Jason Rosenhouse has a long post up claiming I missed the point in my post a few days ago about the lessons communication science can teach us about the accommodationism spat. The two things I came away from his post thinking were: 1) wow, did he miss my point! and 2) we’re talking about very different things.
First, to the question of whether I “missed the point,” the question posed by Jerry Coyne was not about how to promote atheism. The question I was answering was about whether emphasizing spirituality could help more people accept evolution. At least, that’s what I take Coyne’s “come to Darwinism” to mean; I don’t use the word “Darwinism.”
And I don’t see where, in nearly 3000 words, Jason makes the case that I was wrong about that. Indeed, the closest he comes to addressing the specific question, he basically agrees with me:
If I worked for an organization devoted exclusively to the narrow question of science education then I too would play up the harmonizers (though not to the extent of being insulting or dismissive towards those who demur), simply because I think it is good politics to do so. So far as I am aware, no one is arguing differently. In the context of school board disputes you should not send in people who are going to horrify the locals. That seems perfectly reasonable to me.
All well and good, except 1) I’m not blogging on NCSE time, so my employer is irrelevant and 2) Coyne was arguing against that position. He was dismissing the notion that appealing to shared values, the values that even many atheist scientists attribute to “spirituality,” can help bring people to accept evolution.
I cited one recent paper, and a couple of blog posts by others summarizing and linking to a range of other recent peer reviewed research to point out that this is not only a reasonable expectation a priori, it is also what the best available research shows to actually work. Jason says I’m “LOOKING AT THE WRONG SCIENCE!” and that all I cited were “a few papers breathlessly reporting that people don’t like it when you offend them.” That isn’t what the papers say, the papers aren’t “breathless,” and that isn’t what I claimed the papers said. Not offending people is different from finding shared values with them.
I had written:
Coyne and others are free to disagree with this body of research, but if they truly see themselves as defenders of Truth and of Science as a path to Truth, I don’t see how they can ignore it or simply dismiss it without seriously engaging it.
Now Jason is less prone to pronouncements about Truth than others, so maybe he didn’t count himself among those challenged. But it still would be nice if he engaged the research, rather than ignoring it and dismissing the findings cited.
In answer to my citations of actual peer reviewed research, Jason says I should look at the science of advertising. To back that up, he points to a non-peer-reviewed article (IMHO, a peer reviewed article has more evidentiary value than one that wasn’t peer reviewed). Alas, the extracts he draws on don’t bear on the question Coyne asked.
Advertising which connects emotionally, Jason’s quote explains, works better than more cerebral arguments. I knew that already, which was why I cited research on the emotional biases people bring to bear on evaluating scientific claims. But rather than emphasize that point, which tends to argue in favor of identifying shared values, he boldfaces the statement: “Emphasizing that ‘everyone else is doing it’ also helps.” To which I say, “No shit.” It’s called the bandwagon effect, and everyone knows about it. But the paper I cited pointed out that people discount views of people with differing values, which reduces this bandwagon effect unless you overcome those divergent values.
Every teacher knows that repetition builds retention. I know it because people who taught me to teach told me the same thing over and over. Jason quotes advertising researchers who confirmed the result, which is fine as far as it goes, but it is content-neutral. Do we repeat a message about shared spiritual values, or do we repeat some different message? Some messages are more effective than others, no matter how often they are repeated. Indeed, Jason fails to quote the article’s observation: “Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that simply recalling an ad changes behavior.” Nothing Jason quotes gets at what factors increase acceptance of the message or changes in behavior (even though there’s research on what arguments work for increasing evolution acceptance). Which makes me think I’m not the one missing the point here.
As to the merits of talking about scientists and spirituality, Jason also misses the point. I referred to “the widespread spirituality and even religiosity that scientists report in surveys,” which Jason responds to by noting that 1/3 scientists are atheist, another 1/3 are agnostic, and the theists are almost always theologically liberal. He ignores the finding that a large fraction of even atheist scientists are spiritual, which is the reason Chris and I were talking about spirituality. None of the numbers he cites refutes my claim that spirituality and religion are “widespread” among scientists. They are, indeed far more common than political conservatism, which no one takes as evidence that the Republican Party is epistemically incompatible with science. Still, Jason concludes that “any discussion of the spiritual or religious minority that does not also make clear the general tenor of the numbers is spin at best, and dishonesty at worst.”
I disagree. First, it is false to say that a minority of scientists are spiritual. Not spin, just flat wrong (surely only an honest mistake). Ecklund’s study found that 2/3 of scientists describe themselves as spiritual. One needn’t be a math professor to know that 2/3 is a majority, and a sizeable one at that. And since Chris had specifically put his comments in a context of spirituality, and Coyne was specifically asking about that, and I specifically included spirituality in the comment Jason quoted, it’s odd that he omits any discussion of spirituality’s frequency, and that he referred to a “spiritual minority.”
Second, even if religious or spiritual scientists were a minority, that would not change the merits of my argument. The point is not to that all or even most scientists have religious view X, but to build on what values scientists share with evolution-ambivalent audiences. For spiritual or religious scientists, however common or rare they may be, that spirituality or religiosity can be that bridge. Other scientists will find other bridges.
Equally flawed is Jason’s claim: “That evolution and traditional religion are in conflict has been obvious to everyone who has ever considered the question.” But lots of people find no such conflict! Some even find that evolution deepens their understanding of their religious tradition. St. Augustine, Maimonides, Pope John Paul II, Francis Collins, 12,000+ signers of the Clergy Letter Project, and millions of members of Episcopalian, Methodist, Congregationalist, Unitarian, Jewish, and other faiths are among the relevant counterexamples. And if the claim here is that the conflict is still “obvious” to those folks, but evolution accepting theists had to move past the obvious, then I retort: “So what?” Lots of things that aren’t obvious are still true. Evolution is one of many obvious examples.
Jason closes with a pitch for further efforts to “mainstream atheism.” Which is a fine goal, and I wish him luck with it. But it isn’t my goal. My goal is to improve acceptance of science (evolution in particular), and to encourage people to take science seriously and apply scientific methods to problems in their own lives and in the policy process. There’s a lot of overlap with the goals of activists for atheism, but I’m not interested in being an advocate for any particular metaphysic. If there’s a link between “mainstreaming atheism” and encouraging science literacy, Jason didn’t argue it, and doing so would be a distraction from the question Jerry asked and which I was answering. Jerry’s question was about science education, not atheism, and Jason’s post doesn’t ultimately advance that discussion.