I’ve tried a different tack now — I’ve left several comments on Matt Nisbet’s very own blog, in the fading hope that he’ll actually pay attention to what I’m saying, rather than what he imagines I’m saying, or what other people tell him that they imagine I’m saying. Comments there are held up for moderation, so in case you really want fast feedback, I’ve tossed my comments below the fold here where you can savage them instantly … or you can head on over to Framing Science and state your piece there.

Nisbet writes about Steve Case on Framing and Dawkins, which is basically a post of some fan mail from Steve Case. We already know that some people agree with him—this does nothing to help me understand what Mooney and Nisbet are telling me to do.

The weirdest thing is that he plays up Case (deservedly, I agree) to a high degree — agreeing with Nisbet does wonders for your reputation.

Case has been in the trenches and on the front lines for the past three decades. He probably has more experience working with science teachers and dealing with the news media than anyone in the country. Indeed, he is perhaps the most successful and savvy ambassador for science education in America.

Case is smart and media-friendly and he certainly deserves more attention. I’m just struck by the fact that in the WaPo article, Nisbet went out of his way to slam Richard Dawkins and call him a failure. Case is an educator in Kansas. No disrespect intended, and Case has certainly persevered wonderfully, but when presented with the equations Dawkins = Failure and Case = Success, I find myself hoping for more failure. Is there some criterion for success here other than agreeing with Nisbet?

So here’s my comment:

Yes, Steve Case is one of the good guys. Now imagine that my strategy for getting everyone behind my plan (whatever it is) was to begin by slamming him.

If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do better than Steve Case, the famed University of Kansas scientist who tries to accommodate religion in science.

Why, everyone who respects the fellow and appreciates his work would instantly be predisposed against me.

That’s “framing”, right?

So when I read your WaPo article that started in just that alienating way, I had two possible interpretations. One is that you are a tin-eared incompetent at this framing business, which means I ought not to pay attention to what you say. The other is that you seem to be a smart guy and you’ve studied these rhetorical strategies for years, and that you’ve actually made a cunning, conscious decision to stick the knife in a subset of the people who fight creationism in order to curry favor for your ideas in the public eye.

You may “have the best interests of [your] community at heart”, but you’ll have to understand that the impression I have is that either you have your heart in the right place but you’re very bad at this, or your community is not my community and you’re poising yourself to oppose mine.

Is there a third possibility? I don’t know. I keep waiting for you to offer an alternative.

He posts more fannish support, quoting two articles On Framing, Two More Candles in the Dark, which purport to explain why some of us are critical of Nisbet/Mooney. I guess I am an awful communicator, because I thought I’ve been explaining rather plainly why I find myself less than satisfied with the framing arguments.

Ho hum. Neither Orac nor Chad are anywhere near the mark. I spend more of my time now trying to sell science than I ever did before, which is why I was initially looking forward to your articles and was so disappointed when I read them. I am looking for the best way to promote science; the problem that Chad overlooks is that everywhere I look in my discipline, the primary obstacle is religion. Apparently, though, it’s the one problem we’re never, ever supposed to address, because people have this automatic deferral to religious authority. How about if some of us work to end that, eh?

We opponents have repeatedly stated our objections. Why do you ignore them to favor second or third hand guesswork?

I am not dead set against better communication tools, and would welcome advice. My primary complaints from the very beginning were that 1) you haven’t explained how to use these nebulous frames in a way I can understand and use. 2) You have muddled up suggestions about how to communicate with what to communicate; a communication strategy that tells me I’m supposed to simply abandon a significant part of my message is useless to me. And 3) while telling us that we have to maintain a conciliatory tone to the religious community, you have taken an antagonistic tone to the atheist community; there’s some dissonance there that discredits your message, since apparently you aren’t going to practice what you preach.

It’s nice that you’re leaving comments on other blogs. The problem is that none of those comments have actually answered any of our criticisms. Is it just easier to answer questions that some people imagine that we’ve asked? If you’re serious about trying to understand why we criticize, maybe you’d be best off paying attention to what we say are the basis of our criticisms, rather than what people who don’t share our views are claiming are our reasons.

Finally, he quotes the transcript of his interview on NPR: Are we asking scientists to be advocates? To spin false information? Read the transcript. So I read the transcript. It seems to be the kind of thing the Nisbet Fan Club would find satisfying, but it raises yet more objections in my mind — it’s like the man is talking about the politics in Tibet, while I’m asking about the weather in Croatia. It doesn’t help, and it only confirms that I can’t expect much assistance from the “framers”.

Once again, I state my problems with that interview.

You would think folks like PZ et al, who are professional educators, would know that “Framing” is what you do all the time in teaching, especially in teaching classes for non-science students.

You would think…so why is the ‘framing’ message precisely the opposite, that we don’t know squat?

Notice, though, what Nisbet says:

You start recasting the issue in ways that are still true to the science but, in fact, actually you’re not talking about the science.

That is not my interest or my mission, and in a lot of ways I see that as the antithesis of my mission. I do not go into the classroom and say, “Genetics is really important! Here’s why you need to learn it! There might be a job in it for you some day!”, and on and on for a semester, without ever actually telling them what genetics is or how it works. What Nisbet is describing are cheerleaders, not players or participants in the process.

He is not laying out an appropriate role for scientists.

We do take into account the knowledge base of our audience. We do try to explain matters at an appropriate level, and we aspire to making it enjoyable. We do tell stories in the classroom. But one thing absolutely essential to who we are and what we do is explain how we know what we know, and why the evidence leads us in specific directions. Asking us to avoid doing that completely misses our strengths and our interests — it’s like complaining that construction workers aren’t good realtors, and for those of us with some pride in our discipline, it’s an affront.


  1. #1 sailor
    April 19, 2007

    Humans frame automatically, we change our facial expressions and the way we speak according to the audience.
    Maybe some of these framing tech guys can offer somthing useful we have not thought of. If they stand the test of being right they will be adopted.
    This idea of bending over backwards till you can see uranus would not seem to be the way to go. Poeple make their judgements according to the information that they receive. As more and more information comes out into the public arena in favor of athiesm and the faults of things like ID, so the whole balence of where the norm is changes. We desperately need it to change away from fantasy to reality. This is why Dawkins and Harris are doing a great job, and what is more important than framing is that scientists are willing to speak and stand up and be counted. That in the long run will be the most effective.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    April 19, 2007

    (Cross-posted at EvolutionBlog.)

    I woke up this morning from a dream in which fr*ming was mixed up with smuggling conflict diamonds. Maybe I need to take a vacation from the Internet.

    But before I do that, I’d like to remind everybody of Sean Carroll’s remarks:

    I’m sympathetic to the argument that atheists shouldn’t be obnoxious and insulting; in fact, I think it’s a good strategy in all sorts of situations. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, etc. But it does not follow that we should keep quiet about comforting illusions because those are the only things standing between the poor dears and overwhelming existential anxiety. If people ask whether, as scientists, we believe in God, we should respect them enough to tell the truth — whatever we think that is. That doesn’t mean we have to go door-to-door spreading the good word of the laws of nature. It just means that we should be honest about what we actually think, giving the best arguments we have for whatever that may be, and let people decide for themselves what to believe.

    Arrogant or not, as a matter of fact Dawkins and company have done a great service to the cause of atheism: they have significantly shifted the Overton Window. That’s the notion, borrowed from public-policy debates, of the spectrum of “acceptable opinion” on an issue. At any given time, on any particular question, the public discourse will implicitly deem certain positions to be respectable and worthy of civilized debate, and other positions to be crazy and laughable. The crucial part of this idea is that the window can be shifted by vigorous advocacy of positions on one extreme. And that’s just what Dawkins has done.

    Carroll provides some evidence to support this claim, which is nice.

    So, one can justify being a Dawkinsian using sociological concepts, or one can demand that Dawkins shut his yap-hole for sociological reasons. This is an excellent example of the reason why I, despite my interest in human beings, went into physics. As Tom Lehrer once sang,

    They can snow all their clients
    By calling it “science” —
    Although it’s only sociology!

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    April 19, 2007

    Over at EvolutionBlog, both Tyler DiPietro and I have suggested that we get back to useful and fun things like Egnor-bashing. Really. Nothing practical is going to come out of this fr*ming talk — nothing practical has come out of it except Greg Laden’s suggestion, way back when, that we say “evolutionary biology” instead of “evolutionary theory”. (My suggestion: “principle of evolution” rather than “theory of evolution”. Your mileage may vary.)

  4. #4 eewolf
    April 19, 2007

    Matt Nismet: “We are not asking that you or Dawkins stop talking. As I posted over at Greg Laden’s blog and as we wrote in the WPost, there will always be a small audience for science and a small audience for criticism of religion.”

    If the point is to spread science and rational thought further, to educate, it would seem that the goal is to increase the audience. If we accept the foregone conclusion that science and rationality will always have a small audience, then why bother?

    It seems they are arguing that you can win political battles by “framing” without delivering the science. What good is that? I don’t even want that. What good is winning some short-term political goals without real education? Your wins will just get rolled back with the tide.

    And the statement is condescending to Mr. Dawkins and Mr. Myers in the extreme. And every other scientist making an effort to educate. “Go ahead and write for your small static audience and let us take care of the rest.”

    Bugger off.

  5. #5 Steve LaBonne
    April 19, 2007

    They’re just proving Greg Laden’s point- that they’ve given up on real long-term atttitudinal change before they even start, and consequently can’t see their way to anything but very short-term tactical maneuvers.

    BTW How many books has Richard Dawkins sold? How many has Chris Mooney sold? Small audience??

  6. #6 Colst
    April 19, 2007

    “Carroll provides some evidence to support this claim, which is nice.”

    He may be right, but I don’t see his evidence. His claim is that the more recent “God vs. Science” title shows progress past the “Science Finds God” title, and that you never would have seen “God vs. Science” only a few years earlier. He neglects a few things. For example, the actual “Science Finds God” article speaks of “those two old warhorses science and religion” and points to a number of conflicts between the two.

    Also, Time ran a story “Reconciling God and Science” only a few months before running “God vs. Science.” Both in title and content, it’s fairly similar to Newsweek’s “Science Finds God.” Did Dawkins shift the Overton window in only a few months, or might it be that comparing *two* magazine articles doesn’t really constitute evidence?

  7. #7 David Wilford
    April 19, 2007

    Blake S., thanks for the reminder about Sean Carroll’s previous words on the subject. It isn’t about finding one overarching “frame” as much as making sure that your message is heard by your audience. That’s how I think of “framing” – it’s not about whether the message is truthful or understood, but that it just gets a chance to be heard. D’Souza and his ilk demonize Dawkins because they want to deny him a certain audience (basically people of faith), which doesn’t say much for the confidence they place in their veracity of their own arguments.

  8. #8 David Wilford
    April 19, 2007

    Um, if Nisbet thinks there’s only a “small audience” for books on the critisism of religion, he’s missing a few thousand years worth of words written on the subject.

    It’s about time we had some books on the subject of religion from atheist writers like Dawkins and Dennett available in bookstores and displayed in the Religion section. You have to start somewhere, and as I recall Martin Luther only had a few pathetic pages worth of writing on the subject of religion nailed to a door when he first started out.

  9. #9 PZ Myers
    April 19, 2007

    I’m a little exasperated with the shenanigans over there. Again, Nisbet belittles Dawkins’ sales figures to tout his own influence, in a way that’s getting awfully close to lying with statistics.

    Here’s my comment, that will pop up over there when Nisbet approves it:

    You did it again!

    In a combined and easily read 2000 words, we reached a targeted audience of more than a 1 million who subscribe to Science world wide, and a Sunday readership in the U.S. capital of roughly a million. On top of that, we reached directly the audience at 200 NPR affiliates across the country.

    (Again, just like with the 200,000 who bought Dawkins book, we can’t be sure how many people actually read the piece.)

    You belittle Dawkins by saying he sold “only” 200,000 books, and compare that to the millions who heard you talk in an interview. Are you just ignoring the fact that Dawkins has also been interviewed on the radio in many different markets, reaching far more people than you have? That he has written multiple op-eds, and that others have written op-eds both criticizing and defending him? You keep pulling this strange sleight of hand where you mention his success as an author and then diminish it by saying that many might not have read it, or it was only read by those who are favorably disposed, and you ignore all the other opportunities he has to spread his message that were opened up by the success of the book, but you don’t apply the same qualifiers to your own efforts at outreach on your issues.

    On a personal level, something similar was brought to my attention. Orac, who said something you favored, has an “immensely popular” blog. When I’m mentioned, I have a “small corner of the blogosphere”. You are truly a master of framing.

    However, the bias is overt and more than a little distracting. I see a complete absence of impartiality here, when every metric you bring up is strongly skewed by a combination of rhetoric and inappropriate comparisons.

    It’s more than a little weird. How am I supposed to trust his assessments when it’s like watching the symbols on a one-armed bandit fly by? Does he think Dawkins has never been published in a major newspaper or been interviewed on NPR?

  10. #10 Blake Stacey
    April 19, 2007

    Wasn’t Richard Dawkins on the Colbert Report last October? (The Report had 1.13 million viewers for its premiere episode.) And didn’t he have an Op-Ed in the LA Times this past January? (Daily circulation: 770,000.) I seem to remember some intense ScienceBlogging about that one.

  11. #11 Blake Stacey
    April 19, 2007

    Dawkins was interviewed on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Friday 6 October 2006.

    Current Technorati ranking for Pharyngula: 290 (12,386 links from 2,519 blogs).

    For Respectful Insolence: 3,502 (2,712 links from 686 blogs).

    Now, I love ’em both. But something isn’t right here.

  12. #12 Mark
    April 19, 2007

    Once the “framers” reach the level of public consciousness that Dawkins has had to reach in order to be spoofed on South Park, maybe we can talk again about many people he reaches vs the “framers.”

  13. #13 Scholar
    April 19, 2007

    Dawkins also starred in South Park. Nisbert = Politico.

  14. #14 Blake Stacey
    April 19, 2007

    Greg Laden:

    I’m totally on board with your proposed phrasing change. It is, I think, one of the few concrete ideas to have come out of this whole brouhaha (and remember how long ago you suggested it?). I also like the idea of replacing “theory” in other contexts, such as changing “theory of evolution” to “law” or “principle”, which have lofty, moral-sounding connotations. Other suggestions are, naturally, welcome.

    One last comment, and then I at least will shut up. Everybody does realize that “framing” justifies calling people “Neville Chamberlain atheists”, right?

    The reasoning is straightforward:

    To a person equipped with a decent public-school education, stronger on names and dates than subtleties of motivation, “Neville Chamberlain atheist” is not a bad phrase. It succinctly evokes the spectacle of backing down before a great evil. A person who hears it isn’t likely to forget it, and most of the book-buying public have the high-school history background necessary to understand the reference. It sells the case.

    Now, why might we not like that? I can identify two cases:

    1. Historical inaccuracy. We can say, if we are so inclined, that the picture given us in high school history class is not an accurate portrayal of Chamberlain or the situation of his time. This boils down to saying that the frame is not rooted in the facts.

    2. Contemporary inaccuracy. We could also say that the image of “backing down before a great evil” is not the appropriate way to visualize what people are doing today. In the struggle for rational thought, perhaps the effects of the people called “appeasers” are not what their detractors claim.

    #1 and #2 are, for all practical purposes, independent of one another. A history buff can agree with #1 but dispute #2: “Yeah, we shouldn’t call them Chamberlain atheists, but what they’re doing is still not right.” Contrariwise, an “appeaser” can think they’re doing the right thing and think the Chamberlain appellation is satisfactory (people who put “proud Neville Chamberlain atheist” stickers on their blogs may be doing this).

    The case #1 argument against the “Chamberlain” accusation is, in essence, the argument that a useful frame unsupported by the facts is a bad thing.

    Both Orac and PZ have voiced their distaste for the “Chamberlain” moniker. I believe their arguments both fall into case #1; they may differ on #2. In conclusion, then, the argument against this terminology is that it is bad framing, or more specifically that the divergence of frame from fact is too severe to be redeemed by rhetorical usefulness.

    (I wrote the Chamberlain stuff at Respectful Insolence and was too lazy to rewrite it, so I’m copying it here and at Good Math, Bad Math.)

  15. #15 sailor
    April 19, 2007

    “It’s more than a little weird. How am I supposed to trust his assessments when it’s like watching the symbols on a one-armed bandit fly by? Does he think Dawkins has never been published in a major newspaper or been interviewed on NPR?”

    Maybe framing looked at another way can be spelt jelousy?

  16. #16 PZ Myers
    April 19, 2007

    I’m actually going to say something positive about “framing”.

    Read this article on Nisbet’s blog.

    You know, I couldn’t find anything objectionable in it, and quite a bit that was very sensible. He says the Discovery Institute has been good in the past about using them (I think they’re slipping badly lately, though) and that what we have to do is preempt the malicious use of frames by our opponents by coming up with persuasive elements of our own. That’s an argument I could accept. The problem with the Science and WaPo opinion pieces is that he went beyond that into prescribing the content of our message, and basically took sides…and the side wasn’t mine! If only the unwarranted sniping at atheists had been left out of this mess throughout.

    There is still a shortage of specific examples, though. Being exhorted to do a better job of persuading people is OK, but what’s still missing is an explanation of how to frame something, other than doing the ever popular kick Richard Dawkins in the crotch, which wins people over all the time.

  17. #17 PZ Myers
    April 19, 2007

    Well, Blake, I can still dislike the term and at the same time think that people who label themselves “proud Neville Chamberlain atheists” are twits who deserve the title.

    I disliked the term when I read The God Delusion because I still had a delusion of my own — that there could be something like a freethought community where we’d at least all agree that organized religion was a problem. I could understand where Dawkins was looking for a label to distinguish a certain strain of thinking within that community, but he picked one that was excessively pejorative. Then, of course, the appeasers embraced it as an opportunity to spit on the despised atheists and make common cause with the religious, so it was definitely bad framing, if maybe a good thing anyway — they were so damned enthusiastic about cozying up to the gospel-wallopers that they weren’t very trustworthy allies anyway.

    The experience was very consciousness-raising.

  18. #18 Blake Stacey
    April 19, 2007


    Well, Blake, I can still dislike the term and at the same time think that people who label themselves “proud Neville Chamberlain atheists” are twits who deserve the title.

    In that situation, I’d probably settle for calling the people in question “twits”, rather than keeping alive a term which is (in Orac’s words) vile and idiotic. But hey. To each ‘is own.

    The people who defend the Nisbet-Mooney papers by saying that “all communication is (or involves) framing” miss the point: OK, fine, all communication is framing, so one is the other and the other is one. . . You’re just inventing jargon!

    Larry Moran might say, “Communication is good, but communication which involves framing is bad.” Others would say, “Framing is good, but framing which descends into spin is bad.” The content of these two statements is, as far as I can tell, exactly the same, once you figure out how people are using the words they choose.

    Whether you’re dividing speech between communication and framing or between framing and spin, I don’t really care. Either way, you’ve got to draw a line beyond which statements become, well, vile and idiotic. Has the Mooney-Nisbet paper in Science, their newspaper op-ed or any of the blog posts on this topic helped draw that line or clarify where it should be placed? For me, no.

  19. #19 Ichthyic
    April 19, 2007

    It’s the elementary and highschool science teachers who need to promote science as something worthwhile.

    actually, they too typically do a good job for the most part.

    what I’d like to see is the goddamn government promoting science as worthwhile.

    can you see chimpy mcgrin leading the crusade for good science education?

    thought not.

    If public officials would start to openly speak about the importance of good science (including evolutionary biology) even to just the damn economy, rather than worrying about offending some religious voting block, we could make some real progress in public attitudes, I think.

    so far, very few have had the courage to stand up and do so, however (or their just dumb as a box of hammers, like in GW’s case).

  20. #20 Blake Stacey
    April 19, 2007

    Side note:

    The following excerpt from Orac’s “Hitler Zombie massacre” post is what I had in mind for my “case #1” critique above.

    It can be argued that the scorn heaped on Chamberlain’s name is not completely fair, because at the time his people overwhelmingly opposed war, and the memory of the mass carnage of World War I contributed to a desire in Chamberlain and the British public at large to avoid another big war almost at all costs. Even the U.S. approved of Chamberlain’s deal. Also, at this point, it was not yet clear that Hitler could not be bargained with.

    As a fellow who got just about the best public-school education an American student could reasonably hope for, including two years of AP history classes (European and United States), I can say from personal experience that a goodly number of well-rounded, book-buying people do not appreciate this. They know the names and dates, roughly speaking, and are therefore vulnerable to memetic infection.

    Know thy audience, indeed.

  21. #21 Ethan
    April 20, 2007

    I just want to pop in a little defense of Dawkins and the claim that he only preaches to the converted – it’s just not true, and I can personally attest. A year ago right now I was a theist and believed in god. I was very well educated in religion, having gone to Orthodox Jewish schools my entire life up until college, spending literally 4 hours every day studying the Bible and Talmud.

    My first real foray into the arguments that atheism held came from Professor Dawkins, and I will be grateful to him for as long as I can imagine. Now that I’ve soaked up much more rationalistic philosophy and epistemology, I have my disagreements with the man, but he was the one who flipped me. He made me realize that atheism wasn’t just a ‘doubt’ which is natural in this world that God made, but it was the actual compelling worldview.

    Sometimes you need to be slapped across the face and be told “hey, what you believe is insane, and I’m going to explain it as clearly as I can.” This approach may not work for everyone, but it worked for me, and you won’t find anyone in American who grew up in a more religious atmosphere and educational environment than me. Hell, at the end of high school I could practically speak Aramaic, that’s how much we studied the bible and its commentaries. And now I’m an atheist, and a quite happy one.

    So yeah, Dawkins’ does work.

  22. #22 Greg Laden
    April 20, 2007


    I would argue that if the whole framing conversation had been initiated by a scientist, science educator or at least someone who had actually been involved with science communication and knew something about it, it probably would not have turned out the way it has.

    True that, bro.

    But if we now have a conversation we can move into productive territory.

    Ethan: Wow. You just better pray Dawkins is right!!!!

  23. #23 Mike Haubrich
    April 20, 2007

    There is still a shortage of specific examples, though. Being exhorted to do a better job of persuading people is OK, but what’s still missing is an explanation of how to frame something, other than doing the ever popular kick Richard Dawkins in the crotch, which wins people over all the time.

    As a person who is actively involved in politics, I get the idea behind framing. It is a matter of changing the level of discourse to make clear a complicated concept, and to do it persuasively so that people come round to a specific POV. The modern progressive framing is a reaction to the conservative framing that has been going on for 30 years (a planned response to the general public’s disenchantment with conservatives following Watergate.)

    So, here, from what I read of Mooney and Nesbitt, is an opportunity to counter the anti-science movement of the religious right, and the goofy far left. I mean countering the idea that science is anti-humanity, that it is unconstrained by ethics and only seeks to destroy faith, or seeks to make us GM-engineered soylent-green-eating post-modern masses.

    I don’t think that they should be putting the onus on science educators to re-frame; it really falls on the science popularizers to do a better job of shifting the discourse, whether this means that Mooney and Nesbitt themselves need to stop talking about framing and actually do some framing, or if it means that we need to book Zimmer for as many speaking engagements as possible.

    I fail to see how attempts to “muzzle” strong atheists to help increase respect for science is supposed to help. If some people don’t like Dawkins message, then that’s tough noogies, isn’t it? If religious framers want to make the equation that “real science = atheism”, then it is still on the public at large to forcefully break that meme.

    Atheism is a result of critical and skeptical thinking, just as science is a process that relies on critical and skeptical thinking; but one doesn’t automatically lead to the other (as much as I would hope that it should.) Muzzling Dawkins, Dennett, Stenger and the host of this dear blog doesn’t fix that meme. It only gives aid and comfort to the people that are trying to make the connection.

    Framing, in this context, is only going to be based on guesswork. It will be a piecemeal approach to a societal problem. The social sciences, as far as they have come in bringing about some understanding of human interactions, are still in their infancy. More effort should be made to understand why, using scientific methods, science is always fighting uphill battles for public acceptance.

    Imagine a doctor faced with a disease that is poorly understood. It kind of seems like influenza, but the doctor isn’t sure exactly whether it’s viral, genetic or caused by a staph. Would it be prudent to throw a bunch of cures at the disease without finding the cause? The reason that Mooney and Nesbitt can’t be specific enough about what they want PZ to do is because we still really don’t understand the cause. We can guess, but suppose our guesses make the disease worse? Suppose even an aspirin, such as trying to muzzle the atheists, reduces the fever so that natural cures are suppressed?

    Science isn’t up against religion only, it is up against indifference in a world obsessed with celebrity and celebrities’ personal lives, war, religion and marketing.

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