Framing Science

If anyone should understand how to effectively communicate with the broader public about teaching evolution in schools, it’s Dr. Steve Case. He’s assistant director of the Center for Science Education at the University of Kansas and was co-chair of the science standards committee for the state of Kansas.

Case has been in the trenches and on the front lines for the past three decades. He probably has more experience working with science teachers and dealing with the news media than anyone in the country. Indeed, he is perhaps the most successful and savvy ambassador for science education in America.

So I was delighted when he passed along via email these incredibly strong words of endorsement and encouragement, thoughts that he had originally shared with a friend. He has given me permission to post the full text of the email:

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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 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.


  1. #1 Trinifar
    April 19, 2007

    Let’s see, after you say you are swamped with so much work we shouldn’t be expecting much in the near term, you put out six posts in three days. I can’t wait to see what you’ll be like when you have more time. Keep up the good work — it’s far better than having the second tier substitue.

  2. #2 jv
    April 19, 2007

    The blog fight is simple confusion over your argument. Are you:

    a) saying there is a more productive third option besides the pro-religion, pro-science and the anti-religion, pro-science positions, or

    b) there are the two options, and the anti-religion, pro-science position actively hinders the overall pro-science objective.

    PZ et al think you are arguing point B — let Collins and Miller do the talking, and Dawkins and PZ should shut up. I’d like to think you are arguing for point A, as point B is a very bad argument, but we’re confused because you have not made much effort to explain this more productive third option — you’ve mostly just railed against the anti-religion, pro-science people.

  3. #3 PZ Myers
    April 19, 2007

    Yes, Steve Case is one of the good guys. Now imagine that my strategy for getting everyone behind my plan (whatever it is) was to begin by slamming him.

    If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do better than Steve Case, the famed University of Kansas scientist who tries to accommodate religion in science.

    Why, everyone who respects the fellow and appreciates his work would instantly be predisposed against me.

    That’s “framing”, right?

    So when I read your WaPo article that started in just that alienating way, I had two possible interpretations. One is that you are a tin-eared incompetent at this framing business, which means I ought not to pay attention to what you say. The other is that you seem to be a smart guy and you’ve studied these rhetorical strategies for years, and that you’ve actually made a cunning, conscious decision to stick the knife in a subset of the people who fight creationism in order to curry favor for your ideas in the public eye.

    You may “have the best interests of [your] community at heart”, but you’ll have to understand that the impression I have is that either you have your heart in the right place but you’re very bad at this, or your community is not my community and you’re poising yourself to oppose mine.

    Is there a third possibility? I don’t know. I keep waiting for you to offer an alternative.

  4. #4 John B
    April 19, 2007

    I work as a part-time instructor in my department while finishing my ph.d in religious studies. I have discussed this issue of framing with my peers and my thesis supervisor. These are people who teach comparative religion, sociology, psychology and history of religions.

    We aren’t ‘hard’ scientists, and don’t deal with the American culture war on a regular basis, but i was surprised at the uniformity of the reaction i got from people. Not one of them reacted to the description of the framing argument at all, as though waiting patiently for me to get to the interesting part. Once I mentioned Dawkins’ name, they, every one of them, rolled their eyes and asked me why i was wasting my time on this.(Actually, i had to explain to my advisor who Dawkins was before he told me to stop wasting my time on this.)

    I can’t give anyone else’s viewpoint, here, but my impression was that among the social scientists who actually try to influence how students think about religion, Dawkins and people like him are a non-issue.

    I’m glad people are trying to help change the way some atheists approach the conversation because, honestly, I doubt that eye-roll is what Dawkins really intended as his impact on the understanding of religion.

  5. #5 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 19, 2007

    What we did is call attention to the fact that Dawkins, with his latest book, is probably not having a productive impact when it comes to engaging a broader American public on the political question of teaching evolution in schools, especially an important swing public of Americans who are moderately religious.

    We are not asking that you or Dawkins stop talking. As I posted over at Greg Laden’s blog and as we wrote in the WPost, there will always be a small audience for science and a small audience for criticism of religion.

    Rather my goal is to draw attention to the following “indirect” influence of Dawkins:

    He has sold 200,000 copies of God Delusion. Last I checked there are 300 million Americans. That’s a pretty small fraction of people who have bought his book, and probably fewer who have actually read his book.

    Dawkins, like you, is a master at framing *for his audience,* i.e. people either predisposed in his earlier books to have an interest in science, or people in his latest book who are predisposed to be critical of religion.

    Through careful framing, he condenses complexity for his audience. In God Delusion, he provides metaphors, allusions to history, stories, catchphrases, talking points, and heuristics that aid his readers in making sense of the questions they already have about religion.

    Great! I loved Dawkins’ book, and it helped me make sense of a lot of complexity and it also provided me with talking points to be able to express my views interpersonally with others who might similarly be questioning religion.

    But the nature of our media system and the nature of the broader American audience is that they neither have the time nor the motivation to read his book. Instead, because our media system feeds on conflict, what they get instead are just flashes and images of a really smart British guy (someone not like them) saying that God and Science are in conflict, and that the implications of evolution is atheism.

    (Btw, you might personally believe the latter, but it is by no means the official or consensus view of science.)

    These flashes come in magazine covers that average Americans scan, newspaper columnists they might quickly read in passing, or something they might hear in interpersonal conversation with a friend who suggests: “have you heard this Dawkins guy, teaching evolution is really about getting atheism in the schools.”

    As Steve Case notes from his three decade experience in the trenches, this is not productive or beneficial when trying to work with a broader American public on the political issue of teaching evolution in schools.

    As Randy Olson, director of Flock of Dodos, notes in a comment at this blog:

    The problem is, in today’s society, perception IS reality. Which means it makes little difference what the technical details are of Dawkins argument (though they are certain important for the academic discussion). The perception is he is out there arguing forcefully for the absence of God, yet has no proof. Don’t get me wrong, I think he is a great and important voice to have present in the discussion. But again, so is intelligent design.

    And yes, I read the book. The book is the reality. But what interests me more is the perception — way it is perceived by the broader audience, for which the NY Times book review is very representative.

    In roughly 2,000 combined words at Science and the WPost, and a short segment at NPR, we have been very successful at questioning assumptions about what it means to effectively engage a broader American public by way of the media on issues like stem cell, climate change, and evolution.

    **We have also brought attention to the fact that no matter how much we might personally find rewarding Dawkins’ arguments in God Delusion, or how important it might be for the small audience of religious skeptics in reinforcing and articulating their views, unfortunately, it is probably not very productive when it comes to reaching collective decisions in communities across the country on the political question of teaching evolution in schools.

    Again, I offer my view based on an expertise in how audiences make sense of mediated messages. Steve Case offers his view based on his decades in the trenches.

    You have your view, and I respect that.

    I also want to restate, as I did over at Greg Laden’s site, that I care a lot about engaging a broader American public on atheism, secular humanism, and religious skepticism etc. I care about furthering the goals of the community of religious skeptics.

    And on that front, as I described over at Laden’s site, I think the best mode in engaging the wider American public is not news coverage or books, but rather entertainment media. These include depictions across shows like Fox TV’s House that humanize in respected and admirable ways atheists.

    It’s by changing social perceptions and norms by way of the entertainment media that we can begin to create an opening among wider audiences for a substantive yet tolerant discussion of atheism in the news media.

    It happened with Archie Bunker and race and it has happened with a host of shows and gays (with still more progress to be made on both fronts.)

    And I would add, that some of the change also needs to come from journalists, who need to drop the conflict frame as the norm in covering every social issue.

    Iin 2005 we made a very strong argument to journalists in a cover story at the Columbia Journalism Review about the level of distortion political reporters and pundits were adding to the intelligent design debate by constantly covering it as a “game” and “conflict.”


  6. #6 llewelly
    April 19, 2007

    PZ, the third possibility is that even experts make mistakes, and Nisbet’s and Mooney’s WaPo piece, (especially the disasterous opening phrase) is one of them.

  7. #7 Soren
    April 19, 2007

    I am curious if you think you have failed in framing your message, or you just think your critics are misguided?

  8. #8 PZ Myers
    April 19, 2007

    You keep bringing up this point that he has only sold 200,000 books, and then you compare that number to 300 million Americans. That is spin, pure and simple. What is appropriate is to compare the number of copies sold against the number of copies of other books of different types sold. What I’m seeing is an overt attempt to belittle a success story. How many books has Steve Case sold? How about comparing it to the number of books Ken Miller has sold? That gives us a better perspective on relative success.

    You could compare the number of books read to the number of laundry soap commercials viewed, too, if you really want to diminish the impact of literacy. Why should anyone write any books at all, if getting on the bestseller list as Dawkins has done is going to be spun as a failure?

    And then you turn around and call getting short articles in Science and the WaPo “very successful”. It’s exceedingly strange and completely baffling. There is one standard for success for those on your side, and a completely different standard, a bar that is set incredibly high, for people like Dawkins. I don’t get it. This is a self-defeating inconsistency on your part.

  9. #9 justawriter
    April 19, 2007

    And thirty years of “the most successful and savvy ambassador for science education in America” got Kansas a bunch of creationist kooks running the schools while it took a bunch of pugnacious, insulting and political operatives to take them out.

    Largely untrue, I know, but an effective frame, don’t you think?

  10. #10 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 19, 2007

    Llewelly and Soren,
    Framing can activate support but also draw attention. Certainly we have done both, as evidenced by many of the strong endorsements we have received and how much attention this stuff continues to get, at least at blogs.

    (Note: I have literally received dozens of emails of encouragement from scientists, social scientists, science communicators, and policy people. People, btw, who don’t write or read blogs or at least rarely read them.)

    Of course, you can never convince everyone. Either people will disagree with you based on principle, which is fine. Or people will refuse to pay attention to or misperceive your argument no matter how well framed it might be. I’m okay with that too. It’s part of human nature.

    Even scientists are cognitive misers, and I would argue that for some, there are very strong perceptual screens at play when interpreting any message about Dawkins or atheism.

    (Note: At Uncertainty Principles there is a very compelling observation about this, that I highlight in a post at my blog.)

    In all, there is tons of data out there to examine how the science and/or atheist corner of the blogosphere has made sense of our message. And it’s definitely something we are taking into account, as well as any constructive feedback or criticism.

    I’m just hoping that it can remain a productive discussion rather than something more hyperbolic.

  11. #11 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 19, 2007


    Not sure how many times I need to repeat this…The correct comparison is not to other books sold to the small audience of science and public affairs enthusiasts, but rather when thinking about influencing the wider American public, the representation of Dawkins and his message in the conflict-driven media. See my earlier comment and Randy Olson’s quote if you missed this.

    Also, respectfully, you are wrong about our article at Science and at the WPost. Our goal there was not to reach a wider American audience, but rather a targeted audience of scientists, science policy people, journalists, advocates, and opinion-leaders.

    In a combined and easily read 2000 words, we reached a targeted audience of more than a 1 million who subscribe to Science world wide, and a Sunday readership in the U.S. capital of roughly a million. On top of that, we reached directly the audience at 200 NPR affiliates across the country.

    (Again, just like with the 200,000 who bought Dawkins book, we can’t be sure how many people actually read the piece.)

  12. #12 PZ Myers
    April 19, 2007

    There’s that double-standard again.

    Framing can activate support but also draw attention. Certainly we have done both, as evidenced by many of the strong endorsements we have received and how much attention this stuff continues to get, at least at blogs.

    If this is a measure of success for you, shouldn’t you objectively be assessing Dawkins as a remarkable success, rather than a failure?

    You’re a scientist, you know better than this. These slippery and inconsistent metrics for a good example of communicating with the public are seriously undermining your argument.

    llewelly’s question is an interesting one. Do you still stand by that opening sentence — does it represent the frame you wanted to establish — or would you do it differently if you had to do it all over again? I’m still struggling to see how it fits in with the message you’re trying to send to someone like me.

  13. #13 Erik Nisbet
    April 19, 2007

    Hi All,

    I will preface this post with a disclaimer that I am Matt’s brother and a doctoral candidate in the field of communication at Cornell. Though my research focus is different as I examine foreign policy issues and interplay of religious identity, politics, and media.

    Okay, that being said, I think much of this discussion has focused on linking or delinking science and atheism. Though Dawkins and like-minded scientists, philosophers, advocates, etc are mostly likely popular with some segments of the public – the brutal truth is that atheism and critics of religion have an image problem with a plurality, if not majority, of the public. Thus, I think one of the points that Matt and Chris make is that when you equate, or explicitly link, atheism with science, or “frame” (or package, or communicate, whatever you wish to term it) science controversy in terms of atheism vs. religious belief, you transfer that image problem to science and scientists.

    Furthermore, if you have the most basic knowledge of the science of persuasion, you know that the source credibility and perceptions of the “messenger” is key in the persuasion process. Thus, if someone like Dawkins weighs in on a science policy issue, rather than an issue of religious belief or atheism, etc. – and even if they are speaking specifically about scientific fact and not atheism or religious belief- a large segment of the public will make up their mind on the nature of the messenger, not the “scientific fact” or “truth” of the message itself.

    What is the evidence that atheists and critics of religion in public life have an “image problem” with large segments of the public? Well just look at the available survey evidence. For example, see the most recent Pew Research Center biannual survey on Religion and Public Life (see Some findings:

    67%of Americans believe U.S. is a Christian nation
    71% of Americans WANT MORE religious influence on American life
    69% of Americans believe Liberals have gone too far in keeping religion out of schools and government

    Furthermore, only 35% of Americans have a favorable view of atheists, while 50% have an unfavorable view. In comparison, ATHEISTS ARE BY FAR THE MOST NEGATIVELY VIEWED “RELIGIOUS” GROUP IN THE U.S. – more so than Muslims!!!! (55% favorable/25% unfavorable), Evangelical Christians (57% favorable, 19% unfavorable), Jews (77% favorable, 7% unfavorable), and Catholics (73% favorable, 14% unfavorable).

    Based on this, why is it so hard to accept that explicitly framing arguments about policy issues in terms of science vs. religion – with prominent atheists as spokespeople who purposely make their atheism a salient aspect of the “science” argument – may not be an effective means to persuade large segments of the American public that evolution should be taught in schools, we should allow federal funding of stem-cell research, and we need to address the human causes of global climate change?

    Matt and Chris are not saying that atheists like Dawkins should “shut-up”, but that in these SCIENTIFIC policy debates the most salient aspects of the argument communicated to public audiences should not be based on atheism or (lack of) religious belief. Nor should it be communicated as dry technical or complicated scientific data that is not easily accessible to lay audiences. Rather, we should package and communicate scientific policy issues in terms people can readily understand and integrate into their own personal lifeworlds. That’s the essence of their framing argument.

  14. #14 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 19, 2007

    Communication should be thought about in terms of goals and the intended audience. In God Delusion, Dawkins attracts a lot of attention and it helps him sell a lot of books to an audience of religious skeptics.

    However, on political questions like the teaching of evolution in schools, it is not productive. However, as a message that is transformed in the popular media as just a passing image, and then reinterpreted by moderately religious Americans, it’s not. That’s our basic point.

    In terms of the goals of our communication, we are addressing how scientists, scientific organizations, allies of science, science-related coalitions etc. might coordinate their message in the national media and in non-traditional media outlets to reach a broader American public than just the traditionally small audience of science enthusiasts.

    Given who we are trying to reach, that’s why publishing commentaries at Science and the WPost, rather say than going on Oprah, made a lot of sense.

    The jury is still out. Let’s wait and see. As I said, this provides a lot of data. I hope we continue to generate that data as a productive conversation. The exchanges we have had here is what I was hoping for.

    But what data do I have so far? For people like Steve Case who are battling on the frontlines, dealing with political reality on a daily basis, the frame apparently works. It also works for the dozens of people who have emailed me offering their encouragement and the dozens of blogs who have offered their encouragement.

    I know for you, and for others, it doesn’t work. And I respect that.

    I have to go teach. Won’t be able to post comments or make replies until this evening.


  15. #15 Chris Mooney
    April 19, 2007

    Hi Folks, sorry I’ve been out of the discussion a bit, but a commenter recently posted to my blog from the “front lines,” and it strongly reinforces Matt’s and Steve Case’s point.

    The link to the comment is here. Here’s an excerpt:

    “Here where I live, on the Alabama/Tennessee border, we have a sticker in textbooks that says ‘evolution is only a theory.’ There are lots of biology students at my university who are young-earth creationists. We have politicians in Tennessee introducing legislation to teach creationism (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes law). Every science issue discussed in public is framed around the issue of religion. Every time I turn around, some politician in introducing a ridiculous anti-science proposal, while invoking the name of God, and do you know what? I never hear a peep out of any scientists. Scientists at my university and in the region will give seminars about their obscure research, but never address broader questions of science and culture. Why can’t scientists come out of their labs to talk with the public about the importance of science for society as a whole? For maintaining excellent health care? For maintaining the best technology that’s possible? They could ‘frame’ their research in ways that the public can understand and relate to. What on earth’s wrong with that? Instead, politicians and special interest groups dominate the discussion where I live because they’re the only ones ‘framing’ discussions of science in ways that ordinary, religious southerns can relate to.”

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