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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

No one has a monopoly on speaking for science - whatever that might mean

In the current debate that has erupted through much of the blogosphere about whether Matt Nisbet was right to tell Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers to shut up and lie low, Nisbet is not getting much support. Still, he's getting some, such as here and here, and I think it's worth taking stock of the fact that no one has a monopoly on speaking for science - if that's a meaningful concept.

Does Dawkins, for example, "speak for science"? No, not if this means acting as a mouthpiece or advocate for the profession of science. He's never claimed to do anything remotely like that. He does, of course, attempt to communicate science to the general public, something he's well suited for and which falls naturally within his duties at Oxford, where his professorial chair relates to "The Public Understanding of Science". I'm sure, however, that he would not dream of claiming that his understanding of the larger implications of science is the only one possible, to the exclusion of that of, say, Francisco Ayala's.

That said, the Nisbets of the world need to understand a crucial fact. Some of us really do think that it's important to undermine the intellectual and moral authority that religion claims (in just about every society, though with diminishing success in some). I'm one of those people. We've come to the conclusion that religion is false, and this is largely because of the conflict between its claims and the well-corroborated scientific image of the world (this very real conflict has been a leading theme in Western culture for quite a while now, as some participants in the current debate have acknowledged).

We have also come to the conclusion that the moral authority and political influence that religion continues to wield in so many societies are dangerous. They lead people to take the wrong stances - and often cruel stances - on a whole range of moral and political issues.

We will keep seeing depressing stories like this every day, until such a time as the political influence of religion recedes.

Let's be clear. People like Dawkins and Myers (and like Udo Schuklenk and me, and many of the people who are reading this post) quite specifically do wish to cast doubt on religion in order to undermine its influence and perceived authority.

That being the case, what better way to do so than to point out the aforementioned conflict between religious worldviews and the worldview arising from the well-established findings of science, backed by mountains of evidence? For many of us, after all, this was a gigantic component in how we came to doubt religion in the first place, and we think the anti-religious arguments are strong. Maybe we're mistaken about this, but that requires a rational philosophical argument, not some communications "expert" telling two of the most prominent advocates of our viewpoint to lie low.

I think there's a sense in which people like Dawkins are, indeed, acting as spokespersons for the scientific worldview or scientific image of the world, in the much same way that some of their opponents act as spokespersons for various religious worldviews even if they don't (as many obviously do) represent a specific church or other such organisation. So, there's a sense in which they do represent the cause of science - if science is viewed as an abstract idea roughly equivalent to "systematic rational inquiry". But I repeat that it does not make Dawkins, etc., spokespersons for the scientific profession, within which many attitudes to religion can be found.

Most importantly, Dawkins and others like him are part of the party of reason: part of the large group of people who want society's direction to be determined more by outcomes from rational thought and inquiry, and less by the influence of religious and moral tradition. Dawkins, in particular, has empowered those of us who belong to this party to speak up and voice our beliefs - and our disbelief in Abrahamic monotheism and other forms of religion - in public.

I'm proud to belong to this group of people - depite, of course, being far less prominent than Dawkins or even Myers.

Nisbet has a different aim. He sees various demographics within the US population that might resist science. These include one or more religious demographics. So he wants to tailor a message to the religious demographic(s), which he takes for granted as part of the cultural landscape. He does not have an agenda of representing reason, or the scientific worldview, in the manner of Dawkins, but of speaking for "science" in some other sense (I can never quite work out what he has in mind by "science", whether it's the organised profession of scientists or what, but I suppose the idea is clear enough for practical purposes). His aim is to make science more popular with the American public as it is, and not to try to transform that bible-loving public's view of the world. His aim necessarily involves using PR spin in a such a way as to minimise or gloss over, or avoid mentioning, the conflict that really does exist between the worldviews of science and religion.

If Nisbet is to pursue this strategy in the short term, with whatever short term benefits it might have, he really has no choice but to wish that people like Dawkins and Myers would shut up. It was pretty rude of him to actually say it, but of course he must think it.

If you take the Nisbet approach, you will necessarily find yourself constantly opposing the work of people like Dawkins, who really are engaged in a social struggle against the authority of religion ... fought from an intellectual position based in the worldview of science. To try to achieve his shorter-term PR goals, Nisbet is inevitably at loggerheads with what I referred to as the party of reason.

Now, if you don't actually care about the authority of religion, I suppose you should side with Nisbet on the issue of how science should be communicated and what should be said about the tension, or conflict, between science and religion. Even if you're in Nisbet's camp, though, you have to realise that what Dawkins and others are doing is a perfectly legitimate activity in a free society. Telling them to shut up and lie low (and, in effect, to abandon their larger aims) because their message doesn't suit your own agenda is, to say the least, pretty damn rude.

18 comments:

Blake Stacey said...

In your last three paragraphs, you've got a few "Nesbits" which need a vowel-swap operation, and the first 'graph has a "Nibet".

As to the larger debate currently unfolding, I have two hypotheses:

First, the concept of "framing science" as advocated by Nisbet, Mooney and Kirshenbaum has by now vanishingly little to do with the studies of "framing" as a social and psychological phenomenon. To the best of my knowledge, that term designates a model (due to Lakoff and friends) of how people think about and respond to the messages they receive. Nisbet's writings confuse this general study — which might be useful in finding the best way to send any message — with the particular strategy he wants to use. Consequently, the word "framing" itself has been tarnished: in the science-blogging world, instead of denoting a general body of psycho-sociological knowledge, it denotes the specific antics of Matt Nisbet.

Honestly, from what I've read on the subject, PZ and Dawkins have shown a better grasp of the practical politics than any of the self-proclaimed frameologists. Way back when, Nisbet was the one telling us that we shouldn't force technical details of science upon the public, but now that the creationists' sheer arrogance and stupidity have given us a wonderful opportunity to provoke negative emotional responses against them, to discredit them on moral and ethical grounds without a long biology lesson — now, Nisbet gets upset.

As I said at Laelaps:

I think it is a fairly uncontroversial point that good communicators tailor their statements to their audiences; that people rely on cognitive "shortcuts"; that emotions can trump logic, particularly in situations removed from familiar experience. As a physics boffin, my natural instinct is to doubt just how rigorously the sociologists have studied these things — nyah, nyah, I've got the hard science — but the basic ideas ring true. However, the study of how messages are received by different listeners does not by itself determine the message that must be sent. The former topic involves "is" questions, whose answers we know but vaguely, while the latter aspect hinges on "ought" questions, and in any forum which embraces Enlightenment pluralism, answers to "ought" questions should not by decided by fiat and imposed through censorship.

Blake Stacey said...

Oops, my first paragraph is now irrelevant.

Anyway, the other thing I wanted to say is that this whole kerfuffle — which seems to come up with monotonous regularity, every time certain people get antsy about the "swing voters" — is, by now, only distracting us from other problems in science blogging and, more generally, in the popular exposition of science.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, Blaek, er Bealk, er, Blake, I sometimes don't pick up typos until I've gone to print.

I'll get to rest of you commentary in a minute. :)

Russell Blackford said...

That should have been "your commentary." :)

Yeah it is a distraction, though I think I've at least achieved some clarity as to why Nisbet, etc., see the world as the do, to the extent of wanting committed and outspoken rationalists like Dawkins to shut up.

Russell Blackford said...

Dammit, "as they do."

Mike said...

Surely some one who holds the position of "Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science" is *obliged* to speak out for science.

frogworth said...

Just popping over to give you a "Hell yeah" to this post.

The Flying Trilobite said...

Excellent comments, Russell.

I understand why the idea of framing science for a religious public without undue ruffling of feathers may get say, temporary funding for something, or a concession here and there on what textbooks say in classrooms, but other than that I think Nisbet is arguing for what amounts to a delay in educating the public.

In the long run, I think Dawkins (& Harris & Shermer & Dennett & Stenger & Hitchens & Hirsi Ali) have done everyone a favour by dragging the science/religion clash into the open.

Duae Quartunciae said...

From the post:
"I'm sure, however, that he would not dream of claiming that his understanding of the larger implications of science is the only one possible, to the exclusion of that of, say, Francisco Ayala's.

I don't get this: your own post on Ayala's book (Ayala's Darwin's Gift) suggests he's making trivial errors. Why would you think Dawkins would admit Ayala's understanding of larger questions was at all sensible?

Dawkins seems to believe he's RIGHT to see religion and science in irreconcilable conflict. He has no trouble holding up to derision various alternative understandings of the larger implications, and I'm positive Dawkins would consider Ayala's notions of larger implications to be arrant nonsense.

Interestingly, Ayala has far more standing as a scientist than does Richard Dawkins. Ayala has less public visibility; but as a scientist he is genuinely outstanding, with decades of active research that has had a profound influence on the development of evolutionary biology as science. Ayala is the one for actually doing the research and theory that presses the envelope of scientific knowledge.

Dawkins was solidly competent as a scientist, but not head and shoulders above others in the way that Ayala is. Dawkins has not really worked as a scientist for a long time: he is basically an exceptionally good popularizer. He is the one for distilling basic concepts and making them accessible to a wide audience. Long may he continue.

Plainly, religion does not prevent you from being an outstanding scientist. I don't share Ayala's view on the larger questions at all; but I recognize that this is not an empirical question that can be resolved by experiment or scientific method.

The issue can still be argued substantively. I think it would be good for the whole science and religion and education issue if more people like Ayala spoke up for a reconciliation of science with belief in God.

John Pieret said...

To follow up on Chris' point:

Do Francisco Ayala, Ken Miller, Francis Collins, Theodosius Dobzhansky, R.A. Fisher, et al. share this "scientific worldview" you talk about? If not -- if fine scientists don't see this "conflict" between the "religious worldview" and the "scientific worldview" -- is it right or fair to call the contrary to the religious worldview "scientific"? Shouldn't it be "materialistic" or "atheistic" world view and clearly labeled as such?

Russell Blackford said...

John, it's a worldview that arises from the endeavour of science and I have no compunction about calling it that. Call it "scientific naturalism" if you want, but I the point is that it's based on the scientific image of the world, as opposed to the manifest image. You can disagree ... I am putting matters of opinion that are highly disputed. But you're going to need a better argument.

Whoever doubts that there is a tension or conflict between the image of the world coming out of science and the image of the world traditionally favoured by religion, well you're entitled to argue that, but you can't argue it simply on the basis that some scientists are Christians. That's scarcely relevant. Historically, science did, indeed, come into conflict with religious doctrine because the two sets of ideas contained content that was inconsistent. I argue that that is still the case (I can't put the full argument here in the space of a blog comment; it would require a book or at least a lengthy article ... but surely the lines of the argument are clear enough, and they need a response that shows how the appearance of inconsistency is an illusion).

duae ... Dawkins may well believe that Ayala is wrong. I'm sure he does. That wasn't my point. The point is that Ayala gets to have his say about whether religion and science are compatible. No one is trying to suppress his views. Let him say what he likes and argue that his is the true scientific worldview (or however he'd like to put it). He's entitled to that opinion and to argue for it, just as I am entitled to disagree with it (but not to request that he shut up).

Duae Quartunciae said...

Thanks John. I misunderstood your point then.

I agree with you. It is absurd to tell Dawkins, or Ayala, to shut up. What makes Nisbet such a waste of space is that he doesn't actually say anything useful at all that I have seen. He bewails that the people he disagrees with are daring to speak up; and in the process shows up as a perfectly hopeless practitioner of what he is supposedly an expert in. He seems to be a complete nitwit. Whether Matt shuts up or not is entirely up to him. He's welcome to carry on, however incompetently.

John gives a concise and telling argument for there being a problem of conflating "scientific" with the hardnosed atheistic materialism of Dawkins, Myers and myself. The argument is: if there are significant numbers of outstanding scientists (omit Collins and Miller, who are perfectly good scientists but not up at the superlative level of Fisher, Ayala and Dobzhansky) who do reconcile the scientific and religious theistic view points, then this is of itself is good reason to be skeptical of calling philosophical atheistic materialism a "scientific" position.

There are other arguments, if you want them. It comes down to what is meant by "scientific". Scientific is tightly bound up in empirical investigations. Philosophical atheistic materialism (my own metaphysical position) is not a scientific theory which can be addressed as an empirical testable model.

Empirical science can, of course, address and leave in smoking ruins many attempts to put theistic religion and science together. But scientific arguments do not address Ayala's rather rarefied and distant abstraction of a God. I think Ayala is wrong; but it is not his science I object to, and I don't see him giving scientific arguments for God, nor do I give scientific arguments for disbelieving God.

My atheistic metaphysics is not a scientific theory. Calling it "scientific materialism" is, I think, confusing the methodological materialism that seeks to discover how the world works by looking at material things; and the philosophical materialism that many but not all scientists adopt as a general worldview, for reasons that extend beyond the scope of science.

John Pieret said...

Cris puts my argument well. You either have to say that Fisher, Ayala and Dobzhansky don't/didn't have "scientific wordviews" (an empirically false statement, I think), that there is no necessary conflict between a "scientific wordview" and a "religious wordview" or give some less generalized definition of the "religious wordview" you are talking about.

There are already perfectly good terms for this divide: "empiricism" vs. "non- or anti-empiricism." Fisher, Ayala and Dobzhansky were/are empiricists about the material world who do not allow for the possibility of revelation or religious tradition trumping the empiric facts of the world. If you want to include more in your "scientific worldview" -- say that there is nothing outside the material world, which is not a scientific result but a philosophical stance -- then you are into materialism and/or atheism and should say so.

Blake Stacey said...

The argument is: if there are significant numbers of outstanding scientists (omit Collins and Miller, who are perfectly good scientists but not up at the superlative level of Fisher, Ayala and Dobzhansky) who do reconcile the scientific and religious theistic view points, then this is of itself is good reason to be skeptical of calling philosophical atheistic materialism a "scientific" position.

Maybe I just haven't had enough caffeine today to parse things through, but to me, this doesn't make sense. It seems to partake of two fallacies: first, that scientists must behave with total scientific rigor in every moment of their lives, and second, that a position can only be "scientific" when it is endorsed by an overbearing majority of scientists. The second idea is manifestly contrary to the way that science operates: we have different explanations for observable phenomena which have varying degrees of experimental support and enjoy the favor of different people, we hold these explanations to the touchstone, we see which ones survive, and we grant those survivors our provisional approval. The whole process requires a diversity of opinion.

As to the former point, well, you can take a broad view of the "scientific method" like, e.g., Haack and Sokal, who essentially say, "Look, what we do in the lab is just a bullet-proofed version of what the auto mechanic does to figure out why your car won't start." The methods of science, if not the conclusions, are like the evidence-based reasoning employed in everyday life — but they are made more rigorous. We insist on quantitative exactitude, repeatability, control groups and so forth.

Third, I suppose, one should consider that a Fisher or a Dobzhansky often "reconciles" their scientific worldview with a "religion" which to the good churchgoers of Huntsville, Alabama is as good as atheism, but that's an old argument.

Fourth: maybe this is just me being cranky, but does it bother anybody else when a person takes their overarching sense of wonder at the Universe, bundles it together with some philosophical questions and maybe a few things science hasn't gotten around to answering yet, and tags it all with the name of one particular Near Eastern storm god from the Bronze Age? I just don't get the point of it.

Finally, and now I know I'm just being grumpy, but Fisher and Dobzhansky are dead. How long before we file them with, say, Isaac Newton, in the department of "science knows more now than it did then, so their theism is perfectly irrelevant"?

Duae Quartunciae said...

Nobody behaves with scientific rigor in everything. And in particular, Ayala's religious views are certainly not scientific.

They don't conflict with any scientific models either. I share the bemusement that anyone would bother; but that is not the point at issue.

To be scientific, the idea has to be based on a model or description of phenomena in the natural world, and constrained or refined in the light of empirical observations of some kind. I take a generous view of this; to include ideas that are at present impossible to test (like some ideas in theoretical physics) since they are still strongly constrained by empirical evidence and since the difficulty of testing is a matter of degree rather than being necessarily impossible.

The naturalistic metaphysics used by you, and I, and Dawkins, and many others, is reasonable, and arguable; but it is not an empirical scientific model like string theory or evolution.

Dobzhansky and Fisher have special relevance because of their central role in the development of modern evolutionary biology, and in particular the synthesis of genetics with Darwin's theory of selection. Since this theory is at present the major focus for the science religion wars, these scientists have a direct relevance in a way that Newton does not.

Glenn Borchardt said...

Looks like many of you might be interested in my new book: "The Scientific Worldview" (see www.thescientificworldview.com). It is the most definitive study to date and clearly supports Russell's position that science and religion are irreconcilable.

John Pieret said...

Third, I suppose, one should consider that a Fisher or a Dobzhansky often "reconciles" their scientific worldview with a "religion" which to the good churchgoers of Huntsville, Alabama is as good as atheism, but that's an old argument.

That's my objection to Russell's use of the term "religious worldview" though (never mind that science is not a "worldview"). There are significantly different concepts going under the rubric "religion" and to lump them all together and declare that they are all in conflict with science amounts to a false dichotomy.

Russell Blackford said...

I'll look forward to your book, Glenn.

I do see the point of those who are saying that there's something a bit tendentious about calling a worldview the scientific worldview ... though arguably that's pretty much what it it is: it's the worldview that best reflects the implications of science.

That said, I concede that there is a gap between what has come out of science - such as the concepts natural selection, deep time, and so on - and the inference that we live in a disenchanted universe. To get from one to the other is to move out of science into philosophy. I don't think this much affects the thesis of my original post, but it's an important point.

Maybe Glenn will do a better job of nailing this down than I'm doing. As so often, it requires a book to develop the points properly, with all the necessary qualifications, so I'll just say that it seems to me that the worldview for which people like Dawkins argue is, in fact, a philosophical worldview that is based on, and reflects, what Dawkins (and I) see as the philosophical implications of science. We see the image of the universe given to us by science as in severe tension with the various religious images of the world (note the plural for "images" ... I usually manage to remember this, and thought that I'd done so earlier in this discussion).

Of course, Dawkins and I might turn out to be wrong. I don't deny that; I don't claim certainty for any of my conclusions.