Mooney and Nisbet take their case for framing science from Science, to the Washington Post’s Op-Ed page. PZ Myers is not happy. I agree with him that the title sucks, but I’d lay odds that it was the work of some copy editor. On the other hand, I agree with Mooney and Nisbet when they say that Richard Dawkins, by blurring the line between science and theology, “stands as a particularly stark example of scientists’ failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.” Dr. Myers is, not surprisingly, less happy about that point. In the comments to his post, he shows exactly why the Dawkinsian framing fails. PZ writes:
The conflict in the public mind is far simpler: did God design people, or didn’t he? Religion affirms the former, science says no.
The last sentence contains a typo; I think Myers misspeeeled “science doesn’t address that question.”
He’s right about the question that the public is trying to answer, but wrong about what science says about the issue. The claim that God designed people is untestable, therefore unscientific. Science cannot affirm either answer to the question. At most we can reject particular claims (though an omnipotent deity could have faked the evidence). That is why the question is not either/or, or at least it need not be. I don’t regard science as the only epistemology (way of gathering knowledge), and there are plenty of religious people who don’t think religion is the only epistemology. It’s possible to distinguish between them and use them in different settings.
Now, PZ and others here may not think religion is good epistemology, and that’s a discussion that’s been going on for a long time and that is worth continuing. Posing the question as either science or religion is a) bogus, and b) pointless. Most people haven’t tried to figure out how to relate science and religion – they like technology, they like the religious metaphysic. If they had to choose between religion as philosophy and science as philosophy (more than just practical applications), I think we know how they’d decide. The challenge is to move the debate to a setting where science isn’t seen as a threat, because people respond in very consistent ways to threats.
We can study the way they respond to threats using all the tools of science. People like Matt Nisbet do just that, they study how people respond to different types of arguments, and examin which ones work and which ones don’t. Those results have found application is our political debates and in commerce. I don’t know what grand principle is served by ignoring those scientific results.
Framing a debate as a conflict forces people to take sides, whether or not they’ve gathered enough information to make a wise decision. Having made a low-information decision, we also know that people tend to defend that decision, to rationalize it in all sorts of illogical ways.
Insisting on presenting this as a debate between science and religion means that Myers and Dawkins are talking past the public, forcing them to make a choice without adequate information, and then to defend that choice on the basis set forward by Myers and Dawkins: they’ll defend religion by attacking science. That’s bad all around.
When scientists walk into the lab in the morning, we aren’t thinking “How can I disprove God today?” Alas, there is a serious chunk of the public that believes exactly we do, and framing the debate as science vs. God only reinforces that error. I think that’s bad, and hope PZ agrees. Reinforcing inaccuracies hardly seems likely to be an effective strategy for relating to the public.
In a perfect world, everyone would be able to read and appreciate the peer reviewed literature, and we could engage the public the way PZ idealizes. We aren’t there yet, and the question is how to get there. Mooney and Nisbet are making an argument about how to do that, one rooted in empirical research, one which has succeeded in other fields. Dr. Myers proposes a different course of action, and I don’t quite see the argument about why it would work. Mooney, Myers and Nisbet all agree that what’s currently being done doesn’t work. The question is what comes next.
Myers quotes Nisbet and Mooney asking: “Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public’s beliefs?” He answers in the affirmative:
YES! YES! YES! Knowledge is a threat to beliefs held in ignorance.
But he hasn’t answered the question. Of course knowledge is a threat to ignorance. That’s practically definitional. The question is how you go about challenging ignorance. Scientists do this all the time; it’s the nature of the job. Every experiment is an attempt to challenge beliefs held in ignorance. We think we know something about the world, but science is about testing that knowledge with data. When we publish those results, it’s often necessary to write up a controversial finding in a way that smoothes feathers, perhaps by favorably citing the work of likely reviewer, and by framing the discovery as an extension of existing knowledge, rather than a direct challenge to the existing framework of knowledge. There is a difference between portraying knowledge as “a threat” and portraying it as a challenge or a refinement.
Changing the presentaion doesn’t change the content, it just helps potentially hostile readers appreciate it better. That’s good framing. Scientists do it all the time in writing journal articles. Framing science for public consumption just takes a different approach.