P.Z. Myers Just Doesn’t Get It

Update: Oops, sorry Dr. Myers

P.Z. Meyers Myers is one of the brightest and most interesting writers out there on the front lines of the evolution-creation wars. He’s obviously a very smart guy, who believes passionately that researchers have learned very important things that need to be incorporated into the way we, as a society, approach important problems.

So why, outside his own field, is he so absolutely blind to the research conducted by others?

Meyers’ Myers response to the Mooney-Nisbet piece in science about the use of “framing” as a tool in scientific communication is a crystalline example of the blowback Chris and Matt are receiving from scientists unwilling to accept the clear message of the small mountain of research on how things actually work at the science-media-policy-politics interface(s): the world doesn’t work the way they (the scientists) would like.

Meyers Myers hews to the “deficit model” – the public just doesn’t understand the science well enough, and we need to therefore fix that deficit. But we have a long history of failing at that task, despite the best efforts of people like Meyers Myers. In fact, if you look at the data, things are actually improving – but from an abysmally low baseline of public understanding of science to a slightly less abysmally low baseline of public understanding of science. To keep trying to do the same thing, over and over, that has failed in the past is pathological.

We live in a world in which most members of the general public, on most issues, most of the time, will not understand the science. Period. That’s the reality.

I too suffer from this pathology. I too have dedicated my career to trying to help the public better understand science. But I am increasingly recognizing that the sort of approach Meyer’s is advocating does not work, or at best is capable of only marginally moving things. It’s clear a different approach is needed.

Meyers’ Myers response is classically scientific – a sort of loading dock approach, in which scientists give information to the public. If this can only be done more effectively, he argues, progress can be made. But this ignores the very literature Nisbet and Mooney are citing, which shows why that doesn’t work.

That doesn’t mean there is not important work to be done in the area of science education, and improved science media coverage, which can have some effect over long periods. We must do everything we can to improve science education and the media’s performance. But it’s clearly insufficient.

Meyers Myers and his pals on the scientific loading dock would be well advised, if they really care about helping solve the problems they are working so hard to address, to spend some time in the social science literature Nisbet and Mooney are citing, rather than thinking they know better than the scientists who study the field. In ignoring the data and the literature that surrounds it, they’re making the same mistake they so rightly criticize their opponents for making – ignoring the science.

12 Comments

  1. First of all, it helps if you actually get the names right of the people you are talking about – it’s Myers.

    Second of all, some of the critics of the piece have done what you want them to do. Greg Laden has a great post about the problems with the use of the science here.

  2. John,
    This is a very well crafted response to PZ.

    In reference to Kristjan Wager’s comments that our application of framing as a theory of media influence might not be grounded in the literature, below is a response I posted over at Greg Ladens’ blog earlier today, though the comment has yet to appear. I repost part of it here since it is probably of interest to readers.
    —————————–

    If you are looking for sources on how the fields of communication, political science, and sociology have developed framing as a theory of media influence, see the two citations that we reference in our Science commentary:

    Price, V., Nir, L., & Capella, J.N. (2005). Framing public discussion of gay civil unions. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69, (2), 179-212.

    Gamson, WA. and Modigliani, A. (1989). Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95, 1-37.

    Also, see the latest issue of the Journal of Communication, the flagship journal in the field. It’s a special issue devoted to framing and media influence. See especially the following overview:

    Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, agenda-setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9-20.

    See also this earlier article by Scheufele, possibly the most heavily cited article in the field over the past decade:

    Scheufele, D.A. (1999). Framing as a Theory of Media Effects. Journal of Communication 49 (4): 103-22

    Part of what you are describing involves a disciplinary turf battle over the use of the social scientific term “framing.” It would be useful to bring together linguists, anthropologists, communication researchers, sociologists, and political scientists to hash out some differing views, though to date, little of this has ever been done.

  3. I’m very glad to see that this conversation is happening, and I hope it continues.

    I feel that a large proportion of scientists have ignored the job of communicating with the public. PZ and a few others have to be given a lot of credit for not only making the effort but for not toning or watering down the conversation to the point that it is useless.

    I advocate (and will be writing more on this shortly) the development of a more pervasive component of “science engagement” within our own North American culture. I think this feature may be found more pervasive in other areas. For example, the average Rwandan villager living near the Virunga Volcanos probably has a very sophisticated and personalized understanding of primate (especially gorilla) conservation and primatology, owing to decades of engagement in that area.

  4. Greg –

    Thanks for the comment. I absolutely agree with your point that many scientists ignore the job of communicating with the public. And I applaud people like PZ (and many like him who I interact with on a daily basis). But for those who do take the responsibility of communication, Nisbet and Mooney are drawing attention to a useful body of research that sheds a lot of light on how that communication can be done more effectively to different audiences.

    On your point about the Rwandan villagers, bravo! That’s a point the “loading dock” paper I linked to above reinforces.

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  6. If I may,

    I applaud the conversation as well. And natural resource managers who use scenario analysis and adaptive management to manage their resources already know about local knowledge and adopt it into their management schemes. And have for years. They just can’t talk about it much to the atomists and empiricists. It’s changing, tho…

    Best,

    D

  7. Wait.

    I thought the “loading dock” approach — just the facts, anything else would be politics — would describe what scientists should do according to RPJr.

    You say it describes what’s recommended by PZ.

    Are they both selling the same facts off the same dock?
    How do they differ?

  8. Hank –

    Thanks for the comment. Roger does not advocate the “loading dock” approach. In fact, he’s been somewhat critical of it.

  9. Roger thinks that the tan socks with brown suits is a subtle hint that the speaker will be politicizing the next phrase, thus should be ignored, and suspenders are ohsoyesterday and why does anyone listen to this obvious politicizer anyway?!?

    Best,

    D

  10. I admit I don’t see why there’s such excitement about framing science. Is it fresh and needed? Could it be its fancy label? Could it be because it shifts the blame? Dunno. Nor do I really care.

    Sure, ‘framing’ is important, but it just seems to be a new label to an age old mantra that any decent communicator knows: discuss [insert topic here] in a way that resonates with the audience. And since this really is a discussion at different levels – over minutes with a few people or over years nationwide – a loading dock of course doesn’t fly.

    Yeah, sure, many people don’t do it right, but framing is neither new nor rocket science. We just have to realise we’re talking with (with, not to) people who are not us. Then we have to work out how to make our topic resonate. Neither are trivial, I admit.

  11. I freely admit that I just don’t get it. It’s not that I’m opposed to new strategies, or that I’m committed to some weird “loading dock” model (I’m not) — it’s that the paper and the discussion afterwards gave me no information at all on how to implement these changes. Seriously, I read the paper with some anticipation of a useful new tool for better communication that I could use tomorrow, and at the end…what? Respect religion and don’t give out technical information? Those were the only specific recommendations I could find in there.

  12. Pingback: Framing Nisbet: Is He Offering Us McScience? at Greg Laden

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