You can not consistently argue that one side hurts the cause every time they open their mouths, but then object that you are not telling them to keep quiet. Free speech has absolutely nothing to do with this, as has been explained to M and K many times. No one thinks they want the government to come in and do anything. To be honest, I’m baffled that M and K persist in getting so irate on this point. Of course they want people like Dawkins to keep quiet, or at least to completely change the way he goes about presenting his views, which amounts to the same thing.
That last sentence strikes me as utterly fallacious. This would only be true if “people like Dawkins” were only capable of saying one thing, and only capable of saying it one way. Which is absurd, and insulting to Dawkins and those like him.
Back in 2007, Mooney and co-author Matt Nisbet stirred up the previous iteration of this crapstorm with an essay in Science arguing that scientists should think more carefully about how they communicate to the public. In passing, they noted that:
The evolution issue also highlights another point: Messages must be positive and respect diversity. As the film Flock of Dodos painfully demonstrates, many scientists not only fail to think strategically about how to communicate on evolution, but belittle and insult others’ religious beliefs.
This is hardly a cry for scientists not to talk about evolution, nor for them to evade the subject of religion. They do suggest engaging the public in ways that will encourage productive dialogue, not offense.
The effects of that style of discourse are fairly straightforward. Consider the case of Richard Dawkins, touring in support of his latest book, a vigorous defense of evolution as a science. In nearly every interview with him I’ve seen or heard, he’s been asked about the relationship of evolution to religion, much to his own apparent frustration and to the frustration of his supporters. Reacting to one such interview, Jerry Coyne writes: “Of course the reviewer can?t stay away from Dawkins?s atheism.”
Why “of course”? I do lots of media interviews about evolution, and rarely are my religious views a topic of discussion. “Of course” because Dawkins made certain choices in previous books and previous interviews, and perhaps regrets those (a bit) for their impact on his ability to present his current message. From the interview Coyne quotes:
It is true that religious people do react to any kind of criticism as almost a personal insult, it?s almost as if you?re saying their face is ugly or something [Hmmm, could calling people deluded and comparing them to child abusers have that effect? -Josh] ? You?ve heard words like strident and shrill, as well. I?d like to suggest that actually it?s quite a funny book.
Do you regret having that kind of reputation? Do you feel like it?s handicapping you in the future ? that you?ll always be seen as having a certain kind of agenda in mind?
Yes, I think it?s unfortunate. I think it comes from people who haven?t actually read the book, or who haven?t actually met me personally, and so I?m described as a very aggressive, strident person, which I?m not.
Coyne adds “And he isn’t.” Which is true. He’s a nice guy, as are Coyne, and PZ, and many of the other “New Atheists.” But the written word is a harsh mistress, an easier place to be misunderstood than the spoken word. I did read The God Delusion, and didn’t find it funny. De gustibus non est disputandum, but humor is really hard, especially for those of us who aren’t professional humorists. And when your jokes touch on a topic as deeply personal as religion, it’s easy to be misunderstood. As a result of those misunderstandings, Dawkins is having a harder time talking about what he wants: evolution.
Pointing out, as Chris and Matt and Sheril did on various occasions, that the way Dawkins was talking about atheism would make him less effective as a spokesman for science is hardly a call for him not to talk. Chris and Matt wrote an op-ed about their Science paper, which used this example precisely, noting in 2007:
Dawkins, who rose to fame with his lucid expositions of evolution in such books as “The Selfish Gene,” has never gone easy on religion. But recently he has ramped up his atheist message, further mixing his defense of evolution with his attack on belief.
Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism. More than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, after all, and many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality. Dawkins not only reinforces and validates such fears — baseless though they may be — but lends them an exclamation point.
We agree with Dawkins on evolution and admire his books, so we don’t enjoy singling him out. But he stands as a particularly stark example of scientists’ failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.
This is hardly a cry for Dawkins not to talk, not to talk about religion, or not to criticize religion. It is, however, a call for him to do so strategically, to continue the work that they admire in a way that isn’t self-limiting.
To Jason’s point, then, I don’t see how it’s fair to say that Chris and Sheril or Chris and Matt have tried to silence certain people (bearing in mind that I’ve hardly read every word any of them have written, and I’m basically just talking about the arguments in Unscientific America and Mooney and Nisbet’s two essays here). They do want people to discuss certain topics in different ways, because they think that doing so would make those people more effective at what they are doing. Drawing an equivalence between “don’t say X that way” and “don’t talk about X” (or even “don’t talk”) assumes that there’s no other way that the target can express his or her thoughts about X ? that he or she is incapable of any change at all.
This idea that people’s behaviors and thought processes are set in stone has also been applied to the general public in these debates. In trying to catch up on the context of this debate, I found Chris Mooney reacting to a Pew poll by arguing:
if we could only dislodge the idea that evolution is contradictory to people?s belief in ?Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%),? then they would have no problem with evolution.
Ophelia Benson responded curtly (and I don’t mean to single out Ophelia, I could readily find others in the debate arguing the same way):
Yes, and if we could perform other miracles we could do other great things, but alas…
From there, the discussion branched off into broader discussion of whether epistemic compatibility of science and religion is possible (it isn’t clear that all involved here agree on what epistemic compatibility would mean, let alone that that’s the best criterion to use for compatibility, but set those questions aside for now).
But Ophelia’s dismissal of Chris’s observation wasn’t about epistemic anything. It’s about whether people will continue to believe that evolution and their religious beliefs are in conflict, or whether they might be able to find their own way to be comfortable with both. And a majority of Americans do hold science and religion to be compatible, so it wouldn’t be a miracle to simply find a person who believes as Chris describes.
I take it, then (and Ophelia will correct me if I’m wrong), that this response is premised on the idea that it takes a miracle to change people’s minds, at least about these sorts of issues. It seems clear that Chris does not. He clearly thinks minds can change, as he and Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote a book dedicated to changing people’s minds, and to helping them change yet more people’s minds. Mooney and Nisbet’s articles defended the same proposition: that people’s minds can change on scientific topics.
That this is possible cannot be denied. The figure here is from my talk at the AAAS meetings last February, and is drawn from data gathered by the National Science Board. Over the last few decades, acceptance of evolution has been far lower than the younger theory of plate tectonics, neither of which has changed statistically in that time period (taking the 2001 sample on evolution as an outlier).
Acceptance of the dangers of taking antibiotics to kill viruses has risen steadily in that same time frame, showing the value of a consistent public education effort that engages schools, doctors, pharmacists, and a range of other trusted public figures and institutions to convey a consistent message. Today, the US population is less likely to think they can cure a cold with an antibiotic than the European public is.
Can the same happen on science/religion issues? Again, it has. Young earth creationism, which many people think of as the archetype for creationism, is a fairly modern phenomenon. Even within the fundamentalist movement, YEC belief is a later addition. Of the essays in The Fundamentals (1909-1915) addressing evolution, old earth views predominate. William Jennings Bryan, promoting creationist laws and prosecuting John Scopes for violating such a law, accepted scientific estimates of the age of the earth. George McCready Price laid the groundwork for YEC belief in those inter-war years, but it wasn’t until Whitcomb and Morris published The Genesis Flood (1961), that young earth beliefs received widespread attention, and swept through the evangelical community.
Can that sweep be reversed? I would say that it can. In my experience, perceived conflicts between science and religion are a critical block to people’s willingness to even listen to the sort of evidence for evolution that Dawkins and Coyne have presented in their books. I want those books to succeed, and I know that the dynamic that gets created when evolution and religion are so thoroughly entwined in people’s minds can only limit their books’ appeal. There’s a reason that neither of these books mixes arguments for evolution with anti-religion claims: both authors know that doing so would limit their effectiveness.
Saying “more of the same, please” is hardly equivalent to “shut up.”