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.