Science = A Free Exchange of Ideas?

I spend far too much time reading blogs and articles written by scientists for scientists. But I also enjoy reading the behind the scenes view of science journalists like Chris Mooney and Carl Zimmer. I also spend a lot of time thinking about how science can be effectively communicated in a form both understandable and interesting to most lay people.

That is why the news of a paper on framing science by social scientist Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney published in the latest Science sounded so interesting. At least until I realized that the article is only for scientists – or journalists – or those so interested in science to spend somewhere between $100 and $300 for a subscription to a journal that will rarely produce enough information for a ‘layman.’

But then again the article about framing science was directed at scientists and not laymen. And it isn’t that science publications through the American Association of Publishers (AAP) aren’t using framing to present to congress a case against free public access to science papers.  (To be fair, Nature and Science aren’t part of the AAP – John Wiley & Sons, Reed Elsevier and the American Chemical Society are.) And thus scientists will discuss the problem and discuss the ideas and forget that the public are the ones who need to have more input.

But back to framing as such.

Many scientists and journalists seem to think there is a fundamental problem with science education. Carl Zimmer seems to think so.

As a science writer who doesn’t deal much in political reporting, I’m with them–but only up to a point, as far as I can tell. Frankly, I find framing science a bit murky. Nisbet and Mooney tell us that scientists must frame, but for what? They don’t actually say what the goal of framing is, and their implications are hard to turn into a clear picture.
Certainly scientists should think about why the rest of the world ought to care about their research. Certainly they should think about how it will get sucked into the political blender (and how they might want to jump in after it). But framing doesn’t seem like quite the right response to the fact that over two-thirds of people in this country don’t know enough about science to understand a newspaper story on a scientific subject. It seems more like surrender to me. Fixing high school science education seems a better plan. Don’t let kids come out of high school without knowing that a laser emits light, not sound; without knowing about standard deviations; without knowing what a stem cell is. Fixing high school science would be a lot harder than staying on message, but it would be a lot more important.

But the problem isn’t simply education. The problem isn’t simply knowledge. I often see knowledge as an ever growing pyramid.

Children today are being saddled with ever more information on a broader front than ever before. There is little time to filter what knowledge can be accumulated. To think that training hormone-challenged teenagers will solve the issue of scientific thought is a fantasy, to be relegated next to the myths of a historically well trained public (did the Second World War start in 1939 with the invasion of Poland or eight years earlier with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria? Nice western bias – huh? Should we concentrate on science or geography or current events or spelling and basic math?)

Would we prefer people to understand science or be able to balance their check book? Do we want people to understand science or know where Iraq is? Do we want our children to understand the mechanics of evolution or that homelessness isn’t caused by laziness? There is only so much time to teach. A selection must be made. Thus the focus shouldn’t be on the teenagers but their parents and the media. A realistic CSI would be nice, but wouldn’t get ratings. Shows like Mythbusters and Bullshit! are a step in the right direction (Even they get some things wrong – the secondary smoke episode anyone?).

Since I am unable to read the article, I am unable to look at the specific recommendations being made by Nesbit and Mooney.

But I would make a few concrete suggestions.

It has become common knowledge that the Republican National Committee distributes a memo containing talking points. How to frame certain issues using specific language. Scientists need the same thing. Scientists, like politicians need to be able answer bluntly false ideas, not with facts – facts are often unimportant to the general public – but with concrete talking points refuting the idea. And the talking points need to be widely spread – passed from prof to prof, grad student to grad student, sci-blogger to sci-blogger. Perhaps generated at a side conference for distribution before AAS meetings.

From what I understand, the article lists three main areas where scientists should frame responses: climate change, evolution and stem cells. I’d like to touch on each.

It is ironic that one of the biggest supporters for trying to get climate change information into the world, Matt Nisbet, would mange to get his article published on the same Friday the second part of the IPCC on Climate Change report gets finished. Thus Nisbet’s article gets discussed and the IPCC report gets even less attention by the general science blogging public. Nesbit has already railed against the idea of publishing the report on a Friday; the idea of publishing the Report on a Friday going into Easter Weekend is even less intelligent framed and shows how important this issue is.

Since it is the uncertainty that most climate change opponents attack, it is the uncertainty that must be explained, not the climate change. Opponents highlight the uncertainties and question the ability of scientists to make accurate predictions. This can be combated at two levels.

First, is the question of how certain scientist needs to be. Most climate change documents now use very specific language to define how ‘certain’ information is. Many of the conclusions reached are ‘very likely’ meaning better than 90%. (Always to be followed with the comment that this could be 94% certain, it just didn’t make the next level of extremely likely – 95%.*) If you hear the weatherman predict a 90% chance of rain, do you take an umbrella? Does making it 95% likely change your mind? If there are 9 chances out of 10 that it will snow, do you buy a snow blower? How certain is certain?You don’t attack the climate argument, you attack the certainty argument using everyday examples about what we think certain to be.

But take the idea even farther. The opponents of climate change point to the fact that you can’t predict the weather next week how can you predict the weather in 100 years. The answer, you can’t. But you can make some very good estimates. I know the weather will get warmer in the next few months. I know that next summer will be warm but I can’t tell you how many hurricanes there will be. Some things look really random but aren’t. Take casinos. No one can say exactly which number will come up next. But by understanding and studying the odds, the casinos know that certain numbers will come up often enough for them to win money in the long run. Climatology isn’t about knowing exactly which number will come up next; climatology is about calculating the profit (or loss) for mankind.

Moving to evolution, look at the “it’s just a theory” criticism.

Here the talking point might be not to speak of evolution but of theories and to use a clearly loaded image – the apple. Evolution is a theory in the same sense gravity is a theory. Take an apple. If you hold it out and let go, it is clear the apple will fall. No one would dispute that. Now take a cannon ball. Galileo argued that both the apple and the cannon ball would fall at the same rate. Newton, born the year of Galileo’s death would finally put numbers on the time needed for an apple to fall from a tree, a cannon ball from the tower of Pisa or even the time needed for the moon to fall around the Earth, something we now call an orbit.

Most people think of this as the theory of gravity. But it does not explain the origin of gravity, it describes the process. (Indeed the search for the ‘origin of gravity’ may have suffered a major setback in March when an important part failed during a preliminary test of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The part failed partly because engineers didn’t balance the forces correctly – another Newtonian concept.)

But evolution is like gravity. Scientists study and argue about the exact process of evolution. While many of the equations necessary for describing evolution are as simple as Newton’s laws, the specific processes, the individual actions, the origins are still being described. They are still being debated. But the ‘fact’ of evolution is as accepted by scientists as the ‘fact’ that the apple will fall by the general public. And the general public will usually get the ‘theory’ of gravity wrong when they assume that a cannon ball will fall faster than an apple. Which is more important?

The apple is traditionally depicted as the forbidden fruit used by Satan to lead Eve astray in the Garden of Eden. If the knowledge presented by the apple is dangerous, is the knowledge of the theory of gravity any less dangerous than evolution?

Perhaps the most difficult issue approached by the article is on stem cells.

Here the line is difficult to draw because the issues effected are less scientific as ethical. Where do we draw the line? While I agree with most scientists that research on stem cells ‘harvested’ (need to frame a better term there) from unused in-vitro embryos is scientifically ok, I still have different problems with the idea. In a climate of increasing commercialisation and sale of scientific results, who owns the cells and the patents generated from the embryos? Is it ethical to ask parents for permission to use ‘their’ material? Isn’t it likely that one stem cell line will eventually be used simply because it was in the right place at the right time? Isn’t it equally likely that that line will be worth billions? Who gets the profit?

Doesn’t this debate need to solve the “if yes – how” question before returning to the question of whether IV stem cells should be used. Should the pharma company that patents the first stem cell therapy be required to fund future in-vitro fertilisations – at least for the uninsured and underinsured?

I am wary of stem cell research on many ethical levels few of which have anything to do with the science as such. I disagree with the standpoint of the religious right but nevertheless I think the “let us just do the research” standpoint is simply naïve. I don’t have any talking points here. I would love to see the debate shifted to a more centrist position but I don’t see a good way of doing it.

Those scientists who feel threatened because framing science hides the facts are missing the point. Those framing dissent are hiding the facts. They exploit gaps and cracks in theories and knowledge to generate distorted pieces of a larger picture. 

Framing science isn’t hiding the facts, because the general public not only lacks the ability to put the misused pieces of the puzzle into place, but the general public doesn’t even know what the picture should be. Scientists need to spend more time painting the picture and less time trying to fill in the cracks exploited by the enemies of science.

But scientists also need to learn to get on message – on one message and unfortunately it usually has little to do with science qua science. In order to fight those who would use any means to destroy science, perhaps it is time for scientists to learn to fight fire with fire; talking point with talking point. And perhaps that is the role missing today. The creator and disseminator of science talking points – and not science.

Those scientists who think teaching more science will solve the problem need to spend more time watching Monster Garage and American Idol. That is the level of intelligence and knowledge^at which any debate needs to be focused. Not on a future knowledge utiopia – on the here and now – the idol worshiping America world.

That is what I hope Mooney and Nesbit are fighting for. Even if I can’t access the article because it isn’t free, fortunately this exchange of ideas is free.

Note: Matt Nesbit responded to a number of criticisms and comments on the article and linked to a broad number of comments on his blog. It is well worth the read to get an overview of the responses.. 

* From the IPCC Report, most climate change documents have evolved a similar language.

In this Summary for Policymakers, the following terms have been used to indicate: the assessed likelihood of an outcome or a result: Virtually certain > 99% probability of occurrence, Extremely likely > 95%, Very likely > 90%, Likely > 66%, More likely than not > 50%, Very unlikely < 10%, Extremely unlikely < 5%.

The following terms have been used to express confidence in a statement: Very high confidence At least a 9 out of 10 chance of being correct, High confidence About an 8 out of 10 chance, Medium confidence About a 5 out of 10 chance, Low confidence About a 2 out of 10 chance, Very low confidence Less than a 1 out of 10 chance.


2 comments so far

  1. Polly Brown on

    Correction: both Science and Nature are members of the AAP. Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Nature is part of Holtzbrink Publishing, both of which are members of the AAP’s Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division.

  2. blc303 on


    Thank you for the correction. You’re right of course. But both Science and Nature quickly distanced themselves from the idea. Nature actually broke the story (and then promptly put it behind the payment wall *sigh*).

    More info on this here, here, and here.

    On the bright side. Matt Nesbit is providing a free link to the full text of his article. Yeah Matt.

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