The Intersection

Framing Science from Australia

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Yesterday I gave a talk in Melbourne at the Bureau of Meteorology, sponsored by the Melbourne Centre of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society. Although in my previous conference talk here I had already raised the subject of framing (see coverage here and here), this time (for the first time) I devoted an entire talk to laying out the arguments that I’ve been putting forward with the help of Matt Nisbet.

The audience was a small but high caliber group of a few dozen scientists. My impression is that they were extremely receptive, in general, to the message. Some responses to our proposals in the blogosphere have been nasty and have even failed in some cases comprehend the basics of what we’re suggesting (such as equating framing with spin). But in this much more interpersonal context, the argument seemed to go over extremely well. I am hoping there will be audio and perhaps even slides available.

Meanwhile here in OZ I also had the opportunity to hear Australian of the Year Tim Flannery speak. He himself seemed very conscious of the need for “framing” science, though he didn’t use those words. Flannery asserted that we’ll probably never have a population that is educated at an extremely high level about science, and that perhaps that’s not what we even would want. Instead, he said when he seeks to explain science to the public, he thinks of talking to his mother, a woman in her seventies who is intelligent but does not hold an advanced degree. Flannery further argued that instead of educating the public about all the details of science at a highly technical level, we ought to try to establish strong trust in scientists themselves. I couldn’t agree more. More trust in scientists will lead more cognitive miser humans to make up their minds based upon scientific opinions, rather than attacks on those opinions from other sources.

In any event, Bora has done a tremendous job of chronicling the ever growing volume of responses to our work. Meanwhile Matt Nisbet, who’s back in D.C. and not traveling around as I am, has continued to engage, most recently with this very informative comment. Nisbet has also just done an interview with the widely subscribed Point of Inquiry podcast on framing.

Finally, I just came across this statement from Richard Dawkins, which I think completely makes our point:

I think I would say that Colorado Springs, like other parts of America, is divided between two different Americas. There’s the intelligent, educated, open-minded America, which is prepared to listen to evidence, prepared to listen to argument, prepared to change its mind. And there are close-minded, fundamentalist people who don’t want to know, don’t want to learn, don’t want to listen. They know what’s true, it’s in the holy book. They’ve been told what’s true, they feel passionately that they know what’s true, and no argument, no argument whatsoever can ever sway them. And therefore, when they hear an argument that does sway them, they simply shut their eyes, shut their ears. And it’s almost as though there’s a kind of partition in America between the educated thoughtful half of the country, and the closed-minded thoughtless part of the country.

On some level, Dawkins seems to recognize how hard it is to reach people who come to the table with vastly different assumptions than one’s own. And yet at the same time, he proceeds to insult them…the first step towards never reaching someone.

P.S.: Totally unrelatedly, I just saw a friggin Wedge-Tailed Eagle out of the car window on the way to the Melbourne airport….incredible.

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Comments

  1. #1 Anon for this
    April 20, 2007

    “They’ve been told what’s true, they feel passionately that they know what’s true, and no argument, no argument whatsoever can ever sway them. And therefore, when they hear an argument that does sway them, they simply shut their eyes, shut their ears.”

    He just described my mom!
    :(

  2. #2 Trinifar
    April 20, 2007

    …instead of educating the public about all the details of science at a highly technical level, we ought to try to establish strong trust in scientists themselves.

    That’s the ticket. And maybe a key to why the blog discussion have sometimes been harsh.

    I doubt it’s good, useful, or even possible to have everyone science-literate at the level of a, say, college science major. Everyone takes American history but how many have a good understanding of it? But we’re okay if people trust groups of scientists who are all saying the same thing — like the biologist with evolution and the climate sciencists with climate change.

    Perhaps some of the virulent discussion comes from some scientists wanting to be more trusted but concerned about having to change their rhetoric to earn that trust. Do you stay true to the language you’ve been using and accept many will not put their faith in you (you actually have to get the doubters to gain a serious understanding of science to get their trust), or do you change that language and begin to build trust among the undecided?

    Odd, isn’t it, to pull a “faith” component out of this?

  3. #3 Jackie
    April 21, 2007

    I haven’t commented on this debate so far, but I tend to lean toward the idea that a more science-literate citizenry would go a long way toward improving communication between scientists and the public. It’s no secret that the US has fallen behind in science education. Framing certainly can help with the storytelling, but a lot of scientific ideas don’t require a PhD to understand. The best scientists, I have found, are actually very capable of explaining scientific concepts in nice, small sound bites. An example that comes to mind is Richard Feynman’s explanation of how cold O-rings led to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster by dropping an O-ring into a glass of cold water. It was both brilliant and easy to understand. Once people understand at least qualitatively how something works, they don’t need to rely on “expert” opinion and they won’t be so easily fooled.

  4. #4 oscar zoalaster
    April 21, 2007

    On some level, Dawkins seems to recognize how hard it is to reach people who come to the table with vastly different assumptions than one’s own. And yet at the same time, he proceeds to insult them…the first step towards never reaching someone.”

    Unfortunately with some people any statement that does not endorse everything they believe is an insult. Consequently someone asserting that he or she was insulted by what someone said is not always a reliable guide to whether someone was intending to be insulting. The only way to not insult folks like that is to not talk to them…and that is problematic.

  5. #5 tristero
    April 22, 2007

    The accepted frame here is that fundamentalists are part of a religious movement. This frame, which they have perpetrated, is deliberately misleading.

    In fact, fundamentalism is a political movement that uses the trappings of religion to advance a purely secular agenda that is congruent with far right objectives. I have blogged about this extensively over at Hullabaloo, with copious quotes from an influential fundamentalist well known within the movement, but little known to outsiders (type the following into google: inurl:digbysblog.blogspot.com “blog against theocracy”).

    I think if you take the trouble to read all seven posts, it will become quite clear to you that regardless of their privated faith, fundamentalists acting in the public sphere are political extremists. While their followers may, on occasion, be amenable to reason, it is simply foolish to accord such people a place at the table of respectable debate. You don’t ask David Duke to a serious discussion of race with Henry Louis Gates. Likewise, you don’t ask Tim LaHaye or Jonathan Wells to discuss evolution with Niles Eldredge.

    As for insulting such people – frankly, I wouldn’t worry about it. The important thing is to marginalize them. Some people will ignore them, some will try to argue with them. And some will be insulting. Whatever works to drive them back to the margins of American public discourse.

    But you never, ever, treat them with respect. Courtesy, maybe. Respect – they deserve none. They are extremists.

    Before you object, please read at least some of those posts I suggested.

  6. #6 Steve Bloom
    April 23, 2007

    Chris, the wingnut radio hosts are just now engaged in what looks to me (I haven’t been listening all that long) to be an intensive poisoning-the-well exercise (extending specifically to scientists) on the global warming issue. The fact that they see a need to do that is a good sign, IMHO.

  7. #7 Joanna Bryson
    April 24, 2007

    About the Dawkins quote — one thing that interests me is how wrong it is. Fundamentalists do change their minds. They can be manipulated, they switch their political loyalties, they start believing new (weird) things. If you treat them as static or as Biblical Literalists, you could very well get flattened when they suddenly move sideways.

    It would be very useful to understand when they move. I suspect it is much the same process as how everyone else changes their opinion, it’s just the authority sources are different. But really, people have fairly short memories and don’t notice they believe contradictions, and don’t believe it when it’s pointed out. That’s true of scientists as well as fundamentalists; geniuses and idiots.

    One difference: when pragmatists change our minds, we can believe that there was new evidence discoverd that makes it rational. When fundamentalists change their mind, they are more likely to deny it, or to blame it on their human fallability & incorrect previous understanding, or on someone lying to them.

  8. #8 Michael Tobis
    April 29, 2007

    I thoroughly agree with your criticism of Dawkins, but I am puzzled about your fawning over Coturnix who, for all his charms, habitually makes the same mistake.

    see my elaboration of the point and this follow-on.

    Not that I don’t appreciate Coturnix’s diligent tracking of the whole blogosphere discussion, nor his links back to me, nor his civil conversation. Nevertheless I feel he never caught my point, which is similar to the one you make here.

    I think that gratuitous slaps at religion can’t possibly be helpful, which I believe is your point here.

    I also think that the proposed equivalence between science and atheism is philosophically ignorant as much as it is tactically foolish, which may go further than you want to go.

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