Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Michael S.Evans's "Seeking Good Debate"

Michael S.Evans is a Neukom Fellow at the Neukom Institute for Computational Science, Dartmouth College. He received a PhD in sociology from the Science Studies Program, University of California, San Diego.

Evans applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Seeking Good Debate: Religion, Science, and Conflict in American Public Life, and reported the following:
Religion and science sometimes conflict in public life. But mostly they don't. What explanation accounts for both of these situations? Turns out it's difficult to answer this question by only looking at instances of conflict between science and religion. Despite a few prominent examples like human origins or stem cell research, conflicts between religion and science are rare in public life.

Instead, Seeking Good Debate treats this question about religion and science as a question about how public debate works. Drawing on theory from science and technology studies, Seeking Good Debate shows that elites who make arguments in mass media are usually just seeking credibility for themselves, not trying to engage with others. Page 99 discusses this point:
But the concept of credibility is even more useful for explaining the instances when conflict does not occur. Not all attempts to gain credibility are contests between individuals. The pursuit of credibility, even in the public sphere, does not actually require engagement with an opponent. Being seen as important and as advancing your agenda can increase your legitimacy and attract supporters, even if you never defeat an opponent in single (discursive) combat. In the debates considered in this study, this is the far more common situation between religion and science. Conflict is rare. But many representatives, especially the most visible ones, are pursuing public credibility without engaging in conflict, or even engaging at all.
Why is this important? As earlier chapters show, Americans think that good debate means engaging in open, ongoing debate. So when the most prominent voices on an issue do not engage with each other, and instead trumpet their own arguments in public, Americans see them as undermining good debate. The result is that ordinary Americans see those prominent elites as sources of conflict, even though those elites often aren't even speaking to each other.

The rest of Seeking Good Debate shows how this situation affects religion and science in particular. When those leading voices are identifiable as religion or science representatives, people see religion and science as being in conflict, not because elites are engaged in contentious interactions, but because these public representatives of science and religion are seen as undermining good debate. So, despite all the efforts to bring science and religion into dialogue or harmony, the deeper conflict over good debate remains.
Learn more about Seeking Good Debate at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue