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:
- 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.
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 science, goes a little deeper than this anecdotal analysis.
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 were 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 schools 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:
- There are no techniques offered about how to do this (other than, apparently, ‘be E. O. Wilson, and write a book just like his’).
- There are no statistics or other evidence showing that bridging to this particular audience is necessary,
- or possible.
- There is no research suggesting how this audience might be reached.
- 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.