Field of Science

The Great Frame debate

A few weeks ago Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet published a policy forum article in Science, a major scientific journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) (Framing science). The result of this essay has been an ongoing discussion between those who agree with Nisbet and Mooney and those who think they are over-the-top, at the best, and hurting the cause of science, at worst. Basically, the point of contention is around the idea that Nisbet and Monney’s want atheist scientists need to sit down, shut up, and let the god fearing scientists talk to the public. I wrote at length in response to a blog Mooney wrote, which is essentially an elementary school whine about his name being used poorly here. I decided to post my response here, albeit with additional comments to maintain some coherence.

The "framing" debate will not die. So at least I am not kicking a dead horse here. My take on this debate is that Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet are not hearing what their critics are saying. First, most (all even) of the critics have clearly and repeatedly stated that many scientists could be better communicators to the general public (which is what I think was the main point of their policy forum). Others have pointed out that many scientists actually are good communicators since we often teach at colleges at various levels, but also talk at high schools and to younger audiences at various times, although improvements are always possible and warranted.

The issue leading to the backlash is in their attacks on atheism and science in a religious society. In recent history Debbie Schussel and other right-wing, dare I say, nut jobs are telling atheists to shut up and keep out of sight. Now Mooney and Nisbet are essentially taking up that rallying cry. They may disagree, but I think if you read their Science piece, Washington Post Op/Ed, and blog comments here, and here that conclusion becomes clear. I guess that approach worked in the past. Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and Larry Moran, all vocal atheist scientists who are the target of Mooney and Nisbet, could be subject to house arrest, without internet hook-up of course, until the American theocracy no longer deems evolution a threat....say the year 2250? Worked for Galileo.

Will atheists like Dawkins etc. make the thin-skinned religious people walk away from the table as warned by Mooney and Nisbet? Maybe, but I would argue that the vitriol spewing members of the other side, Pat Robertson comes to mind, should be pushing them right back to the table for the same reasons. I mean if these people actually are reachable, then all the "damage" Dawkins does by insulting their religion should be offset by the "damage" caused by the other side insulting their intelligence. I rather doubt a significant portion of the religious community in this country actually expected god to throw a meteor at Pennsylvania after the Dover trial, despite Pat Robertson’s orgasmic (try to find it, you’ll see) predictions. By the way, it wasn't Dawkins et al that caused the Dover trial, nor was it an atheist that caused the Scopes trial. It troubles me greatly, when these partners in scientific advancement suggest that these cultural divides are caused by or due to the likes of Dawkins and company.

They want to keep religion out of the debate with science. Fine, I agree, lets do that. Of course scientists did not bring religion into the evolution debate, which is the core matter Dawkins et al are dealing with. It was not a scientist saying: look god is dead, vive l'evolution. It was the religious saying: if evolution, then god is dead. This is the same argument used to discourage the acceptance of the sun as the center of the solar system or that the fossil record is flawed because animals cannot be extinct. So they bought it up, not us. Should we ignore it and just go for a better PR campaign? Maybe, but I don't like our better quality of life; them: eternal damnation.

I guess I see this culture war as a pendulum. They have their pit-bulls and we have our german shepherds, and there are all the non-aggressive dogs in the middle. If Dawkins et al shut up, as some would like, then the pendulum automatically swings more towards their side. And damnit, we have facts on our side. Mooney and Nisbet confuse facts with “data dumps”. However, that is just a piss poor stereotype, ie strawman, which allows them to group together and discount scientists as communicators with a stroke.

In short, albeit long at this point, making sure we communicate the benefit of science to individuals and society and communicate the risks to individuals and society if we ignore science is a good use of the framing concept that I doubt anyone would argue with. However, in the evolution debate all bets are off, because we lost that "frame" decades ago. In fact, I doubt our side was ever in the game in America. So at this point evolution is ingrained in the American psyche as a religious issue. We do not need to discuss religion or tread on it harshly. However, when religion says us versus them, I will then I agree (what other choice do I have?), pick up the gauntlet and slap them in the face with it.

I really wonder what advice Mooney and Nisbet would give to Copernicus, Galileo, Scopes, etc. "Ok, we agree that what you say is correct, but you may irritate important people or even break the law. How would that look to the public, seeing you arrested or worse? How about you write some nice letters to the cardinals, pope, legislature explaining things to them, without scaring their beliefs in any way. Then, once they agree, you can talk about the solar system or teach evolutionary theory. However, until then please play nice and don't do anything to ruffle any feathers. Sincerely your partners in scientific advancement."

Post-script: In case you were wondering german shepherds are much smarter, better, loyal, useful, and allaround way cooler than pit bulls.

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