As expected, the Laden/Myers tag team utterly crushed the Nisbet/Mooney team. The decision was unanimous. Only a few crazy people might have found the framers at all persuasive. (It helps, too, that Nisbet/Mooney are on a plane flying away and won’t be able to get out their side of the story until later, and even when they do, my blog has more traffic than theirs. I win! Hey, maybe this framing stuff has some virtues.)

If you want an independent account, look in the comments. The whole shebang was taped, so I presume it will be online at some time in the near future. And hey, guess what? Your own decision based on the evidence will be far more important than any framing I try to do — so I’ll win on principle no matter what!

My general impression is that Nisbet and Mooney went out of their way to avoid triggering any conflict — they didn’t bring up evolution at all in their parts of the discussion, which was a little odd. After all, that’s where both Greg and I would be strongest, and where our differences would be greatest, and by trying to draw us into arguments about climate change we’d be a little out of our depth…oh, wait, maybe there was a method to their madness after all. Unfortunately for them, Greg and I ignored the bait and talked about evolution education anyway. They also avoided the dreaded subject of atheism until it was dragged out by a question (good work, Rieux). Chris also did a little song and dance about the People’s Front of Judea/Judean People’s Front to claim that our differences were minimal. Their efforts to defuse any possibility of conflict reeked of fear and desperation (←note framing.)

They still push this idea that scientists are poor communicators, however, and that what they call the “popular science” paradigm is a failure. The “popular science” approach is to actually try and correct people’s ignorance about scientific matters, and through education, to try and generate a science-literate citizenry that won’t fall for the bunkum. We heard several times that people are “cognitive misers” who won’t learn, which, again, is simply an admission of defeat. It also ignores the peculiar problem of evolutionary biology, which is accepted by those “cognitive misers” of Canada and Europe, and in which America is a weird outlier in its rejection by approximately half the population. We have all these counter-cases in which we can’t claim that the populace was snookered into accepting a basic principle of science by pandering to religious values.

For my part, I gave my short definition of framing: a method of persuading people who don’t know anything to trust you. Neither Mooney nor Nisbet objected in their replies, so I’ll assume they didn’t find that false. I said that the real difference here is that the framers focus on the “trust you” part of the definition, and think that’s where the important effort should be exerted…which is fine. Trust is nice. However, the scientists and educators are seeing the “people who don’t know anything” part and noting that framing seems to be a band-aid of rhetoric slapped on the real problem, and that all this talk of framing and appearances and who you’d like to have a beer with does nothing to correct public ignorance, which is the central problem here. We want to produce a science-literate nation, not merely a country that blithely and uncomprehendingly likes science.

I showed the usual horrific statistics from polls that show there is a problem, that half the country gives the wrong answer to the issue of evolution. I argued that the problem is caused by a dreadful synergy of declining quality of K-12 education, an active and malicious religion that benefits from ignorance, and partisan politics that exploits that religious bloc with promises to, from a scientist’s perspective, worsen the problem. Framing evades the root causes. My solution is to support more and better education. We need activist parents on the secular side getting out there and giving teachers the aid they need to oppose the encroachment of the religious on education; we also need more money, more teachers, and better standards in our schools. I admitted that we aren’t going to see odious religion dry up and blow away, but we can do the next best alternative: we can build a well-organized secular and anti-religious constituency to oppose the religious monstrosity lurking in our midst. And that secular constituency will also add a new factor to the calculus of political triangulation and might get us a few politicians who will pander to us with plans to fix the problems.

Those aren’t trivial suggestions, and it’s hard work all the way to implement them. I think they are more substantive answers than trying to “frame” our ideas in the terms the religious and the right-wing like to hear them, which seems to me to be a strategy for reinforcing the authority of the sources of our difficulties, trading short-term and probably temporary gains for long-term buttressing of the institutions that are wrecking us.

Greg Laden made several points that I’m sure he’ll reiterate on his blog soon enough. Scientists are not bad communicators; there’s a wide range of ability of course, but to claim that scientists as a whole don’t know how to express themselves in public is simply wrong. He also argued that we are in a culture war, and that we’ve been the target of a sustained attack for many years; to simply declare that we’ll embrace our attackers’ language now and find reconciliation in their terms is an act of surrender. I don’t think framing productively addresses the structural problems we now confront as a consequence of that attack.

One point we did not make, but probably should have, is that framing is going to be opposed by counter-framing, and the other side is very good at that. It shifts the debate into competing rhetoric, where we have no particular advantage, and away from arguing from evidence, which as we all know, has a well-established liberal/progressive bias.

Mooney and Nisbet said a bunch of stuff that amounted to the argument that people will drink a beer with people with whom they would like to drink a beer, which I don’t disagree with at all — I just find it unproductive and missing the whole point of the argument. It’s not the job of science and scientists to make people comfortable; often our job must be to tell people about change and new ideas and that what they believe is actually wrong.

I’m sure Nisbet/Mooney will have their own take on the debate that they’ll post later in an effort to spin it into a victory for their position. Do not be swayed. I’m telling you first and loudest that we won.


  1. #1 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 29, 2007

    It’s not the job of science and scientists to make people comfortable; often our job must be to tell people about change and new ideas and that what they believe is actually wrong.

    Agreed. But I wouldn’t take it as far as to suggest that science is necessarily confrontational against everyone. For one, most literate people and politicians are on board with the science project if not its details. And as AJ Milne reminds us, people are basically curious, and curious people are eager to find out and even change ideas when necessary.

    We should concentrate on the positive, so we should sweeten the medicine with a lot of gusto. I’m thinking of Sagan and similar presenters, of course. The basic problem is that age and education conspire to extinguish genuine curiosity except in the hardy few.

    [Okay, so that wasn't a positive end. I just saw the two first episodes of Eureka!, and realized that the era of science portrayal (really, the larger era of "nerds") is drawing to an end. And its nowhere near the charming atmosphere and mystery of Twin Peaks, at least not yet. So parodies of science (and nerds) are now "the new formula" to evoke a dying interest.

    Proof positive that (some) change and new ideas sucks. :-P]