Framing Science

I taped an interview yesterday with PRI/BBC The World discussing the unfortunate use by science advocates of the term “denier” in debates over climate change, evolution, and other issues involving scientific expertise. I’m told the segment may appear as early as today or tomorrow. Archived audio will be found here.

The frame device “denier” should be laid to rest in the same rhetorical grave as other terms such as “anti-science.” They serve little purpose other than to feed polarization while also frequently backfiring, turning the debate into a discussion of the alleged underhanded or sensational tactics of science defenders rather than a focus on the substance of the issues themselves.

Worse, these terms are also often inaccurate. Few if any people in modern society are actually “anti-scientific,” just like on few issues are the facts or evidence as clear as the Holocaust, the comparison called to mind in any use of “denier” in political discourse.

Comments

  1. #1 Pierce R. Butler
    November 18, 2008

    Few if any people in modern society are actually “anti-scientific,”…

    Ben Stein: “Science leads you to killing people”.

  2. #2 James F
    November 18, 2008

    What device would you recommend in place of “denier?” A YEC denies foundational principles of biology, geology, and physics, so I would argue that the use of “anti-science” is often justified.

  3. #3 Orac
    November 18, 2008

    Or what about antivaccinationists, who deny all the epidemiology and science showing that vaccines are safe, with anything other than minor complications being very rare, in favor of anecdotes and pseudoscience?

  4. #4 Gary
    November 18, 2008

    You sound to me like a Denialism denier!

  5. #5 Chris H.
    November 18, 2008

    I’m really interested in hearing the PRI interview, and am going to hold substantive comment until I more fully understand your argument.

    What I’ve tried to do at Denialism Blog is help individuals understand the patterns of we term “denialism” so that they do not waste time in labyrinthine arguments to nowhere. Particularly in my area of work–consumer protection–the objections are often predicated upon utopian beliefs and commitments to ideals of behaviors and norms that will never exist. Engaging these underlying commitments is a fool’s errand.

  6. #6 Barry
    November 18, 2008

    Denier is the best term, surely? “Contrarian” could be used though it still causes offence, and “skeptic” is obviously the wrong term (unless you want to insult actual skeptics).

    Perhaps we need to drag in denialism blog…

  7. #7 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    November 18, 2008

    I’ll listen to the show, just because I am curious as to how you would wrest the term “skeptic” from global warming “I don’t believe it because it conflicts with my personal political viewpoint” people. They don’t deserve to be called skeptics, because they are doing it wrong.

    They don’t operate like skeptics. They distort the evidence, use ad hominem (which are based on lies against Dr. James Hansen and Al Gore,) and never address the real evidence. They are denying the evidence, not skeptically approaching the conclusions and the theory. If non “denialists,” then what should they be called? Certainly not skeptics.

  8. #8 MarkH
    November 18, 2008

    This view is, if anything, incredibly naive. To say the problem with psuedoscience is a mere absence of information is absurd. The reality is antiscience is a problem of ideology conflicting with reality, and the need of such ideologues is to deny that which they wish to be untrue, no matter what the countervailing evidence in whatever quantity.

  9. #9 coby
    November 19, 2008

    Hi Matt,

    My interest is primarily climate change. I understand you points and even agree with them to a point. However, I hesitate to back down from calling a spade a spade and conceding to an opponent’s unfairly advantageous framing of a debate.

    Basically, we are wondering over here what your alternative label is?

  10. #10 Aaron
    November 19, 2008

    “Contrarian” is much better and more accurate. They’re just trying to contrary to mainstream science without engaging in actual scientific research.

  11. #11 Orac
    November 19, 2008

    I’ve been known at times to use the term “pseudoskeptic” (which describes such cranks fairly well to a point), but, quite frankly, “denialism,” when not overused, is an appropriate term for many of these types of people: creationists, AGW “skeptics,” antivaccine activists, etc.

    I plan on continuing to use the term when I deem it appropriate to do so.

  12. #12 Besley
    November 19, 2008

    The question should be – what would you say if someone was just wrong and your goal wasn’t to make them look bad or win some imaginary debating contest by making your opponent look stupid? I’ve never seen anything in the communication literature that says that being a jerk is persuasive. Quite the opposite.

    What if it was your mother someone you cared about?

    – “mistaken” (honest mistake?)
    – “in error”
    – “likely wrong”
    – “misguided” or “misled” (not sure about these ones)
    – can people think of others?

  13. #13 Orac
    November 20, 2008

    The question should be – what would you say if someone was just wrong and your goal wasn’t to make them look bad or win some imaginary debating contest by making your opponent look stupid

    But we’re not talking about people who are “just wrong” here. We’re talking about people who are obtusely, extravagantly wrong, usually for ideological reasons.

  14. #14 tomS
    November 20, 2008

    I prefer a term that indicates the lack of openmindedness: fanatic.

    tomS

  15. #15 Josh Rosenau
    November 20, 2008

    It strikes me that all of the points you raise against the use of “denier” are exactly the things that make it an effective way of framing the issue.

    Shouldn’t scientists and science defenders be thinking about and taking full advantage of such penumbral meanings of words? Tell me the anti-framers haven’t gotten to you!

    Used relative to creationism (evolution denial) it reflects exactly the boneheaded rejection of evidence that characterizes a wider pattern of evidence rejection.

    Applied to climate change denial, it seems entirely fair to call James “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” Inhofe a denier in the same way as people who assert that the Holocaust is a hoax (consider the Holocaust denial book The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, or compare The Great Global Warming Swindle with Holocaust denial work The Six Million Swindle).

  16. #16 Chris Noble
    November 20, 2008

    The question should be – what would you say if someone was just wrong and your goal wasn’t to make them look bad or win some imaginary debating contest by making your opponent look stupid? I’ve never seen anything in the communication literature that says that being a jerk is persuasive. Quite the opposite.

    I think you have to realise that there are some people so attached to their beliefs that no amount of evidence, no amount of patient debate and no amount of politeness will ever succeed in getting them to change their minds.

    There a lot people who are simply mistaken. If you carefully explain how the evidence contradicts their beliefs and take care not to offend them then some of the time they will change their views. I wish everybody was like this but the reality is that they aren’t.

    For some people ridicule is the only appropriate response.

    I also fail to see how these two styles of responding to these issues are mutually exclusive.

  17. #17 Anna Haynes
    November 20, 2008

    Provide a permalink to the audio when the yours goes up, please, Matt – i didn’t see it there, unless it’s one of the multitudes titled “PRI’s The World: Latest Edition”.

    For a term, as I said over on Coby’s blog, I’ll vote for frankbi’s “inactivist”, since, fundamentally, that’s their sponsor’s goal.

    As for “a focus on the substance of the issues themselves” – that’s fine, for a bit, but isn’t it counterproductive for the audience, if you never point out that there’s a pattern, and a reason for it? And when they go into the Gish Gallop, and you’re calling in to the radio station for your 2 minutes of rebuttal, you’re not going to be able to catch up.
    What should I have said, when I called in?

  18. #18 Anna Haynes
    November 20, 2008

    And I’d agree with something Michael Tobis has said, that addressing the various claims (if that’s what you meant by “the substance of the issues”) really doesn’t help the listener; that from a citizen’s perspective, fundamentally it’s a question of networks of trust – how should you judge who is and isn’t credible. Schools don’t teach it, the press doesn’t teach it; how do you communicate the heuristics that they should be using, and how do you communicate why it is that your heuristics are better than the snake oil salesman’s?

  19. #19 Dano
    November 21, 2008

    This is an interesting discussion.

    Dano uses “denialist” which is slightly different than “denier”, and for a while he used “contrascience”, which referred to places like CO2Science, SEPP web, CA, anti-stem cell/evolution sites etc who quote-mine, cherry-pick and so on but do no data collection or analysis of their own.

    “Septic” is also eye-catching. “Ideologue” comes to mind if we are concerned about resurrecting past put-to-bed debates about false equivalencies to “holocaust denier”.

    But surely the frame is that “skeptic” is inappropriate as this presumes there is a debate. “pseudoskeptic” above gets at this, but require background.

    Best,

    D

  20. #20 Mike M.
    November 24, 2008

    By all means, please continue to use the most hateful labels you can concoct. I wish it was possible to bring together all these commentators and put them on national TV. What better way to sway Western democracies than to portray us as evil, industry-backed, enemies of mankind?

    What prevents you from calling for the next logical step? Considering the apocalyptic consequences of our efforts, why aren’t you calling for “denialists” to be officially censored and sanctioned? Why not make it illegal to voice our opinions, considering the billions of lives and species at stake?

    Why not arrest us?

    Why not have us executed?

  21. #21 MarkH
    November 24, 2008

    What prevents you from calling for the next logical step? Considering the apocalyptic consequences of our efforts, why aren’t you calling for “denialists” to be officially censored and sanctioned? Why not make it illegal to voice our opinions, considering the billions of lives and species at stake?

    Why not arrest us?

    Why not have us executed?

    Delusions of persecution! Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have ourselves a crank.

  22. #22 minimalist
    November 26, 2008

    Hey Mikey Mike,

    Set aside your li’l tinfoil hat for a second. Let’s have a quick quiz.

    Which side has actually actively worked to suppress the scientific evidence?

    HINT

    Looks like somebody’s already got a headstart on that slippery-slope of yours, there. And it ain’t the mainstream scientific community.

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