The Intersection

i-3b3173e69713553c5595206098bfac84-princeton_holder_1.jpg

I’m hitting the road this morning for a week-long, three stop trip that takes me first to Princeton, New Jersey; second to Georgia Tech; and third to D.C. The first two stops are for talks, the last is for R&R, reconnecting with old friends, and meeting up with Sheril to work on a new project we’ve come up with (of which much more soon).

In light of all the controversy of late, though, I must say I find it rather symbolic how the two major talks that I’m giving break down. First, with Nisbet, I’ll be speaking in the Princeton/Woodrow Wilson School Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP) Seminar series. The talk title will be “Framing Science: Journalism and Science Debates.” Matt will be covering the Expelled stuff, and I don’t know exactly what he’s going to say. (Believe it or not, we’re not carbon copies of one another.)

Almost exactly one year after the original “Framing Science” article appeared in Science, this is our last currently scheduled talk together. Not to say there won’t be others, but as I reflect, I must say I find the one year arc of this “framing science” thing beyond fascinating. I am hoping to have more to say about that in a series of introspective posts that I plan to start next week, inspired by the whole Expelled brouhaha, which has really been a shock to my system. Normally when I’m on the road I don’t post much; but this coming week may be very different.

And then I’m on to Georgia Tech for a very different talk, about the lingering Republican War on Science. Details here. My talk title will be “The War on Science: What Have We Learned,” and it will cover anything from ScienceDebate2008 to the history of science and politics in the Bush administration. It will hardly go easy on the yahoos who have waged war on science over the past decade or more, whether anti-evolutionists, global warming deniers, or others.

Recently, there have been a string of unfounded posts and comments suggesting that somehow, these two lines of argument are incompatible or contradictory. Some have sought to paint me as a science defender who somehow flip-flopped on strategy. I have even recently had to read things like the following: “Are Mr. Mooney and Mr. Nisbet perhaps creationists themselves? I sometimes actually do wonder.”

Nothing could be more absurd (or less founded in evidence) than this suggestion. But I fear such comments may signal a real threat to serious, high minded dialogue in our corner of the blogosphere. After last week, I’ve grown afraid that the tyranny of very small differences is beginning to have very destructive consequences among us–and that the total breakdown of discussion on the topic of framing may be a coal mine canary.

We’re all on the same team; can’t we try to remember that?

Hopefully I’ll have a great deal more to say about this next week.

Comments

  1. #1 PalMD
    March 30, 2008

    Looking forward to reading all about it!

  2. #2 Jim RL
    March 30, 2008

    I think focusing on the fact we are on the same side is a good thing, but white washing over the real source of the recent unpleastantries is not the way to do it. I understand that you and Matt Nisbet are not the same person, but the first salvo on the pro-science side came from Nisbet telling PZ and Dawkins to shut up, and you quickly backed him up.

    The pro-science side was celebrating a massive PR victory that successfully framed Expelled as made by liars and hypocrites and then Nisbet comes around and tells us it couldn’t actually be a victory because outspoken atheists were involved. At the time, you didn’t seem to see anything wrong with his attacking fellow science communicators and you quickly joined the fray.

    In the end, I still agree with your sentiment that we should all remember that we are on the same side. I hope that next time you realize this sooner and call out Nisbet when he starts intra-science squabbling.

  3. #3 Wes Rolley
    March 30, 2008

    I was intrigued by your use of the phrase “tyranny of small differences.” It is a likely outcome of the very medium that we are using to communicate what we are thinking. I find that small differences become magnified in the blogosphere where discourse is mostly one way and the mark of freedom is that I get a chance to have my say.

    I have not posted much recently and I find that little has changed, so I question whether or not anyone cares much about what anyone else writes.

    This medium is most often described as a place for personal publishing. We have a series of concurrent monologues, not conversations. Perhaps this arises naturally from the 1:m nature of the internet.

    There is probably something in all of this that will generate a few doctoral theses.

  4. #4 Matt Penfold
    March 30, 2008

    I would take issue with your claim that we are all on the same side.

    The way Nisbett has been acting of late it would be hard to consider him to be part of the pro-science camp anymore. He is obviously not the creationists camp either, but stuck somewhere in the middle of no-man’s land.

    The real shame is that he wants to be there, and his friends (ie, you) do not want to rescue him.

  5. #5 bill
    March 30, 2008

    No, we’re not on the same `team’; there aren’t any teams. Such a reductive metaphor, into `our team’ and the implied `their team’, reduces the discourse of many voices into into a two-voice debate. This method of thinking, these metaphors of `teams’, suggests that there should be a captain or coach or manager for each team, one who sets the tone, one who gets to decide who speaks, and how; there’s an implicit authoritarian structure, that allows your friend Nisbet to assume that `we’ can only have one voice, and that voice should not be PZ Myers’.

  6. #6 etbnc
    March 30, 2008

    “We have a series of concurrent monologues, not conversations.”

    Wes Rolley, your comments resonate with me. It seems to me there’s a lot more going on here than some participants see, understand, or acknowledge.

    “There is probably something in all of this that will generate a few doctoral theses.”

    Indeed. One prototype for such a thesis might be Ullica Segerstrale’s book, Defenders of the Truth.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    Cheers

  7. #7 Matti K.
    March 30, 2008

    Ditto, Bill. Only people outside the scientific community regard science as a monolith. Therefore I can understand the somewhat naive attitude of non-scientist Mooney, but Nisbet has scientific training. I wonder where he gets the idea that scientists listen to self-proclaimed PR managers.

  8. #8 Paul W.
    March 30, 2008

    I am hoping to have more to say about that in a series of introspective posts that I plan to start next week, inspired by the whole Expelled brouhaha, which has really been a shock to my system.

    Looking forward to it.

    Recently, there have been a string of unfounded posts and comments suggesting that somehow, these two lines of argument are incompatible or contradictory. [...] But I fear such comments may signal a real threat to serious, high minded dialogue in our corner of the blogosphere. After last week, I’ve grown afraid that the tyranny of very small differences is beginning to have very destructive consequences among us–and that the total breakdown of discussion on the topic of framing may be a coal mine canary.

    Must you frame things this way?

    It seems to me that much of the negative commentary on your and Matt’s blogs has been thoughtful and sincere, not just sniping. Another big fraction has been “I’ve had it with you guys, too” posts that don’t add much, but are understandable in light of the more thoughtful posts.

    You’ve provoked some of that by being somewhat dismissive, condescending, and whiny.

    Sure, there’s been some useless and extreme negativity, but there’s also been some very real attempts to communicate, and considerable real frustration at the lack of clear or constructive responses.

    I hope next week’s posts will rectify that.

    I, for one, hope I haven’t been annoyingly wasting bandwidth with lengthy posts trying to make it clearer what some substantive concerns are, and that your general points are not simply being ignored by the people who disagree with you.

  9. #9 Sven DiMilo
    March 30, 2008

    What’s “our team,” again?
    Science Defenders? versus, I guess, the massed forces of Anti-Science?
    The Expelled! people are on the Other Team for sure; Myers and Dawkins are on our side (though they also moonlight for the Anti-Religion team in the indoor league).
    So who are you telling to “shut up”?
    Yeah, I don’t get it.

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    March 30, 2008

    “Some have sought to paint me as a science defender who somehow flip-flopped on strategy.”

    You may not have “flip-flopped,” but you went from noting real traps that come up in rebutting denialists to coming up with the impractical suggestion of avoiding the whole business of rebuttal altogether, which is irresponsible.

    Also, while framing in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, you and Nisbet just have not done a good job of providing practical advice. The commenter above me, Paul W., had noted on Nisbet’s blog that there is an elephant in the room. While I’m not entirely sure that it is even coherent to talk as Paul does of a systematic conflict between science and religion, there is most certainly a conflict with the facts of evolutionary biology and particular religious beliefs, and there is a legitimate fear among believers that attempting to reinterpret their beliefs to accommodate evolution would have a ripple effect that would destroy their whole belief system. Considering that there have been those in whom this ripple effect has taken place (including Dawkins himself), this is not an idle fear, and ignoring it or papering it over with reassurances from religious scientists isn’t going to make it go away. Even if PZ and Dawkins were to take Nisbet’s advice and let the religious scientists be the spokespersons, that underlying tension will still be there.

  11. #11 James F
    March 30, 2008

    Chris, I don’t think that you and Matt are creationists, and I’d hazard a guess that most people posting on Pharyngula don’t think that, either. I do think that we need to call those Expelled chumps on their lies and hypocrisy whenever it comes up, especially if it can be done in the larger context of discrediting ID. To give a very limited example, I posted a link to PZ’s account of his experience trying to see Expelled on a message board unrelated to scienceblogs where I have a lot of friends, most of whom are neither scientists nor very knowledgeable about science. Some people needed to Google a bit of info on the key players, but once they did that they thought it was hilarious; the Expelled producers came out looking like fools. At least one person expressed outright scorn for the “stupid a– movie.” I think the point about PZ’s expulsion has been made adequately and does not need to be beaten into the ground; we can ease up for now, but if they try any more nonsense I firmly believe they should be promptly taken to task once again.

    Have a great time in Princeton; it’s near my hometown and I’m very fond of the place.

  12. #12 Duae Quartunciae
    March 30, 2008

    Chris, you are definitely not a creationist. You’ve made some hard to understand choices recently; but overall you’re an clear asset, IMHO. Furthermore, I have some hopes that you’ll eventually be able to recognize and acknowledge why Matthew Nesbit’s recent contributions have attracted almost universal criticism from scienceblogs … regardless of where bloggers stand on the matter of science and religion, or science and atheism.

    I’ll be surprised if Matthew’s talk actually addresses Expelled directly in any detail. I expect him to focus instead on more of the meta-level analysis he does so badly, with more of the counter-productive attempt to denigrate and undermine anyone who does not take his particular conciliatory stance. I’d be delighted if he managed a turn around and actually started to demonstrate by example an alternative and useful way to frame the issues. I like the conciliatory approach myself. But Matt seems very very bad at it, and much more wrapped up in promoting himself as a communications expert than in actually communicating something useful on the issues.

  13. #13 Inoculated Mind
    March 30, 2008

    Chris, I agree with you about some of the comments made by people, like suggesting that you and Matt are creationists or “on the other side.” (Sheril also received some sexist comments too) Those were uncalled-for, and really harm the dialog.

    But I think Matt and you may be overlooking how the recent controversies can be used to beat them at their own academic freedom/supression/expulsion frame. Plus, pre-release bad press can lead to diminished attention at the box office, perhaps more.

    I’d also like to point out that Due in part to the pre-screening attention that Expelled has been getting, that the theatrical release itself is looking like it may be postponed yet again. Screenings have been canceled until further notice, and articles written by the very groups that should be receptive to Mathis/Stein’s message are quoting Myers and Dawkins more than them. Aren’t those good signs?

  14. #14 Chris C. Mooney
    March 30, 2008

    I want to thank you all for these comments, and the tone change that they signal. You have made me *want* to blog all week next week about what is really going on here (to my mind). I’ll start with my first item tomorrow–which will be my version of an apologia/mea culpa, so start licking your chops–and then proceed through some other pieces. In the process, much of what you raise here will eventually get addressed….

  15. #15 bill
    March 30, 2008

    and as a minor pictorial request: if you’re going to be speaking at the Woodrow Wilson school, maybe a picture of good ol’ Woody Wu would be appropriate (rather than the graduate college)? just a thought…

  16. #16 Wes
    March 30, 2008

    I want to thank you all for these comments, and the tone change that they signal. You have made me *want* to blog all week next week about what is really going on here (to my mind). I’ll start with my first item tomorrow–which will be my version of an apologia/mea culpa, so start licking your chops–and then proceed through some other pieces. In the process, much of what you raise here will eventually get addressed….

    Posted by: Chris C. Mooney | March 30, 2008 8:51 PM

    Chris,

    I don’t think you have anything to apologize for.

    I’ve had a deep respect for your work ever since I read The Republican War on Science, and I can say that though I have disagreed very strongly with your shift in perspective in the past year or so, that respect hasn’t disappeared. I deplore the personal insults–”concern troll”, “stealth creationist” etc–that were directed towards you. They are false, and you deserve more respect than that. I don’t understand at all why you have shifted your focus and adopted your current opinions on how to deal with anti-science. I really wish you’d get over this phase you’re in, but whatever. I also don’t think a strong disagreement with your position means you should be called names. Reasonable people can disagree.

    Don’t take the blame for this fiasco on yourself. You didn’t start it. You weren’t to blame here–it was Matt. You didn’t issue a supercilious and insulting demand for PZ and Dawkins to be silent and defer interviews and such to national science organizations. That was all Matt. Why should you have to apologize for a fight which Nisbet clearly started? He picked the fight by directly insulting a fellow blogger for no reason. Let him apologize. His behavior sure as hell ain’t your fault, so why should you apologize for it?

    I don’t think PZ had anything to apologize for (since he was merely responding in kind to an unprovoked insult), and I don’t think you have anything to apologize for either (since you were merely defending your viewpoint and trying to keep things civil). I disagree with your thread which argued that creationist claims should not be vocally and publicly denounced, and I can’t fathom why you would circle wagons with Nisbet, but regardless, having an unpopular viewpoint is nothing you or anyone else need to apologize for.

  17. #17 scote
    March 31, 2008

    As much as I have railed against Nisbet’s shenanigans I am very much in favor of creating advantageous framing for science and evolution. It isn’t enough for the science to be sound, you still have to sell it. Advantageous framing is an important part of selling the value of science to the public, and yes, we do have to sell it because we are competing against people who are actively and successfully selling irrationality. Just how to sell rationality while respecting some of people’s pet irrationalities (religion) while arguing against others (creationism) is quite a minefield.

    Much of the resistance to framing science is in response to the disastrous and ill conceived attempts by Nisbet to propose tactics for the purpose of framing evolution. However, in spite of the name of his blog, “Framing Science,” Nisbet didn’t actually offer frames, instead he wanted atheists to keep quiet and proposed that a spokesperson like Francis “I see Jesus in waterfalls” Collins do the talking. Unfortuately, a high percentage of scientists are non-religious so Nisbet’s idea of only having religious scientists speak while keeping the bulk of scientists hidden away in the attic is somewhat impractical.

    Nisbet has actually been highly counterproductive. His unintentional proof by example showed people that bad frames can be very unconvincing and counterproductive. The problem, fortunately, is not framing but Nisbet and his poor aptitude for framing, especially vis-a-vis science in opposition to creationism. Were it not for Nisbet, far more people at SB would be in favor of framing science.

    So, one should not ally with people merely because they share a common goal with you. People who share a goal with you but whose ineptitude actually, and continually, hurts that goal are not worthy allies. Nisbet thinks PZ and Dawkins are such people. I think it is Nisbet and I think the strong negative reaction to his posts is evidence of that fact and his inability to create efficacious framing even on his own behalf let alone on behalf of science in a complex scientific and public relations challenge.

  18. #18 miko
    March 31, 2008

    Chris,

    You catch a lot of shots aimed at Nisbet because you choose to stand next to him. Dawkins and PZ scored a major victory in making the whole Expelled phenomenon look like the dishonest farce that it is. But because he finds them personally distasteful, Nisbet had to poo-poo it in his condescending, weasely marketing consultant tone.

    His not interested in an honest, pluralistic dialog. How can he pretend intellectually honesty after loading his “panel” at the AAAS meeting with people who all agree with him, and excluding some of the most public voices in the science-culture discussion?

    After his (and your) initial proposals regarding framing science met with strong opposition, his tactic has been to label, smear, and dismiss. What the fuck is a “New Atheist?” Dawkins and PZ are making arguments that originated in 17th and 18th century England and Scotland. But calling them a name makes them dismissable without any attempt to respond to their criticisms. Nisbet’s the Karl Rove of Scienceblogs, and his smarmy posts make me feel like I need a shower.

    I was an early reader of your old blog and admire your knack for making science engaging and interesting, but I think you’ve drifted off into some kind of political wonk meta-reality lately, with Nisbet at the tiller.
    m

  19. #19 Harry Abernathy
    March 31, 2008

    I’m excited about you coming down to Georgia Tech. I just finished my Ph.D. here in materials science and engineering. I’ll try to make the seminar, if possible. Baby number two is due on April 8, so my work schedule is pretty day-to-day at the moment.

    Try to request at least a day pass to the campus recreation center if you want some exercise. It’s an excellent facility, and you can see the pool used for the 1996 summer olympics.

  20. #20 Hank Roberts
    March 31, 2008

    I hope you’re planning time at Ga. Tech to talk with Dr. Curry, if she has time; she has had a rare ability to manage to be involved without getting sucked into arguments with the innumerate, to get the attention of many unconvinced, disbelieving, or politically blinkered blog readers, and to take her students into online climate controversies in a way that seems to work, instructive rather than confrontational.

  21. #21 Hank Roberts
    March 31, 2008

    Here’s why I suggest talking to Dr. Curry on climate blogging, an example as posted at the NYT recently:

    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/24/earth-scientists-express-rising-concern-over-warming/#comment-10491

    “I just spotted this thread, and I am astonished to see such tilting at windmills from so many major figures from both sides of this debate……”
    (Click link for full text

  22. #22 Orac
    March 31, 2008

    You catch a lot of shots aimed at Nisbet because you choose to stand next to him. Dawkins and PZ scored a major victory in making the whole Expelled phenomenon look like the dishonest farce that it is. But because he finds them personally distasteful, Nisbet had to poo-poo it in his condescending, weasely marketing consultant tone.

    Indeed. Nesbit went way over the line when he told PZ to shut up and “lay low.” His suggestion that Dawkins and PZ keep quiet and let the professionals (presumably led by Nesbit and his preferred spokespeople) handle the communications about Expelled! reeked of condescension and arrogance. You lost considerable credibility in my eyes by sticking by him through that and not calling him out for having gone too far. I realize you may have found yourself in a tricky situation, not wanting to go against an ally with whom you had developed this whole “framing” thesis, but, quite frankly, Nisbet has a talent not just for offending the very people he needs as allies but by doing framing so badly that he routinely snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.

    Your whole “framing science” thesis may have value, and I used to defend it, but Nisbet, through his tin ear, pettiness, and arrogance, is doing his best to torpedo it.

  23. #23 Chris C. Mooney
    March 31, 2008

    Folks the “framer culpa” is now up, with much more to follow.

    http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2008/03/a_dialogue_on_framing_the_fwor.php

    Orac, I’ll have more soon enough on where Nisbet has gone wrong in trying to communicate about framing to Scienceblogs. Give it a little time. Meanwhile, please think about whether or not you will back me up on the importance of civility.