rather than refute the argument with something real.