Monday, March 31, 2008

Communicating science

In the comments of one of my recent posts on Matt Nisbet and framing, Karl of The Inoculate Mind said:
I'm just sitting here agape at this debate, Chris. I want to understand "Framing" for my own field, but each time the Atheists-shut-up "frame" comes up it turns me off.
After spending a fair amount of time listening to communications people, here are my thoughts on how to communicate science.

First, do listen to communications people. Don't believe everything they say, especially on things like the ethics of what they propose, but do listen to them.

Next most important thing is getting the length right. When you only have a bumper sticker worth of space to promote your message, you have to come up with something that will fit on a bumper sticker. And there are many people who you can only reach that way, at least in the immediate "what's my next move" future. So you need to have a bumper-sticker version of your message, an elevator speech version (short enough to be delivered in the space of an elevator ride), a YouTube video length version, and so on, and so forth.

The ability to be concise is one of the main things that let William Lane Craig do well in so many debates with atheists, especially when he started out. Campus Crusade would arrange debates between him and a college professor who was used to delivering information in 50 minute chunks, and who suddenly had to deal with time limits of 20 minutes or less. Craig, meanwhile, would cram five or six arguments into 20 minutes. Take a look at that debate transcript: the arguments may not be very good, but in each case all the parts are there in condensed form.

Now, some people seem to have this idea that when faced with tight time constraints placed on us, say, by the media, the appropriate response is to sit out and complain, because there is no way to give a bumper-sticker version of our case. This view is false. 'Nuff said.

Of course, being concise isn't enough, you also want to be punchy. This is also quite doable. Here's Mike the Mad Biologist, via Pharyngula:
The other thing we evolutionary biologists don't do enough of, and this stems from the previous point, is make an emotional and moral case for the study of evolution. Last night, I concluded my talk with a quote from Dover, PA creationist school board member William Cunningham, who declared, "Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Can't someone take a stand for him?"

My response was, "In the last two minutes, someone died from a bacterial infection. We take a stand for him."
Speaking of bacterial infection (and, implicitly, antibiotic resistance), it's worth saying that I sort of agree with Nisbet and Mooney that we should emphasize the practical side of science, though not to the exclusion of evidence and not for the same reasons. For one, the fact that we can get practical results out of science findings is a piece of evidence for them. More importantly, in my experience citing the practical results of science is a good way of showing how silly relativism about scientific claims is. I fairly recently got into a discussion on science with a local Campus Crusader, and responded to what she had said about scientific theories by telling her, "if you were on trial for your life, you would insist that any use of science by the prosecutor was actually based on sound science, and you would be outraged if he tried to dismiss as mere theory DNA evidence showing someone else did it." She went quiet after that. Finally, xkcd is a great webcomic.

And by all means, we should emphasize the points that favor us most. This does not mean we should abandon "arguments" in favor of "frames." Many of the things Nisbet lists as "frames" are pretty clearly arguments for a position. And there's no reason to think that evidence isn't something worth emphasizing. When you actually sit down to talk to people about science, you quickly realize that evidence vs. superstition isn't a fight they want to be on the wrong end of. And moral arguments are a perfectly good thing, especially when your opponent's position is morally grotesque. To ignore the morally grotesque in your opponents' position is to not emphasize the points that favor you the most. If Nisbet is concerned about making the moral case for evolution, I recommend he take the following line out for a spin: "Creationism is based on the idea that if evolution is true, we would have to admit that massacring children is wrong, and if we did that, the moral fabric of society would come undone."


The Inoculated Mind said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Inoculated Mind said...

*Repost with update*
Hi Chris,

Thanks for your post. I've got a pretty good idea about framing, and strangely enough, it is from people other than Matt who have been able to explain it more clearly, and use compelling examples. What I'm hoping to understand are the nitty-gritty details of the theory behind it and how it applies to plant genetics, which I'm particularly interested in exploring.

The best recent blog posts about this issue were from Orac (the best one), Coturnix, and a few others, noting how PZ's responses to Expelled are undermining the frames that the movie's producers are trying to use for themselves.

Planning ahead for the kinds of messages that you're trying to convey, depending upon the audience, makes perfect sense. Indeed, the act of tailoring your message to your audience is one of the more beneficial aspects of framing.

However, what gets me is that in this case, instead of suggestions on how to improve communication, "framing" is being used as a way to suggest that certain people who are in the right have to just keep quiet. Imagine if Myers and Dawkins never said anything about Expelled, the media would jump on the film when it comes out, having only the arguments and statements made by the Expelled producers to go off of. Instead, what we find is that the media is well-primed with the "Dishonest Tactics" frame being offered up by Myers, Dawkins, Scott, et al. I'm going to write a post about this later in the week, but I'm busy with a couple things right now.

I'm always on the lookout for better ways to communicate science, thanks for the tips.

Chris Mooney has put up his response to the whole affair, and it is a good one.

Vinny said...

I have only read a couple of transcripts from Craig's debate, but I suspect one of the things that frustrated his opponents was the way that he sticks to his talking points. Even when a point had been adequately answered, or even fully refuted, Craig would keep repeating it as if his opponent had conceded it.

Hallq said...

Re: Vinny

No doubt your right in part on this. But that trick doesn't work unless you've managed to quickly get the point out there in the first place.