Monday, March 24, 2008

Framing debates resurface

It's time for a glimpse into the crazy world of science/skeptical/atheist blogospheric politics!

Almost a year ago, a bunch of science and atheism blogs erupted in the so-called "framing" controversy. (For the interested, I offer two links as reference: Sunclipse, Matt Nisbet.) What is "framing"? Well, it has something to do with how we approach the media, and communicate with people. Beyond that, no one can say what it really means, because it seems to mean something different to every person. The whole debate has as many facets as it has commentators, if not more.

Stated simply, one side, the "framers," say that scientists should be cautious when talking to the media and the public. In particular, people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers are doing it all wrong because they're combining science and atheism. When the framers stated their case, they stepped right into the lurking controversy of how "friendly" atheists should be (on which I've commented before). The New Atheists listen to the framers' advice but only hear, "Lie down and shut up!" The New Atheists say they're only trying to speak truth, and there is no reason to hide the connection between science and atheism. The framers reply that it is impossible to speak truth without using one frame or another, so they might as well use a working frame. So on and so forth.

"New Atheism," I should note, is a term that was coined, or at least popularized by a Wired article. It is a term created by the critics, and eventually reluctantly accepted by the New Atheists themselves. Nowadays, the critics will occasionally remark, "Isn't it arrogant of them to claim that they are 'new' in any way?" Some people dislike Wired because of that.

Back to today. First, we have PZ Myers' incident with Expelled!, and then the aftermath. Creationists expel prominent evolutionary biologist PZ Myers from their documentary, purportedly about academic freedom, even though they had thanked him in the credits for his interview. Matthew Nisbet, a prominent, but ironically uncharismatic "framer", weighs in to say that this whole thing is bad for science. He says, I quote, "Lay low and let others do the talking," (emphasis his) as if to emulate his opponents' straw men. Uh oh. Let's sit back and watch the blogosphere explode.

Among the many recent comments on the matter, I'd like to highlight Sean Carroll's at Cosmic Variance. He makes a distinction between politicians and critics, which is way more intelligible than the framer/non-framer distinction. Sean, why are you so awesome?

Now it's time for my commentary (if my biases aren't already obvious from how I report the facts). Now, I haven't really committed to either side. I don't need to if I don't blog about it. The whole discussion is a mess, so I don't want to pick either side. But in terms of Sean's critic/politician distinction, I'm definitely a critic. I have little interest in "spinning" my writing in order to achieve goals--I'm only interested in capturing the truth. I recognize that politics is important, but I have no interest in doing any of it myself. I'd probably completely botch it. It's not as if I have any political influence anyways. And if I do have influence, it's not on people who are representative of the general public.

So as a critic, my disagreement with the New Atheist faction doesn't have anything to do with politics, or with how the ignorant masses will react. My disagreement is in the truth itself. I don't think science leads to atheism at all! Or, at least, not directly, in the manner supposed by many atheists. My opinions on the matter are a little more complicated. The relationship between science, skepticism, and atheism has been one of my intended topics from the beginning of this blog, but I haven't quite gotten around to it.

There is an obvious correlation. There's a 1998 statistic that says 72% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences express "personal disbelief" (viewable in Nature if you have a subscription, and American Atheists if you don't). Should we ignore this fact in hopes of it going away? I don't think we have a choice. Ignoring facts is a collective effort; stating them requires only one loud voice, of which we have plenty.

The much better alternative, at least for me, is to argue that this correlation does not imply causation. As far as arguments against religion go, evolution is one of the poorest. Not every scientist is an atheist. An unknown proportion of atheist scientists think that atheism and science go together, and the rest don't. Barring the worst sorts of fundamentalism, religion is not, or should not, be an obstacle to scientific practice. The only people who will make fun of you are people like PZ Myers, and then, only online. In person, he's a really nice guy.

Furthermore, there is no reason to fear atheism. Atheists are not evil. If atheism is a religion (which it's not), it's not an evil religion. They're an indication of religious freedom. This is the same religious freedom that allows people to be one particular denomination of Christianity rather than another.

See, telling the truth as I see it is so much easier. I would also argue that this would be the correct way to "frame" it. This frame would allay fears about godless science by confronting them, while simultaneously serving the "evil atheist agenda" (Number one on the evil agenda: civil rights!). But maybe I'm just a critic who thinks he knows better than the politicians.


Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Note on frames- don't be obcessive about it, because it sounds like you are denying the concept of objective truth. Although it is true that people have their bias, lenses and points of view, they are more than capable of seeing things as they actually are- only how they think of something is affected.

miller said...

I'm not sure where I denied the concept of objective truth, or even came close. Are you sure you didn't misread me?

Samuel Skinner said...

I apologize- I'm not a morning person. And I didn't read throughly. Opps.

Anonymous said...

>>>"My disagreement is in the truth itself. I don't think science leads to atheism at all!"<<<

I think it is here that you hit upon the crux of the matter. Strictly speaking I agree with you .... but at the risk of making unfounded assumptions myself and being a bit tangential:

Allow me to suggest that their mistake is likely less a conflation of correlation and causality and more an over-dependence on anecdotal evidence complicated by a failure to explicitly define the variable "science".

What does one mean by "science" as in "science leads to atheism":

Despite the wishes of science educators here in the US, the "spread of science" often takes the form of a growth of awareness as opposed to understanding for the proverbial lay-person. This trend holds even for folks who may be highly intelligent, well-educated, and skilled in highly technical fields. The relevance of science for the general populace tends to end with "science lite", er...technological literacy: a familiarity with discoveries, facts, and techniques but little grasp of how they relate to one another or to the practice of science proper. It is therefore not surprising that for such a constituency, "science" does little to reduce credulity and provide a framework with which to evaluate fantastic claims. For them, "science" tends not to lead to atheism resulting from a rejection of theistic tenets that fail to measure up under scientific scrutiny (which is what I assume you meant by "the manner supposed by many atheists"). Now contrast this with the disparate experience of someone who is a scientist/academician.

Generalizing from a non-representative sample:

I would suggest that science professionals/academics constitute a small subset of people whose experiences with "science" tend to be qualitatively different than those typical of the rest of the population. For unlike the majority of people, science provides them with an integrated perspective on what we know and how we know it that can underpin a more stringent set of criteria for evaluating claims. It may well be that those in the academy and the laboratory who posit that a rejection of theism follows from understanding science are over-extrapolating from their own experience and/or that of a number of their peers.

Again though I agreed with you at the outset of this post, I would now qualify that agreement. At this point , in the case of science professionals, while causality suggests too much, I suspect correlation suggests too little. While I would agree that positing correlation is a much more defensible position, I do not know if it captures the whole truth. How it plays in theistic circles is of far less concern to me. Nevertheless, I too would much prefer the use of "correlated with" or "highly related to" than "leads to" for the sake of precision...
not politics.


miller said...

Hey, anonymous,

Those are some great ideas. I was thinking more or less along the same lines, though with different emphases.

I've noticed too the different definitions of science. Most people think of "science" as being the technology, the body of scientific knowledge, and the central theme of sci-fi. The skeptical community thinks of "science" as being the scientific method, and more generally, reasoning plus observation.

Most people think that the alleged conflict between science and religion has to do with reducing God to a god of the gaps. But that's missing the point. The conflict has less to do with scientific knowledge, and more to do with the scientific method.

Even then, I don't think the conflict is straightforward.