Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney have a short policy paper in Science that criticizes scientists for how they communicate to the public. Mooney says that “many scientists don’t really know what they’re up against when suddenly thrust into the media spotlight and interactions with politicians” — I agree completely. We are not trained to be glib and glossy, and we simply do not come across as well as we could. We’re also not really that interested, generally speaking, in the kind of presentation that plays well in 3 minutes on a news broadcast. It’s more than a cosmetological failure, though; as Nisbet says, “scientists, without misrepresenting scientific information, must learn to shape or ‘frame’ contentious issues in a way that make them personally relevant to diverse segments of the public, while taking advantage of the media platforms that reach these audiences.” I can go along with that, too.

In the battleground I play in, the evolution/creation wars, I know that the majority of the public are victims. We share common values: they are promoting their particular beliefs not because they are stupid or evil, but because they care about living in a good society, because they want their children to grow up economically successful and personally happy, and they are convinced that evolution threatens their personal bliss. (They’re wrong, of course, because they’ve been lied to, but they don’t know that.) One effective tactic for our side is to hammer on those shared values, and point out that good science is essential for economic competitiveness, for medical progress, and to improve everything from agriculture to reproductive biology. People respond well to appeals to the health and welfare of their grandchildren. It’s fair to suggest that instructing the public in abstractions like genetics and molecular biology as wonderful and interesting for their own sake is going to have limited success, because very few will care, while many more will like to hear about the consequences of research in genetics and molecular biology on their well being.

Where we can, we should do a better job of fitting science into the appropriate context of public concerns, and I agree with Nisbet and Mooney that assistance from those better versed in the politics of communication should be welcomed. I appreciate suggestions for polishing. However, I think Nisbet and Mooney are so focused on how better to fit scientist’s goals to the public’s perceptions that they neglect another important function: sometimes we want to change the public’s ideas. We want to break the frames of the debate and shift whole worldviews, and accommodating ourselves to the status quo won’t do.

We are living in a country that has gone horribly wrong; more than 50% of the public reject basic biology, we see citizens denied civil liberties because of their sexual preference, and we’re mired in an unjust war, to name just a few problems. Nisbet and Mooney acknowledge that we’re seeing a hardening of anti-science attitudes along partisan lines. What they propose, though, is a strategy of taking on the problems indirectly, cozening up to people and winning them over on shared values, but basically avoiding contention on other angles that would cause people to shut down and ignore your message.

I disagree. We are a culture afflicted with bad ideas, and it is irresponsible to ignore them. One of our jobs must be to speak out plainly in opposition to bad ideas; sure, we should inform people that evolutionary biology is essential for basic research in medicine, and we should try to avoid boring them with technical details, but at least some of us have to confront deep-rooted social ills that have long damaged the effectiveness of scientific advancement. Asking that we always bow respectfully towards established societal norms is nothing but a demand for conformity, for the maintenance of the status quo, and sometimes we need change, damnit.

For a representative problem, take religion (you knew I’d be going in that direction, didn’t you?) The authors’ press release also makes an issue of it, though, in a conventional nod to the virtues of piety, which I detest.

The authors point out that when scientists discuss science-related policy questions in technical language, many members of the public tune it out. Moreover, even while continuing to employ traditional modes of communication, scientists themselves have come under increasing attack for being too atheistic, too self-interested and/or too liberal.

OK, let’s ease up on the technical language that loses us our audience needlessly; that’s a fair cop. The rest, though, buys directly into the conservative and religious framing (useful word, that) by citing atheism and liberal values as negatives. Why do that? The problem isn’t that scientists are too atheistic or too liberal. It’s that religious leaders are given unwarranted respect and allowed to lie to the public. That’s something we should try to change, not to which we should try to conform or accommodate.

They do it again in the Science article:

The evolution issue also highlights another
point: Messages must be positive and respect
diversity. As the film Flock of Dodos painfully
demonstrates, many scientists not only fail to
think strategically about how to communicate
on evolution, but belittle and insult others’
religious beliefs.

Examples of a religious belief are that the Earth is 6000 years old, that T. rex‘s sharp teeth were used to crack open coconuts, and that the Bible is literally accurate in its claim that the patriarchs were giants because we have pygmies and dwarfs today. Why the hell should I treat such nonsense respectfully? Why shouldn’t we point out clearly, loudly, and frequently that these ideas are irrational, contradicted by the evidence, and just plain wrong? Religion is more than a social convention to negotiate, it is the root of the conflict. This demand for respect for religious beliefs, unjustified except by the fact that people get offended when they are refuted, is precisely the problem — there are some ideas that we have to eradicate with sledge and jackhammer, and there just isn’t any delicate dodge we can use to work around them. Yes, it will hurt, and yes, people will whimper and weep and howl in anger, but running away from the risk of offending people cannot be the be-all and end-all of our efforts.

The major failure of Nisbet’s and Mooney’s vision is that they seem unable to consider that scientists are capable of or should even try to work for major changes in our culture; we are always to be the ones who must conform to the majority’s views, no matter how wrong they are, and we have to be the supplicants who are very careful not to offend and who always beg for scraps in the terms they dictate. Their suggestions are all about tactical poses and completely neglect any long-term strategy or consideration of greater goals than getting by for the day.

I can accept some of their suggestions, but not all. Most importantly, I would emphasize that the role of the public intellectual must be to challenge, not to conform. Yet all I see in their proposal is a policy of appeasement, and nowhere is there an understanding or acknowledgment that scientists must also stretch boundaries, or even break them.


  1. #1 coturnix
    April 6, 2007

    OK, it’s 2:30am here, I am incoherent and I am going to bed now, but I will try to write something tomorrow and I think that you and them are not as much at odds with each other as you think, i.e., I do not think that they would disagree with you (much), they are just focusing on a different facet of the topic, or a different angle, not taking a different stance on the same angle. I may or may not change my mind on this in the morning once I re-read all the articles/posts on the topic again with a rested brain.

  2. #2 Great White Wonder
    April 6, 2007

    From the authors press release:

    Moreover, even while continuing to employ traditional modes of communication, scientists themselves have come under increasing attack for being too atheistic, too self-interested and/or too liberal.

    i.e., most scientists are not Republican script-reciters.

    Really, the observation (which is probably made-up bullcrap in the first place) is not evidence of scientists’ shortcomings. It’s evidence of the rotten world we live in right now and how anyone who speaks forthrightly as a liberal or atheist is bound to be condemned, ridiculed or viewed as “shrill” at the same time self-described “conservatives” are invited back to national TV over and over again to spout utterly ignorant garbage and smears.

    Of course Republicans want scientists to play nice and treat their fundie base respectfully. The worst thing that could happen to Republicans would be for those fundies to be loudly rejected by conservatives who aren’t insane religious-peddling idiots. Those cracks are barely visible and now is the time to wedge them wide open. The goal is to create a situation where no serious political party wants the public support of the ignorant anti-science fundies, just like no serious political party wants the public support of the Ku Klux Klan.

    PZ writes

    I appreciate suggestions for polishing.

    Don’t use the fundie’s “worldview” rhetoric. It’s not necessary or helpful, IMHO.

  3. #3 tigtog
    April 6, 2007

    Tran: You don’t think there’s a difference between general respect and unwarranted respect?

  4. #4 Jud
    April 6, 2007

    PZ: Sometimes it’s easier, quicker and cleaner to lever a box (or closed mind) open than to try to smash it in with a hammer.

    You said as much yourself: “One effective tactic for our side is to hammer on those shared values….” (OK, you did mention “hammer.” ­čśë

    Yep, show folks where they’ve been lied to, but there’s no better way to ensure they won’t listen to what you’re trying to tell them than to start by saying “Your long-cherished belief is crap!” Start with the shared values; then show how that contradicts what they’ve been told; then instead of saying, “See, it’s all a lie!” just ask ’em to think about it for a while. (Lots of times they’ll think plenty about it without you having to ask.)

    Folks can be pretty smart; let’s have some confidence that good information will eventually replace the bad in their logic systems. (If one has no confidence in the intelligence and sincerity of most of one’s fellow humans, that really *is* arrogance.)

  5. #5 Tran
    April 6, 2007

    Daenke…and what if the scientist is an uber atheist?

  6. #6 Caledonian
    April 6, 2007

    The public is stupid, no so much because of lack of potential (although that’s also a factor) as because of lack of development, and it has no interest in becoming not-stupid.

    I’m hearing half-truths: yes, the more knowledgeable member of a teaching interaction ought to work to make things comprehensible for the student, but we’re not dealing with willing students, we’re dealing with people who aren’t interested in learning and certainly not in anything we’re teaching.

    Science is essential. Either the masses can learn it, or get out of the way – if they do neither, we will withdraw it and its benefits from them. If you’re not competent to understand the issues, you’re not entitled to decide what needs to be done.

    That is the message we need to be sending – only if we’re willing to carry through on the threat, though.

  7. #7 Zwirko
    April 6, 2007

    3 minutes on a news broadcast? Isn’t it closer to 30 seconds?

  8. #8 Torbj÷rn Larsson
    April 6, 2007

    It seems easy to frame debates. But I have some problems with pinning down exactly what framing means, especially in the context of science.

    Framing seems to mean to offer a context, often implicitly taken to mean social, that suits certain reader groups. The message is presented within the frame. Another often used term, spin, would conversely seem to imply to distort the message to suit the purpose, for example by leaving out existing data.

    Then some contexts makes a “scientific frame” a frame as well. The original post is somewhat suggesting conflating social issues frames with other uses, which is confusing.

    Carl Zimmer of the Loom also finds framing science “a bit murky” and sometimes a “surrender”. He comes down on the classical note that education is important. ( )

    One could of course say that he would, being a science journalist. But blogging and other new media will diversify both debates and how they are done. Frames and other presentation methods are important here, as is scientist participation.

    But in the ways they feel they can do it best. Provocation and moving an extreme of the debate are also strategic presentation methods. It could also be beneficial for scientists to proactively suggest, help construct, or support frames in areas where it is a political debate or social issue. (For example, “point out that good science is essential for economic competitiveness”.)

    It’s telling that of the three ‘bad ideas’ you listed, which are presumably the first three that came to mind while you were writing this post, two of them have absolutely nothing to do with science.

    It is true that it is social questions, and that PZ may want to argue non-scientific such. But if framing, or other participations in a social debate, is to be encouraged it can’t be a one-way street. And more specifically here, all of these areas contains science issues.

    On sexual preferences, there is the question how much is nature and how much is nurture. On the war, it was the question and search of WMD’s, and now studies on the effects of war such as the Lancet report, et cetera.

  9. #9 GS
    April 6, 2007

    Nope, let scientists do their job.

    Hire good marketing to make the right noises (seriously!).

    I was at a little supercomputing gathering last year. This guy from a leading chip maker was showing off his bit of research. 5-mins and everyone is nodding off. Nobody could make any sense of the direction this guy was trying to go – you know good research but bad slides and all.

    So around 25min mark there comes a slide (definitely slide number >40) that he claimed marketing designers forced him to include against his *better* judgment. Unfortunately for his *better* judgment, that slide was the only one that tied together everything he said before or after.

    I have been more respectful of my marketing group (designers et al) since then :-)

  10. #10 Peter M.
    April 6, 2007

    For those with a strong stomach, here’s a news story about authentic Good Friday reenactments:

    I guess in the Philippines they go all out for Palm Friday.

  11. #11 Chaoswes
    April 6, 2007

    We must remember that both methods work but on a different section of the public. The hard-core nut-jobs are nothing more than sheep. They are programed to do what they are told. Right now, they are being directed by their religious leaders. To convince these people (if that is possible), you must boldly tell them what to believe and then direct their actions. The middle of the road, don’t give a shit, I just go to church for appearances segment of the population needs to be coaxed into a new position. These people respond better to subtle convincing rather then blatant confrontation. The key is to have people doing both. I am glad that PZ, Dawkins, Harris and others are loud and abrasive. We need that. It is also great that Nisbet and Mooney and others are using the “nicer” approach. We all seek the same goal and variance in rhetoric can only prevent the “enemy” from using a single defense. It is not only how the message is being presented that matters, it is the fact that people are spreading the message that matters as well.


  12. #12 Blake Stacey
    April 6, 2007


    Jared Diamond has speculated that Sagan’s intensive effort to speak to the public is one reason that he was never elected to the National Academy. There is defnitely a stigma involved, in at least some fields.

    I think the stigma is a little weakened, now, since we’ve got a generation of scientists who all grew up watching and reading Carl Sagan.

    Anne Nonymous:

    Make no mistake, I’m happy to be shrill, strident, uppity, forceful, and even a bit of an asshole about getting the people of this country to see sense and develop some respect for science. But I think Objectivist fantasies about how the masses are too dumb and “we” should abandon them to their fate are just as much part of the problem as Francis Collins is, and I’m gonna be shrill, strident, uppity, forceful, and even a bit of an asshole about pushing that point too.



    Yes, I know that 3 minutes would be an exceptionally generous allotment of time on the TV.

    But on YouTube. . . ?

    All in all, I have to wonder what the “ground level” effects of all this framing talk will possibly be. Is someone going to organize seminars for scientists to learn about talking to the public, talking to high-school students, or (hardest of all) talking to politicians? Will we see a drive to recruit more scientist bloggers? That could be a very helpful thing, I think: get more and more scientists used to communicating in manageable chunks to a wide audience, allowing each person to practice striking their own balance between technical exactitude and popular appeal. (The balance doesn’t always lie in the same place, and not all pieces should be written to the same specifications. How can I learn more about anything if all essays are framed in the same damn way?)

    I think we’re fooling ourselves if we think that “framing” any scientific issue of importance will sweeten bitter medicine. Maybe in an honest world, playing to people’s values would help more, but on this planet, we’ve got to deal with a thriving community of callous frauds who will wear any mask and tell any lie to increase their power. That’s the Discovery Institute and AiG in a sentence; I don’t think anybody here has slept through the whole affair, so it should be pretty obvious.

  13. #13 francis
    April 6, 2007

    PZ: I’ve been reading your blog since you started and this may be one of the most important posts you’ve ever written. because the way i see it, this country is actually at a critical turning point in its history, and it’ll be people like you who prevent incredible damage to our species.

    credentials: i’m a land use/water lawyer in Southern California.

    On NPR’s Day-to-Day show this morning, it was reiterated that the entire American Southwest has slid into a multi-year drought. For the next 15 years (until i retire), I’m going to be mediating disputes that are ultimately not resolvable for the simple reason that the Colorado River is grossly over allocated. Global warming IS HERE!

    what should a scientist say? Start with the following: If it weren’t for scientists, most people watching this program would be dead or never been born. If the people watching this show enjoy the quality of life they have, they have scientists to thank. All the work ever done by my opposition has never kept a baby alive, cured cancer, or fed a population of 6 billion people. People are entitled to their own faiths, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. And the facts are that without the understanding provided by evolution, neither medicine nor agriculture would be where they are today. And that means that you, your parents, and most of your kids would already be dead.

    Final point: people LIKE extremists. They’re interesting and fun. Anne Coulter writes books and Rush Limbaugh pontificates to millions of people because they push the envelope. Dawkins gets air time because he pushes people’s buttons. Go ahead and be extreme. That’s how you change the terms of the debate.

  14. #14 Observer
    April 6, 2007

    Ed Darrell: It is ignorance that we need to fight against. I suspect many in the churches would join us in such a fight.

    And ignorance of history has no less a consequence as ignorance of science – both are abused for political and religious reasons. Tell me, how do you get a 60-year old to re-read the Constitution before they claim something is in it that’s not? Neon lights? Sugar and spice? Berating them? Asking please try to be an informed fellow citizen – just try? :-/

  15. #15 CalGeorge
    April 6, 2007

    Take a planetary view:

    6+ billion people, consummately anti-intellectual media firmly entrenched around the world, and fundie religions on the rise everywhere vs. a few hundred scientists dedicated to proclaiming enlightenment.

    Unless there is some revolution in world sensibility, things are not going to work out for the best.

  16. #16 Thousands or Billions
    April 6, 2007

    I agree with everything except the T-Rex coconut part. I’m willing to bet that T-Rex could indeed make a tasty Pina Colada.

  17. #17 Deb
    April 7, 2007

    If scientists could just explain what a freakin’ “theory” is, I’d be happy.

    Oh, and I hate it when scientists cow tow to religion. I love it when they instead stand up for science, like Neil deGrasse Tyson does.

  18. #18 Chris
    April 7, 2007

    Try to use the tactics of social manipulation and you’re taking the battle to the enemies’ home field, where they have the vast advantage.

    It’s worse than that. Social manipulation would be self-defeating. You can’t set yourself up as a Liar for Truth and expect it to work. Even if you succeeded you’d end up becoming a new Lysenko, enshrining your mistakes as dogma – and not even knowing it.

    Rationality is hard work, but taking the shortcut of tricking others into believing what you believe on rational grounds will corrupt what you are trying to build. Even if what you convince them to believe is actually true, as long as they believe it for irrational reasons, you have not made any progress in promoting rationality or equipping them to resist the next con job, delusion or just plain mistake.

    *That* is why evolution, and atheism, and the age of the earth are ultimately all side issues. The real issue is not what you believe but why you believe it. Once you have that, everything else follows. Convincing people who are dedicated to believing what the evidence says is easy: just show them the evidence.

  19. #19 Keanus
    April 7, 2007

    I have to be honest and admit I haven’t read more than half the foregoing comments, so if I repeat someone, I apologize. (I also haven’t read the Mooney/Nisbet piece in Science, not having a subscription or immediate access to that.) But I see a number of things that should be said.

    A. Most of the public, and here I mean the educated public, those with some college or more, have no clue what “doing” science means much less understand the rigor new ideas in science undergo before acceptance. Just witness the extent to which the public conflates “believe” with “accept because of empirical data.” And the extent to which that same public thinks truth in religion means the same thing as truth in the sciences.

    B. As much of an impediment it is to understanding, attacking religion directly is seen by almost all religious people as an ad hominem attack. And nothing closes the ears more quickly than that. One has to attack the tenets–e.g., the 6000 year old Earth, that the Noah hosted dinosaurs, that mankind’s only ancestor are Adam and Eve–since they are one root of the problem, but religion per se should remain off base, if one is to have any hope of traction.

    C. Attacking religion generally or specifically will immediately render all one says as irrelevant. Someone else has observed that Dawkins energizes both opponents and supporters by his attacks on religion and belief, and labeled him the “Hillary Clinton” of evolution. He has a point. She’s a polarizing figure and so is he. Polarizing figures in a society as divided as the US do not solve problems; they sustain them.

    D. Given the low level of understanding of science in the US, any reasoning has to be offered at a vocabulary and syntax understandable by one’s audience. Reader’s Digest long ago learned to rewrite its articles to an eighth grade level or lower to succeed. (Like it or not, that’s the reading level of the average “educated” American.) We need to do the same for our arguments.

    E. The media need to be made to understand that the intellectual classes, the ones on whose ideas the rest of society depends are heavily skewed toward the skeptical–atheists and agnostics if you wish–and that in society at large atheists and agnostics are no marginal minority. Polls consistently show us to exceed 10% of the population and growing. We now number in excess of 30 million and we vote in disproportionate numbers to our portion of the population. Media should and must give us as much of a voice as the fundamentalists, evangelicals and Pentecostals, if they want to reflect the country as a whole. They do not now. Most of the time they ignore us or invite someone who’s more caricature than reality.

    I joined the board of a regional Planned Parenthood affiliate a few months ago and one of the points I’ve hammered on, aside from sound medical care, honest accounting and good solid management is that PP needs to cease self censoring itself. The majority of the adult population supports what PP does–providing solid, low-cost reproductive health care to those who otherwise would have restricted access to it–but because we’re so harassed by protesters we tend to pull our punches publicly, ceding the public ground to the loud mouths who protest. Supporters of solid science need to do the same. Be loud, be pugnacious, be positive, and don’t be intimidated. That’s a score on which I suspect PZ and I would agree.

  20. #20 Krystalline Apostate
    April 7, 2007


    It is not quite fair to criticize scientists for not synching up with the communications discipline that TV has rendered adequate for important purposes like selling soap and cars.

    I’m not blaming or criticizing scientists at all. I think the whole system stinks. Scientists have better things to do than constantly have to conduct battles on a media battleground. It’s ridiculous. They could be off doing better things. But there’s no use bitching & moaning about the cards dealt: best to play poker.

  21. #21 Anne Nonymous
    April 8, 2007

    You are substituting emotional outrage and frustration for reason and careful thought, which is impeding both your ability to comprehend the written statements of others and your ability to analyze the situation.

    If you cannot master your emotions well enough to prevent them from overriding your higher thought processes, sit down and shut up.

    I see we’re approaching the level of ad hominem attack now. I haven’t noticed much comprehension of my comments on your end, either, and it’s been seeming to me that you’re substituting expressions of frustration and a general attitude of smug superiority for actual attempts at problem-solving. I also haven’t noticed you addressing any of the points I raised at all. Did you even read what I said about pushing for more public discussion of the philosophy and methods of science as opposed to scientific facts? It’s not clear to me why you think this is use of the methods of irrationality, as opposed to use of the methods of rationality.

    As a working scientist, I can tell you that being willing to be vocal and forceful about your ideas, not backing down when challenged (unless you discover you’re wrong), working to present your conclusions in the most widely-read journals possible, and refusing to respect willful ignorance are absolutely the way that science is done. These are the only way to get your ideas heard by the scientific community and get other scientists to start thinking about them and discussing them. I don’t see why the presentation of the philosophy and methods of science to the general public should be handled any differently, or why this should be considered counter to the spirit of science.

    Education of the youth in critical thinking and scientific philosophy is also perfectly in line with the spirit of science — science is a great game, and we want everybody to be able to play as much as possible. There’s a reason a large percentage of research scientists work at, you know, universities and spend some of their time teaching classes and training graduate students as well as directly doing science.

    The only thing I’ve suggested that’s not really a very scientific method is being willing to display anger. Emotions are usually considered to be outside the bounds of scientific discourse, and I think that’s generally a pretty reasonable attitude. But from my perspective, articulate displays of well-justified anger are just part of the continuum of ways to demonstrate a refusal to respect willful ignorance, so I think it’s a perfectly legitimate tool to have in one’s toolbox when dealing with the willfully ignorant.

    I’d finally like to note that taking our toys and going home sounds to me like pretty much the exact opposite of the spirit of science. The ideal of science that I’m familiar with says that it should be about free and open debate, and that scientific ideas should be available to everybody to discuss, develop, and criticize. The notion of it as “ours” is so counter to the free sharing that I’m used to that it is hard for me to not have a certain level of emotional reaction to it.

    Now maybe I’m just dramatically misconstruing what you’ve said, and if so, I’m sorry I’ve pissed you off. But it would be helpful if you’d bother to explain exactly how I’m misconstruing you instead of just continuing to misconstrue (and now beginning to insult) me in turn.

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