Sunday, March 23, 2008

Matt Nisbet is a dishonest scumbag

For those of you who haven't read my previous posting on Matt Nisbet, he's been very loud about the idea that proponents of evolution should present science as compatible with religion. This post was sparked by two items of interest:

First is this interview with Nisbet, which appeared on CFI's podcast Point of Inquiry. The key bit comes, I think, around the 12 minute mark, where interviewer D. J. Grothe asks about the possibility that the views Nisbet is promoting on science and religion are wrong. What did Nisbet do in response? He ignored the question, and talked about strategy, heavily implying that he doesn't think the truth matters.

Second is Nisbet going ballistic over this video clip:

You know what I see there? A bunch of atheists giving a cool-headed, clear explanation of their views. If Nisbet is opposed to this, he's basically saying he doesn't even want people who disagree with him to talk--honest debate is off the table. Nisbet's rationales are laughable--they "implicitly claim to speak for science"? Whenever someone claims about their opponents "implicit" position, it's a good warning sign they're using a lame excuse to avoid having to deal with what their opponents actually say. Nisbet also claims their views do not "stand up to mounds of empirical evidence about the complex relationship between science literacy and public perceptions," a bizarre statement given that Myers, Dawkins, et. al. are talking about other subjects entirely (even according to Nisbet's own account of the positions that supposedly do not so stand up!)

Nisbet also lies in the most obvious way possible about what he's doing. He presents himself as merely saying "Let others play the role of communicator," when he's loudly insisting on deciding what our views should be and not just how to communicate them. He also claims "This is not about censoring your ideas and positions, but rather being smart, strategic, tactical, and ultimately effective in promoting science rather than your own personal ideology, books, or blog." It's not about censoring anybody in so far as Nisbet doesn't have the power to throw his opponents in jail (no matter how badly he may want to), but this is plainly a matter of insisting that his opponents just SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP rather than merely being smart. (Jason Rosenhouse makes this same point; though I consciously avoided reading what he had to say until I had gotten out the first draft of this post.)

Nisbet's actions are especially disturbing, because he isn't a mere hack popularizer, he's someone who has the ear of a lot of scientists, to the extent that he managed to put together a very one-sided panel at an AAAS meeting to promote his views. He's cultivating a contempt for truth among scientists, members of humanity's best-cultivated institution for seeking the truth, and people who, so long as they understand it's worth their while, can do wonder's for improving the public's understanding of the world. Though in some ways less sleazy, this aspect makes me feel that Nisbet's work corrupting our intellectual life is every bit as destructive as what Evangelical apologists like William Lane Craig do.

In suggesting Nisbet is dishonest, I make one caveat: I've spent enough time listening to communications people to understand that they spend the vast majority of their time trying to make themselves and their clients look good, and rarely stop to worry about whether what they're saying is true. It's possible that Nisbet has simply lost the ability to consider that what he's saying might be false. If he's lost all concept of falsehood, then he can't technically lie in the sense of knowingly uttering a falsehood, but it also means he is incapable of honesty, in a philosophical la la land beyond either.

If Nisbet sees this and thinks I'm being unfair to him, I have a few questions for him: if he saw good reason to think the views he promotes are false, would he stop promoting them? Will he promise to actually engage with his opponents' ideas, rather than declaring it's harmful to even express them? And just for good measure: did science influence him in any way at all in adopting the views on religion that Nisbet holds? (After all, Nisbet did once conceed that he mostly agrees with Dawkins' worldview.)

PS: Chris Mooney is also a fool. Seriously, if we followed his advice, we'd allow all the charlatans in the world to go unopposed, for fear of giving them attention.

PPS: PZ remains unimpressed by Nisbet. He also says there's supposed to be a review by Dawkins of Expelled, the movie that sparked this round of the fight, but the link is currently not working.


The Inoculated Mind said...

I'm just sitting here agape at this debate, Chris. I want to understand "Framing" for my own field, but each time the Atheists-shut-up "frame" comes up it turns me off.

kldickson said...

This is the same guy you called a miserable worm, right?

Accurate assessment .

theframeproblem said...


Well done, sir. A few months ago I did a post at my blog The Frame Problem on Lying for Science--- how those who are trying to frame science as being compatible with religion are lying in order to make fervently religious people less resistant to science. Nisbet posted on a comment on my post, citing the National Academies publication on evolution, religion and science, saying that the NAs have said that religion and science are compatible, and then asking me if I thought that they were lying to Americans. I responded in a new post saying: Yes, yes I do. I pointed out that I don't think it was a malicious lie. But it is a lie. He never replied...

You can see the back-and-forth here (just click the link to the previous post to see where it all began):

Hallq said...

Re: frameproblem

I really wouldn't accuse the NA is lying on those grounds alone. Some people in there may be being dishonest, but some may really believe what they're saying (Francis Collins probably believes what he says about religion and science, no matter how wrong he is). What's wrong with Nisbet is that he's indicated he doesn't really care whether the things he said are true.

Katie Kish said...

oh please. this is yet another "OMG someone is speaking out against PZ and Dawkins we must all go apeshit and hadcore criticize nisbet and mooney who aren't actually assholes and want science to be a part of the general public!!!!!!! we must protect our jerks PZ and Dawkins!!!!"

seriously. this happens like once every 6 months. Matt and Chris simply see things differently and PZ and Dawkins don't like it when people see things differently - and because they're more "popular" their entire entourage comes blogging to their rescues. It would be better for science if the two of them would step down for a bit.

Hallq said...

I don't understand what you're trying to say, Katie. PZ and Nisbet have been criticizing each other, putting forth what are supposed to be substantial criticisms, the criticisms either make sense or they don't, and I've been commenting on this. What's your objection?

Katie Kish said...

everyone elses' blind following

Hallq said...


I've contributed things to this debate--do you actually have an objection to what I've said that isn't an ad hominem?