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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Science Literacy and the New Atheist Ideology

Matt Nisbet is at it again. Here's something from his latest posting [Science Literacy and the New Atheist Ideology: Rethinking Definitions and Relevance].
Next week there will be big news on the science communication front. In anticipation, I was just going back over some things that I have written on the topic over the past decade. I ran across an essay I wrote for Skeptical Inquirer from 2003, which I posted below the fold. The essay puts into context an interesting debate that took place in the pages of The Guardian between eminent UK scientist Susan Greenfield and science communication professor Jon Turney.

Greenfield's side of the debate reflects a continued dominant line of thinking referred to as the "deficit model," the assumption that public controversies over science are a product of ignorance and that improving the public's knowledge of the technical facts of science--or filling in the deficit--will make the public view science-related issues as scientists do.

Six years on, we still see these deficit model assumptions at play. In fact, as I write in a forthcoming book chapter, the deficit model remains a cornerstone of the New Atheist ideology and movement.
Well-framed, Matt!

Here's my opinion, which I imagine is not that much different from Susan Greenfield's or that of the "New Atheists."

Most public debates about science issues are not really about science at all. They're about religion, morality, ideology, politics etc.

To the extent that natural science is involved, it is beneficial for everyone to understand the facts and concepts correctly. Nothing is more frustrating than when these debates degenerate into disputes about the science. To that end, scientists have a role to play. When it comes to issues like evolution or global climate change, the idea is that everyone should be on the same playing field when it comes to the science.

Is that too much to ask?

No scientist that I know, thinks that's the end of the story. Getting the science right is just one step in the right direction. Communists & capitalists, atheists & theists, vegetarians & omnivores, and quacks & doctors can all have raging debates about science-related issues as long as they all agree on the correct scientific interpretation of the facts.

Read Matt's blog to see why he opposes that point of view.


  1. I've always felt that listening to Matt Nisbet talk about how to communicate science well was like listening to Joe Lieberman on how to be a good Democrat.

  2. Read Matt's blog

    Do I have to? It's not like he's written anything worth reading in the past.

  3. With friends like these...

    The real problem is the general anti-intellectualistic spirit of our society. Of which Nisbet is guilty too.

    If politics and economics is what dominates people's thinking, it is no surprise that science has little value for them, other than its immediate usefulness as a driver of economic growth. That's why the predominant view of the university's role in society is that its function is to prepare people for the job market. Which is a complete bastardization of what education is supposed to be.

    I don't believe anybody will persuade people to start valuing knowledge for knowledge's sake by using exactly the mechanisms that make sure this is not the case, i.e. playing politics.

  4. The problem with the general public is not that they don't receive the facts from scientists, its that they don't understand or appreciate the value of the scientific method as a mechanism for processing these facts into the most probable answer. In my opinion the objective for scientists should be to promote the scientific method in every type of discussion that involves contentious issues (creationism, anti-vaccination, climate change etc). The most glaring example of this problem is the standard creationist/evolutionist debate. Both speakers get up and list sets of facts (or more accurately 'facts' for the creationist) and the audience (say 50% creationists, 50% science supporters) cheer their 'side' and boo the other.
    Scientists should approach these debates not as a means of introducing Basilosaurus or Tiktaalik into the debate and thus devastating the creationists argument (to a religious audience it never does), but as a means of teaching the religious that science is, at its very roots, a means of giving all ideas an equal chance of possible acceptance (but giving us a way to rank these possibilities in order of likelihood).

  5. Matt Nisbet is a poopy-head.

  6. What I thought was funny about that post was how in 2006 in Missouri, stem cell research advocates bought 30 minute commercials that explained stem cells and how they are used in research... and the proposed measure passed. Scientists can do stem cell research in MO. Its in the state constitution now.

    The 'deficit model' is such a washout. HA!

  7. Re Larry Moran

    One must really admire Prof. Moran for subjecting himself to the horse manure over at Prof. Nisbets' blog.

    Re Tegumai Bopsulai

    In spades.