Did Chris Mooney have a point?

On my previous post on Chris Mooney, James Croft left a comment which I’m very grateful for and want to respond to. Here’s the meat of James’ comment:

I think that Mooney is making a general case that supporters of science and critics of religion need to pay closer attention to the well-developed science of communication, persuasion, and political activism in order to achieve their aims. This includes framing our political arguments effectively, ensuring we are civil in our attempts to persuade the other side, building coalitions where necessary to make progress (for example on support for science in schools or gay rights).

I think Mooney is dead right on those questions: if the freethinking movement wishes to become a true movement with political power it will need to rapidly embrace proven strategies of communication and organizing which are well-documented in the research and by professionals in the relevant fields. And his point, let’s be clear, is not that its rude to criticize religion, but that it is unwise, if we wish to achieve the goal of getting science taught in schools, to alienate religious people who support that goal. I.e. his complaint is strategic.

[snip]

In many ways the freethinking movement is exceedingly bad at conveying its message: worse, I think, than pretty much any other movement I can think of. And one of the critical needs for us now, I believe, is to listen to what the research and the professionals are telling us and begin to be much more strategic and intelligent (and, hell, rational) about how we craft a message.

I obviously agree that science is worth paying attention to, and it’s possible that many people in the freethought movement pay too little attention to what science says about how to do things well, rather than just what the world is like. There may be a place for a lot more stuff like Luke Muehlhauser’s blog post “How to Be Happy.”

That said, “pay attention to the science of communication” is pretty generic advice, which doesn’t necessarily entail any particular approach to communication. Some things are hard to study scientifically. A scientific experiment on the effectiveness of different types of political soundbites may not tell us much about the effectiveness of a book like The God Delusion. A study of the effect of a generic college degree on people’s scientific beliefs may not tell us much about the effect of good popular science writing.

That makes the issue of the science of communication tricky to discuss. If James or anyone else reading this knows of particular studies they think are relevant, I’d love to take a look at them, though. (It’s especially useful if you can find a PDF on Google Scholar or the author’s website and post the link.)

On civility, a couple of points. One, I think there are some things that will be perceived as rude to say no matter how you say them. Two, I recognize that it’s often a good idea to be polite, but that doesn’t mean we need to be polite 100% of the time. Sometimes, it’s worth trying to very gently talk believers out of their beliefs, but I think it’s important to sometimes be frank about the disturbingly delusional nature of many of those beliefs. I support having a mix of strategies.

On coalition building, I don’t think there’s any disagreement at all there. I think the folks on the Gnu Atheist side of the divide have made pretty clear they have no problem working with believers on issues they agree on, like supporting gay rights or keeping creationism out of schools. They aren’t, for example, asking the NCSE to become an atheist organization.

And I think it’s clearly false that the freethought movement has done a bad job at conveying its message. We’ve done amazingly well in the past ten years given what we’ve been up against. Remember that many people will be offended by our merely announcing our existence.

One example of our success: it’s clear that The God Delusion had an impact on a lot of people, not just atheists, but people who were previously religious or on the fence about religion. Dawkins has an entire section of his website where he posts the messages he’s gotten from people who left religion, or came out about their irreligion, as the result of reading his books. And Greta Christina has said The God Delusion turned her from calling herself agnostic to being an atheist activist. Greta’s such a great writer that this fact alone makes me glad Dawkins wrote his book.

But again, I’d very much like to know what studies James (or anyone who shares his point of view) has in mind–with links if possible!

  • http://www.improbablejoe.blogspot.com Improbable Joe

    Yeah… no. Not buying it.

    • http://www.improbablejoe.blogspot.com Improbable Joe

      I should elaborate.

      Mooney describes A valid strategy. His mistake is in framing it as THE strategy. There’s a place for aggressive talk, and a place for the soft-sell, and a lot of strategies in-between. The problem that most of us have had with Mooney is that he tries to bolster his own position by tearing down other people, by trying to make his position seem valid by saying that he’s not like “those other atheists”. He wants to tear us down to score points with theists, and that’s dishonest and unfair.

      • leftwingfox

        Agreed with the points here about his “My way or the highway” attitude, his failure to communicate in a way which increasingly lost him allies.

        One of my big personal peeves was Ad hominem “You were rude, therefore I can ignore you” style of argumentation he engaged in frequently before leaving Scienceblogs. He (and later, his guest posters) would say something inflammatory, and then follow up with a post ignoring the substance of the resulting comments, and focus solely on the swearing.

  • Sigmund

    When Mooney and Nisbett started pushing “framing” as a means of getting a scientific message across to the public the initial reaction of many of us was not rejection. It was only later whan they outlined their specific strategy that the problems arose. The main problem with their approach was that it relied on portraying their message as the moderate option, in contrast to the extremist options of fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheism (the new atheists.) It is this use of a false equivalence of fundamentalist religion and new atheism that raised the ires of many of us. There were, of course, other important reasons why he was wrong – ignoring the international aspect to the question (why should Dawkins keep quiet for the sake of pusing evolution in US high schools if this leads to increased creationism in UK schools?), or ignoring the fact that we may have different agendas and goals, such as prioritizing the opposition to religious based discrimination of women and homosexuals, that are going to be affected if we promote a middle of the road religious agenda.
    In the end it appeared that his approach was not based on reason, but on politics.

  • http://tuibguy.com Mike Haubrich

    My impression of James’ critique is that it is the standoffish “you’re doing it wrong” meme, without real basis in fact. I think that it is, like I said, patronizing of religious allies to pretend that we agree that God could be in the quanta or somewhere; or that the gnu atheists are too aggressive to be effective in saving evolution. If your friend’s fly is down, by all means do the right thing and tell him rather than spend the rest of the day pointedly avoiding the fact that his undies are showing.

    As for Dawkins, my impression is that the problem people have is not in the delivery but that the message hurts delicate sensibilities. It is a matter of shooting the messenger because he is uncompromising. He is being honest, and there should be no faulting in that.

    I read TGD while was already an atheist, but I am always excited to read about and hear from people who started to seriously express their doubts about religion having read the book.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      No, that’s not my position at all.

  • screechymonkey

    James Croft, as quoted in the OP:

    And his point, let’s be clear, is not that its rude to criticize religion

    I respectfully submit that if that was Chris Mooney’s point, he did a breathtakingly poor job of conveying it. I mean, I’m sure you can find a quote by Mooney somewhere in which he says “it’s not necessarily rude to criticize religion,” but when the only time you speak up is to object that “oooh, that criticism of religion is [unfair/bad/poor strategy],” you have to forgive the rest of us for not taking him seriously.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Yes – I made the same point myself in the full comment of which the quote above in an extract.

  • http://angrybychoice.fieldofscience.com Lorax

    Framing was sold at the time as making sure we (scientists) convey our information to the public in a way that resonates with the public. Kind of the ‘know your audience’ advice. This was not received well in many circles, because it is basically a ‘DUH!’ and most everyone acknowledged that training in public communication was a good thing. So what was the issue?

    This followed with the ‘you’re doing it wrong’ meme, which elicited responses of how so and what should we do differently? This is where Mooney went off the rails in my opinion. His big issue is climate change (and a worthy issue it is). He can frame some issues around climate change that appeals to the fundamentalist christians. However, there are these evil biologists talking about evolution and that turns off the fundamentalist christians. So, he basically told a great number of atheists and biologists to keep it quiet, not because he cares about science (he does), but because it made his goals more difficult to attain.

    This latter point was not specifically stated as such, but if you go back and read his blogs and those arguing with him, I think it’s a reasonable hypothesis. Although some people did point out that their goals were not necessarily the same as his, a point he ignored as far as I could tell.

  • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    Hi everyone! I’m always glad to get into these sorts of discussions.

    Let me first point out that the quote in the body of the post here is an excerpt from a longer comment in which I also express specific reservations about Mooney’s approach. It’s important to acknowledge this because, as stated here, it looks like I might be wholeheartedly supporting his way of talking about this, which I do not.

    That clarification having been made, here is my response to Chris’ points:

    I obviously agree that science is worth paying attention to, and it’s possible that many people in the freethought movement pay too little attention to what science says about how to do things well, rather than just what the world is like. There may be a place for a lot more stuff like Luke Muehlhauser’s blog post “How to Be Happy.”

    I wholeheartedly agree. I think there are at least two challenges when it comes to promoting freethinking: how to discover what is true, and how to spread the truth. We are now quite good at doing the first, but not so good at doing the second. Our epistemological expertise has outstripped our educational expertise, so to speak. As an educator, I’m very interested in the epistemological question, but I am even more interested in the educational question. And I think we could spend more time investigating that in the movement, which is why I’ve focused a lot of my efforts on that question.

    That said, “pay attention to the science of communication” is pretty generic advice, which doesn’t necessarily entail any particular approach to communication. Some things are hard to study scientifically. A scientific experiment on the effectiveness of different types of political soundbites may not tell us much about the effectiveness of a book like The God Delusion. A study of the effect of a generic college degree on people’s scientific beliefs may not tell us much about the effect of good popular science writing.

    That makes the issue of the science of communication tricky to discuss. If James or anyone else reading this knows of particular studies they think are relevant, I’d love to take a look at them, though. (It’s especially useful if you can find a PDF on Google Scholar or the author’s website and post the link.)

    You’re right – it is generic advice, appropriate for a comment on a blog post but not for detailed discussion of the art of effective communication. And you’re right that examining the effect of various strategies through experimental test. This is a common problem in social science: some hypotheses and phenomena are extremely difficult to test.

    That’s one reason why I tend to turn to professionals in various fields whose collected experience can serve as a guide to best practices, supplemented by more general research (usually in the fields of cognitive science and psychology)which serves as a sort of plausibility check for the methods promoted by the professionals. However, there are experimental studies which discover some remarkable things with contrived situations – the Milgram experiment being a clear example.

    The problem with offering “particular studies” regarding effective communication, though, is that the question posed is too broad. We are talking here about a whole field which has developed over decades. Because of the obvious commercial implications of the study of effective communication it is something we know an awful lot about, and there are literally hundreds of studies I could choose from. Therefore, when people ask generally for evidence regarding effective communication I tend to refer them to books which collect and analyze studies. Ones I would recommend for those interested in broad principles are ‘Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion’ by Robert Cialdini (ignore the crappy cover – Cialdini is a recognized expert and decorated research psychologist) and Drew Westen’s ‘The Political Brain’ (you can entirely ignore the neuroscience if, like me, you’re skeptical of neuroscientific overreach, and focus on the cognitive science).

    If you want to know something more specific, I can provide more specific studies. So, for instance, if you wanted to know about Framing I’d recommend Lakoff’s ‘Thinking Points’, which is available online here:

    http://www.cognitivepolicyworks.com/resource-center/thinking-points/#Download_Book_Chapters

    If you wanted to read the only study I can find which experimentally tests the effectiveness of ridicule and derogation, I’d suggest Cialdini et al’s ‘The Poison Parasite Defense’, here:

    http://www.cognitivepolicyworks.com/resource-center/thinking-points/#Download_Book_Chapters

    That study is summarized in the following news article for those less interested in wading through the whole thing:

    http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/1001/cialdini.html

    (Takeaway: Derogation alone doesn’t seem to work much at convincing people not to take another individual seriously. This is also one case in which reading the study is useful because in the actual study ridicule is found to be even less valuable than is suggested by the tenor of the news article.)

    You might also check out my practical guides to various communication strategies, The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/tag/the-freethinkers-political-textbook/

    I just presented a 3 hour workshop outlining some of these ideas for the CfI Leadership Conference, and that will be coming online soon I believe – I’ll link it when it does.

    On civility, a couple of points. One, I think there are some things that will be perceived as rude to say no matter how you say them. Two, I recognize that it’s often a good idea to be polite, but that doesn’t mean we need to be polite 100% of the time. Sometimes, it’s worth trying to very gently talk believers out of their beliefs, but I think it’s important to sometimes be frank about the disturbingly delusional nature of many of those beliefs. I support having a mix of strategies.

    I agree with your first point but don’t think it particularly salient. What follows from it? The implication which is frequently drawn from this point is along the lines of “since someone will be offended by anything we say, we should therefore not worry about offending people”. This is clearly a non sequitur.

    On your second point I agree entirely. I’m on record as supporting a mix of strategies. However, all strategies should be evaluated on the basis of effectiveness and ethics. Some strategies simply do not work (failing to present your message in a way which will be understood by a given audience, for example). Others simply are not moral (demeaning and dehumanizing people, for instance). My charge against some of the more confrontational figures is that their strategies fail both tests, but I’m particularly concerned when we stray into unethical territory. My fully views on this matter can be found here:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/2012/02/16/the-freethinkers-political-textbook-steel-velvet-and-the-honorable-duelist/

    I also think have questions about your analogy to the queer movement in the linked article, but perhaps we should discuss that another time!

    I think it’s clearly false that the freethought movement has done a bad job at conveying its message. We’ve done amazingly well in the past ten years given what we’ve been up against. Remember that many people will be offended by our merely announcing our existence.

    This depends on what goals you think are important to achieve. And do remember I said that I thought the movement was deficient “in many ways” (i.e. not in ALL ways). The achievements we have seen, which I agree are significant, have been in the willingness of more and more people to identify as atheists. And that’s undoubtedly a win. But I have not seen a large upsurge in real, active support for Humanist values across the country. No significant bills passed. No laws changed. Few proposals, even, as to how to make a real difference in the world. Those measures – concrete measures of improvement for the human species – are most important to me. And I think we a have a long way to go until we can be super proud of our achievements in those areas.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Thanks James. This will take awhile to digest, but I am very glad to have it!

    • baal

      I was going to have a substantive response but jamescroft more than beat me to it, he knocked it out of the park.

      Most importantly:

      However, all strategies should be evaluated on the basis of effectiveness and ethics. Some strategies simply do not work (failing to present your message in a way which will be understood by a given audience, for example). Others simply are not moral (demeaning and dehumanizing people, for instance).

      Mindless replies filled with vitriol don’t help anyone and flag their posters as people to avoid.

    • josh

      James Croft,

      I don’t find a link to the actual article by Cialdini et al. in your post, but the summary contains this:

      “Cialdini found that successful counter ads involve the use of effective counter-arguments that call into question the opponent’s facts and trustworthiness; mnemonic links to the opponent’s ads, a parasitic device which essentially infects the opponent’s message by linking its memory and impact to the counter ad; and ridicule to satirize the opponent’s ads.” [Emphasis mine.]

      You suggest that the summary somehow overstates the effect of ridicule, which may be, I can’t compare the two right now. But you seem to unduly ignore the takeaway, (unless the summary is just flat out wrong): that ridicule, in conjunction with counter-arguments, that becomes mnemonically associated with an opponent’s arguments, reduces the effectiveness of those arguments. So from a strategic, atheist point of view, we should encourage ridicule and counter-argument that are brought to mind when someone runs into evangelical and apologetic offerings.

      I’m curious why you say the freethinking movement is worse than any other at conveying its message? As noted, we do seem to have increasing numbers of people identifying as atheists, agnostics, nones, etc. Politically, it’s just not a very political movement in the sense of backing bills and politicians, except that we generally oppose the intrusion of religion into public life. I suppose the track record on that front is pretty mixed, but I would chalk most of that up to being a relatively small movement in the face of much larger, entrenched political interests. On the Humanist front: the US did have the repeal of DADT; the passage of a major, if flawed, health care bill; increasing support for gay marriage; draw down of troops in Iraq… It’s slow, piecemeal and begrudgingly accomplished, but those are improvements.

      • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

        Great question. The actual research study is quite a bit different. You want to take a look at page 35 particularly, which provides a sumry of the findings. In the actual findings the researchers recommend what they call the “Poison Parasite Defence”, which is the combination of “counterarguments that discredit the honesty of the rival’s claims” and “mnemonic links between one’s counter claims and the rival position”. They found no additional effect of “attacks of the source of the message without discrediting the claims”, which they elsewhere all “mere derogation” (what the article refers to as “ridicule”). They do caution the following:

        Should we conclude that without providing evidence for the deceptiveness of the message claims mere derogation is without value in the marketplace of ideas? That conclusion seems premature on the basis of only two studies and a single operationalization of the concept. It certainly remains conceivable that other forms of source derogation not tested in our studies can powerfully undermine a competitor’s claims. At the same time, it might be the case that the specific type of derogation used in our studies, one in the form of simple mockery (for example, superimposing a dunce cap on a pro-education political candidate), may not be sufficient to sway an audience—nor might other forms of raw source derogation such as purely derisive or ad hominem critiques. Subsequent research should be undertaken to investigate this possibility, which, if confirmed, might help raise the ethical standards of exchanges in political campaigns and the like.”

        But they did not find that derogation was a useful added persuasive factor, by my reading of the study (whic is why they recommend not using it). So, yes, the article misrepresents the study, in my view.

        http://osil.psy.ua.edu:16080/~Rosanna/Soc_Inf/week12/Poison%20Parasite.pdf

        Why do I think we’re often bad at purveying our message? Because organizations like the CfI and the AHA have existed for decades without significant societal uptake of Humanist values. The Ethical Culture movement has had more than a century. Ingersoll was making rhe same argumens in the 1800s.I guess I have really high expectations for the freethinking movement and the progress that has been made doesn’t seem to me that great. I think we should aim higher than we often do.

    • penn

      James, that is a very thoughtful post, but my fundamental question is what makes you think that we are bad at spreading the truth? If we had been better educators over the last 10 years, how would things be different now? I think we are doing better now than a reasonably optimistic person would have predicted in 2002. The movement is growing, secular groups are popping up all over the place, and acceptance of non-theists appears to be on the rise. There may be room for improvement, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to think we’re failures at communication.

      • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

        I note those sorts of successes myself in the post, but I’m thinking a lot bigger than that. This is a question, to some degree, of a difference of goals. A success, in my book, would have been blocking Prop 8. It would be protecting reproductive rights instead of seeing them limited. It would mean a revival of values voters on the righteous side of the political spectrum. I think we have become a lot better at saying “atheists exist, and we’re ok too”. We still aren’t great, I think, at saying “These are the positive values we believe in, and he’s why you should get behind them.”

    • ‘Tis Himself

      My only problem with Mr. Croft’s well-crafted post is that there are large numbers of people for whom the very existence of atheists is offensive. When the statement “I’m an atheist” is seen as ridiculing someone’s religion, then dialog with that person becomes difficult. How do Mr. Croft hope to overcome this problem?

      • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

        You just don’t attempt to persuade those people at first. They are not worth the effort until we’ve made major progress elsewhere. You also ensure not to give them ammunition by demeaning or dehumanizing people. Them you use your new allies to alienate those people and make them seem as ridiculous as they are. That’s my view, anyway. You don’t let your whole strategy be dictated by the lunatic fringe. That way they win.

  • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

    Ys. t ws rght n tp f hs hd.

    I don’t care for Mooney, but please try to say something of substance if you’re going to attack someone. – Hallq

  • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

    I’d make three distinctions here:

    First, in aiming for a very narrow goal, say defeating members of a school board who are Creationists in an election, of course you work with anyone who shares that specific narrow goal. Paradoxically, I think Mooney is a prime example of the erroneous approach here: he seems to be very, very narrowly focused on his loyalty to the liberal left and to the Democratic Party. I, at least, get the impression Chris will sacrifice any other goals to help advance that agenda.

    On the other hand, a lot of us who are known for being uncompromising in criticizing religion are also quite happy to work with religious folks where we have common ground: I am a fire-breathing atheist when the focus is on the religion question, but I have now and have always had friends, neighbors, and relatives who are evangelicals and with whom I often agree and with whom I am happy to work on some social and political issues. I’ve no doubt Chris would consider me a horrible sell-out to the Religious Right for daring to associate with such people as I do!

    Second, Chris and his sympathizers tend to focus on fairly narrow, relatively short-term goals — the next election, the current curricular revisions, ongoing court battles, etc. A lot of us are more concerned about much longer social and cultural issues. An approach of honest and frank presentation of our views is more likely to help in the long term than in the short term.

    Finally, we actually do have some quite impressive and quite spectacularly successful experiments in social change — the Black civil rights movement and the gay rights movement. I myself have had the fortunate opportunity to observe both movements for a half century. They both succeeded not by being quiet about their real, long-term goals but by intransigently and unyieldingly standing up for what they thought was right.

    I’m not endorsing the sort of gratuitous vulgarity that is often used, say, in P. Z. Myers’ comments section. On the other hand, when P. Z. himself is grating, it is usually not because he is using vulgar language but because the content of what he is saying is bothersome to people who do not want to hear it.

    The same thing was true of both the civil-rights movement and the gay-rights movement for many years: anyone who thinks the early activists in either movement were afraid to say things they knew would grate upon their opponents did not live through the early days of those movements.

    Reasonable civility? Yes. Working together and maintaining friendships even with evangelicals? Of course. But refraining from expressing our honest views when the matter comes up? No, in the long term that does not work.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  • Bjarte Foshaug

    This is definitely one of my pet peeves. If your only goal is to promote public acceptance of certain right conclusions like the truth of evolution, then Mooney may have a point. If, however, your goal is to promote sound ways of arriving at conclusions, to appeal to anything other than your honestly held reasons is to leave out the entire message. When accomodationists try to make evolution more palatable to believers by insisting that it poses no threat to their religious beliefs, what they seem to be implicitly saying is that if evolution did pose such a threat (which is does), then that would indeed be a valid reason to reject it. Furthermore, their arguments are often blatantly inconsistent, as when Mooney and Kirshenbaum insist that there is no conflict between religion and science and then go on to argue that “…if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former”.

    The conflict couldn’t be put much clearer than this. If religious believers are prepared to accept the findings of science only on the condition that it doesn’t contradict beliefs held for bad reasons, they haven’t really accepted science even if they do manage to find a way to reconcile it with their beliefs. Putting such conditions on your acceptance in the first place is the very antithesis of an open-ended search for truth which is the very essence of science. In the end, the only way to make science compatible with faith (while being consistent) is to drain science of everything that made it worth promoting in the first place. The day when having good reasons for one’s beliefs became optional in science, the day when science no longer made anyone any less inclined to engage in motivated reasoning and self-deception, the day when science no longer made it any more difficult to believe in bullshit was the day that science died.

    Finally, it’s not as if the non-confrontational, appeasing, “stick-to-teaching-the-science” approach advocated by people like Mooney hasn’t been tried. It is basically what the Americans have been doing all along, and it has already failed miserably.

  • mnb0

    As far as politics goes it is necessary to keep in mind that you American atheists have to deal with 40 percent fundies. That’s considerably more than in Europe or Suriname (where I live) where even the Jehovah’s are not fanatical and mormons aren’t taken seriously (Suriname is a very religious country though). People like Romney and Santorum don’t stand a chance (we have other issues, don’t worry).
    Against fundies moderate politics don’t help. They don’t listen. They don’t compromise. They won’t back down.
    And there are more of them in the States than atheists. So American atheists don’t have a choice to make themselves very clear and loudly so. Had I lived in the States I probably would have called myself a New Atheist and proudly so. Too few people in the States realize that their future is at stake due to poor education. Waking them up won’t happen by pursuing a moderate strategy.

  • Konradius

    The question in the title of this article sounds to me like a rhetorical one with expected answer: NO.

    It is hard to take Chris seriously. He criticizes loads of people of bad communication. And he had quite a long discourse with prominent people in the movement like PZ and Jerry Coyne. Yet he was completely unable to bring about any change in behavior.

    For someone who claims to be an expert in communication his track record looks to be pretty abysmal.

    And then of course he crept into the pocket of the templeton foundation

    Perhaps he’s trying to lead by example how not to communicate?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    if the freethinking movement wishes to become a true movement with political power it will need to rapidly embrace proven strategies of communication and organizing which are well-documented in the research and by professionals in the relevant fields…

    In fewer words, we should kowtow to Matt Nisbet, a self-proclaimed expert on communication who has proven himself to be a very poor communicator who has since brought his own integrity into question through his writing on climate change.
    .
    Also missing: any reference to the Overton window, or the fact that various other social movements (civil rights, gay rights) have made substantial progress by making noise, rather than making nice.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I would very much like to see empirical evidence that the Overton Window is a practicable and effective political strategy. If you could link me some studies or books on the topic I’d appreciate it!

      • MV

        How is the the evolution of politics in the US over the last three decades not an example of the Overton window in action?

        Or does reality not become real until someone publishes it in a peer reviewed journal?

        • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

          Because the fact that a theory fits the observed data is not proof that the mechanisms described in the theory caused the observed data – other mechanisms may be responsible. Further, even if we take the evolution of US politics as evidence in favor of Overton’s hypothesis, that doesn’t give us enough information regarding how to employ an Overton strategy at the micro-level.

          To be clear, I am genuinely interested in seeing studies of campaigns informed by Overton – I think there may well be something to it. But that has very little to do with this discussion in any case.

  • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    I’m always interested to see how the comments in response to questions of strategy develop on this blog network, because I’ve engaged in a number of discussions like this, and in many the same points, which I believe demonstrate some misconceptions, are repeatedly made. So I want to address those points, and see if we can develop a little greater understanding of my position.

    PhysicistDave makes a good point regarding the difference between narrow and broad goals:

    Second, Chris and his sympathizers tend to focus on fairly narrow, relatively short-term goals — the next election, the current curricular revisions, ongoing court battles, etc. A lot of us are more concerned about much longer social and cultural issues.

    PhysicistDave is right about the first part. There is a difference between goals in different time frames and of different sorts. The strategies you might use to get people to sign a petition against a bill which is going to be voted on in the next week may well be different than the strategies used to create longer term cultural change. But, in my view, that doesn’t mean that broad principles of human psychology are going to change significantly such that strategies which were counter productive in the short term will be very productive in the long term. The sorts of cognitive science and psychology studies I provided in my last reply will, I think, remain our best guides to how to work with the grain of human psychology to make change.

    PhysicistDave also says

    “An approach of honest and frank presentation of our views is more likely to help in the long term than in the short term.”

    There is a misconception embedded here that is also demonstrated in almost all of the other responses: the idea that being civil means relinquishing frankness and honesty. Bjarte Foshaug draws a similar false dichotomy:

    If your only goal is to promote public acceptance of certain right conclusions like the truth of evolution, then Mooney may have a point. If, however, your goal is to promote sound ways of arriving at conclusions, to appeal to anything other than your honestly held reasons is to leave out the entire message.

    mnbo seems to suggest a similar view, saying “American atheists don’t have a choice to make themselves very clear and loudly so”, as if clarity and loudness are incompatible with civility. Reginald Selkirk falls into the same trap, saying:

    “various other social movements (civil rights, gay rights) have made substantial progress by making noise, rather than making nice.”

    Let me be very clear about this, because this false dichotomy has stifled and derailed discussions of strategy for a long time: frankness and honesty are part of true civility. It is extremely uncivil to lie or hide your true opinion from someone in a discussion. So too to speak in a mealy-mouthed way which hides your core commitments. The critical point here is that frankness, honesty and civility can coincide (indeed they must coincide). And nothing I wrote in my reply should suggest to anyone that being frank and honest is unimportant – I’d challenge anyone here to find any such statement in my reply above, or in all my writing on these topics. You will be unable to do so, but yet the replies assume I take that position.

    It is important when discussing this issue not to draw a false distinction between civility and honesty. It is a complete mischaracterization of my views and a very serious misunderstanding of what the science demonstrates is effective. You will gain respect as a messenger if you demonstrate that you are willing to honestly present your views even if the target of the persuasion attempt profoundly disagrees with them – so you must do it. But don’t do it in an unethical way which demeans or dehumanizes other people.

    I understand that frequently atheist voices have been stifled and pushed from the public discussion. Let me assure you that no one who thinks as I do is trying to silence people who want to honestly and loudly express their viewpoint. Rather, we are trying to ensure that when you do so, it is heard by as many people as possible, and has the positive effects you want.

    I linked my long post on this topic before, but I still think it is valuable because it directly addresses the problem of this false dichotomy:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/2012/02/16/the-freethinkers-political-textbook-steel-velvet-and-the-honorable-duelist/

    • Kevin

      “There is a misconception embedded here that is also demonstrated in almost all of the other responses: the idea that being civil means relinquishing frankness and honesty.”

      I think they are responding to Mooney’s claim that in order to convince believers to accept the facts of evolution, we need to tell them that it is compatible with their religion. For some of us, this involves lying about what we believe. If we were to adopt Mooney’s suggestion, we would have to relinquish honesty.

      • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

        Agreed – I address this very point (though I discuss Eugenie Scott rather than Mooney) in the post I linked. Lying in order to curry favor with your audience is, in my terms, pandering – and it’s unethical and ineffective. BUT if Mooney and Scott really believe that such views are compatible then they are not pandering, but simply honestly expressing their view. And it’s important to determine which is the case.

        • leftwingfox

          BUT if Mooney and Scott really believe that such views are compatible then they are not pandering, but simply honestly expressing their view. And it’s important to determine which is the case.

          I disagree.

          Whether or not they personally believe their view is irrelevant compared to how they act upon that belief and whether that belief is true.

          How they acted on their belief (chastising the New Atheists for “not helping” instead of marshalling support for their own beliefs) is what caused the political rift in the first place. If their belief is true, then it would have greater predicted effect in the real world than a false idea.

          • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

            I’m not sure what you disagree with. I don’t think your reply addressed what I said at all. Could you clarify where you think we have a disagreement?

          • leftwingfox

            Maybe I’m being overly picky here. I just don’t think that whether or not a person believes what they say is relevant compared to whether what they say is true. A person who believes false things sincerely does much more damage politically than a person who says true things insincerely.

            In general, I agree with your comments. I don’t think there’s a problem with setting your arguments appropriately for the audience, and trying to find the best methods to do so. Where I think Mooney and Nesbit really fell down was first by trying to propose a central frame that was false (There’s no conflict between religion and science), and then by trying to push back against anyone who disagreed with that frame for any reason. Doing so undermined their self-proclaimed expertise in communication.

            I personally think working backwards is better. “Here’s how science helps you, this is why we know it works, and here’s why it’s important to understand it, even when you don’t like the answers it gives you”. I think the most successful science communicators are the ones who help people understand how science gets the answers it does, and what those mean to the individual, rather than trying to claim there’s no fundamental conflict.

        • MV

          So, if people really believe untrue things, they can be civil when promoting those things? I rather strongly disagree. For instance, I used to believe that science and religion were compatible (aside from believing two contradictory ideas). I was wrong. To say otherwise would be lying. Exactly what do you call it when those who believe this after being educated on the matter continue to state it?

          Using polite language is overrated. When believers ask me what Church I go to, do you believe in God, if I have been saved, what my religion is, do you want to come to my church, etc., I don’t consider that civil. There is virtually no possible way for strangers to phrase those questions and be civil because it is often code for “are you a good person” in our society.

          Here’s some anecdotal information regarding honest messengers. I am a science educator. I no longer respect the NCSE because of their stance regarding religion. They don’t understand science. I think they do good work in certain cases but I do not want to support them in any way. I don’t respect messengers for their honesty if their message is clearly wrong or repugnant. It reflects poorly on them.

          • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

            if people really believe untrue things, they can be civil when promoting those things?

            Yes, I think so. I think some people are sincerely mistaken, and can express their mistaken views with great civility. I’m not clear from your post why you think otherwise.

  • Michael Fugate

    I think the book “How People Learn” by National Academies Press is one of the best resources.
    http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368
    This book quite clearly shows what teachers should do to allow students to discard their misconceptions. Most teaching strategies involve students memorizing an answer for an exam, but reverting back to their previous misconceptions after the course is completed. I don’t think many organizations involved in education have read it and they need to do so.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Thanks for this link – I hadn’t seen it before and am now working through the document!

      • Michael Fugate

        I hope you find it useful.

  • Sheesh

    Some strategies [...] are not moral (demeaning and dehumanizing people, for instance).

    Belief in gods is a delusion. Believers in gods are delusional.

    Is describribing a believer as delusional demeaning?

    Is Richard Dawkins immoral, or was the publication of one of his books an immoral act?

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      No, I don’t think describing someone as delusional for believing in God is demeaning or dehumanizing. It’s just, in my view, not optimally accurate. A delusion is not just any old false belief, but one born of an illness or other pathology. And I don’t think it is always the case that belief in God is pathological. I don’t think that Dawkins’ books really step over my ethics line.

      They are unlikely to be very convincing to believers because they don’t paint Dawkins as particularly likeable, and don’t make a lot of effort to understand belief from the believer’s point of view. But that’s an effectiveness criticism, not an ethical one.

      • penn

        A delusion doesn’t have to be pathological. It’s just any belief that is contradicted by the evidence.

      • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

        Words like “delusion” and “insane” have technical psychiatric meanings, but also more colloquial ones. Can you think of words to describe, say, these beliefs?

        I’m not much for calling simple belief in God a delusion, OTOH “God Delusion” was probably a better book title, in terms of getting the message out, than something clever but opaque like “A Devil’s Chaplain.” On the third hand, I actually wonder if the only reason theism doesn’t seem obviously delusional is because so few people let it affect their behavior. They don’t actually say, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about anything, because there’s this benevolent superbeing who loves me and looking out for me.”

      • Sheesh

        If we’re going to argue by dictionary, religious privilege and indoctrination are both pathologies, social malfunction and mental abnormality. I’d say “delusion” stands even if your particular dictionary is absolutist in its requirement for illness or pathology (mine isn’t.)

        I think the consensus on “delusion” includes more than a narrow medical definition. Anyhow it’s a great relief that calling the holders of demonstrably false beliefs “delusional” is not demeaning (and thus not immoral).

        E.g., there was no human population bottleneck of two, Adam and Eve didn’t exist, thus “original sin” can’t exist. Jesus if he existed at all died for no redemptive reason, and he and the saints surely didn’t rise from the dead. Catholics that profess to be Catholics are lying or delusional (under reasonable definitions for Catholic, I.e, exempting so-called “cultural Catholics” and other non-believing “Catholics”).

  • InfraredEyes

    I think a great deal hangs on how you define “civility”.

    I interact on another board with a family (mother and two daughters) who all work, one way or another, for the Episcopal church. Self-consciously liberal/progressive, of course they accept evolution, etc. And yet, they are the possessors of remarkably thin skins. Mother went off on an extended rant when Christopher Hitchens died. Why was everyone calling him “brave”, he was just a snide little so-and-so who didn’t understand theological subtleties, and so on and so forth. Now Hitchens, whatever you think of him, was possessed of considerable physical courage; apparently that didn’t count, she meant moral courage. Several posts later, it became clear that her real gripe was that she perceives atheism as being a cool trend, so therefore supporting it is no longer brave, it’s just bandwagon-jumping.

    My point is that the most superficially reasonable believer can turn out to be a mass of rage if you say the wrong thing. And the “wrong thing” can be just about anything. There’s a considerable persecution complex brewing among mainstream Christians. They have been used to controlling public discourse for so long that a simple statement of unapologetic atheism strikes them as being strident and uncivil. These same people tend to admire “old” atheists like Sartre and Camus, mostly because they were gloomy. Being openly atheist without being conflicted about is an act of incivility in itself, almost. We are supposed to sit quiet and allow ourselves to be patronized.

    So, Yes, at some point it’s easy to think “Screw it, I’ll just tell them what fools they are”.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Yeah, the situation you describe is a clear example of the non sequitur I described above in action: some people will find whatever we say offensive, so we might as well say whatever we want. But B does not follow from A.

      I understand how frustrating such discussion are, and how psychologically satisfying it can be to say “you’re just a fucking idiot”, but IF one’s goal is to change another’s mind it’s unlikely to work.

      • InfraredEyes

        Well, in the case I described, no force on earth will ever change their minds, about any number of things, not just religion. In any case, I’m not sure that that is the objective. I think much of the value in public discourse lies not in persuading one’s opponent, but in demonstrating to onlookers that “civility” or “respect” need not mean acquiescing with a position I disagree with. The problem is that a certain percentage of the self-advertised “moderate Christians” will not accept anything short of acquiescence.

  • mnb0

    @James Croft: “as if clarity and loudness are incompatible with civility.”
    Am not presenting a false dilemma, James Croft (@13), you are pulling off a strawman. I never advocated to be unpolite.

    “not that its rude to criticize religion, but that it is unwise, if we wish to achieve the goal of getting science taught in schools, to alienate religious people who support that goal.”
    Vocal atheists always will alienate some moderate religious people. They will ask you to tone down – and keep on asking until nobody can hear you anymore. The creationists will be the ones who laugh.

    • ‘Tis Himself

      When advertising companies reject signs that merely have one word, atheists, on them as being “too controversial” then obviously being civil requires being silent. Apparently Mr. Croft is unaware of reality or else is ignoring it as being not germane to his argument that atheists need to suck up to goddists.

      • Sheesh

        Haha, not suck up, use “optimally accurate” language he says. See above and below…

        That will show those believers that want you to sit down and shut up! (the other kind of believers aren’t the big problem, but oh well.)

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      mnbo: Thank you for clarifying. If you read what I wrote carefully, you will see that I said you “seemed” to be drawing a false dilemma, not that you were. Your initial post was unclear to me, so I appreciate the clarification. I entirely agree with your point regarding how there will always be people who we alienate. The question is how can we reach as many religious allies as possible while not trafficking our principles.

      What’s funny is that ‘Tis immediately follows your clarification by making the same non sequitur argument I’ve already explained is completely invalid. Sure, there are some people who will find any expression of atheism to be offensive – even some bigoted companies and organizations. But as I asked Chris, what follows, strategically, from that fact? It certain does NOT follow that “being civil requires being silent”. That is a flawed conclusion. It does not logically follow from the premises.

      Again, being civil does not mean never offending people or never being controversial. No one is arguing that. The person ignoring reality is you, ‘Tis.

      • InfraredEyes

        It certain does NOT follow that “being civil requires being silent”. That is a flawed conclusion.

        No doubt. But it is not our conclusion, it is the conclusion of the people–some of the people–we are dealing with.

        As I said upthread, it all depends on what you mean by “civility”. The notion that civility, for an atheist, consists of sitting down and shutting up is much commoner among religious people that you seem to be allowing. I am not in the habit of using offensive language and I will only call someone a fool under provocation. But I’ve had my share of being called out for “incivility” or “lack of respect” simply because I disagree with a religious statement. If we’re going to obsess about civility, someone really should get a copy of the memo over to the religious side.

  • John Moriarty

    I don’t know how to put up a matrix of goals, methods and effectiveness, but it would go a very long way towards clarifying what people often appear to be at cross-purposes about.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      This is a great idea, and the subject of an upcoming post in the Freethinkers’ Political Textbook series!

  • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    Ttotally agreed. Changing religious people’s perception of civility so that simply criticizing faith or espousing a different view is not seen as uncivil is very important. And that’s one reason why it’s so important to be conscious about how we communicate: we won’t change the culture with ineffective strategies.

    • InfraredEyes

      Based on what you are saying in this thread, it would be easy to paraphrase thus: Let’s be very, very quiet, play by their rules, and maybe someday they’ll acknowledge our existence. I hope that’s not what you mean. Because I can’t think, off the top of my head, of any successful movement that has operated that way.

      I won’t allow guests at my table to lead the assembled company in saying grace, for example. I have seen this happen, although not in my own house. Our hostess went along with it because she didn’t want to offend anybody, or at least not anybody religious. In a case like that, I think the incivility is all on the other side. I can see no reason not to go head to head with someone who behaves like that.

      • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

        I think only someone intent on producing an extremely perverse reading of what I’ve written here could paraphrase me lke that, especially since I’ve said things in this thread which directly contradict it. I am making a much more sophisticated argument than you suggest, and I’d appreciate it if you read it over again. It is tiresome to respond to the same straw men, unevidenced assertions and logical fallacies again and again. Not that you’ve done all these, but in the totality of this thread there has been an awful lot of shallow responses.

        In case it isn’t clear, I don’t at all think that anyone should play by anyone else’s rules and keep quiet. Rather, I think we need to use the best evidence available about what works when it comes to effective messaging, and that speaks against some of the strategies our community frequently reaches for. Being honest, loud, frank, difficult on occasion, controversial etc can all be valuable. But being cruel, stupid, needlessly abrasive and thoughtless will not be.

        • MV

          James:

          I do like your last two sentences.

          However, based on the sentences before, the implication is that the “…community frequently reaches for…” strategies that are “…cruel, stupid, needlessly abrasive and thoughtless…”

          Is this a fair statement? And if so, are you referring to bloggers or individuals in the comment sections? If it is the first, I suggest some significant citations.

          • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

            I didn’t intend to imply that, quite – I was giving examples of strategies which will certainly not work, not ones which I think are used VERY frequently.

  • Sheesh

    But even more important, imo, than examples of atheist bloggers being “cruel, stupid, needlessly abrasive and thoughtless” (which isn’t out of the ordinary for any large, diverse group) I would imagine the use of immoral strategies would be so shocking James surely would have bookmarked them for exactly this sort of challenge. Remarkable atheists using immoral communication strategies is the sort of claim that would necessitate evidence. So to echo MV, if these immoral strategies are being employed by our spokespersons (widely read authors, widely respected bloggers, etc.) I’d certainly like to know! Blow the whistle! Name names!

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