In my last post, I looked at a set of ethical principles Matt Nisbet asserts should be guiding the framing of science. In this post, I consider the examples Matt provides as the “DO” and “DON’T” pictures for the application of these guiding ethical principles.
First, Matt examines an example of framing done well:
In January 2008, the National Academies issued a revised edition of Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a report intentionally framed in a manner that would more effectively engage audiences who remain uncertain about evolution and its place in the public school curriculum. To guide their efforts, the Academies commissioned focus groups and a national survey to gauge the extent of lay citizens’ understanding of the processes, nature, and limits of science. They also specifically wanted to test various frames that explained why alternatives to evolution were inappropriate for science class (Labov & Pope, 2008). The National Academies’ use of audience research in structuring their report is worth reviewing, since it stands as a leading example of how to ethically employ framing to move beyond polarization and to promote public dialogue on historically divisive issues.
The Academies’ committee had expected that a convincing storyline for the public on evolution would be a public accountability frame, emphasizing past legal decisions and the doctrine of church-state separation. Yet the data revealed that audiences were not persuaded by this framing of the issue. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, the research pointed to the effectiveness of a social progress frame that defined evolutionary science as the modern building block for advances in medicine and agriculture. The research also underscored the effectiveness of a middle-way/ compromise frame, reassuring the public that evolution and religious faith can be fully compatible. Taking careful note of this feedback, the National Academies decided to structure and then publicize the final version of the report around these core frames.
To reinforce these messages, the National Academies report was produced in partnership with the Institute of Medicine and the authoring committee chaired by Francisco Ayala, a leading biologist who had once trained for the Catholic priesthood. The report opens with a compelling “detective story” narrative of the supporting evidence for evolution, yet placed prominently in the first few pages is a call out box titled “Evolution in Medicine: Combating New Infectious Diseases,” featuring an iconic picture of passengers on a plane wearing SARS masks. On subsequent pages, other social progress examples are made prominent in call out boxes titled “Evolution in Agriculture: The Domestication of Wheat” and “Evolving Industry: Putting Natural Selection to Work.” Lead quotes in the press release feature a similar emphasis.
To engage religious audiences, at the end of the first chapter, following a definition of science, there is a prominent three page special color section that features testimonials from religious scientists, religious leaders and official church position statements, all endorsing the view that religion and evolution are compatible. Both the report and the press release state that: “The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith. Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future.” In a subsequent journal editorial, these core themes as featured in the report were endorsed by twenty professional science societies and organizations (FASEB 2008)
(Bold emphases added.)
To recap: The National Academies had a clear message (evolutionary theory ought to be part of the public school science curriculum, intelligent design ought not) and a well-defined audience for this message (members of the public uncertain about evolution and its place in the public school curriculum). To communicate this message effectively, they did some preliminary research into which of this audiences values would resonate most strongly with the message, then they appealed to these values (the desire for medical and agricultural advances, and the desire to have room for science and religion to coexist peacefully in U.S. society) in communicating the message.
Presumably, the communication here tried to approximate a dialogue by speaking directly to concerns of the target audience. Rather than harping on arguments for the goodness of evolutionary theory that non-scientists would not be in a good position to evaluate, the resulting report focused on the values-based reasons to include evolution in the curriculum. The case was made on the basis of accurate information that didn’t minimize the inescapable uncertainties in scientific research and the knowledge it produces. And, the argument didn’t turn on marginalizing or demonizing a particular social group. In other words, the four guiding ethical principles seem really to have guided the framing in this case.
Before we go on, I anticipate a few objections to Nisbet’s analysis here. First, there’s the objection that peaceful coexistence between science and religion in the U.S. is not actually something worth valuing. But while it’s true that many people (on both the science side and on the religion side) do not value it, the people in the audience with whom the National Academies was trying to communicate do value it. So, while this framing of the issues might not work for you, this may simply be because you weren’t part of the target audience. (If you were already on board with the idea of kids learning evolutionary theory in the public schools, you didn’t need convincing.)
Another objection that might be raised is that persuading the target audience of the message depended on dishonesty – that in fact, the evidence for evolution cannot be fully compatible with religious faith – and that there’s something inherently unethical in lying to a target audience just to persuade them of your preferred position. This objection would have real teeth if the claim were stronger – that the evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with any flavor of religious faith – but that’s not the claim the National Academies made. Similarly, it would be hard to make the case for coexistence between science and religion if no evolutionary biologists were religious – but some are. Given the existence of scientists who are able to reconcile the scientific evidence as they know it with their faith, and given the absence of a knock-down argument that one must chose between being an intellectually honest scientist and being a person of faith, it’s not accurate to claim that the National Academies framing rests on a lie.
None of which is to say that scientists do not have strenuous disagreements about the compatibility of science and religion – it’s just that these are not scientific disagreements.
Then, Matt turns to what he takes to be an example of someone framing issues badly or unethically:
For the National Academies and these professional societies, political conflicts over evolution have been a lesson learned as to the importance of connecting with diverse audiences and building consensus around commonly shared values. Yet what continues to be the loudest science-affiliated voice on the matter of evolution takes a decidedly different framing strategy. Several scientist authors and pundits, led by the biologist Richard Dawkins (2006), argue that the implications of evolutionary science undermine not only the validity of religion but also respect for all religious faith. Their claims help fuel the conflict frame in the news media, generating journalistic frame devices that emphasize “God vs. Science,” or “Science versus religion.” These maverick communicators, dubbed “The New Atheists,” also reinforce deficit model thinking, consistently blaming conflict over evolution on public ignorance and irrational religious beliefs.
Dawkins, for example, argues as a scientist that religion is comparable to a mental virus or “meme” that can be explained through evolution, that religious believers are delusional, and that in contrast, atheists are representative of a healthy, independent, and pro-science mind. In making these claims, not only does Dawkins use his authority as the “Oxford University Professor of the Public Understanding of Science” to denigrate various social groups, but he gives resonance to the false narrative of social conservatives that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda.
Dawkins’ big sins, in terms of the ethics Matt says should be guiding communications between scientists and non-scientists – seem to boil down to denigrating religious believers (as well, perhaps, as those who would welcome a reconciliation between religion and science regardless of their own religious views) and leaning on his scientific credentials and university appointment to give authority to his suggestions that religious faith is a mental disorder and that there is a forced choice between being an intellectually honest scientist and being a person of faith.
To the extent that Dawkins might assert that he had firm scientific backing for his views about religion and about people of religious faith, I think a case could be made that his assertions go beyond what the evidence warrants. Indeed, to the extent that one wants to say there are scientific grounds for a forced choice, one is on the hook to provide the relevant scientific evidence to back the claim.
However, if Dawkins is instead asserting that he values freedom from religion, that value – just like someone else’s valuing of religious faith – doesn’t require anything like scientific support.
And indeed, to my eye it looks like what Matt objects to as framing done badly (or unethically) is instead framing done with the intent of achieving different communicative ends and reaching different audiences. While Dawkins supports the inclusion of evolution in the public school curriculum, that is not the only goal, nor even the primary goal, in his communications with the public. Rather, his primary goal seems to be persuading members of the public that religion deserves no special consideration in the public square. Arguing that science and religion can be reconciled doesn’t contribute to making this case – which is why Dawkins doesn’t make this argument. And since people who are pretty committed to their own religious faith (or to their respect for the religious faith of others) are unlikely to have core values Dawkins can set to resonating with his message, these people aren’t likely to be part of Dawkins’ target audience, either. Rather than blundering in against the advice of the communications experts to do the job the National Academies were trying to do, perhaps Dawkins was looking for a different outcome from his attempts at communication and was willing to accept that his attempts would not convince certain segments of the public.
In other words, Dawkins may be extraordinarily good at framing his message to persuade the audience he is trying to persuade. (To assess his success, we’d need to identify both his target audience and his message and get some empirical data.) But, his message happens not to be precisely the message the National Academies report was trying to get across, and his target audience happens to be a different group of people with different core values than the National Academies’ target audience.
None of this should be surprising. Even if scientists as a group enjoyed complete agreement about the facts and the uncertainties revealed by scientific labors, even if they were of a single mind about which pieces of scientific research were well designed and well executed, about which yielded the most reliable knowledge, as humans, they would have diverse values and aims — just like non-scientists. It is true that scientists share a group of “scientific values” that guide their methodology as scientists and their interactions with other scientists in the communal knowledge-building enterprise, but they have many other values besides, most of these quite independent from their scientific values.
What this means is that the presumption that scientists are all playing for the same team only holds in very limited circumstances – namely, those in which they are actually using their scientific values to do science. In other contexts, there is no reason to expect that scientists will be driven by the same non-scientific values.
Now of course, pretending that your non-scientific values are scientifically certified and waving around your scientific credentials to convince non-scientists that this is so is a slimy move that undercuts the credibility of scientists as a group. Given that the facts matter in trying to work out how to pursue the ends we value, and given that scientific information is vital to non-scientists in making all manner of important decisions, degrading the science “brand” just to try to win an argument is a sin against one’s fellow scientists as well as against the non-scientists one is trying to bamboozle.
But disagreeing about what ends are worth valuing is no sin.
I think it’s a good idea for scientists communicating about issues that touch on science to be careful. Ethically, you don’t want to oversell what you know or pretend that your claims have more scientific warrant than they do. However, it’s not the case that everyone who is using a different frame than you are is doing something unethical or even ineffective. Sometimes people use a different frame because they are communicating a different message. Competition is a pain; if you can’t make common cause with the competing framer, you may just have to work harder to sell your own message.
In the next post on framing, I’ll examine what the framing wars might teach us about the folks interested in communicating science – and about the strategies that might be useful (or counterproductive) in trying to sell scientists on the utility of the framing strategy.