Politicians and Critics

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.

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102 Responses to Politicians and Critics

  1. After that criticism I stopped reading The Intersection, I honestly can’t remember whether it’s Mooney’s or Nisbet’s or someone else’s blog, but I’ve gotten fed up with them. It’s so utterly obvious that this isn’t going to help them more than it hurts them, and that they would think that it’s some unmitigated disaster is just beyond me.

    But what I really wanted to say is that the comparison you quoted is so ridiculously unapt for one specific reason, scientists don’t have PR people. Sure, there are groups like the NCSE, but they’re small and relatively powerless, especially compared to the monsters like AiG and the DI. Bloggers like PZ and authors like Dawkins are pretty much all we’ve got, and if they stop trying to tell people what’s good science and why then we’d pretty much be reduced to silence. And sure, there are people like Mooney and Nisbet who want to take up the cause and would love to be mouthpieces for Science, but it doesn’t work that way. Granted their efforts are doubtless useful, but their desire to silence scientist-atheists from talking about anything is just idiotic.

    And someone should probably remind Mooney that a book called, “The Republican War on Science” probably shouldn’t be talking about alienating large swathes of people.

  2. Blake Stacey says:

    A sociologist who hangs out at Pharyngula sums up the essential irony better than I can:

    What Nisbet doesn’t seem to understand is that PZ and Dawkins are framing all of this quite successfully–and they have opponents who are helping them out.

    Throughout, they have been focusing on the dishonesty of the folks who’ve made the movie–in the contracts, in their attaching of Darwin to Fascism/Nazism/Comunism, in their “reportage” of the situation involving ID in the academy, on their use of “Big Science” conspiricism. Consistent in his response to these folks, PZ has focused on their dishonesty. It’s almost as though he’s strategically selecting one particular aspect of all the things that are happening and using them in a strategic fashion in order to discredit the folks who made the film as dishonest…..

    The wonderful thing is that by focusing on this particular aspect, is that they just keep on reinforcing this particular “the producers are liars” frame…He could focus on the minutiae of the science, as Nisbet would have him, but framing his opponents as liars who are not to be trusted undermines their entire message, which also happens to be mostly lies.

    Read the full comment here.

  3. Bad says:

    Mooney and Nisbet are understandably nervous: they really do care about this issue, and it kills them inside to read little old ladies shocked about how obnoxious those nasty atheists are when they come across PZ and Dawkins. I see that as sincere enough.

    And PZ in particular is, indeed, more than just an outspoken atheist: he really can be obnoxious. But the thing is: that’s his charm in the first place, and that’s why he has one of, if not the most popular scienceblogs on the planet. People come en masse out to hear Chris Rock, not some polite dude rambling on about zebrafish.

    That success and publicity may or may not offend some little old lady somewhere, and it may even turn a person near to coming over to our side off somewhat. But there’s no denying that it has its place, and that it has been successful in gaining far more attention to the cause of science, as well as firing up people to care more about the issue, than Mooney or Nisbet have achieved.

    The thing is: the only way out is through. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Atheists are out now, and we’re going to be rousing rabble regardless of cautions. I certainly have plenty of opinions about the best ways to talk and not to talk to religious people about science issues. But “hide the atheists” just isn’t a viable strategic option, even if it WOULD help.

    It might be a bit messier, but we’re going to win these debates WITH Dawkins and PZ and Harris and all the rest riding shotgun, and that’s just the way it is. Nisbet and Mooney need to just get over it, and maybe put their minds to ways to talk to religious people that’s going to include trying to educate them about atheism too.

  4. Pingback: Success and Failure « PowerUp

  5. observer says:

    Probably the most offensive thing Richard Dawkins is capable of doing is to offer someone a cup of tea. Why all the criticism?

    The problem is that many people are (or display themselves as being) offended by the facts themselves. It is these (staged?) displays of outrage and indignation that stifle free speech and silence critics (directly, and also via pressure from people who tell them to shut up and stop “offending” people).

    These displays of outrage and indignation should not be taken at face value, but instead should be viewed as a ploy to silence critics.

  6. Pingback: Expelled! Producers So Busy Expelling PZ Myers that They Missed Richard Dawkins « The Bad Idea Blog

  7. SLC says:

    The sad part of all of this is that Mr. Mooney used to be an OK guy. Then he met Prof.Nisbet and was brainwashed by him. Too bad he didn’t join Prof. Carroll in Los Angeles, where he now lives, 2 years ago.

  8. Ali says:

    I definitely agree about the difference between critics and politicians….

    Unfortunately, Dawkins makes a bad critic of religion, even if he is a good spokesperson for science. If he were half as informed about the history and development of the atheism/materialism that he believes in, as he is about evolutionary biology, then perhaps he might be more effective. As it stands, he’s about as well-educated in atheism as many extremist/fundamentalist Christians are regarding the roots of their own belief systems–that is to say, not very. He seems to be an expert in his particular field of scientific study, but when he strays into philosophy, it’s bound to be a botched job; he simply is not very familiar with the vast and complicated philosophical underpinnings of the modern views which he takes for granted (assumptions tracing their origins back to Descartes’ arbitrary division between matter and mind, and sometimes even further). Amusingly, these very same modern biases are at the heart of much of those fundamentalist religious movements today that some scientists (and other reasonable people) find so objectionable. For those with more background in philosophy and its development, listening to Dawkins argue against extremist religiousness is like listening to Pepsi and Coke attack one another over nutritional content. Philosophically speaking, they’re made up of much the same stuff, and both tend to be myopic, tone-deaf and stubborn in their critiques of the other.

    He’s entitled to his personal atheistic beliefs, of course, but other “pro-science” people definitely have a right and a reason to complain that his personal beliefs sometimes obscure the real issues at stake. This is not politics; it’s just pointing out that if you’re going to be a social critic, it helps to be informed about that which you are criticizing, rather than assuming that having a great deal of information in one field inherently qualifies you to talk authoritatively in all others. On the other hand, his works do offer insight into the personal journey one man may take from scientific facts into the realm of philosophical/(anti-)religious belief systems. It’s a shame Dawkins himself seems so unclear about the difference between the two.

  9. While the idea that the war on science is partly a function of the conservative/theoratic stronghold on the Republican party, I wonder why Chris Mooney can’t see the irony in his position on atheists versus religious scientists.

    I don’t see that the moderates have been successful yet at gaining ground through “Evolution Sundays.”

  10. jeff says:

    Speaking up is fine, and Dawkins can be very articulate and persuasive. But low-life vulgarity (PZ) isn’t going to help your cause much, except perhaps with a small crowd of mindless sycophants. It’s not clear that we need a Howard Stern of science.

  11. observer says:

    Ali #10

    Everything you are saying is completely irrelevant.

  12. Bob Carroll says:

    terrific essay, Sean. I’m a bit worried about the rift in “Our Side” due to tactical disputes. Unity is an utopian goal, but still… Looks like PZ done good, and the laughs are all favorable. The spinmeisters have a tough row to hoe.

    Bob (no relation, dammit,) Carroll

    Oh did you know that the formidable Barbara Forrest was originally Barbara Carroll?

  13. Chris Mooney says:

    Thank you, Sean, for the most balanced, sane, and thoughtful thing I’ve read yet about this whole dispute.

    I agree that Nisbet and I are operating in the “politician” mode right now, though I have also operated in the “critic” mode in the past, and certainly will again.

    You’re also right that science doesn’t currently operate as a political campaign–but, if it ever wants to succeed on these hard fought political issues, like evolution, it had better think hard about the lessons that political expertise and communications strategy can impart. And those lessons definitely don’t cut in favor of the Dawkins-PZ approach.

  14. Josh says:

    No, Chris, it appears the facts don’t cut in favor of yours and Nisbet’s hobby horse. For the first time in my memory, we rationalists and atheists are having a significant impact on public discourse. This didn’t happen because of your handwringing, or Nisbet’s simpering, but because Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett (and a lot of us formerly “nice” atheists) finally took the gloves off. It’s gotten to the point that I think you’re deliberately denying these facts. I’m sorry, I can’t think of any other explanation but rank dishonesty when you refuse to accept the good that candid public discourse has done. Just where did all the decades of “don’t offend them” get us, Chris? You know the answer. . . you wouldn’t even be discussing this right now if it weren’t true that the rationalist and atheist point of view finally – finally – has a smidgen of a place in the public conversation.

    Your refusal to countenance this is supremely irritating to a lot of people, myself included, who really genuinely admired your work, especially The Republican War on Science. It’s not just that I disagree with your current triangulations – I think you’re being consciously dishonest, and it’s beneath you.

    I think Carroll is spot on describing the necessity of critics and politicians. I’m a critic by nature, but I know I’m just one piece of a puzzle, and I need my politician compatriots if good work is going to get done. Your problem, and Nisbet’s too, is that you don’t acknowledge the value of critics. You insult them, and you stick your fingers in your ears and sing la-la-la whenever anyone points out they’ve made progress. You make nice noises – “Thank you, Sean, for the most balanced, sane, and thoughtful thing I’ve read yet about this whole dispute.” – but they’re empty. You don’t mean what you say; it’s the silver tongue of the politician. And not a very skilled one – the rest of your post lays out your true position quite clearly. There’s a danger in being too much of a politician Chris – you start to look like a liar. And you’re losing a lot of potential allies in the process. Framer, heal thyself.

  15. Wes says:


    Your book The Republican War on Science is one of my favorite books, and I completely agree with you that the Dawkins approach is not at all going to succeed politically. He won’t be winning people to science.

    But your tone and your blog have really changed over the past year or so. I’m still going to read Storm World, but I stopped reading your blog several months ago. I just can’t stand it any more–it’s just become so insipid. You’ve gotten so wrapped up in the framing aspect of science communication that you’re neglecting the fact that it’s also important for people to speak their minds–even when what’s on their minds is offensive and politically dangerous.

    I don’t foresee Dawkins achieving any political success, but the badgering against him from you and Nisbet will see even less success. The framing attack on the “new atheists” is misguided. He’s going to speak his mind even though it might be inconvenient for those who see this as a matter of promoting our “side”. People will say controversial things, and that’s good. It’s good even if it’s inconvenient. Dawkins isn’t going to shut up, he doesn’t need to shut up, and there’s no point to trying to tell him to shut up. He’s not a framer. And it’s not necessary that everybody be a framer.

    I hope you get over this phase you’re in. You really are a brilliant writer, and I miss the old Mooney.

  16. AK47 says:

    Very nice post.

    Caltech, eh? Maybe I’ll run into you on campus someday.

  17. observer says:

    It seems that these creationists are much more sly and sophisticated than we give them credit for. Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney have every appearance of being creationism’s latest trojan horse. 😉

  18. both neither says:

    What is to stop anyone from speaking truth, clearly, fearlessly, and assertively, while refraining from the sleazy and intellectually bankrupt ad hominem that some of the New Atheists resort to?

    Avoid false dichotomies. We have enough “politicians” and “critics.” Find us a spokesperson who will neither whitewash the truth nor wield it as a hostility.

  19. craig says:

    Ali #10,

    History of atheism? You have to know the history of atheism to be a credible atheist?

    Here’s my full and complete history and understanding of atheism. In October 1965 I was born, like all infants are, without a belief in a deity. That lack of belief in a deity remained unspoiled until the present.

    Do I have to know about the history of the lack of belief in alien abductions to be a credible critic of abduction assertions?

    Do I have to know the complete history of the lack of every mythological belief?
    Do I have to know of the history of Lakota heretics who didn’t believe in Canotila for me to be credible in my own disbelief of Canotila?

    Nonsense. The history of atheism may be interesting, but it has nothing to do with being an atheist.

    As the saying goes, “If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.” Given that, you need not study the history of not collecting stamps to be a fully successful, reasonable and credible non-collector of stamps.

  20. craig says:

    “Just where did all the decades of “don’t offend them” get us, Chris?”

    Decades? You mean centuries. You clearly don’t know your history of atheism! (j/k)

  21. Gregory Earl says:

    An excellent assessment, Sean. To those commenters calling PZ Myers “obnoxious”, prone to “low-life vulgarity” and the like — yes, but at least he is our obnoxious, vulgar low-life! He may not be very likeable, but as a scientist, he doesn’t have to be. All he needs to be is truthful, and that he is always. And Jeff (#12), us scientists absolutely need our own Howard Stern unless we want to become an even more boring bunch than the christians.

  22. John Ramsden says:

    Excellent post, Sean. They say one has understood something only when convinced one could have thought of it oneself, and it’s the same with well expressed articles (“Yes, that’s just the way I’d have put it!”).

    Seriously, one obvious problem rationalists operating even in “political” one-step-at-a-time mode confront is that fundamentalist religion is an all or nothing construct – Adherents can’t pick and choose what to believe and what can be quietly sidelined, as more accomodating branches such as anglicans are content to allow.

    I guess that’s something only time will solve, assuming human progress does not falter or even take steps back what with rising populations and declining natural reserves – Atheists tend to forget that self-delusion can have real advantages trying circumstances, if it gives people hope, and determination, and a personal and social “moral compass”.

    The ironic part of all this, in relation to creationism especially, is that there’s little doubt the Man Himself would have eagerly embraced evolution if the idea had been known in his time – The “from little acorns” and “selection” concepts were a recurring strand of Christ’s teaching, expressed several times and even in biological terms (albeit to make different points, about the Kingdom of God or the souls of the righteous and so forth).

    For example there was the parable of the mustard seed (Luke ch 13 v 18-19)
    “Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.”

    The parallel with evolution may seem slightly elusive there, although one could perhaps compare it with the evolution of multi-celled life. But how about the parable of the wedding? (Matthew ch 22 v 14) “.. For many are called, but few are chosen”

    And of course there’s the classic example – the parable of the sower (Matthew ch 13, 3-5) “Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, …Some fell upon stony places, … And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them. But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, … ”

    Well, here endeth the lesson for today 😉

  23. Jud says:

    I’m more than a little bemused at the seeming agreement among several posters that PZ and Dawkins are exemplars of nastiness and discourtesy.

    I frequently read PZ’s blog, and though I don’t agree in general with the idea that the way to rationalism is via atheism (I think the wonders of science are a more positive and thus more effective reinforcement than direct criticism of religious beliefs), I would certainly not describe the predominant tone of his writing as either obnoxious or vulgar. I also think that many of the criticisms I’ve seen of Dawkins must have been written by people who didn’t bother to read The God Delusion, because I was very surprised by what I consider the rather gentle and reasonable tone of the book after reading what people were saying about it.

    I don’t think it’s PZ’s and Dawkins’ manner or tone that’s bringing them in for criticism, but rather the very substance of what they’re saying. In today’s predominant global cultures, saying there is a God is considered a normal and polite thing to do, while saying there isn’t is considered loud and impolitic, no matter how the no-God message is actually delivered.