Different ways of understanding?


Several science bloggers have been commenting on a post by Matt Nisbet at Framing Science (see The Ethics of Framing Science: Four Guiding Principles). Matt has provoked extensive discussion before by claiming that scientists often frame arguments badly when they get involved in public discussion about science.

I agree that anyone involved in public discussion must pay attention to the way they frame their arguments. They must understand their audience. On the other hand, the public is not a collection of uniform robots. People vary and therefore framing should vary.  It is naive not to recognise that there is room for all sorts of tactical approaches in public discussion. As someone committed to the public advocacy of science and reason I used to think that Nisbet had a good argument. But he has destroyed his credibility because of the naive way he uses it.

Nisbet is one of those people who obsess about Richard Dawkins. He criticises Dawkins because as an atheist his defence of evolutionary science is unacceptable to fundamentalist Christians. So what? Fundamentalist are only a small proportion of the public and it is silly to then argue that Dawkins should remain silent because they may be offended.

Dawkins a great science communicator

Dawkins  does an amazing job in polarising science (just look in any reputable book store and see who authors the books in the science section). On the other hand, Dawkins himself recognises he would not have been a good witness (because he is an atheist) for the complainants in the Dover intelligent design trial. While Ken Miller, a Catholic, was an excellent witness. It’s a matter of tactics and there is room for every sensible science advocate.

Now, many science bloggers are criticising Nisbet’s use of the mantra “Science and Religion Offer Different Ways of Understanding the World”. I have also found this argument to be silly. It is used by some scientists politically (the US National Academy of Science included it in their recent booklet Science, Evolution, and Creationism). But it is only a sop to the religious – and it is opportunist at that.

It’s effectively saying to the religious – “OK, we won’t argue with you. You can have your delusions. Now just run away and play. Chat amongst yourself – tell each other that you have a legitimate way of understanding reality. Just don’t bother us with your nonsense. In the meantime, let us get on with our work so that humanity can really understand reality and really deal with the problems we face.”

Religion should know its place

The problem is, however, that some religious people just don’t know their place. That use this argument to promote the idea that their interpretations of reality have as much (or even more) validity as those derived by the scientific method. They will even refer to their interpretations as “Truth.” (It always has a capital T, doesn’t it)

Then they get so arrogant they demand a place at the scientific table. They start claiming that their ideas are “scientific (e.g., intelligent design) and they actively work to discredit real science.

I like PZ Myers comment on the “different ways” mantra (see Run for the hills! It’s the Framingstein monster again!):

“Do science and religion offer different ways of understanding the world? Sure. One is verifiable, testable, and has a demonstrated track record of success; the other is a concoction of myths that actually leads to invalid conclusions. Perhaps it ought to be rephrased: science provides one way to understand the world, while religion provides millions of ways to misunderstand it.”

My objections

I have no objection to people having religious beliefs. I can understand how this might help them fit into a like-minded community and this provides them with a lot of support and reinforcement. I can understand how many working scientist are also religious – even though their scientific and religious ideas and beliefs have to be compartmentalised in their brains.

I just object to the activity of those religious people who wish to give priority to their mythology over a scientific interpretation of reality. I object to those religiously motivated people who attempt to discredit scientific and rational understandings of reality. And I object to those religiously motivated people who wish to interfere with scientific education and research.

Other comments on Nisbet’s “framing” article:
Praise the Lord for Matt Nisbet
Russell Blackford goes after faith/science compatibility
Godless scientists have an ethical imperative to sit down and shut up
Richard Dawkins: Unethical?
Has Richard Dawkins acted unethically?
Just Nisbet Being Nisbet
The “Ethics” of Framing Science
Matt Nisbett farts again.
Framing and ethics (part 3).
Framing and Compatibility


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5 responses to “Different ways of understanding?

  1. I object to those religiously motivated people who attempt to discredit scientific … understandings of reality.

    Science thrives on criticism! If the arguments lack rigour – like some from Ray Comfort, then ignore them. If they are challenging – like the RATE Project, then this can only be helpful in our search for truth.


  2. Ross, here is a Christian-based review of the RATE Project.

    The ASA does not take a position on issues when there is honest disagreement among Christians provided there is adherence to our statement of faith and to integrity in science. Accordingly, the ASA neither endorses nor opposes young-earth creationism which recognizes the possibility of a recent creation with appearance of age or which acknowledges the unresolved discrepancy between scientific data and a young-earth position. However, claims that scientific data affirm a young earth do not meet the criterion of integrity in science. Any portrayal of the RATE project as confirming scientific support for a young earth, contradicts the RATE project’s own admission of unresolved problems. The ASA can and does oppose such deception.

    Other Scientific reviews I came across were, understandably, less polite.


  3. Yes, Ross – science does thrive on proper criticism – but not on dishonest programmes aimed at discrediting scientific knowledge or to interfere with research and education. It is these programmes (not scientific criticisms) which are responsible for the public political anti-scientific campaigns in the USA – and the fact that about 40% 0f New Zealand’s Christians do not accept evolutionary science.

    These dishonest campaigns come mainly (but not exclusively) from the religious.

    I am the last person to reject scientific criticism from the religious or non-religious. In my career this criticism was a normal part of research – and came from Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, etc. The point is that it was scientific criticism and not based on a religiously motivated attempt to discredit knowledge. It was always appreciated.

    I don’t know why you bring up the Rate project – surely it’s in the same class as Comfort. The fact is that there is scientific discussion about possible minor influences on isotope decay rates caused by environmental influences (e.g. incorporation of the isotope in a metal). These speculations are scientifically based and discussed. The religiously motivated approach (giving over-riding credence to a biblical myth instead of the evidence) gets us nowhere.

    But that approach is used to discredit science amongst the religiously-inclined.


  4. If they are challenging – like the RATE Project, then this can only be helpful in our search for truth.

    Ross, the whole RATE thing is as twisted as Ray Comfort’s “banana argument”.

    Here’s what science has to say about RATE.
    Not a pretty story…

    For those you who don’t know, Ray Comfort has a banana for you…


  5. Some time ago I tried to suggest to some apologists (the Christian sort), that they try learn the origin of their organisations and belief so that they might better understand what they really stand for. This article takes some initial steps in that direction: http://www.earthmagazine.org/earth/article/1f7-7d9-3-1f I’m mentioning it as it’s written by an ordained minister, which might encourage some people who hold creationist/apologetic beliefs to read it.

    (Hat tip to SciTechDaily.)


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