Politicians and Critics

By Sean Carroll | March 23, 2008 6:21 pm

Bit of a kerfuffle over at DramaBlogs ScienceBlogs, in the wake of PZ Myers’s visit to a screening of Ben Stein’s new anti-evolution movie, Expelled. PZ apparently signed up online for tickets to a screening (under his own name), but upon arrival he was recognized by the organizers, and asked to leave. Expelled from Expelled! It’s the 21st century, we all have to re-calibrate our irony meters. Adding to the fun was the fact that the rest of PZ’s party was allowed to continue in to see the movie — and among the friends he had dragged along was Richard Dawkins, who was apparently not recognized. This is too delicious a story to pass up, and it’s already been reported in the New York Times and elsewhere.

But not everyone is amused, even on the pro-science side. Chris Mooney complains that the controversy gives a huge boost, in the form of priceless publicity, to Expelled and its supporters. People who never would have heard of the movie will now be curious to see it; the filmmakers are already gloating about all the attention.

I think that Chris is right: this is publicity for the movie that they couldn’t possibly have received any other way, and PZ and Dawkins are basically doing exactly what the filmmakers were hoping for all along.

And they should keep right on doing it.

To understand why, consider the much more intemperate response by Matt Nisbet, Chris’s partner in the Framing Science game. They have been exhorting scientists to communicate more effectively by framing issues in a way that resonate with their audiences. This sounds like very good advice, and in fact kind of obvious and uncontroversial. But when ask to give examples, Chris and Matt often choose Richard Dawkins as their poster boy for what not to do. Personally I think that Dawkins has been very good for the cultural discourse overall, but Matt and Chris fear that his avowed atheism will turn people against science, making things easier for folks who want to fight against evolution in public schools.

In his post, Matt is perfectly blatant: PZ and Dawkins are hurting the cause, and should just shut up. When called up by the media, they should decline to speak, instead suggesting that the reporter contact someone who can give the pro-evolution message in a way that is friendlier to religion.

As you might expect, neither PZ, nor Dawkins, nor any of their ilk (and I count myself among them) are likely to follow this undoubtedly well-intentioned advice, as this pithy rejoinder demonstrates. The heart of the difference in approaches is evident in the analogies that Matt brings up, namely to political campaigns:

If Dawkins and PZ really care about countering the message of The Expelled camp, they need to play the role of Samantha Power, Geraldine Ferraro and so many other political operatives who through misstatements and polarizing rhetoric have ended up being liabilities to the causes and campaigns that they support. Lay low and let others do the talking.

When Chris and Matt talk to the PZ/Dawkins crowd, they do a really bad job of understanding and working within the presuppositions of their audience — exactly what framing is supposed to be all about. To the Framers, what’s going on is an essentially political battle; a public-relations contest, pitting pro-science vs. anti-science, where the goal is to sway more people to your side. And there is no doubt that such a contest is going on. But it’s not all that is going on, and it’s not the only motivation one might have for wading into discussions of science and religion.

There is a more basic motivation: telling the truth.

What Matt and Chris (seemingly) fail to understand is that PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins are not trying to be successful politicians, persuading the largest number of people to come over to their side. They have no interest in being politicians. They are critics, and their goal is to say correct things about the world and argue against incorrect statements. Of course, they would certainly like to see evolution rather than creationism taught in schools, and ultimately they would be very happy if all of humanity were persuaded of the correctness of their views. But their books and blogs about science and religion are not strategic documents designed to bring about some desired outcome; they are attempts to say true things about issues they care about. Telling them “Shut up! You’ll offend the sensibilities of people we are trying to persuade!” is like talking to a brick wall, or at least in an alien language. You will have to frame things much better than that.

Politicians and critics often don’t get along. And the choice to be one or the other usually comes down more to the personality of the individual rather than some careful cost-benefit analysis. (You know that PZ will be regaling youngsters with the story of how he was expelled from Expelled for decades to come.) I’m very much in the mold of a critic; one of my first ever blog posts was why I could never be a politician. It’s easy enough to tell the difference: even if a critic knew for a fact that a certain true statement would harm their cause politically, they would still insist on saying it.

But one stance or the other is not better nor worse; society very much needs both politicians and critics. The job of a critic sounds very lofty — speaking truth to power, heedless of extraordinary social pressures and the hooting condemnation of a benighted populace. But if everyone were a critic, it would be a disaster. We need politicians to actually things done, and (in the rare instances where it is carried out with integrity) the role of a politician should be one of the most honored in society. A gifted politician will understand the contours of what is possible, and work within the constraints posed by the real world to move society in a better direction.

However, we also need critics. If everyone were a politician, it would be equally disastrous. In Bernard Shaw’s famous phrasing, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” The perfect can be the enemy of the good, but if we don’t have a loud and persistent chorus of voices reminding us of how far short we fall of perfection, we won’t work as hard as we can to get there.

And we should hardly be surprised that bloggers and polemicists tend to be critics rather than politicians. We should have people out there selling evolution to skeptical listeners who might be committed to religion and suspicious of science. But that doesn’t mean that sincere voices who believe that thinking scientifically sends you down the path to atheism should be told to shut up. Without stubborn critics who refuse to compromise on their vision of the truth, our discourse would be an enormously poorer place.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science and Society
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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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