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.”
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