Mike the Mad Biologist

In my entire tenure at ScienceBlogs, I’ve never called out other ScienceBloglings, even if I have posted responses to them. But ScienceBloglings Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet are slowly morphing into unwitting concern trolls regarding the creationist controversy.

With regards to Richard Dawkins, as I’ve said before, I think he’s a wash. On the one hand, he seems utterly ignorant of the U.S. political landscape (or worse, he just doesn’t care) when fighting what is a political battle (the creationist controversy). On the other hand, he makes people like me who are not Christian and who do not possess conventional views on God seem utterly respectable.

Where Nisbet goes wrong is that the religious opposition to evolution is Dawkins-specific (or PZ Myers-specific). It is not. The creationist critique that evolutionary biology is atheist well predates either Dawkins’ or Myers’ arrival on the scene. If they weren’t around, the creationists would have to invent them–and I hear Ward Churchill is looking for work…

But this error pales in comparison to the far more serious strategic error that Nisbet makes, which is to argue that evolution does not conflict with religion. First, if you are a biblical literalist (as inconsistent as that ‘literalism’ actually is), evolutionary biology is problematic for certain religions that feature prominently on the creationist side. That makes us seem like liars.

Second, and more importantly, the strategy of shoving a bunch of religious scientists in front of the podium means that we are still fighting creationists on ground of their choosing. At best, we can reach a stalemate. One would think an expert on framing would understand this.

We need to fundamentally shift the terms of the debate from ‘science versus religion’ to ‘creationism versus progress.’ I attempted to do this in the form of a retort to creationist William Buckingham:

Last night, I concluded my talk with a quote from Dover, PA creationist school board member William Buckingham, who declared, “Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?”

My response was, “In the last two minutes, someone died from a bacterial infection. We take a stand for him.”

I’ll admit I’m not the best wordsmith, but I already have a day job doing science. I’ll echo ScienceBlogling John Lynch: http://scienceblogs.com/strangerfruit/2008/03/my_thoughts_on_nisbet.php“>help us make this argument.

Not only is factually true that the methods, tools, and theory of evolutionary biology are integral to biomedical research and genomics, but this frame also puts the creationists on the defensive. They have to argue that their theological convenience is more important than healthy people. And if they try to argue the science, we have clear cut examples that show the creationists to be ignorant fools.

Making this case will not always be easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. That’s where it would be really helpful if an accomplished author were to write about how the DNA revolution–and all of the evolutionary tools that are used to comprehend all of this DNA sequence–is used to improve people’s lives.

Now who would that be?

Seriously, many of the biologists around here do a lot more than just our specific research. We’re overcommitted in terms of time. And we’re not professional writers or communications experts either. So stop ‘meta-trolling’, step up, and communicate this.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark A. Norris
    March 31, 2008

    We need to fundamentally shift the terms of the debate from ‘science versus religion’ to ‘creationism versus progress.

    I totally agree though I prefer the terms pro-science and anti-science. After all we shouldn’t just be arguing against creationists, there are all sorts of quacks, cranks and the like that want to abuse science for their own ends. The framers will probably tell you not to use progress because it scares right wing anyway :)

    But this error pales in comparison to the far more serious strategic error that Nisbet makes, which is to argue that evolution does not conflict with religion. First, if you are a biblical literalist (as inconsistent as that ‘literalism’ actually is), evolutionary biology is problematic for certain religions that feature prominently on the creationist side.

    This is particularly true, the point needs to be made that science is not atheist, but secular. This of course won’t make any difference for the creationist crowd for the very reason you give: the facts of science do contradict a literalist interpretation of the Bible. However there really isn’t anything that can be done to change the minds of that particular sub group anyway. We probably just have to accept that we won’t be seeing any Nobel winners from that fringe anytime soon and do what can be done to increase the understanding of science by those who are open to learning about it.

  2. #2 Philip H.
    March 31, 2008

    Mike,
    Perhaps you could try a little Scripture in your rebuttals – I always find it throws literalists off balance. I’d use this quote from the book of Matthew, Chapter 22:

    36″Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'[a] 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'[b] 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

    Now, if I’m loving my neighbor as myself, I’m doing everything I can to see that she has the best life possible. I’m working hard to uncover the causes of disease and develop treatments and/or cures (requiring a not inconsequential amount of evolutionary biology); I’m working to eliminate poverty and social injustice; I’m fighting tootah and nail against homelessness and illiteracy. Since most Creationists seem to spend most of their time fighting science (which, oddly, isn’t mentioned anywhere in the New or Old Testament) I’d argue they aren’t keeping God’s commandment through Christ.

    It will make them sputter for a while, anyway.

  3. #3 blue
    March 31, 2008

    Thank you for this.

    As a scientist who works in science outreach (for high school students and teachers), one of the first things I try to convey is just how useful, and how prevelant, evolutionary theory is in modern biology. It is truly disheartening that so many educators (and their students) have no idea at all of what biologists, and scientists in general, actually do. I think we should continue to stress the important role that an understanding of evolution has played in research concerning so many processes and concepts that are of vital importance to the public.

  4. #4 Sam C
    March 31, 2008

    I get the impression that too many scientists want Dawkins and Myers to lead one particular fight and to downplay other issues. Many would like One Clear Message, not many agree what that is: is it pro-science, pro-education, anti-religion, anti-creationism, anti-ID, what?

    But if other scientists want to send out other messages to The Public, it’s up to them to make themselves heard! It needs clear messages and some politicians’ skills to avoid getting side-tracked into arguments about (dis)agreement with Dawkins or Myers, or other debating tricks (where the creationists have the best lies!).

    It also needs some more widespread understanding that creationism is not a scientific argument, it’s a political movement. It’s not about transitional whale fossils. So don’t waste time in detailed refutation, that’s not where the argument is. Also, it’s not a problem issue in the UK (very few Christians actively plug creationist nonsense in Europe), so don’t expect Dawkins to fight your domestic argument.

  5. #5 Gerardo Camilo
    March 31, 2008

    While finishing my PhD in ecology, I went to visit my grandmother to spend a week consuming lots of refined sugars and simple carbs. Her next door neighbor, a fundamentalist evangelical, learned that I was studying evolution as part of my dissertation. She came to warn me that my mind had been invaded by demonic ideas and that my very soul was in peril. I assured her that that was not the case and to please, leave me alone. Over the next week she played very loud religious music all day long and prayed loudly for my salvation.

    After my dissertation was published, I mailed her a signed copy of one of the papers.

  6. #6 Gerardo Camilo
    March 31, 2008

    (Sorry, but hit the post button by accident)
    cont…

    My point is that religious fundamentalists will always create a polarizing images independent of the individual, ie, PZ or Dawkins. There is tremendous comfort in the authority and certainty of fundamentalist views (our mind evolved to avoid uncertainty). One of those certainties is that heaven is at hands reach if you try to save the sinners.

  7. #7 The Barefoot Bum
    March 31, 2008

    We need to…

    We don’t need to do anything. Each person needs to take the approach he or she thinks best. As Myers himself notes, there are no “spokespeople” for science; there are only individuals who speak their own minds.

    There is no “team”, and winning or losing is not the fundamental issue (or, rather, just defeating one bad idea is not enough of a win). The fundamental issue is about promoting individual, honest inquiry into all ideas.

  8. #8 PZ Myers
    March 31, 2008

    Don’t forget that other distinguished author in the collective: Carl Zimmer. And what do you know, he’s just written a very good book about bacteria…but Carl doesn’t get involved in the skirmishes over tactics, either.

  9. #9 Joshua
    March 31, 2008

    I’m with PZ on that one. The real shame with this stupid framing wars is that Mooney and Nisbet are getting a nice, fat traffic spike while people like Carl who are actually making a very positive, public case for science — without, even, the controversy associated with PZ’s stuff — are kinda toiling away unappreciated. Yet I don’t see Nisbet making a case for “We need more communicators like Carl Zimmer!”, it’s just “shut up, you guys I don’t like”.

    So, in that case, I’ll say it: we need more communicators like Carl Zimmer!

  10. #10 MAJeff, OM
    March 31, 2008

    What so frustrates me is that my work is in the “framing” field…albeit within the broader fields of political sociology/social movements (MA on the Right and Sex Ed in Minnesota; PhD Dissertation is on frames as they are temporalized, and how the stories produced out of that are used in order to obtain equal marriage rights for queers). In a seminar a couple years ago, the group I work with invited some local lawyers working on child welfare legislation so that we could help them with their messaging, with keeping the issues within their preferred frame, and strategizing how to bring every question back to their preferred frame.

    It’s not about dishonesty. In looking at the issue, there were a number of approaches we could have pursued, but working together we came up with one that utilized the child welfare literature, the ways that divorce and custody issues play out in court, and came up with a series of statements and themes they could start from to lay out their broader message, but which also tied together neatly into a coherent “idea package” (Gamson and Modigliani 1989).

    I hate to see this field being so trashed. It’s quite useful. One of our members has data and is working on a book about one organizations work over a several year time span to change media coverage of domestic violence….with statistics and everything (we know how numbers add legitimacy).

    However, for a communications prof, Nisbett doesn’t even seem to understand the concept of multiple textually-mediated publics. It’s not just the framing contests, but also where they are taking place. That gets lost in favor of a single strategy that must be adopted by all. BLECH.

    My dad is a small town veterinarian, and former H.S. biology teacher. In his church bible study, some woman tried to get him to look at creationist videos and stuff and his response was basically, “No. Evolution happened. I’m not interested in your materials.” He’s probably not going to be open to some of PZ’s themes of evo leading toward atheism, but he sure dug Your Inner Fish, because it opened up a lot of work that had occurred in the field that since he’d graduated.

    He’s not going to be following teh EXPELLED *jazz hands* controversy, and he’s not going to see it. Indeed, if it becomes an issue in his church I can hear him saying, “Will y’all cut the bullshit!” maybe even using those words.

    There is NO single general public. Recognizing that there are a lot of different publics, let those who may be most effective in those publics do their work frame the issues in ways they think will be most effective. We need to pay attention not just to the messages, but to the texts containing them, and to the conditions of production and more importantly circulation of those texts. It’s really not that hard if you’ve conceptualized the situation properly….a questionable assumption here, it appears.

  11. #11 Mark O'Leary
    April 2, 2008

    Love this article. I intend to link to it, and I may blog further (from my science amateur’s POV) about it.

    One section concerns me:

    “Not only is factually true that the methods, tools, and theory of evolutionary biology are integral to biomedical research and genomics, but this frame also puts the creationists on the defensive. They have to argue that their theological convenience is more important than healthy people.”

    Compelling as this is, I think it’s an example of argument from consequences. Essentially, it contends that creationists have to accept the scientific materialist view or people will get sick and die. The creationist/millennialist (perhaps, in the words of William F. Buckley, hoping to “immanentize the eschaton”–look it up) might reply that such is merely the will of God. Special pleading, to be sure, but logical errors can be useful in maintaining an entrenched position.

  12. #12 David Harmon
    April 2, 2008

    Mark O’Leary: The creationist/millennialist (perhaps, in the words of William F. Buckley, hoping to “immanentize the eschaton”–look it up

    Ow ow ow, I hate to see a good joke mangled! It was Robert Anton Wilson who used that phrase in his Illuminatus Trilogy, and it doesn’t mean what you think it does. Hint: Not “imminent”“, but “immanent”“.)

    RAW actually had a character in the book make that mistake, but the real point of the phrase was in support of his subversive “hallucinogenic theology”.

    That said, it’s certainly true that a goodly number of apocalyptics, apparently including the current President of the USA, see nothing wrong with “encouraging” the end of the world to happen in their lifetimes.

  13. #13 David Harmon
    April 2, 2008

    Now waitasec, those links previewed just fine… what happened?

  14. #14 Dan S.
    April 3, 2008

    So, in that case, I’ll say it: we need more communicators like Carl Zimmer!

    Yay! Yes, yes, more communicators like Carl Zimmer!

    I just recently finished his Soul Made Flesh, on the mid-late 17th Century birth of neurology – or to put it less dryly, the discovery of the brain and the dawn of the neurocentric age- and it was a very good read. (Also a very interesting counterpart to God’s Secretaries, on the creation of the King James Bible at the beginning of that century – the two bookend a rather more complicated story than one might think.

    Mike: “They have to argue that their theological convenience is more important than healthy people.
    Mark: “Compelling as this is, I think it’s an example of argument from consequences. Essentially, it contends that creationists have to accept the scientific materialist view or people will get sick and die.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if some xtainists did try to paint this as a cold, greedy, selfish materialism vs. pure, higher-things spirituality. At which point, one assumes, most folks would look at this and realize hey, it’s actually helping people vs. an arid, arrogant religiosity . . .

  15. #15 Ian
    April 4, 2008

    Your link to John Lynch appears to be broken.

  16. #16 Edward
    April 7, 2008

    Mike,

    I see your points, and while some of your critiques of Nisbet’s specific point are valid, I still feel that Dawkins and PZ hurt the political cause of providing our youth with real science classes.

    I think the point that you are missing here is that Dawkins and PZ themselves let the creationists fight on the ground the creationists want by saying that understanding of science must lead to atheism. *They* are bringing religion into the debate when they do this. This is certainly not the position of the NCSE, which seems to be very clear on the point that arguments like those of PZ and Dawkins will not win the public.

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