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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Framing Science

by tristero

There's been a fascinating debate in the science blogosphere over the ideas of Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney, who, put simplistically, advocate reframing important science that, at present the public is little inclined to support. Nisbet/Mooney are not advocating simply better science writing for the public. No one disagrees that that would be a good thing because even though there are many superb writers who can communicate science well to us laypeople, we need more such people. Furthermore, the average writing ability of young scientists is, as it is among most undergraduates and graduates, pathetic. Of course, it needs to be improved. And it can be.

Nisbet and Mooney, however, urge that scientists learn to speak about science through a different frame, a la Lakoff. They urge science writers to make science more "personally meaningful," stating that this will "activate public support much more effectively than blinding people with science," ie, overwhelming the lay public with facts piled upon facts.

I strongly disagree. In fact, I can't imagine a worse tactic than the one Nisbet and Mooney advocate. Briefly, there is no essential problem with the "frame" through which scientists explain their work which, after all, consists of reporting data and drawing inferences and proposing theories and is simply the way science gets done. Rather, they should be proactively encouraged to do what they are already doing to inform the public (just do more of it and do it better).* They don't need a frame makeover. It is the public's perception of what science is that needs to be changed. In my lay explorations of sciences like geology, evolution, experimental psych, and others, I've noticed that often great science cannot be shoehorned into a "personally meaningful" frame. Not only is it pointless to try when that is the case, it is counterproductive as it comes off as phony pandering and a waste of time ("The Higgs Boson: What's In It For Me?"). It is far better to try to get the public to better understand what science is, that it is an extensive inquiry into the properties of the natural world. There is wonder and joy aplenty, for sure, and there are many useful things that come from science. But science is, first and foremost a process of deep inquiry, not a process to attain Nirvana.

And that is inherently A Very Good Thing. Consider the alternative. At present, inquiry, skepticism, logic, data, and empirical procedures for increasing knowledge have been under a relentless assault from the far right. Instead of inquiry, they prize a government acting in secret, rather than skepticism they urge us to trust in faith. Logic is replaced by Cheney's 1 percent doctrine, data on reproductive healthcare is ignored and suppressed. As for empiricism, well... it matters little to a government that places people as mentally disordered as Eric Keroack and Jerry Boykin in positions of power (and apparently, Boykin's still there ).

Anyway, PZ Myers has written well about the problems with changing the frame of science. Here's his latest. He also linked to Greg Laden who also has excellent objections and what follows are some comments on Greg's post, which propose an alternative strategy to Nisbet and Mooney's suggestions. I'd like to make clear, however, that Nisbet and Mooney are people I respectfully disagree with. I find them genuinely thoughtful people, not ideologues. I think they are very wrong, but they are hardly creationists or even apologists to creationists. They understand full well what the dangers are from theocrats. Anyway...

1. As Greg says, Richard Dawkins is doing a great job explaining science. In fact, the world could use more Dawkins'es "right now," not less. As for Dawkins' attitude towards religious belief, his view desperately needs to be heard. Often he is contemptuous where I am less so, and on some things, he's flat out wrong. But the last thing anyone should urge is to stop paying attention to him. Better would be to understand books like The God Delusion as PZ Myers does, as a way of focusing the argument against religion and religious belief. PZ has made it clear that his beef is not so much with what he characterizes, following Einstein, as "Spinoza's God" but rather with a supernatural White-Bearded Guy In The Sky who knows all, can never be wrong, and created everything. Which brings up point number

2. The agitation for "Intelligent Design" creationism is coming from a small handful of political extremists who've cloaked themselves in the trappings of religion (there are also religious fanatics, but mostly, these are political operatives). They've managed to convince a lot of people, including the press, to - dare I say it - frame the issue as one of science versus religion. As disturbing as America's scientific illteracy surely is, I strongly believe that the public's attitude towards religion and science is far more complicated than the poll numbers suggest. The number of people who actually agree with christianists when they learn what they are actually advocating is, I suspect, not that large, or that permanent. I'm suggesting that, at the very least, we need more in-depth polling of the public's knowledge and attitudes. While there sure are many believers in the White Beard, it's unclear whether that necessarily makes them allies of christianists (on this, I part company with PZ and Dawkins, who believe White Beardism can only imply christianism, albeit often disguised. I'm not so sure people are that consistent about it all).

3. Contra Nisbet/Mooney, the real conflict is not science vs religion but with the far right against the rest of us - atheist, Methodist, Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim and even Evangelical. The only way we will change the public discourse on evolution is by making this clear. It is extremists opposed to the wide reality-based community. I'm not advocating a frame change - which in this context rhetorically concedes competing, inflexible ideologies without truth content - so much as understanding how poorly the actual situation has been understood, even - especially - by those who are fighting the christianists.

4. For many reasons, some of which Greg mentions, making science more "religion-friendly" or me-generation friendly as a way of changing attitudes towards science is doomed to failure - How Hox Genes Make You A Better Manager just ain't gonna cut it. If defeating creationists is the goal, it is far more effective simply to expose to the harsh glare of publicity the real agenda of the creeps responsible for hawking the snake oil of "Intelligent Design" creationism. Howard Ahmanson and his Christian Reconstructionist fellow cultists not only earn the contempt of scientists; most non-scientists who learn what the Reconstructionists really believe in and what they are really up to end up revolted.

4. There is no reason under the sun why many scientists, atheists and agnostics, can't participate in a broad coalition with other Americans to fight the extreme right. Their worldview need not be compromised in working with Methodists on the assault on science any more than a Methodist's worldview would be compromised by working with a Catholic or a Catholic with a Buddhist.**

5. Nevertheless, even if people like PZ and Dawkins refuse to participate in such coalitions [UPDATE: PZ Myers speaks about this in comments], they serve an essential role in the fight against the christianists. To claim that some of the most articulate writers of science are ineffective becaused they're antagonistic to religion (which they cheerfully admit they are) flies in the face of their high sales figures. Rather we should be encouraging more of them while, at the same time, working as hard as possible to drive a wedge between the extremists trying to undermine science and the vast majority of the American public - people who would be horrified to learn what christianists really stand for.

[UPDATE: In comments, Coturnix draws our attention to a series of blogposts he wrote in support of Nisbet and Mooney. I read two of his posts. Although he thinks we disagree, I fail to see how in any meaningful way. I agree that spinning is not framing and I agree that framing is inevitable. Nor do either Coturnix or I disagree on the efficacy of the actual frame for science (even if I think that his comment gratuitous which claims pop science needs to be directed to a fifth grade mentality. I would characterize Sean Carroll's magnificent Making of the Fittest as popular science writing. I think Coturnix would agree with me that it also is directed at an audience more sophisticated than the average fifth grader. ) And I think we both agree that science writing, at all technical levels, from the most detailed to the most popular, can be improved.

It is Nisbet and Mooney's specific framing that I object to.They write, "People generally make up their minds by studying more subtle, less rational factors [than a 'data dump' of facts]." Whether or not that is true - and it very well may be - scientists have no choice but to remain rational and fact-based (or at least, aspire to be!). That doesn't mean they have a license to bore their audience, of course, but it does mean that the kind of "personally meaningful" frames - N&M's words - they advocate are doomed to failure. Why? Because, once again, a lot of science is not personally meaningful in that way. Far better to help us laypeople understand what science actually is, what the mechanisms are for evolution as PZ writes, than to cobble up a meaningless personal meaning.

One final point. Incredibly, Nisbet and Mooney accuse Dawkins of framing the evolution debate as science vs. religion. That is an astounding misconception on their part. Science vs. religion is the frame of the christianists - they are not opposed only to evolution but to what they call "methodological naturalism" which simply is a synonym for science! Dawkins has merely adopted the religion vs. science frame for a classic contrarian argumentation style - "you think I'm a bad boy? I'll show you just how bad I can be." Because this is not Dawkins' frame but the christianists, he cannot be accused of deliberately manufacturing it.

And one final, final point. The public CAN be expected to separate Dawkins' evolution from his atheism. We're not all fifth graders out here. ]

*Scientists around the country have started "Science Cafes," giving informal talks at local eateries on, say, the first wednesday of every month. A great idea. Here in my neighborhood, it's standing roon only at the local brasserie when the Columbia scientists speak.

**To those who think there's a far wider ideological gap between all religions and atheism which precludes coalitions, I'd like to remind you of the long history of violent conflict over religious doctrine. And there is also a decent amount of (admittedly more recent) history of accommodation and tolerance religious differences. See, America, Constitution of.