The debate about Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet’s recent Science article has gotten quite contentious. Nisbet and Mooney contend that if scientists hope to persuade the public to value science, they must take heed of recent research on “framing.” In other words, they claim, scientists are failing at presenting their message effectively.
So what exactly is this “framing” stuff anyway? Matthew Nisbet might not agree that this is all there is to it, but I thought this article in the APS observer offered a nice summary of what we’re talking about:
People are more likely to take risks when they are given options in terms of losses, but less likely to take risks when they are shown options in terms of gains. For instance, if people are forced to choose between the following: a 50 percent chance they will lose $100 but a 100 percent chance they will lose $50, they tend to go with the first, more risky, option. Conversely, if people are faced with a “gain frame” choice: a 50 percent chance they will win $100 or a 100 percent chance they will win $50, they tend to go with the latter, less risky option. Basically, people tend to take risks when there is something to lose, but tend not to take risks when there is something to gain.
People will gamble to try to avoid a guaranteed loss, but will take the sure money when considering a gain. So let’s apply this logic to a controversial scientific issue: evolution. Religious fundamentalists say that evolution is wrong because the Bible says God created all life. What’s more, if you don’t believe in the Bible, you’re going to suffer eternal damnation. So “believing” in evolution leads to damnation. From a framing perspective, this is a pretty good argument — people will take the “safer” bet and believe in the truth of the Bible.
The typical response to this argument is that there’s lots of evidence supporting evolution — we can look at the fossil record and see it; we can see animals that have evolved even within a human’s life span. There’s no scientific evidence supporting the idea that life was created by a designer. Some scientists go even further and say that this shows the Bible is wrong, and Christians should throw away their silly notions and accept the fact that everyone is eventually going to die. From a framing perspective, this is a lousy argument. Not only does it offer nothing for adherents to gain from supporting evolution, but it also says they’ve got everything to lose!
Nisbet and Mooney say that scientists would be more persuasive if they didn’t try to argue that their work challenged religion: after all, people are willing to take extraordinary risks to avoid a sure loss. Might they even discard an argument so well supported that it is obvious to every scientist? They can, and they do — the creationist movement is alive and well.
P.Z. Myers offers an impassioned defense of the scientist: I like framing less and less: Why are scientists the targets? He says Mooney and Nisbet are only blaming the scientists, when it is the media that takes the simple-minded framing approach, and it’s the public’s fault for accepting brain-dead reporting on science. People are smart enough to understand real science, and scientists are smart enough to explain it to them without reverting to “framing.”
In some ways, I agree with Myers — after all, thousands of readers visit Cognitive Daily each day to read incredibly detailed explanations of highly complex phenomena. On the other hand, as Mooney pointed out in a talk I attended last year, if the other side is using a more sophisticated framing approach to manipulate its audience, scientists at least need to aware of this rhetorical strategy and find effective ways to counter it.
Chad Orzel has an excellent suggestion: Why not hire some good P.R. people to mount an effective response? I don’t think it’s fair to ask scientists to dumb down their work, or to try to “spin” it in a way that’s more appealing to the general public, but they might at least try go get some good publicity buzz going, by relying on people who do this for a living. Why not show some of the benefits of coming to a more comprehensive understanding of science — isn’t that what framing is all about?