I’m jumping in on this bandwagon late, but I’ve only now had a chance to read through a few of the articles on the “Science Framing” issue.
Chris Mooney (author of The Republican War on Science) and Matthew Nisbet (a professor at American University) wrote an article that was published in the journal Science last week. You can read it by going here and clicking on the “full text” link on the left hand sidebar.
The article essentially said scientists need to do a better job of framing scientific issues in a way that will get more people to pay attention and care. Right now, scientists rely too much on facts and data (which is all well and good, but how many people do you know that run away at the first mention of an equation or a scientific concept?) and they need to be better skilled at communicating these points. Maybe then, more people would understand the importance of what scientists know.
Here are a couple excerpts from the Science article:
Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively “frame” information to make it relevant to different audiences. Some in the scientific community have been receptive to this message. However, many scientists retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists’, and controversy would subside.
Messages must be positive and respect diversity. As the film Flock of Dodos painfully demonstrates, many scientists not only fail to think strategically about how to communicate on evolution, but belittle and insult others’ religious beliefs
… scientists must realize that facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it.
True to form, Mooney and Nisbet also wrote a piece for the Washington Post this past Sunday explaining their theory to those people who can’t get past the table of contents page in Science:
Scientists excel at research; creating knowledge is their forte. But presenting this knowledge to the public is something else altogether…
Scientists have traditionally communicated with the rest of us by inundating the public with facts; but data dumps often don’t work. People generally make up their minds by studying more subtle, less rational factors. In 2000 Americans didn’t pore over explanations of President Bush’s policies; they asked whether he was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with.
Especially on divisive issues, scientists should package their research to resonate with specific segments of the public.
Thankfully, scientists seem increasingly aware of the need to convey their knowledge better. There is even a bill in Congress that would allocate funding to the National Science Foundation to train scientists to become better communicators. That’s a start, but scientists must recognize that on hot-button issues — even scientific ones — knowledge alone is rarely enough to win political arguments, change government policies or influence public opinion.
Mooney/Nisbet also criticize some scientists (like Richard Dawkins) for polarizing religious people against science.
As I was reading these articles and postings, I was trying to figure out what the big deal was. Why is Mooney/Nisbet’s approach not obvious to everyone already? Of course scientists are not going to win over evangelicals when they spend more time criticizing religious beliefs, and scientists won’t win over the scientifically-disinclined when they are just too dull to listen to.
The religious issue is especially troublesome for some bloggers. The argument here seems to be that scientists should always stand up for the truth, and since much of religion contradicts what we know to be true, it deserves the attacks.
Fair enough. But there are too many people in this country who don’t like having their fantasies spoiled; when scientists try to expose the wizard behind the curtain, there are armies of people who want that curtain to be closed back up. Scientists do need to open the curtain, but they need to be cautious in how they do it. Ripping it apart quickly scares people. Slowly pulling it back won’t be as bad.
In general, the way to convince a person of anything is to persuade him that he has a personal investment in this issue. It impacts him. It matters for his children. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to sell someone life insurance, get the person to do you a favor, or explain why intelligent design has no place in the public schools.
There’s a reason global warming wasn’t a major issue until An Inconvenient Truth came out. Al Gore spoke about how this issue will affect future generations. Of course, the evidence for global warming had already told us this for years prior to the movie, but again, a compelling explanation did more than the data ever could.
I spent most of my college Bio and Chem classes working on crossword puzzles and reading books for pleasure. I knew I was there to learn the details, not be entertained, but the professors were (for the most part) boring as hell. Great researchers. Bad teachers. But this was to be expected. At the same time, I attended a number of science lectures intended for the general public, and the same type of person always did the talking: Uninteresting, dull, and ruining any interest I may have had in the subject.
If we had science communicators who knew how to explain theories and issues without getting into the technical details, they would have a much broader reach and a significant impact. If they could do all this while being empathetic to the fact that what they say may conflict with a person’s religious upbringing and comfort zone, we’d all be in a better position.
The same thing applies when speaking to religious people. If you want to convince them of the virtues of atheistic thinking, it’s not going to happen by telling them the Flood story (Noah’s Ark) is just a copycat version from other religions or that Jesus is lard.
You might get some of those people thinking, though, if you can explain atheism (and science) in a way that encourages the other person to ask questions and engage in a dialogue.
I’ve been using the word “scientists” in most of this post, but really, if the change is going to happen to make issues of atheism (and science) more acceptable, it has to be all of us framing the issues in this way, not just those who are well-known or respected intellectuals.
[tags]atheist, atheism, framing, science, Chris Mooney. The Republican War on Science, Matthew Nisbet, American University, Flock of Dodos, evolution, religion, Christianity, Richard Dawkins, George W. Bush, president, National Science Foundation, global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore[/tags]