25 March 2008

Who speaks for science? Or, why loud atheists are NOT the problem

Last Friday I mentioned a dispute surrounding the comments of some of the advocates of "framing" in science communications. The claim was that the engagement of pseudoscience – or what I would call folk science – is unwise, at least because the attention "enables" the purveyors of such swill. That's an interesting topic of discussion, but the debate has morphed, and the heat turned up on both sides, because the focus in now on the deliciously ironic expulsion of PZ Myers (but not his chum, the occupant of the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford) from the screening of a propaganda film. I think the discussion is now about something a lot bigger than just "enabling" pseudoscience.

In the unlikely event that you haven't heard about the PZ Myers-Dawkins-Expelled "fiasco," I refer you to Greg Laden's links and/or to the New York Times (no joke).

I'll skip the whole "framing" thing for now, except to note that it involves controversial proposals regarding effective means of communicating science to the public. Here is what Matt Nisbet, a blogger at ScienceBlogs (and a well-known advocate of "framing") wrote about the prominent roles played recently by PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins in the response to some new ID propaganda:

The simplistic and unscientific claim that more knowledge leads to less religion might be the particular delusion of Dawkins, Myers, and many others, but it is by no means the official position of science, though they often implicitly claim to speak for science. Nor does it stand up to mounds of empirical evidence about the complex relationship between science literacy and public perceptions.

Unfortunately, you couldn't focus group a better message for the pro-creationist crowd. And this message is already reaching well beyond the theaters, on display most recently with the PZ Myers Affair chronicled at the NY Times.

As long as Dawkins and PZ continue to be the representative voices from the pro-science side in this debate, it is really bad for those of us who care about promoting public trust in science and science education. Dawkins and PZ need to lay low as Expelled hits theaters. Let others play the role of communicator, most importantly the National Center for Science Education, AAAS, the National Academies or scientists such as Francis Ayala or Ken Miller. When called up by reporters or asked to comment, Dawkins and PZ should refer journalists to these organizations and individuals.

The call for PZ and Dawkins to shut up has drawn significant ire in the blogosphere; I would recommend Orac at Respectful Insolence and Brian at Laelaps as sources of principled resistance on that count, and I share their indignation at the call for self-censorship.

But there's been relatively little emphasis on why Nisbet wants PZ and Dawkins to shut up. I think it's pretty clear that Nisbet is saying this: PZ and Dawkins are outspoken atheists, and ruthless critics of religion, who make controversial and/or erroneous statements, and therefore ought not be speaking for science, at least because their anti-religious fervor can hurt the credibility of science in the public eye. And he's right on every count. But he's wrong to suggest, then, that PZ and Dawkins ought to be silenced. (That he seeks voluntary muzzling is, to me, completely irrelevant.)

I maintain that if we have an "outspoken atheists" problem, the way to solve it is not to silence the voices with which we disagree, but to engage them, debate them, even refute them. Here are some thoughts on how to do that.

1. Put Myers and Dawkins into a more complete context. They're both science writers of renown, because they're both brilliant thinkers and wordsmiths. But neither is a scientist of any significant distinction. Dawkins hasn't published in the professional literature in more than three decades, and Myers' last notable contribution to a science journal was in 1993. It's not an insult to either of these guys to simply note that neither is active in serious scientific research. (Sorry, but some of us who are still working our asses off in the lab get a little testy about how the title 'scientist' gets used.) It's hard to exaggerate the difference between the scholarly achievements of Francisco Ayala and Richard Dawkins; the exalted title of the latter surely contributes to a spectacularly inflated perception of his professional achievements. The exaltation of Richard Dawkins (as a scientist) is not unlike the hilarious fawning over the unremarkable accomplishments of a certain biochemist at Lehigh University, whose CV actually dwarfs that of the estimable atheist ayatollah.

Look, I like PZ, and I like Dawkins. I like reading their work, and everyone can learn from their writing. But let's help the world understand that PZ is a science blogger and college teacher, and that Dawkins is a science writer and not much more. If I were Allen Orr or Sean Carroll, I'd be just a little annoyed that the New York Times referred to PZ as an 'evolutionary biologist', and it wouldn't matter that I happen to agree with much of what he says.

2. Add voices, don't remove them. If science is as diverse as it claims to be, there are surely scientists (maybe even real scientists) who can repudiate the religious claims of the New Atheists. Perhaps whole societies and organizations (such as those cited by Nisbet) will add their voices, not just to the condemnation of ID propaganda, but also to the rejection of anti-religious vendettas launched in the name of science.

We don't need to silence Myers and Dawkins; we need to refute them if and when they claim to speak for science against belief. And we need to speak as scientists, in defense of the integrity of our profession and in defense of our fellow scientists who are being marginalized by atheological fervor, not as slick spinmeisters who know that our grant success rates depend on our silencing of a subset of our colleagues.

And if that doesn't convince you, just try to imagine what it looks like to outsiders when a community tries to shush one of its embarrassingly obnoxious members. It seems to me that this is easily seen (perhaps accurately) as outright dishonesty. Are there some scientists who are skeptics, and who are hostile to religious belief? Of course there are. So?

3. Hold the scientific community accountable for how it responds to misuse of its name. Instead of blaming Myers and Dawkins for doing what they do best, exert moral pressure on the rest of science to be clearer about what is and isn't a legitimate invocation of the authority of science. Christians, after all, are rightly suspected of moral failure when/if they fail to condemn outrages perpetrated in their name. Why should this not be expected of scientists? And while no human can find the time to answer every summons to repudiate the idiocy of fellow travelers, the world has a right to ponder whether relative silence signals tacit approval.

We have some loud atheists who like to pretend that it is science, and not unbelief, that is in conflict with belief. Shall we silence them? OF COURSE NOT. We should thank them for getting some important questions into the public square, then we should make it quite clear that their efforts have little to do with science, and everything to do with their perfectly legitimate but completely religious convictions.

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