The unquiet scientist [tpm]

[Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog]

Science communication is not easy, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, reasonable people disagree about what science communicators ought to try to achieve. Should communicators just try to keep people up-to-date on the latest cool things happening in the world of science… or should they try to foster a critical way of thinking about the world? For another thing, it isn’t clear how you would go about science communication if you tried — since, as any grade school teacher could tell you, it is hard to figure out how to get your audience to care. And for another another thing, if the aim is to foster a scientific mindset, then it’s not clear that mass media will be of any use whatsoever. (Presumably, one does not learn chemistry by repeated viewings of Gil Grissom working ponderously over test-tubes.)

These are all important and interesting topics, well deserving of thoughtful and passionate dialogue.

Enter Chris Mooney. Mooney is an activist for communicating science. He is the author of The Republican War on Science, and is the co-author of the controversial book Unscientific America (with Sheril Kirshenbaum). Mooney holds a degree from Yale, a fellowship with the Templeton Foundation, and is a member of the board of the American Geophysical Union. He blogs at the Intersection. Mooney/Kirshenbaum’s ultimate legacy appears to be that they succeeded in starting a passionate conversation about the subjects listed above.

Which brings us to the topic of the present post. In addition to being in the science communication business, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are both critics of atheist activism. Mooney and Kirshenbaum have argued that activist atheism is detrimental peripheral to science communication, and that activist atheists are often uncivil. Their critical remarks have created a tumultuous debate in both online and national print publications. Not incidentally, Coyne, Dawkins, and many others have publicly argued that there is an intimate connection between science and atheism. (Full disclosure: although it shouldn’t make any difference to this post, on this issue — as on most things — I’m in the “Jason Rosenhouse camp“.)

On first blush, it seems as though there are two major issues here: civility, and the role of the naturalist worldview in science. But a little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Mooney about the role of passion and conflict might have in getting people to think about science. And from that conversation, I learned that Mooney acknowledges a third sticking point.

BN: I was glad to see that you didn’t focus on the deficit model in explaining scientific illiteracy — that’s really good. [Edit 2010: Roughly, the “deficit model” is the idea that science communicators should presume that citizens that are not scientifically literate are responsible for their own illiteracy.] And the alternative is to look at what people do know. So for example the mechanic has a body of knowledge that I can only dream of — I just don’t know how a car works. We ask ourselves how people have all this impressive statistical knowledge about baseball and things (without knowing about science), and the reason is: baseball is useful in some way. People are embedded in a social group and they know that this knowledge will be useful to talk about.

This can also help us understand how misinformation works. For example, the George Will episode. People will say “Atta boy” and pat him on the back for acting like an idiot.

CM: I think you’re right. These things have utility, is what you’re saying.

BN: Exactly. And this leads me to the atheism thing. So you’ve gotten into a bit of trouble with some folks online, because atheism has utility for them. And I’ve found that I’ve learned quite a bit on these atheist forums.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Because you’ve been interpreted as saying to folks like Jerry Coyne: “Don’t make atheistic arguments, because you’re putting atheism in the same truck as science, and people are not going to take science seriously because they’re religious.”

But atheism is a way of getting people interested in science. So Dawkins writes “The God Delusion” and he presents this panoply of interesting bits of information leading up to an argument.

CM: I understand exactly what you’re saying. People say all of these different kinds of things serves a purpose for them — I think that’s absolutely true. And I really like how you framed it, because I haven’t put it in quite that way, but it’s totally right, and it’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to talk about bad information.

But that doesn’t change my particular view on atheism to point that out. I guess what I’m saying is that a lot of people in what we call the New Atheist movement have formed a community around a set of information, and it has utility for them, in your terms. There’s no doubt about that. You see them doing it so much, so fired up about it.

My argument is that almost in direct proportion to how it’s useful to them, it’s not useful for something else. And that can happen — a community can form around a shared body of information and another community can think it’s awful. That would totally work in your model. And my point is that even as they’re agreeing, scratching each other on the back, creating a dialogue that’s mainly amongst themselves, if you look at how that affects the broader dialogue in the country, it’s a different dynamic entirely.

So I think what I’m saying is: be aware that the way you talk about atheism works for you, and yet it also isn’t working in a different world. I think both those things can be true.

BN: A counter-argument is that you have religious folks who want to defend their views. The Ray Comforts of the world. And to the extent that they want to defend their views in any interesting way, they have to engage with the explicit arguments that are put forward by the atheist community. So that way it becomes something like a dialogue, so that at least it appears as though there’s something defensible going on [on Ray Comfort’s end].

So I have this underlying feeling that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We can’t ever put ourselves in a place where we say, “Oh, no conflict, that’s no good”. And that seems to be what you’re doing — you call yourselves “accommodationists”, or at least that’s the label that’s been put on you. Conflict, to the extent that we want to have a debate, is okay. It’s just a certain kind of unproductive dialogue that sometimes goes on.

CM: Yeah. I think there’s all different kinds of conflicts. And there’s many things you can spend your time debating. We all pick and choose. My point on the general conflict between science and religion in the United States is that I don’t think it’s an incredibly fruitful one, and I don’t think it does the public understanding of science a lot of good to be hitched to the religion-bashing way. I think there are many ways to talk about science in religion in American society that would work better, and I think there’s a lot of evidence to support that, in terms of the way people react.

I’m sure that some people are getting engaged because of New Atheism — I’m sure some people are learning, some people are thinking about science — but I think it’s also clear that a lot of people are not getting engaged or are being negatively polarized. So it’s a difference of goals, in part, that explains the debate I think.

I think it is fair to say that, by far, Mooney and Kirshenbaum sparked the most outrage with their comments over civility. But the ensuing drama has drawn attention away from some of the most interesting questions. How does Mooney think people ought to communicate science? What does “science communication” involve, for him?

One thing is pretty clear. Mooney wants to offer strategic advice about communicating science. Both in person and in his written works, he aims to communicate the art of publicity to scientists, under the auspices of teaching them the art of communicating science to the public. This work is predicated upon the assumption that everyone has the same priorities, in the minimal sense that at least that everyone is on board with the “science communication” project.

But the most important point that I’m going to emphasize here is that his stance is self-consciously political. At least to some extent, there is a “difference in goals” between Mooney and the activist atheists — by which, I think, he means a difference in priorities. Mooney does not think that speaking out against religion is a priority, and that it is on the whole detrimental to science education; while others think it is a priority, and that it supports science education in some respect.

What’s interesting that the one thing that Mooney and the rest agree on is this: that activism over atheism really does have some utility in communicating science. It gives us something to talk about.

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