Monday, March 3, 2008

What Are We Framing?

I'll try to avoid rehashing what I've already said (e.g., this, this, and this) about Matthew Nisbet's ideas of framing and how they connect with the so-called "new atheists," but in his appearance on the 2/29/08 Point of Inquiry podcast, and in his own write-up of that appearance, he made this observation:

[O]n the bell curve of perspectives, by far the loudest and most visible messages originate from the extreme tail ends of the spectrum. On the one end you have religious fundamentalists who claim that science undermines moral values and therefore should be opposed and at the other tail end of the distribution you have the New Atheists who claim that science undermines the validity of religion or even respect for religion. [quoted from the write-up]
These two strident, vociferous, red-faced tails of the bell curve consume all the headlines and their clatter sidelines the discourse in ways he considers counterproductive:
[H]ow long will it be until we realize that in emphasizing these common shared values that we can achieve real social progress, tackling major issues such as education, climate change, poverty, income inequality, and/or the weaknesses in our electoral and democratic system?
I think it's worth clarifying how and why Nisbet finds the conflict between a faith-based outlook and a scientific outlook counterproductive. He finds it distracting. He argues that it consumes oxygen, column inches, and pixels that would be better used for making common cause on matters such as climate change and poverty.

At the risk of mind-reading, I think I understand him to say the arguments between religion and faith are not just noisy but boring. They don't interest him. They don't strike him as saying anything important or urgent about "social progress."

Well, fair enough. I, too, think others' interests and priorities are boring and misguided insofar as they diverge from my own. But many people do find the conflict between science and religion not only interesting but central and urgent, and moreover these people exist on and generate noise from both sides of the question.

Making common cause on issues like education, climate change, and poverty whenever possible is a sound idea. It happens all the time, in fact, on these matters and countless more. I would be surprised -- no, amazed and appalled -- if there are many science-minded people out there who are concerned about such matters but who would turn away potential allies on grounds the allies had "faith cooties."

One of the obstacles to such cooperation -- an obstacle that persists though it varies in size and shape depending on the issue at hand -- takes the form of specific tenets of faith-based thinking, including but not limited to these: that critical thinking is dangerously prideful; that passion counts as much as or more than mere evidence; that scientific naturalism devalues human rights and cannot speak to the deeper questions of human existence; and that the world is intrinsically broken (or "fallen") and will only improve if and when a superhero intervenes from beyond the clouds.

And this gets to the most aggravating aspect of Nisbet's argument. He mentions Dawkins' The God Delusion as an illustration of how to frame science badly -- because it kicks the bee-hive of religious fervor in a religiously fervid society -- without mentioning that the book is expressly about the existence of god. It is not a book about science that happens to bring god into it; rather it is a book about god that happens to bring science into it.

Likewise, Sam Harris' The End of Faith is not a book about science but about the dangers that ensue from treating faith as a valid method of getting to the truth. It touches on science but it is not a science book. Nisbet doesn't like this book either, and on these same grounds -- that it besmirches the good name of science (and bores him).

Likewise again, the prominent mathematician John Allen Paulos has recently written a book (Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up) expressly about the quality of the evidence and arguments for god's existence. Nisbet doesn't like that book either; presumably it will drive monotheists away from learning or appreciating math, if Nisbet is to be believed.

The "new atheist" books -- The End of Faith, A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up, The God Delusion, and Hitchens's God Is Not Great -- are challenging wobbly old epistemologies, bad mental habits, the conclusions these produce, and the social, cultural, and scientific repercussions of these conclusions. In this they are joining and updating a philosophical fray that goes back centuries. These books are not popularizations of science (nor of math, nor, in Hitchens's case, of the humanities), nor are they about climate change, poverty, or any of a million other topics that Matthew Nisbet evidently finds more interesting. The quality of the "framing" these books accomplish should start from a consideration of what the books are trying to achieve. They should not be dismissed for failing someone else's purposes.


libhom said...

What Nisbet doesn't understand is that religion is a reactionary influence on culture and thought that perpetuates the very inequities that Nisbet wants to combat. Opposing religion is a long-term strategy towards Nisbet's goal.

Dale said...

Libhorn, exactly. Promoting and defending science can not always proceed on the basis of feel-good popular appeal. It's not realistic to expect every argument worth having to have a "silent majority" to appeal to. Sometimes it's necessary to be unpopular in the near term.

Zennalathas said...

he may have read god is not Great, but he obviously did not read Letters to a Young Contrarian.