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Library of Congress
Unfortunately, the principle proponents of improved "framing" have done such an awful job at making their case that I fear they have permanently erased any credibility for the idea and done significant damage to their own credibility as well. What should have been a reasonable proposal about tone, rhetoric, and language has instead become an attack on atheists that is completely devoid of any supporting evidence and, even worse, a proposal to set aside questions of truth and falsehood when evaluating a method of presentation.
Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet write an editorial in The Washington Post in order to better explain their position on the matter. In the process, they effectively cause me to lose nearly all respect for them.
Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins's arguments against religion.
Wait a minute, did we read that right? We're really supposed to completely ignore whether or not Dawkins' arguments are valid or correct? The truth or falsehood of those arguments is to be treated as irrelevant? Since when do scientists start out by ignoring whether an idea is correct or not? As bad as this is as a starting point for any analysis for how science is presented in America, the editorial gets far worse because this "premise" is effectively used throughout even when it's not stated outright.
The way I read it, then, authors Mooney and Nisbet want people to accept their position regardless of the truth of... anything. They are asking us to accept their position on faith alone.
Mooney and Nisbet are not scientists nor do they try to pretend to be. Even Young Earth Creationists try to present evidence to back up their claims!
The public cannot be expected to differentiate between [Dawkins'] advocacy of evolution and his atheism. More than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, after all, and many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality. Dawkins not only reinforces and validates such fears -- baseless though they may be -- but lends them an exclamation point. ...he stands as a particularly stark example of scientists' failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.
This might be an interesting point if Mooney and Nisbet had any idea about how Dawkins should go about things differently. I say that they have no idea about what to do differently because I assume that if they did, they wouldn't keep it to themselves no, they'd spend a lot of time explaining and defending it. Since they spend absolutely no time explaining and defending any alternatives, I must conclude that they have no substantive, productive suggestions about what people like Dawkins should be doing instead.
This fatally and irrevocably destroys both their argument and their credibility. Let's review some of the connected assertions, claims and positions adopted by Mooney and Nisbet, but for which they provide absolutely no supporting evidence whatsoever:
- Dawkins' approach is counter-productive, despite the fact that he is attracting more interest and discussion than most others before him.
- Dawkins has done a poor job at explaining "hot-button issues."
- The public's failure to accept science's conclusions on a number of "hot-button issues" is due to scientists' failure to communicate well and/or because scientists have been too confrontational in presenting their findings as contrary to the public's beliefs.
- Another approach would be more productive, despite the fact that more conciliatory approaches used to be more common without making any apparent headway.
None of the above claims are, in principle, beyond testing and verification. Testing and finding evidence might be difficult in some cases, and some of the evidence might be weak in other cases, but there is no excuse for not offering anything at all. If you think you have a better tactic for explaining a hot-button issue, then test it with focus groups. If you think Dawkins' approach is counter-productive, then test that with focus-groups and compare with the previous results. How are these issues presented today in other industrialized countries? How were they presented back when those countries were still more religious?
Have Mooney and Nisbet even asked any of these questions? Have they even suggested such research to people who might be better equipped to carry it out? If there were any chance at all that alternative approaches would produce significantly better results, then everyone including their harshest critics would want to know as soon as possible.
So in today's America, like it or not, those seeking a broader public acceptance of science must rethink their strategies for conveying knowledge. ...And the Dawkins-inspired "science vs. religion" way of viewing things alienates those with strong religious convictions. Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public's beliefs? Can't science and religion just get along?
Right now, scientists' strategies are to focus on what is true and what is not. Do Mooney and Nisbet argue that scientists should "leave aside" questions about what is and is not true? That seems to be the case when they ask "Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public' beliefs?" Notice that once again, the unstated premise is "Leaving aside the validity of scientists' arguments." It has to be the premise, because once we introduce as a premise the relevancy of truth, the answer to their question is easy.
If scientists are right about something and the public has traditionally believed otherwise, then not portraying their position as contrary to the public's beliefs would entail lying. This, however, is where a serious and productive discussion about "framing" can be employed: just because science has come to conclude something that is contrary to traditional beliefs doesn't mean that scientists necessary have to start banging down people's doors and stating their position in egregiously hostile ways. There will be better and worse ways to explain the truth. There will also be different ways to explain the truth based on context you don't say the same thing in a school that you would say in a church or a scientific symposium.
If this had been the "framing" message Mooney and Nisbet tried to offer, their arguments could be sound and their credibility could remain intact. You cannot "frame" the truth in a way that masks the truth in order to make people feel better about themselves and avoid disrupting traditional assumptions that's spin, nothing more and nothing less. I don't think that it's a coincidence that atheists are currently being "instructed" that they shouldn't be so impolite and disrespectful as to openly and unapologetically state their disagreements with religious theism. The message is essentially the same: don't tell the truth if the truth upsets people.
Framing has to do with the use of particular rhetorical tactics: using certain words, using certain analogies, referencing a group's particular stories in order to connect with them, etc. "Framing" the truth in a manner that helps people connect is a good idea; spinning the truth in order to avoid confrontations with people's false beliefs is a bad idea. If people have false beliefs, they need to learn this especially if those false beliefs are in any way a danger.
You can read more detailed critiques at Pharyngula and Sandwalk. I agree with what Myers and Moran say and didn't want to simply repeat their observations. Instead, I wanted to focus instead on the anti-science attitude of Mooney and Nisbet in how they dismiss the relevancy of truth when it comes to how science must be presented. You can't teach science by ignoring truth, and you certainly can't sell your own approach to teaching science by completely ignoring the fact that you have no evidence to support any of your accusations.
Maybe Mooney and Nisbet are correct in everything they say I doubt it, but it's possible. I'm not going to believe them on faith alone, though, and that's what they are implicitly expecting by making claims and accusations without an iota of evidence. They have ignored their ethical and intellectual obligation to provide reliable, testable evidence to support their theories. I have far more respect for people who have a false belief and sincerely try to make sound, rational arguments in defense of their position than people who even have a correct belief but don't care about providing evidence to support what they claim.
Chris Mooney complains about critics not being "respectful," but who is really lack respect for others here? No one but Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet. Even worse, I don't think they would even recognize this, but it's true. Even their strongest critics haven't suggested that there is no place for an approach that avoids pointing out the contradictions between science and religion they may not think such an approach wise, but I haven't seen them tell others to stop and become more like themselves. I haven't seen any of those who adopt more confrontational methods not acknowledge that a variety of approaches is best. None have said "everyone should take the same confrontational line that I do."
Mooney and Nisbet, however, are doing something very like this: they are telling people like Dawkins and Myers that they shouldn't be confrontational and, furthermore, that they would be more productive if they adopted Mooney's and Nisbet's approach. That's far more disrespectful than anything said about their ideas and their failure to realize this is just one more reason why I've lost so much respect for them.
Update: Chris Mooney attempts a brief response to all the criticism he and Matthew Nisbet have received, singling out the "disingenuous critique circulating out there, which is that we don't give any specifics, or even that we don't back up our argument with data." His response to this is, almost predictably by this point, to provide absolutely no evidence or data to back up his argument. He claims that his original Science article contains all the data, but that's behind a subscription wall and he doesn't even say which claims, specifically, are supported by what kinds of data.
Quite frankly, I doubt that there is any relevant data there from the quotes I've seen of the article, it seems more likely that any evidence and data it references is in support of the general principle of framing being useful. I dont dispute that, so such "evidence" is entirely irrelevant to the critiques I've made here. Chris Mooney is the one being disingenuous, I think.
Finally, it is obviously implied from our argument that for many issues, we don't know what the right frame is...
That isn't obvious to me, but what does strike me as obvious is that Chris Mooney thinks he knows that Dawkins' "frame" (approach) is the wrong one. If knowledge is a justified, true belief, then what justification does he have for claiming that this is true? What, aside from faith, does he offer as a reason for anyone to believe him? I haven't seen any on the contrary, when challenged to provide evidence, he doesn't. As I've written more than once, he may indeed be right but until he can provide evidence which supports his arguments, he has no basis for expecting anyone to believe him.
Matthew Nisbet comments on this post claiming that a comment at Pharyngula answers my questions but I read it before I wrote this post and nothing there even hints at empirical evidence supporting their claims and accusations. I have to ask: do they even understand what is being asked of them? Do they even understand that they have made empirical claims and accusations which have to be supported? The more they respond to critiques, the worse their position becomes.
Update 2: Ebon Muse comments on the editorial:
Part of the reason this piece has drawn such anger is that Mooney and Nisbet appear to be recommending that sincere atheists should shut up about their convictions, or worse, say things they do not actually believe. What if I really do believe that the scientific method is a means of gaining knowledge about the world and religious faith is not? What if I happen to think that uncritical belief in hoary and antiquated dogmas is not the best way to advance our society and may well be counterproductive and dangerous in the long run? As I wrote in a recent post, "On Atheist Fundamentalism", "Should I lie through a pasted-on smile, speaking words I do not believe, just for the sake of ensuring that people I disagree with don't feel bad?" That is insulting - both to me and to the people I would be trying to communicate with - and worse, it is dishonest. ...
If Mooney and Nisbet were merely saying that atheists should take care to phrase their arguments in ways that do not cause needless personal offense or impugn the character of theists in general, I would support them without reservation. I have previously said so myself. But instead, they are asking that we nonbelievers treat religion with kid gloves, that we not voice our opinions at all. No, a thousand times no. I will state my position honestly and without sugarcoating, and I know Richard Dawkins will continue to do so as well; I would be disappointed if he did anything less.
Even if every atheist in the world were to fall silent tomorrow, creationist leaders would continue attacking evolution as evil and godless. And the real problem is that the two of those are seen as equivalent. If atheism is seen as a pejorative, Mooney and Nisbet are saying, then we should accept this as the default state of affairs and make accommodations with it, rather than trying to change people's minds about it. Is it any wonder that an atheist would take umbrage with this proposal?
I recommend reading the full post...