Posts Tagged ‘framing’

More Chris Mooney Weirdness

Posted on May 13th, 2008 by blue collar scientist

I have to admit that I don’t understand Chris Mooney or the Framists at all anymore.

Michael Gerson has written an op-ed in the Washington Post, denying that there has been a Republican war on science. This, obviously, is partially a response to Chris Mooney’s book, The Republican War on Science. So you’d expect Mooney to have something to say.

That expectation has been fulfilled. Mooney’s reaction? Have a look - first he briefly enumerates the ways in which the op-ed is a straw man and doesn’t actually have anything to do with the subject of his book, and then he concludes with:

In short, Gerson’s oped is a joke. No need for debunking, just laughing.

Ok, Chris. I’m totally behind you in this. Laugh at the guy - that’s the kind of response he deserves.

What I don’t get is why we can’t laugh at antiscience extremists who deny evolution (but still take medicine when they get sick), when their arguments have nothing to do with evolutionary theory, when they brazenly lie to make their points, when what they say attacks a straw man. I don’t get why those silly people need to be treated with special condescension, gentle kindness, and a widespread pulling of the punches, while Gerson, who is just like them, should be laughed at.

I guess when you are a big-time communications expert, when you tour the country giving allegedly highly successful lectures to packed audiences, when you have such stature that you get to tell people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers to go shut the **** up, you get to decide for yourself how the rules of the game are applied.

Or could it be that when an antiscience boob like Gerson attacks something that Mooney actually cares about, even Mooney sees the value and effectiveness of ridicule?

Mike the Mad Biologist on Chris Mooney

Posted on May 1st, 2008 by blue collar scientist

I’ve criticized Chris Mooney, Matt Nisbet, and the framists1 before (here, here, and here), returning again and again to the point that they have offered no constructive criticism or advice to me and others engaged in science communication.

My favorite blogger, Mike the Mad Biologist, has written an open letter to Mooney, and it’s a damn good one. One highlight:

Here’s the problem: you keep coming to evolutionary biologists with a problem (the perception of evolutionary biology), and you don’t have a solution. Do you think there’s a single evolutionary biologist who is happy with public opinion regarding evolution and creationism? But you’re not giving us concrete solutions.

It is worth reading the whole thing.

  1. I’ll be damned if I will call them framers - they’re nothing like as brilliant as the people who composed the Constitution. []

Nisbet, Mooney, and Framing - Part 3

Posted on April 7th, 2008 by blue collar scientist

This is the third and last in a series of three posts about framing science as advocated by Nisbet, Mooney, et al. In the first part, I set out some understandings that I have about science framing as advocated by Nisbet and Mooney: First, that framing broadly understood is something we all do when we communicate on any issue, but that framing as it is associated with Nisbet and Mooney seems to me to be a set of disjointed, unsystematic techniques for communicating science, which avoids offending or alienating those who believe in antiscience. Their recommendations seem to be driven by several ideas:

  1. controversies about science are analogous to political campaigns;
  2. these campaigns need to be won;
  3. they are best won by appealing broadly to religious science deniers;
  4. through various specific techniques.

I said before that Nisbet and Mooney are wrong in several ways, and in Part 1 I explored the ways in which science controversies were not like political campaigns. In Part 2, I questioned whether there is any evidence that a broad appeal to science deniers is necessary to win public policy debates.

In this part, I’m going to wrap up the series with some observations about censoring Dawkins and Myers and the Overton window.

Excluding Myers and Dawkins

Nisbet notoriously told PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins to shut up, while Mooney said they help creationists. Both have said that if Myers and Dawkins are the voices of science, they do harm to the cause - whatever that cause is. These claims are supported by no research, which requires me to fall back on inadequate methods to decide if this is true or not.

So I did an Amazon author search on Matt Nisbet, and it tells me that

Your search “matt nisbet” did not match any products.

On the other hand, the same search on Richard Dawkins shows eleven pages and 132 results - including several best sellers that Dawkins wrote, and a bunch of general science education books that Dawkins did not write, but contributed to.

I’ve learned practically everything I know about evolution from Dawkins (and to a lesser extent Mayr and Zimmer). I’d never even heard of Matt Nisbet until he started to tell people what to do with their lives.

It is pretty clear on anecdotal grounds that Dawkins, at least, is doing a great job communicating science - he has wide exposure, and a knack for explaining complex subjects simply. By contrast, apparently Nisbet has no experience. But my objections to having the framists tell people to shut up, and say that they are doing harmful things when communicating science1, goes a little deeper than this anecdotal analysis2.

The Overton Method

In politics, there is a metaphor called by various names, but perhaps most widely by the term “Overton window.” What Overton actually described is a method for changing the range of acceptable opinions in public policy, and the “window” is a metaphor that describes public reactions to those ideas. It works like this.

If you have an issue, the range of opinions on which go from popular to unpopular, all you have to do to make the unpopular ideas more acceptable to the public is to start promoting even more unpopular ideas. By going to the extremes of the spectrum of opinion, and pushing what is considered acceptable, it becomes easier for people who embrace previously-marginal opinions to be taken seriously. Their standpoint looks downright mainstream. There’s a brief and somewhat inadequate treatment of the concept of the Overton window on Wikipedia.

One of the great examples of the Overton window was being played out in the late 60’s. At that time, race riots, militiant black groups, and similarly extreme political expressions were pushing hard on the Overton window. One result has been a significant advances in racial equality that probably would not have been achieved without the presence of an extreme wing of the civil rights movement. The presence of the Black Panthers on the political landscape made the Southern Christian Leadership Conference look very mainstream and acceptable by comparison, and most experts doubt that the SCLC would have achieved what it did if its ideas had not been mainstreamed by comparison to more radical movements.

There was, obviously, also a significant amount of backlash against civil rights as a result of the extremist activities. The Overton window cannot be shoved around with impunity; it exists in a complex environment of communication, and many things influence public perception. But the concept is, at least, not unknown; in presenting it, I’m trying to do something Nisbet and Mooney rarely do - to support my arguments with widely recognized and well-researched concepts from the communications and public policy social sciences.

Not long ago, there was a thread in the JREF forums discussing the thoroughly debunked vaccine-autism link and related issues. After noticing some bullying in the discussion - specifically, some petulant demands from a self-proclaimed expert communicator that someone make some recommendations about how to communicate about vaccination, if others thought it wasn’t being done effectively. I made some recommendations that were3 fairly radical. It turns out that the so-called experts contributing there didn’t seem to know about the Overton method. Their response to my recommendations was to suggest I was a Nazi. They didn’t recognize that by moving the Overton window more toward the side of pro-vaccine, pro-immunization interests, the anti-vaccination activists are inherently marginalized, even if the extreme views used to move the window are never adopted. These so-called communicators weren’t interested in discussing effective communication; they were interested in the status quo and in protecting their roles as gatekeepers in public health risk communication. Much like, I suspect, Nisbet and Mooney want to install themselves as the gatekeepers of science communication.

But if my recommendations on vaccination were to be carried out - as several of them are in the case of the recent measles outbreaks in Tucson and Salzburg - the evidence suggests that antivaccinationists would become more and more strongly marginalized. The public perception of antivaccinationists as extremist radicals, subscribers to a vast and implausible conspiracy theory, and as profiteers by way of frivolous litigation against health care providers, and sale of unregulated quack medicines, would go a long way to bolstering the pro-immunity cause. And the above frame has the additional virtue that it is all true.

Of course it is an open question whether there are better ways to accomplish this marginalization, or whether the Overton effect should be exploited in this way at all - but at least I know about about the Overton effect. The other self-styled experts in communicating vaccine risk issues weren’t able to discern that the communication technique I was advocating was (a) mainstream and (b) well-supported from evidence.

Nisbet and Mooney are in the same boat. They present no explanation of why Overton-ing the creationists is a bad idea. And in their more uncompromising statements, guess what role Dawkins and PZ Myers represent? They Overton the creationists. They make strong, loud, public acceptance of science and ridicule of antiscience acceptable. By doing so, they allow people like me to sneak pro-healthcare messages into presentations at religious schools4 without seeming like I am attacking the foundation of religion by telling religionists that they have to see a doctor, and not just beg their god to solve their problems.

The antiscience lobby have no shortage of people radically hard on the opposite end - Answers in Genesis, and Discovery Institute, for example - and by maintaining their public profile, Myers and Dawkins at the very least prevent the creationists from Overton-ing us. At the very most, they offer those of us in the trenches of science communication opportunities to tell the truth about things that we would never otherwise enjoy. Believe what you want about Myers and Dawkins, and what impact they are really making with the mainstream; but it is very hard to argue that their activities aren’t helping by using the Overton effect to our advantage, much like having good air cover is a good idea if you are planning to go to war.

Gratuitous Closing Thoughts

I’d encourage you to go out and take a look at what Nisbet has said in glossy publications (pdf) about framing science. This article provides a soft, largely statistics-free analysis of “framing” as it has been applied to various scientific controversies in the past, in several cases without the “framers” of the past understanding they have been engaged in “framing.” It is at certain points pretty remarkable:

Some critics have argued that scientists should stick to research and let media relations officers and science writers worry about translating the implications of that research. They are right: In an ideal world that’s exactly what should happen.

Which I of course reject wholeheartedly. I make it a habit to expose bad science communication and subject it to criticism here, and have previously nominated an award for worst science press release ever, called out UC Davis for totally screwing up a release, and have concluded another one was merely odd and bad. At least two of these had heavy help from the institutional media relations officers. The fact is that professional communicators cannot be trusted to communicate the truth about science, unless they have knowledge of the field. It is also worth pointing out that media relations officers are motivated by institutional concerns, not science communication concerns. I would rather have every press release talk competently about science; the institution would often rather have it bolster its public reputation in its community, protect it from criticism, or serve other purposes.

The article goes on to admit that scientists will nevertheless play a key role in communicating science, but then tells them they should go learn how to be a professional communicator before they screw this up. The only substantive recommendation about how to communicate science is an advocacy of audience-bridging, the only example provided being to bring inoffensive biology communication to fundamentalist biology deniers.

In an otherwise decent summary article about “framing” science, here again are the problems:

  1. There are no techniques offered about how to do this (other than, apparently, ‘be E. O. Wilson, and write a book just like his’).
  2. There are no statistics or other evidence showing that bridging to this particular audience is necessary,
  3. or possible.
  4. There is no research suggesting how this audience might be reached.
  5. There is no research showing that reaching a currently-marginalized, but more accessible, audience than this one is a less desirable way to expend limited resources.

The bottom line: The self-appointed “framers” of science are not doling out evidence based advice. Given that they combine their lack of evidence with a very offensive and poorly-framed message about how to communicate science, I’m thinking it is justified to disregard their suggestions.

  1. Especially when things like Answers in Genesis exist, and are taken seriously and not as parodies. Things like AiG actually do harm science education; the most incompetent pro-science communication duffer can’t harm it in comparison. []
  2. It has to go deeper than anecdotal analysis - because that’s all that Nisbet and Mooney seem to provide. []
  3. Deliberately. []
  4. Expect a video sometime this week. []

Nisbet, Mooney, and Framing - Part 2

Posted on March 31st, 2008 by blue collar scientist

In the first part of this series, I set out some understandings that I have about science framing as advocated by Nisbet and Mooney: First, that framing broadly understood is something we all do when we communicate on any issue, but that framing as it is associated with Nisbet and Mooney seems to me to be a set of disjointed, unsystematic techniques for communicating science, which avoids offending or alienating those who believe in antiscience. Their recommendations seem to be driven by several ideas:

  1. controversies about science are analogous to political campaigns;
  2. these campaigns need to be won;
  3. they are best won by appealing broadly to religious science deniers;
  4. through various specific techniques.

I said before that Nisbet and Mooney are wrong in several ways, and in part one I tackled how science controversies are not like political campaigns, informed by some of my own experience working in politics. In this part, I’m going to talk about the wisdom and effectiveness of appealing to science deniers.

Appealing to Science Deniers

If you want to win a public policy debate about sicence, like Nisbet and Mooney do, you need to get 51% of the vote. How best to do that?

Nisbet and Mooney say it is best done by avoiding alienating antisciencers. They want us to craft a message that is going to appeal to extremist religious people (evolution deniers, in other words) in order to depolarize the debate and unify the electorate so they - meaning religious antiscience extremists - can get behind our side of the issue. I’d call that a great idea, if it would work.

Will it work?

Nisbet and Mooney don’t know, and I will explain why they don’t know shortly. But for now, I’ll discuss this observation: political strategists often find it better, based on evidence, to polarize the debate.

We’ve all heard about - and Nisbet and Mooney occasionally cite - polling that describes the religious demographic in America. But this polling has not been designed to determine the implications for science-related policy debates. Nisbet and Mooney point to the polling and claim that the massive percentage of Americans who say they believe strongly in god means that we can’t afford to alienate them. But it could as easily be that we can’t afford not to alienate them if we want to win a policy debate.

Let’s explore this by looking at a somewhat different issue. Polling suggests that religious belief correlates with a desire to outlaw abortion and used armed government agents to prevent ladies from having them1. But could it be that something else correlates even more strongly with taking a position on abortion?

Maybe. The correlation between religion and the ban-abortion movement is considerably less than 100%, with wide swaths of organized Christianity being pro-choice. At least on paper, this includes many mainstream protestant groups, such as the Episcopalians, the Methodists, and many others. Even within the more conservative Catholic church, healthy groups of organized dissenters promote the idea that, while abortion is bad, other consequences might well be worse, and that the use of government force to ban the procedure is a bad idea. So religious belief correlates only about 60% or so2 with a desire to use government force to stop abortion.

But I can easily imagine a stronger correlation between knowing what a blastocyst is, and wanting abortion to be legal.

If you were a political operative, working from limited resources to ensure reproductive rights, which would you rather do - craft a message that appealed to all religious people, or craft a message that resulted in more people knowing what a bastocyst is? There is no certainly correct answer in this particular case. We can reasonably assume that any message in favor of legal abortion, no matter how well crafted, will fail to appeal to most religious people who want to ban it. Therefore, it could be that crafting a message that will not appeal to these people, but which will appeal more strongly to potential swing voters, would be the better idea. We don’t know how to do that because we don’t have a good characterization of the populations at issue.

We also don’t have that kind of characterization in science controversies - and Nisbet and Mooney don’t either. Their recommendations are based on the flimsiest of evidence culled from studies of communication of unrelated issues. Nisbet and Mooney have done no research3 to determine whether their advice is really any good. Is there something that is a better correlate to science acceptance than religion? They have no idea. If there was such a thing, it might be better to craft messages to appeal to that thing - but nobody knows whether this is true.

So why should I take Nisbet and Mooney’s advice if they can provide no evidence showing whether it is good or not?

Moving on…. It is a routine goal of political operatives to “wedge” the groups they want to get votes from. The metaphor is that of driving a wedge into firewood to split it, and the creationists used this metaphor in the naming of their “wedge strategy” - a strategy that is hardly unique amongst public policy campaigns.

The technique begins by finding a population you’d like to get votes from - in Nisbet and Mooney’s case, it is religious people - and picking at disagreements within that community. Although we would think that people having something in common would hang together rather than separately, this is rarely the case. Amongst religious people, it is almost laughably easy to wedge Catholics against Baptists by exploiting their relatively small differences in order to overcome the solidarity otherwise enjoyed as a result of their massive agreements. And if you can appeal to a small percentage of a population, it can sometimes put you over the top in votes. Let’s say you are polling 48% today, having paid no special attention to the religious population Nisbet and Mooney want us to appeal to. If we could snag 10% of the votes from that population, what could we win by? Not unusually, in real political campaigns, the difference could result in six points, bringing a candidate to 54%, a strong win. In such cases, it is a no-brainer. You wedge that group, perhaps deliberately pissing off 90% of them in an attempt to get the ten percent you can appeal to. You do this because it is easier to accomplish than to successfully appeal to everyone in that population.

Should we do this in science debates? I have no idea from evidence. I have no polling that indicates who we might wedge or whether it would be effective. I only have anecdotal experience to guide my way. But my point is that Nisbet and Mooney are just as naive: they don’t offer up any such polling either. They act as though we have to appeal to, or at least avoid offending, all religious people, without having bothered to look at whether we really do. That may sound great if you are unaware of how common using a wedge is, but glossing over why you shouldn’t wedge the opposition doesn’t pass muster if you have real experience in the field of public policy communication.

Finally, Nisbet and Mooney are naive on one other point as well. It involves the “base.” The “base” are the people you can count on to vote for you, no matter what - if they vote. You have to keep them motivated enough to show up at the polls. If you alienate them, make them feel like second-class citizens by reaching out to people they don’t like and don’t understand, will you keep their support? They won’t vote for the alternative, but they might not vote at all, and that’s the problem. The example provided by thousands of political campaigns shows that alienating the base by trying to appeal too broadly is a real danger. Elections have been lost in this manner.

How is this an issue in the science debates? I can give at least one example. The state of Florida was recently subjected to an onslaught of creationist lobbying against good science standards for public schools, coordinated by out-of-state lobbyists and apparently paid for with out-of-state money. This was fought off by and large as a result of the work of Florida Citizens for Science. Now, if Dawkins and PZ Myers go quiet like Nisbet and Mooney childishly demand, what happens to the base? Will the activists working at these kind of tasks decide it just isn’t worth it if they lack air cover from such heavy hitters?

I’d be very worried about that, myself. I’d be worried enough that I’d be doing some polling to find out “what happens if” we make this broad appeal to religion and squelch Myers and Dawkins. Have Nisbet and Mooney done such polling?

No.

So why be so reckless? We don’t have good evidence about what to do here, but we can at least pay attention to what evidence there is, and that evidence suggests that Nisbet and Mooney propose something dangerous.

In the next (and I think final) installment, I will talk about specific tactics for use in this debate, and about the Overton window, and why Nisbet and Mooney’s ignoring that concept is dangerous.

  1. See that bit of framing I did there? []
  2. I’m relaying from memory some poll results shared with me by a Planned Parenthood board member. This shouldn’t be assumed to be accurate; my point still stands whether the correlation is 55% or 95%. []
  3. That I can find, at least. []

Nisbet, Mooney, and Framing - Part 1

Posted on March 28th, 2008 by blue collar scientist

As is well known, prominent science framing advocates Nisbet, and less explicitly Mooney, have recently told PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins that they should stop talking about science because they do more harm than good. I promised before that I would be making some remarks on this topic, so here they are. I’m going to split up what would be a long post into smaller parts, so this is part 1.

In this discussion, the word “framing” has two meanings.

The first is the general concern that every communicator has with the manner in which their message will be received. We all figure out how to say what we are saying in what we hope will be the most effective way. This has been well-described by Mark over at Good Math, Bad Math, in the event you want to read more.

The second meaning is framing as advocated by Nisbet and Mooney, and this is mostly what these posts are addressing. They propose what I find to be a disjointed, unsystematic set of techniques for communicating science which avoids offending or alienating those who believe in antiscience. Their ideas seem to be driven by several ideas:

  • controversies about science are analogous to political campaigns;
  • these campaigns need to be won;
  • they are best won by appealing broadly to religious science deniers;
  • through various specific techniques.

Nisbet and Mooney are wrong in many different ways, and for many different reasons. I’m going to discuss some of them.

Science Controversies aren’t Political Campaigns

I have a fair amount of experience working on political campaigns, starting with a hometown mayoral race, and ending up working on several campaigns for statewide and national offices. I stopped working in politics after college, preferring to concentrate first on earning a living, and later not so much on earning a living as doing something I liked (working in astronomy).

Science controversies have some parallels to a political campaign, but not very many. In a campaign, the task is to convince voters to vote for your candidate. By and large, this is done by crafting appealing opinions. The opinions are arguable - they may or may not be factual, and proposed actions can often never be proven to be better than some other proposed action. And you don’t have to look good to voters in order to win - you just have to look better than the other candidate.

While facts may inform peoples’ opinions, a campaign is not asking voters to accept facts. “Vote for me and I will kick start the economy by building a bridge across the river” is not a fact-based message. Building the bridge might be a good thing to do economically, but how would you really know? Such a proposal is phenomenologically too complex to model1; it is subject to a great many variables, and voters aren’t in a position to understand whether the claim is factual or not. Most voters will vote on the basis of whether they want a bridge, not on the basis of whether the bridge will actually result in the things the candidate promises. Consequently, the goal of a political campaign is to make voters want the bridge, and to make your candidate look good for wanting to do something everyone else wants to do.

Science controversies, such as the evolution vs. creationism debate, are fundamentally different. For one thing, a creationist will never want evolution. Making that appeal will go nowhere. But more fundamentally, unlike the question of the consequences of building a bridge over the river, there are facts at issue in any science controversy. In the case of the evolution-creationism controversy, the facts are incontrovertible, but denied by one side. Unlike bridge building, the phenomenology of evolution is subject to good modeling and has a sound evidentiary basis, in a way that bridge economics and other public policy and electoral issues do not.

Nisbet and Mooney seem to think that science is a superior opinion to hold than, say, creationism. Unfortunately, that’s wrong; science is not a matter of opinion, but of facts and the best available explanations of those facts as determined by a sound methodology. Science is not a matter of opinion.

As far as I’m concerned, Nisbet and Mooney’s seeming presupposition is false: Science controversies are not like political campaigns, and as a result the rhetorical tools we need to employ within such a controversy need to be different from those used in political campaigns.

But it goes a bit deeper than that.

Some scientific facts are inherently incompatible with some religious beliefs. I know from personal experience that promoting these facts irritates a small minority of religious people. So far, I have not found a way to say that the universe is billions of years old, or explain how we know that, without sending at least some young-earth creationists into spitting fits of defensive, hysterical hostility. Discussing these facts clearly antagonizes them, but Nisbet and Mooney say that I’m not supposed to do that to creationists, and that we’ll never get our message across if that happens.

As an aside: Maybe I won’t get my message across to the creationist that gets unhinged when I mention the facts, but what about the other people in the room? I can be pretty sure I’ve reached most of them.

Nisbet and Mooney don’t say so explicitly, but it sure looks to me as though they are telling me to not talk about any scientific results or methods that have a chance of offending religious people. And here’s where I have the problem.

I consider the task of science communication to be to communicate science - to tell the truth about what is known about our universe - so I can’t accept Nisbet and Mooney’s version of framing. As far as I can see, Nisbet and Mooney would have us teaching a caricature of science, one that has its most remarkable - and difficult to accept - discoveries played down, or suppressed, so as not to be offensive to the superstitious.

Unfortunately that’s the kind of science communication we’ve had in the United States for my entire lifetime. That kind of science teaching is what has landed us in this boat. We do not need more of the same.

Next edition: How to really win a policy debate, and the trouble with appealing to science deniers.

  1. At the present time. []

Ruth Cronje on Science Education

Posted on March 21st, 2008 by blue collar scientist

Ruth Cronje, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and I agree that science education and communication must focus on the scientific process, not on scientific data, in order to be meaningful. She has published a letter in the journal Science which ought not to be ignored by the UC Davis PR apparatus and anyone else trying to communicate scientific issues.

Martin at Aardvarchaeology has a terrific post on scientism that we’ve blogged about before, that touches on these issues. Martin is rightly pointing out that physical scientists interpret their data, and that the interpretation of the data is where the scientific work gets done. Data is just data, and it is neither interesting nor useful until you’ve come up with a way to draw some conclusions about it. That realization, which came to me while doing research on minor solar system bodies, has guided my science education efforts ever since. If you go to one of my talks, you are going to see a slide about the scientific method, and you are going to hear how we learned what we know about the subject. Without that fundamental material, any attempt to communicate a scientific concept is worse than wasted: I believe that science communication divorced from method is harmful and that the culture of science communicators needs to change drastically.

Dr. Cronje is reacting to science framing. Framing is a rhetorical technique used for many hundreds of years in politics, which is well adapted to influencing opinions about subjects in which there is no clear-cut right answer. Its application to science communication has been puerile, ham-fisted, amateurish, and devastatingly damaging to the public perception of science.

Some highlights of the letter, with my emphasis:

[C]onfining science messages to just the facts interferes with public understanding of science as a systematic, logical process of human inquiry and effaces the distinction between data and scientists’ reasoning about data.

Scientists tend to shy away from revealing the intrinsic skepticism of science to the public, fearful that it will open the door to doubt about the validity of their conclusions. But communicating only the facts of science (framed or unframed) destabilizes public confidence in science. A fact doesn’t allow science communicators to reveal, justify, and ultimately promote the skeptical reasoning process that helps make scientists more confident that their reasoning is correct.

A “just the facts” strategy can and often does backfire, ultimately fueling public alienation from science. When scientists inform the public of “facts” (like the “fact” widely disseminated in the 1970s that all dietary fats are bad for us), and then that “fact” is refined or altered (now we’re told olive oil is good for us), the public is justifiably confused. Studies suggest that the public tends to regard normal scientific refinement and self-correction as equivocation or incompetence.

“Successful” science communication should not be regarded as any message that enlists public support for science. Rather, we should define “success” in scientific communication as achieving a public that celebrates scientific reasoning procedures.

I think that Dr. Cronje is absolutely correct when she asserts1 that scientists frequently focus on facts because they are afraid. I will be forgiven, I hope, for expecting researchers to be as brave about explaining their own research as I am when I explain it.

And Dr. Cronje’s exposition explains admirably why I consider the UC Davis press release I blogged about to be a negative contribution to science communication - that is, something that actively harms the public reputation of science.

I hate to quote so much material and have so little to add. Many of my thoughts were recently written up in the post about the UC Davis press release - to which UC Davis responded by saying, essentially, “oh, we’re not so bad,” while failing to provide any methodological context for the facts asserted in their terrible press release. They don’t get it. I don’t expect them to give any real thought to what I say, but perhaps Dr. Cronje will have more influence.

Hat tip to Larry Moran, who reproduces the letter in its entirety.

  1. She provides citations in her letter to sources that support her various views, including this one. []