17 February 2008

Gathering of top scientists marred by lack of conflict

In the exposition hall of the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston, the Templeton Foundation is passing out M&Ms that read "BIG QUESTION" along with its literature. The science-finds-God message that comes out of Templeton funding isn't necessarily sugar-coated, but it is shiny, appealing, and pleasing to the popular palate. And it starts melting even before you swallow it.

My friend Matt Nisbet, an expert on science communication at American University in Washington, believes that Templeton is far more successful than traditional scientific organizations at "creating news pegs around science and religion." Matt organized an impressive session on Communicating Science in a Religious America on this afternoon's AAAS program. The description of the session asserts that scientists need to learn
to craft communication efforts that are sensitive to how religiously diverse publics process messages but also to the way science is portrayed across types of media. In these efforts, scientists should adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs. Part of this process includes “framing” an issue in ways that remain true to the science but that make the issue more personally meaningful, thereby potentially sparking greater interest or acceptance.

Matt suggests that writings like Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion make many religious Americans regard science and scientists as alien enemies. Of course we wouldn’t want Dawkins teaching high school biology in Texarkana. But that doesn’t mean his perspective has no place in the broader public conversation. In fact, the prominence of sciences-versus-religion messages may elevate the platform of science-religion reconciliation.

“Gathering of Top Scientists Marred by Lack of Conflict” is a not a story headline I’d want to have to pitch to any news desk in America. When it comes to “sparking greater interest,” a good conflict is hard to beat. Case in point: the 2006 Time magazine cover story “God versus Science,” which featured a Richard Dawkins-Francis Collins debate on evolution, creation, and beyond. I hypothesize that the pitting of Collins against Dawkins had two effects. First, it set Collins before a huge general audience who otherwise would have never given a moment’s thought to theistic evolution. Second, by presenting Collins’ accommodating stance on religion and science as the alternative to Dawkins' unflinching rationalism, Time’s conflict narrative made Collins’ view more palatable to the pew-bound than it would have appeared in isolation.

How exactly is this bad for public understanding of science? Science will be personally meaningful to the religious insofar as it has something to say about their deepest cultural beliefs. Saccharine rhetoric about "shared values" may fare better, but I'm aware of no compelling empirical evidence that it is. I find it at least as plausible, if ironic, that the presence of science-religion agonists in public debate makes accommodationists better known and liked, which in turn get them more news pegs.

Come to think of it, what is a news peg, anyway? Maybe it's what you hang a frame on.

1 comment:

Clyde said...

I'm interested in knowing what the "shared values" of science and religion supposedly are. In my thinking, science and religion do not share values, because science is not a value system. Science is not based on "values" in the sense that science says some things are "good" and some things are "bad."