Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Diversity and Framing

On the framing issue, Chris C. Mooney has asked Where do we actually disagree? I think this is an important question, but maybe not in the way Mooney intended.

Science functions through disagreement. Sometimes we like to consider science as the sum of all our not-yet-falsified theories. Other times we like to focus on the abstract methodology that shapes all of our research. But at its core, science requires disagreements for it to function properly. A scientific theory gains value the more it survives intense scrutiny. When we talk about interpreting science for the public, we need to remember that the scientific narrative is a history of disagreements.

Where I disagree with Mooney and the other framers is in this (unstated?) assumption that there is one right way to reach the general public or any particular segment of the public. Education and communication do not work so neatly. Certainly we can hope to improve our methods by dialogging about them, but we will always need diversity in our approaches to reaching out. If we are all doing our part toward the public understanding in our own ways (and being reflective in the process), we might be able to reach a broader portion of the public simply through the diversity of our own voices. Shutting out voices runs contrary to one of the greatest lessons society can learn from science: diversity and openness work.

Maybe its the way that the framing issue has erupted (and the way Myers and Dawkins are targeted), but in my mind it seems like the framing arguments require we hold back on our already limited diversity. Certainly, a great communicator needs to tailor their message's form to the audience, but sometimes audiences find their communicator rather than the other way around. If we want to be true to our message, we need honesty and we need to encourage others to do their own thing.

I think the disagreements we have as scientists could play an important part in public understanding of science. One of the key problems we need to overcome is the misconception that we are all socially-awkward bearded old men in white coats. We know that scientists are not unified, neither intellectually nor culturally. Even within our areas of specialty, we disagree strongly and loudly with one another at every conference we hold. One failing of popular science sources is that these real debates do not often reach the public, who are instead given debates between scientists (or spokespeople for us, like Gore) and deniers with little to no role in resolving the controversy outside of media or politics. We need to get our real disagreements out there, as best we can, and show people how consensus is reached so that the next time we need to emphasize the consensus on an issue the public understands how long and involved the process was that got us there.

Somewhat tangentially: An unresolved issue I have with the framing position is that the frames audiences love most are too often bad for the message. How often have you turned on the TV and seen a programme on UFOs, crop circles, Big Foot, etc., and been disappointed by the lack of skepticism or consideration of real evidence? The public's desire for mystery and controvery makes these shows much less informative (often bordering on the disinformative). In the same way, the popular science frame of underdog research team versus Big Science actually undermines the public's understanding of how scientists work. I'm sure Nesbit, Mooney, and others don't want to spread disinformation, but we need to realize that accepting the frames already provided to us by the media/public can be counterproductive.

We need new narratives, and likely, we need narratives unlike any that have been worked to death since the Akkadian was up-and-coming slang. If such a thing can even be found.

I admit, I have no witty solutions or suggestions. I'm among those geeky white middle-class former Nader-voters who have given up on commercial media. Although I understand there are a few good shows out there (like Mythbusters, apparently), I personally can't imagine working with the news or documentary networks in their present state. The internet provides more diversity in opinion and more information. It's unfortunate that a medium so well-suited to the scientific narrative is as demographically limited as it is. I can only hope that those who work with groups outside our current reach let the rest of us know what we can do to help.

(Also, read SES for a more positive look at the framing issue in relation to African American communities.)

This post has been edited for clarity since posted. - BH, April 2, 8:09est


Aaron M. Thomas said...

Thank YOU, sir. I never know from a week-to-week basis who is listening. I'm grateful for any listener I have. I was taken aback when I listened to that version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." I mean, I've heard that song a LOT, but that version was something else entirely.

Just so you know, I think the Bertram Profane work is the best of all your previous work. I mean that sincerely.

It's cool that this is probably the first show to play the Radiators From Space, but at the same time, so many people have been deprived of them for so long.

B H said...

(For anyone finding the above comment out of place: Aaron is a friend from off-line, who runs the radio show out of Muncie, Indiana, and Bertram Profane refers to my latest excuse for playing music instead of studying.)