01 October 2007

The Framing Debate - I agree with PZ

Over at Scienceblogs, PZ (along with Greg Laden) has been arguing with Mark Nisbet and Chris Mooney about the concept of framing science for the public. The PZ/Laden argument is that the public needs to be taught real science regardless of the indidental damage to the public's beliefs (ie. literal religous beliefs), whereas the Mooney/Nisbet position is that scientists need to focus on gaining trust from the public and coddling their incorrect beliefs because if scientists insult them, they will reject the science.

I've mainly not bothered picking sides since I can see some good in both parts of the argument. For me, the important thing is to get science to play a larger role in society - I don't care if Nisbet chooses to waffle a bit in order to bring hardline theists a little closer to science, and I don't care if PZ produces hardline science that only appeals to sciencey people like those who read Pharyngula. Basically it's the same as my stance on the "new atheism" - I don't care if you're Hitchens or Hemant: the important thing is quality and quantity, not focus.

However, after the recent debate between the guys I mentioned above (aside: why is it mostly guys? We need more scientists who are women to lead more of the pro-science charge), I'm putting a little more stock in the PZ/Laden argument. From PZ:
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.
From my experience, this is a very, very important point. Take my wife, for instance. She likes science (she did well at science fairs in school), knows it well enough, and went into a sciencey field (electrical engineering); however, she's also a fairly hardcore theist and went into a profession that let her stay in her insulated non-questioning religion bubble. The result is that, even though science is her friend, she's unaware of the issues, unaware of the conflicts, and just assumes science proves her preexisting religious views. For example, she thinks scientists have proven the Great Flood.

Let me reiterate: the framing battle has already been won with her and still she believes some crazy stuff because she's never actually been engaged by the science.

Personally, I think we can help things out by shifting science education away from rote memorization of fact toward teaching scientific/critical thinking and by not waffling on controversial topics. There is no way that a person should graduate highschool (or even elementary school) and not know that the earth is billions of years old and that the biblical flood is not a geological event. So, yeah, I guess that's me coming down more on the PZ side of things than the Mooney side.

Another thing is: who decides when the population is friendly enough to scientists that we can stop coddling them and actually teach them real science? Does Mooney just flick a switch where it suddenly becomes ok for scientists to actually teach again? I said above that quality and quantity should be more important than focus. This is actually a situation where too much focus is a bad thing. Many people don't need to be coddled by framing (eg. they aren't that religious) and could be crying out for a more meaty science article. I know Mooney/Nisbet wouldn't want other scientists to completely ignore these people, but a heavy emphasis on framing could let these people down, or, at the very least, make it hard for them to find the more sciencey article they're looking for.

Ultimately, it may never be possible to win all the battles. Who will they trust? Their friend the scientist, or God?

Simply being a friend isn't enough.

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At October 02, 2007 1:55 p.m., Blogger DiverL said...

I will easily trust my friendly scientist, because GoD doesn't talk to me....lol.

Thanks for visiting, by the way...may I suck your blog?

At October 02, 2007 2:51 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

You may :-)

At October 02, 2007 11:40 p.m., Blogger sacred slut said...

I agree with PZ. I think if you gain someone's "trust" by lying to them (telling them what they want to hear, omitting the controversial parts, or what have you), it ultimately backfires when they find you out.

In that case, they revert to not trusting science again.

I think a lot of our current scientific "illiteracy" problems stem from people having a perception that science is unreliable already. This is due to a number of factors, most notable probably premature annoucement of research findings and subsequent backpedaling. I understand that some of this is part of the scientific process, but some of it is traceable to researchers' desire for (short-term) fame and publicity.

Science needs more integrity, not less.

At October 03, 2007 6:11 a.m., Anonymous Teen Atheist said...

I also agree with PZ. I haven't read the whole debate yet, but I wonder: How do they plan to sugarcoat science? I think it should be taught as it is, since people will believe what they choose to.


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