Pharyngula

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.

Comments

  1. #1 llewelly
    April 22, 2007

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

  2. #2 Blake Stacey, OM
    April 22, 2007

    Some people say that morality has to come from God. Other people say that’s a loony idea.

    Teach the controversy!

    . . . oh, that felt good. . .

  3. #3 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 22, 2007

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

  4. #4 Tyler DiPietro
    April 22, 2007

    “The whole kerfuffle that erupted around the Thanksgiving weekend about “appeasers” is the biggest trainwreck that ever hit SB, where the “discussion” degenerated into insults and accusations of lying.”

    Okay then, it’s the second worst trainwreck to hit SB of all time. Or maybe third if you count the whole “Dawkins wants to ban religion” brouhaha or…okay, I get your point. But I still stand by my assertion that very little of actual use has come out of this whole “debate”. All I’ve seen is denunciations of scientists for sucking at “framing”. I think we can all agree that scientists have to tailor discussions for non-professional audiences, including the disinterested lay-public. I have seen very little in the way of constructive suggestions how to actually do that.

  5. #5 PZ Myers
    April 22, 2007

    The part where you suggested working with the media to promote positive representations of atheists, using House as an example? That was very good — that the kind of thing I’d been hoping for from you all along. Rather than just telling us how repugnant the message was (which is the impression I’ve been getting from your other pieces), you’re explaining productive strategies to add to our repertoire.

    I think you’ve stepped into some quicksand you should have avoided. I noticed the podcast spent a lot of time on the dissent from Dawkins, and you seemed to be willingly feeding it — yet it’s the conflict frame you deplored! It’s also the place where a lot of us (as you may have noticed) think you are the weakest, and it means that any useful information you might share is getting drowned out in the noise of the part where you are on the shakiest ground.

  6. #6 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:

    http://www.ucsusa.org/publications/scientist-media-guide.html

    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.

  7. #7 Frenchdoc
    April 22, 2007

    The problem with the conflict narrative, is that, in the media, it ends up being presented as opinion A versus opinion B, “he said/he said” as if both side had equal claims to truth.
    Of course, that’s not the case for evolution v. creationism. One side has the facts on its side and the other side is lunacy but that’s never mentioned on cable news.
    So, it’s a risky strategy in the current media context unless you put on the science side a combative guy good with soundbites, and maybe that person is Richard Dawkins. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow on the (yuck) O’Reilly factor.

  8. #8 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.

  9. #9 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.

  10. #10 MartinC
    April 22, 2007

    The Point of Inquiry interview was good, although perhaps not as favorable to Nisbet’s position as he seems to think. It was good to finally hear some specific suggestions about getting a positive message across, mainly about emphasizing positive critical thinkers in the media spotlight – such as TV characters like House. I worry, though, that he is simply reflecting the easy option of going along with the current celebrity obsessed culture.
    Should we ultimately aim for a kilt wearing PZ or Dawkins getting snapped by the paparazzi as they fall out of a limo with Paris and Lindsay ? It would at least add a new dimension to the ‘no true scotsman’ question.

  11. #11 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.

  12. #12 Colugo
    April 22, 2007

    Stogoe:

    It appears that you are confusing the descriptive with the prescriptive. The prescriptive aspect is whether New Atheism as a movement and a set of goals is laudable or flawed. The descriptive aspect is about what New Atheism actually is, and whether it differs from traditional and mainstream freethought advocacy. The prescriptive does not follow from the descriptive, but you attack my description of New Atheism (without specifics, since you surely know that I can provide citations of books, articles, and quotes to support my characterization).

    Is Sastra (who shares the goals of New Atheism rather than criticizing them as I do) similarly muddled?

    Sastra: “When it began to look as if science wasn’t going to confirm the existence of souls, angels, and God after all, a truce was reached between intelligent theists and intelligent nontheists: God is outside of science. … New Atheists break this truce…”
    http://tinyurl.com/2dm84r

    Sastra, unlike you, understands that New Atheism is a new and distinct movement.

    Or see Trinifar’s post:
    http://trinifar.wordpress.com/2007/04/21/saving-pharyngula/

    Stogoe, have you watched any of the footage or read any transcripts from the Beyond Belief conference, specifically Mel Konner’s critique of Harris et al.?

    Or the Edge.org discussion?
    http://www.edge.org/discourse/bb.html

    Are you still prepared to claim that “New Atheism” is not new? If New Atheism were not a distinct movement why would there be any disagreement at all from the likes of Scott Atran, Mel Konner, Chris from Mixing Memory, Michael Ruse, or even Noam Chomsky (see the Edge.org link), and why would it take care to distinguish itself from these “appeasers”? Of course New Atheism, like most movements and trends, has precursors. But as a self-defining, self-announcing movement it is a new thing. My statement – that a number of ScienceBlogs debates are partly related to the emergence of New Atheism – stands.

  13. #13 Colugo
    April 22, 2007

    And distinct and new movement or not, if you don’t like the label “New Atheism” you can use Dawkins’ “Winston Churchill” formulation or some other term. But it would be incorrect to claim the mantle of generic atheism.

  14. #14 Kagehi
    April 22, 2007

    You know.. The reason for “new atheism” is the simple realization that its useless to, “call a truce” between “intelligent theists and intelligent nontheists”, about where God is. Its not going to work, because one or both sides cannot play by the rules. One side can’t, because their facts and evidence place what they want, intend or *know* needs to be done in conflict with people that don’t want, desire or believe that its necessary. The other side thinks the only way to solve every problem from hang nails to hurricanes is “more God”. Scientists cannot morally stay out of the sandbox, just because the religious have jumped into the middle, planted a cross in the center and declared, “Mine, mine, mine!! You go play someplace else!” Hell yes there is a conflict. The problem is, **we** are talking about a conflict between science and people that 1. Are only rational when their beliefs say they can be, 2. Usually don’t understand their own beliefs, 3. Lie about everything, including each other, when it serves their goals, 4. Can’t even rationally discuss their own beliefs, let alone anyone else’s and 5. Hold this world view, even if you slap them in the face with 200 years of evidence. *You* are claiming that the conflict is with religion in general and extremists that refuse to allow people to believe loony things. Its the media version of the conflict, not the real one.

    People have been saying for centuries that some or all Gods are false. The only reason it “looks” like there is some major conflict now is because those of us holding that position have woken up to the realization that you can’t ignore a problem in the radical branch of a drastically different world view, unintentionally make that view less and less probable, then expect the people that hold it to just fade away, instead of violently apposing it until they themselves admit they can’t win. The problem with religious fanatics, and we are dealing with fanatics here, is that their own beliefs **preclude** the idea that they *can* lose. Even if 99.99% of the world, or some similar number, all decided that scientists are marginally right and that the Biblical literalists are complete losers, there would probably *still* be some people that grew up believing that they *had to be* right, and planning to destroy the false beliefs of everyone else. Just look at racism. There are still people today that hold to the same lies, falsehoods, excuses and ideology of the slave owners. And the fact that nearly 100% of the rest of the world is 100% against them, that just makes them even more convinced that they are right and that its everyone else that is wrong. They just find someone else to blame for confusing all those other people. Right now, for the religious fanatics, its the “new atheists” and “Dawkins”.

  15. #15 Scholar
    April 22, 2007

    Kahegi, well said #31.

    Colugo, you might be right that science can’t ever prove that fairies don’t exist. However, the whole point behind having a rational mind is using it! The funny thing is, SCIENCE is what led me to my conclusion that there is no God!

    I, Scholar, of sound mind, believe that God does not exist. Rather, I am utterly convinced that there is no God, like our friends Douglass Adams and Richard Dawkins…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9v3RWRyNq3w
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUfDWwWKXqQ

  16. #16 Larry Moran
    April 22, 2007

    There are some good lessons on spin in the podcast. One of the ones I particularly liked is to dismiss a bestseller like The God Delusion by pointing out that it only sold 200,000 copies and there are 350 million people in the USA. Nisbet made this point several times. How could Dawkins possibly have had much influence if less than 0.1% of the population bought his book?

    I’ll have to remember that one next time I talk about science. Hmmm … I wonder what percentage of the population have read The Origin of Species?

  17. #17 Colugo
    April 22, 2007

    Scholar: “Rather, I am utterly convinced that there is no God, like our friends Douglass Adams and Richard Dawkins…”

    That’s great. I don’t believe in God either. (Dawkins himself uses the phrase “almost certainly” rather than “utterly convinced” on there being no God.)

    I was a defender of Dawkins long before these current debates – although it was regarding a different controversy, when he was groundlessly accused by progressives in academia of being a dogmatic determinist and nasty reactionary.

    A puzzler: If atheism depends on science, then how can one be an intellectually fulfilled and rational atheist in times and places where there is little or no science? I do not believe that the legitimacy of atheism ought to depend on the current state of science.

    Dawkins says that before 1859 it was hard to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. In addition, Dawkins cites the multiverse implication of the anthropic principle – which I myself provisionally accept – as being comparable in importance to natural selection in explaining complex systems, including life. Dawkins: “We explain our existence by a combination of the anthropic principle and Darwin’s principle of natural selection.” Many scientists reject AP and multiverse theories. Some think it’s terribly unparsimonious, although not as much as the God hypothesis. My point is that one person’s reasonable hypothesis is another’s risible folly.

    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? Let’s leave God – including a dead (or nonexistent) God – out of science.

  18. #18 Sastra
    April 22, 2007

    Colugo wrote:

    But should science be in the business of declaring whether or not God exists, or making ontological claims about naturalism precluding the possibility of the supernatural? No. That would be a radical redefinition of science – from a method to a complete philosophical system.

    The methods of science are used to form working theories, not make “ontological claims” which preclude possibilities. Science cannot literally show there is no God, or no supernatural. Of course.

    But Naturalism is a reasonable conclusion, and a successful working theory. It is consistent with the findings of modern science in a way that the assumptions of supernaturalism are not.

    We could have discovered that the supernatural is true. You can easily do a thought experiment or imagine a science fiction story where ESP, ghosts, souls, angels, astrology, miracles, God, and/or The Force are all real, and all easily confirmable through repeatable experiment. That’s not what happened. This historical result didn’t really show that the supernatural is an area which is “outside of science.” It demonstrated that it’s a disappointing hypothesis.

  19. #19 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.

  20. #20 Sastra
    April 22, 2007

    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?

    Good question. My take is that to the extent that physics textbooks do not address astrology or vitalism, then no, they should not address the existence of God or other supernatural entities either. I would guess that very few textbooks go directly into refuting the paranormal/supernatural. It’s a dead area with nothing significant to report.

    However, I see nothing wrong with a scientist writing a book or giving lectures on why astrology, vitalism, or God are not well supported scientifically — and are instead inconsistent with current findings. These areas are not dead among the general public. All 3 examples are alive and well today, and have passionate advocates claiming both scientific support and scientific consistency.

  21. #21 Lee Harrison
    April 22, 2007

    I do not want a science that makes metaphysical truth claims.

    Colugo, contrast the above statement of yours with this earlier statement:

    (Dawkins himself uses the phrase “almost certainly” rather than “utterly convinced” on there being no God.)

    Dawkins is manifestly not making metaphysical truth claims. He is stating his understanding of a metaphysical construct and basing that understanding on a thoroughly non-metaphysical probability argument due to the overwhelming lack of evidence for God.

    Contrast this with the ‘truth claims’ delivered by believers, so many of which boil down to, “I know the truth and I have proof because faith is the evidence of things unseen.”

    Let’s leave God – including a dead (or nonexistent) God – out of science.

    I think that scientists all over the world would love to follow your advice here – problem is that they can’t when faith based conclusions are hurled at them from every direction.

    I think it’s long overdue that science started kicking back and, personally, I’m cheering people like Professor Dawkins and PZ every step of the way.

  22. #22 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.)

  23. #23 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.

  24. #24 Colugo
    April 22, 2007

    Tyler DiePietro: “methodological discussions are themselves metaphysical.”

    Sure, if you’re a naive realist. Which I also happen to be, more or less.

    Should science instruction include the rejection of theism? Few would suggest that. (Think of the implications of that for The Establishment Clause when it comes to science education in the public schools.)

    windy: “Do you think neurobiology textbooks ought to state that mind-body dualism is presently an untenable position?”

    Yes. The supposition of a disembodied mind that can exist outside of a physical body is not useful for our understanding of neurobiology. But it would be silly for such a textbook to categorically state there is no such thing as the souls. What about the soul? Well, I’m sure a clever theologian could salvage it. Reincarnation presents a special problem, since the “spirit” reappears on our realm and so is subject to study. But I thought Sam Harris was going to look into it.

    On the anthropic principle: Dawkins accepts not only the weak tautological formulation, but also what I’ll call the “no wiggle room” version, which is more controversial and which necessitates additional hypotheses like multiverse, cyclic universe, or changing constants.

    Lee Harrison: “Dawkins is manifestly not making metaphysical truth claims.”

    That’s why I think that Victor Stenger’s God book was a big jump forward in the New Atheist genre; claiming falsification was something that previously Dawkins and others were not prepared to do. Before Stenger, the strongest argument was some variant of the cosmic teacup (FSM, pink unicorn etc.) – argument from ridiculousness. Post-Stenger, God (allegedly) shares the same status as phlogiston. But you’re right, even Stenger’s falsification is – assuming it is correct – technically not a metaphysical truth claim but a provisional finding. In principle, some new evidence acceptable to Stenger could revive God.

    Rather, it is metaphysical naturalism which is the real basis of the temptation to make sweeping truth claims about what is and is not precluded by science. It asserts that there is an identity between scientific knowledge – that acquirable through naturalistic means rather than gnosis or revelation – and reality. Problem is, as almost everyone knows, it’s unprovable.

    Sastra: “But Naturalism is a reasonable conclusion, and a successful working theory.”

    Which is different than saying that the null – “supernaturalism” as a property of reality fact rather a particular supernatural claim – has been falsified. And while the distinction is perhaps not that important, I view metaphysical naturalism as a working premise rather than working hypothesis. In fact, it (and any alternatives) can be ignored as long as methodological naturalism is followed. As I said in an earlier thread, I am at heart an instrumentalist, not a metaphysician.

    You may be interested in what Frederick Crews has to say about metaphysical naturalism. (Discussed on Larry Moran’s blog)
    http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2007/04/recourse-to-miraculous-is-always.html

    In my opinion, Crews comes perilously close to endorsing metaphysical naturalism as a scientific stance, rather than merely observing that it is consistent with the evidence.

    llewelly: “It would be foolish for texts on these topics ignore a useful explanation of a phenomena that has played such a strong role.”

    I agree. I should qualify what I said about leaving God out of science. I mean God as a postulated entity, not God the social, cultural, and neuropsychological phenomenon. In that sense, God is a proper object of study. And as such, God’s actual nonexistence or existence can be disregarded.

  25. #25 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.

  26. #26 Scholar
    April 22, 2007

    Colugo the Cherry-Picker: “Dawkins says that before 1859 it was hard to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

    It is EXTREMELY suspicious that the faithful have NEVER had this problem of intellectual fulfillment, even before the Renaissance, even before the Bible was written. I feel confident that science explains everything which is relevant to my life and liberty and intellect. Take away the evidence, and science and we are back in the Dark Ages. Heliocentrism, Young Earth, Slavery, anti-gay, pro-violence… these examples are where we see some faults of ancient faiths.

  27. #27 Colugo
    April 22, 2007

    Scholar:

    I happen to think Dawkins is wrong about the 1859 statement. (What about Lamarck, for one thing?) I believe it was entirely possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist long prior to that, as La Mettrie, Epicurus and many others were. Dawkins was in his youth a Christian impressed with Paleyist arguments. Darwinian natural selection renders Paley’s reasoning superfluous, so The Origin holds a special place in Dawkins’ personal religious trajectory.

    I, in contrast, want to separate atheism (and theism) from science. At least the standard textbook teaching of science. If an individual scientist wants to detail how fulfilling atheism or God is in light of his or her science, great.

    Tyler DiPietro: “without actively repudiating it.”

    Which is very important. However, I don’t even agree with “thus it rejects theism.” Depends on what the domain of theism is claimed to be. (Maybe that sounds wimpily NOMA-like. So be it.)

  28. #28 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.

  29. #29 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.

  30. #30 Lee Harrison
    April 23, 2007

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

  31. #31 Trinifar
    April 23, 2007

    PZ and Larry, your love of conflict sounds a lot like many young males who often wish to be heros and slayers of evil dragons. We usually encourage those young men to grow up and learn more effective strategies to change the world. It’s all about having real (not just perceived) influence. Where is there any evidence that you are winning in the conflict anyway? Seems more like you want to split your faction off from the rest of us turning this into Shites and Sunnis (I pine for the Hatfields and McCoys of an earlier time). If when you guys met with Dawkins a while back he convinced you to play the bad cop so he could be, by comparison, the good cop — it’s working but maybe not with the outcome you want.

    Perhaps an antidote is Hugs for Atheists.

  32. #32 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 23, 2007

    Pierce,
    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.

    Best,
    Matt

  33. #33 Sastra
    April 23, 2007

    Lee Harrison (comment #52) wrote:

    I would still strongly disagree that the question of God’s actual existence or nonexistence can be discarded if God is a proper object of study in any sense. While I agree that it is perfectly proper to study God as a social, etc. phenomena, the ‘eye of the public’ ramifications of doing so will automatically raise the question of actual existence, and rightly so. It seems rather ‘ivory tower’ to assume otherwise.

    I agree, and am reminded of a book I recently read by Susan Clancy: Abducted — How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Space Aliens. A psychology researcher at Harvard, she was studying mechanisms of memory — particularly false or constructed memories — and found recovered memories of sex abuse to be a bit too controversial. “But then a safer way to study the creation of false memories turned up… alien abductees were people who had developed false memories of a traumatic event which I could be fairly certain had never occurred.”

    How do normal people come to believe they’ve been taken away in spaceships? What is going on, and what does that tell us about how the brain forms memories — and how people come to believe weird things?

    Here you have a “proper area of study” which can deal with all sorts of psychological and social reasons for being convinced you’ve had an experience you haven’t literally had — and yes, indeed, the question of actual existence is raised. If people come to believe they have been abducted by space aliens because they really have been abducted by space aliens, then the whole point of the study is useless.

  34. #34 Keith Douglas
    April 25, 2007

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

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