The Questionable Authority

Matt “Framing Science” Nisbet has some more advice for scientists on things we shouldn’t be saying:

Another frame to avoid is the same type of “war on science” and “restoring science to its rightful place” rhetoric that was used on the campaign trail and in the early days of Obama’s administration.

While during the Bush era this public accountability frame justifiably mobilized liberals and many scientists, now that Obama is in office the same message likely alienates Republican segments of the public that the president desperately needs to rally around climate action. The frame provides the heuristic that science is for Democrats and not for Republicans and focuses on conflict rather than consensus.

Let’s think about this one for a minute or two. In fact, let’s try something radical: let’s assume for a minute that Nisbet’s actually right. We’ll ignore his use of the phrase “likely alienates Republican[s]” and assume that he’s got solid data that says that Republicans are definitely alienated by recent uses of “war on science” and “rightful place” in public discussions.

If that’s actually true, then I might have messed up yesterday when I (twice) discussed Bobby Jindal’s speech. I might not have directly accused Jindal of engaging in anti-science behavior, but I definitely implied it. (I hope I did, anyway, because I was sure as hell trying to.) If I shouldn’t have taken that approach, what should I have done?

Seriously. We’ve already seen that Republican complaints about various parts of the stimulus were, when not actively countered, very effective at getting some projects that would have created real jobs dropped from the stimulus. Jindal might have been complaining about a done deal, but it’s not like volcano monitoring only gets funded once. In fact, if you look far enough down in the federal budget that President Obama’s going to be submitting to Congress in the next few days, you’re going to find more money for the program’s ongoing expenses.

Volcano monitoring is a cheap, simple, and effective program that has saved lives and property in the past, and will save lives and property in the future. A politician – even one from a state without volcanoes – who gets up on the national stage and mocks funding for such programs demonstrates a lack of understanding of how science can appropriately inform public policy questions.

So does a politician who mocks fruit fly research being undertaken to determine how to best deal with an agricultural pest that’s causing damage in the United States.

And the politician who makes a funny, funny joke about bear DNA studies that will be used to determine if grizzlies still need endangered species protections.

The rightful place of science in public policy debates includes using science to minimize the risks that people face, or to provide the data needed to make informed policy decisions on complex issues. These politicians see science as an easy target to mock for cheap political points.

Oops. Shouldn’t have said that.

I just singled out three Republicans. That’s bad. Nisbet thinks I’m sending the message that Republicans are anti-science, which might disturb the delicate sensibilities of Republicans and alienate them. That probably means I shouldn’t have gone after Vitter either. Because, after all, if would be bad if I sent the message that science is a partisan issue.

Apparently, the fact that the hard-core conservative base are the only ones who left don’t believe in climate change doesn’t send a message that this is a partisan issue. That message doesn’t get sent until we respond to them.

I’m (almost) at a loss for words here.

It’s not like I we only go after Republicans who are engaging in anti-science behavior. (Remember when RFK, Jr.’s name was out there as a potential EPA administrator?) It’s not even like we’re digging for opportunities to criticize Republicans – all of the examples I just cited came from highly publicized public remarks. The Republicans are getting criticized more, because they’re doing it more publicly, more vocally, more egregiously, and more often.

I suppose we could just ignore it. But there’s something that I’d like to suggest to the communications expert:

Ignoring blatantly anti-science remarks – even if we’re just ignoring them because we’re afraid of alienating allies of the people making them – sends its own message. It says that these are unimportant issues. That they’re issues that we don’t really care about. It says that the misrepresentation of science in public policy debates is something that we can live with. It says we’re fine with it.

That’s not a message I’m willing to send. I’m not fine with it.

Comments

  1. #1 Dan
    February 26, 2009

    I can’t believe anyone listens to Matt Nisbet anymore. I stopped reading anything associated with his name (other than criticisms of him) more than six months ago.

  2. #2 Badger3k
    February 26, 2009

    I think that if we can get these anti-science morons to lose, that could mean that Nisbet would be unable to charge fees for his speaking engagements. Getting a government that respects science could mean that Nisbet might have to work for a living, as he seems to be a one trick pony. Of course he doesn’t want that, so he sabotages any effort to win this “war on science”, although perhaps unconsciously.

    That or he’s incredibly stupid. Not sure which.

  3. #3 Joshua Zelinsky
    February 26, 2009

    Nisbet seems to assume that any attempt to just say it like it is will automatically backfire. As to Nisbet’s claim that describing Jindal et al. as anti-science will alienate Republicans; if someone is alienated by one of their candidates being rightfully criticized then there are already serious problems.

  4. #4 Jeremy L
    February 26, 2009

    Disclaimer: I don’t follow Nisbet very closely and maybe it’s just that I hit him on good days but I don’t understand what all this distaste for him is about.

    We all know the motives behind Republican, and I’m willing to use the word in this forum, anti-science rhetoric, right? So we’re not actually surprised when they say that kind of stuff? Why get so angry?

    Science’s strength isn’t in calling people names. If anything, it plays into their hands. If I was a back-woods yokel and I saw McCain arguing to take money away from scientists and a bunch of scientists calling him names, I’d be inclined to side with McCain. That may be presumptuous but, being from a small town, that has been my experience.

    But from the same experience, writing for a regional newspaper, when issues are framed in a way that is non-confrontational and benign (and they don’t have to distorted to do so), you’d be surprised how receptive people can be.

    I’m all for calling Republicans names when you pick up the paper and read the garbage that Jindal is spewing, but when we engage the public, that strategy isn’t going to be successful.

  5. #5 Moses
    February 26, 2009

    Nisbet is, essentially, a shrinking-violet concern-troll. It is my belief that his methods and beliefs are pretty much useless.

    I’m sure if he was around giving Rosa Parks advice, he’d tell her to give up the seat and wait for change. He would have told King not to write from jail as it may offend whitey. He tell Ghandi to stop his non-violent protesting and get back to work. And Susan B. Anthony… there’s a kitchen waiting for you darlin’..

    I think history is clear – if you don’t meet power structures head on, they won’t change. Nothing worthwhile gets taken from those who horde power without a direct confrontation. It doesn’t have to be violent, but it has to happen otherwise there is no change.

    So I say bully to the Republicans. If they get offended, good for their stupid little hearts. The Republicans have turned themselves into movement conservatives and are, unless it can be shown the results of the science can be made into weapons or some type of consumer goods, anti-science as a movement. There is no real base of understanding the concept of science for the sake of learning. Bottom line, like the Libertarians, if it can’t be quantified in sales and profits (or bombs and guns (which gets back to sales and profits)), it’s useless in the eyes of the movement.

    My advice is stop being “polite.” Call them what they are: anti-science, anti-progress, anti-equality and, in many cases, anti-ethical and immoral. They don’t like it… They can change…

    But until then the Rush Limbaugh Party can whine all they want.

  6. #6 bobh
    February 26, 2009

    When I was in my 20s I realized that it was fruitless to try to predict how other people would react – e.g some people get offended by something that others find thought provoking. For the last 40 years I’ve lived my life by being straight about what I believe and open about how I feel. I let others own there own reactions just like I one my reactions to others. Its worked pretty well in life and in work and it makes life a whole lot easier. This framing business reminds me of that – an immature approach to dealing with the world by trying to predict how others will react.

  7. #7 Science Avenger
    February 26, 2009

    Mike said: let’s assume for a minute that Nisbet’s actually right… and assume that he’s got solid data …

    There’s your problem right there Mike. From what I’ve seen, Nisbet’s pompous proclamations are universally data-free.

    Jeremy: see above. Consider also that Nisbet is long on telling people what they did wrong, and short on telling them what they should do. Further, he has a tendency to blatantly misrepresent reality when it suits him. He proclaimed Expelled a success for crying out loud.

    You teeter on the same when you talk of “calling people names”. No one is suggesting that. “Anti-science” isn’t a name, it’s a description of what they are doing. “Asshole” and “poopyhead” are names.
    Allowing the GOP to frame this as namecalling is exactly what we should not do.

    We are not trying to persuade backwoods yokels. They will vote for the Palins and Jindals no matter what we do. It is the fairly educated middle, who value science, and who will react to the term “anti-science” with the disgust it deserves, that are our target audience. There is not evidence one that pretending the GOP’s positions are more valid than they are will persuade them.

  8. #8 Dave X
    February 26, 2009

    I agree. How can you talk about things like the anti-volcano monitoring position as anything but anti-science? Anti-measurement? Pro-fate? Faith-based? Differently-scienced? Fact-free? Volcano-skeptic?

    When someone takes a confrontational position, eliminating all the non-confrontational ways to discuss it doesn’t leave much room for discussion.

  9. #9 gb
    February 26, 2009

    The very nature of the scientific method demands we address the facts and dismiss the fallacies wherever they are found ….to not do so is in itself anti-science.

  10. #10 The Ridger
    February 26, 2009

    180 it and call them pro-whatevertheyare. Like Jindal is “pro-volcanic destruction”.

  11. #11 Kelly
    February 26, 2009

    ROLMAO Ridger, that is pretty much what some people already does..right? It does seem to work with that segment of the population :)

  12. #12 Art
    February 26, 2009

    While I think that being able to ‘call a spade a spade’ has merit and I think the conservative moment does indeed have an anti-science bias there is something to being able to make a point without claiming to benefit a specific group.

    As far as the ‘fruit fly’ thing goes it might make more sense politically to not frame the attack as an attack on science. Instead it could be framed as an attack on the olive oil industry, the second largest crop in the Napa valley. Frame it as an attack on science and people think pointy-headed brainiacs and, when they get around to looking you up and find your a scientist, they will immediately claim your argument is self-serving and unreliable.

    The argument the GOP claims is that government stand outside of and against the ‘common man’. So funding cuts of government programs is, in effect , a defense of ‘the common man’. You make the claim this is anti-science but your attack is deflected by your being a scientist, and so a beneficiary of the funding. The ‘every man’ language wins and you lose the argument.

    Come at it from the frame of studying fruit flies is a protection of the olive oil industry and you can claim this program supports business, protects jobs and helps maintain the balance of trade. All of these are ‘common man’ concerns.

    So it shakes out like this: the conservatives attack this wasteful government spending that keeps the common man under heel of burdensome taxes. You answer back that the modest expenditure of a few million dollars by government protects X businesses that employs Y thousand jobs in the olive oil industry, that adds Z millions off dollars to the positive side of the trade balance.

    If the GOP representative shuts up you drop it. If not you go on the offensive asking what does the GOP have against small business and the working man and why do they wish the balance of payments to be tipped so far against us. You could ask about their investment portfolio and imply that perhaps they are heavily invested in foreign stocks an currency. Followed by the question: “Why do you hate America?”.

    The volcano thing, as has been pointed out elsewhere, saved the US military a lot of money and likely saved hundreds of airline passengers lives. Anyone seeking to defund the program should be asked what they have against the US military in a time of war and why they would want the traveling pubic dead.

    Remember that the underlying purpose of the government is to serve the people so you have to fight funding battles out in terms of how each line-item benefits the American people and the nation as a whole. Framing your argument in those terms and your more likely to win with the average Joe. The weakest argument is that taking these funds might be detrimental to scientists and your profession in particular.

  13. #13 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 27, 2009

    Nisbet’s totally right. It’s much better to be nice to anti-science Republicans. After all, it’s just a difference of opinion, and I’m sure they really just want what’s best for the country, just like we all do. We should reach our hands across the aisle and teach them about the beauty and utility of science with love, not hate. It doesn’t do any good to be mean to them.

    And besides, Republicans are never mean to anyone they disagree with, so it would be very unfair for Democrats to be mean to them. For example, in relation to the war in Iraq, Republicans never said anything to war opponents other than, “We understand that your principled opposition to the war is based on your love of America and your perception that it would be bad for America to invade Iraq, and we ought to agree to disagree.” We ought to always do the same when we have a slight disagreement with Republicans.

  14. #14 QA's Mom
    February 27, 2009

    Organizing — where the essential goal is to change public policy by mobilizing the many against the few – has a methodology that’s proven effective.

    It starts with figuring out who’s mind you need to change, and then figuring which of many arguments those you wish to change will “buy into”

    Picking your audience is critical. For example, the anti-smoking campaign has been so effective because it went after the non-smoker as actively as the smoker. It developed the argument that smoking was about a lot more than just “it’s my body, why should you care?”

    I would suggest that while you clearly need to continue calling something anti-science when it is, you also need to look at the many arguments that explain to those of us who actively avoided science class why we should care.

    If Mike wasn’t my kid, and/or I was not someone who thinks long-term, I might think that the arguments about funding were mainly about preserving your own jobs, and that’s just not the case.

    The question we, as organizers, pose is not is the argument correct — but does it change the minds you need to change.

    Based on my experience, I would suggest those minds belong neither to the pols, or to the “true-believers”, but to the majority of Americans who are just beginning to think that the war on science (and it is a war) might harm them or their families

  15. #15 Robert Carnegie
    February 27, 2009

    According to at least one novel set in the imaginary world of [Star Trek], the word in Vulcan language that they were translating as “logic” for years should be something more like “reality-truth”, seeing how the world actually is, no deception by self or others. Wake up, smell the coffee, don’t get emotional about it. Someone else tries to explain it here –
    http://www.cthia.com/cthia/ (that’s the word).

    That is what the folks you are dissing do not have, and there probably is a Vulcan word for that but it may not be polite. Or, on reflection, they probably figure that illogic is something that you normally grow out of, like acne or soiling yourself – although it also seems to be a matter of self-discipline. But anyway, maybe the phrase you want is, “Grown-ups are talking.”

  16. #16 Brian X
    March 4, 2009

    I have called Nisbet out on this before, and my post didn’t make it through his mod filter.

    He’s like a business professor who pounds on the necessity of profit, but doesn’t tell his students what to do with the stolen underwear to make it. Put another way, his whole accomodationist schtick is like trying to prevent mugging by suggesting that muggers carry Nerf bats instead of guns.

    I can’t begin to understand what he’s trying to accomplish. A Nesbit-run Civil Rights movement would still be trying to get itself taken seriously.

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