Framing Science

A Note On Comment Policy

In the left side bar, I have had a standing policy on comments for the past year. Here’s what it says:

Keep it substantive, serious minded, on topic, and respectful.

Somewhat curiously, the only time I actually have to take action to enforce the comment policy is when a swarm of ardent faithful from PZ Myers’ blog suddenly surges over here to complain about any criticism of PZ or any suggestion that diverts from the path of militant atheism. It’s what physicist Chad Orzel describes in this post as the “screechy monkey” problem.

Comments

  1. #1 bsci
    April 7, 2008

    I generally disagree with PZ Myer’s form of communication and am far from a militant atheist, but the fact that in a few lines of text, you ask people to be respectful and then call some people a swarm of screechy monkeys doesn’t speak highly of your communication skills. While Chris Mooney is working through a respectful attempt to understand the opinions of others, you seem to be trying your hardest to ignore them except when you want to insult them.

    I understand this topic is your research and a significant portion of your life’s work. I understand that no one likes blunt criticism. Still, remember that many of these “screechy monkeys” are taxpayers who are supporting your research grants and it is your responsibility to try to communicate why your work is worth the money. Many might still disagree, but they deserve at least as much respect and you are asking from them.

  2. #2 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 7, 2008

    bsci,
    I’ve been very active in communicating why my research is worth the money and I have done it very effectively.

    –>I’ve done close to three dozen presentations over the past year and talked face-to-face with several thousand scientists, policymakers, other academics, students, and lay citizens.

    –>I regularly post here on the relevance of framing to a range of topics. The top tabs of the blog explain in depth the nature and application of research to science communication.

    –>I’ve done about 40 media interviews on issues related to science communication and/or framing.

    –>I followed the Science article with an article at the WPost, a longer cover feature at The Scientist, both articles I link to as PDF copies free for reading. I have also done extended interviews on the topic at the Point of Inquiry podcast.

    –>I advise and consult with a range of nonprofits, organizations, and government agencies.

    –>I engage almost every serious minded blog post and comment with a respectful, and usually detailed reply.

    But if you read what Chad refers to as the “Screechy Monkey” problem, and if you were able to read some of the comments I have moderated at this blog, you start to get a sense of the scope of a different type of problem.

    There is nothing I could explain to a small camp of very active and intensely opinionated bloggers and commenters that would generate any type of agreement. They hold to a intense ideology that makes them very different from the rest of the science policy community (my main audience). This ideology translates into different goals, their goal is mainly to promote their preferred brand of atheism.

    As Chad Orzel explains, if you veer from their preferred version of atheism and their goals, you are immediately attacked either as a traitor, stupid, or in some cases, as I have been called by Greg Laden, a closet creationist.

    In Laden’s case, I learned my lesson last year. If you run up against his ideology, you just can’t constructively engage with the guy. When the Science article first appeared and he spun it as “deeply flawed,” I sent him a personal email with PDFs of past studies attached. As I recall, he later described his questioning the validity of framing as a way to create a distraction, and to refocus things on the promotion of atheism and attacks on religion.

    In the fall I then traveled to Minnesota to engage in a forum and debate on framing with Greg Laden and PZ at the University of Minnesota. In response to our presentation, Laden described us as really doing our homework and offering up some really good suggestions. And then he got on his blog afterwards, and for his readers who were not there, claimed a victory and that he and PZ had whipped us.

    So I have attempted a lot of serious minded engagement with the small crowd of readers in the PZ-Greg Laden Land of the blogosphere. I will continue to offer a serious critique of what I see as some of the unintended consequences of the New Atheist movement for building public trust in science. And I will also continue to offer suggestions on how atheists can move in other ways to repair their public image and to promote secularism.

    Readers from PZ-Greg Laden Land are more than welcome to engage in serious minded replies, but as an editorial policy at my blog, I reserve the right to moderate the comments based on the criteria I list above.

    Keep it substantive, serious minded, and respectful.

  3. #3 bsci
    April 7, 2008

    I’ve read some of your data showing that your methods for science communication have some benefit. I’ve yet to see you or anyone else publish a shred of data that the New Atheists are actually hurting the cause as opposed to just using a different tactic that is aimed at a different audience. If you’ve done actual research showing harm (not just opinion pieces), I’d be interested to see references.

    I should note that, according to your comment, I am you intended audience. I am a scientist who is interested in better communication. I generally avoid PZ and Laden’s blogs. You have not convinced me that you are on to something new and unique and your repeated posts that mix critiques of content with personal insults are not winning me over. Even if you dislike the people who are insulting you, you are sinking to their level and only hurting your own message.

    You really need to rethink your goals of this blog and what you are trying to communication about yourself and scientific framing in this forum. You clearly have your desired audience in other, more prestigious forums, so, perhaps, the blogging format just isn’t best for your style of communication.

  4. #4 Cain
    April 7, 2008

    or any suggestion that diverts from the path of militant atheism

    Are you so desperate to trash PZ that you buy into the right wing frame on this issue? Until PZ or Dawkins picks up a gun and starts killing Christians, is there any reason to call them “militant”?

  5. #5 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 7, 2008

    bsci,
    I don’t disagree that blogs are not the best forum for a serious discussion of many of these themes.

  6. #6 bsci
    April 7, 2008

    There’s a serious discussion about these themes going on at Chris Mooney’s blog. There are insults and immature comments, but people are generally trying to understand common ideas and differences. Stop blaming others for the problems you’ve had here.

    The issue is not the theme, it’s the style of communication. That can’t scold others for personal insults and then make some personal insults in the same post and then expect serious discussion. This blog can contribute to the framing discussion, but you really need to step back and decide how you want to use it.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    April 7, 2008

    In the fall I then traveled to Minnesota to engage in a forum and debate on framing with Greg Laden and PZ at the University of Minnesota. In response to our presentation, Laden described us as really doing our homework and offering up some really good suggestions. And then he got on his blog afterwards, and for his readers who were not there, claimed a victory and that he and PZ had whipped us.

    You did make some really good suggestions. But there are some real differences. I recommend the following:
    http://gregladen.com/wordpress/?p=1365
    to see an outline of some of these differences, the most important one being in the presumed time scale of change. This is something that I think we could really talk about and have an impact on. Perhaps a joining of framing approaches and educational changes would be the way to go with that.

    As for claiming victory, you guys claimed victory on the spot during the “slapdown” … PZ and I did it on our sites. We were the hosts, you were the guests. Plus, we’re Minnesotans… this is our culture. (nice to your face, stab you in the back later, that sort of thing).

  8. #8 Anon
    April 7, 2008

    I am wondering why my substantive, serious, on-topic and respectful comment, written earlier this morning on the previous thread, still is not posted.

    I hope that this is seen as on-topic, substantive, serious, and respectful with regard to the current thread.

  9. #9 Chris Hallquist
    April 7, 2008

    >As Chad Orzel explains, if you veer from their preferred version of atheism and their goals, you are immediately attacked either as a traitor, stupid, or in some cases, as I have been called by Greg Laden, a closet creationist.

    I doubt this. Where is the evidence?

    Now, I don’t doubt that you have been called stupid for offering up lousy arguments and positions with clear flaws. Let’s try an exercise: can you think up one or two plausible lines of argument against your view that some viewpoints should not be expressed for tactical reasons? If you can’t even begin to understand the criticisms of your opponents, then yes, you are stupid.

  10. #10 Kay
    April 7, 2008

    “I reserve the right to moderate the comments based on the criteria I list above. ”

    Don’t you mean you reserve the right to the “frame” the comment thread?

  11. #11 scote
    April 7, 2008

    “Somewhat curiously, the only time I actually have to take action to enforce the comment policy is when a swarm of ardent faithful from PZ Myers’ blog suddenly surges over here”

    Well, not to be snarky, but I would also guess that also corresponds to your highest traffic by far. Statistically such a result would be expected to a certain degree. I also think it is a mistake to characterize criticism as necessarily being from opposing sycophants rather than any inherent controversy in your posts. It is entirely conceivable that you are just wrong in some aspect of your argument.

  12. #12 bill
    April 7, 2008

    this is off-topic for this particular post, but maybe on-topic for the blog as a whole.

    People’s committments are wide and varied; the discourse over science and religion reflects this. The conversation amongst Christians concerning whether or not the Bible is literally true might well have more impact on the science/religion discourse than anything else. These sorts of committments make discourse almost impossible to guide. It seems to me that `framing’, as a pro-active task by scientists, is most effective in narrow, focused efforts (like getting a law passed about stem-cell research). What is unclear to me, in all this kerfuffle, is what framing science is meant to do? Is framing a way to shift the entire discourse to a particular resolution? Or is it tactics for particular issues, which then will be reflected in the discourse at large?

    I hope that makes some sense.

  13. #13 Scote
    April 7, 2008

    I have to say that never knew about your blog before the recent dust up. I came and read the posts and the comments for the interesting and vigorous debate. Now that debate has been squelched and I can’t really see a reason to visit anymore–and that may be perfect for your goal of squelching unmitigated dissent. But, I’d been more impressed if you could manage criticism through your communications skills and reasonable argument rather than merely reaching for the comment’s “off” switch.

    I understand the need for some moderation, and I really wouldn’t begrudge you not posting my comment in “Paul Kurtz: The Local Leader Who Happens to Be an Atheist” which could have been more substantive and less ad hominem, however, my post to this forum was less so. While still within your rights not to post, the fact that you didn’t just shows how heavy a hand you are being in modding your forum.

    I see your need for heavy modding as a failure on your part–its a tactic that is common on anti-scientific blogs where creationists hang out. You could have just ridden it out like Chris is doing, and kept a more open stance on comments, but instead you decided to silence criticism–not all of it, to be sure, but enough to be rather suspect. Now we really can’t trust you to be open and transparent. I don’t think your latest move puts you in a good “frame.”

  14. #14 island
    April 7, 2008

    Somewhat curiously, the only time I actually have to take action to enforce the comment policy is when a swarm of ardent faithful from PZ Myers’ blog suddenly surges over here to complain about any criticism of PZ or any suggestion that diverts from the path of militant atheism. It’s what physicist Chad Orzel describes in this post as the “screechy monkey” problem.

    I think that you might have missed how they use this “gang-bang” tactic to drown you out, label you a crackpot, and then claim victory, without ever uttering a valid rebuttal to a single point.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/07/science/07essa.html
    Last week a reader accused me of trying to attract religiously inclined readers by throwing out “God meat” for them.

    It was not the first time that I had been accused of using religion to sell science. Or was it using science to sell religion?

    Last year, I described the onset five billion years ago of dark energy, the mysterious force that seems to be accelerating the expansion of the cosmos, with the words, as if God had turned on an antigravity machine.

    More people than I had expected wrote in wanting to know why I had ruined a perfectly good article by dragging mythical deities into it.

    I hope by now that you begin to conceive of the size of the cake whose icing you have tasted, Matt.

    Do I believe the universe is a mystery? Absolutely. Is that mystery ultimately explicable? Intellectual empires from Plato to Einstein have been founded on that presumption, bold and optimistic as it is, and I wouldn’t advise betting against it.
    -Leon Lederman

    Few things can cause the monkeys to screech quicker than support for this real scientific possibility, because it conficts with their meaningless worldview, just like creationism does. “god” forbid that it is the reality, because it’ll never be recognized by fanatics who worship chaos, uncertainty, and the holy neodarwinian.

  15. #15 charlie
    April 7, 2008

    I am not a follower of anyone and though many might see me as a screechy monkey, I may yet evolve. This person probably will not;

    “What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous . . . it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists!

    “This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God,” Davis said. “Get out of that seat . . . You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.”
    Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago)

    Please get a grip Matt. She slipped and her true feelings came out. No one should be surprised or shocked. Real life is increasingly crazy.
    Perhaps we atheists should shut up and keep our heads down but the hate won’t die all by itself. I think we should fight them at every turn, in every court room, and every election from a position of strength and clarity. Provoke battle, not debate as you can not argue with a closed mind. They should fear us because we are right and ready to fight at the drop of a hat. That is how to win not weasel.

  16. #16 MR_G
    April 8, 2008

    You’ve hooked into pseudoscience and it was a bad move. Maybe too late for you to back out now, but do what you can. Lakoff is a cheap Chomsky, which is to say a bad imitation of a poor product.

    Try something else. Get off the framing bus. It’s headed nowhere.

  17. #17 Josh
    April 8, 2008

    You’ve taken hypocrisy to a level similar to that of creationists! Basically, it’s alright for you to call a spade a spade, but it’s not alright for others to do so.

    If PZ had called a bunch of creationists on his blog an example of the “screechy monkey” problem, you would likely be all up in arms, telling him to shut-up. But here, when we call you on it, you tell us we simply don’t have all the information.

    Have we *seen* the type of comments you’ve been getting? If we had, there’s no way we could be arguing with you, right?

    Please. Don’t be that guy.

    I hope this is “substantive, serious minded, and respectful” enough to get published.

  18. #18 John Morales
    April 8, 2008

    Keep it substantive, serious minded, on topic, and respectful.

    I note your criteria are all subjective.

    Dr. Nisbet, do you offer a warning to those who may innocently transgress before you take action?

    PS: Please believe I genuinely have tried to meet your criteria with this comment.

  19. #19 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 8, 2008

    Hi John,
    Any application of criteria is subjective. That’s the nature of an editorial policy and its the same type of moderation criteria that are applied at the blogs hosted by say the NYTimes or Washington Post.

    There are 2-3 commenters that were warned with emails. When their original comments came through, I emailed them back asking them to check the comment policy in the left side bar and to try reposting. These same individuals, however, have continued a relentless personal attack or have failed to engage in a serious discussion of the issues at hand. Or after receiving a response in the comment section from me, they persist in revisiting the same questions and points over and over again. In that case, they become just noise and off topic.

    I’m all for vigorous discussion and fair minded criticism, but I do not have time to deal with relentless personal assaults and attacks that have nothing to do with the substance of ideas. Nor do I have time to engage in the same circular debate with 2-3 commenters who feed on being intentionally belligerent.

  20. #20 Lee Harrison
    April 8, 2008

    Matt – I received no email but my comment still vanished into the ether.

    From memory, the worst thing in the comment was where I presented two options: either A) you are deeply stupid or B) you haven’t been paying attention to substantive comments lately – the emphasis in context was fairly obviously on option B so I was not calling you stupid. The comment contained plenty of substantive criticism, pointing to some irony in how you wrote your recent Paul Kurtz post.

    So far as I can tell, the options are that you really aren’t paying much attention, you need a much thicker skin, you really are deleting comments with substantive criticisms because it’s easier than answering them, or you think criticism equates with insult (or, perhaps, all of the above).

    I don’t really expect this comment to be published, of course, but it would be nice to be surprised…

  21. #21 John Morales
    April 8, 2008

    Thank you for the response.

    I note other blogs post a public warning and/or keep a register of offenders, which I think is more transparent and instructive to readers.

  22. #22 bill
    April 11, 2008

    as a follow-up to my comment of four days ago: take a look at a post on NeoCaths , or the Neo-Catholics. In particular, this writer notes:
    “The Neocaths are ill at ease with modernity. They feel they have seen through the myths of secular humanism, and the liberal culture of democratic discussion which they see as relativistic. They bewail confusion and uncertainty and call for a firm voice of authority to put an end to it.”
    The discourse about science is influenced by discourses within Christian circles; those at the intersection of these discourses might be best positioned to work within the Catholic discourse on modernity, Biblical literalism and science.

  23. #23 Jeremy
    April 4, 2009

    Really it’s a wonderful submission. I am totally agreed with your article. I read some of your data showing that your methods for science communication have some benefit. I have yet to see you or anyone else publish a shred of data that the New Atheists are actually hurting the cause as opposed to just using a different tactic that is aimed at a different audience. If you’ve done actual research showing harm, I would be interested to see your references.

    You did make some really good suggestions. But there are some real differences.
    Thanks

    Jeremy
    Real Estate