Monday, September 10, 2007

Framing science done by a master

Scientists opposed to "framing" science keep asking for an example of what framing science looks like when done well. Here's a very good example in Carl Safina's description of an effort to raise awareness of climate change.

I challenge PZ Myers, Jason Rosenhouse and other haters of framing to consider what Carl is doing and respond. And...for those who say what is this about...the question is how can we get scientific information to play a bigger role in public policy. Some say "frame" the science so people can hear the message. Some others say "framing" is wrong

This is especially timely in light of the plea from climate scientist Michael Tobis yesterday, asking

"Why can't scientists make themselves heard?"


"the central issue of this blog, is how legitimate science, not the institution but the body of legitimate knowledge that the institution produces, can establish trust in the political community, in competition with the cherry-picking that private interests are so good at spinning into a skewed story."

Answer: read Carl Safina's piece, and call him if you don't understand what he's doing. He's building trust across a cultural divide in hopes of getting an important scientific message heard. He's showing religious leaders first hand about climate change, and its natural and human cost, and trying to recruit them to help use the science and fight the problem.

So you stone-throwers determined to "defeat" religion and expunge "superstition" from our culture. Go ahead and shout about why nobody cares about science in the US if you want, but if you really want to change things (instead of just hearing yourselves rant), then go learn from Carl Safina about changing the world.

Way to go Carl, and thanks.


Anonymous said...

It's great that you highlighted this. There's another master communicating science to the public, and he's David Attenborough. His premiere—a new documentary showing how climate change is impacting our changing world now—was shown on UKTV (via SKY) a week ago. I hope it gets wider coverage soon.

Some people think that it is spectacular video footage and Sir David's passionate approach to nature that are keys to his success. However, in addition to those aspects, i.e. beyond the wonderful imagery and his inspiring attitude, I think Sir David's determination to be accurate and his careful choice of words increase the power and credibility of his message. More on this in my post here.

Studying good examples, like Safina's and Attenborough's, and understanding what makes them successful, is a very effective approach to learning (or being reminded) how to communicate with audiences. Grade schoolers can appreciate and practise choosing powerful words that work.

By contrast, talking round and round the subject of framing science with an academic air rarely results in a useful outcome. (At least, I haven't seen one produced by that method yet …)

There is another high-level science-media interchange example you might be interested in: world-class scientists met with top U.S. newspaper editors at Stanford University last Wednesday to talk about news coverage of climate change, to good effect it seems. More face-to-face roundtables like this (or even one-on-one meetups over coffee) need to happen beyond blogworld ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for helping propagate the message. As long as we keep science away from the public, as long as we refuse to talk with people who don't already agree with us, we get the politics and policies we have. Time for a different approach. A lot of people are sick of the culture wars and the old culture warriors are dying or retiring. We need healing, and we need to get to work to solve the mess we're in. Your positive response is much appreciated. If you're ever on the East Coast, let me know.

Carl Safina

Anonymous said...

Here is what goes through my mind when I see stories like this:

In the debate over the environment, I don't understand why religion is ever needed to help frame anything. Why isn't the frame "you should take care of the environment and make smart consumer choices for the sake of your children and grandchildren because of X, Y and Z" not enough? Why is a god necessary to persuade them on this point? Hasn't the will of pretty much everyones god been abused enough throughout history?

Greg Laden said...


Here is my response to your challenge.


Greg Laden

Blader said...

The uselessness of 'framing' in front of some evangelicals on the cruise ship is that under the best of circumstances, you'll convince them to pray really hard for your issue.

And if the science is as right as it seems, we're probably just about out of time for prayer.

Or at the very least we'd need a more durable solution.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion you are either talking past, misrepresenting or ignoring the opinions of the people who are opposed to "framing." Keep in mind that PZ's commenters are not PZ.

Matthew Nisbett's complaint is that atheist scientists should not be vocal about their atheism because sensitive Christians will be turned away without looking at the science behind issues such as global warming, special extinction, overfishing, North Slope drilling and so on.

Their reply is, although much more eloquently stated than I can manage, is that science is science and while there may be ways to express it so that it becomes more open to the general public, hiding their personal positions is dishonest and no way to serve the public.

As an atheist, and a non-scientists who is nonetheless concerned about global warming and other environmental issues, I am thrilled that there are some evangelicals who have joined Carl Safina in working on raising awareness. But I don't see anywhere in his post that he had to say "Jesus wants us to do it that way" in order for them to come along with him.

The way that Matthew Nisbett "frames" framing is to refer to atheists as a "Noise Machine" and that if they just wouldn't say anything.

How about looking at it like this: Instead of patronizing Christians, scientists who are atheists should be honest with them about their atheism. The ones who are turned off by this probably aren't going to be very reliable partners in fighting global warming, anyway. The ones who are strong enough to think of the science as being science will appreciate the honesty.

The big problem with science is not the atheists involved in science, it is the mass of distractions that we have in popular society. People can't be bothered with science if we are concerned about who will be the Next American Idol, how short Britney's hair is, who is going to win Survivor: China or whether or not the Red Sox are going to win the world series.

You can't popularize science by telling anyone to "Sit down and shut up." You just have to make a good case for public concern.

Mark Powell said...

The key point is don't call people idiots and expect them to listen calmly to what you say and come around to your arguments. Call them idiots and they won't hear anything else you say.

Atheists should be honest about their atheism, especially with religious people. But that doesn't mean calling them names. Calling them delusional isn't likely to open their minds to your great data on global warming.

Build trust with people, and you might be surprised about how you can work together on shared values, even if they don't share all of your values.

How would I approach a religious person about climate change? I'd talk about our moral responsibility to protect our home, and to clean up our messes. I'd talk about CO2 and climate change as one of our biggest messes ever, one that needs our most diligent efforts starting immediately.

No need to mention God or atheism. If asked, I'd say I was an atheist, but not denigrate their beliefs, because that would be a distraction and a sure way to turn them off to my stewardship message.

How hard is that to understand? It's framing, and it works.

And, I won't tell PZ or his commenters to shut up. I think open atheism is a good thing. Where it's nasty to religious people, it is my opinion that it probably doesn't win many converts. Is that atheist-bashing?

Anonymous said...


it is true that calling people idiots or delusional isn't going to make them want to listen.

However, the conflict between science and religion (where the "framing wars" are fought) is not recent.

Melting glaciers and transitional fossils have been around for quite a while. And their existence has been denied for decades. Dawkins and others? They showed up recently. Blaming them for public resistance to science is nothing short of...well, idiotic.

There has never been a time when scientific data was more accessible then today. Yet most people in religious organizations are not even bothering to check. These evangelicals who went to see the glaciers? Kudos to them. Most evangelical "skeptics of global warming"? Go ahead and try. There is no way you would ever be able to get them to go.

Framing science, in the sense of trying to present scientific information in a friendly manner, is not a problem. Everyone tries to do that.

Framing science, in the sense that everyone should tiptoe against people who are violently, hatefully opposed to facts...does it do any good? History doesn't seem to support this approach.