Adventures in Ethics and Science

Framing and ethics (part 2).

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Larry Ayers
    March 30, 2009

    Great series of posts, Janet!

    I do like Dawkins’ books, but although I basically agree with his anti-religious views, I think he’s shooting himself in the foot with his scornful and denigratory statements about what he sees as the lack of social value of religion. I have friends and family who are religious and I would never say such things to them. We all have our own ways of dealing with the general unfairness of life.

    Of course, it took me decades to realize this!

  2. #2 bioephemera
    March 30, 2009

    “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.”

    Excellent point, Janet!

  3. #3 Matt Penfold
    March 31, 2009

    I think you miss something with regard the first example.

    It is true that not all religious views are in conflict with religion, but it is true religious views that allow for an interventionist deity are in conflict. One cannot invoke miracles like virgin birth, or rising from the dead and not be in conflict with science. I would bet a fair proportion of the target audience for the NAS presentation believe in the literal truth of both the virgin birth and the resurrection, and it is simply incompetent at best, and dishonest at worst, not to discuss the compatibility of such views with science in a discussion about the compatibility of science and religion.

    In addition the NAS presentation would lead someone who was not already familiar with the debate to conclude that there is consensus within the scientific community as to the compatibility of science and religion, when in fact there is no such consensus. The presentation seems to have fairly put across the views of scientists who think science and religion are compatible, but where were the scientists who do not agree ?

  4. #4 Noumena
    March 31, 2009

    disagreeing about what ends are worth valuing is no sin

    Hmmm. I certainly agree that reasonable people can disagree about what ends are worth valuing. (John Rawls called this the `fact of reasonable pluralism’.) But this doesn’t imply that there is no rational basis for judging that some ends are not worth valuing — that anything goes, when it comes to ends and values. The fact that reasonable people can disagree on the value of religious practice doesn’t mean that murder and genocide are a-okay. Reasonable pluralism, we might say, doesn’t imply anything-goes relativism.

    But then we have to treat Dawkins and the other New Atheists more carefully than you do here. Using framing ethically is presumably a matter of using it in an ethical way for reasonable ends. It’s not enough to just say that Dawkins et al. are acting ethically because they’re using framing in an ethical way for different ends (ends that Nisbet doesn’t share). They might be acting unethically if they’re using framing in an ethical way, but for unreasonable ends.

    To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what Dawkins’ ends are, much less whether they’re reasonable. He’s certainly, as you put it, against religion playing a role `in the public square’, but I have no idea what this actually means. If he would go so far as to ban churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions, this strikes me as extremely unreasonable. But maybe he’s working at the more reasonable level of getting `In God we trust’ off the money (in the US, at least) and challenging the tax-exempt status of religious organizations. Again, I just don’t know.

  5. #5 Tony Jeremiah
    March 31, 2009

    audiences who remain uncertain about evolution and its place in the public school curriculum…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.

    Robbers Cave Experiment

    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-group out group bias

    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.

    Ekman, P., Davidson, R.J., Ricard, M., & Wallace (2005). Buddhist and psychological perspectives on emotions and well being. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14,59-63.

    Abstract

    Stimulated by a recent meeting between Western psychologists and the Dalai Lama on the topic of destructive emotions, we report on two issues: the achievement of enduring happiness, wath Tibetan Buddhists call sukha, and the nature of afflictive and nonafflictive emotional states and traits. A Buddhist perspective on these issues is presented, along with discussion of the challenges the Buddhist view raises for empirical research and theory.

  6. #6 Paul W.
    March 31, 2009

    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.

    Have you read The God Delusion?

    I find Dawkins’s arguments in that book to be a bit sloppy and incomplete, but it seems pretty clear that Dawkins (like Dennett and Boyer) thinks that

    (1) religion is a natural phenomenon amenable to scientific analysis

    (2) such analyses indicate that religion is a product of failure modes of cognitive biases evolved for other reasons, so

    (3) it’s no surprise if it’s a poor “way of knowing,” and plenty of evidence indicates that in fact it’s unreliable and dangerous

    so, contra Nisbet, it is Dawkins’s professional, scientific opinion that religion has a general tendency to falsity and dangerousness.

    That’s not a mere personal opinion. Dawkins is doing his job as a scientist when he says that religion can and should be criticized, and proceeds to do so.

    Dawkins et al. think that NOMA is false and religion is fair game for scientific criticism. Dennett makes the case better and more thoroughly in Breaking the Spell, but Dawkins is clearly not just expressing a mere “personal opinion” that religion is goofy and trying to sell it as science.

    Dawkins is making the scientific claim that religion is goofy, and asserting that it is a scientific claim.

    He might be wrong, and he might be overreaching, but he is not doing what Nisbet says he’s doing. Rather, Nisbet is begging the entire question and proceeding to falsely accuse him of unethical deception.

    Nisbet is either clueless about the very most basic issue under contention, or himself being unethically deceptive.

    Nisbet thinks it’s wonderful for people like Collins to say that science and religion are compatible, but illegitimate for people like Dawkins to say that they’re not. That’s quite a double standard.

    What Nisbet tries desperately to obscure by misdirection is the key issue—science and religion are only “compatible” in the sense that most people can manage both most of the time, in most particular instances.

    That’s the sense in which drunk driving is compatible with getting home safely. (Should the National Academy of Sciences promote that equally true view?)

    I think Nisbet knows that, knows that’s what mainly the New atheists are saying, and is effectively promoting a “lies to children” strategy—and getting prestigious scientific organizations such as the NAS to put their imprimatur on these white lies.

    It’s just stunning when he then accuses Dawkins of misrepresenting his views as having a scientific imprimatur. Wow.

    At least Dawkins is honest.

  7. #7 Russell Blackford
    April 1, 2009

    I do actually think that the approach adopted by the NAS, as described by Matt, was dishonest. Calling it a “lie” is too strong. But when a body such as that gives a seriously one-sided view on a philosophical issue that is not only highly controversial among philosophers but also highly divisive within its own direct constituency, then it is being seriously misleading and intellectually dishonest.

    This is not at all a case of “good” framing. It is far more ethically dubious than anything that has come from Dawkins and his allies.

  8. #8 Paul W.
    April 2, 2009

    I do actually think that the approach adopted by the NAS, as described by Matt, was dishonest. Calling it a “lie” is too strong.

    For the most part, I agree. I understand why they’d point out that many scientists are religious, and gloss over the fact that most aren’t.

    I even understand why they’d point out why some outstanding scientists are Christians, even though the overwhelming majority are not. (Orthodox Christianity is an excellent predictor of not being a top scientist.)

    Where things start to smell is when they gush about how some Christian scientists have written so eloquently about how understanding evolution deepened their faith.

    I’m pretty sure that’s something that the majority of the NAS’s members would disagree with—they’d find apologetics like Collins’s to be rather less-than-eloquent tripe. (If they bothered to read it.)

    Where I think they really cross a line is when they say that Science and religion offer different ways of understanding the world, immediately followed by Science and religion address separate aspects of human experience.

    The first statement is false on any interpretation that a non-expert audience is likely to put on it.

    I suspect that many if not most NAS members think that it’s true only in the sense that sober contemplation and tripping on LSD offer different ways of understanding the world—religion offers no real insight into reality, although it might have aesthetic value and make you feel or behave better.

    Certainly there is no consensus in the NAS, or among the relevant experts in the relevant fields, that religion helps understand of the world correctly.

    In case you were wondering what interpretation was really meant, the next sentence disambiguates it, and is clearly false—“Science and religion address separate aspects of human experience.”

    This makes it sound like religion and science are perfectly orthogonal, or better yet, perfectly complementary. If actually offer means of understanding different things, you can understand more things if you have both. If you only have one, you’re missing something.

    It sounds nice, but the starting premise is just not true.

    In general, the subject domains of religion overlap tremendously with those of science. For example, modern cognitive science strongly suggests that there is no such thing as an immaterial, immortal soul, and that even if there is one, somehow, it’s not much like the traditional Western conception of the soul. The brain is clearly what’s doing most things that souls were hypothesized to explain, it can’t do those things when you’re dead, and it would be truly bizarre if there happened to be another device that could take over its functions. (And do so iin a way that the “soul” somehow still counted as you, rather than part of a copy of you.)

    Similarly, it is entirely within the scope of science to explain religion itself in naturalistic terms, in ways that suggest that religion is in general a fairly reliable way to mis-understand the world. (Science doesn’t have to succeed at doing so for religion to be within its scope.) Religion’s subject domain can’t be outside the scope of science, because religion itself is within it, and so is the issue of whether religion gets anything right, about anything.

    The only people for whom science and religion address “entirely separate aspects of human experience” are ultra-liberal theologians espousing such reduced and rarefied theology that one might reasonably suspect that it’s not authentic religion at all. Maybe it’s atheism in drag, or just a convenient stance to find a scientifically defensible and arguably religious position.

    That’s minority-position, academic theology, bearing little resemblance to anything any significant number of people actually believes—and apparently nobody at all in the target audience of the NAS documents. (It’s not even interesting to most academics in related fields.) Anybody who understands rarefied academic theology well enough to believe it doesn’t need a general-audience introduction to these things.

    Given the target audience, and its inevitable interpretations, it seems to me indistinguishable from lying.

    It’s not plausible that that’s accidental. The writers of the document presumably know full well that many if not most NAS members do not believe any likely interpretation of those statements.

    You might disagree. Perhaps it’s merely “dishonest” without being an outright “lie,” or perhaps you can believe it was accidental, and the writers and editor did not realize they were espousing a controversial minority opinion.

    As long as we’re clear on just how dishonest it is, or at least how obvious a falsehood, it doesn’t much matter whether it’s technically a “lie.” We can return to the Nisbet vs. Dawkins issue.

    Nisbet accuses Dawkins of dishonestly speaking “as a scientist,” who implicitly represents the “scientific community.” Apparently he’s supposed to disclaim any professional expertise and say that his opinions are mere “personal” opinions.

    But that would itself be lying. Dawkins does not believe that his view of religion is a mere personal opinion. He thinks it’s his opinion as a scientist who acknowledges real conflicts between science and religion.

    In contrast, there is a much better case that the writers of the NAS documents on teaching evolution are writing as though they represent the scientific community. They are publishing what seems to be the NAS’s position, and do not mention that “many members of the NAS think non-overlapping magisteria is a load of old bollocks.”

    If any organizations speak for “the scientific community,” the NAS would have to count. Speaking for the NAS is the closest thing to what Nisbet accuses Dawkins of.

    And doing so dishonestly—presenting a controversial minority position as though it were and uncontroversial truth—is exactly what Nisbet falsely accuses Dawkins of.

    But Nisbet thinks it’s great when the NAS does it to defend a politically convenient stance.

    Pot, meet kettle.

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