Nisbet to Myers, Dawkins: "Shut yer traps!"

Where there's one, there's the other. The pair behind the infamous "framing" concept are back, and this time they're telling scientists to shut up, perhaps taking up the axiom of "Wouldn't it be nice if everyone were nice?" More specifically, in a recent blog post Matt Nisbet admonished PZ and Richard Dawkins for their particular views about the conflict between science & religion as they appear in the creationist propaganda piece Expelled. Quote Nisbet;

As long as Dawkins and PZ continue to be the representative voices from the pro-science side in this debate, it is really bad for those of us who care about promoting public trust in science and science education. Dawkins and PZ need to lay low as Expelled hits theaters. Let others play the role of communicator, most importantly the National Center for Science Education, AAAS, the National Academies or scientists such as Francis Ayala or Ken Miller. When called up by reporters or asked to comment, Dawkins and PZ should refer journalists to these organizations and individuals.

For someone who is supposed to be an expert in science communication, Nisbet has forgotten (or just plain left out) several important points. First is that PZ and Dawkins were interviewed under the premise that they'd be in a film about the intersection between science & religion, not what eventually became Expelled. What was said, then, fit into this context, and both might have chosen their words differently (if they accepted at all) under such circumstances.

Secondly, the film does not make any attempt at objectivity and is a creationist piece; I'm sure that clips of interviews that will appear in the film were specifically chosen to feature scientists in the worst possible way to the target audience. The thrust of the film is that accepting evolution as fact directly leads to atheism, immorality, genocide, etc., and whatever was said by a scientist in an interview would likely play up this central theme.

Third, I would ask where Ken Miller, Francisco Ayala, the AAAS, and other organizations have been as Expelled draws closer. Surely they must have heard of it; why aren't they doing anything about it? I know the NCSE is creating a website that will refute the claims in the film, but as far as I'm aware PZ and Dawkins are just about the only major figures presently trying to raise awareness of this film and refute the claims made in it. [Update] Soon after I wrote this piece I realized that it wouldn't do much good for an organization like the AAAS to speak out as a group against the movie; as Josh notes in the comments, it's something that's "below them" and probably wouldn't have much effect other than to make it seem that the movie had been officially panned (perhaps playing into the hands of the filmmakers).

Fourth, both Dawkins and Myers are both featured in the film and PZ was actually barred from seeing it when he had done nothing more sinister than signing up for the screening ahead of time. When journalists ask them about their role in the film, and the instance at the Mall of America screening specifically, are they supposed to farm out their responses to Ken Miller? The fact that PZ was "expelled" and Dawkins admitted to the screening is a great story and I would hope that it gets more recognition as it highlights the hypocrisy of the film's creators. (Although Chris Mooney thinks that this story ultimately helps Ben Stein.)

Lastly, I am a bit aggravated when "framers" tell certain people to keep quiet for the good of "the cause." Nisbet says "This is not about censoring your ideas and positions, but rather being smart, strategic, tactical, and ultimately effective in promoting science rather than your own personal ideology, books, or blog," but I don't buy it (and there's the minor implication that both PZ and Dawkins are intentionally being controversial to sell books and drive blog traffic). Perhaps the fact that Nisbet feels that PZ and Dawkins are a threat to the public understanding of science underlines the fact that there are few other prominent scientists being vocal about creationist quackery or other pseudoscience. As I have already stated, where are the "moderates" that Nisbet wants us to turn to? It's entirely possible to be "smart, strategic, and tactical" without shutting yourself off from the media, but this apparently isn't an option here.

Importantly, I do feel that the interview clips presented on Nisbet's blog are a bit unfortunate. The comparison of religion to knitting is sure to make hackles rise, and I don't think that religion and science are exchangeable (i.e. more science = less religion or vice versa, although this is such an abstract "equation" that it's easy to have shouting matches over it). The creators of Expelled want to play up the science leads to atheism leads to immorality and holocaust vibe, of course, so I don't know if there's a guarantee that a controversial quote might not be selected from a more "acceptable" figure either. Remember, Expelled is propaganda, and the creators have no intention of playing fair.

Strangely enough, I think PZ and Dawkins responded to the latest controversy over the screening in their "fireside chat" video. Neither of them breathes fire and I thought it was well-presented. For some reason Nisbet does not mention this video in his latest post, even though it's been viewed over 1,500 times now. True, it has more impact on the blogosphere than in the larger mass media, but the point is that both scientists are more than able to effectively respond to what happened.

Admittedly there's a bit of a turf war going on here, and even though I'm not yet a working scientist I am aggravated when popularizers say I should stick my head in the sand. Indeed, I'm especially disconcerted with this latest tactic of keeping silent and letting the "pros" handle it, an approach that continues to foster the idea that scientists are arrogant bastards that can't communicate with the public. I don't believe this is true at all, but it seems to continually be a sticking point in the issue of "Who speaks for science?"

If PZ and Dawkins had no involvement with Expelled whatsoever, I could at least understand why Nisbet would recommend that they "lay low" (even though I still would protest). The fact that both are in the film and now have been involved in an instance of impropriety on the part of the Expelled producer makes it even more important that they don't hide under their beds until it's all over, regardless of their views of religion or atheism. Other scientists should certainly speak up about the inaccuracies of the film, but for whatever reason many do not seem very interested in doing so. Nisbet has promised us more on this topic, but to tell you the truth I'm not really looking forward to it.

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Brian: Dead on. And I say that as a working scientist who wishes he had your communication skills though I'm OK at public talks (blogging not so much). What Matt Nisbet fails to recognize (aside from your excellent points above of course) is that while there is indeed variation in skills at communicating, there are many scientists like yourself, PZ, and so forth who are good at it.

Brian, I am right there with you on this. I have never even agreed with them on the idea that scientists are poor communicators, anyway.

As an atheist, I am tired of the blame that Chris and Matt lay on Dawkins and Myers. I am not sure how they think that they will achieve their aims, which is largescale acceptance of evolution (and global warming) if they don't want these excellent communicators involved.

"Let others play the role of communicator..."

Nisbet should be a bit careful ... he could end up inciting an even stronger rebuke of his rather rigid view of roles in science.

"I'm aware PZ and Dawkins are just about the only major figures presently trying to raise awareness of this film and refute the claims made in it."

NCSE and the others you mention prefer to let Expelled bear the burden of raising awareness of their own crappy movie.

I happen to disagree with Matt Nisbet on this point (though I agree with him about framing in general), but you made the mistake of accepting his flawed frame here. It's possible to talk about Expelled in a way that doesn't raise awareness of the film so much as it raises awareness of issues surrounding the film. I think that's what PZ and Richard Dawkins have done, but it's not what you're talking about.

Expelled is beneath Ken Miller, Francisco Ayala, the AAAS, NAS, etc. It's a crappy creationist film. NCSE exists to deal with stuff like that, but AAAS, NAS, etc. exist to encourage and support scientific research, not to engage in a culture war. For AAAS, NAS, etc. to respond to Expelled would just validate the movie's BS claim that ID has some relevance to science.

By Poseidon's beard, the man operates like clockwork! Stimulus, response, stimulus, response. . . . Whenever Dawkins or Myers does anything, you know a certain fellow can't be far behind!

I keep trying to raise awareness of a point which MAJeff, Ichthyic and others have discussed at length over in the Pharyngula comments: Nisbet confuses his particular message with the general body of sociological knowledge which goes under the name "framing". MAJeff writes,

What Nisbet doesn't seem to understand is that PZ and Dawkins are framing all of this quite successfully--and they have opponents who are helping them out.

Throughout, they have been focusing on the dishonesty of the folks who've made the movie--in the contracts, in their attaching of Darwin to Fascism/Nazism/Communism, in their "reportage" of the situation involving ID in the academy, on their use of "Big Science" conspiricism. Consistent in his response to these folks, PZ has focused on their dishonesty. It's almost as though he's strategically selecting one particular aspect of all the things that are happening and using them in a strategic fashion in order to discredit the folks who made the film as dishonest.....

The wonderful thing is that by focusing on this particular aspect, is that they just keep on reinforcing this particular "the producers are liars" frame...He could focus on the minutiae of the science, as Nisbet would have him, but framing his opponents as liars who are not to be trusted undermines their entire message, which also happens to be mostly lies.

(Full comment here.)

I think it is a fairly uncontroversial point that good communicators tailor their statements to their audiences; that people rely on cognitive "shortcuts"; that emotions can trump logic, particularly in situations removed from familiar experience. As a physics boffin, my natural instinct is to doubt just how rigorously the sociologists have studied these things — nyah, nyah, I've got the hard science — but the basic ideas ring true. However, the study of how messages are received by different listeners does not by itself determine the message that must be sent. The former topic involves "is" questions, whose answers we know but vaguely, while the latter aspect hinges on "ought" questions, and in any forum which embraces Enlightenment pluralism, answers to "ought" questions should not by decided by fiat and imposed through censorship.

If we all just ignore Matt Nisbet, maybe he'll go away.

By Kalia's little… (not verified) on 24 Mar 2008 #permalink

Screw that! If I disagree (strongly) with the views of a piece of propoganda, and worse, that I was featured, under false pretenses, in said propoganda, I would be FLAMING THE INTERWEB. I would make my voice heard to the highest courts of the public eye. Why would ANYBODY "lay low" while their very character is being questioned? While science, not just scientists, is being questioned?

The Creationist "threat" to science is real, in my mind, because in this age of Wikipedia, YouTube, and FOX News, the majority opinion dictates the truthiness of facts 'n' figures. Global warming? Why question the science when you can question the scientists? And by doing that, you inherently question the science. Science = Inaccurate or bad. Creationism and SUV's = Freedom of choice and good!

It's like that great movie, Thank You For Smoking. It's not whether or not a fact is right or not, it's whether you have the right...the freedom to choose for yourself. It's a fantastic argument, and one that people will and do easily fall for.

PZ, Dawkins, Brian, all of you and everybody else MUST get the word out. You have to keep fighting the good fight because there are people on the other side who are just waiting for us to get tired. If we say nothing at all, they win. Don't bury your heads in the sand, I beg of you!