In the comments to yesterday’s post about framing, Damian offers a long comment that doesn’t actually contradict anything I said, but re-frames it in terms more complimentary to the Dawkins/ Myers side of things. I may deal with some of what he says over there (probably not today, though, as I have a class to teach), but I wanted to single out one particular part of his comment for response:
Nisbet has claimed repeatedly, and without much evidence I might add, that PZ and Dawkins are poor advocates for science. For a start, neither PZ or Dawkins has ever claimed to be an advocate (at least, not in the sense that is the goal of Nisbet and Mooney), and what ever one thinks of them, it has not been shown that both men are hurting science education.
The data that we do know of – that of books sold and visitors to blogs – show conclusively that these men have been extraordinarily successful science advocates, as well as framers of science (I guess you could claim that it is for other reasons, but you would have to show that). The problem is that it isn’t the correct audience, although it is rather sad that those who are among the strongest supporters of science are often left out of the equation.
This is a response I was expecting. If I may take the liberty of re-framing the re-framing, this boils down to asking “If what they’re doing is so bad, why is Pharyngula the biggest blog at ScienceBlogs by an order of magnitude or more? What’s the cost of not framing?”
Well, at the risk of sounding self-centered, the cost of not framing is me. Me, and people like me.
On paper, what Myers and Dawkins are selling ought to be right up my alley. I’m a Ph.D. scientist, working in academia, and doing my own science popularization thing (I’m still waiting for comments from my editor, but my pop-physics book should hopefully be out by next year at this time). I’m fairly liberal politically, and strongly opposed to the political abuse of science that we’ve seen in recent years. I’m not personally religious, and I’m strongly opposed to any sort of religious education in schools, and against the promotion of religion in public life.
I ought to be all over their message. I don’t support them, though, precisely because of their rejection of Nisbet and Mooney’s advice. In fact, I am sufficiently disgusted by their behavior, and especially the behavior of the screechy monkeys from the comments at Pharyngula and elsewhere, that I want nothing at all to do with them.
I don’t read or link to their blogs. I don’t pass on their action alerts, or promote their events or causes. I won’t send money to their political organizations, donate to their charities, or even buy their books, lest my beer money find its way to their royalty checks.
Their behavior has landed them in the same basic category as Little Green Footballs, as far as my reading and linking habits are concerned. I’d say that they’re in the same category as the Republican Party, but that’s not true– I can’t say that I won’t vote for them, because at this point, I will vote for absolutely anyone on a Democratic ticket, and my hatred of the modern Republican party has a much deeper basis.
“So what?,” you say. “Pharyngula gets as many hits on a slow day as you do in a month.”
Sure. I’m not half vain enough to think that they notice or care about my lack of support. I might occasionally get their attention for a fleeting second by directly calling them assholes in public, but that’s it.
The thing is, I’m not the only one who feels this way. If I’m offended, as a liberal apathetic-agnostic professional scientist, how do you think this comes off to people who are actually religious? People who aren’t already predisposed to support science? People who are a bit to the right of center politically?
It may turn out to be a moot point. It may be that the stirring rhetoric of Myers and Dawkins et al. will win vast hordes of
converts supporters, and the Atheist Revolution will sweep to power on the backs of a billion godless ethusiasts, trampling squishy moderates like me along the way.
It could happen. Good luck with that.
Or, it may turn out that exclusive and alienating over-the-top rhetoric loses a bit of its luster outside of a core population who are already predisposed to like it. It may be that there’s a limit to the popularity of the Dawkins/ Myers brand of atheist radicalism, and once that’s reached, things don’t really go much farther. They might very well turn out to have a band of supporters who are very passionate, but ultimately not numerous enough to effect significant change.
They might very well end up as a sort of Libertarian Party with biology degrees– loud, passionate, and annoying, but ultimately politically impotent.
That’s what Mooney and Nisbet are warning against, and they continue to push this discussion because they very much want to avoid that fate for science. Personally, in my pettier moments, I think it couldn’t happen to a more deserving troop of monkeys.