One of the peripheral strands in the ropy debate about framing is the question of how and whether religion ought to be part of the debate. PZ Myers advances an analogy by Larry Moran between atheists now and feminists back at some point in history. He quotes Larry saying:
Do you realize that women used to march in the streets with placards demanding that they be allowed to vote? At the time the suffragettes were criticized for hurting the cause. Their radical stance was driving off the men who might have been sympathetic to women’s right to vote if only those women had stayed in their proper place.
Here’s a related historical tidbit. Women tried to modify one particular passage of the 14th Amendment during Congressional debate, this line:
But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of any State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
Women hoped to strike one particular word from two occurrences there, and to add one word to the 15th amendment, which reads:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
By the mere expedient of adding “sex” to that list, and removing “male” from the 14th amendment, women would have been allowed to vote a full 50 years before the 19th amendment passed.
Women’s rights activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton pushed hard for those changes, but such paragons of virtue, voices of freedom and supporters of women’s suffrage as Frederick Douglass asked them to back off. Civil rights activists figured that the amendments could pass on the basis of race, given that a war had just been fought over those issues, but that tacking women’s suffrage on might just lose them critical votes.
Because the amendments didn’t go far enough, some in the female suffrage movement wound up working against passage of the 15th amendment.
It’s difficult to count noses in Congress and state legislatures 137 years after the fact, so I don’t know if the amendments could pass with women’s suffrage in the mix. In the 50 years after the 13–15th amendments passed, many states voluntarily granted women the vote, preparing the ground for the street protests that Larry and PZ are describing, and without that intervening effort on a state level, it’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive 15th amendment passing.
In modern terms, getting women the vote required an aspect of framing referred to as shifting the Overton window. The idea is that you have to stake out positions that are extreme (but not too extreme) to make what is politically unimaginable today part of tomorrow’s conventional political discourse. Here’s a handy discussion from of how this played out regarding school vouchers. By using the right strategic framing and advocating a position outside of conventional thought, Joe Overton of Michigan’s Mackinac Center was able to move legal homeschooling into the mainstream and the idea of vouchers into the public debate. The ultimate goal is to privatize the school system entirely, but Overton saw the importance of taking small steps, as did those advocating against mixing women’s suffrage into the 15th amendment.
What does this say about atheism today?
That’s a harder question, in part because I don’t know what the particular policy or social agenda of PZ and Moran is. Suffrage is a nicely packaged item, and it’s possible to see how one might compromise by dealing with race and then with sex. Atheists have the vote, they have the legal protections the first amendment affords all citizens, they speak openly and get elected to Congress.
I’m not suggesting that things are rosy, merely that it’s difficult to see what the path is that PZ and Larry and Dawkins and so forth want to see happen. They’d like to reduce the role and acceptance of religious belief in society, but even that is a lot less concrete than a vote for women.
Bear in mind that Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and indeed Frederick Douglass were not interested in getting the vote for women and then going home. They wanted true social equality, and saw the vote as an important first step. Advocating for that small step was controversial, but advocating for an amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women remains controversial today. Had they tried to take one giant step, who can say whether women would be voting in every state yet.
The Overton window is a powerful concept, and a useful one. You can’t move that window all the way to the end at once. Indeed, part of the reason that vouchers haven’t caught on is that people know it is just one small step towards an ultimate goal of a Balkanized private school system. If Overton had simply insisted that the government stop funding schools, I wouldn’t be writing about him right now.
Some people say that PZ and Larry are, by their vigorous stance on religion in the science debate, shifting the Overton window. I myself do not see it, but I am not entirely clear on what window they are trying to shift. The Window requires a range of policy views, some within accepted realms of discourse and several outside it. The Window-shifter operates incrementally. The Window-shifter has to construct a new frame and get people to see the debate through that new frame rather than the old one. By successive movements, the debate shifts and with it, the median acceptable policy.
Here is one possible continuum which I suppose might represent how PZ and Larry see things:
- religious reasoning must guide any and all policy decisions
- religious reasoning beats non-religious arguments, but religion is not obligatory
- religious reasoning is weighted more heavily than non-religious arguments
- religious reasoning is given equal weight with non-religious arguments
- religious reasoning gets less weight than non-religious arguments
- religious reasoning can only break ties when non-religious arguments are balanced
- religious reasoning has no formal role but may be freely expressed
- religious reasoning is banned
I don’t know if this is the continuum PZ and Larry are trying to move us along, and I personally don’t know that it’s even a sensible continuum to talk about (I think it conflates several factors, especially if you change “non-religious arguments” to “science,” as it seems like PZ or Larry might).
I also am not suggesting that PZ or Larry or Dawkins sees the last item as the ultimate goal, though again, it isn’t easy to tell always.
For what it’s worth, I think the penultimate item is compatible with several earlier items, in part because it can be difficult to sort out the line between personal values and religion in every instance, and personal values are an essential part of the political process. PZ and Larry may see it as a final stage while I might put it right after the third or fourth item. In any event, I think that the penultimate item is what we are guaranteed by the 1st amendment, and we are roughly there.
Personally, I’m not interested in motion along that axis. I don’t see it as problematic that we live in a society where religious values figure alongside other personal ethical evaluations in the process of setting policy, and in how we translate from data to normative judgments about policy.
I see a few related axes where I’d like to move the axis. One is how uncertainty is evaluated. Right now, people see uncertainty as a basis for ignoring what we do actually know. Statistical techniques let us place limits on our uncertainty, and give us tools for evaluating not only what we know to be true, but what we know is not true, or at least what is unlikely to be true. I’d like to see people shift from dismissing estimates with uncertainty, or assumptions that error only falls on their preferred side of the best estimate, and start thinking about measurement with error the way that scientists do.
The other, bigger shift I’d like to see is in how people perceive science. Science tends to be seen (framed) in terms of knowledge, what I call science-as-encyclopedia. This feeds people’s trouble with scientific uncertainty, and it makes it hard for people to know why some knowledge – uncertain, hypothetical and inferential knowledge especially – belongs in that encyclopedia, while knowledge they consider certain – including especially deeply held personal beliefs and social traditions – do not.
The answer lies in what science really is – a process. People who understand science-as-process know why we don’t invoke untestable supernatural hypotheses. They understand that uncertainty is inherent to science, and understand how to evaluate uncertainty given what we do know about experimental results and their theoretical underpinnings. They know that inference and hypotheses are integral parts of what we know because they can be tested, while tradition and belief are only scientific to the extent they can be tested, and are only useful to the extent they have been tested.
That shift means reframing science, as I’ve described. It also means providing education about basic tools of science, including hypothesis testing and statistical concepts like means and standard errors.
Once we have that understanding, we can reframe a number of public debates. Evolution – currently framed as an issue of adjudicating the ontology of morals. Needless to say, this is a debate well beyond science and the empirical evidence of biology (though biology can certainly help inform that philosophical debate). In that debate, I rely more on courses I took on Kant and on the Problem of Evil in Jewish Thought than I do on the courses in Biogeography, Evolutionary Ecology or Biodiversity I took at the same time. I’d rather be discussing the content of the latter courses than the former ones.
I’d also rather be hearing a more thoughtful discussion of the content I’ve learned and taught in my statistics courses. The argument over the Lancet studies of excess mortality in Iraq have been especially egregious, though the same sorts of errors are constant elements of the global warming debates and discussion of species conservation. If a population viability estimate, or a epidemiological study, or a climate model, predicts a substantial likely effect but a range that gets pretty low also, the discussion tends to focus on whether that low estimate is tolerable or not. This is as reasonable as a debate focused on the highest likely effect – not at all reasonable. The right discussion should begin by noting that zero is outside the likely range of options, and then focus on the most likely value, the central estimate generated by the analysis.
To do that, we can’t be in the first few categories of the religion axis I described above, but we don’t need to be in the last categories either, provided the conditions of the penultimate category hold. As such, I find it foreign when Larry Moran says that “I think religion is the problem and I’ll continue to make the case against religion and superstition,” or when PZ Myers says “I’m not arguing for everyone to be a scientist, I’m arguing against the corrupting influence of religion.” It’s a different language, and a different set of frames to worry about.