Thursday, April 17, 2008

An Example of Framing by Matt Nisbet

 
Last summer I blogged about a survey of 149 professional, prominent, evolutionary biologists [Evolutionary Biologists Flunk Religion Poll].
The great majority of the evolutionists polled (78 percent) chose A, billing themselves as pure naturalists. Only two out of 149 described themselves as full theists (F), two as more theist than naturalist (D) and three as theistic naturalists (B). Taken together, the advocacy of any degree of theism is the lowest percentage measured in any poll of biologists' beliefs so far (4.7 percent).
The study was done by Gregory W. Graffin and William B. Provine and you can read the full report in American Scientist [ Evolution, Religion and Free Will]. The study quotes the findings of Larson in 1998 where only 5.5% of biologists in the National Academy of Sciences believe in God.

An earlier study of average scientist by Larson showed that 40% believe in a god and 45% do not [NEW SURVEY: SCIENTISTS "MORE LIKELY THAN EVER" TO REJECT GOD BELIEF]. Couple these results to the fact that somewhere between 30% and 50% of the general population of Western European countries are atheists and agnostics [Atheists and Agnostics] and I think it would be fair to say that the majority of evolutionary biologists do not believe in god. The data supports the statement that, among evolutionary biologists, the consensus is lack of belief in god. This probably applies to all professional scientists.

Now, let's look at how Matt Nisbet spins the story [Francis Collins: The Angry Atheists Do Not Speak for Us]. He opens by quoting an interview with Francis Collins, a deluded scientist, who, quite predictably, says ...
I also think that those of us who are interested in seeking harmony here have to make it clear that the current crowd of seemingly angry atheists, who are using science as part of their argument that faith is irrelevant, do not speak for us. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens do not necessarily represent the consensus of science; 40 percent of scientists are believers in a personal God. A lot more are rather uncomfortable about the topic but certainly would not align themselves with a strong atheistic perspective.
Collins is talking about the "angry atheists" when he claims that they don't represent the consensus. Then he spins the argument to make it look like most scientists are believers, or at least have some doubts. Of course, when Collins says they "do not speak for us" he doesn't mean members of the National Academy of Scientists or prominent evolutionary biologists. No, he's referring to the broader survey that included many other categories of scientist. Among that group, there are still more non-believers (45%) than believers (40%).

Matt Nisbet then says ...
As Collins accurately notes, the argument by Dawkins, PZ Myers, and other atheist hardliners that science undermines the validity of religion, even respect for religion, is at odds with the consensus view in the scientific community.

For example, as the recent National Academies report on evolution concludes: "The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith. Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future."
I don't think Nisbet is representing the consensus view in the scientific community—at least not in the scientific community of professional evolutionary biologists. In that community the overwhelming majority are non-believers in god(s). This is how framing works, is it different from lying?

Furthermore, Nisbet is picking up on a paragraph in Science, Evolution and Creationism, a recent publication of the National Academy of Sciences. That paragraph is, itself, a "frame" and a misrepresentation of the consensus view among scientists as many of us have pointed out [How the National Academy of Sciences Framed their Book on Evolution]. The polls clearly show that the vast majority of members of the National Academy of Sciences are atheists. Thus, Nisbet is putting his own spin frame on the topic and quoting more inaccurate spin framing to support his position. I guess this is how framing is supposed to work.

I don't want any part of it. It's way too close to "lying." Matt Nisbet goes on to beat up on his regular victims by saying ...
Dawkins and Myers are entitled to their opinion and as a fellow atheist I strongly support their right to voice criticism of religion. Yet at some point they need to consider the unintended consequences of their preferred brand of atheist punditry, and to recognize the pragmatism of the consensus message from the National Academies and other leading science organizations.

In their campaign, Dawkins and Myers may honestly believe that they are speaking truth to religion and that by adding their voice to the argument culture, they can raise awareness among the non-religious while potentially shifting society towards greater secularization. However, in coming decades, if the goal is to defend the teaching of evolution in schools and to maintain public trust in science and scientists, their message likely serves as a liability towards that end.
Matt, you are completely wrong about this. The "consensus message" of the National Academies and other leading science organizations is flat-out wrong. Most scientists do not believe in God and among prominent evolutionary biologists Francis Collins is part of a 5.5% minority. You may have convinced the authors of Science, Evolution and Creationism to mislead the public about the beliefs of scientists but you'll never convince the scientists themselves to go along with it.

If the goal is to maintain "public trust in science and scientists" then speaking the truth is always better than framing.


13 comments:

  1. Dawkins and Myers are entitled to their opinion and as a fellow atheist I strongly support their right to voice criticism of religion.

    That is funny! And people say that Matt Nisbet has no sense of humor.

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  2. Wait a minute. How do you get from a majority of evolutionary biologists are atheists (assuming that's true) to an alleged consensus among biologists that evidence for evolution is incompatible with religious faith?

    Can't someone be an atheist and deny evolution is incompatible with religious belief or hold no opinion on the issue?

    Do you have some other statistics? I know you can't be framing the issue ...

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  3. John Pieret asks,

    Can't someone be an atheist and deny evolution is incompatible with religious belief or hold no opinion on the issue?

    I suppose anything is possible if you want it to be.

    Given that 80% of professional evolutionary biologists are atheists, I suppose you might imagine some sort of mythical kingdom where the majority of evolutionary biologists still thought that religion is compatible with science.

    That's what Matt Nisbet and Francis Collins want you to believe. Do you believe it?

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  4. Francis Collins is a prominent evolutionary biologist? Unless prominent evolutionary biologist means a somewhat visible proponent of evolution, I can't see how Francis Collins is a prominent evolutionary biologist.

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  5. I, too, was annoyed by Nisbet's "framing" of the consensus scientific view on religion. I didn't bother to comment on it at his blog, since I've yet to see him seriously consider any point of view but his own.

    I was more interested in his latest post, discussing a study which claims that scientists don't become atheists, so much as atheists become scientists.

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  6. Ah, case in point:
    "Our study was the first poll to focus solely on eminent evolutionists and their views of religion. As a dissertation project, one of us (Graffin) prepared and sent a detailed questionnaire on evolution and religion to 271 professional evolutionary scientists elected to membership in 28 honorific national academies around the world, and 149 (55 percent) answered the questionnaire. All of them listed evolution (specifically organismic), phylogenetics, population biology/genetics, paleontology/paleoecology/paleobiology, systematics, organismal adaptation or fitness as at least one of their research interests. Graffin also interviewed 12 prestigious evolutionists from the sample group on the relation between modern evolutionary biology and religion."
    Francis Collins is best known for heading up the public consortium for sequencing the human genome. That isn't related to evolutionary theory.

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  7. I suppose you might imagine some sort of mythical kingdom where the majority of evolutionary biologists still thought that religion is compatible with science.

    I see. All you have is an argument from personal incredulity. I'm supposed to take that any more seriously than when I get it from creationists?

    My guess is that most atheists are indifferent to whether or not believers can find some way to reconcile their beliefs with evolutionary theory and, therefore have no opinion. I suppose you might imagine some sort of mythical kingdom where the majority of atheists are as deeply interested in theology as you are.

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  8. A lot of atheist scientists think that scientific knowledge undermines religious belief, and that's why there's such a correlation between science and atheism.

    Matt says no, the data show otherwise, and cites a paper about it. That paper says that scientists atheism isn't caused by their science; instead, atheists self-select into science, and theists self-select out.

    That's very, very interesting.

    The next reasonable hypothesis to consider is that while science doesn't cause atheism, atheism does cause science---if you're an atheist, you're more likely to become a scientist than the average person, and way more likely to become an outstanding scientist than the average person.

    If that's true, then the best way to promote science is to increase the incidence of atheism.

    Of course, maybe neither causes the other, most of the time. Maybe there's a third thing that causes both, like having a genetic predispositon to be smart (or just geeky).

    Paul W.

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  9. Paul says:

    "The next reasonable hypothesis to consider is that while science doesn't cause atheism, atheism does cause science---if you're an atheist, you're more likely to become a scientist than the average person, and way more likely to become an outstanding scientist than the average person."

    Plausible, but I think it's easier to show the converse - that if somebody is deeply religious, that person is much less likely to become a scientist than an average person.

    Belief systems which claim that all the mysteries of the Cosmos will be revealed to the believer after death, tends to render the scientific endeavour irrelevant.

    Just wait and everything will be revealed.

    Why work?

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  10. actually i would think if you are a scientist you are much more likely to become an atheist

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  11. Notice, yet again, that Nisbet ignores the common points that everyone brings up in response... It's obvious and pathetic.

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  12. Well framed argument, Larry. You really don't seem to get it; everything is framed, everything has connotation, or style, or baggage, or whatever you want to call it. It can be done honestly or dishonestly, as you wish.

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  13. QrazyQat, what gives you the impression that what you wrote is new or controversial?

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