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.)