It does make a difference

What is it about this kind of thing that is so irritating? Why does it activate all my resistance equipment? Why does it make me snarl?

If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do better than Richard Dawkins…Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism.

Well there’s one reason right there – that breezy command to leave aside the validity question in order to focus on the important bit, which is what the public cannot be expected (by whom? according to whom?) to differentiate between. I hate that kind of thing; it’s a good thorough example of the kind of thing I hate. First the casual bracketing of the validity question, as if it doesn’t matter. But, excuse me, it does matter. If the argument is over the colour of Tinkerbell’s socks or what is Badger’s favourite ice cream, then fine, bracket it; but if it’s over something that matters, it does make a difference whether or not there is good reason to think it is true. If it’s about Tinkerbell’s socks it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks or says about it, but if it’s about the nature of the world and where it came from and what we can know about it and how we can know and if we can know – then it does matter what everyone thinks and says about it, and it’s asking a lot to say ‘leave it aside for a moment’ in order to tell atheists to shut up about it because ‘the public’ won’t understand. That’s one irritation-source; another is that stupid ‘the fact remains,’ which implies that the public’s putative incapacity is supposed to trump questions of truth. The article just starts from that patronizing manipulative ignorance-mongering assumption and goes on from there. That’s a bad place to start and a bad place to go on from. I’m sick to death of this babying coddling coaxing minimalization of public discourse, and its accompanying attempts to make everyone either shut up or talk baby talk. I hate all this creepy instrumentalism – it’s all method and no end product.

More than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, after all, and many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality.

So what? What if we are not primarily focused on what 80 percent of anyone believes, what if we are simply more interested in doing our best to get at and tell the truth, instead? What if we don’t think majority opinion should determine what people think and say and write? What if not everything is an electoral campaign? Why does that possibility not seem to occur to Nisbet and Mooney?

Scientists have traditionally communicated with the rest of us by inundating the public with facts; but data dumps often don’t work. People generally make up their minds by studying more subtle, less rational factors. In 2000 Americans didn’t pore over explanations of President Bush’s policies; they asked whether he was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with.

Yes – and? They were very, very stupid to do that, those of them who did (saying ‘Americans’ did that as if we all did is a tad sloppy, and feeds the tendency of people outside the US to say Americans elected Bush when some of us in fact didn’t vote for the guy) – they were very very stupid to do that and the fact that they did that is not a reason to join them in being stupid, so what’s the point of saying it? Some Americans asked whether Bush was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with, therefore Dawkins should shut up about atheism? It doesn’t follow. And even if it did follow, it would be a creepy pandering anti-rational ploy, and I say the hell with it.

So in today’s America, like it or not, those seeking a broader public acceptance of science must rethink their strategies for conveying knowledge…And the Dawkins-inspired “science vs. religion” way of viewing things alienates those with strong religious convictions. Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public’s beliefs? Can’t science and religion just get along? A “science and religion coexistence” message conveyed by church leaders or by scientists who have reconciled the two in their own lives might convince even many devout Christians that evolution is no real threat to faith.

Maybe it would, but if part of your concern is in fact with belief and thinking themselves, then that’s beside the point. If you think religion tends to interfere with the ability of believers to think rationally about many subjects, then asking if science and religion can’t just get along is obtuse. ‘Can’t science and credulity just get along?’ Well, no, and that’s the point, so what’s with the pretense that it’s just a side issue which can easily be ditched?

That’s at least some of what is so irritating.

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