The Intersection

PZ Myers says he likes the concept framing “less and less.” He wants to know why we’re beating up on scientists, when there’s so much wrong with the media and the public in terms of how they approach and use scientific information.

I just posted a long reply to his blog, and will reproduce it below the jump:

Hi PZ,

Just for the record, I think I’ve done as much as anyone to criticize bad reporting on science, going back several years:

So has my colleague Nisbet; here we are defending evolution in the face of bad reporting:

Indeed, I’ve been defending science against the ravages of politicians, reporters, etc, for some time….so, to now suggest a role for scientists in helping to address this ongoing communication/knowledge translation problem seems to me just the next logical step.

Science regularly gets misused by politicians, misrepresented by journalists, even suppressed by government agencies. This is bad, bad, bad. You, I, and others get really ticked off when it happens, and rightly so.

But at some point, I feel like we need to get beyond just outrage, and start thinking about what we can do on our end to bridge this science-society gap. It’s from that vantage point that Nisbet and I call for a rethinking of communication strategies. Let’s face it: Has the old “just the facts” model really worked? Are we really getting anywhere when it comes to broadening acceptance of evolution, for example? Or is that creationist slab of the public still unmoved, failing to budge?

In response to Endogenous Retrovirus–I’m sorry that Abbie isn’t getting invited to talk in Oklahoma, and no, I haven’t been invited to talk in Oklahoma either. But this is bigger than either of us. The scientific community as a whole has the resources to reach a broader public in a strategic way, if it wants to use them–no matter what communication challenges individual scientists or science promoters may face.

Thanks a ton for your airing of this framing debate, even if we don’t agree.



  1. #1 Janne
    April 8, 2007

    Most other professions use dedicated professionals (publicists, PR people, customer relations people, lobbyists) for public discourse and outreach, if indeed they feel the need for it at all. Why should science be different?

  2. #2 Wes
    April 8, 2007

    In response to Endogenous Retrovirus–I’m sorry that Abbie isn’t getting invited to talk in Oklahoma, and no, I haven’t been invited to talk in Oklahoma either.

    You’d probably find a pretty hostile audience in most of the state. But if you ever do speak in OK, I’d be sure to attend. I could ask the director of the philosophy department at Oklahoma State University if he’d be interested in inviting you to talk sometime (that is, if you want to give a talk in OK). He follows science topics pretty closely, and brings in lecturers on the topic from time to time.

    I understand Abby’s frustration with the atmosphere here in OK. The “science” page of our school newspaper often includes ads about “Scientific evidence for the Bible!” and other such nonsense. Creationists speaking at local churches get a (very loud) voice on campus, but good luck if you’re a scientist (or a nonscientist who’s just interested in the topic, like me) who wants to have a voice anywhere but in the classroom. Oklahoma has a rather stifling intellectual atmosphere. I grew up here, so I’m used to it. But if she just recently moved here, then I can understand why she feels like pulling her hair out, and why she thinks the problem runs much deeper than framing.

  3. #3 etbnc
    April 8, 2007

    In our culture we often associate bad outcomes with bad persons. So when someone points out a bad outcome, we tend to distance ourselves from it. Nobody wants to be in the bad person category.

    We all know this, of course. But I’m not sure we behave as if we know it.

    In recent years I’ve been actively trying to get used to the idea that good people participate in bad social systems. I’m getting used to the idea that bad outcomes routinely happen despite good people with good intentions. I’m getting used to including myself, my intentions, and the consequences of my actions in both of those categories.

    I’m finding that helpful in making progress toward improving outcomes. I’m finding that helps me to stay engaged in efforts that I might previously have resisted or written off. It works for me.

    Thanks for your contribution, Chris.


  4. #4 natural cynic
    April 8, 2007

    Sadly, framing probably has to be put in the category of one of the **Ugly Facts of Life**

    Janne: Most other professions use dedicated professionals (publicists, PR people, customer relations people, lobbyists) for public discourse and outreach, if indeed they feel the need for it at all. Why should science be different?

    Where would you rather spend your research money? Six weeks in the field, a new centriguge, or a PR flack?

    Lartge universities and commercial research institutions have PR departments. That’s where the effort needs to be made.

  5. #5 Gaythia Weis
    April 8, 2007

    I became involved in this discussion due to a local situation (Panda’s Thumb, Sixth Graders Debunk Global Warming, March 27th). We locals are grateful that we have a national science community that we can call on for help. It is wonderful that we are able to access the investigatory powers of both the science bloggers and the science journalists. BUT it is important to focus our efforts in combating these forces so that we do not provide the very publicity that the creationists sought in the first place.

  6. #6 llewelly
    April 8, 2007

    The irony is that PZ uses frames more aggressively than any other science-oriented commentator I’ve ever read. People have been framing the creationism vs evolution struggle as ‘War on Deception and Stupidity’ for a long time. (Arguably, it started with Huxley.) But PZ does it with more colour, and more flair, than anyone I can think of.
    PZ’s posts on liberal politics are consistently framed as ‘War On Brutality’. If he writes a post on abortion, he will tell the reader, in no uncertain terms, that legal restrictions on safe abortions are an act of brutal oppression.
    It is possible, from time to time, to read as much as half a PZ post thinking ‘this is just cool science facts, no framing …’ until PZ pulls in some anti-creationist or anti-oppression barb, and relates the facts to one of the above frames.
    There is a great deal of worry that these frames alienate people who might otherwise be allies, and harden the fanaticism of those opposed to his views. I think those are valid fears, and I share them to some extent.
    But a primary problem that science-interested folk, rationalists, and liberals all share, is that most of us are actively disinterested in any kind of vigorous political action.
    PZ is often accused of ‘mobilizing both bases’ … but the opposing base is already mobilized, and has been loudly casting scientists as Dr. Strangeloves, and atheists as Hitlers and Stalins, since long before he was born. I went through a long part of my life where I was much too busy to pay attention to the various science wars, and during that time, I found it comforting to believe that if only loudmouths like Dawkins and PZ would not be so rude, perhaps these myriad foul mischaracterizations of scientists would lose popularity.
    Then I realized:
    (a) A favorite attack on any scientist lecturing about evolution was to cast them as a Nazi. This was regularly applied to Asimov, Gould, and Sagan throughout the 1980s and 1990s. During most of that time, Dawkins was practically unheard of outside of the science-interested minority – meaning anyone so ignorant as to accept Gould as a Nazi would most certainly have never heard anything Dawkins had said. There was a period of over 10 years, where the public face of science was people like Sagan and Gould, who were unfailing polite and diplomatic. Yet Reader’s Digest still published articles implying they were Nazis and Stalinists.
    (b) By far the most successful anti-science commenters were the most aggressive, and the most of abrasive. People who regularly make rhetorical remarks that stray close to threats of murder and other violence.

    You and Nisbet are telling PZ ‘just the facts’ isn’t working. But that isn’t what PZ is doing. That isn’t what Dawkins is doing either. They are using frames you are afraid of. Frames you fear because these frames alienate some, and harden the fanaticism of others. That is a real cost of the aggressive frames favored by PZ and his allies. But PZ has a mobilized following like no other science-oriented blogger. Similarly, Dawkins has a mobilized following like no other science-oriented writer. And that is precisely where the old ‘just the facts’ was most devoid of effectiveness. It did not mobilize the science interested folk. Whatever their faults, the frames favored by PZ do mobilize people.
    Our popular culture overwhelming favors chaos and aggression. I think this needs to be changed – but if you’re going to advocate that science communicators work with what is here and now, well, chaos and aggression is what is here and now. If the media can’t find a scientist who appears to be a cross between Dr. Strangelove and Osama, they’ll invent one – out of whole cloth. They are welded to the freight train of gladiatorial reporting, and they’ll never try to disembark.
    Someone like Dawkins has enough verbal colour and aggression to make the media think they can cast him in that role. (If PZ ever gets popular enough, they’ll cast him the same way.) And so far, most of the news media thinks they are successful in portraying Dawkins as the atheist scientist equivalent of Osama Bin Laden. Many are (justifiably) afraid this will taint the reputation of all scientists. But the sleeper is that Dawkins will never live up to the Death Threats and Terrorism and Nazism frame they’ve put him. TGD is selling like mad, and interested people everywhere are finding out that the popular depiction is wholly imagined – the real Dawkins is a pacifist.
    PZ is already using frames, and if he gets sufficiently popular, typical reporters will put more frames around him. Much like the frames placed around Dawkins, they’ll be far more negative than anything he actually does. You fear that PZ’s frames, largely similar to those of Dawkins, will strengthen the credibility of the frames drawn around Dawkins. But the fact is that neither of these people are anything like such mischaracterizations.
    We don’t yet know if this yet-another-example of the gross intellectual dishonesty of most reporting will make it to a wider public. But if it does, you’ll have to admit Dawkins and PZ have stumbled on to a superb sleeper strategy.
    In the short term, I see no reason to believe typical reporting can be altered to prevent them from depicting some scientists as monsters. But I do see reason to hope that if they continue to draw that frame around people who will never match that depiction, the truth will leak out, the falseness of the framing will be exposed.

  7. #7 SMC
    April 8, 2007

    [...]Where would you rather spend your research money? Six weeks in the field, a new centriguge, or a PR flack?[...]

    Bear in mind that scientists aren’t the only ones who have to grapple with questions like this. One might imagine, say, an oil-industry executive pondering where they would rather spend their profits. Developing a new oil well? Another weekend of rolling-around-on-a-pile-of-$100-bills-with-hookers-and-cocaine? Or a PR flack/lobbyist?

    And yet, they keep often choosing the PR/lobbyist option, and apparently profiting from it in the long run, or so it would seem.

    I completely agree with the “Ugly fact of life” characterization of the situation, though. The thought of having to give up any valuable resource (time, money, etc.) from real science for marketing campaigns aimed at politicians and the public is pretty disgusting, but it seems as though it may be necessary if we want to stop the current backsliding.

  8. #8 Eric B.
    April 9, 2007

    Ideally, it should be the journalist who frames the science, not the scientist. Insisting that scientists do the framing, in a way, takes away the journalist’s most basic responsibility — to frame the issue in a way that is easily digestable to an audience, but that hits at a number of points some of which aren’t directly related to the research (how does stem cell research fit in with the economy, for instance).

    The big knock at scientists isn’t just that they can’t compete in a slick Fox News environment, but that they don’t know well how to get their research across in a way that a journalist can properly understand for proper framing. In his rebuttal, PZ Myers pointed out that most university professors (not private research scientists) enjoy giving hour-long lectures to rooms full of people. That might be true, but we’re not talking about an hour-long lecture. We’re talking about a one-on-one interview that would hopefully include more questions (a sign that a journalist is looking to understand the issue).

    Some of that is the old way of business. A scientist (and Myers communicates more effectively than most of his colleagues) might have his own blog to communicate his own ideas in his own way. And, probably most anyone reading this comment is familiar with the global warming debate from a few weeks ago. This isn’t cable news, but it’s an opportunity to communicate.

    But, that doesn’t mean that scientists not get sexier in the way they communicate. It’s unlikely that any individual scientist today will shake the world’s foundation, as Myers says he’d like to do in his first comment to this, so they’re probably best off figuring out how they fit into the equation.

    One final comment … Myers’ criticism that everyone turns on scientists over poor public understanding of science is kind of baffling. Everyone, including other journalists, criticizes journalists as lazy and stupid. Much of that is warranted, and it’s an obvious first place to start.

  9. #9 kate
    April 9, 2007

    first, chris, congrats to you and matt…this has provoked discussion that has been direly needed and long-awaited. thanks, and well-done.

    i’ve had a heck of a time putting this debate into context, but gotta say that i think eric’s comment summed up many of the concerns that scientists hold.

    can/do scientists know more than their work? of course – we don’t live in caves. can we successfully tie their work into these fields succinctly, accurately, and with a little sexiness thrown in to boot? maybe – but this raises two pretty major concerns:

    (1) scientists are trained to talk as accurately and concretely about their data as possible, and framing that forces scientists to depart from this (esp as discussed by coturnix on his daily kos post) is at increased risk of criticism and/or misuse…the latter of which could be very, very dangerous.
    (2) will this type of 20-second framing that everyone’s talking about be more damaging, long-term, to the integrity and legitimacy of scientists’ work and the reputation of science? science is rigorous, accurate, and should be considered as a whole, not through a lens. the concept of framing science to selectively promote its relevant aspects seems antithetical to what science is and how we should understand it.

    but then again, it’s that antithetical science-as-a-whole bit that was probably the initial impetus for writing the piece that you both did.

    obviously, we’ll have to meet half-way…but engaging scientists and giving them at least partial responsibility for effective communication was – and continues to be – a very necessary point. which was good of you both to make.