Field of Science

Framers vs Educators

The other night (Friday), I was fortunate enough to attend the Bell Museum's Speaking Science 2.0. The speakers discussed the issue of framing science, which I have commented on and posted numerous responses on other blogs. On the pro-framing side was Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet, the two authors of a policy forum on Framing science in the journal Science a few months ago. On the pro-education side was PZ Myers and Greg Layden, two scientists who have been critical of the framer's message.

The discussion, while advertised as a cage fight, was much more sedate. (Needless to say I would have taped Smackdown if I had known how pleasent this forum would be.) The framers took the stage first and gave a well-oiled presentation outlining their main points. After a couple of days reflection, my recollection of their points are: 1. Scientists suck at communicating science, 2. The public is stupid and will always be stupid, 3. The right-wing has embraced this stupidity and taken a marketing approach to get the public to think about issues from their perspective, 4. The scientists need to use this marketing strategy if they want to compete, 5. If we take the framers' advice, magic will happen and we will win.

The framers left much unsaid to avoid some problems with their position, but Layden and Myers were kind enough to state the unstated, more about that later.

First, I want to go through my responses to my rather snarky interpretation of the framers' position.

1. Scientists suck at communicating science. Well this time I am not being snarky. This stereotype is well propagated in the framing debate and, as far as I can determine, just accepted without any real information to back it up. I asked the first "question/long winded statement" after the panel presentations, and one point I wanted to make was this stereotype is bullshit. Sure, there are bad science communicators who are scientists, but by and large I think scientists are pretty effective. Currently, we are getting hosed by the right-wing, is this due to scientists being poor communicators or the army of right-wing non-scientists being effective. When industry (with an economic bias) or religion (with a self-preservation bias) gets involved, they can use dedicated resources to promote their viewpoint. Scientists actually have jobs, its hard to find time to disseminate information (lies in the case of the right-wing) when we have to teach, do research, write manuscripts, write grants, etc. So I will agree we do not get our message across as effectively, but this is not IMO due to poor communication but to being outnumbered.

2. The public is stupid and will always be stupid. Snark #1. Mooney and Nisbet obviously did not say this, but the conclusion is distilled from the following points that were made. First, people are "intellectual misers." I won't disagree with this in general terms, but I will disagree with the defeatist attitude it instills. You know people don't want to think about hard stuff too much, so there's no sense trying to educate them. Better is coming up with a 15-30 second sound bite that is vacuous and trite but pulls at some emotional heart string. Second, popular science isn't working. The traditional approaches like magazines such as Popular Science, Discover, etc aren't cutting it. While the subscription rates to these mags may be dropping, I expect this is true across the board. Thank the internet not mental miserness. One person (panelist or audience member, I forget which) noted that there are a number of dedicated sience channels on cable, this means at least some % of the public is tuning in. So the current attention span of the public may be short, but that doesn't mean the public is not educatable. Mooney and Nisbet basically said that science education through the popularization of science is a good thing, but then turned around and noted how it doesnt work and basically cant work, so just resort to framing.

3. The right-wing has embraced this stupidity and taken a marketing approach to get the public to think about issues from their perspective. Well, I can't disagree with this one. The marketing/resources used by the right-wing is profound and works pretty well. Sadly, I do not know an adequate response to this. Lawsuits, by the general public, do not seem to work, case in point the tobacco industry. There really are no reprecussions for lying, presenting false information, etc. After the Dover trial, it was not the Discovery Institute and Michael Behe that paid, it was the school district that paid and is still paying in massive legal fees. I think the only approach is to teach the public how science works, skepticism and critical thinking skills are a powerful tool that only serve to help our side. Of course, the framers have given up on this approach and ask us to follow suit. Actually, they pay lip service to the education approach but immediately follow up with why it won't work.

4. The scientists need to use this marketing strategy if they want to compete. Here is where the framing position truly sits. Layden and Myers both acknowledged that the framing strategy can be a short-term band aid on a problem and I concur there is a place for framing. When the discussion is on global warming, it is useful to note the ecomonic ramifications, the loss of polar ice (polar bears as well), potential climatic changes, etc. This really goes hand in hand with point 1 and during my oration I noted that the reason we have a clean water act is because the frame was made that no one really wants to drink poison. The point I want to make is that we have always been framing. However, here is where I think one of the biggest problems with the framing position lies. When it comes down to framing, both sides do it. So the result is who has the most compelling sound bite? Who has the biggest star representing their message? Is Oprah on our side (global warming is a pressing issue episode) or theirs (everyone in the audience gets a new car!!)?

5. If we take the framer's advice, magic will happen and we will win. Again, if we go with the frame perspective, it comes down to who makes the best sound bite. There is no magic here, if our frame is stronger, we win; if there's is stronger, they win. Notice there is no mention of where the truth lies.

The educators' position was about education and religion. The montrosous brachiosaur sitting in the room that Mooney and Nisbet didnt notice.....maybe the stage lights were too bright?

Layden made some extemporaneous remarks noting the problems in K-12 education which were carried on by Myers. Layden pointed out that there is, in fact, a culture war going on in this country whether the framers want to admit it or not. Myers went on linking the power of the religious right to affect education, thus generating more stupid people who are easily swayed to become religious, increasing the clout of the fundamentalists, who are now able to further affect education, generating more stupid people, repeat until schools are more about indoctrination and not education.

I will note Mooney and Nisbet had more elegant slides; Myers had informative slides.

While Mooney and Nisbet were talking, I realized a problem with their idea of framing is that they have a one size fits all approach, this was the crux of my question/statement. In the case of global warming, environmental issues, etc, the framing position holds water. Here is a good way to get the scientific ramifications out to the public, of course the other side has their frame, but at least there are messages that can be put-forth. However, with evolution the frame perspective fails IMO. The other side has the frame "If you believe in evolution, you will go to hell." What is our frame? Nisbet took the teach evolution in schools specific issue and gave me three possible frames.

1. Teaching evolution will make our town more attractive to economic development. No way does this hold water in my mind. Im sure Dell computer is not setting up their next assembly factory in Dover because of the 21st century monkey trial. Frames need to appeal directly to your audience. You do not connect evolutionary biology with industrial development directly.

2. Trying to get ID-creation "science" in school will make us look bad. Bad to who? The secularists? I mean come on, frame it the other way, if we succeed in our efforts we will be a beacon of light to other oppressed schools in our christian nation. Who cares, if the supreme court will strike it down, that's far down the road and god will be happy.

3. Trying to get ID-creation "science" in school will waste public resources in the legal fight. Yeah, the fundies are worried about wasting public resources (can you say Iraq war). Your pretty scientific talking head says, this is a bad idea because the law is against you and it will waste huge quantities of resources, sounds good. You go to church and your pastor says, we can't have these liberal elitists who don't live here tell us we must expose our children to this heretical teaching. Resources, schmesources, what resources will help you in hell? In heaven you'll have all the resources you want including 50 virgins oops, wrong fundies. The fundie leaders are the ones who, on accident, say we don't need to worry bout the environment because the rapture, its a comin'. They can generally keep that vitriol off the pulpit when engaging the sheep masses and the masses are more than happy to overlook any slips.

So what it comes down to is our frames in this issue are not remotely sufficient or appropriate. The framers want the educators to back off and not offend the religious. You hurt our message they say. In an odd sense, the framers are correct, the educators could cause damage. The fundies have cast the argument as science vs religion, not the educators. The educators are more than happy to smack them down, and rightly so. When a fundie says if you believe in the science of evolution, you are going to hell, the fundie made it science vs religion not the scientists. If your personal message is dealing with global warming, great! If you want to embrace the religious in your message, I say Great again, you are doing the right thing. If you want us to shut up about our message so yours doesnt suffer, I say you are putting a gun to your own head and just asking someone to pull the trigger. If evolution falls to the fundies, then biology becomes meaningless classification, biology is science, if one entire branch of science is now suspect, why not all the other areas? Why is physics immune to a christian perspective? Why is geology immune?

Summary statement. Framing in specific issues is warranted and done. More is always better, and more scientists should be encouraged to get involved to offset the army of darkness. Suggesting that the religious want to be on our side is false, the religious, by definition, cannot tolerate science (not everyone of course, there are scientists who are religious, but it should be clear to those with neuronal function Im talking about the fundies). I do not want them excluded from the global warming issue, I want them helping to deal with any problems we have. However, I will not cow tow to those fundies. If they decide that we have to choose between their belief based on a suspect book (Ill blog about it later) and the evidence, then Ill choose the evidence. If they try to get the evidence suppressed, Ill state that their religion is a bad thing that has no true merits. If it did, suppression would not be necessary. There is no frame available to deal with fundies, only education.