Conflict sells. Use it.

Larry Moran listened to Nisbet’s podcast on Point of Inquiry. No surprise—he didn’t like it at all. I finally listened to it last night, too, and I have to crown Larry the King of the Curmudgeons, because I disagreed with fundamental pieces of his story, but I’ll at least grant Nisbet that there aspects of communication theory scientists would benefit from knowing. So why does he ignore those aspects in his own talks?

I want to focus on one thing: conflict. The podcast revealed another unfortunate inconsistency in the framing approach.

Science is really, really good at conflict. It’s right at the heart of the scientific method, and we intentionally try to set up conflicts all the time. When we have two competing hypotheses, our first instinct is to drill down and discover precisely where they differ in making testable predictions—hey, my hypothesis predicts X, while your hypothesis predicts Y! Let’s see whether X or Y is the actual result, and that will settle which of us is right! (And often we discover Z, and then we both go back to the drawing board.) We do not say that since two hypotheses are 99% congruent in their predictions that we should just sit back and accept both. We are always most interested in the 1% that is incompatible.

Dawkins’ The God Delusion is bang-on that strategy. He’s fond of saying that if Abraham’s god existed, we’d expect that the universe would be rather different than it is: the Bible makes predictions about the nature of the universe that fail the test, and therefore it is a failed hypothesis.

Now here’s where it gets interesting: the media loves the conflict frame. As Nisbet notes, it gets cover stories on major news magazines. It creates a comprehensible narrative that catches the public eye. People who push cooperation and don’t feed the conflict frame don’t get attention or promotion, and Nisbet specifically mentioned EO Wilson’s recent book, which is not getting media traction precisely because it lacks that clear conflict-argument-resolution story. Here’s a case where the talents of science and the desires of mass media coincide perfectly and we’ve got a record of success of engaging audiences with that strategy.

Predictably, where we seem to have an angle to get us into the public eye, Nisbet deplores it. I’m getting the impression that if there is anything scientists do well, whether it is explaining the evidence (boring!) or generating conflict narratives (divisive!), Nisbet is going to tell us to throw it away.

That is not useful.

It doesn’t even make sense. We’re not supposed to do “data dumps” because it bores people and they ignore us, and we’re not supposed to use conflict narratives despite the fact that it gets people interested in us.

The dynamic for decades has been that scientists are eggheads who bore everyone, and that the real excitement goes on in the evangelists’ tents, where they preach a loud and vigorous conflict narrative at great length, all in opposition to science. The Nisbet/Mooney suggestion so far seems to be that scientists will correct that by being less eggheady (which is where I see some hope for their ideas) and being innocuous and as harmless as little churchmice, who just emerge to whisper productive, cooperative suggestions to the ranting preacher. Using the strengths of science to write bestsellers is too, too crass, and besides, books will never shape the popular discourse. That’s the nonsense that turns me off.

Come on, people. Look at science and its problems objectively, and make appropriate suggestions that will help make it better. It’s as if we’re trying to sell a car that runs well but has a rusted out body and torn upholstery, and their suggestions to improve it all involve ripping out the engine and sticking something else in there … and we’re not even getting a clear explanation of what’s going to replace the engine.


  1. #1 llewelly
    April 22, 2007

    Please correct ‘Nesbit’ to ‘Nisbet’ . Your random mispellings of Nisbet’s name are distracting.

  2. #2 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 22, 2007

    I would be interested to hear what you thought of the alternative strategy I suggested at the end of the interview for “mainstreaming” atheism?

  3. #3 CalGeorge
    April 22, 2007

    In the podcast, Nisbet uses the words “likely” and “probably” a lot when talking about Dawkins’ impact.

    Is there any evidence for his claim that Dawkins is bad for science?

    In the end, it’s kind of a humdrum set of points that seems to be backed up with impressionistic evidence.

    The science group I pay attention to most, The Union of Concerned Scientists, has a good guide to talking with the media:

    Table of Contents

    Chapter 1: We Need to Talk
    Chapter 2: Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst
    Chapter 3: Why Reporters Do What They Do
    Chapter 4: Do You Hear What You’re Saying?
    Chapter 5: Mastering the Interview
    Chapter 6: A Reporter’s Most Trusted Source: You
    Chapter 7: Choosing the Right Communication Tools
    Chapter 8: The Scientist as Celebrity and Activist

    It seems that people are already doing what Nisbet is suggesting.

  4. #4 Colugo
    April 22, 2007

    Orac: “The whole kerfuffle that erupted around the Thanksgiving weekend about “appeasers” is the biggest trainwreck that ever hit SB”

    Much – though not all – of the conflicts surrounding the Beyond Belief conference, framing, and the theistic scientist debate (e.g. ‘Galactic Interactions’) are related in that they are reactions to the emergence of a new movement: New Atheism.

    New Atheism is not just a frank statement of atheist beliefs and principles, nor is it simply a demand for atheist rights. Those are the concerns of traditional atheist / freethought / secular humanist advocacy. If that were all that New Atheism stood for, there would be no argument within the freethought, humanist, skeptic, and pro-science education communities about it.

    New Atheism is not a monolith, but at the risk of oversimplification, some distinct features can be stated: New Atheism breaks with nonoverlapping magesteria and other accommodationist formulations; in fact, it insists that the God hypothesis has been scientifically falsified and that science is founded on (and demonstrates) metaphysical naturalism, not just methodological naturalism. New Atheism claims that reconciliationist atheists are Chamberlainites, theistic evolutionists are creationists, and religious liberals are enablers of religious fundamentalists. New Atheism asserts that in an increasingly interconnected world system religion is more dangerous than ever and hence there is an ongoing zero-sum ideological war between reason and faith in which it is imminent that one side will triumph and the other will disappear.

  5. #5 Oran Kelley
    April 22, 2007

    1. I really have no idea whatsoever what the issue supposedly is here. I doubt the communications theorists have any real notion of how to reframe science. It seems very much like the PR mumbo jumbo you always here, which is designed specifically to make you feel that someone knows something that you don’t. Later you find that all they know is how to make you feel like you don’t know something by using buzzwords.

    2. On PZ’s side, the “conflict sells” point goes nowhere. People are interested in conflict, yes. Does that mean that conflict is good for the participants or the institutional framework within which the conflict occurs? Absolutely not.
    Do you think airing the conflicts over identity politics in English departments is going to generate a lot of good feeling for the humanities? Personally, I doubt it.

    3. Dawkins’s book is not bad because it is unnecessarily confrontational, it’s bad because it is an intellectual embarrassment. It more or less serves as evidence that scientists are incapable of thinking reasonably about complex human phenomena but are too arrogant to realize it.

    There are good things about the book. But when measured against someone who CAN think well about social phenomena, like Scott Atran, it is embarrassingly clear that Dawkins is out of his field and out of his depth.

  6. #6 Baratos
    April 22, 2007

    Sorry, but ‘New’ Atheism isn’t.

    QFT (Quoted For Truth). I would like to add that there was an “Order of Militant Atheists” in the Soviet Union that was founded in the 1920s. It was one of the most popular atheistic organizations in that nation’s history. That always made me laugh when someone used the term “militant atheist” negatively.

  7. #7 windy
    April 22, 2007

    Many scientists reject AP and multiverse theories.

    Multiverse perhaps, but I doubt that scientists would reject weak AP (what Dawkins is talking about), since it’s tautologically true.

  8. #8 windy
    April 22, 2007

    I do not want a science that makes metaphysical truth claims. Do you think physics textbooks ought to state that modern science has ruled out the existence of a deity, or should such things not even be addressed?

    Do you think neurobiology textbooks ought to state* that mind-body dualism is presently an untenable position? Isn’t that a metaphysical truth claim?

    (*If the question comes up.)

  9. #9 Tyler DiPietro
    April 22, 2007

    If we’re going to go so far as to say that rejection of theism on evidential grounds is a “metaphysical truth claim” and has no place in science, then we’d have to say the same about, say, the rejection of ESP and ghosts. The reason we disbelieve the latter two is on the same grounds on which I reject the God hypothesis.

    (Of course, I understand the latter to be the traditional theistic cosmogony and ontology, with an anthropomorphic creator god at the helm.)

    In fact, if one is going to go that far, then we’d have to say that all scientific conclusions are metaphysical truth claims. They are, to some extent, because they assume the validity of the methodology by which they were reached, and methodological discussions are themselves metaphysical.

  10. #10 Caledonian
    April 22, 2007

    As science is founded on logic, the idea of a nonphysical soul is already ruled out by it. It’s not stated because 1) no point in drawing negative attention for no purpose 2) the people who understand the implications don’t need to have it spelled out.

  11. #11 Colugo
    April 23, 2007

    Lee Harrison: “Science has not come across any reasons to suppose that such a being is real. To suggest otherwise, even by strategic silence, is disingenuous.”

    I don’t think it is disingenuous, because to preclude the possibility is to assume that science is the only means of acquiring valid knowledge, and there is nothing beyond the natural (i.e. that which can be studied through naturalistic means).

    Personally, I have made that assumption, which is why I am an atheist, metaphysical naturalist and so on. Some would argue that this is the only rational conclusion, but I will not make such a claim.

  12. #12 Lee Harrison
    April 23, 2007

    Some would argue that this is the only rational conclusion, but I will not make such a claim.

    I think, then, that we have identified where we differ – I would make that claim because I don’t see that there is another position that can be reached by any method that can fairly be called rational. And talk of ‘valid knowedge’ often makes me cringe – postmodern b@%$#*it has permanantly tainted that phrase. By what means are we to determine if knowledge is valid (and by what definition of ‘valid’)? Science is the only means we have that actively self-checks in this area.

    Anyhow – it is good to see that through conversation and q&a points of difference can be fairly identified without a descent into namecalling – props to you, Colugo, for that.

  13. #13 Lee Harrison
    April 23, 2007

    Good grief, did I really just say ‘props’? Damn the infiltration of American culture…

  14. #14 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 23, 2007

    Not only does Larry Moran consistently refer to me as “Nesbit,” but he also consistently misquotes me or cites me out of context.

    I suggest you listen to the podcast. I say *300* million at least five times, while never mentioning 350 million.

    For someone who does survey research and analysis for a living, I am well aware of the population size of the United States.


  15. #15 Keith Douglas
    April 25, 2007

    windy, of course not! (Since it is a justified metaphysical postulation.)