Monday, February 18, 2008

Nisbet and that whole... thing...

Full disclosure: I am one of those "New Atheists". I've never been afraid to talk about my non-faith, and it's led to both good and bad things. I'd known of Dawkins before he wrote about the ubiquitous delusion, and as soon as he proposed the whole out campaign thing, I totally jumped all over that. And when my mom asks me if I've prayed for her lately, I honestly tell her no.

Even fuller disclosure: I have also "framed". I've been known to "frame". Label me a "framer," if you must.

Please, before you write me off completely, let me explain.

A comment on Sandwalk's very reasonable anti-Nisbet post read:
It's one of those irregular verbs:

I frame the issue.
You spin the facts.
He dissembles to suck up to opponents.
Is true, that. There are times when that ability is kind of handy. When I want to open a religious friend's mind to, say, evolution, I'll tell him, "You don't think God's creative process could have worked through evolution? Cuz, dude, there's all this evidence, from multiple different methods. Plus, the Bible (or Holy Book du Jour) was never meant entirely literally -- I mean, you don't believe that animals could talk, right? And the writers were wrong about slavery, and treatment of women, right? So they could easily have been ignorant of the true method that we came to be. Just check it out, man." And then I send him to talkorigins and let him stew on it for a while.

It's not the most upfront way to encourage rational thought, but I like to think it can be a better way than laying out my true opinion about that person's religion. If you tell someone that their whole worldview is BS, they're that much more likely to just set themselves against you. If you sidle up to them all friendly-like, if you slip under their guard and don't set off the faith-preservation alarms, I think you're more likely to really spur some rational thought. Most people, religious or no, are prone to lash out when they feel attacked. Saying "What you think is stupid" will certainly be seen as an attack. Saying "Whatever you believe, here is the evidence, and God could've used evolution just as well as the poof-six-day thing" may not.

However (and this is a BIG 'however'), I think that the direct, rational argument against special creation and/or religion is a very good thing. Especially public debates with large audiences, but the personal ones too. Knowing and hearing the truth is intrinsically important, even if it's truth you don't want to hear. And on top of that, "framing" is just a way of pussyfooting around the issue so that your position seems more reasonable from disparate points of view. It's better to have the honest arguments out in the open to be scrutinized and considered instead of delicately wording things to allow everyone, no matter how out of touch with reality, to be comfortably ignorant.

Saying that publicly known scientists should refrain from criticizing religion is too much. If someone like Dawkins thinks that the Christian god, who loved the world so much that he sacrificed himself to himself in order to prevent his own punishment of humanity, is a silly thing and unsupported by any kind of evidence, then let him sing it loud. And for the love of all that is good, it's not insulting to say that evidence provided by scientific methods blows a strictly biblical worldview out of the water. We shouldn't be accepting of strict biblical worldviews, including but are not limited to: enchanted fruit, talking serpents, unicorns, towers to heaven, male domination over women, and violence against nonbelievers.

Anyone who believes any of these crazy things are beyond any reality-based worldview already. It's useless arguing with the fractally wrong. But reasonable people of faith, the great wishy-washy middle-of-the-road masses who reject evolution reflexively because they've been trained to see it as innately incompatible with whatever they feel 'God' is.. well, that's just false. As long as you have some grounding in this reality, as long as you can admit that the dudes with beards who wrote the Bible made a few mistakes here and there and modern science got a whole lot of stuff right, then evolution can get along just dandy with your religion.

It's a good step towards the fresh air of reality-based living, too.

A comment from Nisbet's recent AAAS panel announcement read:
The ultimate result of this kind of "compromise" will be the kind of high school biology education I had in Texas: a biology class in which the word evolution was never uttered, with an instructor who made it quite clear that the biology textbook chapter on "organic variation" was optional reading.
My high school Bio experience wasn't quite as bad as all that. We learned the mathematical description of evolution, but if I recall it was mostly referred to as "natural selection" and "allele frequency shifting" and not the dreaded 'E'-word, and at least one student who passed my AP Biology class believed in special creation. However, I tend to agree with the commenter's sentiment. Once you start watering down the facts, it's hard to really make people stop. And it's so much easier for high school science teachers to just assign a chapter as a reading assignment and then forget about it instead of trying to maintain both a friendly 'frame' and scientific accuracy.

I suppose I should say a word or two about the actual subject of Nisbet's inflammatory post. Basically, he's announcing this panel discussion thingy titled Communicating Science in a Religious America. His own contribution to this panel will be discussion on the topic of "The New Atheism and the Public Image of Science". Hokay then. Now, for a taste of the "synopsis for the full panel".
A major challenge for scientists will be to craft communication efforts that are sensitive to how religiously diverse publics process messages, but also to the way science is portrayed across types of media. In these efforts, scientists must adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens, or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs.
This, along with Nisbet's prior treatment of the New Atheists, gives me the impression that the "New Atheists" will be Nisbet's example of condescending, alienating, unappealing pitfalls, and possibly many more emotionally charged epithets. Words like 'scapegoat' come to mind. As noted by the very first commenter on Nisbet's post, there are no New Atheists or even New Atheist sympathizers on the panel. In fact, according to Nisbet, "The criteria for speakers were people who have done research in the area or who have been successful in engaging religious audiences. The prominent New Atheists don't fit that criteria."

Put more amusingly: "Clearly, the "New Atheists" were excluded out of fear that the panel would be relevant."

Ech. The whole thing smacks horribly of a condescending group of intelligentsia who manipulate audiences instead of educate them or honestly discuss with them. I hate to break it to everyone, but I think the New Atheists have engaged more religious audiences than any of Nisbet's crew have - very successfully - but in debate. I need two hands for the number of Dawkins Q&A's or interviews or TV spots I've seen floating around on teh interwebs. Apparently as far as Nisbet's concerned, 'engagement' only applies to unthinking agreement with the speaker, and absolutely no paradigm challenging or critical thought.

To see a grand version of this debated, seriously, check out the comments section of both Nisbet's post and PZ's recent brief note. The two of them duke it out as only the two of them could. It's brutal and beautiful to watch, no matter your opinion.

And maybe it'll make you think a little, too.

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