The Framing Fracas

I really had intended for Tuesday’s dog pictures to be my only comment on the recent framing debacle (well, Monday’s expertise post was an oblique commentary on it, but nobody got that, which you can tell because the comments were civil and intelligent and interesting to read). But Chris Mooney is making a good-faith effort to clear things up with his current series, including an effort to define common ground, and he’s getting absolutely pounded, for no good reason.

I think Chris and Matt Nisbet have made some tactical errors in making their case to ScienceBlogs, chief among them forgetting the first rule of Internet debate: Do Not Engage With Screechy Monkeys. However, I think they’re more right than wrong, and I really hate to see Chris getting buried in monkey dung, so I’ll speak up in his support.

I have absolutely no illusions that this will do any good, beyond possibly lifting Chris’s spirits– there’s no reasoning with screechy monkeys. I’m also not fool enough to believe that this is a captivating subject to my regular readers, so I’m going to put the bulk of it below the fold. If you care about this mess, read on; if you don’t, I’ll post about something more in my usual range shortly, so wait for that.

Mooney’s common ground post lays out the basic “framing” argument well and concisely, so I encourage you to read the whole thing. The key point of contention seems to be point number 6:

6. Rather, you have to pare down these highly complex issues–or “frame” them–selectively highlighting just those aspects of the issue that will resonate with the core values of the particular audience (and there are different audiences, of course, and different frames will work for them).

Reading some of the comments in response to this, you would think that he had suggested that the key to science was sacrificing unbaptized children to Baal. This is idiotic.

The closest thing to a reasonable argument against this point is that it is somehow unscientific to “frame” your results differently for different audiences. That sounds all high-minded and rational, but it’s disingenuous twaddle.

If you are even remotely successful as a scientist, you use “framing.” Possibly without calling it that, but you’ve used it.

If you’ve ever given a public lecture, you’ve used framing.

If you’ve ever taught an undergraduate class on your research area, you’ve used framing.

If you’ve ever written a successful research grant, you’ve used framing.

Framing is an absolutely essential part of science as it is practiced in the real world, dating back to the very foundations of the field. Galileo justified his research into motion with military applications, Newton applied his calculus to problems of navigation and calculations of longitude– they were among the first scientists worthy of the name, and they used framing.

The essence of the technique is there in Chris’s point #6: “highlighting just those aspects of the [scientific] issue that will resonate with the core values of the particular audience.” There is absolutely nothing there that ought to be controversial– this is essential to the practice of science.

When someone at a party asks me what I do, I don’t talk about the thorny details of vacuum pumps and laser diodes– I say that I trap single atoms in order to do background measurements for next-generation neutrino detectors. They don’t care about the technical stuff, and telling them about it would clear the room. They want to know what it’s good for.

When I talk about laser cooling to first-year students, I don’t go on about fundamental tests of quantum symmetries– they don’t know enough to care about that. I tell them that laser cooling leads to better atomic clocks, which are useful for GPS navigation. It gives them a concrete reason to care about the subject.

(It’s not like this is some brilliant scheme I came up with to hoodwink college frosh, either– I copied it from Bill Phillips’s public lectures. He’s got a Nobel Prize, so it’s not like he’s some second-rate hack scientist…)

When I wrote my NSF grant application, I didn’t just blather on about the wonders of basic curiosity-driven research. I wrote an application saying “This is a thing I can do, and this is what it’s good for.” That’s how you get funding, even in areas of basic research– saying “we should study decoherence because quantum mechanics is really cool” gets you nothing, while “we should study decoherence because it might allow us to build a quantum computer” gets you great big checks from the National Security Agency.

It’s not lying– you don’t claim to be able to do anything you can’t do. It’s not fraud– you don’t make up any data that don’t exist. It’s just framing–”highlighting just those aspects of the [scientific] issue that will resonate with the core values of the particular audience”– and it’s what scientists do, at least if they’re any good at their jobs.

So the claim that framing is somehow counter to the principles of science is just disingenuous. And that’s the best argument I’ve seen advanced against the concept– the rest of the attempts to refute Chris’s points are just breathtakingly stupid. I’m particularly amused by the various attempts to decry Chris’s list as insulting to the general public because when he calls for simplifying the presentation of complex issues, he’s saying they’re too dumb to handle science. This is rich coming from a crowd of people who are throwing a poo-flinging tantrum because Matt Nisbet had the gall to suggest that it might be politically savvy to refrain from calling religious people stupid, brainwashed sheep. Yeah, you’re high-minded defenders of the common man. And I’m the Queen of Terebithia.

There shouldn’t be anything remotely controversial about Mooney and Nisbet’s basic thesis. It’s simple, obvious, and already part of general scientific practice. It’s blown up into a giant shitstorm because they apply it to a particular set of political issues in a way that produces implications that run counter to the preferences of a vocal group of bloggers. Those bloggers and commenters don’t like what they’re hearing, so they invent reasons to not take it seriously. The more socially presentable ones offer disingenuous arguments about scientific honesty and rigor, or post long, disingenuous articles in which they claim to be mystified as to what Nisbet could possibly mean, and endlessly request more detail. Those lacking in social graces gibber and scream and fling feces about.

The essential problem here is a conflict of goals. Mooney and Nisbet are policy wonks at heart, and their goal is to see public policy issues handled in a way that is more in accord with the current scientific consensus. To that end, they advocate positive engagement with a diverse coalition of people, and the pitching of scientific concerns in a way that engages the self-interest of those groups.

It’s just plain sense. You don’t sell environmentalism to hunters by talking about the dignity of life and species diversity, you sell it by saying “If we wreck the environment, there won’t be anything left for you to hunt.”

Along with this, they recognize that a great many people are religious, and that religious themes are a possible tool that can be used to engage these people in a positive way. Or, at the very least, that an effective approach to gaining the support of religious people on self-interested grounds has to include not offending their religious sensibilities, which argues for a muting of anti-religion rhetoric.

On the other side, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and the army of screechy monkeys have the destruction of religion as their primary goal. They may see it as a step toward the ultimate triumph of science, but their primary concern in the here and now is not the immediate achievement of a concrete set of political goals, but directly assaulting religion. As such, they absolutely reject any suggestion that they tone down the anti-religion rhetoric. Offending the sensibilities of religious people is the whole point, as far as they’re concerned. If it blocks immediate progress, well, that just serves to heighten the contradictions, and hasten the eventual demise of religion. Or something in that kind of Marxist/ Naderite vein.

They don’t buy what Mooney and Nisbet are selling because they don’t have the same goals as Mooney and Nisbet. Who are absolutely right, by the way, given their relatively narrow policy goals– if you want to effect concrete change for the better now, not in some post-Revolutionary atheist utopia, the way to do it is by speaking to people in a manner consistent with their core beliefs and concerns. If you’re pitching environmentalism to religious people, you grit your teeth and say “stewardship,” and smile politely when they talk about Jesus.

I applaud the efforts of Mooney and Nisbet to take their message to the general public and the broader population of scientists. I understand and vaguely admire their attempts to bring it to ScienceBlogs, but I fear they’re ultimately futile because of this goal mismatch. There’s just no way to frame around this– the two sides want different things. No matter how many times Mooney and Nisbet dig their way out of the piles of crap thrown in their direction, they’re not going to get the conversation they want, because the other side isn’t interested in having that conversation.

And, frankly, I no longer think the other side is worth talking to. I have largely disengaged myself from that side of ScienceBlogs– I don’t subscribe to their RSS feeds, I don’t read their posts, and I pretty much try to do my own thing. I can do that because there’s very little overlap between my core concerns and theirs– I don’t give a damn about the religious outrage-of-the-moment, and they don’t care about physics or academic politics. Mooney and Nisbet can’t really disengage, because the intersection of science and politics is what they’re all about. Which is why we get the current sorry spectacle.

I wish I had something constructive to offer to Chris and Matt, but alas, I don’t. All I can really offer is a sympathetic word– I think what they’re saying is important, and I applaud their efforts with the general public.

(You may note that I haven’t mentioned the Expelled incident, which was the proximate cause of the recent outbreak. That’s because it’s just that– the proximate cause of a particular flare-up of a larger and older argument. We had a giant go-round about “framing” a year or more ago, which is more or less when I decided to wash my hands of the whole affair.

(As it happens, I think Mooney and Nisbet are wrong on the details of the particular case– the “any publicity is good publicity” argument only goes so far, and the utter buffoonery of the Myers/ Dawkins incident is well past the point where the makers of the film could gain any real benefit from it.

(I think they’re right about the larger picture, though, given what they’re trying to accomplish, hence this post. I also don’t think much of the chosen tactics of the militant atheists for accomplishing their primary goals, but however misguided they are, they’re at least self-consistent. And that’s an argument I’ve made elsewhere, for what little good it does.

(Some wit will no doubt point out that referring to the anti-framing commenters as screechy monkeys isn’t the most productive way to engage them. This is true, but it makes the mistake of assuming I’m trying to persuade them or engage them in conversation. I’m not– I’m just saying what’s on my mind about the current mess, and I think the response to Chris’s recent posts has been deplorable, but sadly typical.)

Comments

  1. #1 Thony C.
    April 3, 2008

    Prof. Orzel wrote:

    Newton applied his calculus to problems of navigation and calculations of longitude–

    No he didn’t! He sat on the Board of Logitude and passed judgement on other peoples suggestions for determining longitude at sea but he himself did no work in this field either with or without his calculus (as should be well known but isn’t, he wrote the Principia without).

    Although I disagree with you on several of your major points I find that you have made a very reasonable and very well argued contribution to the debate on framing which is more than can be said for many of the commentators, as you so correctly point out.

  2. #2 Alex Palazzo
    April 3, 2008

    I completely agree. I’ve stayed out of the fight as well although I’ve been tempted to write something resembling this post.

    To those who think that scientists don’t frame: go read Thomas Kuhn and replace “paradigm” with “frame”.

  3. #3 SteveF
    April 3, 2008

    Yes.

  4. #4 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 3, 2008

    Thank you, Chad. That was an extremely cogent essay that you just provided. I very strongly agree.

    I also agree with Alex Palazzo’s comment, especially as I’ve used Thomas Kuhn’s most famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) as a textbook for an intensive week-long class that I taught over a dozen times to adult students in the Elderhostel program. Men, women, blue-collar, white collar, from all over North America, they all “got it” and were able to apply the paradigm (framing) approach to their presentations to the class on the crises in the modern world, how they are related, and what might be done.

  5. #5 Ahcuah
    April 3, 2008

    If you are even remotely successful as a scientist, you use “framing.” Possibly without calling it that, but you’ve used it.

    If you’ve ever given a public lecture, you’ve used framing.

    If you’ve ever taught an undergraduate class on your research area, you’ve used framing.

    If you’ve ever written a successful research grant, you’ve used framing.

    All true. But those apply when your audience has been winnowed (as for the examples you give). What do you do when your venue is a blog? The audience is (potentially) everybody.

    Nisbet’s solution (and I agree that Mooney has somehow been unfairly englobbed in it) appears to be: “Go stifle yourself.”

    I absolutely agree that framing is done and needs to be done. I’ll even grant the possibility that, in some areas of the topic, Nisbet is an expert. I’d love to see examples that illustrate how to do so effectively, and what sorts of techniques work better than others, all based on rigorous (or at least as rigorous as these sorts of sciences can be) evidence and studies. But then I regularly see Nisbet throwing dung-bombs, which say to me that he really doesn’t know how to frame, after all (and which lead me to consider the possibility that he has no scientific backing at all).

    Going back to the Expelled fiasco, I want to see something scientific. And that means falsifiable predictions. Ask the uber-scientific question: “How can we tell if we are wrong?” If Nisbet is right, there ought to be something testable I can use to tell.

    Okay, so he ought to be able to make a prediction about what will be different because Myers was expelled. Admittedly, we cannot do controls or the like, but surely Nisbet can make a prediction, predicated on his framing expertise, that would be non-obvious to us non-experts (just as you could make a surprising prediction of quantum effects non-obvious to non-experts) that would allow us to be re-assured of his work. And I don’t see that at all. It’s all just “I’m the expert and therefore trust me.” That’s about as unscientific as it gets.

    And that’s why, while I agree with the general concept of framing, I have little confidence in Nisbet’s presentation of it. Mooney is seeing the forest of the general concept, and missing the tree of Nisbet’s implementation of it.

  6. #6 Orac
    April 3, 2008

    Your example of the need to use framing for grant-writing example is the most telling one to me. Every scientist who’s ever applied for and successfully obtained external funding has used framing–and that includes me, because I am currently NIH-funded. Indeed, it hasn’t escaped my notice that some of the most vociferous contempt for the concept of framing seems to come from tenured scientist-bloggers whose livelihood does not depend upon obtaining grants and thus who do not themselves regularly have to compete for external grant funding. It’s still odd, though, because these bloggers do still have to teach, and yet still can’t seem to accept that framing is necessary for teaching as well. Moreover, even though they would deny it to the high heavens, they routinely frame issues of science and religion on their own blogs.

    Maybe I should get back into the fray.

    Or not.

  7. #7 Chris
    April 3, 2008

    Thank you for writing this.

  8. #8 Ahcuah
    April 3, 2008

    It’s still odd, though, because these bloggers do still have to teach, and yet still can’t seem to accept that framing is necessary for teaching as well.

    Once again, I think you are misstating where the controversy lies. Of course the bloggers recognize framing, and how to frame in different situations. I’ve really seen no evidence to the contrary. It’s the lack of framing on the framers part that is raising hackles.

    It’s like Nisbet is doing classroom instruction for driver’s ed. Many are pointing out that nearly every time he takes a real car on the road, he crashes into a tree. And Mooney is writing a long, detailed essay about the virtues of driver’s education class.

    Our concern is Nisbet’s driving, not whether we need driving classes.

  9. #9 Dave Munger
    April 3, 2008

    I’ve tried to stay away from this particular framing debate as well, even though it’s at least tangentially related to the topic of my blog. I think your analysis of the current tangle is spot-on, though. Thanks!

  10. #10 Bob
    April 3, 2008

    I don’t want to rehash what I’ve already written here and here on the matter.

    I have seen very little criticism of the concept or value of framing science, at least none that I consider worthwhile. I have, however, seen a lot of valid, unanswered criticism of Nisbet and Mooney for their “sit down and shut up” posts which some appear to be interpreting as criticism of framing. It’s not; Mooney and Nisbet are getting a drubbing for making statements that are offensive and just plain wrong.

    I can see how some people would conflate Myers and Dawkins anti-religious message with their pro-science message. Myers especially seems to post much more about religion than science; maybe that’s what sells but from the perspective of promoting interesting science, it’s not working.

    However, I don’t believe Nisbet or Mooney are particularly effective at getting their message out and complaining that Dawkins and Myers are getting all the attention seems pretty self-serving.

    My understanding is that Nisbet & Mooney’s position is that it’s more effective to engage the religious with rational arguments to promote science than to use forceful rhetoric backed by evidence and theory – my apologies if I’m setting up the wrong strawman.

    I counter: since when has logic, evidence, and politeness changed minds willingly chained to unsubstantiated religious dogma? What ill can come from forcefully speaking the truth? We now live in the hell resulting from not doing so – why pursue a strategy that has failed to work thus far?

    I believe that Dawkins and Myers are very effective, not because they convince their opponents, but because they incite others to speak out, to promote a reality-based outlook over a faith-based view. Let the godbotherers hate on Myers and Dawkins for their outspoken atheism – they take the heat off the rest of us. They make it easier to communicate, not harder.

    We need more voices in addition to Dawkins and Myers, rather than instead of them. The problem is less Dawkins and Myers than it is the current media regime where only the most offensive and extreme get any airtime. Mooney and Nisbet succeeded in being offensive enough to get notice, but their message seemed counterproductive and self-serving.

    In short, I see what you’re saying, I appreciate that you’ve separated out the framing issue from the Expelled! expulsion comedy, but I disagree with you about Nisbet and Mooney’s effectiveness. I don’t object to framing as a concept, but I don’t think Nisbet and Mooney are helping, especially when they tell others to sit down and shut up.

    As a diversionary aside: how does one respond to the young earth creationist nonsense disputing radiometric dating? My background is in physics and nuclear engineering and the constancy of radioactive decay is taken as a given. I can understand biologists getting very defensive since the cornerstone of their field (natural selection) is constantly under attack by religious zealots and those that pander to them. Maybe it’s easier to take a conciliatory approach to the religious since physics isn’t under such vocal attack; personally, I see the YEC garbage as an assault on all hard sciences since the disciplines are so interrelated. It’s very difficult for me to accept a conciliatory approach. Remember, the Vatican didn’t accept Galileo’s arguments a few years ago, they just forgave him for being a heretic.

  11. #11 thm
    April 3, 2008

    Mooney’s post, which I agree with for the most part, uses as examples on the issues of climate change and evolution. I think the framing problem is larger than that, in that the lack of a well-framed discussion of the entire scientific enterprise is one of the reasons that, e.g., the recent and drastic spending cuts that Fermilab and SLAC face. I have sparks of an idea flying around in my head about the relation between framing, science education, outreach, and funding, but I haven’t tied them all together.

    The anti-framing crowd often seems to argue that the fundamental problem with the public understanding of science is that the public has an insufficient supply of science facts. I like to say that the notion that people will give up irrational beliefs when presented with solid evidence is itself an irrational belief, unsupported by the evidence.

  12. #12 A Lurker
    April 3, 2008

    “This is rich coming from a crowd of people who are throwing a poo-flinging tantrum because Matt Nisbet had the gall to suggest that it might be politically savvy to refrain from calling religious people stupid, brainwashed sheep.”

    I absolutely agree that statements and insinuations by the Dawkins crowd that religious are stupid is extremely counter productive. But any attempt to tell the Dawkins crowd to simply shut up about their beliefs about religion are not really any better. The only way it could work is to assume that the religious are far more stupid then the Dawkins crowd’s worst insinuation. Even if Dawkins and PZ could be convinced to shut up, it would not convince anyone. And it would be just as disingenuous as attempts of creationists to hide their religious motivations.

    If one wants to “frame” evolution the solution is not telling PZ to shut up about religion, but rather to show that his views are far from universal.

  13. #13 Orac
    April 3, 2008

    Once again, I think you are misstating where the controversy lies. Of course the bloggers recognize framing, and how to frame in different situations

    No I’m not. One blogger in particular is incredibly hostile towards framing as a concept, frequently equating it to “spin.” (No, I’m not referring to PZ, although he’s only somewhat less hostile.) The bloggers may know how to frame in different situations, but they seem to assiduously deny that that’s in fact what they’re doing and seem unrelentingly hostile to using framing to persuade the public. thm nailed it.

  14. #14 Jennifer Ouellette
    April 3, 2008

    Speak it, brutha! :)

    The most important thing I learned when I edited my college newspaper: politics and religion are the two things most likely to stir up an emotional sh*&-storm and work folks on both sides of the fence into an apoplectic fury. Unfortunately, as Chad so rightly points out, it’s just that intersection that Chris M and Nisbet tackled when they tried to bring the framing concept to ScienceBlogs. The result? A whole lotta screechy monkeys. Ergo, I, too, choose to remove myself from the muddle…

    I support the right of both extremes to fling their verbal poo at will, provided I’m not forced to read it. But I support just as strongly the raising of voices of moderation, like Chad’s and Chris’s recent posts (and Orac’s, for that matter).

  15. #15 SteveF
    April 3, 2008

    I think Orac may be referring to Larry Moran. I think Larry is great; he’s certainly one of my favourite bloggers. However, on the framing issue I think he gets a lot wrong (though I admire the essential basis of his stance – that he doesn’t want to see science watered down). For example, this is his latest comment:

    http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2008/03/for-once-chris-mooney-talks-sense.html

    In this short comment, Larry defines framing as:

    Framing is deliberately altering what you want to say in order to make it more acceptable to your audience

    I don’t think this is an especially helpful contribution to the debate!

  16. #16 Harry Abernathy
    April 3, 2008

    Excellent post, Professor Chad. Frankly, Chris and Matt should take a breather and let you and Janet argue their case for them.

    (Although I’m baffled by how you think you can get away with ending a post with four parenthetical statements.)

  17. #17 Chris C. Mooney
    April 3, 2008

    Thank you. Here’s to moderation!

    Seriously: For an example of how polarized things have become, consider that in my latest comments thread, people who think they’re criticizing me are in fact saying exactly what I’m saying, and there is really little or no disagreement with any of the first four basic premises of framing that I’ve introduced.

    How weird is that?

  18. #18 Chad Orzel
    April 3, 2008

    Acuah: All true. But those apply when your audience has been winnowed (as for the examples you give). What do you do when your venue is a blog? The audience is (potentially) everybody.

    Well, you have to make some choices.

    When I write about physics here, except in very specific cases, I make an effort to pitch what I’m writing to as low a level as possible. I try to imagine how I would explain the subject to someone who took high school physics, and maybe reads the occasional pop-science article about physics, and write it that way. That means that my physics posts aren’t framed terribly well for expert physicists, but I write it that way because my audience is, in principle, everyone.

    In general, I try to avoid writing that might be seen as offensive– I don’t curse nearly as much as I do in casual conversation with people I know, I try to avoid making sweeping unqualified generalizations about large groups of people, I make an effrot to avoid using language or examples that would offend people’s core beliefs accidentally. I don’t always succeed, but I make an effort to frame what I say in the appropriate manner for a very broad audience.

    I am making a choice to exclude some people– people who haven’t even had high-school physics aren’t likely to get much out of my physics posts, and I frequently make snide remarks in passing about right-wing nutjobs, so I don’t expect to reach them. But it is possible to frame your writing for a very large audience, if you choose to do so.

    Later: It’s like Nisbet is doing classroom instruction for driver’s ed. Many are pointing out that nearly every time he takes a real car on the road, he crashes into a tree. And Mooney is writing a long, detailed essay about the virtues of driver’s education class.

    Our concern is Nisbet’s driving, not whether we need driving classes.

    I disagree with this analogy, because Nisbet is, in fact, a fairly successful scholar whose current research career is built around this issue. He takes the “car” on the “road” quite successfully, again and again, publishing and speaking at a wide variety of venues.

    He’s not doing well bringing the idea to some parts of ScienceBlogs, but I maintain that’s because of the incompatible goals of the two groups. It’s not reasonable to expect his message to succeed with the Dawkins/ Myers crowd, because they don’t want the same things he wants.

    In terms of the driver’s ed analogy, complaining that his message isn’t well received here is like complaining that he hits a tree every time he tries to drive his car through the middle of a dense forest. You might very well wonder about his choice of places to go driving, but it’s not exactly surprising, nor does it tell us very much about his skill at driving on paved roads.

    Bob: My understanding is that Nisbet & Mooney’s position is that it’s more effective to engage the religious with rational arguments to promote science than to use forceful rhetoric backed by evidence and theory – my apologies if I’m setting up the wrong strawman.

    They’re around, and can presumably speak for themselves, but my take on it would be that they are saying that the most effective way to attain specific policy goals is to tailor the arguments to the people you want to reach. There’s nothing wrong with “forceful rhetoric backed up by evidence and theory,” provided that it’s appropriate rhetoric.

    To recycle an example I used in the post, if you’re trying to pass environmental legislation, and speaking to a group of hunters and fishermen, you don’t want to promote the legislation by saying that humans have a moral duty to preserve and respect each individual animal species. Instead, you want to say “Look, if we don’t stop poisoning the environment, pretty soon we’ll run out of deer and fish, and then where will you be?” Rhetoric is all well and good, but you want to use rhetoric that engages the audience, not rhetoric that alienates them.

    They’re absolutely not arguing for dry, ultra-objective charts-and-graphs presentations of nothing but science. Quite the contrary– in most cases, they’re arguing that scientists ought to be using more rhetoric, of the appropriate type. They’re also arguing for using less inappropriate and alientating rhetoric in certain situations, though they’re running into a wall there because the people using that rhetoric don’t share their goals.

  19. #19 bill
    April 3, 2008

    I think something to keep in mind here is that atheists are, in the US anyways, almost always under attack. To suggest to an embattled minority that they should be silent is distasteful, to say the least. To say that they should be silent solely because their voices (speaking out in defence of their beliefs) hinder Mooney & Nisbet’s attempts to reach out to the religious (including those very same who attack atheists) is even worse. Mooeny & Nisbet are trying to achieve policy goals; Myers is trying to defend his very identity. Mooney & Nisbet shouldn’t tell Myers to shut up and go sit in the back of the bus.

  20. #20 ponderingfool
    April 3, 2008

    They’re absolutely not arguing for dry, ultra-objective charts-and-graphs presentations of nothing but science. Quite the contrary– in most cases, they’re arguing that scientists ought to be using more rhetoric, of the appropriate type. They’re also arguing for using less inappropriate and alientating rhetoric in certain situations, though they’re running into a wall there because the people using that rhetoric don’t share their goals.
    *********************************************
    Which at the end of the day is what as you pointed out is what is causing all this blogging/commenting on ScienceBlogs. I think nearly everyone agrees that you need to keep your audience in mind when trying to convey ideas/thoughts/etc. You need to provide a certain hook or tap a specific frame that will resonate. As Bill pointed out, Nisbet upset many (including a number of those on ScienceBlogs who do not agree with Myers and are not “Screechy Monkeys”) is that he basically told Myers to shut up, though with many more words, at a time when Myers was just pointing out the lies and irony regarding the whole situation.

    The major problem with Nisbet and Mooney is that for reasons unknown they have decided they want to engage and bring Myers to their side (either that or a strategy to triangulate themselves as an acceptable middle). Nisbet should have just shown how to frame the Myers incident instead of barking at him.

  21. #21 Ahcuah
    April 3, 2008

    Chad wrote:

    Later: It’s like Nisbet is doing classroom instruction for driver’s ed. Many are pointing out that nearly every time he takes a real car on the road, he crashes into a tree. And Mooney is writing a long, detailed essay about the virtues of driver’s education class.

    Our concern is Nisbet’s driving, not whether we need driving classes.

    I disagree with this analogy, because Nisbet is, in fact, a fairly successful scholar whose current research career is built around this issue. He takes the “car” on the “road” quite successfully, again and again, publishing and speaking at a wide variety of venues.

    OK, I’ll back off a bit. Whenever I see Nisbet doing his framing (um, I mean driving), he’s driving into a tree.

    He may be a fairly successful scholar (I notice you didn’t say “scientist”), but that only equates to the classroom portion of my analogy. You say he publishes and he speaks. Again, classroom portion.

    Whenever I’ve seen him in action (which admittedly is his blog, but you’d think that would be a primo opportunity to practice what he preaches) he demonstrates to me that he either doesn’t know what framing is or is incapable of using it in real life (or maybe he just doesn’t think his blog is the right place for so demonstrating).

    Again, publishing and speaking and being a “scholor” does not a science make. The only way I have of evaluating his claims is the way I use for all such claims: “What test can I perform that allows me to distinguish between the true and false claims?” “If he is right, how can I tell?”

    So far, all I’ve seen is tree-crashing.

  22. #22 Chad Orzel
    April 3, 2008

    ponderingfool: Which at the end of the day is what as you pointed out is what is causing all this blogging/commenting on ScienceBlogs. I think nearly everyone agrees that you need to keep your audience in mind when trying to convey ideas/thoughts/etc. You need to provide a certain hook or tap a specific frame that will resonate. As Bill pointed out, Nisbet upset many (including a number of those on ScienceBlogs who do not agree with Myers and are not “Screechy Monkeys”) is that he basically told Myers to shut up, though with many more words, at a time when Myers was just pointing out the lies and irony regarding the whole situation.

    While Nisbet could’ve been more tactful in his most recent posts, I’m inclined to cut him some slack. As I said, this is not a new argument, and he’s been taking flack about the whole framing thing pretty much since he got here. If I had spent a year or so having random people on the Internet say repeatedly that I had no idea what I was talking about when talking about my primary area of scholarly research, I’d get a mite testy, too. Some of his phrasing is undoubtedly frustration, though that may not be apparent to people who are only becoming aware of the debate now.

    The major problem with Nisbet and Mooney is that for reasons unknown they have decided they want to engage and bring Myers to their side (either that or a strategy to triangulate themselves as an acceptable middle). Nisbet should have just shown how to frame the Myers incident instead of barking at him.

    I can’t blame them for wanting to get people on board, because it’s a large and active community of readers, and there are significant areas of overlap in their concrete political goals. The problem is that there’s a conflict between the political goals of Nisbet and Mooney and the more revolutionary societal and cultural goals of the Dawkins/ Myers crowd, and that’s the source of the problem.

    (There’s also a case to be made that the general goal of promoting atheism and rights for atheists would benefit from some of the lessons Nisbet and Mooney are trying to teach, but that’s another long and intractable argument that will go nowhere useful.)

    Acuah: He may be a fairly successful scholar (I notice you didn’t say “scientist”),

    That’s because he’s not a scientist. He’s a social scientist in the School of Communication at American University.

    but that only equates to the classroom portion of my analogy. You say he publishes and he speaks. Again, classroom portion.

    Whenever I’ve seen him in action (which admittedly is his blog, but you’d think that would be a primo opportunity to practice what he preaches) he demonstrates to me that he either doesn’t know what framing is or is incapable of using it in real life (or maybe he just doesn’t think his blog is the right place for so demonstrating).

    Blogs are not the be-all and end-all of science communication. If you take a look in the sidebar of his blog, or at his faculty page linked from the blog, you’ll see a long list of articles and appearances. He’s been invited to speak at major conferences, including one organized by the National Academy of Sciences, and he’s published articles in Science and The Washington Post. Any one of those is a damn sight more impressive than appealing to a bunch of yahoos on the Internet.

  23. #23 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 3, 2008

    Chris-

    So when you criticized P.Z. for his poor manners in replying to Matt, and lectured him about engaging substance, what you meant was that people who generally agree with your view of things should write posts describing people who disagree as “screechy monkeys,” should declare them to be beyond reason, should brag about not reading their posts and about being uninterested in engaging them, should question their motives, and should liken them to Marxists and Naderites.

    That’s what you consider an example of moderation?

  24. #24 CC
    April 3, 2008

    You don’t sell environmentalism to hunters by talking about the dignity of life and species diversity, you sell it by saying “If we wreck the environment, there won’t be anything left for you to hunt.”

    Speaking of class bias (and speaking as an outdoorsman), there’s a bit of stereotyping and condescension here, no? I don’t dispute that there are plenty of idiot hunters out there but, on the whole, people who spend extensive time in the woods or on the water have at least as much interest in nature for its own sake as PETA members do.

    Mooeny & Nisbet are trying to achieve policy goals; Myers is trying to defend his very identity.

    Putting aside the “embattled minority” hysteria, that’s precisely Chad’s point, as I understand it.

  25. #25 Dave Munger
    April 3, 2008

    Jason,

    I believe that it was Sheril who criticized PZ’s manners. And it was Chad who called the loud responses “screechy monkeys.” Chad was not, I believe, referring to anyone who disagrees as screechy monkeys, but rather, those who do so without engaging their brains.

    Chris has called for moderation, and appears to be very gamely attempting to engage in such a debate on his blog.

  26. #26 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 3, 2008

    Dave-

    Chris endorsed Sheril’s remarks in the comments to that blog post. (As did I, up to a point, at my own blog.) That’s what I was referring to in my previous comment. As for Chad, from what I can tell from this post he regards the group of people who disagree as identical to the group of people who are not engaging their brains. Hence my pique.

    I have read Chris’ recent posts and have found them interesting and useful, which is the reaction I have to nearly all of his writing. I am a big fan of moderation in discussing contentious issues, especially when dealing with colleagues, which is how I view everyone here at SB. That’s why I was rather surprised that Chris would endorse this post.

  27. #27 John Novak
    April 3, 2008

    I’m more or less content to not continually harp on the framing issue as well, but it applies to more than just this debate. Also, it’s a complicated issue with lots of things going on and contributing to it, but having pondered it off and on today, here’s what I think the three main things are:

    1) That point number six that you highlighted? I can readily understand how people will look at that and think, in varying degrees, that those are necessary elements of marketting, or pandering, or slicking past an issue, or even of propagandizing, and have an immediate bad reaction to the concept even phrased as it is right there.

    I know, because my initial reaction was negative, and this is at least in part because that description fits very well to tactics that are used by creationists in their presentations. Yes, I know that the detailed tactics of evolutionary biologists and creationists differ, but trying to write a coherent one paragraph, or even one page description that gives an acid test between the two is going to be very difficult.

    I think a negative reaction to this is not unreasonable. I think a vehement or rude reaction is pretty silly, though.

    2) There are also people either legitimately lack the social grace, or who affect to lack the social grace, to understand how saying anything less than the unvarnished truth could ever be bad. Ironically, these are often the same people objecting to being told the unvarnished truth, namely, that they’re counter-productive putzes.

    There’s not much to be done with these people, though, except to put spy cams at their family Thanksgiving dinners and sell the footage to Jerry Springer.

    3) Most subtly, there’s the divide between people who are more interested in how other people act, and people who are more interested in what other people believe. I think everyone has concerns about both– I know I do. Generally, at the end of the day, I don’t really care what my neighbors believe about God, I care what they do about it. I care that they not try to impose those beliefs on me in person or through the ballot box, but when I go to sleep at night, I don’t care what they believe. At the end of the month, I care what they believe, because if people believe as I do, they won’t even try to impose wrong beliefs or behaviours on me.

    Others, obviously, put those in the other order, and I think they lead to significantly different ways to make the argument. My general thought is sort of a boil-the-frog approach, where you get people used to doing or not doing things, and they realize it’s not such a big deal, and you go a little further, and that’s not such a big deal, and then their children believe different things and that’s not such a big deal, and at the end of the century, I win.

    But if you believe that’s backwards, I think that leads to a desire to do exactly what I think is counter-productive, which is to punch people in the face in the hopes that they’ll wake up and agree with you. (I have a hard time being fair in describing this approach because it just seems so destined to failure… mea culpa.)

    Both extremes are bad. There’s a point of timidity and inoffensiveness past which you might as well not even be there. That’s the PZ/Dawkins argument, I’d guess, and they’d lump framing techniques in with that. But there’s also a point of offensiveness past which you as well literally be punching people in the face, which is the framing argument.

  28. #28 Chad Orzel
    April 3, 2008

    John Novak: 1) That point number six that you highlighted? I can readily understand how people will look at that and think, in varying degrees, that those are necessary elements of marketting, or pandering, or slicking past an issue, or even of propagandizing, and have an immediate bad reaction to the concept even phrased as it is right there.

    I know, because my initial reaction was negative, and this is at least in part because that description fits very well to tactics that are used by creationists in their presentations.

    I don’t disagree with that, but I would say that makes Mooney and Nisbet’s case even stronger– the people on the other side of the argument are making canny use of framing techniques. Scientists would have to be utter fools not to use framing themselves, and target their messages to the interests of people who might be swayed to their side.

    2) There are also people either legitimately lack the social grace, or who affect to lack the social grace, to understand how saying anything less than the unvarnished truth could ever be bad. Ironically, these are often the same people objecting to being told the unvarnished truth, namely, that they’re counter-productive putzes.

    That’s also a factor.

    Another, somewhat related, issue here is that lots of scientists think they’re effectively framing their message for the audience at hand, when if fact they’re doing a pretty dismal job of it. Preston Manning gave a good talk about this at DAMOP last year.

    The same people who have an inflated opinion of their own ability to frame scientific issues also tend not to appreciate other people– especially outsiders, who aren’t even scientists– pointing out that they’re not doing a good job.

  29. #29 John Novak
    April 3, 2008

    I don’t disagree with that, but I would say that makes Mooney and Nisbet’s case even stronger– the people on the other side of the argument are making canny use of framing techniques. Scientists would have to be utter fools not to use framing themselves, and target their messages to the interests of people who might be swayed to their side.

    I don’t personally disagree with that, when you add in caveats– I trust you, for instance, not to degenerate into propagandistic bullshit. But I can appreciate the other side of the argument whereby people might feel a bit like they’re using the devil’s methods against him.

    So to speak.

    Another, somewhat related, issue here is that lots of scientists think they’re effectively framing their message for the audience at hand, when if fact they’re doing a pretty dismal job of it. Preston Manning gave a good talk about this at DAMOP last year.

    “I framed it perfectly for those idiots!”

    An exaggeration, but in some cases, not much of one.

  30. #30 Damian
    April 4, 2008

    There are several things going on here, obviously.

    Nisbet has claimed repeatedly, and without much evidence I might add, that PZ and Dawkins are poor advocates for science. For a start, neither PZ or Dawkins has ever claimed to be an advocate (at least, not in the sense that is the goal of Nisbet and Mooney), and what ever one thinks of them, it has not been shown that both men are hurting science education.

    The data that we do know of – that of books sold and visitors to blogs – show conclusively that these men have been extraordinarily successful science advocates, as well as framers of science (I guess you could claim that it is for other reasons, but you would have to show that). The problem is that it isn’t the correct audience, although it is rather sad that those who are among the strongest supporters of science are often left out of the equation.

    It isn’t PZ and Dawkins’ fault if other, more acceptable science advocates haven’t had the same success, only aimed at religious believers. That is partly why Nisbet in particular has taken flack, although I agree that much of it has been nonsensical (it might also be worth pointing out that many of the people on those threads are not people that I recognize from Pharyngula).

    PZ and Dawkins have made it clear that their goals are different, although both regularly work with religious believers in the fight against anti-science groups. It is, therefore, pointless to berate them for what they do. It simply isn’t going to alter their behavior, and it comes across as an excuse for the difficulty in persuading religious believers who can’t quite see the difference between excellent science writing, and extra-curricular activities, if you will.

    If framing really is all about simplifying complex scientific theories so that it is more accessible to the public, you would struggle to find two men that are better at it, in my opinion. The problem that science has is that there are too few people that are interested in it, while at the same time, it becomes more and more critical to public policy. That has unfortunately been the case for longer than I can remember.

    I would echo what was said earlier in the thread, as well. Too few scientists have taken an active stance against anti-science. That is why I admire people like Lawrence Krauss. He has made the effort to understand the devastating effect that creationists are having on education, even though they aren’t particularly attacking his discipline. While he disagrees in part with Dawkins, he understands that there is a real problem that has to be tackled.

    And the problem is actually worse than simply placing religious scientists on the front line. Creationists have been extremely successful at framing the idea that you can’t accept evolution and be religious at the same time. They see people like Miller and Ayala as more dangerous than PZ and Dawkins. We aren’t talking about reasonable people here.

    It isn’t as easy as some make out, particularly if you have dealt with their utter dishonesty on a regular basis. How exactly do you frame science to people that are convinced that “Evolution leads to Atheism, leads to Eugenics, leads to Nazism and the Holocaust”, and don’t even bother to read anything that you provide to refute it, or refuse to be reasoned with in the first place?

    In conclusion, I don’t know of anybody that disagrees with framing. What people object to is being told – “Framing: you’re doing it wrong”, when you are one of the most successful science bloggers on the internet, and have done more to educate people, as well as fight anti-science, than your two adversaries put together. There are far more important matters, in my opinion.

  31. #31 ponderingfool
    April 4, 2008

    While Nisbet could’ve been more tactful in his most recent posts, I’m inclined to cut him some slack. As I said, this is not a new argument, and he’s been taking flack about the whole framing thing pretty much since he got here. If I had spent a year or so having random people on the Internet say repeatedly that I had no idea what I was talking about when talking about my primary area of scholarly research, I’d get a mite testy, too. Some of his phrasing is undoubtedly frustration, though that may not be apparent to people who are only becoming aware of the debate now.
    **********************************
    I did read some attacking Nisbet’s research but most of the critic wasn’t so much against framing per se. It was Nisbet’s and Mooney’s political agenda that caused a lot of negative response. The idea of framing was conflated with Nisbet’s & Mooney’s goals for why & what they want to frame. It should have been made clear this is framing, this is what it accomplishes, this is the research on the area. Then they should have gone on to say these our goals, this is how we are going to frame to achieve them. Some cranks would have complained but that is what they do. Instead by conflating framing with their goals they fed the flames especially in the latest flare-up which turned people off people who were supportive of framing in the flare-up a year ago Coturnix if I was reading him correctly a year ago and his latest comments on Nisbet’s blog being an example.

    They were the communicators of framing trying to get people including those on ScienceBlogs to agree with framing is worthwhile to study. If they wanted to reach Myers and his audience then they did not frame framing properly, which lets be honest is certainly ironic. Now if they wanted to triangulate themselves against Dawkins/Myers, then I think they have been doing a good job at that. Of course for that type of strategy to be successful you need Dawkins and Myers to speak out. Though in the latest incident feeding the frames of the creationists wasn’t very productive for anyone save the creationists.

  32. #32 lylebot
    April 4, 2008

    There is a large group of Christians, much larger than anyone on the “pro” side of the framing debate seems to realize, that recognize that there is no hope for reconciliation of science and their religion. For whatever reason, these people believe the word of their pastors over the word of scientists. Nothing any scientist says to them will change their mind. They are willfully ignorant. They are not stupid—they know when they’re being condescended to, and much of the pro-framing argument is very condescending to them. These people would take deep offense to Chad’s post about religion being about community, for example, because to them it is about much, much more than that. The whole idea that science and religion can be reconciled is condescending to them, because accepting certain scientific explanations entails losing faith in certain religious tenets. Telling them that they can have both is a lie, and they know it’s a lie, and like most people they will not respect the liar that’s telling it.

    There’s another group that believes there is room for reconciliation, as long as they’re willing to back off some of what their religion says. But the catch is that reconciliation will always involve backing away from religion towards science, never the other way around. The former group recognizes that, and can use it as the “wedge” to get to the reconciliationists.

    The Nisbet strategy seems to be focused on talking to those that are open to reconciliation. That’s fine, but you can’t just ignore the other group, because their argument that science and religion cannot be reconciled at all will continue to be very compelling to some in the less fundamentalist group. It seems to me the only way to deal with the former group is to marginalize them, mock them until they have no standing in any community but their own. I could be wrong about that. But I know from talking to them that they will never accept any talk about reconciliation.

  33. #33 John Novak
    April 4, 2008

    It seems to me the only way to deal with the former group is to marginalize them, mock them until they have no standing in any community but their own. I could be wrong about that.

    That’s not a really viable strategy when the community is so large that they can use your mockery as an election platform at the local and state levels, in some areas, and measurably deform national level politics.