How 'bout a civil discussion with Chris Mooney and moving on from his framing faux pas?

An open letter to the Framing Wars:

Can we start by just considering Chris Mooney as a person distinct from Matt Nisbet?

The problem I see is that Chris is suffering blogospheric vitriol far beyond his own comments because of his association with Matt Nisbet. To the best of my knowledge, Matt Nisbet is a communications professor trying to make a name for "framing" as an academic area of research in his discipline (I've only met him once). As I lack academic credentials in his discipline, I am inadequately prepared to pass judgment as to the scholarly gravity of such an area of study. In a very well-reasoned post today, The Island of Doubt blogger and science journalist James Hrynyshyn referred to "framing" as the way in which a journalist works an angle to their story.

In contrast, Chris is an award-winning author and science journalist who is not in academia but, in my eyes, has gone above and beyond the call of duty in representing science in public and political forums, and representing us well. In his two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World, his content was exhaustively researched and his representation of the scientists discussed came from one or more lengthy interviews. I cannot speak for the scientists he interviewed but I can say that I would be more than satisfied for Chris to write about my research program for consumption by politicians or the general public.

In my view, Chris also made a mistake in agreeing with Matt Nisbet's contention that it was a BadThing for PZ Myers to promote his expulsion from the movie, Expelled!. Nisbet's subsequent contention that PZ and Richard Dawkins should not speak for science was terribly misguided and drew well-justified bile from Professor Myers. I'm still not really sure that Chris explicitly agreed with that part of Matt's post, (indeed, it does not appear that he ever did) but it seems that his association with that comment has driven discussion at The Intersection almost completely off the rails:

I saw the serious and important concept of "framing" dissed and dismissed by people who didn't always seem to understand it. I saw myself disparaged, including the outlandish suggestion that I might be a creationist. I saw my talented co-blogger, Sheril, nastily attacked.

I also saw juvenile, profanity-laden comments of a sort that torpedo the quality of discussion for everyone, and that from now on won't be tolerated on this blog.

Chris is now embarking on a lengthy discussion of his thesis on communicating science to the public. While it is not the approach desired by everyone in his comment thread, Chris apparently has reasons for addressing the whole Expelled! episode/framing discussion in this manner. This approach seemed adequate to PZ Myers who thoughtfully engaged with Chris yesterday, although the Professor thought that today's contribution was short on substance. Others still want Chris to be more explicit in where he thought he was wrong on this episode, distinct from his current discussion of framing scientific messages.

I guess I'm just looking for a more measured discussion on how we scientists can more effectively communicate to the public, to support our national research funding agenda, and to combat pseudoscience. I know reasonably well how to frame my scientific messages to grant reviewers, public members of grant review committees, and pharmacy or medical students.

But I still need help when I am called upon to speak to state legislative staffers and, even after 15 years of doing so, speaking to public audiences about alternative medicine. The framing discussion has been pretty broad when we refer to "the public(s)" and there seems to be some disagreement as to whether we scientists are being too arrogant about public understanding of science or, conversely, that we give the public too much credit for their ability to understand scientific issues.

I have been on the receiving end of pretty serious hostility in person from alternative medicine proponents who perceive me as a demon-spawned, hired hand of the pharmaceutical companies - not as someone who is a health consumer advocate who doesn't want to see people swindled or, worse, harmed by fraudulent products and practitioners. It is exceedingly difficult to explain science to such an audience and I need to learn to be more effective in this setting, as an example.

I fear the the term "framing" has become so loaded as to preempt any rational discussion of the merits or lack thereof such approaches to promoting and protecting scientific messages in varied settings. A colleague discussed this very point, a year ago in fact. Some scientists seem genuinely offended that someone who is not a scientist is offering advice to the scientific community on how to help themselves in the public and political arenas.

I can't speak for Matt Nisbet and, for that matter, I cannot even speak for Chris Mooney, whom I feel far more compelled to defend. A colleague of mine noted that some tenets of framing actually generate testable hypothesis. As Professor Nisbet appears dedicated to framing as a scholarly area of investigation, such experiments should be planned and executed.

Chris's goal, to me, seems more to be an advocate for all of us involved in science. While one can criticize him for his views on the Expelled! episode, which he promises to address in future posts, I am convinced that Chris is dedicated to acting in the best interest of the promotion of science - he is on our side.

Chris is already remarkably successful at a relatively young age and I submit that he will have a long career as an author and science commentator, maybe even serving in Congress's Office of Technology Assessment if it is ever revived. I may not always agree with him, but I have found find myself shaking my head in the affirmative during much of my time reading his books.

I am willing to admit that I can learn from him.

So, after he meets the requests for specific apologies and so on, I hope that we can continue the discussion of how best to represent and promote science in the public discourse.

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Abel, I completely agree. I have a great deal of admiration for what Chris has accomplished. He has proven to be a courageous journalist and one of the most effective journalistic scientific advocates I can think of (with the possible exception of Carl Zimmer). For his efforts he has been treated very unfairly on the framing issue and the personal attacks on him (especially the creationist claim) have been mean spirited and, I think, disgraceful. He is out fighting the fight in arenas that most of us would dare not enter. I hope he and PZ can keep the discussion going on a higher plane than in the past. I also hope that commenters can restrain themselves when Chris presents positions that do not vibe with their narrow worldview.

Hryshynyn is completely right: " Good framing" is simply "adapt your material for the audience". Nothing new, and nothing surprising; just something anybody engaged in communication needs to bear in mind.

But what Nisbet wants to do is something different and more ominous. He's not interested in altering the way the message is presented; he wants to alter the message itself. Even worse, he seems intent on trying a bully-pulpit approach to force other people to accede to this alteration.

As a SciBlogger pointed out recently (forgot who), parts of biology, paleontology and much other science really, truly is completely at odds with literal variations of religion (Biblical literalists, for instance). There is no way to get around it, or finesse it. "Framing" in the trivial sense is to present the case for science, against literalist interpretations, in a manner that is as clear and persuasive as possible, for the audience you are engaging. Nisbets approach, in contrast, seems to be "Don't go there!" "Don't touch this!" "Pretend this conflict doesn't exist!". Don't discuss science in conflict with religion; don't publish it. In effect, don't do science if it collides with a religious worldview.

He is asking for scientific self-censorship, in the interest of ...what, really? It can't be in the interest of science.

Abel, thank you so much. I really appreciate your support.

It ought to be obvious that I am not Matt Nisbet. We are friends, we published a paper together, we have given numerous talks together. But he has been in a history of blog fights that I've stayed out of, for the most part--and of course I don't have to support every one of his stances.

I think Nisbet and I both made a mistake in failing to reach an important part of our intended audience--many Scienceblogs readers. I also think there were some mistakes in the Expelled episode that I plan to discuss further.

Finally, concerning Nisbet's history polarizing fights with PZ and others on Scienceblogs, I think these need to be understood in context: After the original framing science paper came out, he came under a kind of online fire that he didn't expect and hadn't ever really experienced before. There were attacks on his scholarship which he took very seriously. And as someone who has a blog but is really more a professor than blogger, I don't think he really knew how to respond, engage, defuse. Things as a result got badly polarized.

My goal now is to try to depolarize, so that we can restore some sense of civility. A post like this is just incredibly helpful towards that end. Thank you so much.

I've been staying away from this framing war because it was just getting too heated. But the other day I had an ah-ha moment. Maybe what we need to be talking about is "interpretation."

As a zoo volunteer, I have had what they call interperative training. They want us to deliver themes to the visitors instead of a boatload of facts. 1) Decide on a message you want people to walk away with. 2) Present the facts that will get the message across -- and do it in a way that will engage them.

"The theory of evolution is a cornerstone of modern science" is a theme. "A literal belief in the bible cannot coexist with an understanding of evolution" is a different theme. Don't muddy your message by mixing themes.

"A literal belief in the bible cannot coexist with an understanding of evolution" is also a fact. When you try to engage people with a literal belief in the Bible it is dishonest, and likely counterproductive, to try to pretend it is not.

Excellent post. Thank you.

"Well that's easy! High-[K+] will do the trick just fine."

I've always thought this whole framing fight seemed a little bananas . . .

The problem I see is that Chris is suffering blogospheric vitriol far beyond his own comments because of his association with Matt Nisbet.

Supposing that were the case, I have very limited sympathy for self-induced suffering. Chris willingly turned himself into mini-Matt.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 03 Apr 2008 #permalink

Notably, neither of Mooney's books were on evolution, or science and religion. I want to see a positive record of accomplishment. I challenge Mooney, or any of the framers, to write a book that will convince thousands of Fundamentalist Creationists to embrace evolution. Until then, they are just blowing smoke and attempting to promote themselves by attacking people more accomplished than themselves.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 03 Apr 2008 #permalink

Thank you.

This post -- the attitude you have demonstrated in this post -- can help to create a context in which healthy dialog can occur.

You've reminded us of an important aspect of healthy, mature dialog: willingness to learn.

Thank you for demonstrating that you are willing to learn.
Thank you for demonstrating that you are willing to explore.
Thank you for demonstrating that you are willing to discover.

I thank you.

Thanks all for the thoughtful discussion thus far. I admit to still having trouble dissecting out all of the distinct issues in these disagreements and being reasonable and measured is the best way for me to understand (although, PP, I sometimes wish I had your way with words.).

@Chris: thanks for the very interesting insights as you and Matt have very different experiences and approaches to the blogosphere. PZ is far more seasoned than Matt in this medium, a pioneer in fact, and that indeed may underlie much of the rancor to date. I can understand how Matt viewed the initial commentary on your Science article as attacking his scholarship and I certainly agree that his response(s) over the last year contributed to the escalation of furor over the topic. I remain intrigued by the concept of framing science in academic communications research - the fact that you guys got this published in Science (I have yet to publish a Science paper) and have earned the support of the National Academies indicates to me that there remains substantial virtue in moving on with this dialogue.

@Tegumai - I certainly do not expect you to have sympathy for Chris and he seems now to be the first to admit that his suffering has been self-induced. While you have used the term here and elsewhere to describe Chris as "mini-Matt," I feel that this characterization ignores Chris' substantial and independent record of accomplishments prior to the Expelled! episode.

wrt your second comment, I would shake the hand of anyone - you, PZ, Mooney, Scott, Nisbet, Dawkins, deGrasse Tyson, Hitchens, Zimmer - who could write a book, "that will convince thousands of Fundamentalist Creationists to embrace evolution." We would be deluding ourselves if we thought that possible. To then conclude that without producing such a volume that they are blowing smoke and self-promoting flies to the other side of the spectrum (although so much of our business and their business involves promoting ourselves, sometimes at the expense of others.) I may have missed it but did Nisbet or Mooney ever claim explicitly that "framing" could accomplish that goal? I'd be happy to gain clarification and be corrected on that topic.

I think that Chris is only 30 or 31 - pretty impressive to me that he has these two books to his credit when I think back to what my track record was at the same age. I have no idea if he'll ever get to your requested books on evolution, or science and religion. As I said in the post, I feel that I can gain a lot more working with Chris toward a mutual goal of increasing public understanding of science, all while debating the best means to accomplish that goal.

Dawkins said pretty clearly in his Ted talk of 2002 that his approach to attacking Creationism is different. While praising Ken Miller's book, Finding Darwin's God, which attempts to lay out the case that one can be a Christian and simultaneously accept the findings of modern biology, Dawkins outlined his different approach. He says he attempts to defeat creationism by attacking religious belief.

This is a very different strategy than our ScienceBlogs framers have in mind.

I will point out that Dawkins' book attacking religious belief has been a New York Times bestseller for 51 weeks, has sold 1.5 million copies in 31 languages, and his next book will go directly after the lay-public's understanding of Creationism and evolution.

I will say that Dawkins' approach is novel. Arguing evolution in the popular media tends to fall down at the level of it being too technical. Arguing against the existence of God isn't technical at all. In that way, Dawkins might be saving us from the next generation of Creationists.

All this by way of saying that Dawkins gets framing. He's just not using the frame that Mooney wants.

"I admit to still having trouble dissecting out all of the distinct issues ..."

It is challenging, isn't it? I see many distinct issues also. When I step back far enough to see a bigger picture, I see multiple threads, interwoven and knotted in complex ways, tying up multiple patterns of expectation and behavior.

The late Douglas Adams wrote, "He was constantly reminded of how startlingly different a place the world was when viewed from a point only three feet to the left."

I've been trying to stay about three feet to the left of all this. There's less dust, and it's quieter there.