The Myers-Dawkins Incident: Can't we all just get along?

(How do I know that it is a bad idea to say anything about this. Oh well. Here goes.)

ScienceBlogs regulars will know that last week there was a tiny incident involving a prescreening of the movie Expelled! -- a documentary starring Ben Stein purporting to expose the exclusion of pro-Intelligent Design advocates from academia. The pre-screening occurred in Minneapolis at a time coinciding with a large meeting of atheists including PZ Myers of the ScienceBlog Pharyngula and Richard Dawkins. Both of them having been interviewed -- and having been lied to about the nature of the film -- decided to go to the screening which was open to the public by securing tickets in advance. The producer of the film -- one Mark Mathis -- recognizing PZ had the police bar him from attending. Dawkins -- not recognized -- was allowed to enter and participated in Q&A following the film. This much we know. (The facts of the story are summarized in this article.) Thus, the producers of a movie whose primary argument was based on academic freedom and open debate denied PZ entry and closed that debate.

What has ensued in the interim is a primarily within-ScienceBlogs debate about whether it is wise to press the issue. Messrs. Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet, of the Intersection and Framing Science respectively, have argued that 1) any publicity of the movie is good publicity and 2) picking fights with the creationists is a bad idea. They seem to both recommend Dawkins and Myers lying low and letting the whole thing blow over. (PZ has responded that he has no intention doing anything like that.)

I have to say that I think that Chris and Matt are wrong on this one.

It is not that I am unsympathetic to their view that a certain amount conciliation with the religious is a good political call for scientists. Likewise I can think of cases where letting it blow over would be the good play.

But this isn't one of those cases.

It is just good debating strategy to force your best argument, and this is most certainly the best one we have had in a long time. Barring someone from seeing a movie premised on the idea of free debate is astonishing hypocrisy and truly absurd. Furthermore, I have considerable sympathy for why Dawkins and Myers wanted and indeed had a right to see this movie. They were in the movie, and they had every right to confirm whether their views were misrepresented through selective editing. Finally, if this movie is as ham-fisted as those who have seen have led me to believe, any publicity is actually bad publicity. Anyone who actually sees the movie will be rapidly disabused of the presumption that their argument is cogent. In their heart of hearts, I don't think the producers want people to see this movie. Not seeing the movie allows them to allude to what was in it -- their argument can seem more subtle than it actually is. Seeing the movie brings the stupidity of their argument into sharp relief. (If the screenwriter wants to "group hug" Dawkins and Myers, that is his call but I think that statement reeks of trying to spin yourself out of someone else's public relations coup.)

Even if you believe the lie that Mathis is propagating that Myers and Dawkins were gatecrashers trying to assault their way into his film, you are forced to confront the hypocrisy of their original exclusion. This is the best argument we have ever had, and it was handed to us on a silver platter. I see no reason why we shouldn't use it.

On the other hand, as I have argued before I do get the notion of conciliation. Some conciliation with religious people is necessary lest science become a partisan in the culture wars or identified with a particular political party. That would be dangerous for the credibility of scientists and would create an even more rocky and tenuous climate for scientific funding.

At this point I would even accept a degree of conciliation on the part of science's defenders. For those who don't think that a little tolerance of divergent views is necessary for success in a political movement, I need only mention the abortive example of the Libertarian Party. No gathering of LPers larger than eight has ever failed to degenerate into fractious schism with each group impugning the insufficient ideological purity of the other. Reading ScienceBlogs this morning, I noticed some disconcerting parallels with the LP. If you think the Democratic Party is prone to self-sabotage, just think of the astonishing irrelevance of the LP in American politics.

Effective politics is based on positioning. You position yourself on an ideological spectrum in a manner to maximize your support. I have always argued that scientists have the maximum credibility when they position themselves as political moderates and non-participants in the culture wars. On this ground, I think that Mooney and Nisbet do have a point. Surely there is an element of bullshit in this, but when has politics been any different? It is a Presidential election season, and every candidate is in the process of positioning themselves out of any recognizable political positions.

On the other hand, scientific credibility is also based on the idea that we don't lie. We tell it straight, and we aren't hypocrites. On this ground, I have considerable sympathy with Dawkins and Myers. The producers of Expelled are hypocrites and liars, and Dawkins and Myers are right to point that out as loudly as they see fit. (Also, sorry Matt, but I don't think that in essence telling PZ to shut up is good politics on your part. It is unprofessional and unproductive.)

This whole debate boils down to a fine line that we have to walk to maintain credibility as scientists. We want to be honest brokers, but that phrase has two parts. The honesty part being championed by Myers and Dawkins argues that it would a lie to ignore the clear anti-religious implications of evolutionary biology. The broker part being championed by Mooney and Nisbet argues that if science is to survive it must be able to bring all parties together under a banner of fact.

They both have a point. Though in this case I think Nisbet and Mooney are wrong, I hope that we can all take a deep breath and realize that we are all on the same team.

To close, I agree with Orac's assessment:

It is true that there are times when Myers' and Dawkins' tendency to conflate science with atheism has grated on my nerves--a lot. OK, more than a lot. Indeed, that's no doubt why the producers chose them to be interviewed for Expelled!; they were clearly hoping for some juicy sound bites to use. However, that's not what's going on with this incident. Why can't Mooney and Nisbett understand that? No, what's going on here is a perfect opportunity to use their entire concept of framing in a way that would not have otherwise been possible, thanks to the incompetence of the producers of Expelled!. We can use this incident to shatter the creationist frame for this one movie. Failure to take advantage of such a golden opportunity would be more than clueless. It would be criminal. (Italics in the original.)

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Right on brother!

Dude, you wrote the post I was going to try to write if the coffee had kicked in in time.

I agree with you that letting this thing just blow over is not a good idea. The hypocrisy of these people has just been delivered to us in a sweet little package that perhaps even the most dense of our species can digest it, and we should be serving it up as fast as we can.

I disagree that conciliation, for the sake of conciliation, is necessary. The reason we think we need to straddle some magic line in the middle is because most of the American public is so ill-informed and, well frankly, ignorant that they can't process a nuanced point of view. The scientific community, more than any, should strive to lay out our opinions, unvetted and raw, with strong arguments and just let the best argument win.

But that is just my opinion. :-)

Excellent post! Logical, rational, and flavored with a dash of applicable social science knowledge. Bon Appetite!

flavored with a dash of applicable social science knowledge.

Maybe it's the sociology degree talking, but I've been thinking that this was missing from a lot of the whole "framing" discussion for quite some time. It's not just the message or the medium, but the interaction of the two in the social framework - which is far too complex to be summarized in a blog post consisting of "hush there, you naughty biologists!"

By PuckishOne (not verified) on 24 Mar 2008 #permalink