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Since the dawn of time

Two hundred years after Darwin’s birth, scientists still can’t agree on whether evolution and religi

It has been the year of evolution. To coincide with the anniversaries of both Darwin's birth and the publication of On the Origin of Species, Richard Dawkins published The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution. And Jerry Coyne (an eminent evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago) wrote Why Evolution Is True. Yet, amid the ongoing celebrations, a new storm has erupted. This is not the usual battle between creationist fundamentalists and evolutionists. The latest ruckus has broken out among scientists and philosophers who accept evolutionary theory as the explanation for the emergence of life's diversity.

Where they differ is on the public communication of science and evolution. Dawkins in particular is being rebuked for doing more harm than good to the public face of science. The basic claim - spelled out by the journalist Chris Mooney and the biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book Unscientific America, published in June - is that Dawkins presents an unnecessarily divisive choice: you can accept evolution and a scientific world-view more broadly, and therefore reject religion, or cling to religion and sacrifice scientific understanding.

This strategy, critics argue, alienates moderate religious people who might otherwise be receptive to scientific theory. Faced with a mutually exclusive choice between their private faith and the objective world-view of science, moderates will turn away from the latter. Science loses out.
It's not just Dawkins. Coyne and all the "new atheists" (including the Darwinian philosopher Daniel Dennett, the neuroscientist Sam Harris and the cultural commentator Christopher Hitchens) are charged with alienating people from science. Lining up against them is a group of "accommodationists", including Mooney, an atheist, and Kirshenbaum, an agnostic, who believe that evolution and religion can live happily side by side - at least under an entente cordiale, if not in a mutually supportive relationship.

Dawkins calls accommodationism "the Neville Chamberlain school" of evolution, and its proponents the appeasement lobby. Yet it is the official line of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the US National Academy of Sciences and the National Centre for Science Education, which is dedicated to promoting the teaching of evolution in American school curriculums.

Appeasement lobby

The accommodationist critique has at least two strands. One is the increasingly common criticism that the new atheists are excessively mean to people of faith, "militant" in tone, and iro­nically fundamentalist in their non-belief. The accommodationist philosopher Barbara Forrest chastises the new atheists for combining rudeness with arrogance and closed-mindedness. (Like Mooney and Kirshenbaum, Forrest is no friend of creationism; she was a critical witness at a 2005 trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, in which parents blocked the introduction of "intelligent design" theory into state-school curriculums - see "Gorilla warfare" below.)

Forrest argues that new atheists should respect the personal nature of faith, and nurture a sense of humility by recognising that scientific evidence does not rule out existence of the divine. They should accept that there is a wide range of views, she says, and stop insisting that everyone follow the "one true way" of atheism. Failing to do so only turns people off in droves.

Yet it seems unlikely that the new atheists have been this damaging. They have been an identifiable group and social force for five years only - starting with Harris's The End of Faith in 2004, which was followed by Dawkins's The God Delusion in 2006. More significantly, polls indicate that the proportion of the US public that subscribes to a creationist account of human origins has remained relatively constant for the past 25 years, hovering around 45 per cent. The previous era, which advocated greater respect for religion, does not seem to have won over hearts or minds. So who is to say that taking the opposite approach will drive anyone away?

The second thread of the accommodationist argument is that science, in fact, need not be inimical to religious faith. Eminent scientists from Galileo to Newton have found little trouble reconciling their personal faith with a scientific world-view. Perhaps the most prominent contemporary example is the geneticist Francis Collins, who ran the American arm of the Human Genome Project and was recently appointed head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biggest funder of biomedical research in the US. Collins is also an evangelical Christian who speaks publicly about his faith and its relation to science. Exemplars of this sort show that a single human mind can hold two divergent world-views simultaneously, or at least accept the legitimacy of two very different ways of gaining knowledge about the world.

An interventionist God

But there is another side to this story. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and an atheist, has voiced grave misgivings over Collins's appointment - not just because of his religious beliefs, but because of his "public advocacy" that "atheistic materialism" must be resisted. Collins believes in an interventionist God who, in his own words, "gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul".

Although, in principle, religious beliefs need not affect one's day-to-day science, in practice, they might. Take research on the foundations of human sociality and ethics, currently one of the hottest areas in behavioural science. Researchers are probing these questions with evolutionary theory, comparative primate studies and neurobiology, among other approaches, but no one invokes non-natural or non-material explanations. Are these instances of atheistic materialism to be resisted?

How would Collins's views affect the priority he might give to funding such research, if his prime belief is that ethics and the moral law are God-given? It is perfectly possible that he would accept the materialistic explanation of morality, and just add that everything was set up by God in such a way that naturalistic processes were bound to produce a big-brained moral species. Time will tell if, and how, NIH funding changes under his leadership. It would be unfair to prejudge the case.

In the meantime, there is little reason to suppose that the world will reach any meaningful consensus on the question of how best to engage the public with science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular. Perhaps, in true Darwinian fashion, those arguments and ideas best adapted to the modern world will prevail. In an era of resurgent religion, it is far from clear which approach this will be.

“Unscientific America" by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum is published by Basic Books (£15.99)

Dan Jones's writing on science has appeared in Nature and New Scientist magazines

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.