Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: Framing spinning

I don't like getting involved in internecine warfare, least of all amongst my SciBlings. But a recent OpEd in WaPo by two fellow bloggers I admire, Matt Nisbet of Framing Science and Chris Mooney of The Intersection prompts me to set fingers to keyboard. It is Richard Dawkins that provoked it. Good for Dawkins. Once again he is exposing muddled thinking. And he didn't even have to write about it:

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 (and perhaps even civilization itself). 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. (WaPo)

Nisbet and Mooney argue that just presenting the facts in favor of evolution or climate change isn't sufficient. As a university teacher for 40 years I couldn't agree more. It's a matter of good pedagogy, which isn't just displaying facts. If it were, we wouldn't need teachers. But the implication that good teaching is "packaging" -- aka, "spinning," although they prefer to think of it as "framing" -- doesn't follow, unless all good teaching is called "framing," in which case all we have done is substitute one word for another.

Nisbet and Mooney deny they are advocating spinning, of course. They understand to advocate spinning wouldn't be a very good argument:

We're not saying scientists and their allies should "spin" information; doing that would only harm their credibility. But discussing issues in new ways and with new messengers can be accomplished without distorting the underlying science. Good communication is by its very nature informative rather than misleading. Making complicated issues personally meaningful will activate public support much more effectively than blinding people with science.

Global warming is another issue on which scientists continually fail to reach key segments of the public. The real inconvenient truth here is that scientists aren't doing a good job of packaging what they know. No matter how solid the science gets, there remain "two Americas" on the subject: A strong majority of Republicans discount the science and the issue's urgency, while an overwhelming number of Democrats believe the opposite. Once again, the facts aren't driving opinions here. Instead, selective interpretations -- delivered via fragmented media and resonating with the public's partisan prejudices -- are winning out.

The argument seems to be that if you want people to read your splendid book teaching evolution you shouldn't also write a splendid book arguing against religion, because the people you are trying to reach will then stop listening to your cogent explanation of evolution, and worse, will associate evolution with atheism. Like Nisbest and Mooney, I won't engage in an argument about Dawkins's arguments against religion (although I happen to like them), but will observe he doesn't seem to have turned too many people off who weren't already in the "off" position. His latest book, The God Delusion, has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list for over 6 months. Last week it was number 13. This week it is number 8. This isn't someone who is losing the public. True, his book isn't being bought by evangelical Christians. I'm guessing Chris Mooney's book, The Republican War on Science, isn't either. Is his title supposed to entice Republicans to pick up his book?

I'm an atheist of the Dawkins stripe. My style is different than Dawkins but I do one of these atheist Sermonettes every Sunday. I also oppose the War in Iraq and did so even before its start. Should I have refrained from saying it so that I could more efficiently alert people about bird flu? I'm not sure if any loyal (and I would add, valued) readers who disagree strongly with me left because of these other opinions, but if I decided not to write about something I have such strong feelings about I wouldn't be the same person. Maybe the blog would be better, I don't know. But I don't have that option or desire.

This is Nisbet and Mooney's bottom line:

Thankfully, scientists seem increasingly aware of the need to better convey their knowledge. There is even a bill in Congress that would allocate funding to the National Science Foundation for training scientists to become better communicators. That's a start, but scientists must recognize that on hot-button issues -- even scientific ones -- knowledge alone is rarely enough to win political arguments, change government policies or influence public opinion. Simply put, the media, policymakers and members of the public consume scientific information in a vastly different way than the scientists who generate it. If scientists don't learn how to cope in this often bewildering environment, they will be ceding their ability to contribute to the future of our nation.

Thankfully, yes. Thankfully Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and countless other scientists didn't pander to the most retrograde opinions of the "public." Let's see if Francis Collins will convince Bush to support stem cell research. I doubt it.

More like this

Hi, For what it is worth I think we do have to take our audience into account. Although I disagree on the existence of God with Revere I do teach in the deep south (polysci not actual sci). I start the course with a good week or so on Western intellectual history which kids tend to have little exposure to nowdays. Anyway, I will say development or some such term rather than use the "e" word when applying it to biology. The reason not being one of cowtowing to anyone but all my good Baptist kids will just shut down, discount what I am saying, and stop listening if they think I am preaching evolution. If I use a different word (development) they don't do that to the same extent. I am not in a position where this is much of an issue but since I teach politics I am in a position of being cognizant of student reaction. None of us, I think, are in a situation where our students intellectual frames of reference are irrelevant. Such frames of reference impact what they hear and how they hear it. I think it is foolish for us to think they are Lockean blank slates that we can shape. If we want to impact their learning and ability to learn we have to start where they are not where we are. I don't think Einstein is particularly relevant since he was not teaching kids in 101. Those who are teaching only grad courses are in a different situation but most of us have to teach some 101 courses and those are different kinds of students. I don't think making an effort to piss people off by hitting their hot button's (whether evolution or whatever) is helpful. If we can't teach them because they have shut down we have little chance to change them.

Hi there,
I appreciate the response and comments on our WPost article. Just a quick point, since it's early.

As a valid measure of broader and effective public engagement, I'm suspicious of best-seller status. For example, Ann Coulter dominates best-seller lists, sells tons of books, and yet remains ever polarizing.

*Having said this, I by no means equate Dawkins and Coulter's arguments.*

As as a social scientist, I am simply focusing on what kinds of valid and reliable indicators we can use to track and evaluate Dawkins' broader public influence.

A second comment on best-seller status as a valid indicator of broader public engagement:

If Dawkins, employing his carefully framed argument, is able to capture the attention and dollars of 5% of the American public who already hold a latent skepticism of religion, then that's a lot of books sold.

If you add to this segment another 5% of curiosity seekers who buy the book since they have seen a lot of conflict-framed media publicity, yet like many books, never reads it, you now have a best-seller on your hands.

Again, it's early in the morning my time. I suspect that my estimates of the proportion of the American public who have actually bought the book are quite generous. A truer estimate might be in the 1% or less range. I don't know how many copies Dawkins book has sold, since these figures are not publicly available, but a million copies would be a stratospheric best-seller, and at that level you are still not reaching many adults.

Overall, just a quick caution on using best-seller status as an indicator of effective public impact.

I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on this and other possible measures of broader public impact.


Carl - I recognize the difficult issue you have to face: how to discuss science, biology, or evolution with students who refuse to listen to anything as soon as the "e" word is spoken. That's a problem, and using a different word solves, in a small way, the immediate problem.

Do you think it solves the bigger problem? Which, to me, seems to be that a lot of our students refuse to even listen to, no less consider, reason, evidence, and rational thought. A different strategy than "lets all pretend we are not talking about that "e" subject" is to just be honest from day 1, in elementary school right through college. "Today class we are going to talk about evolution, and keep talking about it for the rest of the semester". Sure, many students are going to be uncomfortable, feel alienated, feel as if they are constantly being barraged by what they are being taught in school, and feel like they are on the defensive. Maybe a few, the more thoughtful of the bunch, might then realize that their crazy, irrational, and just plain wrong beliefs are the problem. Why not just make it clear that to discount evolution is to discount vast parts of biology, medicine, history, and reality.


Matt: You are certainly right that being on the Best Sellers list of the NYT does not mean you are widely read or influential. But it is an indication that somethings that formerly weren't acceptable now have popped their head above the water. In our university bookstore there is a whole table labeled "Spiritual Issues" or something like that of the latest books that discuss religion and similar topics and I was surprised to find that half or more were books that questioned religion. Dawkins's book is actually advertised in a 15 second segment of MSNBC's Keith Olberman show on our cable network (don't know if this goes all over or not), another indication that keeping the atheist light under a bushel may not be necessary or desirable. There is a sea change going on, the inevitable (IMO) reaction to the latest American religious revival. These revivals occur periodically in the US and aren't signs of long term trends. After each, the country is more secular than the last time, in keeping with a true change that is taking place in Europe and other industrialized countries. Even the rise of religious fundamentalism, which carries with it attitudes toward evolution, I see as a last gasp reaction against modernity, so in my view bowing to a losing impulse doesn't make a lot of sense.

The WaPo article strongly implied (I don't know if you meant it or not) that Dawkins shouldn't also explain and proselytize his atheism because it has a retrograde effect on the struggle against creationism. If that isn't what you meant, then I don't understand how Dawkins got into the piece at all. You don't have to be an atheist to believe in evolution, since there are many believers who also accept evolution. But it helps. Atheists don't have to reconcile their religious beliefs with evolution, an extra step for believers.

carl, K: I'd be the last to say you don't have to take your audience into account when you teach. No one would say that. But what that means and what kind of compromises you make is always a question of judgment. If you are teaching the principles of evolution (and I'm not sure what that means in a political science context) then it may or may not matter what you call it. That depends. If someone accepts and understands what you teach them about "development" but then opposes teaching "evolution" in the schools, then for that purpose it doesn't help.

Dawkins is also not teaching kids in 101, although both Einstein and Dawkins are great popularizers of science (similarly Bertrand Russell for philosophy). The framing argument, at least as posed by Lakoff, is not one of tabular rasae but it is also not another word for spin. If you are interested in my take on it, I did a long series on Lakoff on the old site starting here (complete series in left sidebar of old site).

Let me join in the melee by saying that I think there are more than one or two things at play here. Here in the US we live immersed in a culture which despises intellectual acheivement and actual intellectual work. Science and math are seen as "too hard" by most people and they just stopped paying attention long ago. The quality of education in both of these areas, outside of the post secondary setting, is poor. My generation, the boomers, have little interest in the education of their offspring beyond the horserace elements of getting them into some favored college. Talk to admissions people about how the quality of those admissions essays have declined over the last 20 years.

The creationist nonsense is also an excressence of PC theology of the evangelical right which puts a premium on hoeing the Biblical row. Even though most evangelical Americans can't tell you what is actually in the book, including the three discrete creation stories.

This creationist flap is really about lousy education, in both pre-secondary education and in Sunday school, and periodic evangelical revival, which has happened before and is well documented. I hope that the reveres are correct and that this tide is turning. But I'm afraid it is going to leave us dumber than we've been at the end of the earlier swings of the pendulum.

Let's leave aside for a moment indicators of public engagement, though I would mention that at bookstores space is paid for. Meaning that if Dawkins appeared on the spirituality table, his publisher paid for the placement. Exposure nevertheless, but not necessarily an indicator that bookstore owners have recognized that Dawkins deserves a voice based on the strength or impact of his argument.

As I wrote over at PZ's blog, to clarify, our central question has always been the following, one that is very different from the communication goals of Dawkins, PZ etc (as far as I can infer). Check out the comment:…

It seems to me that the discussion knocks all around the simple fact that this country is in the basement when it comes to applying energy to education....compounded by the fact that we are a nation of children, each wanting their own way...have you ever tried to reason with a Two year old?

I may be real wrong on this, but I feel that the die has been cast over the last forty years and the piper will now be paid...

By deepwelll (not verified) on 15 Apr 2007 #permalink

Rather odd to accuse Dawkins of failing to explain evolution to the great unwashed, since he became famous for doing that before he publicly seized the cudgel against religion. I certainly find it inappropriate to argue that he ought to keep some of his beliefs to himself if he wants people to accept the rest of them. I thought dishonesty was a sin.

And, sure, most Americans today believe in God, but that in my view is a problem that requires urgent redress. It won't always be true, in fact the proportion non-believers has been slowly increasing in this country, and is much higher in the rest of the wealthy countries. We need to continue to argue for reality and reason, and they will win out in the end.

So what title book would prompt a fundamenalist anti-Science Christian Republican to pick it up? "Letter to a Christian Nation"?

Revere---I was born in Kansas of Catholic parents, attended 12 years of Catholic schools during which I had Catholicism pumped into every bodily portal which somehow
converted me into an atheist at the age of 18 and lasted approximately 10 years. My Dad always taught me to ask questions and to explore all facets of science. I have never questioned evolution and if fact, the Catholic schools that I attended taught from science textbooks that
embraced it. It was always in religion class that I got into trouble with my constant questioning. Then, during my thirties and early forties, I became a fence-sitter on the issue of God, mainly because I was too busy with living
in general to think much about it. Over the past 10 years,
however, my continuing flirtation with the sciences, from
keeping up with astronomy to neurophysiology, has wiped all
doubt from my thoughts about the existence of God, although
I believe that organized religion has always been a disservice to the pursuit of truth. Can we even begin to understand our universe, to wrap our minds around how truly
confounding even the parameters of the universe are, not to mention the interrelationships of matter and energy and space. Evolution has definitely brought us here to this point in time, with alot of assistance from science, but we are still no closer to answering questions that we really want answered about our existence. Revere, it's way too early to write God off---there is much we still don't know.

Matt: Thanks for the link. I'm not sure it answers my concerns, however. Again, I'm not sure how Dawkins (and PZ) got into the mix here, if the point is that they are not good vehicles for talking to -- whom, I am not sure exactly, but let's assume there is an imagined target, say southern Baptists. Anyway, probably true, but self-evident. If I wanted to convince a southern Baptist audience they shouldn't oppose teaching evolution in the schools, I probably wouldn't send PZ. I probably wouldn't send a radical lesbian, either. Or a Hasidic Jew, for that matter. Well, maybe a Hasidic Jew would work. Anyway.

If that's the point, fine, but it isn't much of a point. If the point is that you can teach or talk about evolution without talking about atheism, fine. Again, not much of a point. And sometimes you don't have a choice, not because you wanted to talk about it but because your audience insists on talking about God. Then what do you do? Say you think belief in God and science are compatible, even if you don't think so? Is that being true to the science?

My view is that gratuitous mention of atheism may be counterproductive, but it is not gratuitous if your audience insists on making it an issue. Then you need to do the right thing and not prevaricate. And there may be instances when it isn't gratuitous at all but an important subject. If you think evolution is not directed by a higher hand, then you need to say so. That is being true to the science.

I understand what you are trying to say, but it sounds a lot to me like dismay that being true to science gets some people's back up and you are looking for a way around that. I don't think there is one, except not wasting time trying to convince people who won't be convinced for reasons having nothing to do with science. Any science. Or any facts. Or any rational explanation. Sometimes that's the way the world is.

Lrod: I'm glad you are committed to the pursuit of truth outside of organized religion. I think many people who consider themselves believers here would agree with you. Stepping outside of organized religion is an important step that probably mitigates many of the worst features and consequences of religion. For the rest, I don't think we will convince each other. I haven't written God off -- God was never part of my world. I'm a scientist because I want to understand how the world works and God isn't a valid explanation for me, any more than the tooth fairy or animism or withcraft are explanations for me. Why is God a better explanation than that there's little man in my watch that controls the universe is an explanation? You think that's preposterous and frivolous? I agree with you.

IMO those of us on the science side of this debate would benefit from better incorporating findings from cognitive psychology into our methods and arguments or at least being aware of them. If we don't, we fail to account for or at least understand the effects of the hardwiring of our ancient brain and risk driving potential converts to the opposite pole.

Much of this cognitive psychology work is accessible through popular press books, such as Jonathan Haidt's "The Happiness Hypothesis". What is it in our brains that likely explains why diverse cultures develop religion, religious ceremonies and profess religious experiences? Linked off of his homepage at the University of Virginia are papers dealing with these topics. Another is Robert Cialdini's "Influence: Science and Practice". His work at Arizona State is most interesting if not alarming. Another book is the Heath brother's "Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die". With the development of functional MRI and its improving resolution, this field is advancing rapidly.

Rallying the troops from among the converted is a must when a battle against the heathens is needed. Dawkins and PZ are excellent at doing that. Just read the comments on PZ's blog.

But when conversion of the majority is the order of the day, a much better strategy is to start a battle within the target's brain by establishing cognitive dissonance. From this dissonance will come the emotional response that is crucial for the motivation of change. Cognitive dissonance can only happen when reasoning is occurring. IMO the problem with the confrontational approach of Dawkins and PZ is that if the very approach has invoked an emotional response before the dissonance is established, that battle and that target is already likely lost. We make the mistake of assuming that reason will triumph. It doesn't; emotion does because it is the source of motivation and that is a far trickier arena in which to do battle. For this reason, I think Nisbet and Mooney are closer to the right track for the long run with the majority of the public.

On the other hand, because of the same ancient brain it is certainly true that confrontational battle is the only option against those who have a major emotional investment in the opposite pole, however erroneous. Someone has to do it and, as above, that is Dawkin's and Pz's necessary role. But IMO this is really a battle that is only a neccessary component of the larger war for the public mind that is being addressed by Nisbet and Mooney.

There is a lot of confusion about god in our society. It is best to do what no one ever does, find out exactly what a person means by 'god' when he says he does or doesn't 'believe in' god. A little respect for our intellectual history would go a long way to improving the quality of discourse on this subject. There are some notions of god that most scientists could deal with, such as Alfred North Whitehead's idea of god as a kind of universal potential. Dawson mentions some of these ideas and dismisses them, saying that's not what he is talking about.

What are we talking about then? It seems the most of the discussion in SciencBlogs, PK and the rest are reduced to rants against straw men (straw gods?) who apparently claim there is some boogey man up in the sky who created and sees everything, against which they throw the most tiresome 19th century vulgar scientific materialism that no scientist today could actually take seriously outside of these rants against the religious right. The result is a dumbing down of the discussion of what is actually a very respectable topic: the relationship between science and religion.

I would recommend that scientists and others who write about this issue bring a little basic education and culture to the discussion and review what has been said about it by the likes of Whitehead, Willam James, Suzanne Langer and others of our intellectual ancestors. Maybe we could raise the level a little above that of a bar room brawl, which is where it is at today.

I was referring to Dawkins of course, no 'Dawson'. Sorry

Ron: Perfectly fair, but probably not very germane. Ranting at SB is mainly against the rantable, the many powerful, influential and effective enemies of science and rationality. We could spend a lot of time parsing private language (what so and so means by "God") but it wouldn't be very productive. Ranting against those who make a difference in our lives by their irrationality and small mindedness is productive, IMO. That's why we do it. If you want to have beliefs you call spiritual in some private fashion, fine with me, even better if it helps you do good things or gives you comfort or inspires you. But that's a private affair and none of my business. Jerry Fallwell, George Bush, the Discovery Institute, AIPAC, etc., those jerks have an effect on a lot of lives and need to be called out. That's my business and should be all of our business. They shouldn't get a free pass because they believe in some God or other or the tooth fairy or Zeus. This is a science blog, not a religion blog.

I hear you revere, and basically agree. Of course Nisbet and Mooney's point is that it *isn't* very effective to rant against these jerks in terms of convincing anyone. I am uncomforable with their proposed solutionm however--spin by any other name...--but rather I think the solution might lie in improving the intellectual level of the discussion by at least recognising that we are not inventing the wheel here.

There is a level of discussion beyond pointing out the obvious--ie the tooth fairy is a fairy tale--that takes religion seriously as a universal part of human culture. This is my objection to Dawkins: by reducing the argument to the intellectual level of Falwell and Dubya, he ends up missing the point about religion. As an anthropologist I can't accept a view that dismisses a cultural trait as old as humanity itself as mere 'delusion'. That is absurd and flies in the face of what most people say and believe about their own behavior. Can't we do better than that, scientists?

A more culturally informed and philosophically sophisticated response to stupid religious fundamentalism on our part would go farther to achieving what N&M are calling for than mere 'framing'-

Ron: While it would be ungracious of me to disagree when you are agreeing with me, let me do it anyway. First, how do we know religion is a cultural universal? Even if were so (and I am not convinced it is), it can still be historically determined. Many things are historical constants -- disease for example, or greed or avarice -- but that doesn't validate them as valuable human traits. Indeed some of them might have been useful at certain times in history and now are not affordable if assumed by more than a minority of the population. I am not willing to accept religion as a cultural constant (in fact it varies so much it is hard to know what part of it is constant across cultures; clothes are also a cultural constant but who knows, maybe with global warming we will go naked in the future, as do all other animals) or as one that is more useful than harmful today. In short, I don't tke it seriously as a universal part of human culture, any more than I take magic seriously for the same reason.

Your call for a more culturally informed response to fundamentalism isn't likely to be very succcessful. As an anthropologist, why do you assume that fundamentalism itself isn't quite sophisticated, the match on that level for counter arguments that buy into a religious world view? It hasn't worked so far. Sometimes "in your face" is a better method. At least they hear you, even if they aren't listening.

This is perhaps cautionary: For God's Sake By Paul Krugman
[my excerpts -- hr]

"... The infiltration of the federal government by large numbers of people seeking to impose a religious agenda - which is very different from simply being people of faith - is one of the most important stories of the last six years. It's also a story that tends to go underreported, perhaps because journalists are afraid of sounding like conspiracy theorists.

"But this conspiracy is no theory. The official platform of the Texas Republican Party pledges to "dispel the myth of the separation of church and state." And the Texas Republicans now running the country are doing their best to fulfill that pledge....

"... And there's another thing most reporting fails to convey: the sheer extremism of these people."

My personal thought?

We should watch next week's/next weekend's Earth Day speakers, listen to them carefully, and come down _just_as_hard_ on any of them who spins/frames by misrepresenting the science, as we do on anyone else who misrepresents the science behind whatever speech or claim they are making.

Take no hostages.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 15 Apr 2007 #permalink

Good point, In fact, fundamentalism (religious and otherwise)can be a very effective means of mobilizing people to extremes of violence and other anti-social behavior. In this sense it can be part of a 'sophisticated' ideological system for furthering the interests of a small elite.

As for the universality of religion, I rest on the ethnographic record. Although there are indeed 'varieties of religious experience' to recall a classic discussion of the subject, it is amazing how much religions have in common throughout space and time. I include magic here, as well. Scientific materialists dismiss magic, as 'failed science', once again missing the point. Wittgenstein gave a classic rebuttal of this point in his critique of Frazer's 'The Golden Bough'--still well worth reading.

My favorite example of how there is more to 'magic', behaving towards spirits and other practices that rouse the disdain of our resident atheists, is given in Evans-Pritchard's ethnography of the Azande a people from central Africa. Long ago, the Azande were elephant hunters. They 'believed' that it always took two spears to kill an elephant. Meat was divided among the families of the hunters based on who cast the first versus the second spear, so this had a practical social significance, independently of how many spears it 'really' takes to kill an elephant.

The Azande also believe that all human deaths are caused by witchcraft, malicious human intention consciously directed at another human, causing harm. The Azande do not deny physical causality. EP's example: If a man takes refuge from the sun under an old granery and it falls on him and kills him, everyone recognizes that the granery was old and termite eaten and about to fall and that its weight falling on the man was the cause of death. Fine. But this leaves a whole other set of issues unresolved, starting with the unanswerable questions such as synchronicity, why did this particular man happen to be under the granery just when it fell, to urgent social questions such as what does this sudden death mean for his family, his friends, his enemies, the community in general. This is where the 'explanations' based on witchcraft come in. Witchcraft, say the Azande, is the 'second spear' physical causality being the first. It provides a language. well known to all who share Zande culture, with which to discuss the significance of the man's death the less tangible yet quite real aspects of the event. A Dawkins-like refutation of the role of witchcraft in the death of the man would be 'true' but 'not very germane', as you put it.

This is but one example of many cases (eg divination, healing etc) where 'religion' can be understood as a kind of symbolic metalanguage, a 'language game' in Wittgenstein's apt phrase, in which some of the most intimate issues of a culture are worked out. It doesn't really matter if they are fairy tales, they serve their purposes.

This is a simplistic example but it serves, I think, to illustrate the point that when we approach people's relgious behavior we have to understand we are not just talking about whether the supernatural realm they address is 'real' in some material sense. We must ask, 'what is going on here, what is being said between the lines?'. What is going on with religious fundamentalisms (of all colors, including some uses of 'witchcraft')? Politcal manipulation. That is what is important to denounce. Manipulation of the religious right is destroying our democracy, our educational system and our basic values and freedoms as a culture. Dawkins does talk about some of these misuses of religion in his book, but arguments about the non-existence of supernatural being and similar arguments just not what is at issue. To 'frame' the discussion on that level, is, as N&M point out, polarizing and ineffective.

Evans-Pritcharad, E.E. 1937 Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande." Oxford University Press. (try to find and original edition, current edition is abridged)

Wittgenstein, L. 'Remarks on Frazer's "The Golden Bough" In JC Klagge "Philosophical Occasions, 1912-1951" Hacket Pub. Co, (1993 ediiton, p 115)

There are some notions of god that most scientists could deal with, such as Alfred North Whitehead's idea of god as a kind of universal potential.

Not exactly true. Scientists are (or should be) wary of unnecessary hypotheses that produce nothing but a warm fuzzy feeling.

The proponents of "framing" have some interesting points to make, but this is the third time in recent years they've come around making these claims. The first was George Lakoff with "Don't Think of an Elephant" in 2004. Then came Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shallenberger with "Death of Environmentalism." The playbook for these guys was:

* Make a big stir by accusing some portion of the "the establishment" of screwing up their communications

* Promise to solve the problem, if only some funders will cough up big bucks for research. Use copious buzzwords to describe the research you intend to conduct.

* Disappear without making any actual specific recommendations for what the target of their critique could do better.

Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet have followed the first two steps of this playbook to the letter. Let's hope they break the pattern and actually put forward some useful suggestions on how the scientific community can do a better job.

If not, start the clock ticking on their 15 minutes.


Interesting that you should say that Windy. Whitehead introduced is notion of god because he found it necessary to make his philosophical system coherent and complete. I think if you read his description you will not find that it produces a warm fuzzy feeling!

On the other hand, on second thought, what's wrong with a warm fuzzy feeling?

Great topic and conversation. Here's my two cents on the question of religious mindlock versus teaching efficacy. Teachers should be brave and teach evolutionary science without softening the message -- if that's applied universally across the educational system, we will make progress. Scientists could help tremendously by adding pedagogical examples of evolution in action that make the case clearly and directly. Steve Palumbi in his book "The Evolution Explosion" is on the right track. The evolution of antibiotic resistance for example, ought to be a central paradigm used by teachers in settings where the reality of evolution is being questioned by students. Let's see someone try to explain the emergence of resistent pathogens without evolution!

Steve: I agree. And your example is good on another score: it isn't beneficial to humans, so if there is an "intelligent designer" for this he/she/it/they are malicious.

Ron - as someone with an anthro background, I definitely agree with you re: taking religion seriously as a part of human culture, something which I feel a lot of the recent criticism entirely fails (for various reasons) to do. Indeed - listening to the few anthropology voices raised in this recent debate - see, ie, the Beyond Belief conference a few months ago and, for example, Scott Atran's remarks - it would seem to be something of a professional response, a coherent critique -

at the same time, though, I have to agree with revere - Whitehead's God, or Spinoza's and Einstein's, however fascinating, is of very little relevance to this specific situation.

"I was referring to Dawkins of course, no 'Dawson'. Sorry"

let me say, it would be awesome if there was a teen soap opera called 'Dawkins' Creek . . . ."

(Actually, I'm fairly serious. Think of what CSI, etc. has done for forensics in the public mind . . . although, of course, there are a few differences there . . .)

Dan, Ron: Here's a (serious) question for anthropologists. Why don't we hear about (or maybe we do?) skepticism and anti-religion as a cultural phenomenon through the ages? After all, we know skeptics have existed, at least since classical days (and probably before). Is there an anthropological literature on this?

I don't want to hijack the thread since the compatibility of philosopher's gods with science has been discussed ad nauseaum elsewhere, but a couple of points:

Whitehead introduced is notion of god because he found it necessary to make his philosophical system coherent and complete. I think if you read his description you will not find that it produces a warm fuzzy feeling!

And yet his 'universal potential' god has attributes like goodness and wisdom. Why not evilness and stupidity? Why would the universe have mental states normally found only inside a subset of evolved brains? That's just as anthropomorphic as saying that God has a long white beard.

On the other hand, on second thought, what's wrong with a warm fuzzy feeling?

Nothing, but choosing world-views on the basis of fuzziness can get in the way of understanding stuff. There are plenty of more robust sources of warm fuzzy feelings.

About teaching evolution. I suspect that evangelicals etc. would not immediately switch off if the professor started by saying something to the effect of, "For purposes of this course you don't have to believe that evolution is true. If you believe in one or more of the three Biblical accounts of creation that's fine with me, or some other religious interpretation, or whatever. But for this course you at least have to know the material. What we'll be testing is the knowledge of the theory and the empirical data, not the belief."

That might be enough to get peoples' guard down to the point where they're at least willing to learn the material. And the more they learn... ....!


Re. God and "additional layers of explanation." No they don't. Deism (as per the Founders) says simply "God is the architect, Nature is the builder." If you already believe in a God, then you aren't even multiplying entities.


Re. religion as cultural universal. Sorry, Revere, but neuroscience says you're wrong on that one. The human brain is hardwired for at least three axes of experience that, taken together, provide the experiential basis for development of religion or religion-like belief systems. One of these is the "sense of awe in relation to something larger than self," another is "numinous interpretation of incomplete information," and the thrid is "sense of connection between self and greater whole." Other cognitive characteristics determine whether the individual will be predisposed toward fundamentalism (highly concrete) or mysticism (highly abstract), and the degree and kind of primary emotions that the individual will bring to this context (e.g. love and compassion, or righteousness and vengeanace, etc). As with other measurable characteristics of humans, each of these falls neatly into a normal curve.

It is of course possible to develop belief-systems that make use of these traits without necessity for a theistic element. Some of the best popular spokespeople for science, for example Carl Sagan, have succeeded in part because they could communicate the sense of awe and deeper mystery of existence that motivates many in the sciences. One could go about doing that without even touching the arguement over religion, and over time develop a powerful cultural nexus that could stand its ground against obscurantism of whatever kind.

Interesting topic and discussion. 2 quick notes on points that I think are not being given sufficient attention:

1) Dawkins book and recent work is not only (or at all, perhaps) directed at the "James Inhofe's" (to borrow Nisbet and Mooneys example) of the world, but rather to the vast legions of rational, thinking people who are inhibited or hesitant to give full voice to their atheistic beliefs in a society that actively represses such views. Count me in as one of a new legion of "Dawkinsonians" who have emerged, after reading his recent "God Delusion", energized and empowered by his arguments, logic, passion and rationality.

That we should go out and begin to openly discuss our views among our fellow citizens, as I have, is the real seed of change that Dawkins has planted (and his NYT bestseller statistic should be viewed not as a metric for the prevalence of his views, but rather as the first hopeful steps forward for a neo-atheist movement).

2) Any discusion of framing the issues using the "mainstream media" news outlets* that does not consider the deep bias and corporatism that governs the tone and content of the debate across these channels is severely limited in its scope. No amount of clever framing in the world can stop the wealthy, intellectually lazy and arrogant TV talking heads from mocking a view or cutting off a microphone.

Dawkins is on the right track and I fully support and welcome his views...tone and all. And I am quite disappointed and sorry that Nisbet and Mooney, two writers whose work I also enjoy, seem to be unclear about Dawkin's (very high, in my view) value to the advancement of science along multiple fronts. They could have easily made the same points without choosing to malign Prof. Dawkins so prominently (their WaPo article begins with an attack on his approach) and undeservedly. To me, that is very off-putting, and unfortunately reveals that they do not feel it is necessary to heed their own advice.

* Here's how Nisbet framed the question in comments over at Pharyngula: "Over the next five, ten, fifteen or twenty years, in a diverse and pluralistic society that has to reach collective decisions relatively quickly regarding political debates over global warming, the teaching of evolutionary science in science class (and only evolutionary science), stem cell research etc...what's the best way to engage the broader public by way of the media?"

Michael: I think you have summed up my view as well. Thanks.