Some Reactions to the Pew/AAAS Report

By Chris Mooney | July 10, 2009 1:54 pm

There was a lot of press on this today, and I myself contributed–I talked at length to Alan Boyle of MSNBC, Pete Spotts of the Christian Science Monitor, and Dan Vergano of USA Today. The reason, of course, is that we have a book out about the disconnect between science and the American public even as Pew adds considerable new data that helps us further delineate the nature of the problem.

You can read the full stories above, but I’ll just add a few snippets showing what my interviews added to them. In Vergano’s piece, I’m quoted explaining what’s new (and what isn’t) about the Pew/AAAS study:

“I don’t think this is hugely surprising. We’ve seen these kind of differences before,” says Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. “But I think this is hugely important in telling people in science that maybe they need to reach out to the public better.”

That’s co-author! Anyways, I do believe that the new report is giving added impetus to something we also centrally call for in the book: A grand new project of outreach, on behalf of science, to the public. Alan Leshner, the head of AAAS, is also giving lots of interviews about the report, and this is something that he has been centrally emphasizing: the responsibilities of scientists.

Let’s move on to Pete Spotts and the Monitor. Spotts frames the Pew report by focusing on the gap between science and the public:

When scientists talk about trying to close the gap, they often focus on what the public and educators need to do to boost scientific literacy. And they focus on the media, which communicates at varying levels of accuracy, as to what researchers are up to and why.

But these may not be at the core of the problem, suggests Chris Mooney, who has written widely on science and public policy in the US.

“I don’t think the gap you see is attributable to ignorance,” he says. People form their political positions based on a variety of factors, and scientists don’t know how or don’t try to reach out to them, he says.

“A very small percentage of Americans know a scientist personally,” he explains. “Scientists are just not on their radar.”

To change that, “scientists need to reach out to America,” he continues. Personal contact may not change an individual’s worldview, Mr. Mooney suggests, but it does have the potential to demystify scientists and the way they approach their world more than huddling in a lab would.

Policy debates involving science will continue long after those over global warming or stem cells fade, he says. “Knowing every last fact on the part of the public would be nice, but it’s not as essential as being in tune in a deep and engaged way with the role of science in the country.”

Just to add–I do think the media are a major part of the problem, and their role in it is only getting worse. We strongly argue as much in the book.

But we have to distinguish between the knowledge of facts on the one hand, and awareness of the centrality of science to what we’re trying to achieve as a people on the other. And we’ve got to stop pointing fingers at the public. We can’t just look at average Americans, call them dumb, and then think we understand what the real issue is.

Alan Boyle’s MSNBC piece is lengthy, and generously gives us plenty of ink–and mainly you’ll find me saying things similar to the above. However, Boyle uniquely closes with a great discourse about Pluto, about which he is himself writing a book. (Go Pluto!)

In this context, Boyle lets me explain why we think the Pluto issue is not solely scientific in nature–and also why, although seemingly trival, it is actually vastly important:

“It’s a big deal,” Mooney said, “because how often does something happen in science that most people are aware of? It is exceedingly rare that they hear something [about a scientific issue] that they know as well as they know who’s winning ‘American Idol.’ So when Pluto was demoted, we thought that was one of those moments.”

Yup. Scientists rarely get the attention of the whole of society. When that happens…well, there are better things we could be talking about in such moments than Pluto’s demotion.

Comments (73)

  1. Ben Nelson

    People are vastly misinformed, indifferent, and intellectually diffident. That doesn’t mean they’re dumb, but that also doesn’t mean that accusing them of the above three things will be taken as anything less than an insult.

    Does that mean it shouldn’t be said? On what grounds?

  2. Chris Mooney

    Hey,
    What if I said that people are vastly misinformed, struggling and busy, and intellectually overwhelmed? because all of those things are also true. and that’s one reason we should show sympathy, rather than denounce.

  3. GM

    It makes absolutely no sense not to tell the people that they are dumb, uneducated and unwilling to learn. If you don’t do that these problems will just never get addressed.

    Harsh language attracts a lot more attention than soft messages

  4. GM @3: Harsh language attracts a lot more attention than soft messages

    Of course it will probably attractmore attention, however that attention is probably not of the variety that will be likely to cause introspective thought and a concomitant change in behavior. Actually, it is probably likely to have the opposite effect.

  5. Peter Beattie

    One bit seemed to me to stick out of all this data. There is a strong positive correlation of a lack of belief in the supernatural with the acceptance of evolution; and a very strong positive correlation too of church attendance with the rejection of evolution. (See Section 5 of the report for details.) One wouldn’t exactly expect this distribution if there actually was no conflict between science and religion, would one? On the other hand, if they were in conflict, that’s exactly the kind of distribution one would expect. What does that tell us about the compatibility issue? I’d love to see your input, Chris.

  6. One wouldn’t exactly expect this distribution if there actually was no conflict between science and religion, would one?

    What I don’t know (if it was done or not), but I would hazard a guess, is that the same correlation could be made between advanced education and acceptance/rejection of evolution. So does it have to do with religion or education?

  7. Marc

    Religions come in more than one flavor Peter.

  8. GM

    TomJoe @4:

    So what do you suggest? Do you think that sucking it up and playing it nice will lead us anywhere? What has this approach achieved so far?

    We need to polarize the issue and the PEW Poll results clearly show it and I am surprised and saddened that Mooney et al. don’t realize that those are actually disastrous results and those 80% or whatever it was public support of science don’t mean what they seem to when looked at superficiously.

    The public does not support science, it supports technology; these are two very different things; people are actually very opposed to the scientific way of thinking and this is the big problem that has to be addressed.

    Turning it into a political issue as the authors of the book suggest will only make things worse, because this is precisely what science is not.

  9. Peter Beattie

    » TomJoe:
    What I don’t know (if it was done or not), but I would hazard a guess, is that the same correlation could be made between advanced education and acceptance/rejection of evolution.

    If you don’t know that, then I would recommend you actually read the report instead of hazarding guesses. I for one would rather have an informed discussion.

  10. GM, I suggest we do a better job of educating the general populace. As far as back as a couple of generations ago, scientists were a very highly esteemed part of society. I think the profession has lost a lot of its luster. With that loss of luster, we’ve lost support. I think it is important to re-establish the good that science does for people, and how science leads to technological innovation.

    You get someone to learn, not by shouting at them about how stupid they are, but by talking to them calmly and rationally. I also think we need to come to the realization that we won’t be able to reach everyone. You do what you can. I still think you’ll attract more flies with honey than you will with vinegar.

  11. If you don’t know that, then I would recommend you actually read the report instead of hazarding guesses. I for one would rather have an informed discussion.

    I will, when I have the time, read the entire report. No need for you to be a jerk about it. However, I will continue to hazard guesses, and the report will confirm whether or not my guesses were correct. In the meantime you could stop being a jerk and reply as to whether they covered advanced education or not. I doubt you will though.

  12. Michael Fugate

    19% of college grads believe in special creation of humans. 38% of christians (protestants (43%) and catholics (27%) ) believe in it. Only 2% of scientists believe it.

  13. GM

    TomJoe @ 10

    I don’t think this approach has any realistic chances of working. Again, attracting attention is important. One thing is, why do you think the media is dominated by negative news? Second, how do you suggest that we educate people if they don’t want to be educated. Because we live in a supposedly free society no force on Earth acting according to the existing laws can force them to get educated if they don’t want to? How do you suggest to fight the kind of self-perpetuating that is widespread and we generally prefer not to talk about by talking people out of it calmly and rationally?

    These aren’t people who listen to rational arguments.

    One of the many things I hate about accommodationism is the refusal to call things with their real names, opting for conforming to politically correct language instead.

    The vast majority of people are dumb, illiterate, stupid, anti-science, etc. And I am not sure that most people in the scientific community understand how bad it really is, because we rarely talk to regular people. But because the “harsh language” is rarely used, complacency sets it and th problems get ignored.

    I don’t actually think the language is harsh, if anything, it is accurate. It is “harsh” with respect to what is considered acceptable but what is “acceptable” in an insane society such as ours has very little to do with reality. As scientists we are obliged to tell the truth, and that’s what we should be doing, instead of playing politics

  14. --bill

    “if there actually was no conflict between science and religion”

    This statement is problematic, in many ways. The most glaring, to me, is that it presumes the existence of something called “science” and something called “religion”. What are the definitons of science and religion being used here? Science and religion as philosophical constructs? as societal constucts? of the actions of people called “scientists” and “the religions”?

  15. Chris Mooney

    Peter,
    It’s a good question, and we have a piece coming out soon that answers it. To me you don’t win the incompatibility argument just based on this correlation, which we all know exists….

  16. Jennifer B. Phillips

    @TomJoe,

    As far as back as a couple of generations ago, scientists were a very highly esteemed part of society. I think the profession has lost a lot of its luster. With that loss of luster, we’ve lost support.

    So how to you square that with the Pew Report data that show 84% of respondants score science’s effect on society as “mostly positive”, and that they rank third (below military members and teachers) in professions viewed to “contribute a lot to society’s well-being”?

    I think the lag between the achievement ranking by scientists vs. by the public is the most interesting part of the poll, because I think it potentially identifies the source of the disconnect. The public *already* thinks that scientists are esteemed contributors, but they’re having trouble identifying specifics because the way that science is taught and conveyed to the layperson is so abysmal. Really exciting discoveries are either presented in the media with no context (and thus misunderstood or immediately forgotten) or gaudily sensationalized and distorted beyond recognition. The importance of improving science education can’t be denied here, because so few people are equipped to understand anything more than gaudy sensationalism. If we can fix this, there’s a good chance that a better educated public would demand more substance in the mainstream science reporting. A long-shot, I know, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

    You get someone to learn, not by shouting at them about how stupid they are, but by talking to them calmly and rationally.

    Please cite one example of a scientist/science educator shouting or advocating shouting or deriding the intelligence of the public. I’m sick of this straw man. He’s making me itch.

  17. One thing is, why do you think the media is dominated by negative news?

    Just because people pay attention to negative news (and by this I mean news of war, financial disaster, environmental problems, etc) is because these things have a way of impacting their lives and as such they want to be informed and educated about them. Perhaps that is something that needs to be taken into account. How does science education, and evolution as one particular, impact their lives.

    Second, how do you suggest that we educate people if they don’t want to be educated. Because we live in a supposedly free society no force on Earth acting according to the existing laws can force them to get educated if they don’t want to?

    It’s obvious that you can’t force them. You just try to work on educational programs which prove to be more effective. So what is your suggestion? Try to beat them into submission with ridicule? That won’t happen, all it will do is cause them to fight back, which would put us in an even deeper hole.

  18. Jennifer: Please cite one example of a scientist/science educator shouting or advocating shouting or deriding the intelligence of the public.

    I don’t have to go very far. GM in post #13 said: The vast majority of people are dumb, illiterate, stupid, anti-science, etc. Now, he may not be a scientist/educator, but I gather that he’s a part of the “pro-science” element. This approach is an extremely poor one and people are not going to care to distinguish between later, more reasonable individuals in the pro-science element if their first encounter is people like GM.

  19. GM

    It’s obvious that you can’t force them. You just try to work on educational programs which prove to be more effective. So what is your suggestion? Try to beat them into submission with ridicule? That won’t happen, all it will do is cause them to fight back, which would put us in an even deeper hole.

    One thing that could be fairly easily implemented is mandating a certain (very high relative to the average today and to be raised with time) level of scientific (and not only, also mathematical, historical, etc.) competence and stratifying society into those who meet it and those who don’t. We can have elaborate computerized tests to measure this (and by this, I don’t mean ABCD multiple choice questions, I mean actual problem solving) and those who fail them will have severely limited options in life – that means low income jobs, no voting rights, etc.

    This would be a good stimulus I think – if you want to get educated, you get educated, if you don’t, you don’t get the chance to screw up everything for the rest of people.

    Of course, we need to drastically raise the level of education in order to do that (the ultimate goal is that at some point nobody will fail and we will live in a literate society), and this can only happen gradually.

    And of course, it will never happen, for obvious reasons

  20. Jennifer B. Phillips

    TomJoe, seriously? Anonymous comments on a blog is the best you can do? I don’t know anything about GM or how he/she communicates in real life, but in general the tone of anonymous comments on blogs tends not to be representative of meat-space behavior. You simply cannot extrapolate from these heated internet discussions that there are real people out there delivering spittle-flecked diatribes from the science lectern. It’s a total dodge.

  21. Ben Nelson

    Chris @2, instinctual sympathy aside, it falls to us, as good communicators, to look at the relative costs and gains of being nasty vs. being nice. We should do so by presuming either model (yours or mine). If it looks like gains are better for being nice over nasty, or vice-versa, then we have good reason to pursue it as strategy.

    1. We agree about misinformation, so there’s nothing to be said about that.

    2. If people are struggling, then the response must be to show why ideas matter to their everyday lives. If people are indifferent, same solution. Presumably no disagreement.

    3. If people are overwhelmed by information, they can respond in two ways: either they care to find the best answers (intellectual activism), or they don’t (diffidence).

    3.a. If the former, then it generally pays to be nice to those that have anomic personalities, and nasty to those with authoritarian ones. Your tone will depend on who you want to get yourself across to.

    3.b. If the latter, then the very idea of science education is mooted. We can be nasty or nice and it won’t make any difference to the target. Attempts to persuade such persons is a trap.

    3.b.1. This does not mean that how we react to the diffident is irrelevant. It will make a difference to the political standing of the speaker. If we (the speakers) are under attack from the sidelines by creatures that use our words to the diffident against us when we’re being nice, there are a few possible responses: continue being nice, show conceit, or lash out in anger. Continuing to be nice invites being culturally dominated; this is strategically disastrous. Being conceited only works in small in-groups or particular hierarchical cultures, not in a democracy; an unsuitable choice. The only option left is to fight back to avoid losing whatever cultural capital you’ve already got.

    What about this account do you dispute?

  22. John Kwok

    @ Peter –

    Relying upon data from predominantly Christian countries isn’t a fair assessment, especially when most of the world isn’t Christian. Moreover, as Chris Mooney and I have reminded others here – and so have others – there are notable theologians, such as the Dalai Lama, who has said that religion should correct itself if it conflicts with science.

    @ Chris –

    I have to dissent with your usage of Pluto, especially when you had so much to draw on with regards to your own excellent science journalism with respect to governmental usage – including abuse – of climatological research.

  23. Blogger

    I think you science types overestimate your hold on reality. There’s only so much that the eye can perceive.

  24. Jennifer, Dawkins refers to those who hold religious beliefs “faith heads”. Is that a term of endearment?

    We could go round like this all day.

  25. Jennifer B. Phillips

    TomJoe,
    indeed, there is no end in sight as long as you continue to move the goal posts. I asked you a question which laid out specific criteria to which you haven’t been able to provide an honest answer. I’m fine with leaving it there if you can live with that. Have a great weekend.

  26. Jennifer, what part of Dawkins (a scientist/science educator) calling religious people derogatory words like “faith heads” isn’t deriding the intelligence of the public (most of whom are religious)? The only one shifting the goal posts now is you.

  27. Peter Beattie

    Sorry, another unclosed anchor tag. Thanks for fixing that!

  28. Stu

    “There’s only so much that the eye can perceive.”

    Yep. That’s why we build spectrometers, UV/IR detectors, X-rays…

    …oh, wait… that’s not what you meant, was it?

  29. Peter Beattie

    » Chris Mooney:
    It’s a good question, and we have a piece coming out soon that answers it. To me you don’t win the incompatibility argument just based on this correlation, which we all know exists.

    Why would you say that when I never pretended that my comment was even an argument, much less one that could win a whole debate? I put a serious question to you because I think that the data offer anything but obvious support for your case. And I am curious as to what you make of that.

  30. Peter @27: Yes, I took your comment to be condescending in its tone. Three clicks would certainly get me to the information, but I would like to spend time digesting the study rather than reading one snippet and rushing back here to comment. Especially since I readily admitted I had not yet read the report (instead of ignorantly making some sort of comment with the implication that I did read it, as lots of people are known to do on the internets). So I presented my guess, hypothesis if you will, and was met in turn by your admonishment. As for my manners, pot/kettle and all that if you ask me.

  31. Jennifer B. Phillips

    what part of Dawkins (a scientist/science educator) calling religious people derogatory words like “faith heads” isn’t deriding the intelligence of the public (most of whom are religious)?

    erm…none of it? I don’t deny this is a derogatory term, per se, but it doesn’t imply anything about intelligence any more than the terms “pot head” or “Dead head” or “ditto head” do. Be that as it may, my question was not “please cite an example of a scientist who has used a derogatory term to describe religion/the religious.” Clearly, I would be a fool to issue such a challenge. I am specifically asking you to defend your insinuation that someone in a science communicator/educator role has, at any time, “shouted at people about how stupid they are”. This is what your comment at #10 suggests is happening/has happened. Please do clarify if this is not what you mean.

  32. Jennifer, I would beg to differ especially when you start extending the term to “crack head” and the like. You don’t think the word carries a different connotation in that regard than “ditto head”? Really?

  33. Jennifer B. Phillips

    It implies addiction, dependence or (more mildly) allegiance, but offers no inherent judgement as to the intelligence of the addict/adherent. There is certainly no shortage of brilliant people with substance abuse problems in the world.

  34. Peter Beattie

    » TomJoe:
    As for my manners, pot/kettle and all that if you ask me.

    So implicit condescention (even if only perceived by one party, whose mind it apparently didn’t cross that his interpretation could be wrong) is equivalent, in your mind, to explicitly calling someone a jerk? And in any case, your justification for a personal insult is, ‘He was rude to me first!’? I dare say that even in my playground days we were aware that that was not the most convincing line of reasoning. (I sincerely hope that didn’t come off as a little condescending just now; I’d rather you see it as a generally well-meaning tease. ;>)

    But if you genuinely think that I have slighted you, I apologize. And speaking of goodwill, let’s take up your question. Yes, they give figures for different levels of education. The trend is the same as for believers/non-believers with higher education positively correlated with less belief. (It has to be said, though, that for that bit of information you wouldn’t have needed any analysis or digestion, just one look at one table. As it is, you’ve just made me do your work for you—even the request for which in the old days would have been greeted with a simple ‘RTFM’. And not even that should be taken as condescension.)

    But maybe there’s a point lurking behind that question of yours. If a higher level of education is similarly correlated with acceptance of evolution as is a lack of belief, do you think that tells us something?

  35. TB

    @ 5 Peter

    I said this in another thread: Actually, where attitudes are broken down by age, it seems to show acceptance of evolution will only increase with time. Isn’t this the kind of thing you would see if the “accomodationist” approach used over the last 25 years were working?

    As for the stats on church attendance, I don’t know if they correlate with how people self-identify their religion. However, they may show people who are less dogmatic are more likely to accept naturalistic evolution.

    @ 32 Jennifer

    Not to insert myself in your conversation, but as an aside one of the reasons I stopped reading PZ was when he included Ken Miller in the blame he was spreading around for some deluded family that kept their child from getting medical attention because of their religion. I’m sorry, I don’t have a link, but it wasn’t that long ago. Now, I know it may not be be a literal “shouted at people about how stupid they are,” but in my view it was just as bad. Which kind of leads me to this …

    @ GM

    I address the communication angle here:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/07/08/unscientific-america-a-must-read-for-anybody-who-cares-about-science/#comment-23522

    “The more hostile communication is, the less accurately it may be heard. Hostility produces a defensive reaction by the receiver, who is then less likely to pick up nuances that give a message greater clarity.”

    “The program recognizes that people too often let their ego, emotions, attitude and position of authority do the talking instead of their head. “If you can get these factors out of the equation and listen, appraise and talk with empathy, but with quiet authority, you can get people to follow what you request,” says Shanahan.”

    As I said there, I especially recommend the last link for those scoffing at the idea of “being nice.” This is about effective communication for people whose life may depend on it.

    There are links provided in that post, and that’s just the result of some quick searching. Based on what I found, there’s a lot out there on effectively communicating a message, and it seems to bolster what Chris has said. I understand more hostile and in-you-race methods can be more personally satisfying, but are they effective? The sources I’ve found suggest not, but I’m willing to read sources that can assert the opposite.

  36. Peter Beattie

    » TB:
    Actually, where attitudes are broken down by age, it seems to show acceptance of evolution will only increase with time. Isn’t this the kind of thing you would see if the “accomodationist” approach used over the last 25 years were working?

    First, I don’t know that the accomodationist approach started 25 years ago? Is that really the case? Second, I think what I would expect would be a steady increase in acceptance of evolution over all age ranges over the last 25 years. But that’s not what we’re seeing, is it? After all, you’d have to potulate that the accommodationist message takes a couple of years to sink in, as it were. That, again, wouldn’t seem to suggest that the approach was particularly effective.

  37. Ben Nelson

    TB, and in that thread you cite I gave my counter-argument. Granted, the evidence was ephemeral — just my intuitions placed in an argument, not scientific. But it’s not nothing.

    As per your request, my argument can draw upon something more like prime facie evidence:
    http://psp.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/25/3/337

    In that study, authoritarian personalities were found to respond more strongly to threats than rewards. Others responded differently.

  38. Jennifer B. Phillips

    TB, this is a fairly common tenet among the ‘New Atheists’, to wit that the religious moderates have some degree of responsibility for various atrocities committed by more fundamental believers because they legitimize the broader concept of god-belief to a degree that the extreme manifestations thereof are tolerated and in some cases legally protected (my State, e.g. has religious exemption laws for child abuse–up to and including manslaughter–due to religious practices). It is a controversial opinion to be sure, but doesn’t fit the specifics of what I was asking TomJoe for.

    I see where this is going, though. Let’s see if I can summarize the majority opinion here: Anything that any atheist (scientist, science advocate, or other public intellectual) has ever said in any forum that could be construed as offensive to religious people is detrimental to the task of communicating science to the public. Ergo, those who hold those opinions should never voice them. Do I have that right?

    As to the issue of effective communication itself, the audience and the circumstances are not trivial things to consider. One size certainly does not fit all here, and what may be appropriate for a blog post or an editorial will often be entirely unsuited for the classroom or pulpit. Good science communicators know this and are capable of tailoring their messages to a variety of different audiences based on age, background, religious affiliation, whatever. There are also a variety of different personalities out there taking science to the masses, and some will undoubtedly be more successful with some groups than others. I think it’s far more important to try to unite around our common goals–to increase public understanding of science and science literacy, than all this stupid in-fighting. You don’t think PZ Myers (or whomever) is a good science communicator? Fine. Instead of wasting time pointing fingers at him, why not see what you can do to increase your own impact in that arena? Complementary approaches are great, but overlooking the obvious impact that someone like that has in favor of solely focusing on some group of people who don’t respond well to his delivery seems extremely counter productive, especially when such ruminations seem to take so much time away from actually doing something proactive about science literacy.

  39. TB

    @ 37 Peter

    25 is an arbitrary number, taken from something Coyne said. But, why do you necessarily need to see an increase in all age ranges? A gradual change in attitude (yes, something that requires generations) would be seen predominantly in younger generations with a gradual drop-off in acceptance in older demographics, presumably because the older you are the more likely you were to not believe in naturalistic evolution.
    Much like what is seen in the adoption of new technology.
    And, related to that, the chart at the bottom of section 4, where it shows “Religious belief among scientists varies somewhat by sex, age and scientific specialty. Younger scientists are substantially more likely than their older counterparts to say they believe in God. ”
    Growth in these two areas.

  40. GM

    TB @ 36

    I don’t think you understand the nature of the conflict. Acceptance or rejection of evolution is only a small part of it.

    I have come to suspect that a lot of the so called science communicators think that if they get people to accept evolution they have done their job and as long as they have achieved that everything is going to be fine and everybody can believe whatever they want.

    They are deeply mistaken. The ultimate goal should be the eradication of all superstitious thinking in each and every individual. Even the softest versions of religion violate that requirement.

    Global warming denial is a disastrous thing. However, global warming is, again, only the tip of the iceberg. It goes much deeper than that and global warming is only one of the manifestations of our failure a species to understand our place in the universe, and more locally, in the ecosystem of our planet.

    If we don’t fix that we go extinct, or, in the best case, we go back to the caves. But you can’t fix the problem if you let people to believe that they are special, because this is the root cause of the problem. And even the softest versions of religion have that as their fundamental assumption. Only a completely religion-free society can tackle these issues, however if you follow the play-it-nice path, even if the strategy works, we are talking about many decades, possibly centuries before it happens (and I don’t think it will work because the accommodationist strategy never even states the eradication of religion as its goal).

    We simply don’t have that kind of the time, so while it’s a gamble and it will probably not work, the only viable option is to come out and public and tell it like it is, with absolutely no sugar coating.

  41. TB

    @ 39. Jennifer

    “I see where this is going, though. Let’s see if I can summarize the majority opinion here: Anything that any atheist (scientist, science advocate, or other public intellectual) has ever said in any forum that could be construed as offensive to religious people is detrimental to the task of communicating science to the public. Ergo, those who hold those opinions should never voice them. Do I have that right?”

    No, I don’t agree with that. Criticism of the way a message is communicated isn’t censorship of the message. I do believe atheists are treated pretty badly in this country and they don’t deserve that. I would point to someone like Degrasse Tyson as a role model.

    “…why not see what you can do to increase your own impact in that arena?”
    Actually, I organized a local Darwin Day event last February.

    @ 38. Ben

    Hmm, Ben, I’ll check out your post. But I don’t think that directly addresses the idea of hostile personal communication. It seems that study focuses more on promoting fear of some vague threat rather than directly threatening harm to the person. It’s “hey, those people over there will hurt you unless you go vote” rather than “hey, I’m going to hurt you unless you vote my way.”

  42. TB

    @ 41 GM
    “They are deeply mistaken. The ultimate goal should be the eradication of all superstitious thinking in each and every individual. Even the softest versions of religion violate that requirement.”

    Actually, I understand the conflict quite well. I don’t care if you want to promote atheism – you have every right to do that. But that has nothing to do with science literacy. It’s a philosophical argument.

  43. Kal

    “The ultimate goal should be the eradication of all superstitious thinking in each and every individual. Even the softest versions of religion violate that requirement.”

    Now that bears a heavy dose of misanthropy to it, and carries more than a whiff of the gas chambers to boot. Good luck in that. Did you, by any chance, just arrive from Paris, circa 1794?

  44. Peter Beattie

    » TB:
    But, why do you necessarily need to see an increase in all age ranges? A gradual change in attitude (yes, something that requires generations) would be seen predominantly in younger generations with a gradual drop-off in acceptance in older demographics, presumably because the older you are the more likely you were to not believe in naturalistic evolution.

    Actually, I would argue that that’s what anyone would expect in the absence of any particular approach, simply slight improvements in terms of what kinds of things are covered in school curricula. For example, since the discovery of the structure of DNA, I would expect to see that more young people were aware of this fact. At least that would explain the data pretty much on its own, don’t you think?

  45. GM

    TB @ 43

    It’s a philosophical argument.

    This has become the standard excuse.

    However, just because religion happens to be so deeply ingrained in our culture and because it also happens to be an unfalsifiable hypothesis, we should not be treating it with more respect than the myriad other unfalsifiable hypotheses. Simple and plain. I think this has a lot to do with scientific literacy, if one defines scientific literacy as the ability to reason like a scientists plus knowing the collection of facts and not only as knowing the collection of facts

  46. TB

    @44 Peter

    In the absence if any approach at advocacy you would expect to see growth? But that would have left the field free for such things as ID advocacy, which would have been able to advance unchallenged and negatively impacted growth. At best, you could claim that this growth is only natural because the science advocacy canceled out the opposite challenge. That would still mean the science advocacy was effective.
    And, we don’t see any particular trend in belief of directed evolution in the age breakdown, which should show gains if there was nothing to counter it, since education doesn’t address supernatural beliefs.

  47. Jon

    GM @47: Only a completely religion-free society can tackle these issues…

    Whoa.

    Let’s count the giant, French-Revolution-sizedassumptions here: 1) religion is the source of our issues, 2) that religion *can* be eliminated, 3) that it’s enough of an urgent priority that we can afford to upstage other public debates in the effort to eliminate religion.

    That’s insane. I wonder how many other New Atheists secretly think this?

  48. Jon

    Oops. That should be 41, not 47.

  49. GM

    Jon @ 47

    Whoa.
    Let’s count the giant, French-Revolution-sizedassumptions here: 1) religion is the source of our issues, 2) that religion *can* be eliminated, 3) that it’s enough of an urgent priority that we can afford to upstage other public debates in the effort to eliminate religion.
    That’s insane. I wonder how many other New Atheists secretly think this?

    Not many. Which is a problem actually

    But anyway, I don’t think that religion is the source of the problems, it is itself a product of the “imperfectness” of our brains and the behaviorial characteristics of our species.

    However, it is the single most important impediment to us recognizing those problems and doing something about them (like designing a society that won’t be ruined by them)

  50. Jon

    Huge assumption. Interesting to hear it stated outright, though.

  51. Ben Nelson

    TB, you’re surely right. But it’s a step in that direction. The line between my saying something threatening and performing the act of threatening you is a matter of interpretation. A grim realist may be a bully, or vice-versa, depending on how you interpret a situation.

    Still, I cage my comments to the level of “prime facie evidence”. I am unsure whether or not this topic has been explicitly examined in the literature, though I am keeping an eye out.

    In the meantime, I should bolster a bit more evidence and make explicit what I’m not saying. Clearly, not just any threats will do — the threats must be credible (i.e., coming from an authority), and the arguments must be plausible. So when I criticize the Mooney-Kirshenbaum hypothesis, I’m not suggesting that Tuffguys can be converted just so long as we go around behaving like bastards.

    But there’s another, perhaps more relevant thing to consider that is directly related to my point. Social psychologists discuss the notion of the functional matching effect: people are more likely to be persuaded if the persuading is matched by keying into the *kind* of identifiable psychological benefits that underpin the relevant set of the target’s attitudes. Examples: the scientist is interested in the “knowledge function”, and the new atheists are also engaged in the “value-expressive function” (among other things), etc. The authoritarian personality, I would think, is interested in obtaining rewards from and avoiding threats from their physical environment, where we can suppose that one reward would be the ability to impose threats; that makes them most interested in the “social-adjustive function”. (From Chapter 4 of “Why we evaluate” by Gregory Maio and James Olson; article by H. Levine and M. Snyder.) All of this is perfectly consistent with the story I have told so far, I think.

  52. bad Jim

    It would appear from this and other Pew surveys that what keeps Americans from accepting evolution isn’t so much their ignorance of science but rather their religion. About 34% of the population is either Evangelical Protestant or Mormon (2007 Pew survey) and their religious authorities tell them that evolution is false. They’re not going to believe scientists who claim that science and religion are compatible; they know otherwise.

    Apart from this religious group, American acceptance of evolution is similar to that of European countries with comparably strong religious beliefs. 57% of American Catholics accept evolution, which is about the same for believers in Catholic countries [based on calculations from various sources].

    Attitudes toward global warming show a different pattern, in that deniers seem to be oblivious to the scientific consensus. As poor as mainstream news coverage may be, it seems clear that the deniers are getting their information from someplace else entirely. I doubt that anyone would suggest that we concede a separate way of knowing to the likes of Limbaugh.

  53. Jennifer B. Phillips

    TB:

    No, I don’t agree with that. Criticism of the way a message is communicated isn’t censorship of the message. I do believe atheists are treated pretty badly in this country and they don’t deserve that. I would point to someone like Degrasse Tyson as a role model.

    I agree with you, but some people do seem to blur the line between criticism and censorship. I think Degrasse Tyson is awesome, and I responded to your comment about him on the other thread.

    Actually, I organized a local Darwin Day event last February.

    Fabulous! A couple of questions:
    1. How did religion/accommodation factor into the event?
    2. How would you compare your influence on the people who attended (specifically their opinion of science) to that of PZ Myers?

    the chart at the bottom of section 4, where it shows “Religious belief among scientists varies somewhat by sex, age and scientific specialty. Younger scientists are substantially more likely than their older counterparts to say they believe in God. ”

    Given that this is a snapshot of scientists at different stages of their careers, do you think there might be some correlation between how long one is a scientist and how the job, over time, influences religious beliefs?

  54. Jennifer: It implies addiction, dependence or (more mildly) allegiance, but offers no inherent judgement as to the intelligence of the addict/adherent.

    You might want to brush up on your colloquialisms. To tell someone they are a “crack head” or they are “smoking crack” (for example, after they make a comment) is not to imply that they have a “mild allegiance” or are dependent. It’s to call them stupid. Check out the Urban Dictionary.

    Crack Head: one who does stupid things

    Smoking Crack: crazy.

  55. I’m surprised by the warm fuzzies that the report seems to be giving people. The favorable attitude towards science, or towards scientists are … I suppose it’s nice that they’re high. But what does it mean, really?

    For a different example, consider the ‘favorable’ ranking of congress — consistently under 25%, nationwide. And consider the ‘favorable’ rating for pork barrel legislation — a major contributor to that under 25%. Probably on its own something with an _un_favorable rating over 90%. So, applying the logic of those being pleased by the numbers on science, obviously most representatives are kicked out every 2 years (the overwhelmingly negative congressional rating), and the most likely to be kicked out are those who were writing lots of pork.

    Reality: Almost every incumbent is re-elected, and newbies who fail to bring pork into their district are the ones who have to look for a different job after the next election.

    ‘favorable impression’ is a vapid figure. It means nothing. Given, for example, the very high favorable figure for science and scientists, and the very low favorable figure for congress, we should expect that if a scientist and a congressman disagreed, the overwhelming majority would go with the scientist. If it’s the overwhelming majority of scientists vs. a handful of congressmen, then it ‘should’ be and even more lopsided public decision in favor of the scientists. Reality is, a handful of congressmen are doing just fine holding back science and being believed by a broad swath of the public over scientists. (c.f. Inhofe on climate).

    Figures with some more merit would be ones that involve a decision. “would you want to be a scientist?”, “would you marry one?”, “would you want your kid to marry one?” “If your representative/senator disagreed about science with the National Academies of Science, which do you think more likely to be correct?” (Track this one by state and district.)

  56. Matt Penfold

    We have this data, that shows scientists and science are held in high regard by the American public, but we also have data that shows a significant percentage of the American public think the Earth is 6000 years old and deny the reality of global warming.

    How are we to explain this contradiction ?

  57. Ben Nelson

    Matt, presumably if we were forced to interpret that, then we might plausibly suppose that the 6K Earthers believe in something like NOMA, and have an abstract but ineffectual respect for the other magisterium.

  58. Jennifer B. Phillips

    @Matt Penfolds & Ben Nelson,
    Part of this can probably be explained by the broad range of definitions the various respondents were applying to “Scientist”. I think it’s very plausible that the YECs and similar groups could express appreciation for the technological applications of science (which nearly all of them enjoy on a daily basis) while still eschewing the academic aspects of science from whence all those uncomfortable, challenging questions originate. This narrowed perception of ‘science’ might also contribute to the higher ranking of ‘Scientists’ over ‘Medical Doctors’ in the respected profession question, which may translate on higher value being placed on cell phones than on chemotherapy.

  59. Jennifer B. Phillips

    ack–“may translate on higher value…” s/b “may reflect”. Need more coffee.

  60. Matt Penfold

    Part of this can probably be explained by the broad range of definitions the various respondents were applying to “Scientist”. I think it’s very plausible that the YECs and similar groups could express appreciation for the technological applications of science (which nearly all of them enjoy on a daily basis) while still eschewing the academic aspects of science from whence all those uncomfortable, challenging questions originate. This narrowed perception of ’science’ might also contribute to the higher ranking of ‘Scientists’ over ‘Medical Doctors’ in the respected profession question, which may translate on higher value being placed on cell phones than on chemotherapy

    I suspect you are right Jennifer, but if such is the case then is hardly grounds for the kind of optimism we have seen some claiming it is.

  61. Jennifer B. Phillips

    I completely agree. Every conclusion I’ve read thus far based on a subset of information in this poll is easily called into question when contrasted with other data from the same poll. Thus, singling out any one result as support for a particular position or opinion seems like a fool’s errand at best, and disingenuous at worst. Behold, the awesome power of statistics.

  62. —- Did you, by any chance, just arrive from Paris, circa 1794?

    It’s considered unfair to bring up history with the new atheists, they seem to hold that science has made all other topics irrelevant and unimportant.

    GM, have you considered writing “Springtime for PZ”? I’ve always said that the new atheists were just the flip side of religious fundamentalism, apparently you’d be from the “Identity” end of things.

  63. Jennifer B. Phillips

    TomJoe @55: For this to even approach some sort of relevance to the original question, one must make the assumptions that Dawkins intended for ‘faith head’ to be taken as synonymous in tone to ‘crack head’, as opposed for something milder like ‘pot head’ or ‘Dead head’, that he was familiar with all American urban uses of this colloquialism (helpfully provided in your link to the Urban dictionary entry), AND that he intended for the most inflammatory of the *six* definitions provided therein to be read into this statement (the other five out of those six being some variation of “someone who is addicted to crack”).

    Sorry, but that strains credulity. However, even if I grant you all of the above as indisputable fact, “someone who does stupid things” is NOT synonymous with “a stupid person”. Smart people do stupid things all the time.

    We have strayed far from the original point, and I can’t imagine that anyone else here is interested in these tortured semantic arguments. I suggest we move on to more substantive and interesting topics.

  64. As a writer, I put a lot of the blame for sc ientific illiteracy on the media. People are not so much “dumb” and “illiterate” as uninformed, not living up to their full intellectual potential. The media, especially TV, but print as well, has gone further and further away from being conveyors of information to being providers of entertainment. “Celebrity gossip” dominates everything when it should have no place in any hard news program. The coverage of the past week illustrates just how much the media are working to shove Hollywood gossip down people’s throats. How many hours were spent covering the power struggle in Iran versus Michael Jackson’s funeral? Inherent in that answer is the reason so many more people can name the winner of American idol than describe even the most basic scientific concepts.

    Imagine if science programs that discussed issues in depth aired regularly on news programs. Think of the Apollo days when people actually felt personally excited by the thought of going to the moon and the dawn of the space age. Now, too many feelthat exciement only about Britney Spears.

    Kids have an innate interest in the world around them. We should encourage that interest both in school and at home. For example, my almost six-year-old nephew is fascinated by ocean life. His parents take him to acquarium visits and bought him goldfish and a fish tank. These are key points where, if kids are encouraged, they can and do get excited about science on their own. Parents, teachers, and other adultsneed to keep this going so that in six years, the same kid hasn’t replaced interest in celestial stars with interest in Hollywood “stars.”

    The Pluto issue is a tremendous opportunity to hook people into astronomy. Since many feel strongly about it, why not encourage more media attention on the solar system and the underlying debate of what makes something a planet? This is apoint of potential engagement with the public. Yet too many in the scientific field look down on members of the public for their concern over Pluto, which these scientists do not see as a “real” scientific issue.

    What it is is a real opportunity to engage the public about science. I may be just one person, but my objection to Pluto’s demotion sparked an entire newfound interest in astronomy that is now going on for three years.

  65. tomh

    Laurel Kornfeld wrote: “As a writer, I put a lot of the blame for sc ientific illiteracy on the media. People are not so much “dumb” and “illiterate” as uninformed, not living up to their full intellectual potential.”

    All very true, especially the media’s role in the problem. Science writers in particular have a lot to answer for. But I think that a bigger problem is that it’s just plain hard to live up to one’s full intellectual potential. To actually delve into science even to a shallow depth is hard work and one needs a lot of interest to actually do it. Not to mention that adults have many more (important) things to focus on. I think your thoughts on kids are the answer and that’s where the effort needs to be concentrated. And that’s exactly where a lot of religions do the most harm. Long ago they learned that if they could set the agenda early they could keep a lot of people in their camp for life. Of course there are exceptions, but kids that are taught to be anti-science early are very difficult to sway later in life.

  66. TB

    @ 52. Ben Nelson Says:
    “TB, you’re surely right. But it’s a step in that direction. The line between my saying something threatening and performing the act of threatening you is a matter of interpretation. A grim realist may be a bully, or vice-versa, depending on how you interpret a situation.
    Still, I cage my comments to the level of “prime facie evidence”. I am unsure whether or not this topic has been explicitly examined in the literature, though I am keeping an eye out.”

    I’ve given this a bit of thought, and I wonder if this is the kind of communication you mean: Something like Clinton’s “Sister Souljah” (sp?) moment, where he criticized someone with the purpose of giving his actual audience – the community at-large – an idea of the degree to which he endorsed a particular point of view. The intent being that third-party observers can choose to identify with him in a nuanced way (“Sure, I believe in this but not to the extent that it becomes that”), or disagree with his rebuke but face the choice of supporting him anyway because of a lack of a workable alternative.

    In this way, I agree that a seemingly hostile or strong rebuke can be effective as a way of communicating (and in addition, we should keep the door open to all methods of communication). But, it also runs the risk of having the way one communicates get in the way of what one communicates. Clinton was a skilled communicator, and he took a calculated risk. But, he also didn’t engage in that form of communication all the time because he recognized that it walks a fine line between communicating and bullying. Personally, my reflex is to stand up to bullies – it’s not whether they have a point, the moment they become a bully their actions take precedent over their message.

    Those links I provided earlier – especially the ones on verbal judo and tactical communication – discuss how things like someone’s ego or emotions can get in the way of the goal of the communication. As that article on tactical communication details this isn’t about being nice, this is about making sure that nothing gets in the way of the message, and also acknowledges that there are times when even a clear message is rejected.

    And if a clear message is rejected, that’s fine. The advantage there becomes in having delivered the message in as reasonable a way as possible, and so no blame for the failure of the message to be accepted can be given to the messenger. I think it’s OK to conclude that such a thing can be viewed favorably and with nuance by third parties, and so at the very least leave those viewers with an open mind.

    If we scale this kind of communication up, we can talk about how diplomacy uses multiple methods of communication. However, the end purpose of diplomacy is to achieve a goal. And that’s the problem here – the goals of the groups are not the same. One group would like religious people to at least reconcile their beliefs with science so they’re not in opposition. The other group wants to see religious people drop their religious beliefs. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I believe the criticism is based on the view that the way some choose to be hostile to all believers unnecessarily makes them mutually exclusive.

    Imagine that the intent of the “bad” cop in a good cop/bad cop routine is not to have the suspect open up to the “good” cop, but to have the suspect ignore the “good” cop and just do what the “bad” cop wants. It appears from those links that I included previously, that’s not necessarily the most effective thing to do.

  67. Ben Nelson

    TB, I wasn’t aware of that particular political moment, and yes it is somewhat useful to demonstrate the point. Though the point of that event was to make an example out of someone to a third party. What I am concerned about for the timebeing is more direct: communicating to strangers full stop (for simplicity’s sake, we’ll treat it as speaking person to person).

    We can talk about “obstacles to communication”, and that’s fair enough. It is bad to mumble when you can enunciate, and it’s a lousy and pointless thing to assume that people are of bad faith so long as there isn’t evidence to the contrary. But when you try your best (i.e., Coyne), and people call you names — as M/K have — then there is nothing that can be legitimately said in reply, except “That’s nice — now let’s try seriousness”. And if that sounds sharp and cutting, it is because it is meant to be. If the listener feels pains for misinterpretation of that kind, thinks it is “hectoring” and so on, then these are growing pains that will hopefully abate, so long as we retain the hope that we endgame is for all of us to cope with what honest discussion requires of us.

    Ultimately, there are a lot of obstacles that force communication into the gutter even when a person disagrees in the most gentle of ways. For example, in principle there is no way of knowing what strangers are going to believe is “silencing”, or has peremptory force; many people will react badly to mere disagreement (especially when it is rational disagreement), and so a part of you has to always be prepared to be seen as the bad guy. Moreover, the core of communicating is drawing attention to the objects and concerns in speech. If people aren’t listening (and they usually aren’t) then you need minimum force to your expressions to get their attention. And then, so that people maintain their attention without going off wandering and missing the point, you need to use even more force. You can do that within the boundaries of something we call “civility”, according to some communicative norms that help us get by, but the fact of the matter is that these are constructions that many people do not have, and can only be learned through hard-won exposure. And finally, the most depressing obstacle is this: a lack of motivation to engage cooperatively in communication pre-empts the very idea of communicating. The only way to deal with instances of bad faith (or absence of good faith) in communication is to look at it as if it were a game, and to be prepared to own up to the worst case scenario when it happens.

    So politics is a game, of course. Sure, when you’re playing the game the way the Democrats do, in the style of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, as far as your relationship with the rest of the game is concerned you need to play gentle offense and sharp defense. But when all Democrats are playing the same role in the game, they lose. It’s like having a hockey team made up entirely of goalies; it’s just a bad idea, and it doesn’t work. So ideally, everyone should try to be a good cop, but prepared to be a bad cop.

    If people really do have different goals, then they’re on different teams. That’s the typical failure of the left. But sometimes the differences are a result of what Coyne termed the Cool Hand Luke Effect: the failure to communicate. I suspect that these things could be gotten over if the editors of Intersection were a touch more philosophical and considered in their positions. But at this point, the damage is done; with this latest thing in Newsweek, Mooney/Kirshenbaum have decided to make a nebulous disagreement over blogs as some public case of mass injustice. They’re spoiling for a fight with the bad cop, without really (it seems) understanding what he’s up to. I don’t know what to make of that, except that I doubt any Republicans will care, I doubt any atheists will be convinced, and the vast ocean of the diffident will go on ignoring the debate until someone like Myers grips onto their ears and demands their attention.

  68. TB

    54. Jennifer B. Phillips Says:

    “TB: Actually, I organized a local Darwin Day event last February.

    Jennifer : abulous! A couple of questions:
    1. How did religion/accommodation factor into the event?”

    It was held in an Episcopal Church basement and many of the attendees (adults and children) were from that congregation. In addition, a local rock group called “Overman” contacted us about performing their song “Evolution Rocks.” They played a short set. We served primordial soup (tasted like chicken!), had a cash bar, had a birthday cake and sang happy birthday to Darwin. For the main event watched “Jurassic Park.” (with permission, of course)
    At the point in the movie where the main characters stand perfectly still and the T-Rex couldn’t “see” them, we stopped the film. I got up and explained how later discoveries – thanks to “Sue” in our local Field Museum – showed that this was wrong. T-Rex had an excellent sense of smell and the main characters would have been dino dinner.
    All in all, a good time and a surprisingly good response for such a small event – we had about 50 people easily.

    “Jennifer : 2. How would you compare your influence on the people who attended (specifically their opinion of science) to that of PZ Myers?”

    I wouldn’t compare them – too much of an apples to oranges thing. For one, the event wasn’t about me and I only got up to speak at that one point.

    “TB: the chart at the bottom of section 4, where it shows “Religious belief among scientists varies somewhat by sex, age and scientific specialty. Younger scientists are substantially more likely than their older counterparts to say they believe in God. ”

    Given that this is a snapshot of scientists at different stages of their careers, do you think there might be some correlation between how long one is a scientist and how the job, over time, influences religious beliefs?”

    I wouldn’t draw that conclusion but I would acknowledge that it could be among a range of results. I would support seeing this same survey done again in the future to measure how all these things change over time.

  69. TB

    @ 69 Ben

    An aside – remember we’re not really (or at least I wasn’t) discussing the communication dynamics between Coyne and M/K.

    After that, I just want to address this:

    “… and so a part of you has to always be prepared to be seen as the bad guy.”

    Absolutely, and what those links to professionals who have studied communication point out that you should be careful not to feed into the idea of a being a bad guy – if only so that any third-party observers can judge that you’re blameless in the “failure to communicate.”

  70. Ben Nelson

    TB, I must have cashed in on the point too early by drawing it back to the present context.

    What I want to say, first, is that on the one hand there’s minimization of villainy and on the other hand there’s futility. Norms help us decide how to interpret one from the other, and without making those norms explicit, we might as well be villains full stop.

    Second, the communications linked all presuppose an opened channel. There’s the other matter of how to go about opening the channel in the first place, and when dealing with an aggregate, it’s not a trivial thing at all. So when I say “the vast ocean of the diffident will go on ignoring the debate until someone like Myers grips onto their ears and demands their attention”, that’s another level in which I wish to make a case.

    Finally, there’s the interaction with the authoritarian personality issue. But that’s admittedly a lot more speculative, so I haven’t really spent a lot of time on it in this thread.

  71. B. Williams

    @64 “We have strayed far from the original point, and I can’t imagine that anyone else here is interested in these tortured semantic arguments. I suggest we move on to more substantive and interesting topics.”

    Dont you Always?

    Yes, Jennifer, please move on! Your constant combatant nature makes it hard to fathom being lumped into the ‘woman’ scientist category with you.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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