Some of the commenters to my previous two posts have suggested that they are tired of this subject. But since Matthew Nisbet himself stopped by to alert me to this post over at his blog, I figure the least I can do is reply to it.
The bulk of the post consists of comments from Steve Case, an assistant director of the Center for Science Education at the University of Kansas. Case is supportive of the Mooney/Nisbet thesis about the importance of framing in discussions of evolution. Let’s consider his remarks in full:
OK, here is a from the hip Monday morning rant . I have been reading all the blog stuff and the [Washington] Post response. It is a pretty interesting discussion – that reminds me of the poker game in Flock of Dodos. All of the communication issues, so it is argued, are outside of the scientists control so we cannot do anything about them – we are doing a great job (you can tell by the poll numbers and the level of science illiteracy in society).
It would be helpful if Case (or Nisbet) would provide a specific example of someone arguing this. It sounds like a caricature of some more serious position. I, at least, am not aware of a single scientist who says we are doing a great job or that the poll numbers are anything other than depressing. And what communication issues does Case have in mind? This paragraph is mostly too vague to treat seriously.
People are just too stupid to get it, people want simple answers, people are isolated from nature, for religious reasons (read emotional), people just will not listen to us all knowing scientists.
This comment comes straight from Mars. The scientists were the ones dutifully presenting the facts and evidence about evolution to the public, in the apparently naive belief that people cared about such things. Then Mooney and Nisbet came along to tell us we were doing it wrong. No, no, they said, “data dumps” are offputting and boring. We need to present things in ways that resonate with normal folks.
They’re the ones saying people either can’t or won’t handle complex arguments. They’re the ones saying people need simple take-home messages if we are to win them over.
Let me remind Case that Mooney and Nisbet wrote this:
The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism.
thereby suggesting the public is too unsophisticated to separate the scientific facts from the metaphysical conclusions some people draw from them. It was Mooney and Nisbet who wrote:
Scientists have traditionally communicated with the rest of us by inundating the public with facts; but data dumps often don’t work. People generally make up their minds by studying more subtle, less rational factors.
thereby suggesting that people form their opinions not based on facts and reason, but on what they euphemistically refer to as “less rational factors.” It was Mooney and Nisbet who wrote:
There will always be a small audience of science enthusiasts who have a deep interest in the “mechanisms and evidence” of evolution, just as there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored or, in the case of atheistic attacks on religion, backfire.
thereby suggesting that talk of mechanisms and evidence are likely to be ignored if they come in too close proximity to criticisms of religion.
So please, no lectures about how it’s the scientists who are being condescending or arrogant. It is Mooney and Nisbet, not scientists, who talk, in almost every sentence, about how people want simple answers, or how they won’t listen to scientists if the scientists are doing what they do best.
I thought that Chris and Matt did a great job with the [Washington] Post Ed response but if read out of context of the blog discussion, it could be a little confusing.
“Good communication is by its very nature informative rather than misleading.” was my favorite line in the Post editorial. The blogs and comments seem to use the same strawman argumentation that the ID folks use – i.e. that Matt and Chris are asking scientists to dumb down or spin science.
Gosh! I can’t imagine where scientists got the idea that Mooney and Nisbet are asking scientists to dumb down their message. Could it be from any of the quotes provided above, all of which say that it is not reasonable to expect people to make up their minds based on a sober consideration of the evidence? Perhaps we were led astray by statements like this one:
Thus, despite ever-increasing scientific consensus, prominent GOP leaders such as Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma still use conservative media outlets to describe climate science as too “uncertain” to justify action. If scientists and their defenders seek to answer such charges by explaining how much we know, they become enmeshed in the technical details (for instance, does climate change really contribute to more intense hurricanes?). And this only creates new opportunities for Inhofe and his flat-earth friends to sow doubt.
So once again, scientists and their allies would be better off shifting their emphasis, as well as the messenger. For example, church leaders can speak to the evangelical community about the necessity of environmental stewardship (a message that’s already being delivered from some pulpits), even as business leaders can speak to fiscally oriented conservatives about the economic opportunities there for the plucking if Congress passes a system for trading carbon dioxide emission credits.
Apparently we are supposed to eschew having scientists present actual data and instead get church leaders to prattle to their flock about enivronmental stewardship. Who could possibly construe that as “dumbing down?”
Or maybe we were led astray by this quote:
As another example, the scientific theory of evolution has been accepted within the research community for decades. Yet as a debate over “intelligent design” was launched, antievolutionists promoted “scientific uncertainty” and “teach-the-controversy” frames, which scientists countered with science-intensive responses. However, much of the public likely tunes out these technical messages. Instead, frames of “public accountability” that focus on the misuse of tax dollars, “economic development” that highlight the negative repercussions for communities embroiled in evolution battles, and “social progress” that define evolution as a building block for medical advances, are likely to engage broader support.
So in replying to creationists we should make our replies less “science-intensive” and instead rely on science-free catchphrases about the misuse of tax dollars or economic development? That’s not dumbing-down?
(As an aside, I don’t think these frames fare too well on the merits. If creationism has any scientific legitimacy then it is not a misuse of tax dollars to teach it in public schools. But explaining why creationism has no legitimacy requires one of those science-intensive responses so anathema to people like Case. And I don’t think very many people will find it compelling to argue that if creationism is briefly discussed in science classes the world will be deprived of great medical advances).
Let’s move on. Case writes:
Communicating science effectively does not mean you have to speak from a religious frame. In fact, since I have been involved with the front lines of this since the late 1970s, just do not try to communicate science from the anti-religion frame – if you do you will not be heard and lose most of your audience.
At last, the real agenda is made plain. In the context of evolution, it seems that “framing” is a euphemism for “don’t criticize religion.” As I’ve written before, I don’t think it’s true that religious people stop listening as soon as someone criticizes religion. Perhaps some fundamentalists respond that way, but you will never reach them no matter how cleverly you frame the issue. This idea that religious people are so delicate that their ears start bleeding when someone criticizes their views is precisely the sort of arrogance and condescension of which atheists are so often accused.
I do not disagree with the right to take on religion, however, looking across history it is [not a] good way to promote or communicate science. When rationalism is put toe to toe with emotion (religion) then emotion wins.
This guy is simply not to be believed. A few paragraphs ago he was lambasting scientists for thinking people were stupid, and for thinking people based their decisions on religious beliefs instead of reason. Now he’s stating it as a blunt fact that people are, indeed, irrational and emotional.
When Dawkins was here at KU he suggested that we never use religious metaphors or imagery when we are talking to the public. So I asked him, since some 90% of our listeners have religious views – what imagery and metaphors we should use so that they will hear us. He had no suggestions.
He seemed to be saying that when we communicate we do not have to pay attention to the listener – all we had to do was send information. I decided his advice was not very helpful. As to his comments on religion – who cares. I am not really interested in his religious views (or anyone else’s for that matter).
Second-hand anecdotes from biased observers don’t impress me much, so I will ignore the Dawkins story for now. But how can Case possibly say he’s not interested in people’s religious views, but then lecture scientists to be more respectful of them when framing their message? If I am expected to walk on eggshells in discussing evolution for fear of offending people’s religious beliefs, shouldn’t I first invest some time in understanding what those beliefs are?
Of course, when you do invest that time you quickly realize that most of those religious beliefs are centered around the idea of a God who loves us and who created the world specifically with us in mind. Rather hard to square that with the idea of humanity emerging as the contingent result of four billion years of evolution by natural selection, wouldn’t you say?
The right wingers use Dawkins and Sam Harris as flash points since they both seem to think that the best way to get people to listen is to piss them off. My experience is that this strategy only works for the people who already agree with you. The mushy middle gets alienated and those who disagree with you still do not hear anything you have to say.
Dawkins and Harris seem to have little trouble getting people to listen to them. Their books are massive bestsellers, they command huge speaking fees, and their auditoriums fill up well in advance of their start times. Case, for his part, works in a state that has had one evolution flare-up after another. Perhaps Dawkins and Harris know something about effective communication that Case does not.
As for the right-wingers, there is absolutely nothing they can’t use as a flash point. The idea that the right-wingers would become less powerful and influential in our society if people like Dawkins and Harris were to disappear is naive in the extreme.
Dawkins is a useful example in this discussion but then again so is Pat Robertson, when he claims that god will cause the physical world to rise up against us because we are so sinful. I dismiss their current activities as irrelevant to anything I would like to accomplish in helping people understand the natural world – although I also like several of Dawkins books and works about biology, I find nothing that Pat Robertson has done to be interesting (frightening but not interesting).
It is time to listen to what Matt and Chris are really saying about communication, to do some self reflection and learning, and seize control for the elements of this issue that we actually have control over.
Matt, Chris and Randy are not the enemy because they point [out] our flaws and errors. They are teachers who have the best interests of our community at heart.
Intentions are not the issue here. I have no doubt that Matt, Chris and Randy want only to promote science and science education.
But the fact remains their arguments here are simply naive. We all look at the intransigence of so much of the public on subjects like evolution and wring our hands over what to do. It’s enormously tempting to blame the victim, and chalk up the problem to something scientists are doing wrong. If only scientists framed their arguments better. If only scientists told everyone they could eaccept both evolution and Christianity. If only loudmouths like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris went away, maybe then we could get through to people.
It’s all nonsense. There is no simple solution to this problem. Personally, I doubt if there is any solution at all. People do not perceive a conflict between science and religion because RIchard Dawkins says there is one, or because right-wingers fan the flames of division. The conflict is perceived because it is real. Better framing will not solve that problem.
As for Case, I’m quite sure he’s an able fighter in the battle for better science education. But his comments above are a mess of contradictions and baseless assertions. I’m surprised that Nisbet would link to them with such enthusiasm.