Wednesday, March 26, 2008

On the Framing of Framing

An open letter to Matt Nisbet of the blog Framing Science in response to his claim that the hubbub around PZ Myer's being expelled from a screening of Expelled is "really, really bad for science."

Dear Dr. Nisbet,

With the benefit of hindsight, I thought we might try to learn a lesson from your recent exchange with Dr. Myers. I think your message had some valuable content, but (I'm sorry about irony -- no sarcasm intended) that message could have been better framed.

I'm not interested in criticizing, but I think it is worth exploring what alternative frames might have been used. Here's one suggestion for how your message might look if framed differently:

Title: PZ Frames the Expellers!

The recent accounts of PZ's ironic expulsion from a showing of Expelled (a showing he was legitimately signed up for) reveal the frame that the movie is trying to set to undermine evolution. Their goal is to portray evolutionary biologists as intrinsically and irrationally opposed to all religion: to convince the public that scientists are actively trying to convert students to atheism in the science classroom.

This is presumably part of the reason that they set their sights on PZ and Dawkins, who are prominent atheists as well as being biologists, and lied to them to get interviews for their movie. It worries me that having PZ and Dawkins in the limelight during the debate over Expelled will help Stein, Mathis, et al. push forward their frame. I'd prefer it if Francis Ayala or Ken Miller could be in the spotlight (together with the National Center for Science Education, AAAS, and the National Academies), since this would more effectively undermine the film's intended message that much of current science is really atheism in disguise.

But if the current fiasco by the Expelled folks is any indication, maybe I shouldn't worry. They're going to have trouble shaking the frame that they (and anyone associated with them) are a pathetic bunch of dishonest buffoons who deserve no trust whatsoever. PZ and Dawkins are doing a great job right now of pushing the "Science = Honesty & Truth, and Creationism = Lies & Stupidity" frame.

Let me point to some of the advantages of this frame:

1. While it cautions PZ (and Dawkins) that the "science leads to atheism" theme is a message that is counterproductive in this fight, it packages it in a palatable way: You aren't setting up a conflict between yourself and PZ, instead you're on PZ's side against a common enemy: Stein and Mathis. You're not saying that he should watch his mouth because you say so, or because if he doesn't then he doesn't really "care about promoting public trust in science and science education." Instead you're just pointing out the attack of your common enemy (while opposing that attack with your comrade PZ), in a way that makes your point about the most effective way to counter that attack.

2. It doesn't presume to place yourself above someone who is already up to his waist in the battle, and who was sucked into that battle against his will by the dishonesty of the Expelled folks. PZ really can't lie low (even if he wanted to, which he doesn't) because he's in the movie. The new frame doesn't present you as lecturing someone who (many think) is extremely successful in countering creationist nonsense and promoting science.

3. It promotes the message that the creationists are idiots and have lost a major battle. This episode is (or at least might be) a huge opportunity to show the public what stupid liars the Expelled crew are. You worry that the publicity could help the film succeed, but there is absolutely no opportunity now to prevent such publicity. What you can do is help prevent their PR folks from putting a positive spin on the episode. They really screwed up in a huge way (imagine how much you'd be sweating if you were in their shoes), and they know it -- they're in big-time damage control mode. Now is not the time to divert that message by attacking the heros of the story.

4. The new frame doesn't compare scientists who have devoted their life to discovering and communicating the truth about the world with politicians whose words are to be judged only by popularity. Indeed, the earlier comparison is made all the more insulting by the suggestion that these politicians are morally superior to the truth-speaking scientist. And again, it avoids the frame of "if you were as intelligent as I am, you'd know that you should shut up and let me and other smart (or at least non-selfish) people do the talking." That's a frame that most people don't like.

5. It focuses on the positive rather than the negative. It praises PZ for his successes, and tries to push him in a desired direction; it doesn't say that his actions are "Really, Really Bad for Science." How do you feel when someone tells you that what you're doing is really really bad for your chosen cause? (Note that many people above actually hold this opinion. Is it productive?)

6. It tries to offer some constructive advice on framing. It suggests a frame that might help the common cause of science education. It avoids slipping into the "be quiet and don't speak your mind" frame (it is a theme of Expelled that this frame dominates science). You can express your wish that others be the spokespersons without suggesting that PZ (& Dawkins) should refuse to grant interviews or speak their minds when asked direct questions. You might suggest some messages for them to try to communicate in interviews (carefully framing your suggestions so that it doesn't seem like you're lecturing your seniors), such as the message that many scientists are theists, that in the movie they were speaking of their own personal histories, that science itself is neutral on many religious issues, that scientists have a very strong sense of ethics -- especially when it comes to issues like honesty, and that Expelled is thoroughly dishonest . . .