Tuesday, March 25, 2008

An argument in support of Matt Nisbet

I thought I'd try to come up with an argument *for* Nisbet's general position (though I don't support the claims that all publicity is good publicity or that particular people should shut up), and came up with this (posted as a comment on Nisbet's blog):

Suppose U.S. demographics on belief and nonbelief were reversed, so that atheists made up 80%+ and those who explicitly believed in God were about 4-5% of the population (with the difference filled by agnostics, closeted believers, etc.). Suppose further that demographics of believers in science were reversed--with most physicists and biologists being religious believers, who commonly said things like "the Big Bang shows evidence of a beginning of time, started by a creator God," and "the intricate design of biology shows the hand of God."

Presumably Nisbet would tell those religious scientists that they shouldn't say things like that in public, even if they firmly believe them to be true, because they would cause the atheist majority to stop listening to the part that's actually science. And I think he'd have a point. To the extent that Dawkins and Myers go beyond the science into areas like philosophy and normative ethics, they are making non-scientific claims that are not entailed by the scientific evidence (though I happen to agree with them that atheistic views fit much better with the evidence than religious views). A division *can* be drawn, and if your goal is persuasion, *somebody* needs to draw the division and communicate with the audience that otherwise wouldn't listen without including the nonscientific parts that will turn them off.

But, contra Nisbet, that somebody doesn't need to be everybody, or Dawkins or Myers in particular.

As I've said elsewhere, I'm glad that the National Center for Science Education doesn't take a position on theism vs. atheism and involves many religious believers who support the promotion of good science.

Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney have been getting support in their statements from people like intelligent design advocate William Dembski and "Expelled" co-writer Kevin Miller, but I suspect that they would not really agree with Nisbet's position if the demographics were reversed as above--they would be defenders of the religious version of P.Z. Myers. Their position strikes me as opportunistic rather than principled.

Which raises the question--if you support P.Z. Myers' approach and think that it's beneficial for the promotion of science, but you wouldn't support a religious counterpart's approach in the reversal scenario, does that show an inconsistency or lack of principle in your position? I don't think so, and my parenthetical comment is a start of the answer I'd give to why. (I think the underlying causes of the demographics are of relevance, and it's interesting that only Nisbet seems to have tackled that subject in this discussion.) But I'm interested in hearing what others have to say, either way. I suspect that John Lynch and John Wilkins would argue that it does show an inconsistency.

UPDATE (April 2, 2008): James Hrynyshyn at The Island of Doubt ScienceBlog offers a critique of Nisbettian framing. Somehow, I get the impression something's missing here, though. Claiming that scientists are completely objective and trained to be so is to miss the fact that Kuhn, Latour and Woolgar, and the sociologists of science aren't completely wrong about everything. (I'm still a big fan of Philip Kitcher's book, The Advancement of Science: Science Without Legend, Objectivity Without Illusions.)

UPDATE (April 3, 2008): John Wilkins offers a defense of "the f-word" in terms of simplification for the purposes of pedagogy.


Hume's Ghost said...

IF they were attempting to publish papers using science to argue atheism I'd see a problem. But they are scientists arguing their opinion that atheism is the most valid position given what we know about the world ... so long as the distinction is made I don't have a problem.

I don't feel that this in an inconsistent position on my part because I'm not that worked up about the scientists who believe that science demonstrates a creator, either. I just think they're wrong.

As long as either side makes clear they are drawing an inference that is not a necessary conlusion from the science I'm ok with it.

John Wilkins said...

I'm not sure what inconsistency is referred to here, Jim. Certainly I hold to a "what's sauce for the goose" philosophy in these matters - exceptionalism is always suspect to me. But I do not object to framing per se - it is a truism, as communication always involves adapting to the conventions and commitments of your audience. I just think that arguing, as Nisbet does, that only professional communicators can deal with issues is, at best, special pleading. Scientists ought to be better communicators, as well as better educators, and better administrators etc.

Jim Lippard said...


The inconsistency question is this: Would it be inconsistent to claim that Myers is doing good for science but that an anti-Myers in the reverse demographic situation would not be doing good for science?

Hume's Ghost: I agree with you (if by "publish papers" you mean in science journals). In the reverse demographic, would you feel the same way about the religious anti-Myers?

John Wilkins said...

I think that if anyone, religious or not, tries to make a claim that science supports their opinion, they are misled. But I think that given human beings are far from Spock-like automata I would think the religious objector here would be doing a service to science by making people consider their underlying assumptions about the coincidence between science and (for want of a better term) metaphysical views.

So I would still disagree with Matt and Chris about the rights and advisability of those who aren't "science communicators" speaking out. As Mill said, in plurality there is a better chance of hitting upon the truth.

John Wilkins said...

I should proffread...

I meant in the first sentence, "that science supports their non-scientific views"...

Hume's Ghost said...

I did mean peer review journals.

SFMatheson said...

Perhaps because I'm a Christian (i.e. a believer) I don't see the distinction between the two scenarios, and I'd argue that yes, of course it's inconsistent to approve of Myers but not the anti-Myers. Both are "bad for science" for the same basic reason.

I don't think that Myers and Dawkins are "good for science" when they use it to advance their religious agenda, but I've also argued strongly against even suggesting that they shut up.

If there's a problem here, it seems to me that it's a problem with the prominence of certain voices that are thought not to represent the communities to which they belong. This is a problem for lots of communities. As a scientist, I don't want Dawkins speaking for me; as a Christian, I don't want Pat Robertson speaking for me; as an American, I don't want Dick Cheney speaking for me; as a Michigan resident, I don't want Michael Moore speaking for me. Somehow, I have to get the media or the public to understand that those people's opinions are perfectly legit, but their right to represent those communities is utterly nonexistent.

Jim Lippard said...

Steve: I think you make a good point.

Personally, in general I don't like other people speaking for me or speaking for other people.

SFMatheson said...

Jim, you wrote: "Personally, in general I don't like other people speaking for me or speaking for other people." I'm notorious for my aversion to this sort of thing, too.

The challenge arises when a community needs or wants to speak with one voice. I think biologists, for example, need to speak as a community on issues such as creationism and research ethics. Sometimes, it would seem, it is valuable for someone else (ideally, a professional society or commission) to speak for me. Given our mutual discomfort with this very idea, I gather you'll agree with me that this sort of thing (communities speaking – or claiming to speak – with one voice) must be done carefully and deliberately. And the primary criteria for deciding when/if to make such declarations will not necessarily include the level of consensus on the matter in question, but will begin with the centrality of the topic with regard to the identity and mission of the community.

So even if there was absolute consensus among molecular evolutionists regarding the excellence of Diet Coke versus Pepsi, or the merits of socialism versus laissez faire, or the ease of use of a particular PC operating system, it would not follow that molecular evolutionists should speak as a community on any of those subjects. The decision to do that begins somewhere other than the level of agreement on the topic itself. In my opinion.