Framing Science

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Several colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have a new study out that shows not surprisingly that like-minded conversations drive attitude extremity relative to science policy.

Analyzing data from a national panel survey conducted between 2002 and 2005, graduate student Andrew Binder and his collaborators find that after controlling for demographics and news use, like-minded discussion pushed respondents’ position on stem cell research to the extreme ends of the distribution, either towards strong support or strong opposition.

The study comes out of the research group at Wisconsin headed up by Profs. Dietram Scheufele and Dominique Brossard. The findings are in line with several studies Scheufele and collaborators have published on the consequences of like-minded discussion for civic engagement. (Full disclosure: I have collaborated with Scheufele on several of these studies.)

So why should we care about attitude extremity? In other words, what might be the civic consequences of ever more deeply committed and intense opinions on issues such as stem cell research, evolution, and climate change? Moreover, what happens in a society where there are more and more like-minded discussions about science policy, whether via popular blogs such as Pharyngula or talk radio shows such as Rush Limbaugh?

a) First, we know from past research that opinion intensity is one of the strongest predictors of participation in science policy debates, promoting contacts with elected officials as well as willingness to turn out to deliberative forums on topics such as stem cell research.

So if like-minded conversations are driving attitude intensity, the voices that will be heard on issues such as stem cell research or evolution are more and more likely to be the extreme tail ends of the continuum of views, ranging from the committed secular liberal to the committed social conservative.

b) Another possibility is a loss of the ability to reach compromise and consensus on science policy. We saw this in reaction to the recent NIH decision on funding for embryonic stem cell research, where social conservatives decried any additional funding while committed stem cell advocates decried any limitations short of those applied to human cloning research.

c) A third possibility is a reinforcing cycle of selectivity in information seeking and news consumption. Like minded conversations on the left and the right reinforce ideology which additionally shape media choices, which further reinforce these like-minded conversations and propel more extreme positions relative to science policy.

d) Attitude extremity and the connection to like-minded conversations about science policy is also likely to continue to fuel belief in a hostile media, a finding that has been shown in previous studies of politics generally. On evolution, for example, social conservatives decry the influence of the liberal press whereas hardliner atheists bemoan a media that is “soft on religion” and promotes “accommodation.”

Or on climate change, conservatives will increasingly believe that the media is exaggerating the problem while the most committed liberals such as Joe Romm will cannibalize even the best among the journalistic corp such Andrew Revkin for engaging in “false balance.”

So what to do about these social trends and human tendencies? What’s clear is that we need to start to think systematically about structuring political interactions and media availability around a plurality of ideas. In short, we need more “cross talk” about science that goes beyond the common perspectives from advocates on either side of a science policy debate.

This can take the form of additional investment in deliberative forums, science cafes, and other forms of dialogue that do a better job of going beyond an activist or science enthusiast turn out. On stage and at the table in these discussions should be more than just scientists, but should include a range of views from the left and the right, the secular and the religious.

It can also take the form of new interactive forms of science journalism and media that sponsor and structure a diversity of views or at least a middle ground perspective. One example recently launched is the Biologos project by Francis Collins that examines the relationship between science and religion. You can disagree with the philosophical position of the site or debate its support from the Templeton Foundation, but this middle ground view is desperately needed online where the discussion is currently dominated by an echo-chamber of social conservatives in one sector and atheist literalists in the other.

Comments

  1. #1 vespera
    May 12, 2009

    Moreover, what happens in a society where there are more and more like-minded discussions about science policy, whether via popular blogs such as Pharyngula or talk radio shows such as Rush Limbaugh?

    And there we have it. Shorter Matt Nisbet: “Waaah, Pharyngula gets way more traffic than me.”

    Why would we worry about whether “the voices that will be heard on issues such as stem cell research or evolution are more and more likely to be the extreme tail ends of the continuum of view,” rather than promoting policy that we think is effective and based on facts without fretting about where that falls relative to other opinions?

  2. #2 Tom Rooney
    May 12, 2009

    With stem cell research (as with abortion), there are a plurality of ideas that stem from subjective claims (i.e. life is sacred, etc). There is no disbelief in the existence of stem cells. With climate change and evolution, there are a plurality of ideas about the science of which many are demonstrably wrong. Greenhouse gasses do warm the atmosphere. Evolution does happen. There really isn’t room for middle ground here. Questions of policy (i.e. should we ban the teaching of biology? Should we try to stop al-Qaeda from obtaining hydrocarbon-splitting technology to stop their evil plot to warm the atmosphere?) do have room for plurality.

  3. #3 RdleyA
    May 12, 2009

    This post seems to touch partially upon a subject that has bothered me for a long time about political debate in this country. That subject is the notion of extremity. It always is cast in terms of left vs. right, and usually seems to only have a negative connotation, to put it mildly. Yet what is it about having an “extreme” opinion that is so bad? History offers many examples of extreme opinions that we now realize were anything but extreme. The obvious common examples being treatment of African Americans during and after slavery, or of Jews in Nazi Germany; in both examples the extreme opinion would regard these people as deserving of the exact same rights and treatment as the majority receives, while more moderate opinion would accord them substandard though perhaps more humane treatment.

    I think a more appropriate thing to look at would be not the “extremity” of the view but the degree to which people holding any given opinion are open to reason and evaluation of their opinions. That would mean, though, that the moderates could be found to have unreasonable or closed-minded opinions also.

    By demonizing people with different opinions from the “middle”, don’t we run the risk of having the “middle” be as isolated as we fear the extremes are?

  4. #4 T_U_T
    May 13, 2009

    what is the middle between binary values true and binary false ?

    Is the middle between 2+2 = 4 and 2+2 = 3 somehow more desirable than one of the two ‘extremes’ ? Is any dialogue between proponents of those two opinions possible even in principle ?

  5. #5 Michael P. Taylor
    May 13, 2009

    T_U_T, the issue is not whether 2+2 is 3 or 4. The problem here is that when 2+2=4 advocates run into 2+2=3 advocates, there is a tendency to respond by “strengthening” their position to 2+2=5. And of course the 2+2=3 people retreat to 2+2=2. I think this tendency is important to recognise.

    Speaking as both a scientist and a Christian — and having friend in both the non-Christian scientist and non-scientist Christian camps — I see this in action ALL the time. In both camps.

  6. #6 gillt
    May 13, 2009

    I only comment on this site when you say something egregious, inflammatory or false. Today it’s setting up a false dichotomy between “social conservatives” and “atheist literalists.” First off, the numbers don’t square. Social conservatives comprise a sizable majority of the (online) population while atheist literalist make up a fraction of a sub-population. Second, to be fair, if you’re going to disparage a group it’s best not to discriminate. So when poking outspoken atheists in the eye with the “literalist” title, consider extending the same name-calling to Bible-flogging, conservative god-bots.

  7. #7 Glendon Mellow
    May 14, 2009

    This post is proof to m that the definition of moderate middle ground can vary quite a bit – Biologos is middle ground? Not to me.

    Just because the words “religion” and “science” appear on the same page by a theist does not make it middle ground.

  8. #8 maximilion
    May 27, 2009

    I have a hard time addressing the behaviour of groups of individuals, let alone trends among groups of individuals, and further less groups of individuals in opposite camps, and least of all media coverage of the different camps. :)

    Also, there is no will left in me to find middle ground or go down the track Taylor is (probably accurately) describing.

    What is left when no more can be left out? To pick a fight, one you believe in. If media is considered the way to reach out to, um, those more numerous than the people who look shit up (note how I avoided the word “masses”!), the positive action is to empower the media reaching out to them for “your camp”.

    The other option I see is an opening up of dialog of all camps, which I only see the good guys without agendas doing, and which can be hard to fit inside the programming time of media channels and attention span of (passive) viewers.

    A third is establishing a working board of scrutiny of media, without censorship. Right now it’s mostly censorship without scrutiny. If we imagine a society where this would actually happen, that would relieve that society of some of the fascination for entertainment, misrepresentation of fact, and shift of focus purveyors of woo rely on.

  9. #9 maximilion
    May 27, 2009

    I have a hard time addressing the behaviour of groups of individuals, let alone trends among groups of individuals, and further less groups of individuals in opposite camps, and least of all media coverage of the different camps. :)

    Also, there is no will left in me to find middle ground or go down the track Taylor is (probably accurately) describing.

    What is left when no more can be left out? To pick a fight, one you believe in. If media is considered the way to reach out to, um, those more numerous than the people who look shit up (note how I avoided the word “masses”!), the positive action is to empower the media reaching out to them for “your camp”.

    The other option I see is an opening up of dialog of all camps, which I only see the good guys without agendas doing, and which can be hard to fit inside the programming time of media channels and attention span of (passive) viewers.

    A third is establishing a working board of scrutiny of media, without censorship. Right now it’s mostly censorship without scrutiny. If we imagine a society where this would actually happen, that would relieve that society of some of the fascination for entertainment, misrepresentation of fact, and shift of focus purveyors of woo rely on.

  10. #10 Opisthokont
    June 9, 2009

    The problem with this sort of accomodationism is that it is possible for one side simply to be wrong. Evolution is science; creationism (in all its forms) is not. Climate change deniers are wrong, just as are those that claim that HIV does not cause AIDS, or that vaccines do cause autism. These are some of the best-proven claims of modern science, and vacillation on them is counterproductive to say the least.

    As to the argument that the people claiming that 2+2=4 will start to claim that 2+2=5 when confronted by people claiming that 2+2=3: does that mean that, when confronted by people claiming that vaccines cause autism, that scientists will start claiming that vaccines cure autism?! Hardly. Antivaccinationists are wrong, and that is all that there is to the matter. Science is not decided by public opinion, and as far as I have seen (though I may be wrong), scientists do not exaggerate science to combat public ignorance.

    This is not to say that conversation with opposing sides is unproductive. Discussions about how best to mitigate climate change are necessary, and representatives from the industries affected by it need to be part of it. But the subject of discussion cannot be whether or to what extent climate change is happening: that is a topic for research and education, not political debate. The current model is to regard scientists as just another special-interest group, and this is wrong. Science may not be decided in any number of matters, and there is no reason why informed debate, even with nonscientists, cannot be productive. However, debates about science and debates about policy are (or should be) separate matters, and to allow the one to influence the other is folly.

    Meanwhile, what exactly is an atheist literalist? Is there some atheist text that I can use to hit people back with when they bring out their Bibles?

  11. #11 Joseph
    June 15, 2009

    Michael P Taylor: totally agree. Sadly, both camps will jump all over you for saying it. :(