Framed

I haven’t before really taken sides in this whole “framing” debate, which crops up occasionally on the ScienceBlogs. On one side, you have folks like Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet calling for more competent framing of the science debates, calling for more outreach and softer language so as to get moderate Christians on the side of science and reason, calling for people to stop connecting science with atheism so strongly. On the other side, you have folks like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, who are very successful at getting their message out to the public, and who do their best to promote science and atheism to the masses.

Up ’til this point, I thought I could see the value in the framers’ side of things, but that they woefully misunderstood what Myers and Dawkins were trying to accomplish. Myers and Dawkins are working not only to promote science, but to (to borrow Dawkins’ phrasing) raise consciousness about religion and promote positive atheism. They’re doing darn good jobs on all fronts, from my perspective, and I think each front is necessary and has its utility.

Science does need better promotion; it seems to me that we’ve been somewhat adrift since Carl Sagan died and Stephen Hawking left the media spotlight. I’m not sure why Neil DeGrasse Tyson hasn’t completely overtaken that role, since he certainly seems suited and qualified, but I suspect it has a great deal to do with the current climate in the United States and prevailing attitudes regarding science and religion. People aren’t as excited about astronomy and NASA as they ought to be, and the only science that seems to make it to the front pages is what’s on the front lines against religion and conservatism: environmental science and biology. The pendulum has swung precisely toward Richard Dawkins, and his recent releases have been expertly timed to take advantage of the current climate.

Religion does need to be booted out of its privileged place in our social discourse. It does absolutely need to be opened up to question and criticism, and that need is underscored by its current role in American politics. We have a President who consults far-right Christian leaders on a weekly basis with regard to national policy, we have a bevy of political programs designed to promote specific religious organizations, and we have a concerted effort on all fronts to legislate conservative religious morals over people who don’t agree. Religious groups are fighting tooth and nail against education, science, and progress in general, and in many places they’re winning. If religion were the personal thing that it ought to be, this wouldn’t be a problem. When it inserts itself into the public sphere, when it tries to create policies that affect the rest of us, then it can no longer enjoy the untouchable place it might retain as a private process. Religionists can’t have it both ways; they can’t have their personal, private, untouchable convictions and also try to impose those convictions over the rest of us. Something has to give, and since it doesn’t look like the religion-genie is going back into its bottle, then it must be opened up to question, critique, and ridicule.

And positive atheism does need to be promoted. How many of us have been or have known the person who says “I didn’t know there was anyone else who thought the same way”? The phrase is becoming less common, and that’s largely due to the easy availability of atheist thought through popular books and blogs. Atheism is moving from a shameful secret to an open movement, and that is a good thing for atheists, and for religious freedom in general.

So, it seemed to me that the framers either neglected to note that Myers’ and Dawkins’ goals were more widespread than their own, or that they did not see the value in the latter two goals, only that they seemed to undermine the first. They were talking past one another, because neither side seemed to realize what the other’s goals were. And so I more or less ignored the debate, having no particular stake in either side.

But things have somewhat exploded following the Expelled-from-Expelled debacle, and it’s become increasingly clear that there’s something wrong on the framing side of things.

First, we have a chorus of people claiming that this controversy helps Expelled‘s exposure, and “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” or something. The existence of bad publicity is something of a matter for debate; both sides in this argument have brought up the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” though I think that pretty much proves the old adage wrong. I can see how this increased exposure might be beneficial for Expelled, but I think the overwhelmingly bad reviews might counteract some of that.

And it’s worthwhile to note that this isn’t the first time the film has gotten bad press in the New York Times, though some seem to think it is. For the scientists involved to get a chance to rebut the movie’s claims and call out the producers for obvious dishonesty and hypocrisy even before the film’s limited opening seems like a good thing for our side.

Anyway, Matt Nisbet wrote a screed (quoted here) telling Dawkins and Myers to “Lay low and let others do the talking” as Expelled hits theaters, and to defer any questions or comments to scientists more congenial to religion. He explicitly compares them to Samantha Powers and Geraldine Ferraro, as though either of them has specifically insulted someone on the other side (or worse, made explicitly racist comments) and should step down. He calls for other people to “play the role of communicator” of science, apparently unconscious of why Dawkins and Myers might be considered communicators of science (i.e., because they communicate effectively and people like their message enough to read it widely, not because of any top-down appointment), and apparently ignorant of the fact that Myers and Dawkins are speaking out because Myers and Dawkins specifically appear in the film. What message would it send if Myers and Dawkins sat out the movie’s release and subsequent commentary? I know just how the Creobots would frame it–that PZ and Dawkins were ashamed that they’d been exposed for the Big Science conspirators they were, that the claims in the film hit too close to home, that they were scared to admit that the Creationists were right. Silence from the participants would only help the message of Expelled.

PZ, understandably, replied, saying “fuck you very much.” I thought it was apropos. Short, terse, and dismissive, precisely what such a vapid sentiment warranted.

So the new chorus began, about how PZ was being impolite and uncivil, that he was acting like a spoiled child.

And then there’s this, which is fucking ridiculous. Somehow, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Chris Mooney’s blog partner, can say with a straight face that PZ should “mind his manners” and “That kind of language and reaction is simply unacceptable on and off the blogosphere,” and then go on to accuse him of not acting like an adult, of being an adolescent. Mooney echoes the sentiments in the comment thread.

Really? Really? You people are actually going to cry foul at PZ because he used a naughty word? And you call him the adolescent? Last I checked, adults were supposed to be mature enough to handle the use of swear words. I was under the impression that adults recognized that words are words, regardless of how many letters they contain, and that all words were useful in certain contexts. I thought that adults could recognize that whether or not one uses so-called “bad words,” it’s the substance of one’s statement that matters.

That the Framing proponents would attack PZ for breaking some kind of blogosphere no-profanity rule smacks of missing just about every possible point, and it sounds as if they’re blogging in a vacuum (where is this Internet etiquette rulebook?), which seriously calls into question their expertise on how people will react to things.

That’s the heart of framing, right? So far as I understand it, it’s one part tact, one part spin, and one part bending over backwards to win approval.

The first part is the one I can get behind entirely. The very basics of effective communication are knowing your audience, choosing your battles wisely, and using appropriate language for the situation. Here’s a brief example just from my experience tonight: I’m in a discussion-based class, and at one point we were supposed to discuss what some of the key problems are in society. I could have piped up with “religion;” about half the class (teacher included) knows I’m an atheist, so it wouldn’t be unexpected, but I decided to let it be. I didn’t want to have to get into why I was saying it, or into the twisty word games of “well, not all religious people, but certain organizations, and…” that would almost inevitably have to follow. I knew my audience (and moreover, didn’t see any reason to offend most of them unnecessarily) and chose not to fight that particular battle. Later in the class, we were discussing why women were marginalized by society. Now, this was a more worthwhile battle, in part because it was far easier to justify. But while I could have said “religion,” or “the Abrahamic faiths, which have throughout history characterized women in a negative, inferior, subservient light,” I didn’t. In part, this was because I (again) didn’t want to unnecessarily offend my class; in part, it was because I knew the problem went farther than just the Abrahamic religions (Greek mythology does it too, and there are some particularly odious doctrines of this sort in Buddhism). So what I said was “various patriarchal religions” (there may have been slightly more to it, but that’s the bulk of the comment). If I were blogging here about the question, I would’ve been a lot more long-winded and less diplomatic in my assessment.

So I get the call for being tactful, and I’m sure Myers and Dawkins do too. Both are clearly generally aware of their respective audiences; it’s a large part of why they’re so popular.

The spin aspect is something I understand, but I don’t support it quite as readily. It’s important, especially in politics, to be able to present information in a way that supports your position, that works to persuade and present your side of a given debate in a positive light. The problem is that spin doctoring often only works through subtle misrepresentation and lying by omission, neither of which are particularly in the scientific spirit. It’s fine to present scientific findings and the scientific method in a positive light, in order to win supporters, but the spin ought to be minimal, lest it come back to bite us in the collective ass. And there’s certainly a problem with the repeated exhortations that we tell religionists how there’s no conflict between science and religion: it places reality in the subservient role. Granted, there are plenty who would do that anyway, but when we say “no no, you can fit evolution into your religious beliefs!” we’re making a mistake. It’s the religion that needs to fit reality, and not the other way around. The process may be tough on religion (it always is; see also: Galileo), but eventually mainstream religion must adapt to our changing knowledge of reality, not the other way around. It happened with Galileo and heliocentrism, it happened with Ben Franklin and lightning, and it’ll happen with Darwin and evolution as well. Mainstream religion will fit their worldview to the scientific facts, and the conservative fundamentalists will be left behind to deny reality on their own, just like the flat-earthers and geocentrists. But for that to happen, science needs to stand its ground and say “look, here’s the evidence, e pur si evolve,” not “well, if you just look at it from this point of view, reality totally fits into your worldview.” Let the progressive religionists and theologians tell their flocks how religion and science mesh; it just looks like grasping at straws when our side does it.

It’s the “don’t ever offend anyone” attitude of the framers that I can’t stand. It’s at the heart of their calls for someone else (i.e., someone who isn’t an outspoken atheist) to be the “spokesperson” for science, it’s at the heart of their criticism of PZ for using naughty language, and it’s at the heart of their misunderstanding of effective communication, so far as I see it. There is a value in stopping the buck, in being blunt, in calling spades spades and bullshit bullshit. It’s why James Randi has been gainfully employed for the last several decades, it’s why Penn and Teller are getting a sixth season of their award-winning series. There’s a time for being diplomatic, for playing good cop and making friends with the other side and smoothing out the difficulties, and there’s a time for being terse, for playing bad cop and shocking people out of their complacent little bubbles. There’s a reason that “straight talker” is a compliment. The Framers seem to think that people never learn unless you slather the information in honey and sugar to help it go down. They don’t understand that sometimes it works to say “take your damn medicine.”

So until this point I haven’t put much thought into the whole “Framing” debate, but Sheril and Chris’s Puritan “Mommy Mommy, PZ made a swear!” outrage, their holier-than-thou “shame on you” attitude, really made me consider the issue. And it seems to me that the only things they bring to the debate are either common sense (being tactful) or misguided (spin, being totally unoffensive, not seeing the good in promoting atheism and attacking religion).

And the result of all that advice to increase successful science promotion? I can only speak for myself, but I’ve long been planning to pick up Chris Mooney’s book “The Republican War on Science,” though I hadn’t quite gotten around to it. Mooney was even at the top of the short list of people I wanted to invite to speak for Darwin Club a couple of years back, though that didn’t pan out. My opinion of him has plummeted; at this point, if I do ever read his book, I’ll just borrow it from a friend.

I can’t help but think that wasn’t the intended effect.

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