If you missed my talk, then you missed this slide
I leave to give a talk for a few hours, and suddenly all hell breaks lose on ScienceBlogs over the whole PZ Myers getting expelled from the movie Expelled incident, you damn kids! So I thought I would
First, I’m not sure the charge that this helps the movie is true: since the Great Expulsion, there have been cancellations of some pre-release showings. But this incident, and various ScienceBloglings’ reactions to it, to me, appears to be functioning as a Rorschach blot for a whole host of larger issues.
One of the things that came up after last night’s talk (both in the ‘formal’ Q&A and informal discussion afterwards) was the issue of whether recent atheist critics, like Richard Dawkins, harm or hurt the defense of evolutionary biology. Of course, how one answers that question hinges, to a considerable extent, on what one thinks about religions* in general.
Personally, I think Dawkins in his written arguments and public utterances incorrectly conflates three phenomena: religion as cultural identity, supernaturalism, and deism/theism. Preaching to the choir is one thing, but if you’re trying to reach people who aren’t atheists, this conflation is off-putting and weakens the development of a convincing argument for non-atheists. I also think Dawkins at some basic level does not grasp the dimensions of the U.S. political landscape, nor does he realize (or perhaps he does, and he just doesn’t care) to what extent the creationist controversy is a political battle.
Having said that, from a cynical, self-interested perspective, he makes my relatively unconventional views about religions and God seem absolutely respectable. While I don’t think he intends to do so, Dawkins is shoving the Overton Window in a good direction. On the whole, I think Dawkins is a wash. And it would serve no one very well if he were to ‘hide’ his views about religion–having a secret agenda is precisely the very thing that creationists do.
If Mooney and Nisbett want evolutionary biologists with different opinions about religion to be more prominent, then promote those biologists–don’t tear down other biologists. Hell, there are people at ScienceBlogs who don’t agree with PZ, go interview one of them if you’re worried about this.
The other problem is one that both Greg Laden and Tristero noted: Dawkins and Myers were lied to about the purpose of the interview, and had their comments taken out of context. As tristero put it:
Nisbet fails to realize that Dawkins and PZ didn’t create the takeaway message. The producers of the film did, by deliberately misleading them about the nature of the film in the first place, asking questions that provoked certain hoped-for answers, and most critically, editing the film in such a way as to turbo-charge the message. When you’re dealing with dishonest filmmakers – Matt, they lied about the nature of the film in order to snag face time with PZ and Dawkins – then no matter who they had “representing” science – including Nisbet himself – they would be slathered with bad music and edited to look like the Devil Incarnate…..
The effort to undermine American science and science education – did I just accuse creationists of being anti-American? Yep – is not being conducted by honorable men and women but by extreme right ideologues who will not take yes for an answer. They are funded by men such as billionaire Howard Ahmanson, a passionate follower of the loathsome R.J. Rushdoony, an avowed theocrat, and a man who was far to the right of Pat Robertson.
I’m sure if someone were really clever they could probably go through my blog and quote mine in such a way as to suggest that I think evolution isn’t important for understanding and preventing infectious disease even though any honest reader would realize the exact opposite immediately. Dawkins and Myers were deceived–it happens even to the most cunning of us.
But one thing I realized last night–and why I think my talk was well received–is that evolutionary biologists and other members of the Coalition of the Sane have done the following very well:
- Calling creationists fucking morons (because they are).
- Arguing that a better understanding of how life evolved is good in and of itself, and can imbue us with a certain sense of wonder.
- Refuting specific creationist claims.
These are necessary, but not sufficient. What we rarely do is make an affirmative, positive argument for evolution (as opposed to against creationism). I proposed one particular argument: we can’t do applied medical genomics at all without using evolutionary theory and tools. There are many other examples that can be made (I merely chose this one because I know it rather well).
The other thing we evolutionary biologists don’t do enough of, and this stems from the previous point, is make an emotional and moral case for the study of evolution. Last night, I concluded my talk with a quote from Dover, PA creationist school board member William Buckingham, who declared, “Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?”
My response was, “In the last two minutes, someone died from a bacterial infection. We take a stand for him.”
This is how I think we need to argue. We need to put creationists on the defensive by arguing, part of the time, on behalf of the utility of evolutionary biology. Doing genomics without evolutionary biology is like drilling for oil with a dowser. Force creationists to defend the morality of their position.
We also have to realize that different audiences will need to hear different things (and will hear different messages even with the same exact presentation). I’m not going to present creationism, evolution, and genomics the same way to the Boston Skeptics as I would to a conservative Christian congregation. I don’t think we want to limit the diversity of approaches and voices.
*That’s not a typo; there isn’t ‘religion’, but religions (plural).
Update: In a previous edition of the post (not in my talk, however), I referred to Buckingham as Cunningham.