The Dawkins-Myers incident: Sometimes it’s necessary to break the frame

I really didn’t want to get involved with the whole “framing” debate again. For whatever reason (and they are reasons that I’ve failed to understand), the very mention of the word seems to set certain members of the ScienceBlogs collective into rabid fits of vicious invective that leave rational discourse behind. And, yes, I know that by saying that I risk setting myself up as a target of said invective, but I don’t care. It must be the natural cantankerousness that my low level death crud is inducing in me or maybe it’s a lack of judgment brought on by large doses decongestants and antihistamines that have failed to prevent me from hacking a lung out. (Look at it this way, though: Because of my disease-ridden state, I’ll be uncharacteristically brief–somewhat.) Whatever the case, the reason I have not ventured into this whole debate in a very long time is because I tend to lean more towards the Mooney-Nisbet side of the frame, and discussing it around ScienceBlogs has become more trouble than it’s worth, given that both sides appear to have hardened their position to the point where a middle ground, nay reason itself, is hard-pressed to find an entrance. That’s why I hope that Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbett will pay attention to me here when I say to them:

You are wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong about the Dawkins-Myers incident.

I don’t know how to put it more plainly than that. In fact, I was shocked at just how wrong-headed Matt Nisbet‘s take on the matter was. How he can conclude that this incident was “bad for science” makes me wonder if he has a single clue, particularly the part where he tells Dawkins and Myers to shut up and “lay low” about the incident.

As you may recall, Thursday night there was a screening of the neuron-apoptosing argumentum ad Nazium excuse for a movie that is the anti-evolution Expelled! at the Mall of America. (Yes, I do so love that term “neuron-apoptosing” and intend to use it every chance I get when it is appropriate.) As you may further recall, through an incredible bit of serendipity combined with the incompetence of the movie’s producers, there just so happened to be a large atheist conference meeting in Minneapolis this weekend, and, even better, not only did this conference attract P.Z. Myers but it also boasted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as one of its main speakers, both of whom are scourges to creationists, “intelligent design” or otherwise. The producer recognized Myers, and security guards told him that he had to leave immediately. The hilarious part of this entire incident was that Richard Dawkins was not recognized and was allowed into the screening unmolested, and at the end of the movie during the question-and-answer session Dawkins rose to confront Mark Mathis, the producer of Expelled!, to ask him why he had “expelled” Myers, a question to which Mathis provided nothing but a stream of lies to explain.

The objection to all the crowing in the pro-science blogosphere seems to come down to nothing more than two points: (1) Any publicity (even negative publicity) is good publicity (Mooney) and (2) antagonizing the antievolution crowd is a bad idea (Nisbet). Just because a writer of Expelled! is claiming that he wants to give Dawkins and Myers a “group hug” is not a reason to view this incident as anything more than a P.R. debacle for the movie.

Indeed, the reason it’s such a debacle comes down to Mooney and Nisbet’s “framing” hypothesis. Consider: The entire theme or “frame” of the movie is the suppression of alternate viewpoints by a “Darwinian orthodoxy” to the point where evolutionists are equated to Nazis (over and over and over again) or Stalin. The movie is nothing more than a long catalog of alleged incidents where ID “scholars” have been “repressed” (help, help, I’m being repressed!) by those evil “Darwinists.” To those unfamiliar with the longstanding religious campaign to sneak the teaching of creationism (ID or otherwise) into science classes in public schools or, failing that, at least to deemphasize or eliminate the teaching of evolution in public schools, it’s a “frame” (albeit a dishonest and deceptive one) that has the potential to be compelling to Americans, particularly the religious, even if the movie is an inept piece of crap, as Richard Dawkins states. It plays to the natural American love of the underdog and desire to see “all sides” represented, at least when it is not clear to them that one side is pseudoscientific nonsense. It’s a winning “frame.”

In one fell swoop, the producers handed on a silver platter the perfect weapon to combat that frame by “expelling” Myers. In a single, misguidedly stupid act of fearful vindictiveness, they handed the “frame” of defending intellectual freedom back to the pro-evolution side. By “expelling” Myers and then dissembling and lying about it, the producers demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are nothing more than hypocrites, pure and simple, looking for an angle to push creationism. This becomes glaringly obvious particularly when one couples this “expulsion” of Myers with the producers’ prior actions of trying to hold screenings for audiences made up of only the religious who do not believe in evolution and are sympathetic to ID creationism and the deceptive and disingenuous way that the producers obtained interviews with Dawkins and Myers. And don’t even get me started on how Mathis has apparently used plants in audiences of these screenings to lob softball questions at him. Because I’ve in general been sympathetic to his viewpoint, I hope Mooney will pay close attention (read my lips even, although my namesake has no lips) while I quote his words right back at him:

Why is that so hard to understand?


Why is our side so clueless? I have no idea, but I find it eternally frustrating.

Or, as Dawkins himself put it:

Now, to the Good Friday Fiasco itself, Mathis’ extraordinary and costly lapse of judgment. Just think about it. His entire film is devoted to the notion that American scientists are being hounded and expelled from their jobs because of opinions that they hold. The film works hard at pressing (no, belabouring with a sledgehammer) all the favourite hot buttons of free speech, freedom of thought, the right of dissent, the right to be heard, the right to discuss issues rather than suppress argument. These are the topics that the film sets out to raise, with particular reference to evolution and ‘intelligent design’ (wittily described by someone as creationism in a cheap tuxedo). In the course of this film, Mathis tricked a number of scientists, including PZ Myers and me, into taking prominent parts in the film, and both of us are handsomely thanked in the closing credits.

Seemingly oblivious to the irony, Mathis instructed some uniformed goon to evict Myers while he was standing in line with his family to enter the theatre, and threaten him with arrest if he didn’t immediately leave the premises. Did it not occur to Mathis — what would occur any normally polite and reasonable person — that Myers, having played a leading role in the film, might have been welcomed as an honoured guest to watch it? Or, more cynically, did he not know that PZ is one of the country’s most popular bloggers, with a notoriously caustic wit, perfectly placed to set the whole internet roaring with delighted and mocking laughter?

Far worse is Nisbet’s breathtakingly inane statement (yes, my use of that term is intentional):

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.

In other words, not only is he likening Myers and Dawkins to a clueless Obama campaign flak who went beyond what she should have been saying or a clueless Clinton campaign hack who made what is arguably a racist statement about Barack Obama and was forced to back down and resign from the Clinton campaign, but he’s telling Myers and Dawkins to shut up and let the “professionals” (like him, presumably) deal with the situation. I hope that Nisbett will pay close attention when I respond to him here, given that I have generally come down on his side of the framing issue more than is good for my mental health around the ScienceBlogs collective:


It is true that there are times when Myers’ and Dawkins’ tendency to conflate science with atheism has grated on my nerves–a lot. OK, more than a lot. Indeed, that’s no doubt why the producers chose them to be interviewed for Expelled!; they were clearly hoping for some juicy sound bites to use. However, that’s not what’s going on with this incident. Why can’t Mooney and Nisbett understand that? No, what’s going on here is a perfect opportunity to use their entire concept of framing in a way that would not have otherwise been possible, thanks to the incompetence of the producers of Expelled!. We can use this incident to shatter the creationist frame for this one movie. Failure to take advantage of such a golden opportunity would be more than clueless. It would be criminal.

Why is that so hard to understand?

But, then, what do I know? I’m just a blogger with the walking death crud who was in a cranky mood last night when he wrote this and probably perfect evidence that it’s not a good idea to blog when ill. I’m also someone who was on Mooney’s and Nisbett’s side, more or less, and may be again. Unfortunately, even as one who tends to think that the nastiness directed at the very concept of framing by Myers and others in the blogosphere is all too often puzzlingly overblown and knee-jerk to the point of self-parody, I’m starting to find it very hard to take Nisbet and Mooney seriously any more so when they can’t even recognize a beautiful example of an opportunity to use their very own thesis in the cause of science.