Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Endless Irony of William Dembski

Two of my fellow ScienceBloggers, Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney, have an article in last week’s issue of Science on the subject of issue framing. The article is a summation of their views on how the scientific community can do a better job of countering the rhetorical strategies of the intelligent design movement. And here comes the ID movement’s absurd and blatantly hypocritical response from William Dembski:

“Framing,” as a colleague of mine pointed out, is the term that UC Berkeley Professor of Linguistics George Lakoff uses to urge Democrats that the public will agree with liberal policies if only the policies are described in different terms — “framed” in other words. Politics aside, framing is part and parcel with the condescension of our secular elite that the masses cannot be reasoned with and must therefore be manipulated.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the ID movement’s latest frame: the “we don’t do framing, only those Other Guys do framing” frame. And folks, this is the most absurd frame of all. If you really think that the ID folks don’t engage in issue framing I would strongly suggest that it’s time to see the men in little white coats because you have slipped well over the line into the delusional category. Their entire movement is based upon framing the issue, spinning it in a certain way for maximum emotional effect.

ID rhetoric is full of frames. Why do they constantly rail about “atheistic materialism”? Because they know that pushes emotional buttons in their followers (and thus opens up their pocketbooks). Their now-infamous phrase “teach the controversy” is a frame, and a brilliant one; it touches that basic American belief in fairness, in letting both sides have their say. The public simply isn’t knowledgeable enough to recognize that the two sides in this case aren’t equal, that one is presenting conclusions based upon 150 years of scientific research and the other has no research whatsoever ot support it, nor even a coherent model that could spur such research. It’s a brilliant frame and a very effective one, but to pretend it’s not a frame at all is lunacy.

It takes some serious chutzpah, I think, for the ID folks to hire a public relations firm (Creative Response Concepts) – PR firms do almost nothing but issue framing – and then feign such shock and outrage at the “manipulation” of “secular elites.” I don’t care how strong the material is in your irony meter, it’s not going to be able to withstand that kind of direct hit. And the fact that he is engaging in blatant framing in the very post in which he feigns outrage at how manipulative framing is….well that just adds to the stench of hypocrisy.

Matthew Nisbet is a professor of communication and Chris Mooney is a correspondent for the atheist magazine Seed. (Nisbet’s blog is also hosted by Seed.)

A perfect example of the kind of framing I mentioned above: whenever possible, make sure to tie your opponents to atheism. Thus, Seed is transformed from a popular science magazine to an “atheist magazine.” Why is this sort of thing such an effective way to frame an issue? Because, as Matt Nisbet likes to say, people are cognitive misers. What’s that mean? Let me explain.

The average person simply doesn’t have the time to develop well thought out and informed positions on every subject. In fact, if they take the time to study any issue in the depth necessary to form such a reasoned conclusion, it is done on very few issues and usually ones in which they have a direct stake (like when their job involves that issue). So for those issues that they don’t have the time or inclination to really think through and research, they develop cognitive shortcuts – conceptual tools that allow them to jump straight to a conclusion that they think is justified, usually based on vague associations.

You see this sort of thing all the time, and you engage in it yourself sometimes (and so do I, though I make a concerted effort to avoid it as much as possible). Such shortcuts allow us to casually dismiss one side of an issue and embrace the other based upon pre-determined allegiances and associations. Once you draw partisan lines on one subject, for instance, your perception of how those you associate yourself with feel about an issue will typically determine which side you embrace and which you reject.

For instance, once you have decided that you’re a conservative (or a liberal, conversely) then you are far more likely to accept what someone you perceive as also being a conservative or liberal has to say about an issue, whether you’ve actually thought the issue through for yourself or not. That is a cognitive shortcut, and we see them operate all the time in political discourse. When you hear someone say something like, “That’s a typical liberal thing to say”, they are engaging in a cognitive shortcut.

Cognitive shortcuts generally use pre-defined categories of “us” and “them” to skip over all that pesky thinking and analyzing and proceed directly to a conclusion – “I don’t have to take this person or their arguments seriously because they’re (fill in the blank – conservative, liberal, libertarian, French, Christian, atheist, Muslim, etc).” You sell ideas by appealing to such cognitive shortcuts and encouraging them to be used, and the most effective appeals are those that push an emotional button as well.

Thus, the constant mention of atheism and atheists, not only by the ID movement but by the broader religious right as well. Why is this so effective? Because, as poll after poll shows, Americans are highly distrusting of atheists. The typical pew occupant (wrongly) thinks that atheists are just evil people, perhaps even Satanists; thus, if you tell them that the other side is made up of atheists or advocating atheism you have triggered a cognitive shortcut through your framing of that issue as good people vs atheists.

The bottom line is this: we all engage in framing, sometimes consciously and sometimes not. But for Dembski, of all people, to pretend that framing is only done by “secular elites” to “manipulate”, something his side, being holy men of God after all, would never do, is simply laughable. The entire ID movement is based upon issue framing, from teach the controversy to a growing number of scientists to critical analysis of evolution to their favorite, never defined term – Darwinism.

One of the great things the Daily Show does quite often is show how politicians use talking points. They’ll show a series of 10 or 20 video clips in a row of the President and those under him going on TV shows or giving speeches and repeating the same phrase over and over again. What they are doing is framing. And the catchphrases and buzzwords above, which you see repeated ad nauseum by ID advocates, are the very same thing. They are buzzwords specifically and deliberately chosen to elicit a particular response, to trigger a particular cognitive shortcut.

And yes, our side has them too and I won’t pretend otherwise. And even those who don’t consciously use the tools of framing in political discourse nonetheless do so unconsciously through the normal process of deciding how best to state our arguments so that they are most convincing to others. But for a guy like Dembski, of all people, to feign such outrage that those big bad Darwinists, I mean atheists, I mean secular elites, are engaged in framing….well that’s pretty much the peak of irony and hypocrisy.


  1. #1 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 11, 2007

    This is a very accurate description of framing and how it applies to the ID movement. Especially on the point you make, and as we argue in our Science piece: when it comes to engaging the swing public on the political issue of teaching evolution in schools, insulting their religious beliefs is only likely to backfire as a communication strategy.

    I have compiled a round-up of blog reaction here:



  2. #2 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 11, 2007

    Also, for readers without a subscription to Science, the journal has provided me with an author’s referral link which allows free access to the article. You can find it in my left side bar under the Science magazine cover.


  3. #3 Orac
    April 11, 2007

    The bottom line is this: we all engage in framing, sometimes consciously and sometimes not…And yes, our side has them too and I won’t pretend otherwise. And even those who don’t consciously use the tools of framing in political discourse nonetheless do so unconsciously through the normal process of deciding how best to state our arguments so that they are most convincing to others.

    Exactly, which is why I was so puzzled by the seriously negative reaction in some parts of the blogosphere to Mooney and Nibet’s article. It’s as though those posting the negative reaction view framing as inherently evil, like the spin that the Bush Administration, and can’t admit that they do it too, whether consciously or subconsciously.

    Take an example today. Earlier this morning, I gave a talk about my basic research to a bunch of surgeons. Rather than delving into the details of the molecular biology to the level that would satisfy a molecular biologist, I intentionally painted with broad strokes and mentioned aspects of the research that could be relevant to surgery, because I wanted them to pay attention. That’s framing, and I see nothing ominous or evil about it. Scientists frame every single time they give a talk, write a paper, or write a grant application. To make a parallel to Nisbet’s comments about insulting religion above, I could have “framed” my research as pure basic science that will never have an application to surgery and–by the way–that surgeons are too uninformed to understand. Yeah, that would have worked real well.

  4. #4 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 11, 2007

    Your observations about how scientists communicate with each other and across disciplines, using framing to make complex research understandable and relevant, is dead on.

  5. #5 Don
    April 11, 2007

    Avoiding framing can be a successful tactic also depending on the audience. A sure way for hardcore conservatives or the religious right to turn me against their argument is to frame it. But I don’t disagree with every one of their ideas and positions. When I hear an argument that is not framed I pay closer attention and actually think about the issue involved. I don’t know if others have that same reaction but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

  6. #6 itchy
    April 11, 2007

    And yes, our side has them too and I won’t pretend otherwise.

    The abortion issue has extremely effective frames on both sides: Who can be against choice? Then again, who can be against life?

    Another recent trend from “their” side co-opts the positive tone of “skeptic.” ‘Global warming skeptic’ and ‘evolutionary theory skeptic’ give the impression that the speaker/writer has thought about both sides and is being open minded.

    Those who believe in evolution are “dogmatic and close minded.” The opposite of a global warming skeptic is a global warming alarmist.

    Not to mention that scientists are now using the more accurate “climate change” …

  7. #7 Andrew
    April 11, 2007

    Quoting Futurama: “That’s not irony, it’s just mean!”

  8. #8 David C. Brayton
    April 11, 2007

    PZ Myers has this quote from DaveScot on is blog:

    “I will remind everyone again — please frame your arguments around science. If the ID movement doesn’t get the issue framed around science it’s going down and I do not like losing. The plain conclusion of scientific evidence supports descent with modification from a common ancestor…”

  9. #9 Wesley R. Elsberry
    April 12, 2007

    I took a course in my undergraduate days on framing. It was called “Argumentative and Persuasive Writing”.

    The ID movement is very sensitive to rhetorical issues, and always has been. At the 1997 NTSE conference, I was a bit startled when the organizers trotted out one of the attendees at the end, introduced him as a professor of rhetoric, and gave him ten minutes to sum up his opinion of the level of discourse he had experienced during the conference. Dembski is simply following in the footsteps of his mentor, Phillip Johnson, in taking the opposition to task for daring to utilize rhetorical analysis to improve how well the message gets across. And Johnson is no less hypocritical on this than Dembski, to be sure.

  10. #10 phonon
    April 12, 2007

    I’d also like to add that the name for the entire movement, “Intelligent Design,” is also an exercise in issue framing.

  11. #11 Trinifar
    April 15, 2007

    This post and Orac’s comment provide some of the most compelling examples I’ve seen on the framing issue. (Matt, you should at this to your round-up page is you haven’t already.)

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