Thursday, April 03, 2008

Science and Framing

Interesting conversation going on over at ScienceBlogs. Ben Stein's anti-evolutionary biology film Expelled is coming out soon and Chris Mooney (author of The Republican War on Science) and Matthew Nisbet are arguing that scientists need to be more aware of the way that the intelligent design creationist folks are framing the debate and that our most public spokespeople -- Richard Dawkins and PZ Meyers -- may not be the most effective folks to lead the charge at this point. Indeed, their overtly combative style may play right into the rhetorical trap at the heart of Expelled, that is, those scientists are a bunch of religion-hating zealots doing everything they can to stifle free thought and free speech for those who disagree with them, there is no rational reason to keep intelligent design creationism out of the schools and academy, it's all politics power play.

Others in comments and have a clear allergy to the concept of framing, seeing it as at least unseemly, at worst unethical; as marketing ploys instead of respectable argumentation. Dr. FreeRide and Hallq have both weighed in on this side arguing that we need to be focusing on critical thinking skills and on being clearer in presentation of the evidence and the theoretical machinery that we use to make sense of the evidence.

I think Mooney is right on this one. Framing is not a technique, it is a linguistic necessity that we are waking up to belatedly.

Step 1 -- Think Kant's epistemology. The world is not given to us in an unmediated fashion. the mind plays an active role in making sense of the input it gets from the senses. The categories are the concepts we add to raw data to make sense of the world.

Step 2 -- Think Nietzsche. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche points out that these concepts are not innate, embedded in the mind, but come from the language we use. It may be true that "science is premised on the view that we're all living in the same reality (a reality which is susceptible to empirical investigation)," but the language we speak, the language of the body politic is not value neutral. Language not only denotes but is pregnant with a world view. Those in power get the privilege of setting the language.

What George Lakoff pointed out with the notion of framing was that linguistically, this MUST happen and that liberals were getting suckered into allowing conservatives to do all the framing, thereby putting us in a place where we begin with an instant disadvantage because we are allowing the other side to tilt the rhetorical playing field. To use a sports metaphor, one team is going to be the home team and have the home field advantage and we have been unknowingly giving that away. Frank Luntz, the Republican wonderboy showed that you didn't need a complete revolution to control the language, you just had to be clever in getting it out there.

The whole point of this discussion is not a scientific issue, it is a political one. The scientific issue is settled, (that is, after all, the point we are trying to make). But we insist on bringing a scientific knife to a political gun fight. Mooney just thinks we need to be smarter tactically, that does not seem inappropriate if we want not only to be right, but to win the game. They've set a rhetorical trap and we need to be savvy about it. There's nothing dishonest or dishonorable in that.