Matthew C. Nisbet – Communicating about Science and Religion

February 29, 2008

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. His research tracks scientific and environmental controversies, examining the interactions between experts, journalists, and various publics. In this area, Nisbet has published numerous peer-reviewed studies, has written for several leading popular outlets including the Washington Post, the Columbia Journalism Review, and The Scientist, and has been frequently called upon as a commentator by major news organizations. He also contributes the semi-regular “Science and the Media” column for Skeptical Inquirer online, and he tracks current events related to strategic communication at his popular blog Framing Science.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Nisbet highlights the recent AAAS panel he organized titled “Communicating Science in a Religious America.” He details his ideas for the most effective strategies to engage the public about science issues, and debates whether the warfare metaphor of science versus religion undermines science education, and contrasts the approaches of leading scientists like Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson. Nisbet also explores why it might be advantageous for secularist activists to re-prioritize when it comes to working in coalition with the religious around certain issues of concern to the science-education community.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, February 29, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe fee point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, here’s a word from this show’s sponsor, Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

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I’m pleased to have Matt Nisbet back on point of inquiry. He’s a professor at American University and his writings appeared in a number of scholarly journals. Also writes a regular Web column for Skeptical Inquirer on science and the media. He has a popular blog on science blogs, dot com called Framing Science. And he’s here today to talk to me about a panel discussion he just put on at the American Association for the Advancement of Science on communicating science to a religious public. Matt Nisbet, welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

Well, thanks for having me, T.J.. 

Matt, you recently chaired a panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was called Communicating Science in a Religious America. It created a lot of reaction, a lot of buzz in the science education community. The editor of Nature’s Blog Network called it the most interesting session she’s attended at the Triple S.. Let’s start off by you telling me who was on your panel and why did you organize it? I mean, this is stuff you’ve been talking about for a long time. 

But I wanted to do with this panel. I wanted to bring together what I call kind of the invisible middle of perspectives on the relationship between science and religion and how to talk about this relationship, especially around hot button issues such as evolution. And over and over again. 

What we see kind of out there in public discourse is really that the two extreme tail end of the distribution of opinion and messages about the relationship between science and religion are the ones that are by far the most visible. On the one hand, you have basically religious fundamentalists that argue that science undermines moral values and undermines religion. And on the other extreme tail end, you have the rise of the new atheists who argue that, in fact, actually science does undermine the validity of religion and in fact, even respect for religion. But in that kind of vast, invisible middle, you have atheists and you have religious scientists. You have a moderate religious Americans who really don’t see this issue in terms of such stark conflict. 

I want to ask you about this invisible middle. It doesn’t seem to invisible to me. Maybe it’s just because I’m interested in the subject. But you have people like Eugenie Scott and the National Center for Science Education, Stephen Jay Gould, years ago. They don’t seem to be too invisible and they’re more accommodationist perspective. 

Oh, sure. I mean, one of the interesting questions is just what is the empirical reality of this discussion out there in news coverage? And that was one of the topics, in fact, that I presented some the research that I’m working on with graduate students here at American University. I can talk about that more in detail. But what I wanted to do was really focus in on what I see as kind of the consensus view on this relationship between science and religion. That consensus view is really captured recently in the National Academies report update, a report that came out teaching evolution in science class. And that consensus view, of course, is that evolution and religion are not indeed in conflict, and that was really one of the central themes that that report is structured around and how it was actually publicized to the public. And what that does is really break this tyranny of a conflict newspaper that’s out there in the presentation that I gave as part of the panel with graduate students here at American University, we’ve been looking back across 20 years of coverage of science, religion in the press. And what we find is that when science and religion is covered overwhelmingly, it comes under the issue of evolution and creationism and the spikes in coverage are really around creationism or intelligent design trials. In the lead in those stories is really a lead of conflict. It’s really plays on a lot of political reporting and a lot of orientations towards conflict that’s out there among sort of the pundit class. And in fact, actually what we find is historically, when the public’s attention is drawn to the relationship between science and religion, it’s featuring really the two tail ends of the spectrum. It’s either that science undermines religious values and therefore is morally wrong and that the language is really around the metaphor of war. You see that over and over again. In fact, the historic spike in attention to the relationship between science and religion in the national press was in 2005 and in the coverage of 2005, the Dover trial. 

Roughly a quarter of the articles featured the metaphor of war in the headline or the paragraph. 

Let’s put off for now the question as to whether or not science and religion are actually at war. And I want to zero in on your take on that. But let’s talk about this tyranny of the conflict news peg you just mentioned. Even if that is how the media portrays the relationship between science and religion, especially when it comes to creationism and evolution, or if they see religion as being versus science, how is that bad for science? For people to frame it that way? Might it actually make them more accommodationists positions of Eugenie Scott or you call it the consensus view? Doesn’t it make that view actually easier to swallow? Isn’t it actually good for science? 

You know, I think the interesting question here is, what is the goal of communicating about science? Is the goal of communicating about science to say that science undermines religious belief and to persuade people that their religious beliefs are or illogical or is the goal of communicating about science to bring people together around common causes and common good, which make the investment in science education or solving the problem of climate change? And unfortunately, what happens is if the dominant view of the relationship between science and religion is always polarized, it risks really alienating what the National Academies calls kind of the vast, wildly middle of Americans who might be moderately religious while also supportive of science. But in fact, it actually gives a lot of rhetorical fodder to religious fundamentalists who argue giving examples of people like Richard Dawkins. He just as we’ve always been arguing, science equals Athie ism. And this is why you should not support teaching evolution in schools. It really gives them a very strong kind and enhances their message in some ways. And I think this is greatest display in the film that’s coming out this spring. Expelled other features, the comedian and economist Ben Stein. All right. And, you know, he uses the other end of the tail end of perspective very effectively to kind of cast his narrative in this film, which is a pretty intelligent design film. And if you go online to YouTube and you just search expelled, you’ll find some of the trailers for that movie and you can see how the pro idee message is being packaged. It’s not being packaged as really a religious message. It’s really being packaged in terms of what I call a public accountability frame that Ben Stein argues that in big science, there is no room that there, that we didn’t all come from nothingness. And in fact, in big science, there’s no room for religion and it’s a way to kind of bolster this claim. He opens one of his trailers, for example, with a quote from Dawkins, who was interviewed for the film, and that quote from Dawkins. It sets the narrative or the storyline almost perfectly. The quote that the trailer opens, if people think God is interesting, the onus is on them to show that there’s anything there to talk about, otherwise they should just shut up about it. Again, that quote taken out of context helps set kind of the narrative of the frame of reference for unsuspecting viewers. A young audience who may never have heard of the Dover trial mean it may not be that familiar with intelligent design or all the arguments against it, that in fact, actually science is against their values and that science equals atheist. 

In conversations I’ve had with Dawkins, he kind of concedes your point just now. He says he’s the best friend of these creationists. If they take his quotes and run with them. But he seems to suggest that he’s fighting a bigger battle, the battle of maybe against religion than the smaller battle of evolution, you know, defending evolution from creationist activists. You’re saying that scientists and science communicators need not to just speak the truth, but lace it with honey. If they’re going to get science in its outlook adopted by wider audiences. But you’ve addressed this question before with me. What if the implications of science are exactly what Dawkins is suggesting or others? What if it can’t be sugar coated? What if evolution does support Athie ism, as these atheistic scientists claim? Should we pretend otherwise for the sake of the audience? In other words, should we protect the public from the hard truths since we don’t think they can take it, since we don’t think they can handle that? Evolution supports Athie ism. 

Well, I think, you know, the relevant question here is what is the larger goal? Is the larger goal to kind of engage in this argument culture and try to lay bare the fallacies in religious belief and therefore maybe and perhaps most likely just create further polarization? You know, why why should why should atheist scientists or why should atheists just simply add to the level of polarization society instead of reading the differences and worldviews behind and arguing and thinking about it as in terms of despite this difference in world view, as E.O. Wilson argues in his work on climate change in the environment with religious Americans, we share far more in common than in terms of what we might actually differ upon and that we should come together and work around common values to solve these very pressing problems, such as the environment. In fact, there’s actually a history here. If you look back at the work that Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould were trying to do on first the nuclear freeze movement and then in terms of global environmental issues, in the early 1990s, they offered up the same type of call to action, working together with religious leaders, talking about how they might share a difference in world view about life’s origins. But in fact, having common values and common shared outlook in solving these problems. First, the nuclear build up and then the environment. But if we only engage in attack, which I think is really the polarizing message of a lot of the new atheist movement, all we’re doing is further polarizing and alienating a lot of moderate religious Americans who otherwise agree with us on a lot of different issues. And the irony also is that the only one that we’re reaching really are people who already agree with us. We’re intensifying their opinions while also contributing to polarization. I’m not quite sure what the end goal might be. 

Well, it could be argued that Dawkins just to single him out, is reaching new people, that the movement, in quotes the kind of secular pro science movement, the atheist movement also don’t already know about. So there are a lot of people who are coming out in quotes as atheists because of his out campaign that ordinarily would have just minded their own business and lived with this mentality of letting the religionists have their way. He’s mobilizing, activating them in ways that other organizations like Center for Inquiry, Council for Secular Humanism have attempted to do as well. 

So I think it’s a classic example of a social movement in identity politics that Dawkins has been very visible with a message that resonates and activates a lot of people who might be latently skeptical of religion. They certainly see other people like themselves in a very strong and respected figure voicing these criticisms of the religion, and therefore it helps them articulate their own worldview. And it kind of emboldens them to be more forthcoming about their non-religious identity. And that can be very advantageous. But at the same time, if that identity politics simply creates further polarization, then ultimately you have to say, what is the final goal? Is this actually harming the cause of other kind of more real, more and more tangible problems to be able to work across society with diverse groups on such as science education, such as climate change? And I think that the recent election is a really good example of this. And it offers up maybe perhaps a model for how atheists, activists and non-religious Americans can move forward as community leaders and in running for public office. Barack Obama has really touched something in American society. He’s tapped into a fatigue with the amount of polarization in society and his message is not a polarizing message. In fact, he’s different from past African-American candidates. And if he really doesn’t play to the identity politics, he’s carefully avoided that. 

That’s debatable. Some have said he successfully played the race card when he made out the bill. Clinton said his candidacy was a fairy tale when, in fact, Bill Clinton and others were just saying that his portrayal of his position on the Iraq war was a fairy tale. He said to what Tim Russert, couple years after the vote to go into Iraq, that he didn’t know how he would have voted were he in the Senate at the time. Yet that’s not reported. This obviously isn’t about Barack Obama. But your point remains. He has been successful at portraying himself as a candidate who can build bridges and work with people of all perspectives. 

Well, you know, I think the relevant feature there is that Barack Obama is campaigning as the unifying candidate who happens to be black. True. And he’s not campaigning as the African-American candidate. And I think if atheists and non-religious Americans and secular humanist want to make want to contribute to social progress and think about progress politically and in society, it’s a choice of either participating in this argument culture, building a rhetoric that really probably leads to further polarization or alternatively taking the E.O. Wilson, the Carl Sagan model and saying, you know, we share a lot of common values with people who may not actually share our world view. 

Why don’t we come around these common values in our communities and at the national and international level to work to try to solve these collective problems such as poverty, such as the environment, such as climate change. 

And when they do that, what they’re leading with is not their identity necessarily as an atheist, but rather their identity as sharing these other values on these issues with a plurality of Americans or people across society. 

So they become Americans who happen to be atheists rather than atheistic Americans and single issue voters who only think about Athie ism and no other issue. Exactly. Matt, who’s really great at science communication these days. Organizationally or in terms of adopting the kind of methods that you espouse, would you say Templeton Foundation succeeds at its agenda, communicating science? I loved hearing how at the Triple A-s meeting they had the big question, the words, the big question written on Eminem’s they were giving out. They really do frame the science in religion debate as the most important thing we could be dealing with. But they are kind of pushing for this more accommodationist position. 

Well, I’ll come back to the temple consolidation a second, but I think the organization that’s really taking the lead in a lot of different types of innovative strategies and initiatives is the National Academies. And I think the teaching evolution report that they came out with earlier this year, as they talked about the Tripoli panel is is really an innovative approach. It took an audience based approach to figuring out the best way to communicate and structure the material within that report. And instead of relying on personal experience, intuition, they actually conducted focus groups and surveys to figure out first what’s the best way to communicate the value of teaching evolution in schools in somewhat counterintuitively. What they found out was the best way to communicate this, to make the teaching evolution relevant in public schools is to really define it or frame it in terms of medical progress. That evolutionary science is the building block to all sorts of different advances in medicine and also helps us solve common problems or figure out common problems such as bird flu. And when you open up that report, you’ll see that the very first call out box, the example that’s made most salient for readers of that report, is the example of infectious diseases and bird flu. The second example is the contribution to advances in agriculture. And the third example is contribution to advances in an industry. The second thing that they found that was very telling on the public’s mind is that if you reassure the public that for many religious traditions, there’s no conflict between teaching evolution in schools and the religious tradition. That’s another way to effectively communicate why it’s important to teach evolution in schools and why the public should accept and support the teaching of evolution in schools. 

That doesn’t really seem new, though. That’s an argument science educators have used. I think successively for decades now. 

But the novelty of that is they actually went out and they said, OK, we think that this works, let’s find evidence for it. And then and then the novelty there is you know, I have not seen the argument before about this connection with medical progress and advances in medicine, taking thinking about instead of using the example of a polio, taking a much more salient and relevant other example that’s really out there in the news right now that the public can get their mind around. And that’s the bird flu example. Now, when they they put together this report and then they publicized it in the press release, the lead quote is from the president, the Institute of Medicine talking about evolutionary science is the building block for medical advances. Secondly, quote from Francis Iola, the chair of that committee, talking about how there’s no conflict between many religious traditions and the teaching of evolution in schools. 

And he says that as a religious person, but as an esteemed scientist. 

Exactly. Exactly. So that they talk about different religious traditions. They talk about different statements from different churches and denominations, including the pope and the Vatican. And they also have statements from religious scientists in the report. And so the headlines that ran both at The New York Times and in smaller papers in Midwestern and mountain states such as the Salt Lake Tribune was no conflict between science and religion. They created a newspaper that moved beyond the dominant conflict from. And so to come back to the Templeton Foundation, what’s interesting about the Templeton Foundation is that, you know, two decades ago or 15 years ago, they figured out a way to create newspapers around coverage of science and religion. That’s not about conflict. And they did that very simply. They did that by offering up sort of a Nobel Prize money around books or scholars that took on the topic of the relationship between science, religion and Templeton. 

Grants have been given to a lot of atheistic scientists who ended up arguing the Templeton Foundation party line. 

Regardless of what you might think about the Templeton Foundation, if if you look at their communication strategy, it’s an interesting model of how they’ve created newspapers to cover the relationship between science and religion, apart from when it’s normally covered under the context of a very conflict driven creationism trial. All right. 

When you look back across coverage and look at what organizations are featured in coverage of science and religion over time, and you compare mentioned the Templeton Foundation dimensions of either the National Academies or the American Association for Advancing the Science, because the Templeton Foundation has figured out a way to create a very successful newspaper to get their message out there into the press. They’re far more frequently mentioned in coverage of science and religion than either the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science combined. So the exampled into the scientific community is if you care about communicating about science and religion, you have to figure out ways to create newspapers to get your message out there into the press because other organizations like the Templeton Foundation are already doing it. 

And you’re saying they’re succeeding? I mean, after all, you’re almost arguing the Templeton Foundation’s argument that there is no inherent conflict between science and religion. 

Well, you know, I think there is a consensus view on this and a consensus position. 

And did Templeton Foundation play a part in building that consensus view? 

I think if if you take the topic of the teaching of evolution in schools and again, you don’t want to create kind of monolithic statements about all religions and all science, but if you look at the topic of teaching evolution in schools, if you look at the statements from the National Academies, any statements from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the United States, these statements help set a consensus view on on this issue. And the consensus view on this issue is that indeed there is no conflict between teaching evolution in schools and many, many religious traditions in American society. 

You mentioned earlier, and I think it boils down to that this all depends on your goals. Is your goal. Science education and working with diverse publics to advance broader social agenda items like stem cell research or climate change? Or is your goal to increase the lot of people who adhere to a naturalistic world view and your, I think, disagreeing with Dawkins primarily on what should be the priority? 

Yeah, exactly. So what is the goal in terms of the new atheist movement? And I think the goal here clearly is to communicate a viewpoint that that science and religion are in conflict, that in fact, science undermines the validity of religion and even respect for religion. And in the process, take people who already agree with you and intensify their beliefs and embolden them to speak out about what they believe in the process, giving them a lot of talking points. And you see this play out on the blogs now giving a lot of talking points that inherently are very polarizing. There’s a lot of parallels between the effect of the new atheists movement and I think the effect of the conservative media. 

Yeah, conservative talk shows, conservative talk radio and a lot of the talk shows on Fox News. And if you go to the blogs, you really find on the blogs is really kind of just playing out and even more intensified format, really an echo chamber of people who all agree with each other, ranting and raving about the evils of religion. And you really see kind of this polarization taking place in real time. The other goal would be to say is the E.O. Wilson model to say, you know, yes, we have differences in world view. But really, what’s important in society, we have these incredibly pressing problems, such as climate change. Why don’t we come together and talk about our shared values and what we have in common so we can solve these problems rather than just further alienating people and contributing to polarization. 

So if someone’s listening and they’ve bought what Richard Dawkins is selling hook, line and sinker, and they do believe the biggest issue is diminishing the role of religion in society and not just coming together as nonreligious people with our religious brethren to work on these other problems. Well, what what do you have to say to them? Do you. Are you actually calling for people to change their priorities in their activism or or, you know, to not focus so much on religion, instead focus on environmentalism or this social justice quest? Gin’s or, you know, future technology things, stem cell research, cloning. 

We do I think there’s two things is that even if your goal remains to kind of to further promote the sexualization of society. 

I don’t think the argument culture model is the way to achieve that goal. Certainly, it’s been successful in terms of identity politics, recruiting people who are already latently to support you in intensifying their beliefs, etc. But if you actually want to convince people to give up their religious beliefs, it’s not going to be an argument that that wins that battle. Rather, you have to think about religion as an institution and as a belief system and what supports that. And so if you’re an atheist or secular humanist and you wanted to move towards more centralization, the first thing you have to do is reduce insecurity in society and uncertainty. So you have to think about why is it? What are the psychological and sociological drivers or mechanisms that make religion very appealing to a lot of people. And one of those things in American society is really the economic differences and economic insecurity that a lot of people face. The church and a religious belief system really helps people cope with a lot of that economic and social insecurity. And the second thing you need to think about this is something that Dewey argued many, many decades ago. You have to create a rival sense of community for religious people that that replaces the sense of community that they get from church. And if you look at American society and Robert Putnam and Harvard University has done some very good studies on social capital. Right. You see this decline in social capital apart from going to the mall or sporting game. You know, the only real sense of community that many Americans have left to them is to go to church. So you have to create kind of the rival institutions that bring people together and engaging in forms of community and hopefully those forms of the community bring diverse people together. If people are participating community in society today, it’s increasingly more and more homogenous with only people like themselves again, which leads to more polarized world views and people not working on common shared goals to solve problems. So my recommendation would be that atheists and secular humanist become very visible leaders in their local communities at the state and the national level, where, like Barack Obama, they’re a very visible leader who happens to be an atheist. Barack Obama is a very visible leader who happens to be African-American. Talking about how we can come together around common shared values to solve a lot of these pressing problems economic insecurity, climate change, poverty, etc.. 

So basically, man, you’re saying that we need to solve all the world’s problems before we advance atheist and secular humanism, etc.. 

I don’t think that’s quite the way to think about it, but I think ultimately there should be a question about where is this movement going? What what’s. What’s the end game? What’s the goal? A lot of people have been activated. A lot of people have been intensified in their kind of secular world view. In part, it has led to some very extreme attacks on religion that I think are polarizing. But I think it’s time now for kind of a collective town meeting among secular humanist and atheists to say what’s the next step? And I think the E.O. Wilson model very much is the leading model that I think should be explored and talked about is thinking what are the problems that we perceive as a community, as being very, very important. And instead of kind of intensifying and looking inward with our community, moving out into into the country, into our local communities, playing leadership roles, working with the diversity of groups and citizens on these collective problems and in the process indirectly promoting sexualization and a secular humanist worldview, in fact, in line with secular humanist values. 

Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Matthew Nisbet. 

Thank you, T.J.. 

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Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz Point of Inquiries Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.