The Intersection

“Framing Science”, Round II


It has begun–especially with this post from PZ. He is ticked at us for our Washington Post piece. Oddly, PZ goes through much of the article but not the specific response to him:

There will always be a small audience of science enthusiasts who have a deep interest in the “mechanisms and evidence” of evolution, just as there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored or, in the case of atheistic attacks on religion, backfire.

Nisbet has what I think is a really stellar inline reply to PZ’s post. It’s nice having a co-author to step up to the plate with these kinds of things (especially when one is in Australia).

Bora has also been doing great work to add perspective on this very needed debate, and to explain why for defending science in the short term, framing is so important. Read everything he has to say.

Frankly, I think we’re having a healthy–if sometimes quite passionate–discussion over all of this. To be clear: Nobody is saying anybody else ought to shut up or stop talking. (I could read this post in that way, but I will not; and PZ should not read our articles in that way either.)

In short, this is, in my view, a very needed strategy discussion for science-defenders to be having.


  1. #1 cbart
    April 15, 2007

    “If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do better than Richard Dawkins, the famed Oxford scientist who had a bestseller with “‘The God Delusion.'”

    This is your lead in the Post article. How is that NOT suggesting Dawkins ought to shut up? You are quite clearly saying that Dawkins and others do more harm than good.

    Fifteen years ago I would have agreed with you about scientists’ weakness in writing to the public. It is just simply not the case today. There are many problems. First among them are poor journalism – few journalists who cover science are themselves clueful about science. In that sense we need more people like you.

    Another huge problem is science education, and this is most definitely not the fault of scientists. It is the fault of school boards and parents and politicians who believe (or pander to) ridiculous nonsense about evolution and other science. Many high school science teachers are creationists. Many who understand the science are silenced by precisely the same reasoning you suggest: don’t offend the students or rile up the parents.

    You would be astounded by the lack of knowledge that many college students have about science – not just evolution, either. Dawkins and others are simply not the problem; they are not anywhere on the radar of people who deny evolution in the real world. A book likes Humes’ Monkey Girl is in that sense a model of where the problems really lie, and Judge Jones (who no doubt offended a lot of people) “gets it” in a deep and meaningful way.

    Dawkins, Harris, and others are fighting a necessary battle that will take years to “win,” if such a thing is possible. They need our support, not our sniping. In the shorter term, if you really want the dialogue to be meaningful and practical, focus on education schools, school boards, principals, and their damage to science education. Trust me, those are the fundamental problem areas.

  2. #2 Jim
    April 15, 2007

    I think PZ and the others are framing science. In their case the frame is promoting atheism. If they push science hard enough then religion will disapear, and a new age of enlightenment will arrive. They have a small but very loyal following and this makes them think they are succeeding, but they are turning off the majority of people.

  3. #3 gerald spezio
    April 15, 2007

    M & N, I beg you, please. You are making fools of yourselves. Take ERV’s wise advice. “Stop digging. Stop it!”
    Neither of you is any match for PZ Meyers or Larry Moran.
    Neither of you has any excuse for such monumental muddleheadedness.

  4. #4 Alric
    April 15, 2007

    “While remaining true to the underlying science, you have to recast messages in a way that connect to people’s social identity. And yes, in the United States, that means connecting to people of diverse faiths.”

    The crux of the problem. How can you connect with the faithful that oppose stem cell research? After you present the facts the best you can there is nothing you can do. Fundamentalists by definition are not given to apply logic and their beleives are already validated by their God. What we need is to work at the policy level and require critical thinking skills of all politicians. One way to do this is to reinstate an office of science and technology that will provide facts for the politicians to discuss and the public to accept.

  5. #5 J. J. Ramsey
    April 15, 2007

    “To be clear: Nobody is saying anybody else ought to shut up or stop talking.”

    True, but to be fair, you are certainly indicating that Dawkins should adjust what he has to say about religion, and I wouldn’t mind learning what you think he ought to do better. The main things that come to my mind are to stop being casual with the facts when it comes to religion, and to stop implying that the religious are morons. It would be interesting to see your perspective, though.

    Also, while it is perhaps obvious to you that Dawkins makes acceptance of evolution more difficult, it would be good if you and Nisbet pointed out the surveys and such to show this. Austin Cline, for example, thinks you want us to accept this proposition “on faith.”

  6. #6 hoody
    April 15, 2007

    Mr. Mooney, you are in a tough place. As you may see from some of the commentary you have received, the Myers/Moran/Dawkins axis is one of “no compromise”.

    I see your desire is one to open dialogue between warring factions. The difficulty is that when one is dealing with ideologues, dialogue becomes virtually impossible.

    You are advocating an idea that requires PZ and his posse to moderate their ideological fanaticism. I have not seen anything in over a year of observing and commenting myself that suggests PZ, Moran or others like them are about to change their tune.

    If I might engage in a bit of unsolicited advice: Starve the monster. Don’t respond to their rhetoric. Keep up the good fight; I believe very strongly that you are on the correct track. But don’t allow yourself to get sidetracked by the internecine extremism of the radical atheist camp. They cannot dialogue. Like radical, fundamentalist Christians, all they can hear is their own line of belief.

  7. #7 etbnc
    April 15, 2007

    It seems to me that the culture of science often has difficulty distinguishing ideas from behaviors.

    It’s been my experience, and my observation here at ScienceBlogs, that people who demonstrate the ability to distinguish ideas from behaviors are more likely to influence their audiences.


  8. #8 ERV
    April 15, 2007

    Chris, if you think I want you to shut up, you havent read any of my posts you have linked to.


    I want help. You are, evidently, purposely avoiding addressing the help that Im asking for. Choosing instead to ‘address’ rather idiotic ‘problems,’ saying things any scientist actively participating in community outreach would find offensive.

    I want you to stop digging because I genuinely want your help on real communication issues, and I wont accept that help if you keep losing my respect at the current rate.

  9. #9 matthew
    April 15, 2007

    CM: “Nisbet has what I think is a really stellar inline reply to PZ’s post.”

    MN (from the post referenced above): “In these contexts, it is often most effective, to remain true to the science, but sometimes not actually talk about it.”

    How do you talk about science but not actually talk about science? It’s comments like this, that are not followed up by explanations, that understandably confuse the reader.

    I’ve been trying very hard to read everything about this current debate and the thing I keep waiting to read are some specific examples… really specific. As in, “right here is an article that takes a complex (ie boring to most people), scientific subject and utilizes ‘framing’ the way we are talking about.” I very possibly could have missed this post, so if anyone can point me to it, I’d appreciate it.

  10. #10 Chris Mooney
    April 15, 2007

    Hello all,
    Thanks for the many comments on this and my other post. I’m just unable to answer them all, given the volume, but I did put up one overarching response to a recurring criticism here:


  11. #11 Marilyn
    April 15, 2007

    There are persons today who deny the existence of God. Some say, “God is dead.” But is their theory right? Speaking of such persons, Paul states in one of his letters:
    “[God’s] invisible qualities are clearly seen from the world’s creation onward, because they are perceived by the things made, even his eternal power and Godship, so that they are inexcusable.” (Romans 1:20)
    The vast universe and all the marvels that it contains are truly an expression of God’s “eternal power.”
    Even famous scientists have at times acknowledged their own smallness in comparison with the stupendous power and wisdom apparent in creation. For example, Albert Einstein once testified:
    “It is enough for me to . . . reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe, which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifest in nature.”
    The discoverer of the “law of gravity,” Sir Isaac Newton, was another who was deeply impressed by the evidence of God’s invisible qualities that are to be seen in His creation. The following account relates how Newton testified to his belief in Almighty God:
    Newton once had a skilled mechanic make for him a model of the solar system. Balls representing the planets were geared together so as to move realistically in orbit. One day an atheist friend visited Newton. On seeing the model, he operated it, and exclaimed in admiration, “Who made it?” Newton answered, “Nobody!” The atheist replied, “You must think I am a fool! Of course somebody made it, and he is a genius.” Newton then said to his friend, “This thing is but a puny imitation of a much grander system whose laws you know, and I am not able to convince you that this mere toy is without a designer and maker; yet you profess to believe that the great original from which the design is taken has come into being without either designer or maker!”
    Newton’s friend came to acknowledge that the great Designer and Maker of all things is God. Surely we, too, as we look on the marvels of creation about us, in the heavens and on earth, must acknowledge that an all-wise Creator made it all! How thankful we should be that this mighty Creator lovingly placed man here on this earth and that he is deeply interested in us!

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