Last weekend, Chris Mooney and Genie Scott squared off against PZ Myers and Vic Stenger at the Council for Secular Humanism’s 30th anniversary bash. The question was something to do with whether accommodationism is teh awsum or teh lamez0rs. You know my opinion, and from what I saw of the discussion, I don’t think anyone emerged the undisputed victor, and thus the internet will never run out of flamewars.
How can Mooney, The Great Communicator, think that if atheist accommodationists and atheist non-accommodationists both emphasize their common spirituality, everything will magically improve and the faithful will suddenly come to Darwinism?
Now I’m not Chris, and I won’t pretend to be speaking for him. Maybe he’d answer Coyne differently. But the answer I’d give to Coyne’s question is: because SCIENCE!
Which is to say, the science to date indicates that you’re more likely to sway people to your point of view if you present your argument in a context that breaks through the conceptual narrative they’ve built up around their opposition, and that’s what Chris has been advocating for a long time now.
Don’t believe me? Here’s the concluding section of a recent paper that examined the forces preventing people from recognizing and accepting scientific consensus:
It is not enough to assure that scientifically sound information — including evidence of what scientists themselves believe — is widely disseminated: cultural cognition strongly motivates individuals — of all worldviews — to recognize such information as sound in a selective pattern that reinforces their cultural predispositions. To overcome this effect, communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information.
Research informed by cultural cognition and related theories is making progress in identifying communication strategies that possess this quality. One is identity affirmation. When shown risk information (e.g., global temperatures are increasing) that they associate with a conclusion threatening to their cultural values (commerce must be constrained), individuals tend to react dismissively toward that information; however, when shown that the information in fact supports or is consistent with a conclusion that affirms their cultural values (society should rely more on nuclear power), such individuals are more likely to consider the information open-mindedly (Cohen, Aronson, and Steele 2000; Cohen et al. 2007; Kahan 2010).
Another is pluralistic advocacy. Individuals reflexively reject information inconsistent with their predispositions when they perceive that it is being advocated by experts whose values they reject and opposed by ones whose values they share. In contrast, they attend more open-mindedly to such information, and are much more likely to accept it, if they perceive that there are experts of diverse values on both sides of the debate (Earle and Cvetkovich 1995; Kahan et al. forthcoming).
Finally, there is narrative framing. Individuals tend to assimilate information by fitting it to pre-existing narrative templates or schemes that invest the information with meaning. The elements of these narrative templates — the identity of the stock heroes and villains, the nature of their dramatic struggles, and the moral stakes of their engagement with one another — vary in identifiable and recurring ways across cultural groups. By crafting messages to evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, risk communicators can help to assure that the content of the information they are imparting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups (Earle and Cvetkovich 1995; Jones and McBeth 2010).
Research on these and related strategies for dispelling the tendency of cultural cognition to generate conflict in public deliberations about risk are at an early stage. Further development of this aspect of science communication, we believe, is critical to enlightened democratic policy-making.
Dan Kahan, Hank Jenkins-Smith, and Donald Braman (2010) “Cultural Cognition of scientific consensus,” Journal of Risk Research doi: 10.1080/13669877.2010.511246
Talking about spirituality ticks all of these boxes. Talking about the widespread spirituality and even religiosity that scientists report in surveys certainly counts as “information [which] in fact supports or is consistent with a conclusion that affirms … cultural values” of people ambivalent about evolution. Talking up the widespread spirituality and religiosity of a significant chunk of scientists will also diffuse a perception that evolution is “advocated by experts whose values [the evolution-ambivalent] reject.” And by taking evolution out of a narrative of conflict with religion and into one of several other viable narrative frames, talking about the spirituality that many scientists feel can “evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, … assur[ing] that the content of the information they are imparting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups.” (Emphasis in original.)
It’s worth noting that the paper’s experimental research does not focus on evolution, looking instead at perceptions of scientific consensus around global warming, nuclear waste storage, and effects of concealed weapons on crime rates. But the results are undeniably relevant to evolution: the researchers find that people tend to discount the expertise of scientists whose views they disagree with, thus creating a perception of expert consensus that tends to support their presuppositions.
We see that dynamic all the time in evolution. At the accommodationism debate at CSH’s 30th, a questioner asked how to deal with students who refuse to listen to Ken Miller because they think he can’t be a Christian and accept evolution. They’ve created a hard dichotomy between evolution and religion, and doing so lets them simply ignore any contrary evidence. Anyone who supports evolution is anti-Christian, and therefore not credible, and thus the only sources they find credible about religion are those who are anti-evolution. The only way to get those kids to hear any evidence for evolution, to read Coyne’s book or Miller’s book or any of the other similar works, is to break past their assumption that evolution-acceptance is inherently discrediting on cultural grounds.
The questioner ultimately revealed that the kids in question are Catholic, meaning their position is more Catholic than the Pope. They may not listen to Ken Miller, but they might listen to the Pope, and if their resistance can be broken down there, it’ll let them hear the evidence for evolution from sources like Ken Miller, and hopefully start questioning whoever lied to them about how Catholics view evolution.
Coyne and others are free to disagree with this body of research, but if they truly see themselves as defenders of Truth and of Science as a path to Truth, I don’t see how they can ignore it or simply dismiss it without seriously engaging it. There’s a body of relevant research out there that addresses questions like the one Coyne posed above, and if they want to argue about communications strategy, they would do well to address that literature.