Sunday, April 15, 2007

Has Nisbet and Mooney lost it?

Ok, first of all, I have a great deal of respect for Chris Mooney and his writing (Nisbet's I don't really know, so I can't comment on it), and I think Mooney and Nisbet have some good ideas that they are trying to sell to scientists and science communicators. As I said before, I think their ideas are flawed, but I am withholding futher judgement until I've read the papers Nisbet has sent me on the subject of framing.

What I won't withhold judgement about is their Washington Post opinion piece Thanks for the Facts. Now Sell Them

It contains some good parts, but the start of it is so completely and utterly problematic that I can't help disregard everything else in it.

If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it's hard to see how they could do better than Richard Dawkins, the famed Oxford scientist who had a bestseller with "The God Delusion." Dawkins, who rose to fame with his lucid expositions of evolution in such books as "The Selfish Gene," has never gone easy on religion. But recently he has ramped up his atheist message, further mixing his defense of evolution with his attack on belief.

I know this is not a science paper, or even an opinion piece in a science magazine, but basing you whole premise on some undocumented postulate is exactly what science is not about.
Dawkins is a best-selling author, and The God Delusion has been on the top 10 NY Times bestseller list, and Dawkins was chosen (by readers) as the Reader's Digest Author of the Year (British Book Awards). So he is obviously doing something right with The God Delusion.

Also, seen from the outside, it seems like Dawkins (and Harris, Dennet etc.) has managed to change the whole US debate about religion, arguing that religious claims must be evaluated in the light of science, or be disregarded. In other words, Dawkins (and others) have changed the debate in the US so religious people must make positive claims in defense of the their religion, rather than dismiss science when it doesn't fit the religion.
How does that help the adversaries of evolution? The hard-core fundamentalists cannot be convinced of evolution, and no matter how you phrase it, they won't be convinced. The moderates on the other hand, can be convinced, but they need to hear that there is another side - something they didn't until people like Dawkins came along.
They might find Dawkins' ideas frightening, but they will make them think. Then, when a moderate atheist or a theist who believes in evolution explains the concepts in a more religious friendly way, they will perhaps believe.

In other words, Dawkins has reframed the whole US debate. Instead of using him as an example of how not to do things, Mooney and Nisbet should look at what he did, and use it as an example of how you can change the whole frame of the public debate, rather than reframe your own ideas to fit the debate on the premise of others.

To borrow a creationist principle, Nisbet and Mooney are talking about micro-framing, while Dawkins have been doing macro-framing.

Now, I am willing to admit that I could be mistaken in all this, but unless Nisbet and Mooney has some documentation for their postulate, I find it unlikely. Instead I would suggest that Nisbet and Mooney in the future focus on explaining their ideas, and leave out personal opinions about other peoples' books out of it. It will only drown out their message, and make those of us who disagree with their postulates about those books (and authors) ignore the real message they want to put forth.

There is of course a whole bunch of posts about the op-ed over at the ScienceBlogs, but instead of pointing to all of them, I'll point to a post by ERV: Okay, Chris, Matt-- Stop digging. Stop it.

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Blogger Bora Zivkovic said...

"They might find Dawkins' ideas frightening, but they will make them think. Then, when a moderate atheist or a theist who believes in evolution explains the concepts in a more religious friendly way, they will perhaps believe."

That is exactly the point of M&N. And you must have not read my posts on this, because I spend a lot of time distinguishing between micro and macro framing (which I call short-term and long-term).

Matt and Chris focus only on the short-term. Critics think only in terms of long-term.

Confusion ensues.

April 15, 2007 11:14 AM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Coturnix, while I can see that you might be talking about the same with your short-term and long-term, I was thinking 'micro' and 'macro' in the more economical sense (which I of course didn't make easy for others to guess, with my reference to creationists). I don't think that Dawkins is particularly long-term, rather I'd say that Matt and Chris' approach is the long-term one, since we'll have to re-sell new science every time, instead of being able to base it on existing science.

I do agree with you that both approaches are needed.

April 15, 2007 9:38 PM  

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