The tightrope of debating antiscience

Contributed by
Mar 24, 2008

You know this part: PZ Myers was thrown out of a screening of "Expelled". He blogged about it, Richard Dawkins blogged about it, half the science bloggers in the Universe blogged about it. It made the New York Times and Salon, who both had very good articles about the situation.

Not everyone, however, was pleased. Chris Mooney wrote that this incident has helped the movie more than science, and Matt Nisbet says that PZ and Dawkins shouldn't have been in the movie to be interviewed in the first place.

I have some thoughts on this, of course. First, Sean over at Cosmic Variance sums things up pretty well. Read his first and then come back. I'll wait.

OK, welcome back. Again, I think Sean has done an excellent job as usual on this topic. I know Chris Mooney and I like him, but he's dead wrong on this one. This publicity is killing the movie; it makes the producer Mark Mathis and Ben Stein look like the craven liars they are (and the New York Times article says it's a creationist movie! Score one for the good guys!). By showing the methods and almost reflexive lying the makers of the movie have resorted to, it's showing them in a very bad light. By Chris's reasoning, a movie critic's bad review actually helps a movie, which is obviously wrong. The more the public knows about the real motives and methods behind this movie, the better.

Nisbet's claims are a little more complicated. First, his writing his post in the style he did is ironic in the extreme; for someone who talks about framing all the time he certainly didn't frame his argument in any way that will convince PZ to stop giving interviews and writing about religion. In fact, I don't think I'd have won Randi's million dollar challenge predicting PZ's response.

Nisbet's overarching comments are more interesting to me. It is certainly true that there are people who are de facto spokesmen for causes who wind up actually hurting their cause. For example, I've seen many (many many) scientists who have not exactly pushed forward the idea that science can be cool and scientists hip and fun.

But does this pertain to PZ and Dawkins? I've spent some time thinking about this. I think the answer is no, Nisbet is wrong here, and basically for the same reasons Sean laid out: PZ and Dawkins aren't politicians, trying to spin, shuck, and jive their way through an interview so as to spin things just so. They are scientists, and they are interested in telling the truth as they see it.

Does that hurt the cause against antiscience? Sure, it can. A lot of people will be offended by such talk, and others can edit their speech or frame it in a way that makes science look like some sort of creeping menace.

But looking at what the makers of Expelled have done, it's clear to me that this would have happened to any scientist they talked to. They would have edited, tipped, and tilted things to make them look good no matter what. I'm sure that had they interviewed Nisbet it would make him look like a befanged devil. That's the MO of people like Mathis and Stein. They're liars, and they're only interested in suppressing reality. Nisbet said PZ and Dawkins should leave interviews to people who can handle it. Even if this weren't an offensive thing to say, it should be noted that such people do not exist. Anyone can be edited to promote anything at all.

Given that, then maybe we should all shut up. Maybe we should just let the antiscientists, the liars, the hoaxsters, the conmen, and the shills just have their way, saying whatever they want with no accountability at all.

No way. That won't happen, and we cannot let it happen. Matt Nisbet thinks that we should have front men who can take on issues the way they need to be framed so that they're more palatable to the public. Of course making science palatable and understandable is a good idea. But we must be honest when we do it. We shouldn't "dumb down" the science (that is, oversimplify it to the point where it's content-free news); and we can't change the results or the methods or -- most importantly -- the implications of research just because the public will find that an easier pill to swallow.

And it's the right of any scientist to talk about science. Telling some scientists to shut up and let someone else talk about the issues is ridiculous. If Matt Nisbet doesn't like what PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins are saying, then it's his right to counter their speech. Just like it's mine to publicly state that Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney are wrong here as well.

Make Your Inbox Important

Like Comic-Con. Except every week in your inbox.

Sign-up breaker
Sign out: