Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (M and K) are what might loosely be called science writers. Much of their work is on “framing,” attempting to present science and its concerns in a particular light so as to make it more appealing to the general public. They have a blog over at discovermagazine.com, and they have a new book out, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future.
Since their new book came out there has been quite an uproar on the big science blogs over these two. Much of this centers around their argument in the book that a good deal of the blame for US science illiteracy can be laid on the shoulders of scientists themselves. M and K seem to think that the public does not understand and often opposes evolution, global warming, vaccination, and a host of other issues where they are wrong on the science because scientists are not doing enough to educate the public. You read that right. It’s the scientists fault that the general public refuses to believe the science. Even worse, say M and K, there are the “New Atheists” with which to contend, and many of them are scientists as well. These people are so detrimental to the spreading of science literacy, in fact, that M and K have an entire chapter on the problems these atheists cause in their book. As one might imagine, this has caused quite a bit of controversy amongst the scientists themselves.
Recently news came out that Richard Dawkins was releasing a new book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. M and K took this as an opportunity to write a new op-ed piece for the LA Times. This has caused a new flurry of activity in the blogosphere, some of which can be seen here, here, and here. The first two of those links point to posts written by those addressed directly in M and K’s article, PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne. You can read their responses in their own words, and I encourage you to do so, but I want to say something about M and K’s accusation as well. But let’s take M and K’s points in order.
M and K begin by criticizing Dawkins on his upcoming book. They write, “But it’s also fair to ask: Who in the United States will read Dawkins’ new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?” There is so much wrong with this that it’s difficult to know where to start. First. the book is not even out yet, and it will not be out for a month, yet it is already outselling M and K’s own book, so clearly dramatically more people will read it than theirs. If that is the case, then it is more likely than their book to change someone’s mind. So, if Dawkins’ book is, as M and K suggested, a waste of time (“merely preaching to the converted,” “going to make no difference whatsoever,” or whatever pejorative characterization anyone disagreeing with that line thinks more accurately describes M and K’s position), then it is the case that their book is an even bigger waste of time. And yet, they seem to have no problem promoting it every chance they get. One has to wonder why, in the minds of M and K, Dawkins deserves criticism on this point but, presumably, they do not.
Then there is the issue of this whole “United States” business. M and K are wholly aware that Dawkins is not a US citizen. He’s British. Clearly, then, his book is not intended solely for a US audience. As such, that is quite an odd bit of criticism. It would be silly to think that M and K are suggesting that books that do not cater explicitly to a US audience should not be written, but then one is left wondering why such a line was included. If it was just a note that they think a US audience will be unreceptive, then the “it’s also fair to ask” line seems odd. Why is such “fair to ask”? What about a British scientist writing a book about evolution suggests that a question about US readers is a necessary one that needs to be addressed? I can see no way to get around this concern just being strange and misplaced.
Next, M and K are just wrong when it comes to the suggestion that no one changes their mind after reading these kinds of books, especially when it comes to Dawkins. There are a great number of people who are not steadfast in their commitment to some position. There are a numerous individuals out there who are genuinely ignorant of what evolution even is along with the dramatic evidence in support of it. And, of course, M and K know this. That’s the whole point of their latest book! The high rate of science illiteracy is the premise about which they wrote. With that in mind, it is not only possible but likely that someone reading a well-written presentation of the facts would be convinced and move that much more toward being science literate. This is the case even if the reader is religious. One would think that M and K would celebrate this rather than disparaging it. And this is not mere conjecture. We actually have evidence of this! The number of people who have been educated by Dawkins alone is ridiculously high. The reports from those individuals who now understand evolution because of Dawkins can be found everywhere, including the blogs written by those converts. Even the late Douglas Adams contributed his pro-evolution stance to Dawkins’ writing. M and K just don’t have a leg to stand on here when they insist that no one is going to be convinced by one of the most well-known science writers in the world writing a book in his area of expertise that is, because of pre-orders, guaranteed to be a best-seller and, as such, read by millions of people. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that this book will be the catalyst for even more people to come to understand what is arguably the most successful scientific theory ever devised.
Lastly, since when has it been the case that people are only allowed to write books that will cause others to have an “epiphany”? People write books for niche groups all the time, often only for the purpose of informing them of something they did not know before. These books erve an important role. There’s no sort of rule out there that says that the only books fit for publication must have some kind of transformative effect on society at large. Were that the case, no books would ever be published as the chances of such occurring are always slim to none. Now, some might want to say that M and K never explicitly said that only books causing epiphanies have relevance, and they would be correct. But certainly the implication of the quote “But it’s also fair to ask: Who in the United States will read Dawkins’ new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?” is something like this. Otherwise, why bring it up at all? The phrasing is akin to asking “What’s the point of this?” The point is to offer lay-people a clear and concise explanation of the facts surrounding the theory of biological evolution. The question they raise is not “fair” in any relevant sense.
After the question about Dawkins’ new book M and K begin their attack on the “New Atheists” using Myers and Coyne (along with, of course, Dawkins) as their whipping boys. M and K accuse these individuals of something akin to religious intolerance, and they suggest that Dawkins, Myers, and Coyne are all willing to attack organizations such as the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an organization who exists almost exclusively to promote the teaching of evolution in public schools, if such organizations demonstrate even the smallest bit of tolerance for believers. M and K write, “Long under fire from the religious right, the NCSE now must protect its other flank from the New Atheist wing of science.” But this is an absurd characterization of the situation. In fact, those being criticized are members of the NCSE. Their criticism of the organization is from within its ranks, and it is relatively mild. The only concern these people have is that the NCSE has started what is called the “Faith Project,” a program that is intended to promote the idea that religion and evolution are wholly compatible. And it is not the case that these New Atheists want the NCSE to promote atheism, either. They simply want the organization to refrain from promoting any position on religion whatsoever. Far from an attack on the NCSE, what Dawkins, Coyne, and Myers want is an organization that is clear on its goals and avoids the many pitfalls that come from attempting to debate with believers on their own terms, on what their holy book says is the case. I do not think it is hard to see why someone would hold that position. (*see endnote)
In an effort to solidify their position and hammer the New Atheists into the ground, M and K invoke “one figure both sides respect,” Charles Darwin. This is a bizarre “WWDD” type of invocation. They write:
It turns out that late in life, when an atheist author asked permission to dedicate a book to Darwin, the great scientist wrote back his apologies and declined. For as Darwin put it, "Though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advance of science."
They follow that up by saying “Darwin and Dawkins differ by much more than a few letters, then — something the New Atheists ought to deeply consider.” But they left out the rest of the quote, something that is very telling. Darwin went on to write, ““I may, however, have been unduly biassed by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.” This changes the entire tone of what Darwin meant. For those who do not know, Darwin’s wife was deeply religious, a devout Christian, and she was deeply troubled by the attacks levied against her husband by those who thought his ideas were in opposition to religious doctrine. Looking at the last quote, then, it appears that Darwin was, by his own admission, influenced in his decision to refrain from this particular discussion by his concern for his wife’s feelings and not, as suggested by M and K, out of a deep disagreement with the position of Dawkins and his ilk itself.
Further, and this needs to be emphasized strongly, who cares what Darwin would do? Darwin is not some patron saint with whom all biologists must agree at all times. He was not inerrant. He was just a very smart guy who came up with a brilliant idea. But that does not mean he got everything right. He didn’t. In fact, Darwin got lots of stuff wrong. M and K using Darwin in this way actually plays up to that mistaken notion of so many creationists that Darwin is god-like in the eyes of “evolutionists,” and nothing could be further from the way things are. Science is not sacred. Ideas that do not work are discarded. Nothing is holy. M and K missing this massive point should suggest caution to anyone who would accept their views as having some deep insight into the issues of which they concern themselves and about which they write so often.
*What is truly strange about Mooney taking this position is that he is one of the original posterboys for the “anit-accommodationists.” In 2001 he wrote an article entitled “Darwin’s Sanitized Ideas: PBS’s Evolution is an exercise in Creationist appeasement.” In that he said:
Yet the fundamentalists seem to be exactly right about the religious implications of the study of evolution. Sure, Kenneth Miller can separate his scientific research and his religious beliefs. But few top scientists actually do so. In 1998 in the journal Nature, the historian Edward Larson and Washington Times religion writer Larry Witham reported the results of their survey of the religious views of National Academy of Sciences members. Nine out of 10 were atheists or agnostics, and among NAS biologists, just 5.6 percent believed in God, the lowest percentage for any scientific field. Larson and Witham quoted the Oxford scientist Peter Atkins: "You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge."
Here Mooney seems to be highlighting the problems inherent in attempting to reconcile evolution with Christianity, the very point that the so-called “New Atheists” press.