I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said “Stop! don’t do it!“
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!“
He said, “Like what?“
I said, “Well…are you religious or atheist?“
He said, “Religious.“
I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?“
He said, “Christian.“
I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?“
He said, “Protestant.“
I said, “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?“
He said, “Baptist!“
I said,“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?“
He said, “Baptist Church of God!“
I said, “Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God , or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?“
He said,“Reformed Baptist Church of God!“
I said, “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?“
He said, “Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!“
I said, “DIE, HERETIC SCUM!” and pushed him off.
Emo Phillips demonstrates no-one is generically ‘religious’
I had 2000 words on Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s blogging typed up. I was going to leave it for my own files, then I was going to work it in a blog post. Since then there’s been a bit of a meltdown on the Intersection. That means I’m not going to pick through most of their contradictions. There’s plenty of other people doing that and at worst, if I do it badly, it’s going to feed into the they’re victims of the big blogger / bullying PZ in the national media argument (delete as appropriate). They’re the two popular frames for the argument, and being seen in one or the other pretty well railroads you into one siding or another.
I’m aware Frames are deeply unpopular with some science bloggers. If you’re not familiar with them, they come from an opinion piece in Science, Framing Science, by Nisbett and Mooney which argued that scientists should communicate their work in a social context, or frame, which resonated with the public. To social scientists the idea that texts have social contexts is a mundane observation. To scientists who entered the sciences because they were interested in science rather than culture, this is perhaps less obvious. At its most basic the message is “know your audience”, which appears in more or else every book on presentation I’ve read. Where Framing Science went further is that it seemed to assume that science was political and communication was advocacy. My opinion was that science was political, with a small p, but that the culture in science was built around trying to minimise that effect to create a neutral product. As far as I know there’s no explicitly socialist Law of Gravity. Nisbett and Mooney failed to either realise or convincingly accomodate how antithetical to some notions of science their proposal was. Either Frames are nonsense, or their methods were an example of doing Frames badly.
Spin on to 2009 and Mooney and Kirshenbaum are advocating a change in practice in some scientists. That’s perfectly reasonable. No-one I know thinks science communication is perfect. One of their stated targets is to change the behaviour of scientists who are unsympathetic towards religious belief. This isn’t irrational. They give reasons and come to a conclusion. Whether or not you agree with them isn’t the problem. If you do think the New Atheists should turn down the volume then how do you go about it? Telling the people you want to persuade that they’re bad people and their narrow-mindedness is harming Science isn’t the method I’d choose.
If I were to argue that the biggest benefit to science communication would be for PZ Myers to stop attacking religion (to pick a totally random example), then I’d want to frame my message so that it resonated with people like PZ Myers. I might argue that aggressive debate with a public which isn’t used to evidence-based debate as part of everyday life is polarising. This is a problem if you occupy a small minority position because the problem is political rather than scientific and politics is about quantity rather than quality. I’d preface my argument with data to show it wasn’t something I pulled out of the air. This is because even if you think New Atheists are dogmatic it’s part of their self-image that they aren’t, so data would play well with them. If New Atheists genuinely aren’t dogmatic then they can examine the data anyway, so it’s win-win. Of course if the data doesn’t exist to support the proposition I might want to question if my position was sound.
Mooney and Kirshenbaum have adopted a somewhat different tactic. They’ve aggressively gone after PZ Myers, omitting some details Myers thinks are important in their discussion. Even if Mooney and Kirshenbaum are entirely correct in what they say this still a catastrophic failure of frame if they intend to alter Myers’ behaviour. This failure is being compounded on their weblog. I’m left wondering who the target of the frame is. In theory it looks fine. Mooney and Kirshenbaum are the pragmatic scientists who are fed up with the God Wars. That’s a frame which should appeal to a lot of atheists who can’t be bothered with religion because they have no interest. However the discussion of how the New Atheists are Bad People, pulls it right back into that argument. The only way that could make sense is if Science is a monoculture.
That’s where SEED magazine is wrong. Science isn’t Culture. Science is Cultures, plural, with differing motivations, methods even social behaviour. Physicists will often publish to pre-print servers and work from those rather than wait for formal publication in a journal. Other scientists wouldn’t. I’ve lost track of how many different definitions different disciplines have for the word ‘agent’. I’ve visited one combined department where people identified which sub-field you were working in by seeing what you were drinking. One group drank beer, one group drank wine and the third drank to forget. Throw in complicating factors like personal political views and scientists are not a homogenous bunch. You can’t reach everyone, and you don’t even need to try. You can pick your fights.
The same assumption of a homeogenous (and passive) audience is seen elsewhere. Many comments have argued that Dawkins problem is that he isn’t Sagan. Sagan was respected. Sagan bridge science and religion. Sagan reached 500 million people with his shows. Basically Sagan is the Chuck Norris of science communication. No-one seems to have added that the world has moved on. When Sagan at his peak there were three television stations in the UK. It’s common for a British household to have hundreds now. I don’t know how dramatic the change has been in America. Also there’s additional factors like the rise of the web. Broadcasting is now sat alongside many-to-many communication. These days niche programming is the norm and people will search out the niches they want. I’d like to say the 60s and 70s were a golden age of communication with people like Jacob Bronowski or James Burke being appreciated for their masterful performances of scientific poetry. Yet I can’t help wondering if one of the reasons many people watched was because the only alternative was having a conversation with their partner.
There’s no longer one audience, there’s many. Anyone arguing that there is just the one true way to reach those audiences is only going to satisfy one audience. For instance some other people have held up Gould as a comparison to Dawkins. Gould really doesn’t move me, but then I have no interest in baseball. I’d hope there’s room for a more internationalist approach to science communication than Americans communicating exclusively with Americans, Britons with Britons and so on. It’s yet another layer of complexity. That’s why I’m wary of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s criticisms of strongly atheist science communciation. But equally it also means that rejecting some communicators because they’re ‘appeasers’ is going to miss some of the public. If we want scientific societies and academia to support communication then acknowledging the important of diversity would be helpful.
Sorry for the lack of links. I’ve cobbled this together at the last minute because what I had was far worse and even longer to make a simple point. I’ll try and add more links in tomorrow’s entry where I’ll try and make a positive case for ignoring religious sensitivities (or even challenging them) in science communication.