The Sciences

Lessons from Dawkins vs. deGrasse Tyson

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJul 6, 2009 1:02 PM


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Over at Coyne's blog, a commenter named Peter Beattie advances a point that is so incredibly important, I want to draw more attention to it:

Jerry, this may be a tangential point, but do you think that perhaps we have been remiss in taking the state of mind of religious believers seriously? I’m thinking of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s point at Beyond Belief ‘06, directed at Richard Dawkins, about a sensitivity towards the state of mind of the audience that is needed, together with facts, to create impact. Do you think there is a legitimate field there for us to plough that might at least take the edge off the confrontational character of exposure to the facts?

Tangential?Mr. Beattie, your point is anything but tangential. Indeed, it is fundamental to the cause of trying to create a more science-friendly society than the one we now live in. What good is trying to communicate about science and reason if you can't get non-scientific audiences to listen to you? Or as Jerry Coyne himself lamented in his New Republic article:

...we biologists are preparing to fan out across the land, giving talks and attending a multitude of DarwinFests. The melancholy part is that we will be speaking more to other scientists than to the American public.

Melancholy indeed. But how long do we have to keep making the same mistake, of trying to defend science and reason in a manner that we ourselves find persuasive, but that does not appeal to non-scientific audiences or even grasp where they are coming from? In the debate we are having here about science, religion, and accommodationism, I am clearly on deGrasse Tyson's side, and a lot of other people are clearly on Dawkins'. As you can see from the 2006 video cited by Beattie above, both are very persuasive (within our pro-science circle, anyways). But I think that deGrasse Tyson's very penetrating question to Dawkins ultimately demands far more than the joking reply that you see here--funny though it is.

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