Mike the Mad Biologist

An Open Letter to Chris Mooney

Dear Chris,

I don’t think for a moment that you (or for that matter, Matt or Sheril) are creationist apologists. But you are successfully pissing off a lot of evolutionary biologists…like me, even though I should be incredibly receptive to your argument.

I’ve always argued that the creationist controversy is a political, not scientific, controversy. I would go so far as to claim that among the evolutionary biologists I know, I’ve been one of the staunchest advocates of bare knuckles political responses to creationists (even if those bare knuckles are enclosed in a velvet glove). Likewise, I’m fairly politically active, and I understand the need to communicate to non-scientists–I did work for two years in a non-profit organization that was involved in legislative affairs. And I’m not completely hapless when it comes to communicating to various audiences, including journalists and politicians. In terms of religion, I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not an atheist–in fact, when I spoke at the Boston Skeptics Society (and if the Baptists ever want to invite me too, I’m game), I explicitly stated “evolution isn’t a cultural marker.” Hell, the title of the talk was “Defending Evolution the Right Way: As a Fundamental Part of Biology and Biomedicine, Not As a Cultural Icon.” So I’m not using evolution as a proxy for a larger cultural and theological fight.

Here’s the problem: you keep coming to evolutionary biologists with a problem (the perception of evolutionary biology), and you don’t have a solution. Do you think there’s a single evolutionary biologist who is happy with public opinion regarding evolution and creationism? But you’re not giving us concrete solutions.

Between teaching and research, along with all of service obligations expected of us (including public outreach), we have too much to do. When we are then told that we need to somehow organize a pro-evolution movie production (which we have no idea how to do since we’re scientists, not movie producers), that’s not helpful.

Many of us also don’t have the time, or, frankly the contacts, to engage in the activities you’re suggesting. Just as you don’t have the training and the professional network to conduct science, most scientists have no experience organizing public policy meetings or political campaigns. As I’ve learned from personal experience, political networking, if not a full-time job, is a huge drain on time. I don’t know a single scientist who isn’t overcommitted, and if something doesn’t appear to have a significant payback, we simply can’t devote time to it. And we certainly don’t need meetings or white papers (while I was visiting DC, I mentioned this to a colleague who is a paleontologist–and who does a considerable amount of public outreach–and he was not impressed. He called meetings and white papers “a necessary evil, at best, when they lead to something.”)

If you and the rest of the ‘framers’ were to give concrete communication suggestions, they might be adopted (at least by some of us). For example, I’ve suggested that one talking point is that many of the breakthroughs in medical genetics can’t happen without evolutionary biology (I’m not going to go through the whole argument here). When I propose something like that, I provide a concrete set of actions that can be criticized, refined, and, most importantly, adopted by others. But the jeremiads are wearing thin.

I’m going to turn the tables and offer some suggestions to you and other science communicators. First, stop pissing off scientists. Not only do you need us, because we produce and understand the stuff you’re communicating, but if you can’t communicate effectively to us, then why should we believe that you can communicate effectively to others? Second, shoulder some of the blame yourselves. Professional scientists are pretty good at doing science. We are not, however, communications specialists, nor is that a job to which most of us can dedicate significant amounts of time (and despite the disdain some around here have for communications, it is a full-time job). Maybe the problem of communicating science to the larger public can’t be laid entirely at the feet of working scientific researchers. Perhaps the communication problem has something to do with the communicators too? As the Uncredible Hallq put it:

If Mooney wants to help on the creation issue, and is worried about people just taking cues from their religious leaders, here’s what I’d recommend he do: do some serious journalistic legwork, documenting the misinformation being spread by Evangelical churches and similar local groups… Put it in a book with accessible explanations of why what they’re saying is false. While recognizing the need to keep it accessible, you need to actually explain what wrong with what’s being claimed and not merely assert that it’s wrong if you want to win anyone over. Then go around promoting the book with a focused message designed to reach people who may not buy it. If you like, think of it as framing the issue in terms of “religious hucksters vs. honest scientists.” This is what I’d do if I were a journalist with one high-selling book already under my belt.

I would also focus on the argument of how and why discarding evolution would be harmful (e.g., combating emerging infectious disease). I’ve argued that we need to make a positive, active case for evolution, and not against creationism–put them on the defensive and make them defend what we both think is destructive foolishness. Trust me, many scientists would be glad to help, even on ‘deep background’ (I’ve done so myself).

We need solutions, and like it or not, you’re in a perfect place to provide some. And recognize both our limitations and yours.

Comments

  1. #1 Ed Yong
    April 29, 2008

    Love the letter. Also the book you speak of in the antepenultimate paragraph sounds rather a lot like this

  2. #2 Peter
    April 29, 2008

    I’m going to turn the tables and offer some suggestions to you and other science communicators. First, stop pissing off scientists.

    It is rather ironic that the framing proponents appear to have failed so spectacularly in the framing of their proposals to their supposed audience.

  3. #3 SteveF
    April 29, 2008

    Out of interest, how do you know this:

    you are successfully pissing off a lot of evolutionary biologists

    Chris and Matt have pissed off some people and commenters on Science Blogs (not many of whom are evolutionary biologists as far as I can tell). What information do you have that they have pissed off the wider community?

  4. #4 chezjake
    April 29, 2008

    Well said, Mike.

    As you’ve indicated, I think there are two separate problems that need addressing, as well as one theme that needs to be repeated continuously.

    The first problem is the lying, deception, and false statements made by ID creationists. These need to be attacked and knocked down hard every time they appear, and it isn’t just scientists who should be doing it.

    The second problem is that of showing people that science based on evolutionary theory is important in everybody’s lives. This is probably best done by skilled science communicators with the help of scientists in finding relevant examples and making sure the science is presented accurately.

    I think that one person should probably not attempt to address both problems simultaneously.

    And the theme that needs to be repeated ad nauseum is that ID creationism is not science and cannot be substituted for science in any context.

  5. #5 RBH
    April 29, 2008

    Mike wrote

    As I’ve learned from personal experience, political networking, if not a full-time job, is a huge drain on time. I don’t know a single scientist who isn’t overcommitted, and if something doesn’t appear to have a significant payback, we simply can’t devote time to it.

    Time sink in spades. During the Ohio State Board of Education wars a couple of years ago, a small core of scientists — half a dozen at most — spend essentially all of their (our!) spare time on talking with board members individually, preparing briefings, preparing alternative standards, benchmarks and model lesson plans to replace the ID creationist crap, going through records and minutes and publics statements to establish the intentions of the cdesign proponentists, driving to BOE meetings and waiting for hours for a chance to speak to the full Board for three whole minutes, and on and on.

    We got the payback finally when the BOE dropped the ID crap, but it took four damned years of that level of commitment. That three of the principal scientists involved in the effort were tenured full professors was a big help, but at least one person on a non-tenure track academic appointment put her career essentially on hold for those years.

  6. #6 Todd
    April 29, 2008

    In terms of religion, I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not an atheist–in fact, when I spoke at the Boston Skeptics Society (and if the Baptists ever want to invite me too, I’m game), I explicitly stated “evolution isn’t a cultural marker.”

    It is on this specific point in which the whole strategy gets complicated and its why there is so much vitriol being thrown around. Mooney and Nisbet (and you) have a specific agenda of bettering science communication in mainstream media to combat pseudo scientific nonsense. It’s an agenda that everyone agrees on in general, but we quibble over tactically. The quibbling, however, is amicable, much like your letter.

    But there’s another agenda that gets in the way and that is the non theists (atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, whatever) trying to assert their political power and cultural identity. The two agendas are consistently confused and that gets in the way of effectively communicating science.

    You’re point about not communicating evolution as a cultural marker is spot on and it is what sometimes drives me crazy about people like Myers and Dawkins. I was an atheist long before I completely understood evolution. Evolution has nothing to do with atheism and the sooner the two agendas are separated the better off both groups will be.

  7. #7 metoo
    April 29, 2008

    Mike, amen brother. I couldn’t have said it better myself. And if they can’t communicate this to scientists, it doesn’t bode well.

  8. #8 Rev Matt
    April 29, 2008

    I think that one of the most important points of this brilliant letter is this:

    if you can’t communicate effectively to us, then why should we believe that you can communicate effectively to others?

  9. #9 James F
    April 29, 2008

    Hear, hear, Mike!

    One of the biggest tragedies is the time this takes away from scientists’ work. Richard Dawkins put it quite well:

    What this does to science is it wastes a lot of time of scientists who could be getting on with their work. As far as I’m aware in no other field of science does this happen; physicists don’t have to fight a kind of rear-guard action against yapping terriers of ignorance, the way biologists do.

    Perhaps instead of a book (or at least as a more rapid response), a web site that, as you say, makes a positive, active case for evolution, possibly by adding to the TalkOrigins or the Berkeley site?

  10. #10 A Reasonable Kansan
    April 29, 2008

    PZ is a liar in his misrepresentations of all religions under one category.

    Normally this is called bigotry.

    Dawkins is the same. Between those two, more damage has been caused to science education than by the creationists.

    They don’t give a damn, Dawkins said so when he was at KU in Lawrence a year ago. When confronted with this problem, he said he was concerned with the fight between the natural and the supernatural. Public school education was not his probem; he is after all an elitist.

    These fools are fiddling while the world burns.

  11. #11 Martin
    April 29, 2008

    I used to like reading ScienceBlogs, because it was full of, you know, interesting articles about stuff.

    Now it’s just a bunch of people whining at each other and sending “open letters”. I mean, seriously, how important do you think any of you actually are?

  12. #12 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    April 29, 2008

    I’ll turn the tables, Martin. How important do you think you are?

    Good post, Mike. I still say that Matthew got off the tracks completely when he complained about the New Atheist Noise Machine. While I can’t claim to be an expert in communications and framing, either, it seemed to me that instead of building new frames for science communication Mattew adopted the science=atheism frame; although unintentionally. Chris picked up on it, and now so has Randy Olson.

    Like Todd, I was an atheist long before I started studying and reading about evolution (post-college.) But I don’t think that atheists should be shunted aside in case we scare the womenfolk and chillerns.

    Scientists who are not atheists need us atheists to push against the creationist frame. Framers who complain about atheists are adding to the ignorant idea that studying evolution leads to atheism.

  13. #13 Duae Quartunciae
    April 29, 2008

    Hear hear.

    I have now totally lost interest in anything Chris Mooney has to say about communication or framing. I continue to be a big fan of what he has to say on actual science and politics for himself. I also considered an open letter, but decided it was just not worth while.

    I hope Chris just drops this whole framing shitck, which he has messed up so comprehensively, and gets back to the actual communication of science issues which he ironically does so well.

    The last straw for me was his recent comment moderation step. In principle, I approve of comment moderation for an active blog. In practice, Chris has gone well beyond simply removing what is rude or off topic, and has used it to simply avoid dealing with real concerns robustly and politely expressed on his framing position.

    I know this, because one of my comments from an older thread simply got removed holus bolus, and it was NOT impolite or rude or off topic. The basics of my removed comment can still be found at this similar comment at the science progress blog.

    Chris has reneged on his promise, given a month ago or so, to deal with the substantive criticisms that have been raised about his position on framing in relation to Expelled, expressed in such posts as the infamous “This Controversy HELPS Ben Stein, People” post. I no longer care; the sooner he stops meta-debates about framing and returns to actually presenting science related issues directly, the better.

  14. #14 Martin Robbins
    April 30, 2008

    @Mike Haubrich: I’ll turn the tables, Martin. How important do you think you are?

    Along with all science bloggers, not very. That’s what makes this whole framing debate so ridiculous. Since ScienceBlogs isn’t engaged in any meaningful public relations work – just preaching to the choir effectively – why continue this pointless debate when you could be writing about stuff that actually matters?

  15. #15 Interrobang
    April 30, 2008

    Speaking as someone who was into this framing and communications theory stuff long before it was cool, I do think Chris Mooney has messed it up quite badly.

    The onus should not be, of course, on scientists to act as professional science communicators, but on the other hand, scientists need to be aware of communication principles in general when communicating scientific ideas to the lay public. Don’t tell him this, because he’ll track me down and lob flaming cephalopods through my living room window, but this is where I think PZ Myers particularly shines — he’s very good at tailoring his writing to his readership.

    In more specific terms, I think some of the actual concrete advice is already being implemented, like eschewing the term “Darwinism” (which even Richard Dawkins was using regularly) in favour of other words, to avoid reinforcing the creationist-tainted connotations of the former.

    If he’s somehow got you thinking that someone’s idle speculation about making a movie that’s essentially the anti-Expelled has anything to do with this framing debate, he’s really put his foot in it. The mechanics of framing have largely to do with a combination of audience analysis, word choice, and a good working knowledge of connotative meaning instead of denotative meaning.

    That latter right there is where I think the creationists have a leg up in terms of communicating with the public — they can use loaded language to make crude emotional appeals and get public sentiment on their side much more easily and quickly than can naked appeals to facts. I guess my most concrete piece of advice would be for science communicators (not necessarily scientists) to find the emotional aspects, the connotational meanings that resonate with people, and couple them to the facts of the case.

    Case in point, I paid my taxes yesterday. (I’m Canadian and Tax Day is 1 May.) The clerk at the bank made some kind of disparaging remark about “paying the government,” and I said, “No, no, I like paying the government. I like what I get by paying the government. Heck, I probably used that much in doctor’s appointments just last year alone, so fair’s fair.” He got this marvellous comprehending look on his face and said, “Yeah, that sounds fair.” At least on a one-to-one level, I managed to short-circuit the prevailing propaganda (taxes=burden) from the Heritage Foundation and the CD Howe Institute and replace them with a different idea (taxes=fair payment for services rendered). The same principles can be applied to science communication (although I don’t claim it’s easy).

  16. #16 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 30, 2008

    Mike,
    For more than a year, beginning with our original article at Science, we have been emphasizing the strategy of re-framing evolution as a modern building block for medical science, helping society solve problems such as infectious diseases and bird flu. So on this, we are on the same page when it comes to concrete suggestions.

    Indeed this is one of the key recommendations that came out of the National Academies study on public opinion about evolution. I’ve cited this at my blog at least a dozen times since it came out.

    We’ve also given about three dozen talks across the country on these topics, speaking face-to-face with several thousand scientists, academics, and graduate students. I end each talk with a 15 minute discussion of specific, concrete recommendations for moving forward. At AAAS, I organized a 180 minute panel on strategies for communicating about evolution and other areas of science that packed the room with 250 people. I’ve also done three hours of podcast interviews with specific suggestions at Point of Inquiry.

    Many of these concrete suggestions are detailed in a side bar in the cover article at The Scientist published last year:

    http://www.soc.american.edu/docs/Scientist.pdf

    And here is what we wrote about why scientists need to understand framing and the implications of communication research:

    Some critics have also argued that scientists should stick to research and let media relations officers and science writers worry about translating the implications of that research. They are right: In an ideal world that’s exactly what should happen. Yet in reality, scientists will be the key spokespeople. They are the individuals who will be giving the interviews, or writing popular books, articles, or blogs. They will testify before Congress and address local community groups. Perhaps even more importantly, as senior decision-makers, many scientists are ultimately responsible for setting communication policy at scientific institutions, agencies, and organizations. These leaders need to understand how research can and should inform public communication on all issues.

    Moreover, in our experience, we find that even some science communication professionals still cling to the false assumptions of the popular science model, assuming that the facts will speak for themselves and will win out, with no attention to the way the facts are presented, the media who will communicate them, or the audience who will receive them. Therefore, while our suggestions target scientists, they are also aimed at communication professionals.

    Others argue that the antidote to continued communication failures is large-scale investment in “public dialogue” initiatives such as town meetings, deliberative forums, and science cafes. Deliberative forums generate conversations among highly engaged citizens and activists, and allow scientific organizations and government officials to tap concerns early and integrate them into policy.13 But like any other tool, deliberative meetings have obvious limitations. Most importantly, very few people actually participate. Indeed, research shows that at these forums, the citizens who are most likely to attend and speak up are those who are already informed, opinion-intense, and active on an issue.

    So what are the lessons for science communication 2.0? Should we throw out all existing tools of outreach and public education? No, not at all! Yet study after study shows that various communication efforts are not working as well as they could, despite clear mandates by most federal funding agencies to include outreach and education components in grant proposals. These failures, unfortunately, are partly due to scientists and their organizations continuing to confuse strategic, goal-directed communication with marketing and public relations.

    Some scientists already frame their communications. Consider, for example, E.O. Wilson’s Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. In his book, by recasting environmental stewardship as not only a scientific matter, but also one of personal and moral duty, Wilson has generated discussion among a religious audience that might not otherwise pay attention to popular science books.

    We suggest that Wilson’s efforts at bridging audiences be carried out systematically. On major issues such as climate change, nanotechnology, and the teaching of evolution, science organizations should work with communication researchers to conduct focus groups, surveys, and experiments that explore how diverse audiences come to understand these topics. Based on this research, messages can be tailored to fit with specific types of media outlets and to resonate with the background of their particular audience. In collaboration with national organizations and their institution’s communication professionals, individual scientists can incorporate these messages into their media interviews, their talks to various audiences, and their popular writing.

    Tailoring communication efforts to fit with publics from different social and educational backgrounds is not an option, it is a necessity. Using communication tools such as framing to help citizens make connections between their everyday lives, their specific values, and the world of science is by no means a magical key to unlocking public appreciation for science, but it is a first step.

  17. #17 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 30, 2008

    I also addressed a National Academies meeting on communicating science advice at the state level. The summary of that presentation with specific examples and recommendations was just published in a National Academies report, link below:

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2008/04/national_academies_on_framing.php

    On Expelled, I gave a presentation at NSF two weeks ago where I discussed specific long term public engagement strategies. Not all of these are best shared online, but I will be discussing some of these strategies in forthcoming posts or articles.

    Finally, we have always emphasized that scientists have very limited time and not every scientist will want to engage in public communication activities. That’s why we suggest that there is a need for leadership from the top, such as the recent National Academies study on communicating evolution, and other initiatives. These initiatives serve as important resources for scientists and their organizations to use when engaging the public.

  18. #18 ponderingfool
    April 30, 2008

    Matthew Nisbet that sounds great. The point raised by the Mike the Made Biologist is that scientists are very busy and do not necessarily have the time to do as you suggest. How do we create space for them to do as you suggest? How do we change how science is done in this nation to increase the number of Wilsons?

  19. #19 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 30, 2008

    Ponderingfool,
    One of our specific suggestions outlined in talks and at The Scientist article, is that NSF fund programs that provide communication training for PhD students and junior scientists.

    Not only might this better prepare future scientists to work with the media or to address non-traditional audiences, but these programs would also help prepare doctoral students for careers outside of academia, such as industry, govt., nonprofits, or even the media. As many recent articles have noted, there are far more PhDs produced than available postdocs or tenure track positions, especially in biology. Having communication training not only helps solve the scientist/public gap but also prepares students for careers outside of the lab.

  20. #20 ponderingfool
    April 30, 2008

    Matthew those things are great but it is a cost to benefit analysis. If you have limited time how do you allocate your resources? The system as set up rewards research, research and more research. Those that do more are doing so because they care. Guess what that type of system selects for? Scientists who are interested in research, research and more research. They are the ones who train PhD students, selecting once again for those who love research, research and more research. Funding training for junior scientists is great but you have to make it ok for them to do so. I have talked with professors who have tried to get programs started allowing PhD students to take time to learn communication or management and guess what they died. Why? It was too costly for students to take such time away from research. The reward is for the community not the individual. You have to change that which means changing academia.

  21. #21 Martin Robbins
    May 1, 2008

    @PonderingFool: “Funding training for junior scientists is great but you have to make it ok for them to do so.”

    That’s easy, in theory.

    I don’t know how American funding works, so this might be naive, but in the U.K. government funding is distributed by Research Councils. Thanks to policy changes designed to improve science outreach, the RCs actively give credit to research proposals (requests for funding) that incorporate some kind of public outreach element, and they fund science communication and media training workshops for many Ph.D. students.

    It’s not that amazing, but it’s a start, and surely this should be happening in the USA? If it isn’t, then you guys need to organize yourselves and start lobbying for it.

    Alternatively, just move to Britain :)

  22. #22 ponderingfool
    May 1, 2008

    Martin US grants do have this. The problem is the public outreach is not rewarded on the same level. There isn’t the same metrics to measure who is doing well or not. For research rightly or wrongly, you can measure how many papers published, how often they are cited. Tenure committees can look at that and also see how many grant dollars with overhead come in. You don’t get the grant because of a great public research idea. You get the grant because you have great research ideas and have proven yourself as a competent scientist.

    Look in theory teaching is supposed to be part of the job of a faculty member at a research university. The advise administration gives junior faculty at the university where I got my PhD was to focus on research, research and research. My current advisor mentors junior faculty members in his department. What his is advice to them? Don’t spend too much time on the courses, do enough to get by, focus on the research. The university wants to recoup start-up costs as quickly as possible, so it can make another investment. Overhead dollars (over 65% at the places I have been at) help do that. That favors research above all else. We are talking about changing people’s behavior. Communication is not enough, you need to change the rewards and costs. Really this discussion needs to include psychologists and economists not just natural scientists and communication experts.

    A graduate student is not rewarded by taking part in programs Nisbet describes in their department. The cost is usually taking longer to graduate (especially when you think about the lack of retirement benefits, wage differences etc). It usually also is costly because faculty tend to view such students in a negative light. Why? Because they the student is not focussed on research. You can wish and dream faculty will change but the reality is that faculty with such mentalities have been selected for. That is the culture that is nurtured. Those that agree with it are the ones that typically get ahead. You want to change that, you have to change the reward system. Getting upset that scientists focus on research and telling them to change is absurd. It won’t work on a large scale. You have to change cultures. It is complicated.

    The tournament style of science especially in the basic biomedical sciences makes it difficult to do things outside of research. Faculty members are being asked to do more and more. Universities cut back placing more burdens on faculty members and their labs. Journals cut back so scientists must do more to get a paper published. Funding is getting cut, which means more time is spent writing grants. This is on top of mentoring students/post-docs, departmental work, teaching, committee work for the university and oh yes having a family. You want to keep adding things on to what scientists do which out changing the reward system in a major way guess what you are only going to make it worse not better. It is going to select for those that are willing to cut back on other passions (i.e. family, volunteering, etc.).

  23. #23 Matthew C. Nisbet
    May 1, 2008

    Ponderingfool,
    I agree with a lot of your points. That’s why meaningful funding for such programs are important. Funding can help change the culture…if only a little bit.

    We are not suggesting every scientist or PhD student become a master communicator or spend 10% of their time etc on public engagement, but we are suggesting that there can be more opportunities and incentives created for the segment of scientists who do want to pursue public outreach activities.

    We find that graduate students in the sciences are hungry for such courses, indeed, as I noted, because many of them are not planning to pursue a research career after completing their PhD. Even among those who are set on research, they still want to balance their work with a focus on public engagement. See for example a communication seminar series started by graduate students in the New York area that was inspired by our talk last summer at the New York Academy of Sciences:

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2007/10/framing_science_inspires_launc.php

  24. #24 ponderingfool
    May 1, 2008

    I agree that funding is important and that students are hungry for it. Unless there is cultural change at these top tier schools though I don’t see much changing. The current situation will get those predisposed to the ideas and want to do more science communication, which is great. Getting them motivated and more importantly keeping them motivated is vital especially when the current environment for young scientists pushes them in other directions. An excited base is important to enact greater change. Expanding beyond that core though requires changing the culture at these top tier institutions. Expansion is what is needed in order to get attitudes to change, you need a critical mass. Lamenting about scientists who do public outreach/communication being looked down upon is good first step but more needs to be understood about how that mentality is brought about, cultured, and perpetuated ’cause if you want to change the situation you have to actually understand it. I suspect such efforts will also start dealing with why in the US so many scientific disciplines are so white male dominated; changing that in the long term will also likely improve scientific outreach to said demographics as well, a potential positive feedback loop.

  25. #25 Hank Roberts
    May 3, 2008

    Dr. Nisbet, would you be able to work with the DeSmogBlog people on this?

    They have been reporting — as PR professionals — on how their own industry has long been doing exactly what you say scientists should start doing.

    They hated the way it’s used, to lie and sell crap. So they set up their site to try to explain it.

    What boggles me is that you aren’t backing _them_ in doing the work, since they’ve started doing it long since.

  26. #26 seks shop
    February 13, 2010

    Like Todd, I was an atheist long before I started studying and reading about evolution (post-college.) But I don’t think that atheists should be shunted aside in case we scare the womenfolk and chillerns