To frame or not to frame

Coturnix not only collects all the relevant links, but also gives a commentary on the issue of framing science. However, I disagree with him in that, even for short term, case-by-case, science communication, just for the sake of changing the opinions of non-scientists, we have to say things which are technically incorrect. Why?

Firstly, this is a means and ends question in science, and for me means matter as much as ends. Even though in the short term, we might not be seen achieving our goals, in the long run we are going to.

Secondly, of course, because a good science story is like a detective story, if you can get people hooked to it, finally, it is the details that will matter, and not glossing over them.

Finally, in spite of the fact that scientists could have taken the easy route of comfortable lies to hard truths but did not choose such a route will go a long way in establishing their credentials which is what matters in the final analysis.


4 Responses to “To frame or not to frame”

  1. coturnix Says:

    We always say things that are technically incorrect when we are teaching at any level below PhD. Every time you teach the basics, without pointing out all the papers that challenge those basics, you are technically incorrect. No need to be any more incorrect when talking to the media, i.e., no need to invent lies. It is just that oversimplifications needed in such venues will jar scientists, but are necessary to make converts to your cause.

    Remember, in the media you are talking to an unwilling audience (as opposed to the self-selected, eager, trusting, focused, hard-working audience in the classrooms, in science magazines and on science blogs). You are talking to people who mistrust you, think you are a nuisance, do not want to believe you, do not want to listen to you, want you to go away, do not have any inclination to make a mental effort to follow your argument, and have no background in science whatsoever.

    Framing your short media spiel has nothing to do with science education or popularization, it is all about persuasion. You need to use your few soundbites to establish authority and trust, so whatever pronouncement you make, this unwilling audience will take as Scripture and act on the correct side next time it matters: in the voting booth. It is about winning political battles, winning in courts, and winning in the court of public opinion. Not teaching unwilling students evolution.

  2. Guru Says:

    Dear Coturnix,

    Thank you very much for your comments.

    I agree with you that one might be technically incorrect when teaching certain courses at certain levels; however, in those cases, it is either explicitly stated or implied (for example, by having another advanced level course on the same topic) that what one is teaching is not the final truth. That being so, even when we are talking to the non-scientists, I believe, it is better for them to know that there are varying degrees of truth, and that we are expounding some aspect of it for their benefit, while giving them enough pointers to follow it up–if they are so inclined.

    I do understand that it might well near impossible to teach an audience which is at best not willing to listen to scientists and at worst is hostile to scientific methodology; however, since that unwillingness and hostility do not stem from any problems in understanding (but from other reasons), I do not see how making things simpler is going to help us. This is not to say that one is against lucid exposition–but, I am only objecting those expositions where truth is compromised for the sake of clarity.

    I see your point about winning political battles and winning in the court of public opinion; but once we do allow some media spiel for the sake of persuasion, I do not see where we are going to end it. For the sake of argument, let us say that my country is keen on harnessing atomic power for making atomic weapons; however, there might be objections to it from its citizenry–so, is it allowed for the scientists to have a media spiel how in future atomic energy might be the only clean source of power, build plants which are not power plants but are plants meant to manufacture bombs?

    In the end, I believe that there is an issue of winning a battle in the voting booth, and there is an issue associated with the long term good; one is politics and the other statesmanship. To go for politics believing that we would attain statesmanship in the long run, in my opinion, is not the correct way.

  3. coturnix Says:

    That is the gist of my post – the distinction between short-term and long-term. Long-term, education and popularization have their roles.

    Matt and Chris are concerned with short-term in their article, while most of their critics are talking about long-term.

    Short-term, it is not about science education or popularization, i.e., you are not trying to teach anything about science at all. It is about persuasion – grabbing the attention of an unwilling listener for a few seconds and persuading him that you are trustworthy and an authority and that what you say is The Truth. It is an entirely political act, not a teaching act. You are aonly trying to make political allies for the next battle: in the voting booth, in court, in Congress, or in public opinion.

    Thus, it is not just that you do not have to explain 100% correct science, you don’t have to explain anything. Just change one’s mind. And many minds are incapable of being changed by scientific evidence – they do not operate in the realm of reality and empiricism. So, you use whatever strategy WILL change their minds. Emotions. Narratives. Appeals to economic, medical, emotional or aesthetic interests.

  4. Science policy without recourse to science? « Entertaining Research Says:

    […] to discuss issues of science policy without recourse to science; more specifically, Coturnix, in a comment says the following: Thus, it is not just that you do not have to explain 100% correct science, you […]

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