Steve Case on Framing and Dawkins

If anyone should understand how to effectively communicate with the broader public about teaching evolution in schools, it's Dr. Steve Case. He's assistant director of the Center for Science Education at the University of Kansas and was co-chair of the science standards committee for the state of Kansas.

Case has been in the trenches and on the front lines for the past three decades. He probably has more experience working with science teachers and dealing with the news media than anyone in the country. Indeed, he is perhaps the most successful and savvy ambassador for science education in America.

So I was delighted when he passed along via email these incredibly strong words of endorsement and encouragement, thoughts that he had originally shared with a friend. He has given me permission to post the full text of the email:



OK, here is a from the hip Monday morning rant . I have been reading all the blog stuff and the [Washington] Post response. It is a pretty interesting discussion - that reminds me of the poker game in Flock of Dodos. All of the communication issues, so it is argued, are outside of the scientists control so we cannot do anything about them - we are doing a great job (you can tell by the poll numbers and the level of science illiteracy in society).

People are just too stupid to get it, people want simple answers, people are isolated from nature, for religious reasons (read emotional), people just will not listen to us all knowing scientists.

I thought that Chris and Matt did a great job with the [Washington] Post Ed response but if read out of context of the blog discussion, it could be a little confusing.

"Good communication is by its very nature informative rather than misleading." was my favorite line in the Post editorial. The blogs and comments seem to use the same strawman argumentation that the ID folks use - i.e. that Matt and Chris are asking scientists to dumb down or spin science.

Communicating science effectively does not mean you have to speak from a religious frame. In fact, since I have been involved with the front lines of this since the late 1970s, just do not try to communicate science from the anti-religion frame - if you do you will not be heard and lose most of your audience.

I do not disagree with the right to take on religion, however, looking across history it is [not a] good way to promote or communicate science. When rationalism is put toe to toe with emotion (religion) then emotion wins.

When Dawkins was here at KU he suggested that we never use religious metaphors or imagery when we are talking to the public. So I asked him, since some 90% of our listeners have religious views - what imagery and metaphors we should use so that they will hear us. He had no suggestions.

He seemed to be saying that when we communicate we do not have to pay attention to the listener - all we had to do was send information. I decided his advice was not very helpful. As to his comments on religion - who cares. I am not really interested in his religious views (or anyone else's for that matter).

The right wingers use Dawkins and Sam Harris as flash points since they both seem to think that the best way to get people to listen is to piss them off. My experience is that this strategy only works for the people who already agree with you. The mushy middle gets alienated and those who disagree with you still do not hear anything you have to say.

Dawkins is a useful example in this discussion but then again so is Pat Robertson, when he claims that god will cause the physical world to rise up against us because we are so sinful. I dismiss their current activities as irrelevant to anything I would like to accomplish in helping people understand the natural world - although I also like several of Dawkins books and works about biology, I find nothing that Pat Robertson has done to be interesting (frightening but not interesting).

It is time to listen to what Matt and Chris are really saying about communication, to do some self reflection and learning, and seize control for the elements of this issue that we actually have control over.

Matt, Chris and Randy are not the enemy because they point [out] our flaws and errors. They are teachers who have the best interests of our community at heart.

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