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From American Association for the Advancement of Science, Condescension Disguised as “Dialogue”


A colleague recently showed me a pamphlet from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). It is entitled “Scientists in Civic Life: Facilitating Dialogue-Based Communication,” and is a joint project of the AAAS’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion and the group’s Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology.

The pamphlet was mainly written by Matthew Nisbet, Professor of Communication, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, who co-authored with Chris Mooney the infamous Dover-era Columbia Journalism Review article, “Undoing Darwin.” They unashamedly argued that the media should essentially abandon traditional journalistic standards of balanced coverage when reporting on ID, so that it’s always presented unfavorably. If you’re thinking that portends a biased, agenda-driven approach to the pamphlet, you are quite right. 

In short, the AAAS seeks to frame the interaction of religion and science. Their proposal is problematic. 

A Superior Breed

First, it artificially divides scientists from everyone else. The document is written as if scientists were a separate, superior breed from whom lowly Americans could gain great insight, if the latter would only listen up. I’ve set important sentences in bold.

Scientists in the U.S. today enjoy almost unrivaled communication capital. They are respected and admired by the great majority of Americans. Their work is considered essential to society, and their expertise is perceived as authoritative and impartial. Motivated by the intellectual excitement they derive from their work, most scientists are committed to sharing scientific insights with the public…

Yet on some issues, members of the public may discount or reject the expert input of scientists. This often occurs when scientific knowledge or innovations raise difficult social and political questions, and/or when they challenge deeply held values, beliefs or worldviews…

This booklet provides an overview of relevant research, strategies, and examples that scientists can draw on for participating in fruitful dialogue about science and society, bringing fellow scientists and people of diverse backgrounds together to spend time talking to each other, contributing to mutual appreciation and understanding of science and technology, and building new relationships. Fostering constructive public conversations about science and society can strengthen democratic processes, improve science literacy, improve decision-making, promote trust and credibility in scientific findings, provide opportunities to explore scientific issues from diverse perspectives, and encourage broad collaboration for identifying and solving problems.

In Need of Instruction

At the same time, the pamphlet treats “people of faith” as a problematic group in need of “dialogue-based efforts” and “mutual respect” by which, it’s hard to avoid suspecting, the AAAS means that religious people would benefit from (delicate) instruction.

In facilitating productive dialogue about science topics that intersect with fair and religion, all scientists have a role to play. Regardless of their personal beliefs, when engaging in conversations with faith communities, scientists can connect around common values and interests on topics such as health, education, sustainability, and food security….Moreover, though some areas of scientific inquiry such as evolution, human sexuality, or biomedical research may generate disagreements, many other areas of science do not. Even in the face of such disagreements, dialogue-based efforts can help break down stereotypes between scientists and people of faith, cultivating mutual respect and personal relationships.

Troublesome Treatment of Evolution

Condescension is one thing. Misleading readers is another. I find the treatment of evolution particularly troublesome. The pamphlet promotes the assumption that all critique of evolutionary theory stems from religion — rather than scientific evidence and concrete logical reasoning. First, the pamphlet cites the Clergy Letter Project — which is basically a letter of support for evolution signed by numerous faith leaders. Then, it talks about scientist Francis Collins, who founded BioLogos, an organization that promotes “evolutionary creationism.” No mention is made of scientists who, on the basis of their research, disagree with the key claims of evolution. There are many such scientists!

Furthermore, they cite surveys to try to show that religion and doubting evolution are linked. They do not even allude to the possible existence of scientific information regarding evolution’s scientific flaws. The pamphlet states, “Rather than measuring scientific knowledge, studies show that questions about evolution tend to measure a commitment to a specific religious tradition or outlook.” Well, what if it’s the other way around? What if people are drawn closer to religion because of scientific and philosophical criticism of evolution? Or what if opposition to religion fuels support for evolution? These possibilities are not even considered.

The booklet’s title itself is weaselly: “Scientists in Civic Life: Facilitating Dialogue-Based Communication.” Come one, this is not about “dialogue,” or “dialogue-based communication.” It’s about leading the errant to (what is regarded as) the certain truth. Honestly, the scientific establishment would do better by sticking to science.

Photo credit: Hans Reniers via Unsplash.