Creationism and framing

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P.Z. Myers and Larry Moran react violently to a piece by Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney that appeared in the Washington Post yesterday. Both of them take particular issue with this paragraph:

We agree with Dawkins on evolution and admire his books, so we don't enjoy singling him out. But he stands as a particularly stark example of scientists' failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.

Myers writes:

Good grief, this is bogus beyond belief. Let's pretend: let's say I shut down my blog, Dawkins refuses to lecture on atheism anymore, Dennett retires to a grass shack in the South Pacific, and Sam Harris converts to Mormonism. Furthermore, every scientist in the country shies away completely from ever mentioning religion, except of course for people like Collins and Miller, who continue their "I'm a scientist, and I believe in Jeeezus!" schtick. We'll forget about the odious implications for the freedom of speech for atheists in this suggestion, and just ask whether it would make the slightest difference in accommodating the public to evolution.

The answer is no, except perhaps in the negative sense that the religious would feel freer to push their science-free beliefs on the public, and that some of the sharpest, clearest voices in the argument (I'm not counting mine in that praise) would be silenced.

Moran writes:

What [Nisbet and Mooney are] upset about is the fact that a segment of the population doesn't buy the scientific explanation. That's true, but it doesn't matter how well you explain it to those people, they still won't accept it. They won't accept it even it's economically beneficial and leads to medical advances.

Why won't they accept it? Because it's against their religion. How do we change their minds? Part of the solution is to show them that their religion is false if it conflicts with science. This doesn't have anything to do with explaining the facts of science. It has to do with fighting superstition and anti-science attitudes.

OK. Let's ask whether an approach to promoting evolution that recognized its compatibility with certain forms of religious belief is more likely to accommodate the public to evolution than one that doesn't.1

It's important to notice that this question is an empirical question. It asks about human behavior and about what types of approaches are most likely to cause people to adopt attitudes favorable to evolution. It is, in short, a question in empirical social science and market research. It's a question about how we sell our product – a modern, scientifically-based evolutionary understanding of the world – to a general public that is largely indifferent and in some ways hostile. The answer to that question will come from empirical research, not from armchair debates among evolutionists.2

More fundamentally, the question isn't about whether to frame the arguments for evolution we put forward. Every argument we put forward will be interpreted within our listeners' pre-existing conceptual frames. The question is about how we choose to frame our arguments and whether we choose to frame them in ways that will resonate with our listeners' pre-existing beliefs and attitudes or in ways that challenge them.

1I should point out that like Mooney, Myers, and Moran, I am not a religious believer.

2Having said that, I have to say that my gut instinct is that Nisbet and Mooney are right about avoiding a conflict between science and religion for two reasons. First, it is unnecessary to pose a conflict between religion and science, because science cannot decide questions concerning the supernatural. Second, it is unproductive to pose such a conflict, because if forced to choose between their religious belief and science, many people will choose their religion. Of course, I've always thought that “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar&rdquo: (link).

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On Neurophilosopher's blog, I saw this, one of the winning cartoons from the 2006 Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest, drawn by Reva Sharp from Warren, PA (btw, you have only about a month to send in your entries for the... Read More

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Square water melons and genetically engineered food are samples that once in a while, life is created. Not a proof, but a plausibility.

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