The Intersection

After taking some time to mull over the events of last week–when I saw a side of I’ve not seen before, and that troubled me a great deal–I felt a strong need to clear the air. So let me say, at the outset of this first post in a series, that I speak for myself alone. There has been plenty of confusion of late about what Sheril thinks, what I think, and whether either is the same as what Matt Nisbet thinks, but at least with this post there can be no mistake. It is by its author and no others.

Reading over all the comments we managed to generate here last week–in which we set a volume record with this post and then quickly broke it with this one–I saw much that I didn’t like. I saw the serious and important concept of “framing” dissed and dismissed by people who didn’t always seem to understand it. I saw myself disparaged, including the outlandish suggestion that I might be a creationist. I saw my talented co-blogger, Sheril, nastily attacked.

I also saw juvenile, profanity-laden comments of a sort that torpedo the quality of discussion for everyone, and that from now on won’t be tolerated on this blog.

All of this dismayed me a great deal. Over time, however, one major theme in the comments also seemed to make a lot of sense–and convinced me that while there’s much that I want to criticize, it would be best to begin by confessing where I myself am at fault. Which leads to my promised mea culpa:

When I teamed up with Matthew Nisbet a year ago to talk about the subject of framing science–which I still believe to be a very important one–it was not my goal to alienate or outrage a group that I consider one of my most important audiences, namely, ScienceBlogs bloggers and readers. And yet when you look at the latest blowup over what I have posted, Sheril has posted, and Nisbet has posted about Expelled, it’s undeniable that there is now an audience that reacts very negatively even to any basic mention of the concept of framing.

And there’s just no other way to spin it–this is a painfully ironic communication failure on the part of those of us who wanted to introduce what I view as a very important communication tool to the science world. If we can’t explain something so useful to an important segment of our own audience, how can we possibly hope to use it to counter the other side?

Now, to be sure, the concept of framing has been quite influential already for many people who care about science, but who are not seemingly well represented on ScienceBlogs. When I go around lecturing with Matt Nisbet, we constantly encounter enthusiastic, receptive scientist-laden audiences at universities. There is simply nothing like the response that we’ve seen here over the last week. Indeed, I believe the reactions at lectures may have skewed my perceptions, and made me neglect or dismiss, to a significant extent, the way our ideas were faring in the science blogosphere.

But no success on the lecture circuit can change the fact that somehow–and I’ll have ideas about how it happened in later posts–the concept of framing has been blackened on Scienceblogs, which I consider a truly tragic occurrence. And while I’m hardly the only guilty party here, I certainly played a role in that, whether actively or by omission.

For starters, I didn’t always take enough time to explain what I meant by framing, or why I felt it mattered. Furthermore, I took the show on the road without necessarily spelling everything out here at my Internet home. I paid a lot more attention to receptivity for my lectures than to criticisms of my blog posts.

Most of all, I helped contribute to making this a polarizing and divisive battle over how to communicate about science and religion, when it didn’t have to be–especially considering that science-religion issues are only one tiny facet of the broader framing science thesis.

For all of this, I apologize. We have become nastily divided here, and I deserve some share of the blame. I still think that the concept of framing is a very useful one, and that Matt Nisbet’s scholarship and research is cutting-edge and important. But I also think that I–we–have done a pretty poor job of convincing Scienceblogs folks of this fact.

In the remainder of my posts this week (and perhaps stretching into next), I hope to explain more fully how I think all of this happened, and why we must rise above the current polarization and nasty discourse on ScienceBlogs–for the good of everyone. With this apology I take the first step, and I sincerely hope others will follow.


  1. #1 Philip H.
    March 31, 2008

    That takes guts, and I hope to be the first to take my figurative hat off to you. I never thought you or Sheril had anything to apologize about, and as the comments got nastier and nastier, I decided to stay largely out of the fray.

    I think you have hit a well spring of emotion on this one, precisely because your commentary held up a mirror to all of us in the blog-osphere. It appears some did not receive that mirror very well. It also appears that you aren’t the only one who needs to apologize. I can only hope others do as well.

    I look forward to your future posts disecting this skirmish, but I hope you will continue to frame, for us and with us, how we might best deal with the deniers. We need to heal, as a community, and I can think of no better way then to get back to what we were doing before – framing science so that our wider world can undersatnd and accept the value we have to offer.

  2. #2 PalMD
    March 31, 2008

    I think the dialog is a healthy thing, and look forward to further posts.

  3. #3 Matt Penfold
    March 31, 2008

    Thank you Chris.

    I have been critical of you in the past, and not least because I saw you pushing framing in such a bad way on your blog I could not see why, if one of the people pushing it was so bad at it, it could be of any use.

    I make no promises as to whether I will accept your arguments in favour of framing this time around, but I will try my best to give them a fair hearing.

  4. #4 Anna K
    March 31, 2008

    Thank you very much for taking the time to do this. As I am involved with a church and have already gotten emails about ‘Expelled’ from people who don’t understand its distortions, I am painfully aware of the need for framing when it comes to dealing with science and religion.

    The Scienceblogs community, which is composed of so many gifted writers and communicators, seems like it would be a natural ally for constructive thinking on how to reach a broader audience against Ben Stein’s campaign to promote pseudoscience. I look forward to following the discussion.

  5. #5 stillwaggon
    March 31, 2008

    There has been too much heat of late; I look forward to more light.

  6. #6 Miguelito
    March 31, 2008

    I’ve been lurking rather than posting. But I do have a few things to say. Nobody is spared.

    For the PZ and Dawkins army: you’ll never convince anybody when you approach the public sphere with a science/atheism attack. You’ll just drive people on the fence away (those that might still listen to reason) and into the waiting arms of the fundamentalists by proving their points for them about how science rips people from their spiritual roots. I’m speaking as a Neville Chamberlain atheist.

    You lose credibility in the eyes of the public at large. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Pick your battles. First, get good science taught in schools. Then worry about atheism later. Once you teach people to think rationally about one segment of their lives, hopefully it will spill into other segments. The only thing that brings a mass conversion or a culture shift in this world is a messiah (Jebus, Mohammed, whoever) and atheists can never provide one.

    Okay, done with that.

    For the framers: when IDiots and global-warming skeptics come out with a message that uses technical jargon, it has to be addressed. If it was good old-fashioned creation science, sure, ignore it. But, when dressed in tehno-gibberish, we can’t just ignore what they’re saying because, to a layman, it sounds convincing. I’d love to ignore them and have them just go away, but it’s never going to happen. Not as long as Exxon gives money to the propaganda machine and keeps getting their climate-chage “experts” air time. Like above, it’s for those people on the fence. Those that can still be swayed by rationality.

    I guess the point is:
    1) Temper the message. You don’t win friends by sounding like a jerk.
    2) You’ve got to stand up to techno-jargon because it sounds convincing to somebody that doesn’t know any better.

    It’s about the people on the fence.

  7. #7 windy
    March 31, 2008

    Thanks for the post, although I don’t think you needed to apologise. However:

    And yet when you look at the latest blowup over what I have posted, Sheril has posted, and Nisbet has posted about Expelled, it’s undeniable that there is now an audience that reacts very negatively even to any basic mention of the concept of framing.

    Surely the blowback was not just because people reacted negatively to framing, but because it was suggested that PZ should not communicate with the media about being expelled from Expelled, an idea that even many framing enthusiasts considered silly. But maybe you’ll address this in later posts!

  8. #8 M.
    March 31, 2008

    Ok, Chris, here is a double comment: I have heard your lectures, and I have seen the problem here on the blogs. And while this post is a good start, I’m afraid you are missing two very important points.

    There is a very good reason why your lectures are well accepted. They are good, they are well executed communication, and they make sense. They are also very general – basically, they propose that we communicate better, which is something everyone can agree with.

    Here in the blogosphere, however, we have something completely different. Here you are not just talking about how to communicate science, you are actually communicating science. And therein lies the rub – Nisbet is miserably failing at it, and you are supporting him nevertheless.

    Do you understand the problem? Talking about improving science communication is cool. But then turning around and communicating science badly isn’t.

    Nisbet took a clear victory for science, and turned it into a coup for creationists. He wrote a text that made the front page of UD. And he did this out of what is turning out to be a pathological hatred of PZ and Dawkins.

    Let’s repeat it again. When you come out to speak, you tell me we should communicate science better. I agree. When you communicate science in a way that gives the day to creationists…well, we part ways.

    That is the disconnect. It isn’t that you are communicating framing badly here, it is that you are framing science badly. Framing may be a good idea, but Nisbet’s bad framing (and your support of it) certainly isn’t.

    The second thing you need to remember is that everyone’s message isn’t the same. You and Nisbet, perhaps, just want to effectively frame evolution and global warming. PZ and Dawkins, however, also want to frame their skepticism towards religion. The message isn’t the same, and the frame can’t be either.

    And you can’t tell them to shut up. And if you do, they shouldn’t listen.

    When you frame your message to the public, you have to take into account many things: Behe won’t stop peddling lies as long as he’s getting paid, YECs won’t care about the actual facts of evolution and have to be approached with emotional arguments, for many creationists you’ll have to get them to listen at all before even giving an argument, etc. The fact that PZ and Dawkins won’t shut up about their atheism is just one additional thing you have to consider when framing your message. You just have to take that into account.

    Makes the job a bit harder? Tough. Facts of the universe are as they are, you have to deal with them. It would also be easier if creationists gave up their theological convictions, but nobody expects that. Why expect it of PZ?

    Finally, one more time, just to make sure everything is absolutely clear. If you talk about how to communicate a scientific idea, I’ll listen, as you have proven that you can do it.

    But if Nisbet talks about how to communicate science, I’m not paying attention any more. Sorry, I know he’s your friend, but he has shown himself to be pathetically incompetent at it. No matter how “cutting edge” his research is, he seems unable to actually communicate. Therefore, when he goes off and attacks others for successful communication – you should not support him. It only reduces your own credibility.

  9. #9 Linda
    March 31, 2008

    Although I do not think that an apology is necessary, I can understand why you need to take the time and energy to be fair to both yourself and Sheril, and speak in your own words.
    Last night, Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes had a commentary on the positive nature of discourse with respect. Perhaps one of you can post it. A lot of people from last week might learn from it.

  10. #10 Josh Charles
    March 31, 2008

    I think framing has a hard time right away because at least superficially, it sounds suspiciously like ‘spinning.’ Whatever happened to just being honest about your ideas and what you think?

    As a dispassionate observer through all this, that’s what it seems like to me.

  11. #11 bsci
    March 31, 2008


    The issue is not that people are rejecting framing it’s that your efforts here are destroying one of the most important frames for the pro-science argument.
    To quote Jane
    To the extent that scientists who are theists have an interest in persuading the public that being a good scientist is not a straight shot to atheism, the answer is not to prevail on Myers and Dawkins to shut up. Indeed, shushing them tends to undercut the message that science is supposed to be a free exchange of ideas backed by evidence. If you undercut such a strong selling point of the enterprise, the anti-science framers have won.

    The core frame for science is that we are the free exchange of ideas with the goal of the search for truth. Any effort to tell scientists to shut up is a direct attack on the most important pro-science frame and feeds to science’s enemies more than anything else. That is why the response to your posts have been so negative.

  12. #12 Scote
    March 31, 2008

    Yea frank examination! Such an examination of the issues, if honestly and rationally done, will be a very useful and productive tool as there should be much to learn from the reaction to your statements and how you can better manage opinion. This thread is a good start. But is it enough?

    The enemies of science are using every sales tool they can to sell irrationality. We cannot assume that science will just sell itself in the face of this onslaught. So framing and other research based influence methods must be adopted to actively market science as the superior product. We don’t have to change the product, but we do have to sell it.

    One of the crosses that “communications experts” bear is that their own attempts at swaying people will be judged by high standards. If an expert is incapable of convincing a group of people, especially when that group is a group of allies, many consider that an example of proof by contradiction. Nisbet’s poor attempts to sway the SB community seemed to be proof that his ability to effectively apply PR skills to sway an audience is substantially lacking.

    Your latest post does much to show that you can examine facts and recent events based on reason rather than ego and emotion, and you acknowledge that your salesmanship to the SB audience has been lacking–and how could you not given the negative reaction. And yet, it isn’t just the idea of salesmanship that got a negative response it was the specifics, the specifics by Nisbet. It’s as if you were saying that, say, “recipes” are the key to cooking and you’ve teamed up with an Expert Chef who’s recipes and cooking taste horrible to everyone at SB–not really a good way to convince people. And you still defend the Chef as key to your plan, which is a bit tough for the SB audience to swallow. Maybe he’s more convincing in person?

  13. #13 Science Avenger
    March 31, 2008

    What M. said.

    As long as the self-appointed expert on framing does so by using the most inflammatory language to those he is trying to sway (such as referring to Myers and Rosenhouse as “dogmatic”), he will quite rightly be rejected as an expert. Those who support him will loe credibility as well.

  14. #14 Scote
    March 31, 2008

    ‘I think framing has a hard time right away because at least superficially, it sounds suspiciously like ‘spinning.’ Whatever happened to just being honest about your ideas and what you think?”

    I can have a great product, but that in and of itself may not be enough to get people to buy it–especially if a competitor is marketing a product that makes you feel good when you take it, giving people an instant euphoria and the illusion of knowing the meaning of life and everything.

    We have to market science because the enemies of rationality are actively lobbying and marketing their competing, feel-good product. We can still be honest about science. But we have to sell it. All salesman ship is about changing people’s minds in your favor. It is inherently manipulative, but it is not inherently dishonest if executed in an honest fashion. We can have both. Honesty and strong salesman ship. But if we don’t sell science, we lose and society looses.

    The idea of marketing science is a no brainer. The devil, as Chris has found out, is in the details.

  15. #15 James Hrynyshyn
    March 31, 2008

    It seems there is a growing realization that Matt Nisbet isn’t the best candidate to defend framing and the best way to go about communicating science. I think what many find hard to understand is his antipathy toward PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, who just happen to be two of the best communicators of science on the planet.

    I remember reading a fantastic explanation PZ wrote on his blog about the “morning after” pill. They guy took a controversial subject and made the science so easy to understand that only someone unprepared to accept the facts could come away believing that is amounts to abortion. And really, there is no point in trying to reach people who aren’t open to an honest argument, is there?

    As for Dawkins, well, almost every one of his books is a marvel of science communications. Yes, The God Delusion annoys theists, but he has few peers when it comes to explaining evolution. I know I came to my own world view, it’s reliance on science and skepticism in particular, in large part through Dawkin’s writings. And I knownI am not the only one.

    So asking either of them to refrain from communicating what they know quite well is just plain silly. And yet that’s what Matt did. It’s going to take long time to recover from that one.

    Chris, you’re suffering from guilt by association. But I’m afraid you’re going to have to put some distance between yourself and Matt if you want us to understand what you mean by framing. I will offer one question that I think you should address (whether you already have or not is irrelevant) as plainly as possible:

    How is framing different from sugar-coating/spinning/dumbing down?

    That seems to be a major sticking point for a lot of us, as it goes against the grain. Scientists are, after all, trained to deal in evidence divorced from political and personal concerns.

  16. #16 Wes Rolley
    March 31, 2008

    M. makes a valid point

    that everyone’s message isn’t the same. You and Nisbet, perhaps, just want to effectively frame evolution and global warming. PZ and Dawkins, however, also want to frame their skepticism towards religion. The message isn’t the same, and the frame can’t be either.

    In the same manner you need to consider that the audience may not be the same. I know that I am not a scientist. I am someone who is trying to use what I understand about science to influence public opinion and public policy. Equating the audience at your lectures with the audience here is a fundamental mistake. Even if we were all scientists, the very fact that we are participating in this discussion list sets us off from those who, for whatever reason, have chosen not to do so.

    So, from my own view, I do care that the science is communicated credibly, effectively and that it does manage to inform public opinion and policy. Being effective says that you have to know your audience.

  17. #17 Lance
    March 31, 2008

    This whole framing fiasco is just the result of the “denialism” police getting a bit power hungry and snaring a couple of the faithful in their nets.

    It’s a tricky business when you start to decide who the “true scientists” are and who gets to speak for them.

    Now comes Chris Mooney (apparently) prostrating himself for overstepping his bounds. Or is he just trying to “frame” his way back into the position of lead spokesperson?

    Science doesn’t need a “spokesmodel”. Creationism and ID fail on there own demerits quite independently of how they are “framed”. The incessant sensationalism surrounding AGW only serves to underscore the weakness of the theory, when predicted catastrophes mundanely and routinely fail to materialize.

    Science has, and always will, prevail of its own virtue. It needs no “spokesmodels”. Society’s common denominator is not as low as you might hope. You can’t simply “frame” them into line with emotionally charged words. People eventually feel the shove in the back and resist these disingenuous attempts at manipulation.

    The backlash is inevitable. This recent dust up is just the first symptom.

  18. #18 Rev Matt
    March 31, 2008

    I’m in the crowd of people who think that framing is not only important, but happens whether people realize they are doing it are not. Intentional framing is probably more effective, of course. As others, most particularly M above, have noted the problem wasn’t primarily with the concept of framing, but with 1) the implementation of the framing and 2) the side issue of Nisbett presuming to have the authority to decide who does and does not get to talk to the press. We’ll ignore the dogmatic anti-framers as I think they were ultimately no more than noise in the explosion.

    I clicked in to read this post because I think you do have a lot of valuable insight into the issue of communicating science and I’ll continue to read. At the same time you should be able to step back enough to recognize when someone whom you agree with is presenting their case poorly and perhaps even offer them some advice on it (e.g. Nisbett). I get his frustration with trying to play the middle ground with two diametrically opposed groups, but he did an awful job of communicating his support of the actual science and instead got caught up in petty personal animosity towards players in the contretemps.

  19. #19 Matti K.
    March 31, 2008

    You call the reaction to your articles on “Expelledgate” as “divided”? In my opinion pracically nobody supported your ideas. If you continue to use euphemisms, I don’t think the ScienceBlogs readers will take you seriously.

    I myself am ready for a fresh start. How about convincing the readers that framing has nothing to do with self-censorship and fingerpointing perceived enemies of the cause?

  20. #20 DiscoveredJoys
    March 31, 2008

    I’m all in favour of some introspection over the next week or so. I thought framing was a good idea when I first read about it, and I still do. But tools and techniques have to be varied to meet the circumstances.

    I am sure there will be times when the audience and the concepts merit a framing technique and a more robust approach is counterproductive. There will also be times when clear messages are best sent in forthright language. Tricky bit is knowing which one to use, when.

    After all if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If the only tool you have is a set of powerpoint slides, you don’t get much lumber sawn.

  21. #21 scote
    March 31, 2008

    Creationism and ID fail on there own demerits quite independently of how they are “framed”…
    Science has, and always will, prevail of its own virtue.

    Well, then, all we need do is nothing. Problem solved.

    Except, I suspect, you know that isn’t true. If science always prevailed there would be no “creationism” in the first place. The empirical evidence disproves your theory by contradiction.

    Right now, the enemies of rationality are fighting tooth and nail in the market place of ideas. Science works, but its like fiber–it doesn’t always taste as good as the junk alternative. Religion is easy to understand: “God did it.” Science is hard and has no easy answers. That is a tough sell. Fortunately, science works. But if we assume science sells itself we’ll end up like Iran.

  22. #22 Scote
    March 31, 2008

    BTW, yes, Chris, you did see your “talented co-blogger, Sheril, nastily attacked.” Of course, she did start a thread titled, in condescending fashion, “PZ Myers, Mind Your Manners.” With a provocative title like “PZ Myers, Mind Your Manners” was she expecting a chorus of Hosanas? The same Hosanas Nisbet expected when he suggested that PZ and Dawkins should shut up?

    SK made a very strong statement that PZ’s language was “simply unacceptable on and off the blogosphere” and got a very strong reaction. Like begets like, sometimes. The strong statements regress back to the instigator, Nisbet, and his suggestion that PZ and Myers should shut up for the good of science.*

    If SK had merely stated that she **felt** such language was unacceptable, or argued that such language was in poor taste or counter productive, I doubt she would have received such strong reaction. Instead she stated the global unacceptability as fact, a fact not in evidence.

    She suggested, at varying times, her point was was:

    — all about the profanity (which is “usimply unacceptable on and off the blogosphere,”
    –**not** all about the profanity but the lack of substance
    –a simple post about decorum (er, I thought it wasn’t about the profanity)
    –and so on.

    I’m sorry if she took the responses personally, however she made a personal, if perhaps well meant, attack on PZ (well within her rights, I’d say) so personal responses back should be expected.

    *A concept I’m a bit torn on, I sort of want to tell Nisbet the same thing…

  23. #23 the real cmf
    March 31, 2008

    hmmm…they now have you at the point of contemplating their book mark in your procedural record, and the Minncestuous relational dialectic–which will only lead to more speech hesitation, and latency…and now its time for a cybernetic approach?

    Let’s see: They exert some control theory on you combined with some D&D style game theory, and voila! Cybernetics as the answer? How about a group hug? Oh, yeah, that has been suggested , somewhere already–and Ben Stein is reaping great benefit from it;-)

    Cybernetic analysis…watch out–now you will get some sh!t over alleged affiliations with Scientology ( oh, wait, that already happened once also, didn’t it?)

    The real answer might well be that here at sciborgs, you have been now officialy smashed into a corner– of a relatively static sociocultural evolution frame, wherein answers that you seek can only be obtained by accepting the pre-existing dogma and shutting up about it.

    Communication is a two way street, but as you surely know, PR can be a thankless job–they never need you until they need you.

    But nice job on the crisis management–and this whole thing HAS been great if for one reason only, which is to prove the validity of the conflict frame….crisis management: I hear that is a burgeoning industry;-)

  24. #24 Duae Quartunciae
    March 31, 2008

    I’m watching, but skeptical. I’d like to see you get back to more of a focus on doing science communication, and less on telling folks how to do science communication.

    One point that gets everyone excited is PZ Myers and the Pharyngula blog. One of the reasons for this is that it is so successful.

    I’m a critic of PZ on some matters, and in particular his approach to religion. But this is mostly substantive disagreement; not a question of “framing”. Trying to tell PZ to stop being critical of religion for the good of science communication won’t work; because his view is that religion is a problem for science. You can debate that; but just telling him to reframe is missing the whole point. I continue to be active in communication with Christians in particular (mainly through TheologyWeb) and I get plenty of real benefit from the Pharyngula blog. It gets people worked up, which can help maintain discussion and engagement. I have a strong contrast with PZ on the attitude to religion, but not on the basic science. I defend PZ for basic integrity.

    I suspect this has been the major problem. There is disagreement with PZ and sometimes frustration when he goes wrong (as he does from time to time). Case in point: when he attacks atheists like myself for failing to adopt his hardline approach. (I’m a “do-nothing atheist”, according to one of his blog posts, and this was one of the very rare occasions when I’ve used the F-word myself in response to insulting stupidity). But that’s not a “framing” issue. It’s a disagreement.

    One of the major lessons Chris Mooney needs to learn, I think, is that we don’t all have the same goals or the same views. Far too much of the framing stuff has presented itself as if it is really only about tactics in support of common goals.

  25. #25 Duae Quartunciae
    March 31, 2008

    And on Sheril… I was very critical of her “manners” post. But some of the commenters (one in particular) went way beyond critical into contemptible sexist innuendo. It was inexcusable.

  26. #26 Grammar RWA
    March 31, 2008

    I think the most likely explanation is that:

    1) framing, as introduced to most people by Lakoff, is such a good idea that it is often overlooked for being obvious; and

    2) your ideas about framing have been crappy ones.

  27. #27 PhysioProf
    March 31, 2008

    It sounds like maybe you are beginning to realize that if you want to help “frame science” you kind of need to get real scientists actually doing real science–and not just bloggers, journalists, and other popularizers of what real professional scientists are actually doing–on board. And doing nothing more than telling real professional scientists, “Yr doing it wrong!”, does nothing to get them on board.

  28. #28 MarkH
    March 31, 2008

    I’ve actually defended what I thought framing was since I first started reading yall’s blogs a over year ago, and I certainly do agree there is value in scientists considering strategy and planning for their communication with the public about scientific results.

    What we saw last week was an assault on what quite a few of us here do. I would expand the problem back to your “enablers” post, not just the attacks on PZ.

    If you want us to change our strategy you will have to think of a more collaborative approach than calling your natural allies enablers and harmful for science. I think history has shown us only one effective technique for taking on denialists, and that is confrontational. While that might not always be popular approach, it has been effective. While polls may show we’re upsetting people and being big meanies, eventually these positions lose their credibility and can not be sustained. We’re not going to get everybody on the wagon using nice words and courtesy, we’re also going to have to use mockery, shaming, and vitriol every once and a while.

    This is a good start, but I’m afraid both of you have lost credibility as communicators, at least in this medium.

  29. #29 Lee J Rickard
    March 31, 2008

    In the matter of getting back to a civil discourse, I was impressed by what Don Randel, president of the University of Chicago, said when the campus was heating up over the Middle East in 2002:

    “We are a community, and this entails a decent respect for one another and even a degree of trust. No set of rules or codes of behavior can ever fully capture everything that respect and trust require. Maintaining this community is hard work, and each of us must assume some personal responsibility for it.”

  30. #30 Hank Roberts
    March 31, 2008

    Does the phrase
    “… because there is so little at stake …” ring a bell?

    How about

    “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too”


    “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”


    When you open up a frame, the only solution is to get yourself a larger frame.

  31. #31 charlie
    March 31, 2008

    Chris here is something you might consider. At least part of the passionate reaction which exploded all over Science Blogs is a reaction to Framing. We do know what it is and have been subject to it for decades in our political discourse. Frames control language and debate, trivializing individual nuanced opinions to advance a political goal.

    Example: pro-choice vs pro-life leaves no room in the debate for nuance. Your choice is (one, the other, or no opinion). No matter what you really think you are assigned a label within the frame. It maybe a poor example of Framing but it has been shoved down our throats for years and is the first thing I and many other people think of when we hear Framing.

    We don’t like to have a conversation where you realize your words give you an automatic label that you know has been engineered by someone else with a axe to grind. People intelligent enough the perceive the Frame resent the label and the effort you have to expend to communicate your differing point of view from said label. Chris your job is to sell Framing to those of us whom find the concept manipulative and all too familiar, as an effective and ethical tool.

  32. #32 SLC
    March 31, 2008

    There is an old saying, when one gets into the pen with the pigs, one may expect to emerge with a coating of mud. Unfortunately, Mr. Mooney, and apparently Dr. Kirchenbaum have been sold a bill of goods by Prof. Matt Nisbet, who, as should be apparent from the comments last week, has no credibility with sciencebloggers and visitors to those blogs, who have concluded that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This has been obvious for some time for anyone reading, for example, Prof. Myers’ or Prof. Morans’ blogs. Unless Mr. Mooney and Dr. Kirchenbaum are going to insist that Nisbet is right and everybody else is wrong, it would seem to be high time to jettison the latter if Mr. Mooney and Dr. Kirchenbaum want to recover credibility with their fellow Sciencebloggers.

  33. #33 Lance
    March 31, 2008


    “We’re not going to get everybody on the wagon using nice words and courtesy, we’re also going to have to use mockery, shaming, and vitriol every once and a while.”

    Yeah, forget using empirical evidence presented in a forthright manner, just keep screaming names at people whose ideas you don’t like.

  34. #34 Scote
    March 31, 2008


    “We’re not going to get everybody on the wagon using nice words and courtesy, we’re also going to have to use mockery, shaming, and vitriol every once and a while.”

    Yeah, forget using empirical evidence presented in a forthright manner, just keep screaming names at people whose ideas you don’t like.

    Well…unless the empirical evidence **calls** for mockery, shaming and vitriol 🙂

    Keep in mind that in political battles, high-tech, scientific framing and PR are not 100% effective and there have been some pretty spectacular failures–remember when handlers told Bob Dole and Al Gore, to turn off their sense of humor in public?

    A sound understanding of the psychological principles involved in influence can be useful in advocating for science–but the science of influence is an imperfect science that even its proponents do not fully understand how to implement, as evidenced by Nisbet’s utter PR disaster in suggesting PZ and Myers shut up. Perhaps calling Myers a Don Imus-type wasn’t good framing?

    So, don’t believe that science has all the answers just yet. There is still art to the art of persuasion, even if science can help.

  35. #35 Jon Winsor
    March 31, 2008


    — all about the profanity (which is “usimply unacceptable on and off the blogosphere,”
    –**not** all about the profanity but the lack of substance
    –a simple post about decorum (er, I thought it wasn’t about the profanity)
    –and so on.

    I think it’s not hard to understand. It was stated a few times in the other threads. Profanity is one thing. But profanity in a public dialog, directed at someone personally, made by someone whose job should involve setting an example, is a different matter.

  36. #36 Tulse
    March 31, 2008

    Chris, while I share some of the doubts expressed here, I have to commend you for such a public mea culpa. That takes an enormous amount of guts and humility, and has greatly increased my respect for your integrity.

    Now let’s get to discussing substance…!

  37. #37 windy
    March 31, 2008

    When I go around lecturing with Matt Nisbet, we constantly encounter enthusiastic, receptive scientist-laden audiences at universities.

    Perhaps next time you could try an experiment. During the lecture, ask any atheists in the audience to stand up. Ask if any of them are outspoken critics of religion. If anyone answers yes, point your finger at them and say “you are a bad spokesperson for science!” Don’t you think that this might polarize the atmosphere a bit, even outside Scienceblogs?

  38. #38 DrugMonkey
    March 31, 2008

    Sorry all, I’m just jumping to the end without reading the comments in depth. I see from skimming that I’m echoing many points above…

    Chris, the idea of “framing” sounds like totally a great thing to me. In fact I, being a good student of what has been going on in the US political scene in recent years, don’t even have a problem with “spinning”. My confusion with the Sb “framing debate” is now coming to some resolution as I realize that the problem is not the concept of framing, it is those who wish to insist that their frame is the only right frame to accomplish mutual goals.

    And that is where you lose me. Because it is punditry, pure and simple. One person’s opinion over which frame is likely to have a political result. The data are unimpressive. Nisbet cites polls and study groups. A limited model on the face and we must then ask how well the model predicts reality. And perform the retrospective analysis of how various “frames” have been used in the past to move a minority view into a majority view.

  39. #39 Larry Moran
    March 31, 2008

    The debate is not confined to those scientists who have blogs on the SEED consortium. There are plenty of other science bloggers who don’t like framing.

    Chris, I admire your honesty but please don’t try to frame this controversy as just an internal squabble at Science BlogsTM. It goes way beyond that.

  40. #40 Sven DiMilo
    March 31, 2008

    Good for you, man.
    As someone who has not entered directly into the F-ing Wars (at least not that I can remember; might have attempted to crack a joke or two), but who has spent waaaaay too much time reading them, I have to say that the whole attempt by “communications experts” to police the science blogosphere has been comically naive.

    I am a scientist, so I teach and do research in my own little esoteric zone. I can work unstintingly to improve science education and battle the dark forces of anti-science, and if I had a blog I would write about those efforts. But I might also write about my other interests–the Grateful Dead, say, or cheese sandwiches. Myers’s other interests are liberal politics (nobody seems to bitch and moan much about that) and atheism. It’s his blog; he can write about whatever he wants how he wants and when he wants. He is NOT doing so as a spokesman for Science, or even for Scienceblogs. I was reading PZ, learning from him, and getting pissed off at him before there was a Scienceblogs, and I’d keep on doing so if he quit or got kicked off.
    Where do you–anyone, really, but you’re the people who did it–get off trying to tell anybody else what they should write on their personal blogs?

    As for Dr. Nisbet, I join the many others above and elsewhere in rejecting pretty much anything else he has to say. You might even be right about the value of his scholarship, but where’s the beef? He comes across again and again as an arrogant self-styled Expert with a giant ego, and frankly I can’t really see that he knows much about science.

    Plus, teach enough semesters of nonmajors biology and you start to develop a certain attitude about Com majors…

  41. #41 H.H.
    March 31, 2008

    This argument has never been about the concept of “framing,” but about the best frame to use. Perhaps you could lay out a collection popular positions, then take a vote of your readers on which should be widely encouraged. (Can you represent each position without prejudice?) If done correctly, such a poll might be very illuminating.

  42. #42 Scote
    March 31, 2008

    “I think it’s not hard to understand. It was stated a few times in the other threads. Profanity is one thing. But profanity in a public dialog, directed at someone personally, made by someone whose job should involve setting an example, is a different matter.”

    Indeed. And it is a legitimately arguable point if one makes reasonable arguments, however SK made a number of tactical errors in the post, including overstating her case, and then later adopted concurrent contradictory positions–which no matter how arguable the initial point may have been–is completely untenable. Attempting hold contradictory positions concurrently tends to reduce ones credibility and open one up to criticism. SK has not publicly her litany of positions on the issue to be consistent.

  43. #43 Scote
    March 31, 2008

    errata:”SK has not publicly her litany of positions on the issue to be consistent.”–>”SK has not publicly updated her litany of positions on the issue to be consistent.”

  44. #44 Shirakawasuna
    March 31, 2008

    It’s always good to see humility and that you will be addressing issues later, however I must agree with M. Your talks are quite different from what Nisbet does on his blog and the most obvious disconnect and what that has been pointed out *over and over* is that this isn’t simply about framing science, it’s about which issues should be framed. Nisbet (and you by supporting his points on this) think PZ and Myers should lay low in order to secure the framing of evolution (and then science in general) to the general public, from my understanding. However, their point is not merely about getting the public to accept various scientific principles but encompasses entire realms of skepticism and the methodology of science itself.

    That you repeatedly ignore this, despite their commentary and active discussion, highlights the greatest source of irritation: you don’t participate in dialogue. If PZ and Dawkins are wrong and you wish to focus on communication, why not start by communicating with *them* on their counterpoints? PZ has certainly visited your blog and left very specific arguments and in all my searching I can’t find a single instance of you either 1) responding in the comments sections to specific points or 2) addressing those arguments in a blog post. In fact, the most common reply seems to be generalizations or simply ignoring these points until Nisbet finds another issue where he can assert his authority.

    For this reason (resorting to generalization and deflection), I can sympathize with those who accused you of being similar to creationists, although not those who would apparently accuse you outright of being one (I never saw evidence of that, anyways). They are very much the tactics of a dishonest discussion, whether you realize it or not, and the fact that much of your message is *about* tactics makes it all the more dubious.

    I’ll be very happy if your next posts actually address the many substantive counterarguments offered by others, including PZ.

  45. #45 Siamang
    March 31, 2008

    Timeline (I apologize for being clueless about embedding these links.)

    March 19: Mooney posts “How Science Defenders Enable Anti-science Forces.”

    Many sciencebloggers respond critically and intellectually mostly without use of potty language, among them PZ, Brian Switek and ERV. No substantial response from Mooney. He responds only in the comments on ERV and on Intersection with one short note each. On ERV he responds essentially: I stand by what I wrote. On here he responds essentially: Everyone is missing my point.

    On Intersection, Chris Mooney completely ignores and does not respond to criticism of his March 19 piece.

    On March 22nd, Chris Mooney posts “This Controversy Helps Ben Stein, People” In which he asserts, without any supporting evidence, the title of his post. He nails his point home with the phrase “Why is that so hard to understand?” (Not hard to understand, but rather hard to be convinced of without Mooney supporting his argument.)

    This post is lambasted across ScienceBlogs as being unsupported and condescending. Intersection again runs no response to the serious and respectful posts criticizing this post including Orac’s here:

    By this time I’m seeing a pattern. Anyone else seeing this pattern, please chime in. Here it is:

    Chris Mooney posts something that ruffles feathers.
    2 or 3 or 4 major bloggers raise serious and substantive objections.
    Chris ignores their points or writes a short glib “I stand by my comments” answer downthread.

    Mooney posts something new that ruffles feathers and the cycle begins again.

    In this case it went like this:
    PZ gets “expelled” and blogs about it.
    Mooney writes condescending, unsupported “this helps Ben Stein” post.
    Nisbet writes “Let others be the spokespersons for science” post.
    PZ Writes “Fuck you very much”
    Kirshenbaum writes “PZ Mind your Manners”.
    PZ writes his criticism of the substance of Nisbet’s “others stand for science” post, with a post titled “Clueless”.

    To date neither Mooney nor Nisbet has responded to the SUBSTANCE of the substantial criticisms of the “Enablers” post, the “This helps Ben Stein” post, the “Let others stand for science” post

    To compare the conduct on the two framing blogs to the conduct that ERV witnessed at Dembski’s website…. The strategy seems to be to ignore substantive criticism and goad someone into losing their temper, at which time you swoop in and argue with someone’s attitude instead of their points.

    My advice? When you notice that you’ve said something that causes a firestorm, and just about all the people who should be your allies have turned against you… ADDRESS IT before igniting another firestorm. Go point by point. Respond. If you ignore substantive criticisms, don’t be surprised or outraged when people resort to lobbing UNSUBSTANTIVE ones.

  46. #46 Siamang
    March 31, 2008

    Nice post by Siamang.

    In retrospect, this thread has not quite lived up to being a mea culpa. It seems to be more of “I was right, I just didn’t frame it very well.” Or, “No, really, that used Yugo is a **great** car! I just didn’t do a good enough job selling it to you.”

    Siamang does a good job of demonstrating that there are substantive and factual areas of disagreement that go beyond merely presenting your idea wrong, issues that should be addressed.

  47. #47 Craig B
    March 31, 2008

    I’ve been incredibly encouraged reading many of the comments here, especially the eloquent and thorough offering from M., which is one of the best things I’ve read in awhile. I hope Chris and Sheril ponder it seriously. Many other great insights as well.

    Two things I want to mention. One is just to add to the weight of saying that Nisbet is the problem and that continuing to tie yourselves to his sinking weight hurts you and this blog. I know he is a friend, but Chris, at least, really has a blind spot about Nisbet and virtually every issue or person that Nisbet talks about.

    Second, while I think Chris’ apology is sincere enough, I think it is important to point out something that I have not seen commented on above, and which Chris’s frequent comments of “shock, shock” ignore: this is NOT a new issue. I cannot remember the date, but well back into last year there were a couple of series of comments about framing, Dawkins/Myers/et al, Nisbet’s dismissiveness, and the like – all that has gone on here. (These posts might have been before Sheril joined; at any rate, she was not part of the discussion.) I don’t post here often, but I did then as did others. This is not a new problem that should have taken Chris by surprise. Chris, you HAVE NOT BEEN LISTENING. PLEASE LISTEN! This not new or surprising, not one bit.

    That said, I’d love to see progress in this discussion but for me, at least, that really has to take the form of some sign that Chris gets it about Nisbet, about telling people like PZ and Dawkins to shut up, and about thinking that no one out there is in fact doing great work on communnicating science and the importance of scientific issues. That is sine qua non for me.

  48. #48 Chris C. Mooney
    March 31, 2008

    This is just to thank you for the many responses, to let you know that I am reading, and to promise that there will be much more, and we will get into substance soon enough. More about Nisbet too, and why he has communicated in the wrong way to this Scienceblogs audience. More about why things have become so polarized. And probably more too from me on this thread. But I’m on the go, so do be patient….

  49. #49 MH
    March 31, 2008

    Chris, with this post, you’ve taken a step in the right direction. However, to convince the majority of posters and commenters at Sb that you are capable and genuine, I believe that you’ll have to make a concerted effort to fully address the core issues raised in the recent ‘flame-war’.

  50. #50 Leni
    March 31, 2008

    Chris, I think your attempt is commendable and I for one appreciate your effort. Who knows where it will go, but I think it’s really nice that you are trying.

    More seriously, I don’t understand why there isn’t enough room for everyone at the table. It seems to me there ought to be. Just get out there, do your thing, and just be the best you can at what you do.

  51. #51 Jim RL
    March 31, 2008

    Someone admitting they were wrong on the internet? That’s impossible isn’t it?

    Anyways, great post. It’s easy in online discussions to just hunker down for awhile and ignore controversies. I think it’s awesome that you are taking time to look back and see what could’ve/should’ve gone differently.

    I personally supported you and Nisbet when the article in Science came out last year. I thought it was really interesting and provided a good way for scientists to think about communicating to broader audiences.

    You and Nisbet both lost me when everything seemed to be an attack on the “New Atheists” and how they hurt the cause of science.

    A year or so ago I was a moderately religious person, and I began reading Pharyngula and later Dawkins’ books. Their ideas intrigued me and made me realize there was nothing wrong with abandoning faith, in fact it was perfectly rational thing to do. That is why the whole issue is personal to me. When I hear that “militant” atheists are hurting the cause and turning the moderately religious away from science, I think of my own story and how I did the exact opposite. It makes me defensive of outspoken atheists because I know their rhetoric has a place in science communication.

  52. #52 Siamang
    March 31, 2008

    Siamang posting at comment 813779 is not me being my own sock-puppet. If I were to sock-puppet, I would praise myself more highly.

    Thanks for listening Chris.

  53. #53 Maria
    March 31, 2008

    I think this is a very honest post, and a good beginning. My two cents on this, which echo previous posters, is that PZ Myers, Dawkins, and others in their camp (let’s call them PZ-D) already frame their arguments when explaining science. They do not address fellow scientists in the same manner and using the same metaphors and vocabulary as when they address the general public, their blog readers, ID supporters, etc. They personalize their discourse and think about how they present their views. The thing is, you and Matt Nisbet do not like their frame(s).

    That is your prerogative, but when you write as though they *don’t understand* what you mean, it comes across as smug and didactic, and ultimately a bit insulting to their intelligence. I think the ultimate divide is not in terms of “framing” vs. “not framing”, but on what “frames” to use, what the goal is, and what would constitute success. If you don’t recognize this (and by you I mean everyone in this debate), then any interaction is doomed from the outset.

    I won’t comment on last week’s incident because I don’t think it’s productive at this point. But I continue to read both The Intersection and Pharyngula, and look forward to your upcoming posts.

  54. #54 Siamang
    March 31, 2008

    “Siamang posting at comment 813779 is not me being my own sock-puppet. If I were to sock-puppet, I would praise myself more highly”

    My apologies. I must have pasted into the wrong field when I was copying your handle for inclusion in post. Sorry to give the appearance you were talking yourself up.

  55. #55 Scote
    March 31, 2008

    Oops, did it again! Damn you “Auto Fill!

  56. #56 Leni
    March 31, 2008

    (Aww! I do that auto fill/name thing all the time too. I hate that!)

  57. #57 Cal Harth
    March 31, 2008

    In my mind you had no need to apologize. I have a lot of admiration for your doing so. I am glad that many responses have been supportive.
    I grew up in a Baptist Republican culture. When I changed to an atheist liberal it was immediate fuel for a fight with my family and friends. I learned diplomacy, but still asked people to consider the evidence that was right in front of them for other beliefs.

  58. #58 decrepitoldfool
    March 31, 2008

    Like Sven DiMilo, I’ve been reading PZ since before there was a ScienceBlogs. At one point he and Ed Brayton got into a major pissing match; I became concerned that his abrasive approach was pushing people away from science, and said so. It was a legitimate (though not necessarily correct) comment based on my life experience, but the reaction from PZ and from his other readers was, to say the least, not very positive. I obviously failed to communicate.

    So I had some inkling of what was in store for Matt when he said PZ and RD should pipe down. But despite their critics they’ve gone from one success to another. And frankly the response that Matt received was totally warranted. Who is anyone to tell them to shut up? I might have said “buzz off” instead of “fuck You” but the basic sentiment is precisely the same.

    And that’s 60% of the style argument right there. I’ve recently figured out two things about online arguments. First, nobody wants style advice. If you tell someone to straighten their tie, zip up their fly, or stop saying “fuck”, you’re flame-bait. Second, if you aren’t as pissed off by X as the other guy, and/or if you approach X by a different strategy, he’ll accuse you of being in league with X. Let’s call it the “Matt is a creationist!” principle. (There are obvious applications in national politics, as in “If you’re not with us, you’re against us”.)

    I have a lot of experience with conservative protestantism. It is true that people who object to profanity as a moral issue are literalizing and trivializing communication. The only reason to avoid its use in text is the same reason you don’t give lectures with a jockstrap on outside your pants; it will distract the very people you are trying to persuade on more important issues than external jockstrap wearing. It’s all to do with presentation and nothing to do with morality.

    OK, so that point’s been made a zillion times by people more eloquent than I am. PZ obviously doesn’t agree; maybe he’ll change his mind someday, maybe not. In the meantime he’s the last person we should be telling to be quiet. Certainly people who are distracted by profanity won’t listen to him. That was the basis of my early objection to his style. But lots of other people will listen to him and truth be told, I almost wept with relief the first time I heard a millennialist called a “fuckwit”. It so perfectly captured what I felt. So what the hell was I worried about? I never did reconcile the two impulses; they’re incompatible. No use trying.

    Which I recommend to Matt, and to you, Chris, and Sheryl. Yes, you can find lots of people whom RD and PZ are not going to reach. Don’t be blind to the ones who need them to be exactly what they are.

    And like Jim RL a couple posts up, this issue is very personal to me. Fundamentalist religion has hurt me in, let’s just say ‘non-trivial’ ways. I don’t want to exclude any voices from the chorus against it.

  59. #59 rmp
    March 31, 2008

    For what it’s worth, Jim RL’s post mirrors what I would say. PZ/Dawkins have made me face that which has haunted me for 48 years. That last thing I needed was another ‘enabler’.

  60. #60 Kevin
    March 31, 2008


    As someone who was initially sympathetic to “framing” and your ideas on the subject, then later completely in agreement with PZ and your many other detractors, I’d like to chime in and say that this post is a good and courageous step in the right direction.

    In the future, I look forward to hearing some of your honest and thoughtful replies to some of the “anti-framing” arguments, and hopefully even seeing you re-evaluate some of your own previous positions. In particular, See Jane Compute’s recent anti-framing “frame” really resonated with me. I am more interested in a thoughtful discussion of the issue than being told what the answer is anyway…

  61. #61 Chris C. Mooney
    March 31, 2008

    Hi All,
    There are a lot of calls above for various substantive responses to previous things that have been said. Unfortunately, so much has been said that I’m not sure I can address it all in a point-by-point way, certainly as blogging is hardly my full time occupation. Rather, I intend to address many important substantive issues in more of a narrative format over the coming weeks, as you’ll see.

    For now, though, really the best overview of framing and response to varied criticisms is the Nisbet/Scheufele article in The Scientist on all of this. It is very balanced, and very detailed, and is the best written analogue in existence of the core lecture that I’ve been giving with Nisbet. How many have read it already?

    It can be found here

  62. #62 rmp
    March 31, 2008

    OK, I’m printing it out. Somehow though I find it interesting that after feeling like I’ve been insulted I’m told to go read about what I don’t understand.

  63. #63 jdb
    April 1, 2008

    Ok Chris, I read The Scientist article. I don’t see what it has to do with the issues at hand. To me, all it says is that (1) social science research (not to mention common sense) shows that how you communicate about an issue affects the views that people form; and (2) therefore, scientists should try to communicate in ways that are likely to produce “good” results, rather than just relying on the truth to win out on its own merit.

    I don’t know that anybody seriously disputes that. It seems to me that the fight is about how you get from (1) and (2) to specific pronouncements like that it’s a bad idea to expose the hypocrisy of the producers of Expelled, or even general ones like that Dawkins and PZ aren’t effective science communicators. Where’s the social science research that shows that? Where’s the evidence that these are anything other than the personal opinions of the “framing” advocates?

    My objection to “framing” isn’t that I disagree with what I’ve described as points (1) and (2) above. My objection is that it’s being used as a scientific-sounding club with which to enforce the personal preferences of the “framers.”

    It’s not the theory; it’s the application.

  64. #64 Kim Hannula
    April 1, 2008

    Thank you for the apology. I’m not a scienceblogger, and I haven’t participated in any of the comment threads, but I’ve become utterly disenchanted with the idea of “framing” after following Matt Nisbet’s blog for a few months.

    I’ve read the article in The Scientist, and I think that my disenchantment actually began with it. The idea that effective communication involves thinking about one’s audience isn’t new; my rhetorician friends make that point all the time. But Nisbet’s examples seem simplistic, like he’s trying to shoehorn examples into his eight types of frames (listed in the Scientist article). The analysis was bad enough in the article, but it falls apart completely when Nisbet criticizes Al Gore (who may have alienated Republicans, but who communicated effectively to Democrats who didn’t understand or care about global warming before the movie) or Dawkins and Myers (who are very effective at communicating to their audiences).

    The mediocre analysis, combined with a style that seems more about self-promotion than about encouraging the effective communication of science, has ruined Nisbet’s chances for convincing me. And, like many other people, I was ready to be convinced.

  65. #65 Keely
    April 1, 2008

    This is just to thank you for the many responses, to let you know that I am reading, and to promise that there will be much more, and we will get into substance soon enough. More about Nisbet too, and why he has communicated in the wrong way to this Scienceblogs audience. More about why things have become so polarized. And probably more too from me on this thread. But I’m on the go, so do be patient….”

    Chris I want to ask why we always have to wait. Why do we have to wait for substance?

    Science isn’t about censoring people, telling them to shut up, so don’t tell us “it’s undeniable that there is now an audience that reacts very negatively even to any basic mention of the concept of framing.” You might just very well be misunderstanding what your audience is reacting negatively to.

    Frankly, I feel a little insulted almost by your post. I felt you were displaying a need to try and prove yourself to us by demonstrating that you have successful tours, etc, and that the rest of us clearly misunderstood you. Perhaps this misunderstanding is yours. We understand you, we hear you loud and clear but what we’re trying to tell you, is that the message your giving us isn’t what we expect or need.

    You want to lead a revolution in science framing? Then actually do it, because as it stands your blog is not one I visit for science information. You criticizing others that are actually informing the general public about science issues in a manner that is accessible, interesting, and fun, is discomforting. In a manner similar to selecting a teenager to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company is discomforting; who is the teenager to be telling anyone anything?

    I feel you have yet to prove yourself, at least to me. I honestly do want you to do it – but it seems I still have to wait longer…Your latest post demonstrates insecurity, but you’re trying to prove yourself in the wrong ways.

    Do what you say your good at, that you know how to do, and myself (and I’m sure many others) will be more than eager to listen.

  66. #66 ngong
    April 1, 2008

    Framing seems largely about visceral reactions and associations. I’m having a reaction to Nisbet’s online persona. That reaction definitely does make it more difficult to take his words at face value.

    Is he earnest or not? One clue might be: were his public excoriations of Myers and Dawkins preceded by private, e-mailed appeals? Or, for any of a number of possible reasons, is he just creating a scene?

  67. #67 Matti K.
    April 1, 2008

    “There are a lot of calls above for various substantive responses to previous things that have been said. Unfortunately, so much has been said that I’m not sure I can address it all in a point-by-point way, certainly as blogging is hardly my full time occupation.”

    I think the the substance of criticism towards you and Nisbet is actually very limited. It just has been repeated so many times in so many ways. A true communication expert should have no problems finding the beef and and addressing it concisely to the satisfaction of 95% of the audience.

    I understand, though, that it is tedious and not much fun to write, if for some reason or another you cannot speak from your heart. But in that case you should not complain if the majority of the ScienceBlogs readers write you off as the “PC-guy” who just wants everybody to like him.

  68. #68 Dan
    April 1, 2008

    For starters, I didn’t always take enough time to explain what I meant by framing

    No Chris, you made it abundantly clear:

    could you folks please try, just this one time, to check your highly developed critical faculties at the door

    You asked us to close our minds in order to see it your way, and Matt asked us to close our mouths in order to go along with his way.

    Sorry Chris, science is about open inquiry, and both you and Nisbet have made it very clear that framing is not about open inquiry, it is about political BS.

  69. #69 miko
    April 1, 2008

    I think a lot of people took offense at what seemed like faux offense at PZ’s response to Matt. I don’t really think “fuck you very much” is that bad just because it has the F word in it. It’s a snarky, playful response to someone who has given you advice that you feel is insulting or condescending.

    Lots of the dialogue has been lowbrow mud slinging, but PZ’s response was just funny–a short, sharp stick to puncture a puffed up tsk-tsking from Nisbet. There is a difference between an ad hominem and just plain giving it to someone who’s asking for it.

    I look forward to reading about Framing 2.0

  70. #70 Matti K.
    April 1, 2008

    Nisbet and Mooney have now a possibility to show what a powerfull tool framing is.

    In ScienceBlogs there is now a large crowd with a very negative attitude towards framing, not least due to the very actions of “framers”. The task of Nisbet and Mooney is to change this general attitude without offending the deep intuitive beliefs (like f.ex belief in the freedom of expression) of this audience.

    My guess: Nisbet et al will write off the ScienceBlogs audience as a fundamentalist pack or a pack of bimbo “cheerleaders”, for whom framing is not useful and not even intended.

    I wonder, however, where is the “moderate” section of the scientific community, who buys as such the tactics of Nisbet et al? If Nisbet and Mooney have such a large fan club offline, how come practically none of them come here to speak in favor of these gentlemen?

  71. #71 Christophe Thill
    April 1, 2008

    This is all very interesting, from a communications and philosophy point of view. It seems to me that a big part of the problem is that not many people understand exactly what framing is. Perhaps Chris’ speeches and conferences explained it all, but I live a bit far away (I must not be the only one…) and flying to the US is out of the question now, anyway. So I just read the posts here, and found not a lot of explanations or explicit examples. Which didn’t make the matter much clearer for me. Is it simply a case of “it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it” ?

    Well, there was one example. That was when scientists took some fundamentalists for a trip up North, so that they can see the ice melting, showing global warming in action. Hmm, ok. So, framing means : carefully adapt the way you communicate to your intended audience ? Isn’t that what journalists call, and have always called, “finding the right angle” ? Is it something else ? And if so, then what ?

    As it has already been said, all this is a legitimate debate. This framing-in-a-general-sense can’t be contested. Actually, it should be obvious. Perhaps it is.

    The problem begins when Matt Nisbet stealthily introduces an additional, more specific meaning. To him, it seems, it goes like this : framing is about communicating science. Most of the people to whom science should be communicated are religious. Mentioning atheism offends them and thus blocks the message. So atheism shouldn’t be mentioned, and atheists speakers should just shut up.

    Best thing I can say about it : that’s a point of view.

  72. #72 MH
    April 1, 2008

    Chris wrote: “There are a lot of calls above for various substantive responses to previous things that have been said. Unfortunately, so much has been said that I’m not sure I can address it all in a point-by-point way, certainly as blogging is hardly my full time occupation. Rather, I intend to address many important substantive issues in more of a narrative format over the coming weeks, as you’ll see.”

    I originally thought that you were being genuine, but your latest comment sounds more like pure, unadulterated Politicese. If you can’t understand by now which couple of core issues the readers (and writers) here at Sb want addressed, then I really don’t know what to say.

    If you have any respect for your readers, stop procrastinating and obfuscating, and just do it.

  73. #73 bsci
    April 1, 2008

    What we have here is a failure to communicate.

    I think Chris still doesn’t seem to get it.
    The issue isn’t framing or even the concept of framing. It’s that a couple of people who came up with the idea of framing have a lock on what is an acceptable frame and the authority to tell people who are not following their frame to shut up.

    Note that I cannot stand PZ’s method of communication and I’d personally prefer him to change his approach, but I’m saying that as an individual and not trying to use some pseudo authority to make him change.

    The issue here is very complex and Matt and Chris decided the morality frame is more important than the scientific search for truth frame and the fact that telling vocal and annoying atheists to shut up just pushes the frame that evolution is stealth atheism – which it clearly isn’t.

    Perhaps another idea is that Matt Nisbet is a researcher like many of us, but the results in the field don’t always match reality. While I understand he has expertise, the fact that he wasn’t able to FRAME his ideas in a way to attract scientists support on this topic and instead FRAMED it in the form of the importance of censorship, it doesn’t speak highly of the rest of his scholarship. Of course, as a scientist, the best solution is to admit the hypothesis does not match the data and admit that he was very wrong on this issue from almost the beginning to the end of his thoughts. I haven’t seen such a comment from him or you yet.

  74. #74 Andrew
    April 1, 2008

    First off, apologies if this has already been posted but this comment thread is far to long to read at work!

    Chris I don’t think anyone has a problem with framing. As has been mentioned quite a bit elsewhere the basic concept is nothing particularly new and when used right is definitely a good thing. (When used wrong it is of course bad, such as this mess, or pretty much most political news.)

    What causes the problem is “Framing”, with a capital F. I’ve never attended any of your lectures and most likely never will so I have only the reported actions here to go on. From those, your concept of Framing appears in practice to be to tell everyone who disagrees with you that they’re doing it wrong and should either mend their ways or shut up.

    The best way to go about “fixing” that is to practice what you preach. Don’t make posts about how this came about, or how you are sorry whilst pointing fingers, instead show “us” how you think it should be done by doing it yourself. Show “us” in practice how you tackle the by doing so rather than merely talking about how everyone else is doing it wrong.

    To put it another way, actions are worth much more than words.

  75. #75 Chris C. Mooney
    April 1, 2008

    Hi Folks,
    I appreciate the enthusiasm that some have to hear more from me–and you will, I promise. But it has to be in my way, and on my time line, so that I can get it right and say what I want to say so that I’m happy with it. So I am going to have to ask that you be patient. I am doing the best that I can do with a subject that has to be addressed with considerable nuance, and at considerable length. Please hang in there.

  76. #76 Russell Blackford
    April 1, 2008

    Well, I was pretty angry with Matt Nisbet for almost screwing up a great PR coup that was handed on a platter to PZ and Dawkins by the IDiots associated with Expelled. He certainly managed to create an unnecessary distraction, as did some of the posts on this blog (though to a much lesser extent)

    It’s nice that you’re reflecting on what happened, and I’ve reflected on my own tone, which was perhaps unnecessarily vituperative at times … though I still think that Matt brought a lot of what was dished out to him by me on himself. At best, he was obtuse, but I think it was worse than that. I’ll stop there before I say something that makes this comment more inflammatory than I want.

    I don’t believe I said anything for which I owe an apology to you or Sheril, but I’m not going to go back and check all my comments at this late stage. I’ll offer an apology anyway, just in case there is something there that’s addressed to either of you in the wrong tone.

    But all that said, I remain very concerned at the call for PZ and Dawkins to shut up and “lay low” and at what seemed like attempts by you and Sheril to defend this absurd suggestion, or at least the person who made it. Still, I can understand your loyalty to a friend, if that’s what we were all seeing.

    I must also say again that many of us (Dawkins, PZ, lots of people here … and among them, me) do quite openly have an agenda of challenging religion’s intellectual and moral authority. Doubtless we have a variety of reasons for wanting to do that. I won’t go deeply into my own reasons – not here and now – but it is, indeed, a large part of my personal agenda. And you’ll be seeing more of that coming down the pipeline if all goes well and certain contracts get signed, blah, blah.

    People like me, who have that agenda, are not going to shut up because Matt Nisbet thinks we are making it harder for him to sell some aspects of science to the bible-growers of America. As someone else said, he is just going to have to work around it, because we have our own aims, reasons, and strategies. If he can help me to frame the message that religion is not only false but – at least very often – absurd, cruel, even anti-human, and the natural enemy of liberty, science, and reason, then that’s fine. I’d be interested in his advice.

    Conversely, if he wants to disagree with that message it’s also fine. Not everyone has to go through life agreeing with little me. Zeus knows, as editor of The Journal of Evolution and Technology I’m even happy to publish views that I disagree with quite strongly if they are sufficiently interesting, etc.

    But if Matt is going to conduct a campaign to silence people who have an anti-religious message, then we have a serious problem.

  77. #77 Jon Winsor
    April 1, 2008

    Russell Blackford: If [Nisbet] can help me to frame the message that religion is not only false but – at least very often – absurd, cruel, even anti-human, and the natural enemy of liberty, science, and reason, then that’s fine.

    This is where I worry about the New Atheists. This New Republic article did a good job of describing the worries of people who aren’t enthusiastic about the movement:

    [T]he tone of today’s atheist tracts is so unremittingly hostile that one wonders if their authors really mean it when they express the hope, as Dawkins does in a representative passage, that “religious readers who open [The God Delusion] will be atheists when they put it down.” Exactly how will such conversions be accomplished? Rather than seeking common ground with believers as a prelude to posing skeptical questions, today’s atheists prefer to skip right to the refutation. They view the patient back and forth of dialogue–the way of Socrates–as a waste of time.

    It is with this enmity, this furious certainty, that our ideological atheists lapse most fully into illiberalism. Politically speaking, liberalism takes no position on theological questions. One can be a liberal and a believer (as were Martin Luther King Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, and countless others in the American past and present) or a liberal and an unbeliever (as were Hook, Richard Rorty, and a significantly smaller number of Americans over the years). This is in part because liberalism is a philosophy of government, not a philosophy of man–or God. But it is also because modern liberalism derives, at its deepest level, from ancient liberalism–from the classical virtue of liberality, which meant generosity and openness. To be liberal in the classical sense is to accept intellectual variety–and the social complexity that goes with it–as the ineradicable condition of a free society.

    It is to accept, in other words, that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way–that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not. That, in the end, is what separates the atheism of Socrates from the atheism of the French Revolution.

    … Far from shoring up the secular political tradition, their arguments are likely to produce a country poised precariously between opposite forms of illiberalism.

    The last thing America needs is a war of attrition between two mutually exclusive, absolute systems of belief. Yet this is precisely what the new atheists appear to crave…

  78. #78 Chris C. Mooney
    April 1, 2008

    A new post–since people were getting impatient, I hope this will tide you over. I’m quite busy right now, and the post I was planning to do next will take a lot of work, so this is my best attempt to get us talking about “substance” in the interim.

  79. #79 windy
    April 1, 2008

    Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not. That, in the end, is what separates the atheism of Socrates from the atheism of the French Revolution.

    Good old Socrates, who never got into anyone’s face about their beliefs and was in no way controversial. LOL

  80. #80 Harry Abernathy
    April 1, 2008

    I don’t rightly understand some of the comments here bemoaning Chris for not responding quickly with substantive responses. This post indicates that he is indeed reflecting on all that happened last week. He has realized that maybe he wasn’t entirely effective at communicating some of his points, so he’s taking the time to think through things and and communicate more clearly. Isn’t that the preferred route? Give him a break. He’s traveling around giving talks and meeting multiple writing deadlines on top of this blog.

    Also, there’s little excuse for not hearing or seeing the Nisbet/Mooney presentation on framing. It’s available on Youtube, and at least one variation of it is located on iTunes as part of the Science and the City podcast (“Framing Science” 8-17-2007).

  81. #81 Jon Winsor
    April 1, 2008

    Good old Socrates, who never got into anyone’s face about their beliefs and was in no way controversial.

    I think the TNR piece is about more than that.

  82. #82 windy
    April 1, 2008

    “I think the TNR piece is about more than that.”

    Of course it is. But they picked a bad example to illustrate their position, and it may be symptomatic of a current trend to paint past atheists (Socrates is probably a bad example there, too) as harmless sweeties to contrast with the current crop of horrible mean ones, although many past nonbelievers were very controversial in their times.

  83. #83 Jon Winsor
    April 1, 2008

    Well I’ve seen some things myself that make me think that PZ isn’t big on dialog.

  84. #84 Russell Blackford
    April 1, 2008

    Well, you see, here we go again. People like me who want to persuade others to adopt a particular point of view, in my case an anti-religious one, get accused of being “illiberal”. That is nonsense.

    Liberalism tolerates all positions on matters of religion, but it does not try to stop people from arguing for their positions or otherwise expressing them. It is all about people being free to persuade others peacefully through such means as words and personal example.

    I would never dream of trying to ban religious doctrines or practices. Meanwhile, every day we see religious leaders attempting to get others to conform to their moral views not by persuasion but by trying to influence the state to exercise coercive power. Whoever wrote that article in The New Republic does not understand what liberalism is, and it looks as if Jon Windsor doesn’t either.

  85. #85 Josh Spinks
    April 1, 2008

    In Jon Winsor’s link, PZ quotes:

    “The deafness of many philosophers, social scientists and historians to the spiritual dimension can be remarkable,” Professor Taylor said in remarks prepared for delivery at the announcement of the prize at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York this morning. This is damaging because it “affects the culture of the media and educated public opinion in general.”

    So people who aren’t spiritual are damaging, which is ok to say, and they’re also terrible and mean if they choose to respond.

  86. #86 John Morales
    April 1, 2008

    Since it’s by an advocate of framing, this post presumably is framed.


  87. #87 Russell Blackford
    April 1, 2008

    Er, and I apologise for my spelling. “Winsor”. Not that that alters the merit of what I’m saying.

  88. #88 Jon Winsor
    April 1, 2008

    It is all about people being free to persuade others peacefully through such means as words and personal example.

    Sure, if it’s in the spirit of dialog like the piece talks about (like Socrates, not the Herbertists). I thought this Moyers interview with Jonathan Miller was excellent that way.

    I would never dream of trying to ban religious doctrines or practices.

    Well, if you describe religion as child abuse, as the TNR piece mentions a New Atheist doing, you’re coming close to advocating that.

    Er, and I apologise for my spelling.

    No prob. Happens a lot and doesn’t bother me.

    Josh Spinks: So people who aren’t spiritual are damaging…

    His argument isn’t that people are damaging. I think he’s making a point about forums of public discourse. And he actually wants people to respond. Why else would he write a book? But there are different kinds of responses. What I said a couple threads back is that it’s hard to see how PZ’s response to Taylor is constructive.

  89. #89 Russell Blackford
    April 1, 2008

    What Dawkins actually said was that the following specific practices are forms of child abuse:

    1. Giving a label, such as “Muslim child” or “Christian child”, to a kid who is too young to have formed any opinions about theological matters. (No one would say “a Marxist child” or “a libertarian child”.)

    2. Terrifying children with stories, or even dramatic enactments, of eternal torture in Hell.

    As to 1., I see Dawkins’ point, though perhaps “child abuse” overstates it. Still, to the extent that government agencies and so on do this, I think they should stop. I don’t think we can, or should try, to stop private citizens doing it (except by persuasion and example).

    As to 2., I totally agree with Dawkins that this a form of child abuse, and a very serious one (though not one that is apt for legal prohibition).

    Dawkins does not advocate that either practice be prohibited by law. He is merely trying to “raise consciousness” as he puts it, that these practices exist and that they are (at least as he sees it) moral wrongs.

    I should add that this is what makes Dawkins so clearly a liberal. A liberal will distinguish between (a) those things that he or she considers moral wrongs (and wants to persuade people to stop doing, or to look at askance when they are done by others) and (b) those things that are apt for legal prohibition in a liberal society. Dawkins has made very clear – on numerous occasions – that he regards the two specific practices I’ve mentioned as falling with (a) but not (b).

    Jon, it doesn’t help when people give a false account of Dawkins’ position on this. His position is much more nuanced than the article apparently says, and I think that he is actually about 90 per cent correct. In any event, he should not be told to stop putting it; he lives in a liberal society, and he has every right to argue robustly for his moral views, even if some or many people disagree with them.

  90. #90 Russell Blackford
    April 2, 2008

    And to be clear, I don’t think that telling someone to shut up should be prohibited by law. In that sense, Nisbet can say it.

    But I do think that that sort of speech will inevitably, and properly, be met with concise requests to piss off, or something similar. That’s why PZ’s “Fuck you very much” was acceptable. In (almost?) any other circumstance, it’s not a good contribution to a discussion, but such a remark is the proper reply once things reach the point where someone has told you to shut up.

  91. #91 the real cmf
    April 2, 2008


    If it is true that Dawkins means these things as stated:
    “1. Giving a label, such as “Muslim child” or “Christian child”, to a kid who is too young to have formed any opinions about theological matters. (No one would say “a Marxist child” or “a libertarian child”.)

    2. Terrifying children with stories, or even dramatic enactments, of eternal torture in Hell.”

    I wonder what he thinks of labeling children as “feminist” children, or “patriotic” or “democrat/republican” children etc? It is a common practice for parents to propagandize their children, and it is evidenced all over the internet.

    Or is it that most of the dialogue about labelling children as such comes only from the faux-left?

    On point 2, what aprent has never ever told a ghost story?

  92. #92 Russell Blackford
    April 2, 2008

    I would certainly object to calling a little kid a feminist or a republican. Fortunately it is so ridiculous an idea that anyone who did it explictly would be laughed at. But people don’t laugh when it’s “a Catholic child”.

    Conversely if you think that telling a kid in lurid detail that he or she is going to go to Hell and be tortured by devils with fire forever is anything remotely like reading a kid a ghost story … well, I’m just flabbergasted.

  93. #93 H.H.
    April 2, 2008

    Winsor writes:

    I think he [Taylor] is making a point about forums of public discourse. And he actually wants people to respond. Why else would he write a book?

    Yet, when Dawkins writes a book and expresses the desire that you know, god forbid, his book might actually change someone’s mind, that means he’s “unremittingly hostile” and “rather than seeking common ground with believers as a prelude to posing skeptical questions…prefer to skip right to the refutation.” In fact, you thought this charge so spot on you were compelled to bold it. Dawkins wrote a book that he hopes changes minds! It’s the new inquisition!

    Winsor, as you completely oblivious to your own double standards? You must be. I mean, you were one of the vocal minority who refused to admit Nisbet’s comments warranted PZ’s response. It is clear that whatever idealogical ax you’ve come here to grind has seriously muddied your thinking. And I second Blackford’s condemnation of your misrepresentation of Dawkin’s views. Despite portraying yourself as a sensible man who values dialogue, you wave a torch and pitchfork as the mere mention of the phrase “child abuse” without ever bothering to find out what Dawkins point was. Or are you just too dishonest to care?

  94. #94 Chris C. Mooney
    April 2, 2008

    Folks…much still to say, so much that to organize myself, I did a kind of “roadmap” post of where we are and where we’re still going. Just wanted to throw in the link here:

  95. #95 Greg Laden
    April 6, 2008

    I also saw juvenile, profanity-laden comments

    It wasn’t me, I swear, I never laid a hand on her.

    receptive scientist-laden

    That’s a little better … I guess…

    Anyway, I think you make a good point in that the evol-religion area is one that would not be chosen, if you had a choice, for experimenting with communication and illustrating methods, for a lot of reasons. I do think climate change/global warming is an excellent area because the science has changed so quickly over the last few decades, there is an interesting and very demonstrable dynamic between theory and empirical demonstration (especially as theory, say, in 1960 may have predicted the next 40 years, and now we have the data over that period of time), and because the politics is more about economics (and how we think of economics can change) and not about deeply held convictions that do not move very var even in generational time.

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