Framing Science

I’m jumping in on this bandwagon late, but I’ve only now had a chance to read through a few of the articles on the “Science Framing” issue.

The background:

Chris Mooney (author of The Republican War on Science) and Matthew Nisbet (a professor at American University) wrote an article that was published in the journal Science last week. You can read it by going here and clicking on the “full text” link on the left hand sidebar.

The article essentially said scientists need to do a better job of framing scientific issues in a way that will get more people to pay attention and care. Right now, scientists rely too much on facts and data (which is all well and good, but how many people do you know that run away at the first mention of an equation or a scientific concept?) and they need to be better skilled at communicating these points. Maybe then, more people would understand the importance of what scientists know.

Here are a couple excerpts from the Science article:

Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively “frame” information to make it relevant to different audiences. Some in the scientific community have been receptive to this message. However, many scientists retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists’, and controversy would subside.

Messages must be positive and respect diversity. As the film Flock of Dodos painfully demonstrates, many scientists not only fail to think strategically about how to communicate on evolution, but belittle and insult others’ religious beliefs

… scientists must realize that facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it.

True to form, Mooney and Nisbet also wrote a piece for the Washington Post this past Sunday explaining their theory to those people who can’t get past the table of contents page in Science:

Scientists excel at research; creating knowledge is their forte. But presenting this knowledge to the public is something else altogether…

Scientists have traditionally communicated with the rest of us by inundating the public with facts; but data dumps often don’t work. People generally make up their minds by studying more subtle, less rational factors. In 2000 Americans didn’t pore over explanations of President Bush’s policies; they asked whether he was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with.

Especially on divisive issues, scientists should package their research to resonate with specific segments of the public.

Thankfully, scientists seem increasingly aware of the need to convey their knowledge better. There is even a bill in Congress that would allocate funding to the National Science Foundation to train scientists to become better communicators. That’s a start, but scientists must recognize that on hot-button issues — even scientific ones — knowledge alone is rarely enough to win political arguments, change government policies or influence public opinion.

Mooney/Nisbet also criticize some scientists (like Richard Dawkins) for polarizing religious people against science.

Not surprisingly, there have been a number of critics.

As I was reading these articles and postings, I was trying to figure out what the big deal was. Why is Mooney/Nisbet’s approach not obvious to everyone already? Of course scientists are not going to win over evangelicals when they spend more time criticizing religious beliefs, and scientists won’t win over the scientifically-disinclined when they are just too dull to listen to.

The religious issue is especially troublesome for some bloggers. The argument here seems to be that scientists should always stand up for the truth, and since much of religion contradicts what we know to be true, it deserves the attacks.

Fair enough. But there are too many people in this country who don’t like having their fantasies spoiled; when scientists try to expose the wizard behind the curtain, there are armies of people who want that curtain to be closed back up. Scientists do need to open the curtain, but they need to be cautious in how they do it. Ripping it apart quickly scares people. Slowly pulling it back won’t be as bad.

In general, the way to convince a person of anything is to persuade him that he has a personal investment in this issue. It impacts him. It matters for his children. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to sell someone life insurance, get the person to do you a favor, or explain why intelligent design has no place in the public schools.

There’s a reason global warming wasn’t a major issue until An Inconvenient Truth came out. Al Gore spoke about how this issue will affect future generations. Of course, the evidence for global warming had already told us this for years prior to the movie, but again, a compelling explanation did more than the data ever could.

I spent most of my college Bio and Chem classes working on crossword puzzles and reading books for pleasure. I knew I was there to learn the details, not be entertained, but the professors were (for the most part) boring as hell. Great researchers. Bad teachers. But this was to be expected. At the same time, I attended a number of science lectures intended for the general public, and the same type of person always did the talking: Uninteresting, dull, and ruining any interest I may have had in the subject.

If we had science communicators who knew how to explain theories and issues without getting into the technical details, they would have a much broader reach and a significant impact. If they could do all this while being empathetic to the fact that what they say may conflict with a person’s religious upbringing and comfort zone, we’d all be in a better position.

The same thing applies when speaking to religious people. If you want to convince them of the virtues of atheistic thinking, it’s not going to happen by telling them the Flood story (Noah’s Ark) is just a copycat version from other religions or that Jesus is lard.

You might get some of those people thinking, though, if you can explain atheism (and science) in a way that encourages the other person to ask questions and engage in a dialogue.

I’ve been using the word “scientists” in most of this post, but really, if the change is going to happen to make issues of atheism (and science) more acceptable, it has to be all of us framing the issues in this way, not just those who are well-known or respected intellectuals.


[tags]atheist, atheism, framing, science, Chris Mooney. The Republican War on Science, Matthew Nisbet, American University, Flock of Dodos, evolution, religion, Christianity, Richard Dawkins, George W. Bush, president, National Science Foundation, global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore[/tags]

  • http://dubitoergo.blogspot.com Tom Foss

    If we had science communicators who knew how to explain theories and issues without getting into the technical details, they would have a much broader reach and a significant impact. If they could do all this while being empathetic to the fact that what they say may conflict with a person’s religious upbringing and comfort zone, we’d all be in a better position.

    I think I see what you’re saying: we need a scientist who can appeal to the public. Someone who can explain the cosmos in terms that will promote the sort of awe and majesty we scientists feel when studying it and engaging in the scientific method. We need someone who is not only a consummate scientist of the first order, knowledgeable in a variety of fields from evolutionary biology to astrophysics, but is also a beautiful writer of prose and a compelling, riveting public speaker. We need some sage adviser who is not afraid to challenge the popular delusions of the day, whether they be psychics or aliens or dragons or even religion, but can do so in a way that seems nonconfrontational, calm, even pleasant. We need someone who can, through books and television, actively promote a love of science and a wonder of the universe to the billions of ignorant people in the world. What science needs is a shining star, who can unite the community and bring light to the darkness.

    Sounds almost too good to be true, the kind of person who only comes around once in a lifetime.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    The real crux of the framing issue, and I’m not sure it’s been touched on in the articles I’ve read, is that in communication we must touch the HEARTS and the MINDS of the people we’re communicating to in order to make a difference. We have to TELL STORIES as well as PRESENT DATA. We have to make the issues PERSONAL as well as UNIVERSAL.

    And we do need soundbites, short pithy phrases with no jargon that people can remember and tell to their friends.

    If we fail to do this, we will never be able to communicate to the majority of people in the pews (or in the couches watching TV).

    Of course, I am not a scientist. I’m just a lowly writer. So what do I know?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    So science needs a better marketing department, eh? ;)

    Actually, I think you’re right on the money Hemant. Especially in regards to how to change the minds of religious people regarding science. Let me describe what this looks like in my own work. Currently in my church there are two guys (one of whom, believe it or not, is actually a science teacher) who are still 6-Day Creationists (i.e. young earth, anti-evolutionists). We’ve gotten in debates and discussions at times, but I’ve known from the beginning that I can’t just change their minds by attacking their beliefs directly and imposing my own as their pastor (I’m very pro-science and see no contradiction between it and scripture).

    Instead what I’ve done is give them a book, Paradigms on Pilgrimage, and offered to talk with them about it. The book describes the personal journey of two Christians, one a paleontologist and the other a pastor, away from a literal 6-Day Creationist view to a more science-friendly view. The scientist is able to say “Look, I’m not a secularist scientist whose goal is to undermine the Bible through science. I was a Creationist who desperately looked for scientific evidence to support my biblical interpretation and it just wasn’t there.”

    And likewise, the pastor can say, “Look, I came to reject a literal Creationist view because the Bible itself led me away from it. The Genesis stories themselves can be shown to be more literary and observational in nature than literal history or science. Rejecting Young-Earth Creationism is about being faithful to the Bible, not just about throwing out the Bible in the face of scientific evidence.”

    In other words, you’ve got to speak their language. Approach the argument with where they’re already at. If they respect the Bible, then don’t tell them that science contradicts the Bible – show them why they might be misinterpreting the Bible, and how to be truly “biblical” they need to be open to scientific discoveries.

  • Siamang

    The thing that worries me about this kind of talk is that it essentially says that I’m persona non-grata in the conversation, because of my beliefs.

    I had a similar reaction when the Religious Right was a force to be reckoned with during the 2000 and 2004 elections, and everyone was talking about how Democrats need to show more religiosity in their campaigns. I took it as “shut up, atheists, stop speaking up and saying that you’re a Democrat, you’ll scare off the religious faithful from voting Democratic.”

    I mean, once again someone I SHOULD BE AGREEING WITH, Chris Mooney, is telling me “SHHHHH! Don’t mention that you’re an atheist, and a Democrat and accept the evidence for evolution! You’ll scare the timid little creationists away!”

    What we need is a gun-toting, free-market loving, Bible-thumping, Republican, pro-torture, anti-environment, anti-abortion, anti-gay EVOLUTIONIST to make our case for us.

    The rest of us can shut up.

  • Miko

    I think that the main problem is that it’s so difficult to get the hard-line religious to ask questions in the first place. As Ted Haggard said, “We don’t have to debate about what we should think about homosexual activity. It’s written in the Bible.” From the standpoint of the Bible, this is exactly what he should be saying. The Bible constantly denigrates reason and logic, especially in the epistles of Paul. If a person accepts Paul’s exhortation to be a fool and gather knowledge from the mouths of babes (“fool” is the Bible’s word choice, not mine, by the way), will any amount of framing affect their thinking? We’ve got a thick wall against logic to break through before we can even get some people to consider these issues. While pointing out that Noah’s flood is scientifically absurd, internally contradictory, and blatantly stolen from other sources may not be the height of intellectual discussion, it’ll certainly do a better job than pretending not to be an atheist out of fear that the audience will be offended by the mere fact that one is.

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    I was trying to figure out what the big deal was. Why is Mooney/Nisbet’s approach

    I like Mooney’s message about science communication and how the Republicans have declared war on science. But I don’t like how these two are asking scientists to ‘frame’ their conclusions in supernatural-friendly ways. That’s pandering which neither atheists or theists deserve.

    PZ Meyers: “Knowledge is a threat to beliefs held in ignorance. What Nisbet and Mooney are advocating, despite their disclaimers, is that we should hide our appreciation of the consequences of science from the public. We know for instance that increasing education in science leads to a loss of faith (in general), and is particularly destructive to literalist religions. Should we lie about that? Sweep it under a rug? Religious people, even those who believe in particularly nutty faiths, are not stupid — they can see through the pretense. If we slap a gag on Richard Dawkins, it won’t change a thing, except that the world will know scientists can be devious and dishonest.”

    convince a person, Ripping it apart quickly scares people, boring as hell, science communicators, empathetic to the fact, If you want to convince them

    Hemant, you are an atheist communicator (a la science communicators). Just look at your use of language, your website name, etc. You visit churches, you email with theists, this is your bag. Same goes will Bill Nye and Chris Mooney and their quest to communicate science.

    However, Dawkins is interested in truth, not hugs and kisses. He has admitted to not framing his arguments to help theists in their understanding of atheists. That is not his goal and he makes that clear. Rather, he treats the scientific idea of a ‘creator being’ with the exact same respect as any scientist treats any implausible scientific idea.

    In fact, I think he treats it politely given his scientific stance on the issue. The marketplace of scientific ideas is a rough, cruel, merciless world to which theists are not accustomed. Prusiner received a beating for 20 years for his ideas. Freeman was extremely harsh on Margaret Mead even after she died. The Johanson v. Leakeys debate on human origins has included criticisms that makes Dawkins look like an angel.

    But then along come great communicators like Jared Diamond who frame scientific works on Samoans or Lucy in a way that is accessible and interesting.

    Dawkins is climbing on the mount and shouting the scientific, naturalistic, empirical truth. Full stop. Nothing to add (besides a few teaspoons of healthy Oxford sarcasm). He is shouting the truth. Now you come in and explain to offended theists why he is shouting. Afterall, he got their attention, and you’re the friendly one.

    If atheism was a company, Dawkins would be in R&D and Hermant would be in Marketing.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Now you come in and explain to offended theists why he is shouting. Afterall, he got their attention, and you’re the friendly one.

    Except your timeline is a little off. Hemant was doing his thing and had articles being published about him months before the God Delusion came out (and do you think very many Christians had ever heard of Dawkins before that book started getting so much attention? He’s not exactly a household name among Christians even now.)

    Maybe it’s different for others, but it was Hemant that got my attention. I’m not sure I would have even noticed Dawkins if I hadn’t first been introduced to the atheist world via Hemant.

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    Maybe it’s different for others, but it was Hemant that got my attention.

    Good! That’s what marketers are supposed to do. That’s Hermant goal – to communicate. Way to go Hermant! It’s working!

    Just know that Hermant is not in the R&D of atheism. Hermant is not adding new arguments to the global case for freethought and against human superstitions. Pinker is. Stenger is. Dennett is (I actually think Dawkins arguments are not all that new; the other authors contribute more new ideas). Hermant is communicating an active field of atheism with you in a friendly, respectful way. He is marketing. Public relations. Goodwill ambassador. Etc.

    The marketplace of scientific ideas is a harsh, merciless place, and it will severely offend anyone who thinks “love” before “truth”. This is the place where Dawkins and most other scientists hang out, and where they are examining supernaturalism.

    This is why I support Hermant’s efforts to make it more palatable and friendly, just as I think Carl Sagan kicked ass, and why I volunteer to teach local kids about science in terms they understand.

    He’s not exactly a household name among Christians even now.

    hehe of course not. We don’t have enough science communicators for supernaturalists, and the general public, to know eminent scientists. Bethe? Hershko? Lauterbur? Dawkins? Huh? What? Who?

    In regards to science communicators, Mooney is spot on: We need more of them. We need an army of Sagans.

  • Darryl

    Framing science ought not to be the responsibility of rank-and-file R. and D. scientists, and would be a waste of their talents. This necessary task belongs to popularizers of science, a special breed of scientist that combines personal charisma, scientific credentials, and the gift of expression. Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are examples (for example, see Tyson’s The Perimeter of Ignorance, subtitled “A boundary where scientists face a choice: invoke a deity or continue the quest for knowledge,” in Natural History magazine, November 2005, and his new book Death By Black Hole ). The rise of Science Celebs is an unavoidable necessity.

    I think Hemant has the sensible approach: point out our mutual interests in good science. Transformation of our culture will take time. An intermediate step might be to disarm the faithful by leaving space in this ‘framing’ for rationalized schemes similar to those advocated by Dr. Francis Collins and President Jimmy Carter. One can be a Sunday School teacher and also be no threat to science.

    If atheism was a company, Dawkins would be in R&D and Hermant would be in Marketing.

    Good distinction. I would only add that Dawkins himself is a kind of popularizer—look at his impact. Dawkins has intended to speak to the masses, and so he has.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    My criticism of Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet isn’t because they’re telling atheists to speak without unnecessary rancor, or because they advocate describing issues in ways that matter to your target audience. All of those things are good, uncontroversial pieces of advice.

    No, I’m criticizing them for a different reason: I think they’re not just telling atheists to be more tactful, I think they’re telling atheists to stop speaking out altogether. Look at excerpts like this:

    There will always be a small audience of science enthusiasts who have a deep interest in the “mechanisms and evidence” of evolution, just as there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored or, in the case of atheistic attacks on religion, backfire.

    It’s pretty difficult to escape the conclusion that they want atheists to stop criticizing religion because such arguments will “backfire” (notwithstanding the fact that I know of no evidence for such backfiring). I’ve asked both of them to disavow this interpretation of their intent. So far, neither has.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Maybe part of the issue here is that “advocacy for science” and “advocacy for atheism” need to be kept somewhat separate. You can get people to become supporters of the sciences without demanding that they become atheists. And you can continue to make arguments for atheism without implying that atheists are the only ones who care about science.

    I didn’t read the whole article, but perhaps part of the concern here is that support for the sciences themselves will end up being overshadowed and undermined by a philosophical debate over atheism vs. theism.

  • Siamang

    You can get people to become supporters of the sciences without demanding that they become atheists.

    What’s interesting is that it’s not just people like Dawkins who links them. Pretty much every anti-evolutionist alive links them as well.

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    Maybe part of the issue here is that “advocacy for science” and “advocacy for atheism” need to be kept somewhat separate.

    Valid. Just keep in mind that the primary argument by Pinker/Stenger/Dawkins/etc is that science will study the claims of theists. Harsh, materialistic, empirical science will cut open God and the Afterlife and peer around. And while this is going on, theists will get the same respect (or lack thereof) that any other scientist would get if their claims defy the academic literature. It ain’t a pretty thing – this scientific scrutiny and criticism. Thankfully Hermant is here with a spoon full of sugar.

    Why are they doing this? Easy – theists are making scientific claims. Claims ranging from origins, to a mystic pervasive intelligence in all things, to meditation, to miracles… all of these are important, valid scientific questions, worthy of exploration. And it’s the ‘New Atheist’ scientists who are concluding, “There is a low probability of truth value to their claims.” If only theists provided data to prevent this conclusion!!

    How do they say that nicely? I’ll leave that up to the marketing department.

  • http://anirratrat.blogspot.com/ J. J. Ramsey

    Ebonmuse: It’s pretty difficult to escape the conclusion that they want atheists to stop criticizing religion because such arguments will “backfire” (notwithstanding the fact that I know of no evidence for such backfiring). I’ve asked both of them to disavow this interpretation of their intent. So far, neither has.

    Ahem. From the post “‘Framing Science’, Round II” on the blog The Intersection:

    To be clear: Nobody is saying anybody else ought to shut up or stop talking. (I could read this post [the one entitled " Okay, Chris, Matt-- Stop digging. Stop it." on the ERV blog] in that way, but I will not; and PZ should not read our articles in that way either.)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Maybe part of the issue here is that “advocacy for science” and “advocacy for atheism” need to be kept somewhat separate.

    That is a valid point, Mike. However, Mooney and Nisbet explicitly reject it:

    Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism.

    If the public “cannot be expected to differentiate between” defending science and advocating atheism, and it’s pretty clear that Mooney and Nisbet view defending science as the higher priority, then what exactly are they suggesting we should do? The only sensible conclusion I can possibly draw from this is that they’re saying atheists should stop defending atheism.

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    Ahem. From the post “‘Framing Science’, Round II” on the blog The Intersection:

    Well then. If they say they didn’t mean what they said, then it’s all okay.

    These dudes are calling for 1) science communicators (good), 2) scientists becoming marketers (haha), and 3) a truce between theists and atheists on matters of science (unlikely while freethought scientists scrutinize the theist with frequent negative results).

  • http://anirratrat.blogspot.com/ J. J. Ramsey

    If the public “cannot be expected to differentiate between” defending science and advocating atheism,

    The article said that the “The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his [that is, Dawkins'] advocacy of evolution and his atheism,” and the article noted that Dawkins has been “further mixing his defense of evolution with his attack on belief.” Of course, expecting the public to separate out what Dawkins has thoroughly intermixed is a bit much, and the article says just that. It does not follow that the article is claiming that the public cannot separate advocacy of evolution and advocacy of atheism when they are deliberately kept separate.

  • Siamang

    How can they be seperate when every creationist is going to use it to tar us with anyway?

    Where’s the overwhelming chorus of Christians who accept the standard science ready to drown out the nonbelievers?

    Let’s face it, atheists are what, 5% of the population, and yet seem to comprise 90% of loud and proud supporters of modern biology.

    If Christian evolution supporters wanted to, they could drown out Dawkins by their sheer, overwhelming number…. right?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C
    You can get people to become supporters of the sciences without demanding that they become atheists.

    What’s interesting is that it’s not just people like Dawkins who links them. Pretty much every anti-evolutionist alive links them as well.

    Yeah, no kidding. That’s why I’m constantly pointing out the strange agreement between fundamentalists and (some) atheists. Both of them seem to agree that belief in science and belief in God are incompatible. Meanwhile many of us go on believing in both regardless of what they say.

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    Both of them seem to agree that belief in science and belief in God are incompatible.

    Naturalistic explanation (science) is incompatible with Supernaturalistic explanation.

    Honestly. I don’t know how else to make this clear. Would a search for ‘God’ in a physics journal database help make this point? Tell me what I need to do here. I’m at a loss.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Both of them seem to agree that belief in science and belief in God are incompatible.

    I don’t think adherence to science and belief in God are incompatible. I think consistent adherence to science and belief in God are incompatible.

    Meanwhile many of us go on believing in both regardless of what they say.

    People believe many things, which does not show that they are consistent.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Anthony, we’ve already been over this whole debate just recently in another thread. I see no reason to start all over again from scratch here.

  • MTran

    To be clear: Nobody is saying anybody else ought to shut up or stop talking.

    I don’t think this is clearly said at all. Every time I put the Mooney & Nisbet comments through BableFish, it still comes out STFU.

    Now BableFish may not be the best available translator, but I really cannot be expected to be able to distinguish between M&N’s one note whine-o-grams and some other meaning they now say should be included therein.

    Sure, M&N haven’t literally stated “Everyone who disagrees with us should shut up.” But they have consistently indicated that atheists should muzzle themselvers unless they talk the M&N talk.

    Perhaps Mooney and Nisbet need to reframe their position so it no longer screams: STFU

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    If I understand you correctly (my paraphrase, correct me if I’m wrong):

    Paraphrase of Mike C according to Anthony R.:
    “Scientific empiricism is the best epistemology for understanding geology, biology, chemistry, cosmology, physics, and abiogenesis. No supernaturalism is required for these subjects.

    “The one subject where such epistemology would not be the best is the origin of the universe, which is a metaphysical question that goes “beyond the capabilities of science”. At this point, personal intuition is justified as an explanation: “we can choose which seems more likely to us“. Thus, God is a sound argument for the origin of the universe.”

    Did I get it right? :)

    My question: Why is the origin of the universe a subject beyond the capabilities of science?

  • Richard Wade

    I am a science communicator. It’s what I do for a living. I give performances about science for children in schools and libraries. I’m very good at making science fun and interesting. It’s not all fluff; I show them not just what science knows, but how science knows. I have given thousands of performances about dinosaurs, volcanoes or astronomy.

    I’m not a scientist. I have master’s degrees in Art and in Educational Psychology. So I find creative ways to help people learn. I’m not the “shining star” that Tom Foss visualized in comment #1, but we don’t really need that once-in-a-lifetime perfect people’s scientist to make a good difference. We need people who are good communicators who can understand science well enough to make it accessible to the public. It has been agreed here that most scientists just aren’t very good at that, and training may not help much. Talented popularizers don’t need the PhD’s for their credibility, just some reputable scientists who will vouch for the accuracy of what they say. To use Anthony Rasmussen’s metaphor, R and D gives Marketing it’s stamp of approval.

    Occasionally someone comes up to me after one of my shows with a question about something that I can sense conflicts with their religious teaching. I have been able to help them by being warm and approachable, by answering their question simply and honestly, and by being sensitive to the question behind the question. That unasked question is usually something like, “Do I have to give up my faith if I accept this information?” That’s what scares many people off from science. I never overtly answer those unasked questions, but I do leave the subtle, implied answer that “No, you don’t have to give it all up, just a few details.” The implied solution is that they can gradually adjust their faith to accommodate scientific explanations of the world around them. We have seen how many former young-earth creationists have been able to accept the scientific view of earth’s age and evolution without abandoning the core beliefs of their religion. Change like that comes in small steps and sometimes even takes more than one generation. Brutally bashing people over the head with scientific truth is not a good way. The market of scientific ideas may be rough and merciless but we don’t have to be that way to the general public.

    It’s important to use a light touch and not overwhelm someone. Once a woman was admiring my specimens of fossil seashells. She told me how she once found similar fossils high on a mountainside, and asked me if I thought that could be evidence for Noah’s flood. Very respectfully I said, “That’s an interesting idea, but shellfish don’t’ float. She looked at me curiously and I added, “Shellfish live on the bottom. They don’t swim. If a great flood made the oceans deeper they would still be on the bottom, just in deeper water. They wouldn’t have been carried to the top of the mountain.” Now I could have gone on to utterly destroy Noah’s flood with a dozen other arguments, but I left it at that. I answered her question without humiliating her and I planted a seed of critical thinking into her mind.

    Another time a father asked me about how we know the age of fossils and how long does it take for a bone to fossilize. It was clear he was hoping to confirm a young age for fossils. I didn’t go into details that would have bored him but I said that we have several ways to measure the age of rocks that are independent of each other. If we measure something with several different methods and they all come out with a similar answer, then it’s reasonable to assume we’re on the right track. I could see that at first he was a little disappointed but my openness kept him from turning away. He nodded more to himself than me as if he was adjusting something in his mind.

    Rarely are questions simply challenges, basically saying “I’m gonna show you up.” There’s not much I can do with that and I’m just tactful and brief. But far more often the people are earnest in their questions. They clearly want to reconcile what seems like the very reasonable thinking of mainstream science with the essence of their faith. These people are not the hard core fundies, they have been duped by the hard core fundies. I treat them with gentleness and respect and I honor their sincerity with a straight forward but tactful answer.

    Science can be made palatable to the public and even the religious public with a little creativity, patience and compassion.

  • http://prosthesis.blogspot.com macht

    “I don’t think adherence to science and belief in God are incompatible. I think consistent adherence to science and belief in God are incompatible.”

    I’ve seen this assertion (or something close to it) made several times by atheists. Has anybody ever gone past mere assertion and made a good argument as to why this is the case? (And if so, could you provide a link or a book reference or something?)

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Did I get it right? :)

    My question: Why is the origin of the universe a subject beyond the capabilities of science?

    Why don’t we discuss this over at Dan Harlow’s blog so as not to hijack this thread?

  • Darryl

    Dawkins lays out a dragnet for religion in general, but I have to think that he regards the most valuable catch to be a certain species of fish—the fundy (this fish puts up a real fight). Here’s a problem to solve: try to adapt Dawkins (and Harris?) so as to target the fundamentalists (anti-science) without offending the moderates (pro-science). I imagine that this would have to entail banding together with right-thinking faithfuls to send a message to the fundies.

    Diversity is an asset. We need the Dawkinses and Harrises as well as the Collinses and Carters and everything in between and around. This is a complex problem and it demands a variety of approaches. When I began a formal study of theology and the Bible I was an average believer—I had been raised to believe certain things and had little more than strong feeling to prop up my faith. As I began to be indoctrinated I became more stringent in my views. Unfortunately for my schoolmasters, a fatal flaw in a Christian liberal education is that sometimes, for some people, it actually works—they begin to think for themselves and think critically. Knowing more about all things Christian prompted a lot of questions in my mind. I denied some science back in the day (I bought into that Creation Science crap). Ultimately, it was not science, but the inadequacies of theology, the facts of history, and a candid assessment of my own experience that led me to jettison my faith. Once I did this, I embraced science fully. Faith was for me a stumblingblock on the way to a scientific world-view. If someone comes to atheism by taking the long way around, so what? At least they arrived. Dawkins may get some people to go straight to atheism; for others, they will need to go through some transitional phases that involve listening to other voices. Unfortunately, those who are most in need of a change of mind are the hardest to reach. Education, education, education.

  • Richard Wade

    I’m cutting and pasting an argument I just made over at the thread about tragic events because it seems much more appropriate to be discussed here. I responded to something someone said:

    Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that Richard Dawkins is right: the liberal and moderate believers provide (perhaps unwitting) cover for the nut case religions.

    I have seen this assertion by Dawkins and Harris repeated over and over, and everybody seems to take it for granted. Has this ever been actually observed and measured? Does anyone have any actual empirical evidence of this? If we think that claims should be backed up by evidence, then show me the evidence, don’t give me common sensical arguments.

    I don’t automatically buy it as so many fans of Harris and Dawkins seem to. It’s like saying that the leopards in Africa are covering for the lions. No, they’re not. It looks to me like the more liberal Christians and fundies are in direct conflict and competition. If people want to make so powerful a claim that they can conclude “so they all gotta go,” then prove it.
    I’m open to being convinced by data, not blanket assumptions.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Here’s a problem to solve: try to adapt Dawkins (and Harris?) so as to target the fundamentalists (anti-science) without offending the moderates (pro-science). I imagine that this would have to entail banding together with right-thinking faithfuls to send a message to the fundies.

    I’m all for working together in support of science. What can I do to help? :)

    I mean, I’m not a teacher or in a Christian university anymore, and I’m not really all that into science as a hobby either, but I already described above what I’m doing to help the cause in my little corner of the world to change the minds of two of my friends. That’s kind of how I try to make a difference these days – one conversation at a time.

  • Robin

    I as an atheist do not believe that all religious *gotta go*. As I have said numerous times, religion is a life savor for many when they would not have anywhere else to go. I can’t pull in that life savor if I don’t have anything else to replace it with.

    But, if I belonged to an organization and in that organization, I as well as many others did not want the more radicals of the group to be representative of me, I should like to think we would be more outspoken of this fact and possibly even band together to get more public awareness out that those radicals/fundies/whackos were not representative of the majority of us.

    I am up late at nights, many times surfing the tv channels. You cannot believe how much whacky religion shows are on at night. I am speaking about the ones that for a small price will send you healing handkerchiefs, holy water or somehow for a small price will be able to lay their hands on you through the television to heal you.

    I understand the right to freedom of speech and anyone can buy time on the air waves, but if I was a moderate religious organization I would have to speak out loudly and readily of the dangers of this sort of scam. I think we all take for granted that its apparent that these things are scams, but we have to remember the desperate people out there that will grasp at anything many times to hold on to that last bit of hope.

    Although, I guess it would be kind of hard to back up my warning of the scams of healing handkercheifs and holy water since those sorts of miracles are throughout the bible.

  • Robin

    Mike,

    One conversation at a time is good. Sometimes I get these grandiose ideas of spreading the atheist words to everyone, loud and proud! hmmmm, I am sure its would work much better for me, one conversation at a time.

  • Karen

    I am a science communicator. It’s what I do for a living. I give performances about science for children in schools and libraries. I’m very good at making science fun and interesting. It’s not all fluff; I show them not just what science knows, but how science knows. I have given thousands of performances about dinosaurs, volcanoes or astronomy.

    Wow, what a great career, Richard! I am sure that you are making a big impact on kids, parents and teachers with your presentations. And if you can light a spark of interest in science – plus make it accessible to non-scientists – I’m sure you’re doing wonderful work that will have terrific repercussions for the future.

  • Richard Wade

    And verily He drew forth a holy healing handkerchief and blew upon it with his nose. And He looked upon it and saw that it was good. And He put the holy healing handkerchief back into its place in his robe and drew forth a multitude of holy healing handkerchiefs, so that all there might be blessed by their own holy healing handkerchiefs and cleanse their nasal passages of all sin and defilement. And they all blew upon their holy healing handkerchiefs with their noses and there came forth great flood of corruption and they were sore afraid, but the holy healing handkerchiefs stemmed the tide. And He said unto them, “Blessed are those who keep their noses clean, for they shall breathe easily.

  • Robin

    Richard,

    Your a trip! LOLOLOLOL

  • Richard Wade

    I’m all for working together in support of science. What can I do to help?

    Mike, you’re already helping, but it would be nice to be a part of a formal group of scientists, lay people, seculars and clerics who work together to promote better public understanding of science. There are a few such organizations focusing on political issues, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
    Does anyone know about something like this for science?

  • Darryl

    it would be nice to be a part of a formal group of scientists, lay people, seculars and clerics who work together to promote better public understanding of science. There are a few such organizations focusing on political issues, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Does anyone know about something like this for science?

    Good question Richard, I’d like to be a part of that.

  • Pingback: religious atheism « Trinifar

  • Maria

    Mike, you’re already helping, but it would be nice to be a part of a formal group of scientists, lay people, seculars and clerics who work together to promote better public understanding of science. There are a few such organizations focusing on political issues, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
    Does anyone know about something like this for science?

    I have joined this group as well.


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