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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, March 30, 2009

Praise the Lord for Matt Nisbet

In a new post on his esteemed blog Framing Science, the acclaimed communications expert and general polymath, Matt Nisbet turns his nimble wits to a fiercely burning question. I'm sure we've all been holding our breaths, waiting for an answer.

Has Richard Dawkins breached an ethical boundary in his various attempts to criticise and undermine religion? More specifically, could Dawkins have acted unethically when he's argued that the well-corroborated findings of evolutionary biology undermine religious faith and (as Nisbet puts it with characteristic understatement) undermine "respect for all religious faith"?

It will, of course, be obvious to my readers that religious faith itself is something that must receive "respect"; it's not sufficient that we respect the right of individuals to believe religious doctrines, and to engage in religious rituals and other practices, if they wish.

Nisbet elaborates how the National Academy of Science (NAS) and related bodies in the US used market research to decide what messages to present to the American public. Having researched the issue, with focus groups and a survey of course, the NAS decided to announce that religion and science are compatible.

Clearly, this is how you do it. For example, it would be wrong to check whether any particular religions or sects make claims that are inconsistent with robust, well-corroborated scientific findings. That's obviously irrelevant. Furthermore, it would be quite wrong to consider any more (shall we say?) philosophical issues. For example, might there be an argument that even some of the more moderate versions of Abrahamic monotheism include doctrines that are in tension with the emerging image of the world offered by science? How well does the idea of a loving and providential deity square with the millions of years of suffering produced by the slow processes of biological evolution?

You and I might not expect the NAS to take a stand on questions like that. We might think that the compatibility of science with religion would be a matter of some legitimate controversy. If we thought like that - silly us - we might then think it inappropriate for bodies such as the NAS to adopt a position one way or the other. After all, we'd say, philosophers of religion disagree among themselves on this, as do individual scientists, so why is it appropriate for a professional body to take a stand? But we'd be wrong. Obviously the issue can be settled by sufficiently well-planned market research involving focus groups, surveys, etc. In this case, the research told the NAS that they should present material to the public that included "a prominent three page special color section that features testimonials from religious scientists, religious leaders and official church position statements, all endorsing the view that religion and evolution are compatible." Yay!

This is how to settle a philosophical debate!

By similar reasoning, someone like Dawkins is wrong - morally wrong, that is - when he presents arguments to the public, largely based on science, in an effort to cast doubt on religion.

Again, you and I might think that he has every moral and legal right to do so, while other scientists and philosophers have a right to criticise his arguments, all of which are, of course, controversial. I, for example, find Dawkins' favourite argument, the so-called Ultimate 747 Gambit, somewhat puzzling and inconclusive. It has been criticised by many people, including some prominent philosophers. But it may also have some merit, or at least some interest, depending on how it is interpreted and what assumptions we are prepared to make. In that case, we might have thought - silly us - that the thing to do would be to let people argue about it. You know? Perhaps a worthwhile body of philosophical literature might then grow up, scrutinising the merit of the argument from all angles. Isn't that how it usually works?

But, yet again, we'd be wrong. Nisbet is made of sterner stuff than we are. Rather than studying and debating the cogency of Dawkins' actual arguments, he explains, we can cut through all that like a two-edged sword chopping up a brace of sinners. We can then conclude that Dawkins acted unethically in, for example, writing The God Delusion. In doing so - and of course going somewhat further in his criticism of the rationality of religious belief and the social value of religion - Dawkins does not merely "denigrate various social groups", but, worse (it seems) he "gives resonance to the false narrative of social conservatives that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda".

So there we have it. When the NAS takes a stance on a highly controversial issue in philosophy of religion, based on market research suggesting that this will help make science appear more acceptable to the American public, that is ethical behaviour. It is certainly not, as you and I might have thought, a meretricious exercise in intellectual dishonesty. But when Dawkins presents his sincerely-held views, relying partly (though by no means entirely) on arguments from his own area of scientific expertise, that is an unethical exercise in denigrating social groups and, yes, in Giving Resonance (don't worry too much what that expression might actually mean) to the paranoid fantasy, er narrative, "that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda". Never mind that Dawkins has never made such a claim; one must always be very careful not to go around Giving Resonance.

Now that that's cleared up, I expect that Nisbet will soon turn his skills to whether mathematicians should argue for mathematical platonism or some other philosophical account of the ontological status of mathematical abstracta. A bit of market research should clear it up quick smart. You and I - silly us - probably thought that this little difficulty in the philosophy of mathematics was intractable, but it's certainly not beyond Nisbet's powers.

Next, he could turn his Ozymandian insight to resolving the long-running grudge between the utilitarian and Kantian teams of normative theorists; no doubt, a market survey would establish which view would be better received by the American electorate.

Before we're through and have shuffled off our mortal coils, Nisbet could clear up all the central questions of philosophy, while establishing once and for all that any views contrary to his market research must not be argued for in public. Certainly they must not be presented with any passion. This denigrates groups of right-thinking American people who disagree, and it Gives Resonance to a False Narrative.

Matt Nisbet is now an expert on ethics and everything else. With a little bit of market research, he'll solve all our problems in no time. Why were we so worried about them in the first place? Just silly us, I suppose.

Hallelujah, and praise the Lord for Matt Nisbet!


Robin Edgar said...

Praise the Lord for Richard Dawkins and other less than bright Brights. Who would have thought that dogmatic evangelical atheists would ever give God free publicity by advertising that God *probably* doesn't exist, thus implying that God might well exist. . . on buses around the world? When was the last time buses drove all over town displaying ads with the word God on them? 1977 perhaps?

Blake Stacey said...

LOL at "Ozymandian insight". And, actually, looking at the comic-book version of his story, he could plausibly be played by Matthew Goode in the movie.

Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair. . . .

Steve Zara said...

I have been researching Buddhism recently, and I was quite surprised to come across a statement that was supposedly made by the Buddha, which said basically that public statements of faith are political acts, and are not deserving of respect. This idea has been around for millenia, yet seems to have been largely forgotten in Western societies. Public declarations of membership of a faith are, said the Buddha (allegedly) equivalent to declarations of membership of a political party. No-one complains about evidence undermining the policies of a particular political group. We don't "frame" ideas so as to avoid offending the opposition.

Anyway, I thought I would mention this, as I had previously only recently come across the positioning of any faith-based statement as political, and I was surprised to see for how long this idea has been around.

John Pieret said...

Now it's clear that Nisbet is being an ass. And I certainly hope that the NAS didn't determine its position based on market research (nor do I have any particular reason to believe Nisbet on that point). On the other hand, I don't think it would be pernicious to consult focus groups on how best to convey those positions.

But I don't see the problem with the NAS making the statement that "Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith." The evidence the NAS gave in support of it was the statements made by various religious sects and individuals. The evidence against compatibility that I most often see amounts to atheists or secularists arguing that theists are wrong about their own beliefs. I can't see on what objective grounds they can make that claim ... unless they are saying that religion is, in fact, an objective exercise in the first place. But atheists and secularists generally deny that premise, as do the types of religion that generally find no problem with evolution (attributing it, instead, to "faith").

On more prosaic terms, suppose a liberal organization was to issue a statement that, despite the fact that some "sects" of conservatism -- say, fascism -- are incompatable with democracy, conservatism is not automatically incompatable with democracy. Some liberals might certainly object. However, doesn't that critically depend on the definition of "conservatism"? And who gets to define the term, conservatives or liberals?

H.H. said...

John Pieret, because religious faith can arrive at whatever conclusions it fancies, those conclusions may be in agreement with the findings of science. But arriving at whatever conclusions one fancies is directly at odds with the methodology of science. So the tension isn't always about what people's beliefs might be, but at how they arrived at those beliefs in the first place. So there's more than one way to be incompatible.

K said...

Brilliantly written!

Hank Bones said...

It will, of course, be obvious to my readers that religious faith itself is something that must receive "respect"; it's not sufficient that we respect the right of individuals to believe religious doctrines, and to engage in religious rituals and other practices, if they wish.

So I suppose we must respect the rights of folks who think genital mutilation is a good thing? Or nutjobs who murder their infant children, then demand to be absolved of the crime should their slain child be resurrected according to their faith?

What a load of moral-relativist BS. Faith deserves as much respect as psychosis.

Jared said...

While we must reach out to those outside of the scientific community and seek to educate them in at least the narrative versions of what we have learned over the years, attempting to remove all the neat parts which cast doubt upon one's unsubstantiated beliefs may very well be the worst thing we can do to well done scientific research.

Hank Bones said...

Ack. Should have read the whole post and/or grasped the sarcasm before writing that comment. I'm so used to seeing creationist crap linked from Pharyngula, I just salivate/froth Pavlovianly every time PZ puts up a new post.

My sincerest apologies Sir DrDr.

Anonymous said...

Ah, those generalities will kill you every time. Let me fix it:

It will, of course, be obvious to my readers, excepting Hank Bones, the reader who is so thick he wouldn't recognize it if we plastered it on a bus, that religious faith itself is something that must receive "respect".

All better now.

Hank Bones said...


I deserved that. No more commenting while in a bad mood and hoping to pick a fight.

To bed with me, without a snack.

Physicalist said...

Praise the Lord for that post! Brilliant!

Evolving Squid said...

>>religious faith itself is something that must receive "respect"


Why is religious faith special?

Why is religious faith not required to EARN respect, as we teach our children and generally expect of everyone else in society?

By what special providence is religous faith set on this pedestal above other beliefs?

Why can a religious belief not be criticized like any other belief?

Why do the religious feel they are owed respect?

Why do the religious feel they should not have to earn respect?

Just how far does the blanket pronouncement on respect for religious belief extend? Sure, it's easy to say "well, the big 3 desert religions, Buddhism and Hinduism because there are a billion of them, maybe some Chinese religions." What about Scientology? What about the modern druids and other pagans? What about the people who worship Thor to this day? Can I make up my own religion and saddle the world with this magical burden of respect? Where is the line drawn and why?

These should be easy questions to answer without referring to any magic or holy book, since doing so would simply invalidate the logic - the holy book or magic wouldn't apply to non-believers in that faith. If this respect is owed, there must be a universal, secular reason why.

Please state it.

Evolving Squid said...

It goes without saying, I hope, that my questions are intended for religious people, which means it may not get answered here.

Search engine might draw a few though. that could be exciting.

Russell Blackford said...

Um, Evolving Squid ... er, I'm just wondering whether you read the whole post.

I thought I was laying on the sarcasm a bit too thick, if anything. I suppose I should be relieved at the confusion I've caused a couple of people ... I must have been more subtle than I thought.

Can I step back into character now, or do I need to explain? ...

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, I've read the new E. Squad comment. So you were just playing along, yes?

clinteas said...

A PhD and pharyngulation,all in one day,wow !!

I also notice from your well written post that Nisbet is concerned.

Sven DiMIlo said...

Nisbet's concerned; I'm concerned. I'm lecturing today on excitation-contraction coupling in skeletal muscle and I am unfamiliar with any market research that might shed light on what narratives to which I might inadvertantly be giving resonance. And I don't have time to convene a focus group! Can anybody help? Ozzy?

deadman_932 said...

Excellent evisceration, Mr. Blackford.

On Nisbet's blog, several people pointed out the recent intrusion of a particular religious figure -- *cough*Pope*cough* -- in regards to the efficacy of condoms in preventing AIDS. This, of course has the real-world potential of human death as a result of such meddling.

Yet, Nisbet's position brands scientists who speak out against such frankly evil pseudoscience as "immoral" because they're not placating the scientifically illiterate masses.

I imagine Nisbet might have advised Galileo to say (apocryphally) "Well, maybe it [the Earth] *doesn't* move and the Biblical Joshua's "miracle" in stopping the SUN from "moving" was just a matter of relative truth and we'd all have been better served by playing to the polls."

Nisbet is a genuinely deserving target since, ultimately, he's arguing that dishonesty is of greater ethical/moral value.

Logicel said...

Well done, Dr. Dr. Russell. Enjoyed the snark greatly. Bisous.

Nisbet is an liability to the field of Communications.

heddle said...

"It goes without saying, I hope, that my questions are intended for religious people, which means it may not get answered here."

I am a very religious person, as some who posted comments here can attest. I'd like to take a shot at Evolving Squid's questions since he said they were intended for religious people.

Q1: Why is religious faith special?

A: It's not. It is a matter of personal choice.

Q2: Why is religious faith not required to EARN respect, as we teach our children and generally expect of everyone else in society?

A: It is required to earn respect.

Q3: By what special providence is religous faith set on this pedestal above other beliefs?

A: None. It is not set on a pedestal above other beliefs.

Q4: Why can a religious belief not be criticized like any other belief?

A: It can be and often is. Aren’t you doing it?

Q5: Why do the religious feel they are owed respect?

A: We don't—just respect our right to practice our religion. You do not have to like us personally or avoid criticizing our beliefs. In fact, go for it! (Request: Try to be clever though—try to be more like Bertrand Russell and less like Richard Dawkins—it makes the criticism more interesting. But of course you are not obligated to be smart in your criticism. That is, you too must earn respect.)

Q6: Why do the religious feel they should not have to earn respect?

A: Is there some difference between "EARN respect" (Q2) and "earn respect" (Q6)? Because I think you already asked this. I'll repeat my answer: we do have to earn respect.

Q7: Just how far does the blanket pronouncement on respect for religious belief extend?

A: There is no blanket pronouncement on respect for religious belief. You are not required to respect my beliefs. My beliefs in fact predict that you won't respect my beliefs. I don't give a rat's ass that you don't respect my beliefs.

Mark Jones said...

Excellent blog.

Comment by Heddle: good answers. No doubt you will be standing up for the right to blaspheme on September 30th.

Anonymous said...

A Gold Star to Hank Bones for realising his mistake and accepting criticism with good humour.

No star to Heddle for answering Evolving Squid's questions in such a way as to suggest ES is being petty when he (Heddle) knows perfectly well that a huge number, if not the vast majority, of believers DO think that religious belief is special and above criticism.

RonBrown said...


I was getting quite frustrated until I discovered that it was sarcastic :)

Evolving Squid said...

Definitely good answers heddle. I wish more religious folk thought as you do!

David said...


"No star to Heddle for answering Evolving Squid's questions in such a way as to suggest ES is being petty when he (Heddle) knows perfectly well that a huge number, if not the vast majority, of believers DO think that religious belief is special and above criticism."

I see. It is not that you want a religious person such as myself to answer. (And such an anomaly I am, being a conservative Baptist in the American south!) You want a religious person to answer in the way you expect him to answer, so as to confirm your stereotype. It would have been easier if EvolvingSquid made that clear! But that's fine--now I get the rules.

David said...


Thanks, and you might be surprised. As in all things it is the fringe that makes the most noise.

Anonymous said...

"You want a religious person to answer in the way you expect him to answer, so as to confirm your stereotype. "

David, I take your point and I'll correct my response. Believers don't think that religious belief is special and above criticism; they think that THEIR religious belief is special and above criticism. My response was based on discussions with many religious people, including some family members, every single one of whom thought any criticism was 'disrespectful'. So if I'm seeing a stereotype it's because every believer I've met fits it :)

The Jules said...

Nice post. Perhaps we, as rationalists, should be nicer to those desperate for a slice of respect, without having to do all that 'earning' nonsense.

I sometimes feel like I'm being unethical when arguing with the religiously-hampered, as it can seem like swatting a fly with a coconut.

Fun though.

Russell Blackford said...

I'm honoured to see that Jerry Coyne has now posted on this over on his blog:


Matthew Nisbet said...

Market research was not used to decide the position of the NAS, nor the 20 professional scientific organizations in the editorial at FASEB that endorsed the themes in the booklet. These organizations have had a long standing position on science and religion that has emphasized compatibility. The audience research indicated that emphasizing this long standing position was an effective way to communicate about evolution.

I suggest taking a look at what NAS staffers wrote in an article at Life Sciences Education about how they used public opinion data and evidence--actually listening to their audience--before trying to communicate with them about a complex and sometimes controversial area of science.


John Phillips, FCD said...

Excellent post Doctor Doctor. However, just wait to see 'the must give religion respect' line being quote mined by creotards and concern trolls in 3..2..1.. :)

Russell Blackford said...

Matt, the problem is that, in my reasonably well-informed opinion, religion and science are NOT compatible - at least not in any simple sense. Some religious doctrines are plainly incompatible with well-established science. Others are very difficult to reconcile with science. Those that retreat from any tension with science tend to have little substance (and to bear little resemblance to popular and traditional theology).

Obviously, many scientists and philosophers disagree with me. But many agree, and they are quite entitled to say so. It is simply wrong for an organisation like the NAS to take a position on such a controversial philosophical issue.

I realise, of course, that the NAS has taken such a position for a long time now. Obviously my post was satirical, but my readers can see for themselves the actual details of your own post. Be those details as they may, the stance adopted by the NAS can only be explained as having been adopted for public relations reasons. I find it unethical that such a body would take such a stance on such a controversial matter for such a reason.

This is compounded by the extraordinary lengths that it has recently gone to, on your own account, to emphasise and elaborate this position, in order to make its stance more palatable to the American public.

Here we have a professional organisation expending great efforts to market a highly controversial philosophical view (one that, again, I consider false or at best massively simplistic), and basing its decision on market research that a changed emphasis would be helpful for PR purposes. In doing so, it enlisted Francisco Ayala - a scientist whose views about the relationship between evolution and religion are open to powerful criticisms and are, once again, highly controversial - to give it advice.

I stand by the view that even if we try to state more precisely what has happened here, it is an abuse of the position of the NAS to take sides on such a controversial matter for such a political reason. The decision in 2008 to put renewed emphasis on this message of "full compatibility" merely compounds the abuse.

Given that I see the NAS as having acted unethically (and, yes, for some time now ... though to a lesser extent), I am flabbergasted that it is Dawkins whom you accuse of acting unethically.

An individual philosopher, scientist, theologian, or anyone else is quite entitled, legally or morally, to put his or her views on the relationship between religion and science. I have no problem with Ken Miller or Francisco Ayala doing it, and I had no problem with Stephen Jay Gould doing it. I have no problem with Alister McGrath doing it if it comes to that. You don't need to be a philosopher - scientists and theologians are welcome to take part in the debate. But there likewise should be no objection to Dawkins having his say on the issue. Each of these individuals represents only himself. None purports to put an official view on behalf of others.

When you set aside the satirical style that I chose on this occasion, Matt, the main thrust of my comment is that you have totally misunderstood where you should be laying ethical blame. It certainly should not be with Dawkins.

Perhaps you might take this critique of you position into account when you revise your book chapter. I fear, however, that you are, by now, so committed to your crusade against Dawkins that both this comment and my more frivolously-worded original post will fall on deaf ears.

It's up to you how you respond the criticism that you're receiving from me and others. Obviously, you're free to believe and say what you like, but I do urge you to give this serious thought.



rx7ward said...

"how they used public opinion data and evidence--actually listening to their audience--before trying to communicate with them about a complex and sometimes controversial area of science"

This quoted comment of yours, and your article, seem to imply that the NAS is endorsing the use of false information to entice religious believers into an acceptance of science. This comment of yours in particular seems to be advocating the use of people's prejudices against them. How is this ethical?

Athena Andreadis said...

As a working biologist, who must constantly "prove" the value of my work to get grants to do basic research on dementia, I'm sick of accommodationists like Nesbit. I'm sick and tired of being told that I should leave the defense and promulgation of scientific values to "communications experts" who use the platform for their own aggrandizement.

Considering that such discussions have concrete repercussions on the long-term viability prospects of our species and our planet, stances such as Nesbit's are little short of immoral.

Ergun Coruh said...

The key word here is "respect". If respect means "I'll let you poison my kids with religious nonsense", than I don't and I don't have to respect religions. If "respect" means in search for "truth", you as an individual bow before religious nonsense, again there is no reason for me to "respect" your behaviour more than I show "respect" to an "alchemist" or to an "astrologist".

Unknown said...

Just wanted to say I do love well-written sarcasm.

Russell Blackford said...

Note that rx7ward's comment is addressed to Matt, not to me (since there was some confusion earlier on the thread).

gingerbaker said...

Can you imagine the fireworks if the NAS position on religion was simply limited to what science actually says about religious claims?

That the historicity of Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed; the existence of gods, an afterlife, the power of prayer, or the human soul are all rendered implausible by modern science?

I guess we can only imagine.