PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins: a lesson in ‘framing’

The blogs are all abuzz with a recent kerfuffle amongst PZ Myers of Pharyngula and Matt Nisbet of Framing Science. For those who haven’t been following it, a brief summary follows: PZ was ‘expelled’ from the soon-to-be-released creationist claptrap Expelled. The irony of someone being barred from a movie that pretends that creationists suffer such treatment was lost on no one, and the story has been significant news over the past few days, appearing in The New York Times and even appearing briefly on the news bar at the IMDB! A further irony is the fact that Richard Dawkins, even more prominent atheist and biologist, went right in to see the show.

Matt Nisbet started the kerfuffle (it’s a word – look it up – I have no idea how I knew it) by suggesting that Myers and Dawkins are very poor spokespeople in the battle between creationists and scientists, presumably because they’re unappealing atheists, and that they should be quiet. To quote,

If Dawkins and PZ really care about countering the message of The Expelled camp, they need to play the role of Samantha Power, Geraldine Ferraro and so many other political operatives who through misstatements and polarizing rhetoric have ended up being liabilities to the causes and campaigns that they support. Lay low and let others do the talking.

A lot of people have responded to this attack, including PZ himself and Mark Chu-Carroll at Good Math, Bad Math. They and others have already done an excellent job of defending Myers and Dawkins, but I felt like I had to weigh in (maybe because I’ve been sitting in airports and airplanes for six hours).

The issue raised is as follows: what is the best course of action, politically, for science? Will science look better if its more ‘extreme’ and outspoken members keep quiet, or is it best to let them speak out freely? The new term for this political strategizing is ‘framing’.

My take is that they should be allowed to say whatever the hell they want, and that there’s even a lesson in such cases that we could teach the general public about science: science is about the science, not about cordiality, niceness, or popularity contests. I’ve met plenty of scientists that I personally didn’t like very much, but that didn’t – and shouldn’t – make any difference as to how I look at their science. Conversely, I’ve been publicly raked over the coals at meetings (typically by old-school Russian scientists – bless their hearts) and didn’t enjoy it, but in the end my discomfort mattered little compared to the correctness (or lack thereof) of their criticisms.

If we want a frame for science in the ‘Expelled affair’, how’s this: Science isn’t about who we like or don’t like, it’s about ideas and observations.  The ‘Expelled’ producers (and creationists in general) have no ideas and no observations of their own, so they resort to attacks on people.

That’s my two cents for the evening; I’m going to bed…

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