In the aftermath of a pretty enthusiastic pile-on to a claim that Expelled! had a successful first week of release, Chris Mooney calls for “serious introspection about the massive communication crisis we’re facing in the science world”.
You know I’m always up for introspection.
Indeed, regular readers have been very patient with my labored attempts to get clear on the whole “framing” thing. While I’m not prepared to advertise myself as any kind of expert on framing, I finally think I know what questions I’d like to ask of the people with framing expertise to try to sort out the ongoing slug-fest.
A lot of the debate about what to make of the box office for Expelled! so far seems to turn on what counts as “success” — turning a profit, getting on lots of screens, connecting with lots of eyeballs on those screen, delivering a box office gross that compares favorably to other political documentaries, etc. I reckon that for those of us who are not filmmakers or producers, a better question might be what effect the movie is having on whether people believe academia is unfairly excluding intelligent design proponents from its ranks. To the extent that the filmmakers may have prioritized the goal of convincing people that academia is unfair to intelligent design proponents (or that science leads directly to atheism, or than acceptance of evolutionary theory leads directly to Nazism, or what have you) even over profit, do we have any indication of whether they’re succeeding in this goal?
It’s not clear to me how you read the answer to that question off the box office gross.
Rather, we’d probably need to look at something more fine-grained than total tickets sold to even get a reasonable sense of who exactly was on the receiving end of what Expelled! is trying to communicate — whose eyeballs were facing those screens, whether or not they were actually convinced. Here, I’m grateful for Chad’s emphasis that there’s not a monolithic public with which the filmmakers or scientists are trying to communicate. Rather, he notes that the public is “a large heterogeneous collection of people with radically different properties.” Among the differences are the core values that successful communication is supposed to identify (so as to deliver a message that resonates with them) and the relative weight different people give to various core values. So, as Chad puts it:
The aim of “framing” this issue, then, is two-fold: first, to get the message to resonate with that portion of the population whose weighting is already closest to that of the framers themselves…
“But if they’re already inclined that way, what’s the point?” you may be asking. The point is that while they might be more inclined to favor disease cures than embryos [in the case of framing an argument in favor of increased funding for stem cell research], they’re not necessarily interested in science. If you just put out straight, dry stories about the research itself, they’re likely to say “Science is Hard! Kthxbai!” and go on about their business without ever reading enough about the research to care about the funding.
If you come at them through the right frame, though, saying, “Hey! We can cure diseases! (By the way: science!)” you’re more likely to get their attention, and hold it through an explanation of the science. Which is more likely to produce the desired result, namely increasing the number of people who have an active interest in the scientific issue, and will support the policy goals of the framers.
That’s the first goal. The second goal is to shift the weights that relatively uncommitted people put on the different values. That’s the whole goal of the anti-stem-cell groups. They place a much higher weight on the protection of embryos than the curing of diseases, and their argument is based around appeals to the general public to put more weight on that factor. Babies are cute, killing is wrong, therefore killing babies is not an acceptable path to curing diseases.
Let’s shift from the stem cell example back to Expelled! The people with whom the filmmakers’ message is most likely to resonate are the folks who already see science as a threat to religion, evolutionary theory as a blueprint for genocide, and so forth. The movie won’t change this population’s core values, nor even their beliefs, but it may energize them.
Presumably, the filmmakers would also like to persuade some of the “relatively uncommitted people”. I’m guessing that these would be people with no strong views about the relative scientific merits of evolutionary theory and intelligent design, or people with views about fairness that may be significantly stronger than their attachment to either evolutionary theory or intelligent design. The big question (for which, as I’ve noted before, we are still waiting for an answer) is whether the messages delivered in Expelled! are persuasive to this second group.
And, undoubtedly, there’s a significant chunk of the population (including many scientists and science fans) that the filmmakers know they will not persuade with the movie.
It strikes me that the filmmakers will not regard it as a failure of communication if Expelled! doesn’t persuade PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, most ScienceBlogs readers, or even most working scientists. Their message is not resonating with the core values of these folks. They’d have to take a laser beam to the existing core values of this group, and to implant brand new core values in them, in order to win them as converts.
The first sub-population of people (the science-suspicious) don’t need much convincing at all. They have multiple core values (science is scary, faith is the best way to steer your life and your society, people of faith are under attack by secular society, etc.) with which Expelled! can resonate. So energizing these folks will count as a success for the filmmakers, but perhaps not an impressive achievement.
To win the folks in the middle, my sense is that the filmmakers are counting on the “fairness” frame: whether you prefer evolutionary theory or intelligent design, if both are legitimate scientific approaches to accounting for the natural world, it’s only fair for both to be given a chance to prove themselves in academia. (Note that people who know what makes for a scientific approach might well reject the premise that intelligent design is a legitimate scientific approach, but this doesn’t mean the uncommitted non-scientists in this middle group will make this move.)
Will this framing in terms of fairness persuade the group in the middle? Once we have data beyond gross box office, maybe we’ll be able to judge the persuasive success of Expelled! on this score. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that this middle group is also potentially reachable by scientists. As such, it’s important to consider what strategies scientists might use to persuade them (or to undercut the filmmakers’ attempts to persuade them).
For the record, I more or less identified these different chunks of the public in an earlier discussion about Expelled!:
Arguably, there is a segment of the public who already buys this message [that academia is filled with dogmatic meanies who won't give Intelligent Design or its proponents a fair break]. They did so before Expelled! was even shot, and they would do so even if Expelled! never came to their local cineplex or church basement. To the extent that these folks have formed an opinion with which they’re comfortable (regardless, in some cases, of additional data that might argue against that opinion), they are not “in play”. Whether PZ kept the Minneapolis incident [in which he was barred from attending a screening of Expelled!, a movie in which he appears] on the down low or purchased full-page ads in every newspaper in the nation, these hearts and minds were already committed to the other side.
As well, there’s a segment of the public that defaults to suspicion of the Intelligent Design advocates — that would be wary of intellectual dishonesty and dirty tricks even if none were immediately evident in a particular case. These folks aren’t really “in play” either, and they’d likely only pay to see Expelled! for the fun of mocking it ruthlessly. Whether PZ piped up about the Minneapolis incident or not, these people would not be won over to the filmmakers’ way of seeing things.
What’s left are the “undecideds” — the folks who have no firm preexisting opinions about Intelligent Design or academia.
If the argumentative strategy of Expelled! is to win over some undecideds by demonstrating that Intelligent Design has been banished from academia unfairly — because the academics with the power to exclude it are afraid of an open debate — then publicizing the Minneapolis incident in which PZ Myers was barred from the screening because those promoting the film were afraid of an open debate undercuts that argumentative strategy pretty well. Known hypocrites have a hard time selling charges of hypocrisy. …
Of the hearts and minds still in play, Team Science has an advantage with the ones that care about intellectual honesty. This means that pointing out the intellectual dishonesty of Team Expelled! is a winning strategy.
As far as the hearts and minds that are still in play that feel no special attachment to intellectual honesty? I’m not sure they were ever ours to win.
Success or failure here comes down to energizing the chunk of the public that’s already on your side and convincing the group in the middle. Let’s not haggle over gross revenues when this is at base a battle for hearts and mind.
How can scientists better energize their base?
How can scientists win over the middle?
How can scientists effectively challenge the frames that might bring folks in the middle over to the other side?
These are questions worth examining. In light of the actual situation on the ground, what should we be doing — right now — and how can we tell if we’re succeeding?