Where there’s one, there’s the other. The pair behind the infamous “framing” concept are back, and this time they’re telling scientists to shut up, perhaps taking up the axiom of “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone were nice?” More specifically, in a recent blog post Matt Nisbet admonished PZ and Richard Dawkins for their particular views about the conflict between science & religion as they appear in the creationist propaganda piece Expelled. Quote Nisbet;
As long as Dawkins and PZ continue to be the representative voices from the pro-science side in this debate, it is really bad for those of us who care about promoting public trust in science and science education. Dawkins and PZ need to lay low as Expelled hits theaters. Let others play the role of communicator, most importantly the National Center for Science Education, AAAS, the National Academies or scientists such as Francis Ayala or Ken Miller. When called up by reporters or asked to comment, Dawkins and PZ should refer journalists to these organizations and individuals.
For someone who is supposed to be an expert in science communication, Nisbet has forgotten (or just plain left out) several important points. First is that PZ and Dawkins were interviewed under the premise that they’d be in a film about the intersection between science & religion, not what eventually became Expelled. What was said, then, fit into this context, and both might have chosen their words differently (if they accepted at all) under such circumstances.
Secondly, the film does not make any attempt at objectivity and is a creationist piece; I’m sure that clips of interviews that will appear in the film were specifically chosen to feature scientists in the worst possible way to the target audience. The thrust of the film is that accepting evolution as fact directly leads to atheism, immorality, genocide, etc., and whatever was said by a scientist in an interview would likely play up this central theme.
Third, I would ask where Ken Miller, Francisco Ayala, the AAAS, and other organizations have been as Expelled draws closer. Surely they must have heard of it; why aren’t they doing anything about it? I know the NCSE is creating a website that will refute the claims in the film, but as far as I’m aware PZ and Dawkins are just about the only major figures presently trying to raise awareness of this film and refute the claims made in it. [Update] Soon after I wrote this piece I realized that it wouldn’t do much good for an organization like the AAAS to speak out as a group against the movie; as Josh notes in the comments, it’s something that’s “below them” and probably wouldn’t have much effect other than to make it seem that the movie had been officially panned (perhaps playing into the hands of the filmmakers).
Fourth, both Dawkins and Myers are both featured in the film and PZ was actually barred from seeing it when he had done nothing more sinister than signing up for the screening ahead of time. When journalists ask them about their role in the film, and the instance at the Mall of America screening specifically, are they supposed to farm out their responses to Ken Miller? The fact that PZ was “expelled” and Dawkins admitted to the screening is a great story and I would hope that it gets more recognition as it highlights the hypocrisy of the film’s creators. (Although Chris Mooney thinks that this story ultimately helps Ben Stein.)
Lastly, I am a bit aggravated when “framers” tell certain people to keep quiet for the good of “the cause.” Nisbet says “This is not about censoring your ideas and positions, but rather being smart, strategic, tactical, and ultimately effective in promoting science rather than your own personal ideology, books, or blog,” but I don’t buy it (and there’s the minor implication that both PZ and Dawkins are intentionally being controversial to sell books and drive blog traffic). Perhaps the fact that Nisbet feels that PZ and Dawkins are a threat to the public understanding of science underlines the fact that there are few other prominent scientists being vocal about creationist quackery or other pseudoscience. As I have already stated, where are the “moderates” that Nisbet wants us to turn to? It’s entirely possible to be “smart, strategic, and tactical” without shutting yourself off from the media, but this apparently isn’t an option here.
Importantly, I do feel that the interview clips presented on Nisbet’s blog are a bit unfortunate. The comparison of religion to knitting is sure to make hackles rise, and I don’t think that religion and science are exchangeable (i.e. more science = less religion or vice versa, although this is such an abstract “equation” that it’s easy to have shouting matches over it). The creators of Expelled want to play up the science leads to atheism leads to immorality and holocaust vibe, of course, so I don’t know if there’s a guarantee that a controversial quote might not be selected from a more “acceptable” figure either. Remember, Expelled is propaganda, and the creators have no intention of playing fair.
Strangely enough, I think PZ and Dawkins responded to the latest controversy over the screening in their “fireside chat” video. Neither of them breathes fire and I thought it was well-presented. For some reason Nisbet does not mention this video in his latest post, even though it’s been viewed over 1,500 times now. True, it has more impact on the blogosphere than in the larger mass media, but the point is that both scientists are more than able to effectively respond to what happened.
Admittedly there’s a bit of a turf war going on here, and even though I’m not yet a working scientist I am aggravated when popularizers say I should stick my head in the sand. Indeed, I’m especially disconcerted with this latest tactic of keeping silent and letting the “pros” handle it, an approach that continues to foster the idea that scientists are arrogant bastards that can’t communicate with the public. I don’t believe this is true at all, but it seems to continually be a sticking point in the issue of “Who speaks for science?”
If PZ and Dawkins had no involvement with Expelled whatsoever, I could at least understand why Nisbet would recommend that they “lay low” (even though I still would protest). The fact that both are in the film and now have been involved in an instance of impropriety on the part of the Expelled producer makes it even more important that they don’t hide under their beds until it’s all over, regardless of their views of religion or atheism. Other scientists should certainly speak up about the inaccuracies of the film, but for whatever reason many do not seem very interested in doing so. Nisbet has promised us more on this topic, but to tell you the truth I’m not really looking forward to it.