The ongoing spat between Chris Mooney and PZ Myers (plus so many others!) gives me a profound sense of déjà vu. Just where and when did I hear all of this before? It seems so very familiar! Hmm... (If this were a vlog instead of a blog, I would now have to cue the wavy special effects that indicate a flash back.)
It's 1989 and one of my friends is deeply conflicted about a book he just read. A pair of writers named Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen penned After the Ball to present their program for the advancement of gay rights. K&M explain everything in terms of—if you'll excuse the expression—framing the debate. They offer section titles like Pushing the Wrong Buttons: Senseless Attempts to Derail the Engine of Prejudice and espouse a public relations campaign predicated on keeping the nellies mostly out of sight:
To date, most public acts by the gay community have accomplished self-expression without communication (at least, without communication to the general public). These acts, ranging from modes of dress to mass demonstrations, have typically been enacted for the sake of self-affirmation, an effort to cast off shame by standing tall in the crowd and crowing, ‘I gotta be me: either accept me as I am, or to hell with you.’ (To say this in a spectacular way, as you know, certain gay men, who would not otherwise be caught dead out of doors without their Brooks Brothers sack suits, metamorphose into bespangled drag queens one day each year and sashay through town in gay pride marches.) It may be psychologically liberating and therefore healthy for some individuals to do things of this sort. But, you must always remember, what is healthy for the individual isn't necessarily healthy for his community. Don't mistake these acts of self-expression for public outreach.My deeply conflicted friend thought that, on the one hand, K&M might be right; on the other, he felt they were being dismissive of brave people who had cast their “bodies upon the gears” of the odious machinery of oppression. As a so-called “straight-acting” gay man who had fled to California from the South, my friend and colleague was K&M's ideal emissary to the general public, someone who could persuasively say, “See, I'm polite and harmless and just like you!” He was conscious, however, that K&M were failing to recognize that the drag queens of Stonewall were the shock troops that opened up a breach, a breach through which the button-down preppies had poured. Would straight people be as eager to reach accommodation with the bland face of the gay community if they weren't also anxiously looking over their shoulders at the other face—the one with rouged cheeks, Dynel wigs, and false eyelashes the size of tarantulas?
Genuine public outreach requires careful communication.
Today we have Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet earnestly counseling irreligious scientists to submerge their nonbelief in the interests of the greater good. M&N think that the out-and-proud atheists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers ought to contemplate a little more quality time in the faith closet, promoting the cause of science without all that distracting emphasis on its fundamental materialism and—dare I say it?—atheism. Well, okay, how about non-theism? Is that better and less confrontational? And we've got all those nice religious scientists who use methodological naturalism in their labs while genuflecting toward a deity in their personal lives. Shouldn't we be nicer to these guys who have reconciled reason and woo?
M&N appear to think it would be nice to be more like Francis Collins and less like Richard Dawkins.
Does it work?
Kirk & Madsen began their book with the claim that the gay revolution had failed (and they used just those words). They were writing twenty years after the Stonewall riots and declared, “We should have done far better.” Another eighteen years have gone by. Did the gay community take their advice? Have gay rights advanced since the publication of K&M's manifesto? I think the answers are (a) to a degree and (b) oh, my, yes! However, post hoc is not the same thing as propter hoc, is it? Today there is the Human Rights Campaign, K&M's After the Ball made incarnate. But we also still have drag queens in entertainment and Dykes on Bikes still rev up to kick off every year's gay pride event in San Francisco.
Perhaps today's successes have been a consequence of a mixed strategy rather than the undiluted K&M prescription. Imagine that.
Since Richard Dawkins is a prominently featured bête noire in Mooney & Nisbet's call for friendly-to-the-faithful framing, it makes me wonder whether they recognize what he actually does. On the one hand, Dawkins attacks the notion of deity, all guns blazing, in The God Delusion. He is an “out” atheist who is taking no prisoners. On the other hand, Dawkins is the author of The Ancestor's Tale, a wonderful reverse genealogy of life on Earth. You can search the pages of this book for god-sniping and you won't find any. Apart from a few brief and non-combative references, God doesn't appear in The Ancestor's Tale. Dawkins is entirely capable of producing beautiful books about science that splendidly fit the bill offered by M&N. So, do they think that's all he should do?
That is the clear implication of their thesis. M&N say, “We agree with Dawkins about evolution and admire his books, so we don't enjoy singling him out. But he stands as a particularly stark example of scientists' failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.” In reality, however, Dawkins did exactly that—explain evolution—in The Ancestor's Tale. M&N effectively disqualify Dawkins as an explainer and promoter of science because he won't shut up about his atheism and his willingness to argue in its defense.
I wholeheartedly agree that science needs writers who make its nature and beauty and achievements accessible to a wider audience, but I shy away from M&N's implication that sacred cows are to be coddled in the meantime. I think their argument boils down to a simple plea for scientists to play nicely and avoid giving offense. One should not give offense gratuitously—that's just plain impolite—but science is inherently offensive to a big chunk of society. As PZ said, “Knowledge is a threat to beliefs held in ignorance.” We should do the best we can to promote science to the greater public, but M&N are making a mistake when they devote so much of their argument to lamenting bold writers like Dawkins. They should consider dosing themselves with their own prescribed restraint.
There is a role for the bold frontal assault as well as for the nuanced diplomatic initiative. While Dawkins hurls his thunderbolts at gods and idols, Mooney is welcome to sidle up to the frightened faithful and whisper in their ears: “Sorry about my buddy Richard. He's sometimes like that. He's awfully good at science, you know, and it really ticks him off when folks get it all mixed up. Say, are you a flat-earther? No? Good, I didn't think so. Young-earth creationist? Oh, dear. That's a shame. Say, I could introduce you to some nice Christian and Jewish and Muslim scientists who see no conflict between billions of years and their religious faith. Isn't that interesting? Let's slip away from here and go talk to them.”
Yes, it sounds like bland pap, suitable for infants, but a lot of people are toddlers when it comes to science. M&N seem to think spoon-feeding is called for and they probably have a point. Let them go ahead and do it. I'm sure it won't hurt, since so many people in the general public have weak digestive systems when it comes to the implications of modern science. M&N can feed them. They'll need help, I'm sure, and perhaps some scientists and science writers will follow their lead. Fine. But other science promoters have more robust approaches, and it won't help if we keep telling Richard Dawkins to pipe down whenever he is true to his own beliefs.
The current dust-up does appear to be just a bit of disagreement among friends and allies. It's about choice of tactics in the service of a clear strategy to get more people understanding something about science. I don't think anyone has inflicted any mortal wounds and I expect the scars will heal up nicely. It is, however, a serious and important discussion, which is why so many people have weighed in on it. We live in an age of science and technology that is populated by astonishingly ignorant people.
We must try to teach them.
I'll finish this off with a gentle poke at Chris Mooney, professional writer, who includes these two phrases in a recent blog post: “there has been a great need for Nisbet and I to expand upon our arguments” and “Moran's slamming of Nisbet and I kind of reminds me.” I fear that Chris is objectively impaired.