Respectful Insolence

Three days ago, ScienceBlogs did something it hasn’t done before. ScienceBloggers were given screener DVDs of a new movie by one of our own, Randy Olson of Shifting Baselines. The movie was Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, and the idea was to get as many of us as possible to review the movie and post our reviews on the same day. The reviews were pretty mixed, ranging from panning the movie to really, really liking it, with the majority from my reading tending towards negative.

Of course, as regular readers know, life intervened for me in a truly depressing way, which is why I was not part of ScienceBlogs’ little Sizzle-fest. I still haven’t watched my screener DVD, although I may do so over the weekend. I may even post a review if anyone’s even interested anymore–or if I can even be objective anymore, which is doubtful given that I’ve read too many of the reviews. That’s not what I’m about here, though. From the outside looking in, it’s not hard to see the ugly “framing” wars being rekindled by this little exercise in movie promotion.

As you may recall, two ScienceBloggers, Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet postulated that, in essence, scientists aren’t doing a very good job of communicating important science issues to the public. On issues of importance that science impacts, such as global climate change and evolution education, they postulated, the way scientists could do a better job of communicating what science tells us about these issues and persuading the public of the validity of the science behind these controversial issues is to “frame” them better. As they said in their original article in Science:

In reality, citizens do not use the news media as scientists assume. Research shows that people are rarely well enough informed or motivated to weigh competing ideas and arguments. Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own. Such screening reduces the choices of what to pay attention to and accept as valid.

Frames organize central ideas, defining a controversy to resonate with core values and assumptions. Frames pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible, and what should be done.

To my initial surprise, Nisbet and Mooney’s thesis provoked a great deal of hostility among some science bloggers, and not just members of the ScienceBlogs collective. I say “to my initial surprise” because, initially at least, the whole idea seemed so mind-numbingly obvious to me, as I explained in gory detail in these two posts. Basically, I attibuted much of the conflict to a cultural divide between “pure” scientists and science teachers and practitioners of more applied science, such as physicians like me, the latter understanding that you have to find a way to simplify and communicate in a way that your audience understands. And so it was for many months that I remained puzzled by the extreme intensity of the debate, whose nastiness at times seemed to go far beyond the actual difference between the two camps. Before too long, the very mention of the word “framing” became all but certain to set certain members of the ScienceBlogs collective into rabid fits of vicious invective that leave rational discourse behind, inspiring Mooney and Nisbet to return fire in ways that did not bring glory upon them, to put it mildly.

Then, earlier this year, there was the whole “expelled from Expelled!” kerfluffle, where flagship ScienceBlogger P.Z. Myers was prevented from entering a theater to see the anti-evolution crapfest known as Expelled! while the producers, not recognizing him, let Richard Dawkins, of all people, in to see the movie. It was a hilarious demonstration of the utter incompetence and mendacity of Expelled!‘s producers. “Expelled from Expelled!” was a perfect frame for that message. Here the producers were representing their film as being about how academia somehow “expels” any scientist with the temerity to dare to voice support for “intelligent design” creationism, yet here were the producers of that very movie, “expelling” one of the very scientists interviewed in the movie and shutting down the previews for a while to prevent any other skeptics from finding their way in to see Expelled!

Unfortunately, Nisbet’s and Mooney both concluded that the incident was somehow “bad for science” and piously told those of us who were–admittedly–gloating about it that we were “helping Ben Stein.” It was about that time that I started to come to the reluctant conclusion that, in Nisbet’s hands at least, “framing” seemed to mean in practice nothing more than kowtowing to religious extremists and avoiding at almost any cost anything that might annoy highly religious people, particularly when dealing with creationism.

Enter Sizzle. From what I can gather from the reviews, both positive and negative, is that the movie is a bit of a muddled mess that tries to poke fun at how scientists have difficulty communicating with the general public. One predominant theme running through the criticisms is that the movie seems to be making fun of scientists as being humorless and demanding nothing but data. Chris Mooney thinks it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread (or the “funniest movie about global warming ever made“) while Matt Nisbet hasn’t yet weighed in. What annoyed me was how Mooney dismissed criticism of the movie as just not “getting it”:

But I still just have to say….I’m mystified with the tone of much of what I’ve read over all.

And so I’d like to make a suggestion: Could it be that, for some of these hypercritical bloggers, Randy Olson’s documentarian character in Sizzle is really their reflection in the mirror? After all, the character is basically a caricature of someone who repeatedly demands facts, facts, facts, and can’t relate to non-scientists, have a good laugh, enjoy a good story.

In my view, what’s so great about Sizzle is the way it asks us to look hard at the insularity of our pro-science community–and the disconnect between the science world and other walks of life, other parts of American culture. In this context, doesn’t the fact that many science bloggers are slamming it–and misunderstanding it–simply validate the film’s central point?

In other words, the science bloggers who panned the movie must be humorless putzes who “can’t enjoy a good story.” I don’t know if Sizzle was a good story or not because I haven’t seen it yet, but I do know that whenever I see someone dismiss criticism as people “not getting it” or being humorless putzes who can’t relate it strikes me as lazy and defensive. From many of the reviews I read, my fellow ScienceBloggers were bending over backward to give the movie the benefit of the doubt and to try to understand its message. Several of them just didn’t think it was all that funny.

Of course, the whole undercurrent running under the exchanges between those who loved Sizzle (who appeared to be the minority) and those who really hated it (a somewhat bigger minority) and those who wanted to like it but appeared to be left mostly cold by it (probably the majority, or at least the largest minority among those who reviewed the film) is, of course, the whole framing imbroglio. The reason, of course, is that the whole criticism of scientists as being unable to relate to “normal” people is a frequent refrain from those who seem to see framing as the be-all and end-all of communicating science.

All of this got me to thinking (always a dangerous thing). One thing I’ve noticed in all the arguments about “framing” is that the discussions virtually always center around two topics: evolution or global climate change. Although I have a strong interest in evolution and in refuting creationism, I am not an evolutionary biologist, nor do I teach evolution. The best “frame” I can come up with for evolution is how useful it is to medical research. As for global warming, forget it. I know a little about the topic (enough to debunk a few common denialist canards) but I’m nowhere near an expert. Neither of these two areas are likely to convince me of the value of framing, because they’re not where my science lives, so to speak. Medicine is, specifically science- and evidence-based medicine. That’s why my thinking about the blogospheric reaction to Sizzle brought me to an idea. There is another area of science that is under assault by the forces of ideologically driven antiscience: Medicine. Not all medicine, of course, but certain areas of medicine. Let me explain.

One of the overarching topics of this blog since very early in its history has been combatting antivaccinationist lunacy and lies. Indeed, I was, as far as I can tell, the first person ever to point out what a cesspit of antivaccination propaganda The Huffington Post was right from its start. Resistance to vaccination and pseudoscientific misinformation every bit as ridiculous as any creationist nonsense appears to be growing, fueled by Generation Rescue, Jenny McCarthy, and the rabid band of antivaccinationists who deny they’re antivaccinationists over at Age of Autism. It’s even progressed to the point of rallies on Washington, such as the recent “Green Our Vaccines” rally. In fact, the whole “green our vaccines” slogan is about as Orwellian a bit of “framing” as I have ever seen. After all, who cold be against “greening” vaccines? Who, without a significant knowledge of the science of vaccines, would even realize that the slogan is a lie, a smokescreen for antivaccinationists?

That is why I now ask the pro-“framing” contingent a question: How would you deal with antivaccinationism? What “frames” would you use to combat the likes of Jenny McCarthy?

It’s a simple question. I would even argue that, in the short term at least, it’s a far more important problem than convincing the public of the validity of evolution or that we should do something to try to alleviate or reverse the effects of greenhouse gasses. The dire consequences of global climate change are far in the future, at least when compared to a human lifespan. None (or almost none) of us will be alive 100 years from now, and any but children will be old or dead fifty years from now. It is not us, but our children, who will suffer if the models for global warming are correct, and it will be very difficult to evaluate end measures of effectiveness of “framing” in that length of time. In addition, the situation with antivaccine activism is very similar to the situation with creationism. The scientific consensus is that vaccines do not cause autism and are, as far as medical interventions go, incredibly safe, just as the scientific consensus supports the theory of evolution. Just like the situation with creationism, there is a hard-core contingent of antivaccine denialists who are loud, vocal, and probably unswayable, bolstered by ideology plus pseudoscience generated by a small cadre of “scientists” who have become convinced that for autism (and other disorders), it absolutely, positively has to be the vaccines. Finally, just like the situation with creationism there is the vast middle, Americans with little knowledge of science who hear the “charges” against vaccines and wonder if maybe, just maybe, the myths are true, making them hesitant to vaccinate their children. After all, the whole concept that there are “toxins” in vaccines sounds compelling to the average, scientifically untrained person, even though on a strictly medical and scientific basis it is not.

In contrast to the effect of ideologically motivated antiscience on evolution education or whether or not we as a society do anything to address global climate change, the ideologically-motivated antiscience known as antivaccinationism has a much more rapid deleterious effect. Thanks to fearmongering over vaccines, measles is already endemic again in the U.K., after previously having been conquered, while in the U.S. it is surging back as well, fueled by lower vaccination rates. If current trends continue, and antivaccine activists make good on their promise of a “fall offensive” against the vaccination schedule, it won’t be long before other vaccine-preventable diseases start making a comeback as well.

Chris Mooney, Randy Olson, and Matt Nisbet, here’s your chance.

If ever an effective framing strategy were needed to counter the Orwellian “green our vaccines” movement, the time is now. Here’s your chance to shine. Here’s your chance to really show the utility of your entire “framing” thesis in a way that could potentially benefit public health very rapidly. No waiting decades. Reversing the decline in vaccination rates could restore our increasingly shaky herd immunity within a few years or even less.

I know, it’s not your area. It’s not what you know best, but I’d be happy to offer my services to help you learn the background and the ideologies behind antivaccinationism. I’d be happy to show you the very effective frames antivaccinationists have come up with, such as the ever-popular “we’re not ‘antivaccine’ but pro-safe vaccine” gambit or the even more popular conspiracy-mongering against the government and big pharma. You see, I haven’t entirely given up on your framing thesis. I still think it has something to say to scientists–and, yes, doctors–about how we communicate science to the public, but the debate over it has become so rancorous and so poisoned by personality conflicts that a clean slate is required. Also, quite frankly, Nesbit has demonstrated that he has a tin ear for a good frame any time religion is involved. His reaction to the “expelled from Expelled!” incident demonstrated that quite conclusively. That’s why I’m proposing a whole different area, an area that is for the most part free of any religious overtones. It’s a chance to begin again and show the utility of framing in a dramatic way that could benefit public health right away. Show me why calling antivaccinationists antivaccinationists is not a good idea, for instance or why, for instance, Paul Offit is not a good spokesperson for vaccines. (Hint: Antivaccinationists view Dr. Offit in much the same way as fundamentalists view Richard Dawkins or P.Z. Myers.)

Come on, what do you say? It’s a challenge, but an achievable challenge. I’ll even forget Mooney’s dismissal of scientists who didn’t like Sizzle as humorless, data demanding drones, although his comment makes me think I probably won’t like it either. Heck, you guys can even portray physicians as humorless drones, if you want. Just give us an effective frame we can use.

And then, after that, maybe you’d be interested in helping this skeptical physician take on cancer quackery.

Comments

  1. #1 BB
    July 18, 2008

    “In reality, citizens do not use the news media as scientists assume. Research shows that people are rarely well enough informed or motivated to weigh competing ideas and arguments. Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own. Such screening reduces the choices of what to pay attention to and accept as valid.”

    In reality, citizen do not use news sources or exercise critical thinking, period.
    Example: the 2000 and 2004 elections.

    How to reach citizens? With their shortened attention span, maybe we need a series of music videos to show that science is sexy, important, and cool. Turn ‘em into podcasts.

  2. #2 cg
    July 18, 2008

    That’s a great challenge. I hope they take you up on this, or at least this post generates some discussion. One news item I saw recently that might help (in a celebrity-obsessed culture) is a pro-vaccine celebrity: http://www.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/2008/07/17/peet_apologizes/index.html

    Maybe putting Amanda Peet (and hopefully others) out in public areas to make pro-vaccine statements is one good way to make sure people don’t make bad decisions.

  3. #3 Mark F.
    July 18, 2008

    This is an excellent suggestion. I really hope Mooney, et al take you up on the challenge. As a scientist and the father of a child on the autism spectrum, I am sick of the “vaccines cause autism” crap. This could potentially lead to an effective counter to the wack-jobs in the anti-vaccination camp.

  4. #4 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 18, 2008

    Orac,
    The anti-vaccine movement is a perfect issue to examine how framing has shaped communication dynamics and public opinion; and how various groups have brought framing strategies to bear in the policy debate.

    I personally haven’t had time to do research on the topic.

    The issues I have written about at Science, The Scientist, or at my blog I have personally published research on or I am currently working on research on the issue i.e. stem cell research, climate, evolution, food biotech, nuclear energy, nanotechnology, science and religion.

    To understand and to make recommendations about the anti-vaccine movement, you would need to conduct polling, focus groups, and do an analysis of media coverage.

    That’s the point I’ve made about framing from the beginning. It involves taking a scientific and research-based approach to science communication. Do the research, combine it with an understanding of past studies on science communication, and then plot a strategy.

    Unfortunately too many bloggers think framing is something you whip up on the back of an envelope, and in the process they have little concept of what a frame might be, or understand the research in the area.

    If you know of possible funders for a project on the anti-vaccine movement, please have them contact me.

  5. #5 bsci
    July 18, 2008

    To understand and to make recommendations about the anti-vaccine movement, you would need to conduct polling, focus groups, and do an analysis of media coverage

    Matthew, did you run any polls or focus groups to assess the benefits or failures of the “expelled from Expelled” theme before you condemned it as counter-productive? While I personally don’t like PZ Meyer’s style, have you ever showed text of people writing like him to focus groups to gauge their responses? I think part of the confusion on how framing is done correctly is that you say one thing and then do the exact opposite on your blog.

    I know good frames require serious communication research, but, at least in your lay writing on your blog and in your Science and New Scientist articles, you give little evidence that you actually do any of this research before pronouncing what is or is not a good frame. Perhaps if you wrote more about the scientific parts of your research instead of just stating the resulting frames, you’d get more productive discussion.

    As a thought experiment, how about taking the first step of Orac’s challenge? How would you design a study to build good frames for vaccination? What types of questions would you ask a focus group on this topic? How would you define the goals of a successful frame. Are there colleagues you know who might be interested in more directly working on vaccination issues? I suspect Orac would be glad to work with anyone willing to be serious effort into this topic.

  6. #6 James
    July 18, 2008

    Orac, excellent post!

    Your proposal has merit. A test of framing is certainly in order. Even a test of one or two simple, yet relevant hypotheses would be beneficial. As a passive (unrelated scientific area) supporter of framing, your suggestion pleasantly caused the hairs on the back of my neck to tingle.

    Further, it would be a wonderful opportunity to couch such framing in a manner that could withstand ‘real world’ scientific measurement. Some additional data would be beneficial to all concerned.

    A collegial request to ‘help me prove it’, is what science is all about.

  7. #7 fontinalis
    July 18, 2008

    Having followed the “framing” debate for some time now, I can’t help but wonder if we really aren’t talking so much about the efficacy of a particular tactical — or even strategic — approach as we are about differing campaigns entirely. In my view, Myers, Dawkins, et al seek nothing less than a cultural shift to a state when objectivity and critical thinking not only enjoy a higher status, but which are intrinsic elements of everything from education to the way policy is made. Elevating awareness, through any and all means possible, is all that matters and should be the central focus for as long as it takes.

    Although I cannot speak to their views on the attainability of such a haughty goal, Nisbet and Mooney seem to have settled for much lower hanging fruit. To them it seems that knowledge will forever remain within the relativistic plain, and they simply seek efficient ways of not only surviving but thriving in the intellectual economy of the future. The approach they promote is scientific — the science of marketing — and is a perfectly reasoned and pragmatic view if one accepts the commodification of empirical knowledge for a competition (one that is long term if not perpetual) in the marketplace of ideas.

    In the end I suspect both camps do seek a similar societal change, one that is entrenched and sustained. And their differences and increasingly heated exchanges may just be over the validity of the old Hollywood adage that ‘any press is good press’.

  8. #8 Electric Dragon
    July 18, 2008

    My twopenn’orth: The key thing the antivax folks hammer on about is safety and “damage”. Turn that around. Something like “I want my child to be safe. Safe from measles, safe from whooping cough” etc etc. [I can't find exact statistics] “In 1958, [b&w shot of old-fashioned hospital ward] over 500,000 children suffered from measles. 2000 of them died. In 1998, [soft-focus shot of colourful child-friendly nursery] only 100 children did, and they all survived. Vaccination saves lives.”

    Have a series for different diseases, some giving facts like that, some giving a testimonial from a parent who got their (happy, healthy, normal) child vaccinated, each finishing with “vaccination saves lives.” As cg says, if we can get some famous people to stand up for vaccines, so much the better. (I rather like the adverts promoting blood donation we had in the UK a few years ago, in which famous people talk about someone close to them was helped by donated blood – eg. http://youtube.com/watch?v=tijSx_fwoM0 ).

    Don’t even mention autism in the main ads. Have lots of factsheets and FAQs on the website to rebut the anti-vax talking points, but don’t focus on it.

  9. #9 The Uncredible Hallq
    July 18, 2008

    Oh my science, Nisbet’s turning into a parody of himself. Above what bsci said, there’s the fact that he’s saying “I know this is an absolutely perfect example of what I’ve been saying, but actually I don’t know anything about it and can’t give you advice.”

    On a more productive line, the pro-science movement should try presenting itself as consumer empowerment: teaching people how to tell legitimate doctors from snake-oil salesmen. It’s basically what people who really believe in science want to do, but it sounds less authoritarian and more flattering to average people than some of the stuff I’ve seen tried.

  10. #10 Patrick
    July 18, 2008

    Of course this is a perfect opportunity and they’ve already balked. From reading the framers’ posts, I’ve come to the conclusion that they aren’t interested in coming up with solutions or recommendations. They are only interested in communicating that scientists are bad at communicating. I rewatched Flock of Dodo’s last night, and while it’s a good movie, and sets up the controversy well, it’s empty from a ‘here’s how to do it better’ standpoint. And from what I understand of ‘Sizzle,’ that’s not the point.

    Well why not? You have someone like Olson who is a scientist and who is a film maker (a form of professional communicator, yes?) but chooses to just point out how scientists can’t communicate. He’s in a perfect place to be that guy for these issues. To stand up and show how science can be talked about effectively. Why doesn’t he? No money it? Can’t get funding for it? Or their ideas of framing are bankrupt and provide no practical solutions?

  11. #11 Ms. Clark
    July 18, 2008

    I’d like to see some experts reframe “toxins.” The public of “public health” needs to know about how many
    “toxins” are in normal food and in normal air. That’s not industrial pollution “toxins” but the toxins that plants make to fight disease organisms or toxins from mold that we are exposed to and successfully deal with all the time. There is a belief that we live in a mercury free world, for instance, and that the only mercury exposure a child could get would be from a vaccine or a tuna sandwich. But mercury is in all of our food to varying degrees and it’s in air and water, even in “mineral water” at fancy spas. Heavy metals are in “health food store” remedies especially in some imported from China and India and not caught by the FDA.

    There’s an belief that if you go to South America or Africa or maybe Tibet, you can find some toxin free country and people there will live to 120 years old and no one would have cancer or autism because they’d be so toxin free. Then there’s the whole industry of “detoxing” through saunas and enemas.

    People also need to understand how much quack doctors can get away with in the US and the UK. There’s a perception that if a doctor hasn’t been arrested then what he’s doing is legitimate. They think that the FDA still has some real teeth. It doesn’t.

    They need to understand why mainstream physicians aren’t all cuddly and adorable to their patients all the time the way Dr. Jay Gordon is. It’s not possible to maintain professional distance and objectivity (that will allow the doctor to provide the patient with the best information) and simultaneously be your patient’s very own mommy or bestest friend in the whole world.

    Not to mention the fact that it’s too emotionally draining to love every single one of your patients like your child, even if they were all lovable, and they are not. So “experts” who manage to “love” all their clients/patients are necessarily frauds who use that faked affection as a screen for the fact that they are ripping off the patient or just don’t care what happens to them and write the same self-profitable prescription for all their patients.

    Like Jay Gordon, he makes his money by agreeing to whatever the crunchy yummy-mummies want in the way of a “vaccine schedule.” He gets the customers that caring and intelligent doctors lose when they say, “Honey, your bright idea to avoid vaccines puts your infant at higher risk of death and disability.” Jay puts his patients at real risk of death and disability, but he looks “caring” while doing so. The reason there IS a generation rescue is that Buttar was one of these lovey dovey fakes who pandered to JB Handley’s ego every step of the way making Handley believe that he understood what “autism really is–just mercury poisoning,” and turning Handley into a “autism is just mercury poisoning” evangelist with his pocket-full of sciencey vocab and an ego driven desire to spend some of his fortune tilting at evil giants that really are just windmills.

    I think it’s possible to reframe “toxins” and “the love of doctors for their patients” but it will take some attractive people with connections (and backers with money) to do it. No one listens to unattractive or stiff scientists these days, they need soulless, plasticine and peroxided playboy playmates, and greedy suntanned Hollywood pediatrician/playboys.

  12. #12 Siamang
    July 18, 2008

    I know one thing. The day my kid catches the measles from an unvaccinated kid is the day I sue that kid’s parents into the ground.

  13. #13 HolfordWatch
    July 18, 2008

    Ms Clark is uncannily on the money. A reader has sent us the last subscription mail-out from someone who styles himself as a ‘world-leading nutritionist’ and was, until recently, a Visiting Professor at a UK university. Half of the subscription newsletter is about the evils of toxins in vaccinations and how there is no need for vaccinations for whooping cough, Hib, meningitis C or pneumococcal infection etc. You will be relieved to learn that there is a recommended way of eating and supplement programme so that your child won’t catch childhood disease because their immune system is so strong (yes, a strong whiff of germ theory dissent).

    There is a separate Special Report: Salvestrols a major breakthrough in cancer prevention? It even describes salvestrols as plants’ chemical warfare to defend themselves against attack. But somehow, chemical warfare in this instance doesn’t equate to toxins. Oddly enough, because you can’t eat the recommended amount of salvestrols from diet alone, there is a recommendation for supplementation via food concentrates and pills.

    So, that’s clear, thiomersal and aluminium in vaccines are toxins and the the amount is irrelevant even if the latter is acting as an adjuvant and reducing the amount of antigens needed to stimulate a protective response. Salvestrols are chemical warfare but A Good Thing and anti-cancer and we don’t get enough of them so you should supplement your intake in extraordinary amounts because they are natural extracts from organic food and it is impossible that that could be harmful.

    So, that’s evil v. good chemical warfare.

  14. #14 Danio
    July 18, 2008

    As a scientist, I have found this whole ‘framing’ morass to be indescribably frustrating. Like Orac, I was initially enthusiastic on the topic of framing–indeed, I still am, in principle, unequivocally in favor of any strategies that will increase the science literacy of the general public. The need for this, as Orac aptly states in this post, is ‘mind-numbingly obvious’, indeed.

    Alas, I have yet to see a successful application of same from any of the bloggers who style themselves as professional framers. They appear, to me, as officious lifeguards, sitting atop their stilted chairs about a pool of ideas, and shrilly calling out “you’re doing it WRONG!” whenever one swims by. This, though they have yet to adequately demonstrate that they can swim themselves, let alone help other swimmers improve their strokes.

    How is it, if so many of us are in agreement that communicating science is so vitally important, that we are unable to proceed beyond this stupid in-fighting? If the scientists who are charged, ultimately, with improving science literacy and rational thinking on a societal level, are nearly unanimous in their lack of confidence for the Nisbet-Mooney brand of ‘framing’, does that say more about us, as Mooney’s latest “Sizzle” post would have us believe, or about them?

    Matt’s response to Orac’s challenge is utterly impotent. (In contrast, I think Electric Dragon’s ideas are wonderful and inspired). I can’t decide whether Matt’s waffle reads as “I’m uninformed but I’ll get back to you” (á lá John McCain on the inequity of insurance coverage for Viagra but not oral contraceptives), “I’m too busy to think about this right now”, or “I’ll consider it when/if the request comes from someone official/well-funded”. Lame whichever way you slice it.

    I am forced to conclude that the title of this blog entry is far too generous, as quite a few ‘real’ challenges have already been presented, with disastrous and/or laughable results.

  15. #15 Flex
    July 18, 2008

    Heh. I started drafting a reply before lunch, then work picked up a bit. At this point I think I’ll keep my comment as short as possible.

    As I see it, the biggest problem with the disemmination of pseudoscience is our natural human reliance on authority. We all rely on authority for a significant number of decisions in our lives. The problem is that the authorities we choose to believe may not only be wrong, they may not even know it.

    To frame it in the form of the ‘framing’ debate, an authority has been given a frame of unimpeachability by the believer. Nothing can be said to contradict the knowledge within the frame as long as the authority is unchallenged.

    This is where I think Nisbet goes astray. It is hard to convince people that their authority figures are wrong by presenting data counter to what the authority figure says. The recipient simply will not believe it. There are two approaches that can work well.

    First, find a way to correct the authority figure so that future messages to their believers do not include irrational beliefs.

    Second, find a way to discredit the authority figure to the believer so that the inviolate truths of the authority figures assertions are now questioned.

    In other words, to convince people who are not continually re-evaluating every belief that one of their beliefs is incorrect, you have to either:

    In order of difficulty

    1. Remove the current authority figure. Ridicule, exposure of hypocrisy and exposure of conflicting interests often work well (Not 100%).
    2. Change the beliefs of the authority figure or establish a new authority figure.
    3. Teach people to critically think about that particular subject, i.e. educate people on that subject.

    Nisbet seems to want to do #3. Myers does a pretty good job at #1. As Menkin said, “a good horse laugh is worth 1000 syllogisms.” Menkin’s adage isn’t always true, which its wise to have someone like Nisbet around to take other avenues of approach.

    As an example, if you tell me I shouldn’t trust my doctor, you would either have to convince me that he doesn’t know medicine, show me a doctor who I feel is superior, or teach me enough about medicine for me to be able to judge if his diagnoses are accurate.

    Of course, all three methods can be accused of being manipulative.

    The problem with using marketing methods is that most of them seem to focus on a short-term goal of #2. Convince the customer that this product is superior right now. Once that is done, maintaining consistancy in the product will often ensure repeat sales. Mind you, this is what I’ve garnered from the three marketting courses I’ve taken for my MBA so I don’t call myself a marketing expert.

    Method #2 works best by dividing the population in groups based on similarities and finding the ‘frame’ that can be used to convince them that your statements should carry more weight that the current authority. Which appears to be what Nisbet, et. al. are doing in their actions, but claiming to want to be doing method #3.

    But let’s face it. Most people don’t want to be have to critically evaluate every idea which crosses their path. General education is not going to work.

    I agree with Nisbet in one sense. The science of understand how persuasion works has come a long way in the past couple decades. We should be using it to determine where the opportunity exists to ridicule authorities, correct authorities, or educate people about pseudoscientific beliefs. Marketing research tools like focus groups, surveys, market segmentation, etc. can all help us do that. So I don’t think Nisbet is a fool for stepping out of this particular request for help against antivaccinationists.

    Personally, I think the work currently being done by Orac, Dr. Barrett, Sean Carroll, etc., has already had a tremendous affect on combatting pseudoscience. The quackery has always been out there. It may have spread a little faster because of the internet, but it’s also far easier to challenge the authority figures because of the internet. I suspect a lot of people have learned in the past ten years how to critically evaluate their authority figures than ever did in the pre-internet days.

    Cracky, and Orac thinks he has logorrhea. I’d better quit now while I’m behind. :) Have a good weekend.

  16. #16 Chris C. Mooney
    July 18, 2008

    Hi Orac,

    As you surmised, I don’t know this issue as well as my bread and butter topics. And so I would have to do some investigation of it in order to come up with any framing ideas.

    Matt described the official scientific way of doing this. It would be great if there were funding to pursue such a research project systematically. Do you know of any potential sources?

    If not, I would be up for comparing notes with you about how the issue has been debated and at least come up with some ideas and potential strategies. They wouldn’t have been tested thoroughly, but we could get the ball rolling and generate blogfodder.

    [On this point, another question: Can you point to polling information reflecting public attitudes on this topic? And have you read enough media coverage to characterize it and point out some of the frames that seem to recur?]

    In other words, Matt and I both seem to accept your challenge, to the extent that resources and our abilities permit.

    PS–Unrelated, but global warming is going to affect all of us in our lifetimes, and in fact already has begun to do so.

  17. #17 PuckishOne
    July 18, 2008

    If you know of possible funders for a project on the anti-vaccine movement, please have them contact me.

    Honest, un-sarcastic question from a non-scientist: I thought that working scientists wrote research proposals and sought funding for them, rather than having the funds find the scientists. I understand Chris’ asking Orac if he knew of any leads (that’s just good networking), but I’ve always been led to believe that an inherent part of academic research was the responsibility of the researcher to secure his own sources of funding. Is this not the case?

  18. #18 Abel Pharmboy
    July 18, 2008

    Orac, Matt, and Chris,
    Re funding for such a project: I’ve been doing some sniffing around NIAID and CDC to see if there are any education grants available but am coming up empty. I don’t really have any ins with NIAID program officers but I’ll beat the bushes a bit.

    I do know that the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) has one of the best education programs in the country. They are funded via an institutional endowment and private philanthropy, with none coming from any vaccine manufacturers.

  19. #19 The Uncredible Hallq
    July 18, 2008

    Flex,

    I rather like your breakdown, though these things aren’t mutually exclusive. You can get people to laugh at what frauds are doing wrong as a way of teaching them how to do it right. And if they learn to study a debate, they’ll learn to get a feel for who’s trustworthy. The one thing I don’t get is where Nisbet has advocated #3–his general theme seems to be that people are never going to take the time to think critically.

  20. #20 Josh
    July 18, 2008

    Matthew, you are so utterly disappointing. Good grief – Orac came up with a great idea for your talents, a topic that needs addressed *now*. How do you respond? You want focus groups. You want analyses. You want polling. Guess what Matt – it’s not that complicated. It doesn’t take a degree in communications. People of ordinary sense, intelligence, education, and commitment can come up with a bang-up public awareness campaign. It seems your entire sense of self-worth and professionalism is tied up in the idea that all of this is so complicated it takes years of specialized academic training. Just because you’ve made an intellectual Rube Goldberg contraption out of ordinary savvy doesn’t make it so.

    I can only conclude that you don’t actually care about issues. You care about your ego.

    Josh

  21. #21 Magpie
    July 18, 2008

    I hate to pile on, because I like the guys and dig their work, but…

    Unfortunately too many bloggers think framing is something you whip up on the back of an envelope, and in the process they have little concept of what a frame might be, or understand the research in the area.

    …maybe someone good at framing could explain it to them, then? Because as it’s presently framed, “back of the envelope” seems just about right.

    Are there not defined theories in which you guys are experts? Is there not a conceptual framework? If I have a formula for lobbing a cannonball, I don’t need to go back to experiment to decide how the next one should be aimed. We don’t make surgeons redesign their own scalpels every time they see a new patient.

    If the whole idea of “framing” means going to focus groups before we say anything about anything, then I don’t see how that’s terribly practical.

    Come on. How do the principles apply here? I thought you guys were proposing a course of action, a method, that everyday scientists can apply. Is that wrong? Do you need to have research into every specific issue before you can say anything about it? Are even you guys, the experts in the field, unable to come up with a “frame” for this without costly and time consuming study – by which time the oppositions “frame” may well have shifted again?

    If so, then how on earth do you expect us to consider this to be a valid and useful tool? Did you think that the scientists you were talking to all this time had spare resources available just lying around to do the study you say you need to be effective? The expertise?

    Is this a real world solution, or not?

  22. #22 penguindreams
    July 18, 2008

    To understand and to make recommendations about the anti-vaccine movement, you would need to conduct polling, focus groups, and do an analysis of media coverage.

    That’s the point I’ve made about framing from the beginning. It involves taking a scientific and research-based approach to science communication. Do the research, combine it with an understanding of past studies on science communication, and then plot a strategy.

    Unfortunately too many bloggers think framing is something you whip up on the back of an envelope, and in the process they have little concept of what a frame might be, or understand the research in the area.

    If you know of possible funders for a project on the anti-vaccine movement, please have them contact me.

    I’ll usually buy a comment about how you need to do research in an area. But, given the phenomenal success of people, from PT Barnum to Karl Rove, who never wrote a single article in a communication or science journal, I have to think that quite a lot can be done by people on the back of their envelope.

    Research or otherwise, the industry already exists and has for quite some time to perform the focus group analysis — Advertising and PR firms. As the advice is to give money to professionals to figure the answer out anyhow, why should it be Nisbett rather than Leo Burnett advertising?

    In any case, how is it that after the lengthy list of his research, Nisbet can offer no principles for Orac to follow? I’ll reject out of hand any claim that the pseudoscience frames for anti-vaccination are so terribly different from everything already researched that one can’t extract a principle or two. Certainly I’ve seen enormous overlap between the anti-evolution ‘frames’ and the anti-climatology ‘frames’, and between the latter and the ‘smoking isn’t bad for you’ (which turn out to involve, as well, some of the same people).

    As usual, I’m left with my wonder as to what it is scientists are supposed to do (themselves, as opposed to ‘give Nisbett money’). It looks like the answer is ‘nothing’. And that’s ok, in a sense, given that he also talks so much about how lousy scientists are as communicators. But I wish people who complain about how bad we are (I’m another, in climate) as communicators would quit also complaining about how we don’t engage the public. We’d have to communicate to do so, which you say we’re bad at. Like most people, we’re not fond of doing things we’re bad at, particularly not as you also tell us that we do more harm than good with our attempts.

  23. #23 mcmillan
    July 18, 2008

    PuckishOne-
    The tricky part for funding this kind of thing could be in identifying where to look for that funding. Some granting agenicies put out requests for people that would research certain general areas. Even for more open grants it can be tricky if you start getting into the kind of research that might fall into different subjects. So it kind of becomes an issue of if this is medical research or communcations research, and convincing whoever you submit it to that it’s not the other one.

    I think Flex had a pretty good summary of my feeling as well, though I agree Haq that Nesbit doesn’t really seem to be going for 3, I’d think he’s pushing more for #2. This is one thing that I think is part of the disagreements between the different sides in the Framing debate. Nesbit is mainly argueing for how to get people that might normally dismiss the authorities from our side to pay a little attention. I think he has good advice for short term goals, though a lot of the people that are against the ideas seem to be looking more at long term, where #3 is more important.

  24. #24 Danio
    July 18, 2008

    The comment system apparently ate the long-ish comment I posted this morning. It is allegedly ‘awaiting moderation’ so on the off chance it appears I won’t reproduce it in its entirety. To recap:
    *I am a big fan of the idea of framing, but intensely frustrated that no convincing demonstrations of effective, impacting ways to frame science have been forthcoming from those who style themselves as experts in this practice.
    *Nisbet’s response to Orac’s ‘challenge’ is disappointing and embarrassing. Mooney’s is ever so slightly more proactive, but still fails in that it lacks even a glimmer of post-hoc strategy. It is incomprehensible that two such learned framers seem incapable of–or unwilling to–at least lay out a framework beyond the information-gathering stage. For the record, I think that Electric Dragon’s ideas are splendid, but they have a distinct ‘back of the envelope’ flavor and as such will certainly be discarded by those who purport to know better. Pity.
    *Finally, I know of very few scientists who do NOT feel that it is crucial to develop more effective tools and strategies for communicating science to the public. In contrast, I know of a great many scientists who are disenchanted with the Nesbit-Mooney concept of framing. Does this really, truly, say more about the scientists in question than it does about the framing of…well, framing itself? I don’t think so.

  25. #25 The skepTick
    July 18, 2008

    Jenny McCarthy’s success is that she can pit “mom with autistic child” against big pharma, and this recipe is served nicely when it’s on Oprah or Larry King. People like the underdog and hate corporations. To counter it, you need to pit “mom whose kid died from measles” against the stupidity of the antivaccination crowd or the loopholes in laws that allow kids to go to school without being vaccinated. No matter what McCarthy did in her heyday, in the court of public opinion, she will always win when up against anyone with a PhD.

  26. #26 Lora
    July 18, 2008

    At the risk of being the black sheep, have you seen Peter Sandman’s website about communication of risks, particularly when it comes to toxins in the environment and disease?

    http://www.psandman.com/

    I think you will find it interesting reading. In a horribly oversimplified nutshell, the anti-vaxers aren’t making a real logical argument from reason, they are making an argument from emotion. So you have to counter it with a finely-modulated emotional response that is empathetic rather than unfeeling of their plight. E.g., “I can’t imagine what it’s like to have an autistic child. The challenges and frustration must be overwhelming at times. It’s possible some parents feel condescended to by medical science, especially when they’re told that their own genes might be the cause of their child’s disability. However, it’s terrible to have a child permanently disabled or killed by polio and measles, too. We know that many more children die of these diseases than become developmentally disabled. etc. etc.”

    The thing you might not like about it, it’s very obvious and crass psychological manipulation of groups. And it’s hard to do in real life without a script of sorts, because it’s very counter-intuitive. But it works, if you can suppress your own emotions and do it. Dr. Sandman has a PhD from Stanford and a few decades of experience as a communications expert, currently semi-retired as a consultant.

    To be fair, if I had a severely developmentally disabled kid, I’d probably want to jump off a cliff myself–I’d be pretty emo about the whole thing and look for a scapegoat, or rationalize the hell out of why my shit-flinging brat wasn’t all that bad, really. Dealing with low-functioning developmentally disabled people sucks hairy donkey balls, no matter how you slice it. Social workers and nursing assistants burn out on it left and right; my sister-in-law is a social worker who manages a group home, and, oy vey. The stories she tells! You couldn’t pay me a million dollars a second to deal with half of the crap she puts up with. The high-functioning “kids” are OK, but the ones that aren’t are BAD. If I became a parent with the expectation that my kid would be a little mini-me (only, you know, more successful and prettier), and instead got saddled with a severely mentally disabled, violent, uncommunicative person who would never really become an adult, it would take a more emotionally stable person than me to stay rational about the whole thing–I salute parents who manage to keep their brains together, seriously.

  27. #27 Flex
    July 18, 2008

    The Uncredible Hallq,

    Absolutely there is overlap. Heh. The problem with most of the classification systems I’ve been taught in the few behavoral sciences courses I’ve taken is that they are usually taught as exclusive systems when the original authors admitted to a great deal of overlap. As an example, I was taught (in a survey level course) that Maslow’s heirarchy of needs was exclusive. You never ever had needs at a higher level until the lower level needs were met. I thought to myself, “This can’t be right?!?” So I started reading Maslow’s own writings and found he admits overlap. So I don’t know if it was the way I was taught, or even the way the course material was written, but I know a lot of the students didn’t question it. Certainly it was a lot easier to teach that way.

    As for my readings of Nisbet, I could be off. It was my impression that he was seeking to find frames to educate the general population but maybe he is only trying to find ways to replace their current leaders.

    I’d be interested in what Nisbet himself says about my off-the-cuff rankings, and where he sees himself in the scheme of them. But I realize that my arm-chair thoughts are probably a little coarse-grained compared to the detail he is working with. Nor would I expect him to respond on a different blog than his own even if he was inclined to do so.

    And I think Danio is exactly right about scientists wanting to be able to communicate with the public. It’s a rare person who doesn’t want to talk about what they are interested in, and that’s one of the things I love when talking with scientists, their almost inhuman interest in their field. The scientists love their work (within the boundries of funding and management constraints), which makes listening to them interesting.

    Time for another beer. A local Ypsilanti brew called Red Snapper, mmmm. Cheers all,

  28. #28 Seth Finkelstein
    July 18, 2008

    penguindreams, Karl Rove is actually deeply evidence-based in his “framing” – this is not a secret, though the horse-race coverage tends not to discuss it. Professional political people do a HUGE amount of work with focus groups, reaction measuring, demographic data, etc.

    I think a better word overall might be “marketing”.

  29. #29 Ms. Clark
    July 18, 2008

    Holy Moly Lora could you be a little more abusive to autistic people, huh? I’m sure you could be if you tried really hard.

    I’ve seen this stuff, “”I can’t imagine what it’s like to have an autistic child. The challenges and frustration must be overwhelming at times.” Add to it some “blah blah blah, my child smears feces, ruins my Persian rugs, I can’t retired to Cannes now, I have no time to get my fingernails done…. blah blah.” The problem with it is it locates all the problems in the autistic kid and none of it in the parents and none of it in the siblings and none of it in the schools and neighborhood.

    You just did a swell job of demonizing autistic people while offering some kind of cheesy faux sympathy to their “long suffering” parents. Let’s set a few facts straight, not all autistic kids are hated by their parents. Not all are moaning about how it’s like sucking something, deary. Some are actually quite positively thrilled with their ASD kids and guess what??? Some of them are quite positively thrilled with their very low functioning kids.

    And here’s the kicker, speaking as the parent of a very disabled ASD adult, if a parent of a low functioning, feces-smearing kid wants that kid to do really well in this world, mommy and daddy’s job #1 is to communicate to the kid that mommy and daddy are THRILLED that they have the privilege of being that kid’s parent! Yeah, it works like that.

    And people with an attitude like yours are not helping when you start in with “gosh, you know if I had a kid like yours, I’d wish I was dead, too, yeah, that’s the ticket, or wish the kid was dead…”

    I’ve see Dr. Hotez use a similar tack. He’s been used by the CDC as their personal parent spokesperson against antivaccine extremism. To me, it’s like he’s saying, “Look, I’m a vaccinologist. I’m speaking out for the CDC. You hate me. I get that, but I hate my kid’s disability as much as more than you do, so you can’t hate me so much right?”

    The KIDS are getting scapegoated. I am getting scapegoated every time someone talks about ASD as being a fate worse than hell. That kind of idiotic talk impacts MY ability to remain employed. Get it? Your choice of words doesn’t end with getting parents to vaccinate their kids, it ends with autistic kids being abused on the schoolground and autistic adults being abused at work and committing suicide.

    The “Oh my, I understand how autistic kids are such heinous little demon monsters.” (faux) sympathetic talk directly leads to the lives of autistic children being condemned to the trash heap.

    One can sympathize with the real difficulties of parents of disabled children (remember I am one) in general without attacking and dehumanizing the children. No really, one can.

  30. #30 Neuro-conservative
    July 18, 2008

    Orac — You make a mistake in taking these guys at their word. Neither Nisbet nor Mooney actually cares about science per se.

    Mooney is interested in political power. He sees scientists as a means to an end — a voice of authority that can be used to advance his political agenda, which is increasing the power of government.

    Nisbet seems primarily interested in advancing his own career, and seeks out hot-button political topics so as to attract attention to himself.

    Promoting public health through evidence-based medicine really isn’t going to light a fire under these guys.

  31. #31 Ms. Clark
    July 18, 2008

    Forgive my typos past and present…
    The whole thing is not about the nut-job parents of autistic kids and getting THEM to vaccinate. It’s about educating the public about what is going to extend their lives to the greatest possible amount and maintain the quality of life AND save them from being ripped off by con artists and quacks.

    Autism is not the issue. If you want to add autism to the issue you don’t start by highlighting every horrible tale you’ve ever heard about it, because that’s not the it anyway, it’s an illusion. Autism is NOT all bad. Not all bad. Get that? Not all bad.

    Death by measles is all bad. Death by whooping cought is all bad. Giving your life savings to a thieving quack is all bad.

  32. #32 Orac
    July 18, 2008

    Interesting comments, all, including Nisbet’s and Mooney’s.

    I did this post primarily as a thought exercise and to tweak the framers into thinking about a different topic than the same old two that they always talk about. Yes, I understand that AGW is already starting to affect us, but, quite frankly, most people don’t notice yet, and by the time they do most of us will be dead. That’s what makes it so hard. The effects of antivaccine pseudoscience are much quicker, and a good frame to combat them could potentially produce results much faster. It would be a perfect test case to come up with testable hypotheses and to get results within a reasonable number of years. Moreover, these results could potentially have a major impact on public health now. The anti-vaccine forces are out there. They marched on Washington a month and a half ago, and they’re planning a “fall campaign” of some sort. I’ve seen e-mails forwarded to me from antivax mailing lists that gloat over the fact that vaccination rates for certain diseass have fallen below 90%. Folks, that’s right around the level needed for herd immunity for most diseases.

    I think some commenters may be a bit hard on Nisbet’s question about funding. Research takes money. It’s just a fact of life. On the other hand, I am sympathetic to those who point out that there should be some generalizable principles that could carry over from creationism and AGW denialism to use as at least a starting point. One reason this question has been bugging me for so long is that, even for creationism, Matt is long on criticisms and short on concrete advice that any scientist or advocate for evolution could put into action. Consequently, he comes off as lecturing and hectoring without being constructive in his criticism. That’s his huge weak spot, and he also seems to have a bit of a tin ear. In any case, I could always ask the Dark Lord of Vaccines himself, Paul Offit, if he knows of potential funding sources to send grant applications to.

    The main reason I brought up the example of anti-vaccine scare, too, is because there’s virtually no religion involved.

  33. #33 ERV
    July 18, 2008

    Focus groups.

    *blink*

    Jesus Christ.

  34. #34 PuckishOne
    July 18, 2008

    mcmillan:

    The tricky part for funding this kind of thing could be in identifying where to look for that funding. Some granting agencies put out requests for people that would research certain general areas. Even for more open grants it can be tricky if you start getting into the kind of research that might fall into different subjects. So it kind of becomes an issue of if this is medical research or communications research, and convincing whoever you submit it to that it’s not the other one.

    That’s even more intricate and tricky than I thought it was, but it explains a lot (including how it can appear to a layman that the researcher is waiting for the money train to arrive instead of chasing it). Thank you. :)

  35. #35 PuckishOne
    July 18, 2008

    Gah – apologies for the double post.

  36. #36 Neuro-conservative
    July 18, 2008

    A quick (5 min) search of the literature shows that the basic groundwork of focus groups and surveys has been done. Below I post just 3 out of the dozens of articles I found. What’s your next excuse, Nisbet?

    Title: Factors associated with uptake of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) and use of single antigen vaccines in a contemporary UK cohort: prospective cohort study
    Author(s): Pearce A, Law C, Elliman D, et al.
    Source: BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL Volume: 336 Issue: 7647 Pages: 754-757 Published: APR 5 2008

    Title: What maintains parental support for vaccination when challenged by anti-vaccination messages? A qualitative study
    Author(s): Leask J, Chapman S, Hawe P, et al.
    Source: VACCINE Volume: 24 Issue: 49-50 Pages: 7238-7245 Published: NOV 30 2006

    Title: Parents’ perspectives on the MMR immunisation: a focus group study
    Author(s): Evans, M
    Source: BRITISH JOURNAL OF GENERAL PRACTICE Volume: 51 Issue: 472 Pages: 904-910 Published: NOV 2001

  37. #37 Dr Aust
    July 18, 2008

    Over here in the UK there is certainly plenty of academic medical social science research into what beliefs and views predict peoples’ likelihood of vaccinating their kids: one interesting example is here (probably paywalled for non-academic people – sorry). There are also lots of less sophisticated survey / questionnaire studies trying to get at aspects of the same question, see e.g. here and here.

    “Background belief system” certainly has a lot to do with it, as does whether people do / don’t trust doctors and the Gub’mint. I can’t say I have seen anything looking specifically at what would encourage people to vaccinate, although there has been a certain amount of discussion of “interventions tailored to specific groups of people who don’t vaccinate”.

  38. #38 Magpie
    July 18, 2008

    I see what you’re saying Orac. Some (me included) either don’t quite know how this framing stuff is supposed to happen, or are sceptical as to whether it would work anyway. So framing guys, here’s a battle with short term, measurable outcomes. Show us how it’s done, in a way we can actually see it WAS done.

    It’s a fairly clear cut battle between science and hysteria – there’s no millennia-long religious mindset to overcome (creationism), no vast financial status quo to fight (global warming). It involves comparatively small groups (so far) with relatively small amounts of money to throw around. It’s as close to a pure, unsullied test-bed for framing theory as you’re ever going to get. And you could be saving lives.

    Go. Frame. Teach us.

  39. #39 Heraclides
    July 18, 2008

    Before I read the comments (!):

    “an area that is for the most part free of any religious overtones”

    In my limited experience (which isn’t that limited really), the “original source” of the anti-vaccine material do often enough have a religious angle, although they don’t always present this up front (presumably realising it’ll weaken their chances to make an impact on the general public). For one or two people, I think exposing their religious backgrounds as being a more likely the source of their beliefs regards vaccines than any “science” might help.

  40. #40 Orac
    July 18, 2008

    Yes and no. There is a religious strain underlying some aspects of antivaccination lunacy, but the vast majority does not rely on religion at all.

  41. #41 Liesl
    July 18, 2008

    Honestly, the lack of understanding of this communication issue is astonishing to me. I hate to agree with someone who is so blatantly hateful toward cognitively disabled kids and kids with autism, but Lora is absolutely right: the reason these people get their views out there more than logic loving scientists is because people respond to emotion more than they do to cold, hard fact. It sucks, I wish it would change, but damn! it is the way it is! You have to literally appeal to pity to get people to listen to you because that is what they understand. Everyone, even sociopaths, have emotions. Does everyone understand the pathway to critical thinking? does everyone possess the ability to problem solve? No. We don’t teach it anymore. But show people a puppy or a kid or an elderly aunt being abused and more people will rise up in outrage than if you explained to them logically why the principle of harm is relevant and necessary.

    While we rail against the lack of reason and the lack of understanding among people who don’t think critically for a living, look at what’s happening: the appealers to emotion are winning. We have to fight RIGHT NOW and the fight has to get to the people who need it. Focus groups? Are you kidding me? Turn on the TV and watch talk shows, commercials, anything that attempts to get a point across. Do they use logic? Do they attempt to show the wisdom of a solution, product or way of life through reason? Of course not. We may hate it and we may think it is wrong, ignorant, whatever value you want to place on it, but it is the only way we will have a chance against the peddlers of methodological solipsism.

    Thank you for this post, Orac. As usual, your fine tooning is spot on.

  42. #42 Liesl
    July 18, 2008

    Er, make that “tuning.”

  43. #43 Heraclides
    July 18, 2008

    Hmm, My comment isn’t really about framing. Knew I should read the comments first :-)

    I do think though that enough of the public realise that religion is a poor basis from science/medical decisions (at least where I live), from all the articles in the mainstream media pointing out religious order denying children treatment and whatnot.

    Won’t change the point of view of conservative religious people, but then I’m less concerned with them than the middle ground.

    Anyway… ignore me, but I hope to be back later after I’ve read all this…

  44. #44 Heraclides
    July 19, 2008

    Orac: I’m probably biased by the local anti-vac kingpin who won’t disclose his religious background. You’ll be seeing a larger picture I suspect.

  45. #45 Danio
    July 19, 2008

    Matt is long on criticisms and short on concrete advice that any scientist or advocate for evolution could put into action. Consequently, he comes off as lecturing and hectoring without being constructive in his criticism.

    I get this image of Nisbet/Mooney perched atop stilted lifeguard stations surrounding a pool of ideas. They don’t give lessons, or help the swimmers improve their strokes. They are impotent when faced with a true emergency. Instead, they sit up there shouting “Hey! You’re doing it WRONG!”.

    Many of us are learning to swim as best we can, experimenting with different techniques and making adjustments based on our successes and failures. Sure there may be some horseplay going on…some people are clearly NOT heeding the lifeguard’s whistle. You might see the occasional belly flop of the high dive, chicken-fight or ‘pants’ing people underwater. But, progress is still being made, and making waves isn’t always a bad thing.

    *having pushed the pool metaphor to uncomfortable extremes, Danio retires to watch ‘Dr. Who’*

  46. #46 Heraclides
    July 19, 2008

    How many people here are Dr. Who fans? :-) (Me, too.)

    I like the idea of promoting a “do good for your child” line better, long with simple, clear, examples of failing to do so, with a small number of the key figures from solid sources tossed in.

    That said, in my country, the response from the anti-vacc lot to a marketing campaign was one of “conspiracy.” The government (or scientists) are in cahoots with the pharma. industry; trying to “sell” the poisons on us, eh?; why are we supposed to trust them?; etc., along with appropriate quote mining.

    I forget the exact nature of the marketing now, but if I’m right it was pitched using members of the medical community and other “authorities”.

    I guess this means that who sells these messages must be neither government nor scientists, or perceived to be close to these, but perhaps just people others “feel good” about–? They might cite scientists, etc., but they shouldn’t themselves obviously be in any camp other than “parent”, “good person” or what-have-you–? (Ms Clark: nothing about autism in there!)

    There’s more to this and this needs more thought but I have to get back to work again… hope this keeps going. I’ll be back later.

  47. #47 Pseudonym
    July 19, 2008

    penguindreams, I think you’re also discounting how much Karl Rove depends on the likes of Frank Luntz.

  48. #48 Ms. Clark
    July 19, 2008

    Back around 1999 the antivaccine/anti-public-health/autism whack-jobs got a couple of politicians on their side (Burton and Weldon) and they had some rich people with lots of money to throw around (starting with Sally/Sallie Bernard and Mark Blaxill), and they had a few personal injury law firms lawyers of which who were slobbering on their silk ties and giggling over the idea of a new Dow breast-implant pot-o-gold, and ever so willing to help spread lies using their knowledge of how to manipulate the media to make money, and they had this perfect story of these perfect angel babies who were transformed into monstrous practically non-human changelings within minutes (or hours, days, weeks, months) of receiving vaccines. And they had women who were more than happy to go on camera and cry about how evil big pharma stole their angel babies from them with evil mercury. They also had people with these amazingly pliable memories who would post things to the internet about how their children were all normal before vaccines and so empty-shell-like after.

    Because the understanding of neurodevelopment and toxicology is/was SO poor (obviously Burton and Weldon were ignorant of important details if not the whole picture) they could go around spreading increasingly outrageous statements about how micrograms of mercury were eating holes in the brains of babies, chelation was curing autism within minutes of rubbing the (fake) stuff on a kid. Mercury binds with measles and DNA and mercury binds with testosterone, blah blah… Scheming big pharma, blah blah… CDC out to kill us all, blah blah, conspiracy involving shape-shifting aliens trying to kill us all… keee-ill, keeee-ill, mercury, mercury, keee-illll, keee-illl.

    And then because media leaders are dumb as rocks and sickeningly gullible besides (see: Bob Wright, Arianna Huffington, Oprah Winfrey, Larry King and what’s his name the bald African American guy with the cheesy talk show… oh and let’s not forget that genius, Don Imus)these people with their antivax tales of woe and toxic-tort yachting-in-the-Carribean dreams got access to all kinds of people via TV and radio. And they took over the major autism organizations and created more purely antivax, litigation driven organizations which spent millions (really millions) of dollars on PR over a few years.

    The counter their message (which hasn’t been as effective as they would like, but pretty effective because of how stupid the media is and how much they love a “human interest” story even if it’s not true) you need access to people like Oprah and GMA and the NYT (and their about.com. Thanks, but no thanks, Lisa Jo Rudy) and you need them to listen and really get what the message is (good luck with that) because everyone has a stake in this. Everyone knows someone who is more vulnerable than others to vaccine preventable diseases and everyone should know how easy it is to travel around the world and bring home germs.

    I have no problem with using emotional stories to make the point. One big problem has been that the gov’t agencies bought the idiotic autism epidemic drivel from the antivax idiots and went along with it!! Thank you CDC!! They put out what they called their “Autism Alarm” which was some kind of “what to watch for, early signs of autism” thing. The antivax whackjobs had a ball with that. “See the CDC is admitting there’s been an epidemic!! Now they’ll be admitting it was their vaccines next!” And Tom Insel (insert angry, bitter comment here), sucked up to the epidemic parents right cozy and the next thing you know he’s saying that he feels for the autism parents, ‘cuz after all their children with autism “lack personhood.”

    Lack personhood. Sure, Dr. Insel, put a target on our heads and call “open season” on autistics because we ain’t even human now.

    So, in their own way, the NIMH and CDC fed the antivax hysteria by refusing to listen to those who were trying to tell them that there hadn’t been an epidemic (and that no one needed to remove thimerosal from vaccines because it wasn’t hurting anyone.) If they had clued in to that back in 2001 or 2002 the rest of the Jenny McDumdum story might not have taken root and we might not be facing serious outbreaks of measles and whooping cough now.

    The gov’t officials have studiously ignored the attempts of autistic adults to try to straighten out the mess, because the autistic adults don’t have any politicians in their pockets and that’s because they don’t have money to throw around (if you don’t count Bill Gates, who has been useless in this all as far as I know.)

  49. #49 DLC
    July 19, 2008

    I think Nisbet does have a point, in as much as you need a baseline to work from. What are the current set of beliefs in the general public ? How many people believe that the MMR is full of Satanic Hoodoo, vs how many just don’t understand the basic mechanisms of vaccines? I haven’t seen much polling data on it, but then, I haven’t been looking.
    However, I also believe that a general effort can be made, and would be justified at this time, even without funding.
    One suggestion I have for you is to go through the vaccination schedule and write a series of posts detailing what each one is for and why they need to be given when they are given.
    The posts in question should be relatively short, easy to read, and include graphics and tables if necessary.
    Given this as a base, it would then be possible to explain in some detail how the usual anti-vax propaganda is fallacious. Perhaps even a website with flash presentations ?
    I’m no “science framer” but I’ve worked in market research before.
    Right. I’ve blathered enough. I’m off.

  50. #50 bsci
    July 19, 2008

    There are some comments here about how unnecessary it is to use things like focus groups and surveys for optimal communication. There are some people who might be natural communicators, but most of the best forms of mass communication (in education and advertising) do involve data collection.

    The issue here is that Nisbet, the supposed professional can spend hours telling people the best approach, but doesn’t want to spend the time to even outline how data collection and communications craftsmanship should work. Perhaps he can point to some scholarly articles on this topic rather than just summing up the finalized communications strategies?

    Also, there’s one issue with the anti-vax/autism issue that makes this a slightly more challenging communications case. Autism has a heavy genetic component. This means that many parents of autistic children have some autistic tendencies themselves if not being diagnosably autistic. Changing the mind of a passionate parent who has trouble comprehending other’s emotions or seeing other’s point of view is very challenging.

  51. #51 Dan
    July 19, 2008

    Orac, I do have much to add to this thread. I just want to say that I am happy to see you blogging again sense Echo’s passing. Selfish, yes. I enjoy reading your blog.

  52. #52 HolfordWatch
    July 19, 2008

    DLC, there are several excellent series of posts along the lines that you indicate. Posting all the links would condemn us to the outer circle of the s**m filter so we’ve gathered some links here – we would be very grateful for recommendations for the ‘missing’ coverage of vaccination for meningitis C, pneumococcal or for leads to other accessible series like this.

  53. #53 Matt Penfold
    July 19, 2008

    I detect signs here in the UK that vaccination issue is changing. There seem to be less stories about the dangers some claim that vaccinations pose and more on how diseases we thought were history are back, killing and damaging lives. I also detect signs that the public mood is changing to regard not having your kids vaccinated as being rather anti-social. One commentator I heard stated he wanted it to become like drink driving, in that the public mood now offers little sympathy to people convicted of drink driving. He wants there to be little sympathy for those who do not vaccinate.

  54. #54 AutismNewsBeat
    July 19, 2008

    I think most people take information and plug it into a familiar narrative. Reporters definitely do this all the time, and it drives me crazy. So the Jenny McCarthy drama becomes “One mother’s quest for answers”, because that’s a narrative (or frame, I guess) that resonates with a wide audience.

    Science also relies on narrative, albeit much more cautiously, and usually with justification. Most journalistic narratives are either signs of laziness (see above example), or else practical shorthand used to distill a complex subject into a 300 word story. Some news narratives give editors and publishers a way to report a story without passing judgment, and offending readers. We see this dynamic in stories about brave parents who mortgage their homes to afford alternative treatments for their autistic kids. The station manager is loathe to come out and say the family is acting foolish, or to risk a lawsuit by exposing the DAN! docs as quacks. So the narrative becomes a safe fall back position.

    The challenge, and I think this is what Mooney and Nisbet are saying, is for science writers to create narratives that are more informative and more compelling than the ones that currently sully the airwaves. So instead of “Jenny McCarthy: Brave, single mother standing firm against the medical establishment”, we might see “Anti-vaccine fear mongering and the limits of populism”, or “Citizen scientists not ready for prime time.”

    Of course it will take more than a few bumper sticker slogans to turn the anti-vaccine crazy train around. Ignorance of science is cultural – we see it reflected in movies, TV entertainment, and vapid talk shows. We live in a fast food culture, and we want our truth now, dammit.

    Somebody once said that if you want knowledge, study science. If you want truth, study philosophy. Maybe our entertainment industry and our ubiquitous marketing infrastructure has turned too many of us into armchair philosophers who see truth in every fabricated image and fantasy that’s laid before us. Science may be about knowledge, but it’s marketing that delivers the goods, and marketing that we hear the loudest, and marketing that informs our culture and our politics. And marketing is here to serve us, to satisfy our demands, to read our minds and deliver the goods. That’s what society responds to.

    If scientists want to sex up their narrative, they will have to compete with the marketers. I don’t know if that’s possible, or even desirable.

  55. #55 Matt Penfold
    July 19, 2008

    When I hear talk of polls and focus groups I think of the way Labour re-branded itself under Blair.

    Does that mean Nisbett failed to frame framing properly ? I do assume that he does not think presentation is more important that substance.

  56. #56 Jeff Chamberlain
    July 19, 2008

    What ERV said.

  57. #57 Danio
    July 19, 2008

    Matt Penfolds,
    that is indeed encouraging for the UK, and given the demographic it makes sense that things could perhaps naturally resolve tht way without a huge Awareness Campaign effort. Alas, I’m not sure that this is avoidable here in the States–the Geographic size, diversity, and sheer volume of communication and media outlets would seem to dictate that a concerted, public health effort is required to turn this around for us.

    In many ways it’s a variation of the Evolution/Creation schism. Many scientists and science teachers have not wanted to jump into the fray on this, thinking either that it’s a bad idea to give these ideas legitimacy by even referring to them, or that the science should speak for itself and no special efforts should be made to ‘convince’ people. IMO, we have reached a point now where the scientific position should be unapologetically shouted from the rooftops by everyone who has a stake in science literacy and/or science education. I think Orac is correct in his assertion that the Antivax movement would be an even cleaner target for such a collective ‘Science voice’ because of its a-religious nature. I can certainly accept that to get such a movement off the ground would require funding, but there are plenty of preliminary results upon which to base our ‘specific aims’. Mr Nisbet, Mr Mooney? What should those specific aims be? I realize this is not either of your areas of expertise, but I find it hard to believe that you have not at least skimmed one of the many, many blog posts made by your very own Sciblings on this topic. If not, I urge you to do so as soon as it’s convenient, and get back to us.

  58. #58 Liesl
    July 19, 2008

    Ms. Clark:

    All of the people you mention who have gotten behind the antivaccine crap are all people who appeal to emotion. That is Oprah Winfrey’s entire modus operandi. Let me tell you a little story to illustrate that point:

    I have antiphospholipid syndrome and was, for several years, completely uncontrolled. This caused me to have strokes every month or so (small ones, thankfully), so I looked into getting into a clinical trial for a stem cell transplant in Chicago. I got in, didn’t get the funding, blah blah blah. Oprah was asking for stories of people who needed help and I had everyone I knew write in to ask for her help. Lo and behold. one of her producers called me a month or so later. They wanted to do a story on how insurance companies aren’t paying for treatment, especially ones that are still considered experimental but have good, solid numbers behind them (as the stem cell trans for APS does). I spoke to the producers, sent in pictures of myself, wrote up a little bio, but they didn’t choose me. Instead, they chose a woman who was, literally, on death’s door and looked it. I, on the other hand, look perfectly healthy, with the exception of the forearm crutch I use.

    The thing is, I understand why they chose the other woman; she was far more likely to get the point across than I was because all she had to do was sit there to show the evils of big insurance. I, on the other hand, had been touted as the person who could effectively argue my case, big words and all. When it comes down to it, who will the general public listen to: a philosophy professor or a woman (and I don’t know her profession) whose physical presence evoked extreme pity? Quite simply, it was a smart decision.

    The reason the science and reason side doesn’t have any of these people on our side is because we do not appeal to emotion. It is anathema to the way we do things, but we’re losing the bigger picture when we don’t acknowledge the necessity. Hell, even I use appeals to emotion to get my students’ attention! If you start with a story of something emotional and then dig down into the ideas and reasons behind it, you get them interested in finding out the foundation of issue itself. It brings them around to reason by appealing to the thing they are assaulted with constantly: emotion. That has to be our goal. Has to be. And it’s the only way we’re going to get the Oprah Winfrey type people on our side.

    Autismnewsbeat:

    In attempt to make this long winded comment even more so, I must ask: what on earth is truth?

  59. #59 AutismNewsBeat
    July 19, 2008

    You’d have to ask a philosopher. ;-)

  60. #60 Magpie
    July 19, 2008

    I think Nisbet does have a point, in as much as you need a baseline to work from. What are the current set of beliefs in the general public?

    But that’s just my problem. “Framing” is supposed to be a tool that every-day scientists can use to explain their work.

    Instead, we’re being told that we need to get into a different field altogether, or leave it to other people to do the explaining for us. We’re told that we need to more conduct research to explain the research we did in our own area of expertise.

    It’s not helpful. If they want to give advice – things to say, things to avoid, evidence for the efficacy of their methods (and, um, their methods, specifically), etc, then I’m all ears. But if their argument is “to communicate your theory on physical chemistry, you first need a second degree in science communications, and for every course of research you do, every finding you make, you need to conduct an entirely separate course of research into popular beliefs before you can explain it” – well, no.

    Sorry, but no.

    Maybe there’s a case to be made for these guys to be hired by the international scientific community to translate to the Common Folk – there’s certainly a massive problem in the science / media interface – but “good communication” is not necessarily “framing”. Why should I assign some of my (purely hypothetical) budget to a “framer”, instead of demanding better regulation and professionalism in regular science reporting?

    Show me framing works. Show me what it is, in action, in its natural habitat. Give me a clear hypothesis, a clear method, a clear test with clear results. Give me, you know, science. Then we can talk business.

  61. #61 Liesl
    July 19, 2008

    “You’d have to ask a philosopher. ;-)”

    Depends on what you mean by philosopher. Couldn’t resist! ;->

  62. #62 Heraclides
    July 20, 2008

    bsci:

    “Also, there’s one issue with the anti-vax/autism issue that makes this a slightly more challenging communications case. Autism has a heavy genetic component. This means that many parents of autistic children have some autistic tendencies themselves if not being diagnosably autistic. Changing the mind of a passionate parent who has trouble comprehending other’s emotions or seeing other’s point of view is very challenging.”

    For recessive diseases, or most complex diseases, the parents most often don’t have the disorder (although they can). You will see a higher incidence of the disorder in large families and in twin studies than in the population at large, but you won’t see most parents having the trait (whatever it might be). [There is much more involved, but I don't want to write an essay!]

    For what its worth, in my (limited) experience I’ve found these families aren’t much of a problem: anecdotally, where families clearly can see a genetic influence, they seem to “think genetics” rather than “vaccines”.

    re FAQs, etc: Here’s one page on basic vaccine misconceptions you can toss at people. The main page its linked off is also useful. And this one gives what might happen if you stopped the vaccines (might be due for an update?)

  63. #63 DLC
    July 20, 2008

    HolfordWatch : I’m no expert on immunology, but I liked your collection of posts. As someone who has been reading science, medicine and skeptical blogs for less than a year I was unaware that any such series of posts was available.
    This shouldn’t be the only shot in the locker, but a good solid starting point from which to deal with the anti-vax hysteria. People come to the internet seeking information, and they should see the correct information in the first five hits on their search engine.

  64. #64 Phoenix Woman
    July 20, 2008

    HolfordWatch : I’m no expert on immunology, but I liked your collection of posts. As someone who has been reading science, medicine and skeptical blogs for less than a year I was unaware that any such series of posts was available.
    This shouldn’t be the only shot in the locker, but a good solid starting point from which to deal with the anti-vax hysteria. People come to the internet seeking information, and they should see the correct information in the first five hits on their search engine.

    YES! Here’s what we should do:

    1) Pick half a dozen of the top legitimate sites that we can find.

    2) Agree that, once those sites are selected and agreed upon, to post links to them on our blogs and elsewhere.

    That would be one of the most effective things we could do, and it wouldn’t cost us more than an hour’s effort.

    My twopenn’orth: The key thing the antivax folks hammer on about is safety and “damage”. Turn that around. Something like “I want my child to be safe. Safe from measles, safe from whooping cough” etc etc. [I can't find exact statistics] “In 1958, [b&w shot of old-fashioned hospital ward] over 500,000 children suffered from measles. 2000 of them died. In 1998, [soft-focus shot of colourful child-friendly nursery] only 100 children did, and they all survived. Vaccination saves lives.”

    Have a series for different diseases, some giving facts like that, some giving a testimonial from a parent who got their (happy, healthy, normal) child vaccinated, each finishing with “vaccination saves lives.” As cg says, if we can get some famous people to stand up for vaccines, so much the better. (I rather like the adverts promoting blood donation we had in the UK a few years ago, in which famous people talk about someone close to them was helped by donated blood – eg. http://youtube.com/watch?v=tijSx_fwoM0 ).

    Don’t even mention autism in the main ads. Have lots of factsheets and FAQs on the website to rebut the anti-vax talking points, but don’t focus on it.

    Posted by: Electric Dragon | July 18, 2008 12:13 PM

    I like the cut of your jib, ED. Perfect.

  65. #65 Phoenix Woman
    July 20, 2008

    Here’s the WHO’s statement on ethyl mercury in vaccines — this should be one of the links we publicize like crazy.

  66. #66 tguy
    July 23, 2008

    With due respect, I must disagree that

    People of ordinary sense, intelligence, education, and commitment can come up with a bang-up public awareness campaign.
    – (Josh)

    You are talking about entering the political advertising arena, folks, and for that you need the tools of the trade. Yes, these are polls, focus groups, and media monitoring and analysis. I’m sorry if that offends peoples’ honor and purity, but get real. Successful publicity is run by publicists, not ordinary folks who have a way with words. Successful public awareness campaigns take expertise. It doesn’t have to come from a top notch ad agency (though that helps) or research into underlying communication theory (Nisbet’s area – why should it surprise you he treats the challenge as a research question?), but it does take training and/or experience, i.e. doing this kind of thing day in and day out.

    That’s behind the anti-vaxers success – their numbers include lots of politicos and more than a few professional full-time communicators. Vast marches don’t happen by accident, they’re planned months in advance. Issue ads aren’t slapped together by Youtube enthusiasts. Look beneath any successful public awareness campaign and you’ll see PR people doing their stuff. Dig deeper, you’ll uncover rivers of money.

    Maybe the thing to do would be to form an advocacy orgnanization, then a) hit up some donors and b) with that money hire some pros. I think if science blogging could really make a difference we’d see some by now. By all means never stop, but don’t go it alone – delegate.

  67. #67 tguy
    July 23, 2008

    I know I’m corrupt and shameless, but I can’t help thinking what a great viral email some heart-wrenching tale based on “What might happen if you stopped the vaccines” would make. Something along the lines,

    Until last year, Billy and Johnny were best friends. They went to school together, ate together, played together, even got sick together. But the last time they got sick, something happened, something terrible happened. Last December Billy caught measles and passed it on to Johnny. It turned out Billy got a bad rash, but Johnny got bad complications from the measles. In the end, the lining of Johnny’s brain swelled up. What started as measles ended up with meningitis. It was only a few days before Christmas when Johnny died. You see, Billy’s and Johnny’s parents thought vaccines were unnecessary. They thought nobody got measles anymore, and they thought the vaccine made you more sick than measles did. They were wrong. Johnny’s parents were really, really wrong. Now Billy plays alone. Parents, don’t let this happen to your children. Vaccines are important. Please see that your children get vaccinated, and please forward this to everybody you know.

    Okay. None of us here would do that, hell I promise I won’t. But jeez, people, when the other side is playing dirty, you can’t worry about keeping your hands sterile. Play those heartstrings, make them feel how important vaccination is. And if you don’t like what I’m saying, I refer to my previous comment. Get a pro, seriously.

  68. #68 dzd
    July 25, 2008

    It’s interesting to note that the most enthusiastic supporter of Mooney’s “less facts, more story” approach I know is also an honest-to-goodness clerical fascist.

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