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.