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The Ethics of Framing Science: Four Guiding Principles

When pundits like Richard Dawkins use the trust and authority granted them as scientists to denigrate religious publics, is it unethical?

On issues such as climate change, nanotechnology, and evolution, research in the area of framing is being used to design and plan communication initiatives and to craft novel, accessible, and relevant narratives for nontraditional audiences across media formats. The intended outcomes include increased learning, dialogue, and public participation.

Yet what’s still missing is a clear outline of the ethical and normative imperatives that apply to scientists, journalists, and their organizations when actively drawing upon framing to achieve these public engagement goals. Ethical and normative implications were in fact one of the key concerns raised in the letters published in response to our 2007 article at Science.

In a first effort to lay out a detailed ethical framework, I recently completed a draft of a chapter for a forthcoming edited volume titled Communicating Biological Sciences: Ethical and Metaphorical Dimensions due out later this year. I hope to be expanding on this first sketch of an ethical framework in additional articles and upcoming talks. Below the fold I have posted a section from the introduction that lays out four key principles covered in the chapter.

Also, of interest to the Scienceblogs community, I include a section of the chapter that discusses these principles as applied to the New Atheist movement’s strategic use of framing and the related use of framing by political partisans in the U.S. I will be reviewing some of these ethical imperatives in an upcoming April 13 talk sponsored by the NIH and the National Academies on “Communicating Evolution.”


[Introduction to the chapter]

To begin the chapter, I briefly review how past research in political communication and sociology describes a lay public that makes sense of science-related policy debates by drawing upon a mental toolkit of cognitive short cuts and easily applied criteria. This research shows that science literacy has only a limited influence on perceptions; instead public judgments are based on an interaction between the social background of an audience and the frames most readily available by way of the news, popular culture, social networks, and/or conversations.

Surveys indicate that Americans strongly believe in the promise of science to improve life, deeply admire scientists, and hold science in higher esteem than almost any other institution. Scientists therefore enjoy tremendous communication capital; the challenge is to understand how to use this resource effectively and wisely. Importantly, in terms of ethical obligations, one of the conclusions of this body of research is that whenever possible, dialogue should be a focus of science communication efforts, rather than traditional top-down and one-way transmission approaches.

I then briefly describe a deductive set of frames that apply consistently across science-related debates. Breaking “the frame” so to speak is very difficult to do, since the interpretative resources that society draws upon to collectively make sense of science are based on shared identities, traditions, history, and culture. I also review the important differences between “science,” “policy,” and “politics,” arguing that there are few cases, if any, where science points decisively to a clear policy path or where policy decisions are free from politics. In this context, scientists and journalists can be either “issue advocates” or “honest brokers,” and in each role, framing is central to communication effectiveness.

Yet, no matter their chosen role, scientists and journalists should always emphasize the values-based reasons for a specific policy action. As I discuss, when a policy choice is simplistically defined as driven by “sound science” or as a matter of “inconvenient truths,” it only serves to get in the way of public engagement and consensus-building. Science becomes just another political resource for competing interest groups, with accuracy often sacrificed in favor of political victory.

Indeed, accuracy is a third ethical imperative. No matter their role as issue advocate or honest broker, both scientists and journalists must respect the uncertainty that is inherent to any technical question and resist engaging in hyperbole. If these groups stray from accurately conveying what is conventionally known about an issue, they risk losing public trust.

Finally, for scientists and journalists, a fourth ethical imperative is to avoid using framing to denigrate, stereotype, or attack a particular social group or to use framing in the service of partisan or electoral gains. As I review, this is particularly relevant to communicating about issues such as evolution, where pundits such as Richard Dawkins use their authority as scientists to argue their personal opinion that science undermines the validity of religion and even respect for the religious. The ethical norm also applies to the use by partisans of stem cell research–and science generally–as a political wedge strategy in recent elections. Framing will always be an effective and legitimate part of social criticism and electoral politics, but for scientists and journalists to simplistically define critiques of religion or opposition to a candidate as a “matter of science” only further fuels polarization, alienating key publics and jeopardizing the perceived legitimacy of science….


[Later section from chapter on evolution, New Atheist movement, and partisan uses]

Communication As Consensus or Conflict?

In January 2008, the National Academies issued a revised edition of Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a report intentionally framed in a manner that would more effectively engage audiences who remain uncertain about evolution and its place in the public school curriculum. To guide their efforts, the Academies commissioned focus groups and a national survey to gauge the extent of lay citizens’ understanding of the processes, nature, and limits of science. They also specifically wanted to test various frames that explained why alternatives to evolution were inappropriate for science class (Labov & Pope, 2008). The National Academies’ use of audience research in structuring their report is worth reviewing, since it stands as a leading example of how to ethically employ framing to move beyond polarization and to promote public dialogue on historically divisive issues.

The Academies’ committee had expected that a convincing storyline for the public on evolution would be a public accountability frame, emphasizing past legal decisions and the doctrine of church-state separation. Yet the data revealed that audiences were not persuaded by this framing of the issue. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, the research pointed to the effectiveness of a social progress frame that defined evolutionary science as the modern building block for advances in medicine and agriculture. The research also underscored the effectiveness of a middle-way/ compromise frame, reassuring the public that evolution and religious faith can be fully compatible, a message in line with the longstanding position of the National Academies and other major science organizations. Taking careful note of this feedback, the National Academies decided to structure and then publicize the final version of the report around these core frames.

[Update: With clarity in mind, I have added the italicized above to the draft version of the chapter.]

To reinforce these messages, the National Academies report was produced in partnership with the Institute of Medicine and the authoring committee chaired by Francisco Ayala, a leading biologist who had once trained for the Catholic priesthood. The report opens with a compelling “detective story” narrative of the supporting evidence for evolution, yet placed prominently in the first few pages is a call out box titled “Evolution in Medicine: Combating New Infectious Diseases,” featuring an iconic picture of passengers on a plane wearing SARS masks. On subsequent pages, other social progress examples are made prominent in call out boxes titled “Evolution in Agriculture: The Domestication of Wheat” and “Evolving Industry: Putting Natural Selection to Work.” Lead quotes in the press release feature a similar emphasis.

To engage religious audiences, at the end of the first chapter, following a definition of science, there is a prominent three page special color section that features testimonials from religious scientists, religious leaders and official church position statements, all endorsing the view that religion and evolution are compatible. Both the report and the press release state that: “The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith. Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future.” In a subsequent journal editorial, these core themes as featured in the report were endorsed by twenty professional science societies and organizations (FASEB 2008).

The Richard Dawkins School of Communication

For the National Academies and these professional societies, political conflicts over evolution have been a lesson learned as to the importance of connecting with diverse audiences and building consensus around commonly shared values. Yet what continues to be the loudest science-affiliated voice on the matter of evolution takes a decidedly different framing strategy. Several scientist authors and pundits, led by the biologist Richard Dawkins (2006), argue that the implications of evolutionary science undermine not only the validity of religion but also respect for all religious faith. Their claims help fuel the conflict frame in the news media, generating journalistic frame devices that emphasize “God vs. Science,” or “Science versus religion.” These maverick communicators, dubbed “The New Atheists,” also reinforce deficit model thinking, consistently blaming conflict over evolution on public ignorance and irrational religious beliefs.

Dawkins, for example, argues as a scientist that religion is comparable to a mental virus or “meme” that can be explained through evolution, that religious believers are delusional, and that in contrast, atheists are representative of a healthy, independent, and pro-science mind. In making these claims, not only does Dawkins use his authority as the “Oxford University Professor of the Public Understanding of Science” to denigrate various social groups, but he gives resonance to the false narrative of social conservatives that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda.

The conflict narrative is powerfully employed in the 2008 anti-evolution documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. By relying almost exclusively on interviews with outspoken atheist scientists such as Dawkins and the blogger PZ Myers, Expelled reinforces the false impression that evolution and faith are inherently incompatible and that scientists are openly hostile to religion. In the film, the comedic actor Ben Stein plays the role of a conservative Michael Moore, taking viewers on an investigative journey into the realm of “Big Science,” an institution where Stein concludes that “scientists are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator.”

Stein and the film’s producers employ a public accountability narrative to suggest that scientists have been denied tenure and that research has been suppressed, all in the service of an atheist agenda to hide the supposedly fatal flaws in evolutionary theory. As central frame devices, the film uses historic footage of the Berlin Wall and emphasizes freedom as a central American value. The sinister message is that “Darwinism” has led to atheism, fascism, and communism. As a corollary, if Americans can join Stein in tearing down the wall of censorship in science it would open the way to religious freedom and cultural renewal.

One leading example from the film is an interview with Myers, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota-Morris, and author of the Pharyngula blog. Myers’ comments in the film reflect much of the content of his blog, which is estimated to receive over a 1 million readers per month. Interviewed in his laboratory, against a backdrop of microscopes and scientific equipment, Myers offers the following view of religion (see YouTube clip):

Religion is naiveté that gives some people comfort and we don’t want to take it away from them. It’s like knitting, people like to knit. We are not going to take their knitting needles away, we are not going to take away their churches, but we have to get it to a place where religion is treated at a level that it should be treated. That is something fun that people get together and do on the weekend, and really doesn’t affect their life as much as it has been so far.

In a follow up, when prompted to discuss how he believes this goal might be accomplished, Myers offers a line of reasoning that reflects the deficit model paradigm, arguing that science literacy is in direct conflict with religious belief:

Greater science literacy, which is going to lead to the erosion of religion, and then we will get this nice positive feedback mechanism going where as religion slowly fades away we will get more and more science to replace it, and that will displace more and more religion which will allow more and more science in and we will eventually get to that point where religion has taken that appropriate place as a side dish rather than a main course.

By the end of its spring 2008 run in theaters, Expelled ranked as one of the top grossing public affairs documentaries in U.S. history. Even more troubling have been the advanced screenings of Expelled for policymakers, interest groups, and other influentials. These screenings have been used to promote “Academic Freedom Acts” in several states, legislation that would encourage teachers (as a matter of “academic freedom”) to discuss the alleged flaws in evolutionary science. In June 2008, an Academic Freedom bill was successfully passed into law in Louisiana with similar legislation under consideration in other states (See Nisbet, 2008; 2009a for more).

As social critics and pundits, there is nothing ethically wrong with Dawkins, Myers, and other so-called New Atheists arguing their personal views on religion, using as exclamation points carefully framed comparisons to fairies, hobgoblins, knitting, and child abuse. Similar to the feminist movement of the 1960s, Dawkins describes his communication goal as “consciousness raising” among the non-religious and those skeptical of religion.

Yet when Dawkins and other New Atheists also use the trust granted them as scientists to argue that religion is a scientific question, that science undermines even respect for religious publics, they employ framing unethically, drawing upon the rhetorical authority of science to stigmatize and attack various social groups. In the process, New Atheists turn what normatively should be a public dialogue about science and religion into a shouting match and media spectacle.

Partisan Soldiers with Science on their Side

As described earlier, a significant difference between the Bush and Obama administration, at least at this early stage in the latter’s presidency, is that the Bush White House appeared willing to distort, obstruct, and re-frame for political gain the “first premise” conclusions of scientific experts and agencies, especially on research related to climate change and the environment.

In response, during the Bush administration, many scientists, journalists, elected officials, and political strategists focused on public accountability as a call-to-arms “to defend science.” These advocates accused the George W. Bush administration of putting politics ahead of science and expertise on a number of issues, including climate change. For example, in the 2004 election, Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) made strategic use of the public accountability frame, comparing distortions on climate change to the administration’s use of intelligence to invade Iraq: “What I worry about with the president is that he’s not acknowledging what’s on the ground, he’s not acknowledging the realities of North Korea, he’s not acknowledging the truth of the science of stem-cell research or of global warming and other issues.”

In 2005, journalist Chris Mooney’s best-selling The Republican War on Science helped crystallize the public accountability train of thought, turning the “war on science” into a partisan rallying cry. In 2007, Hillary Clinton, in a speech marking the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, promised to end the “war on science” in American politics, highlighting the new prominence for this frame device.

The public accountability frame has outraged and intensified the commitment of many Democrats, environmental advocates, and scientists, motivating them to label Republican and conservative political figures as “deniers” on climate change and to engage in sharp rhetorical attacks in other policy disputes. Yet for many members of the public, “war on science” claims are likely ignored as just more elite rancor or only further alienate Republicans on an issue such as climate change.

Framing will always be a part of electoral politics and scientists as citizens should actively participate in political campaigns. Yet similar to the case of New Atheists, if scientists speak from their authority and institutional position as trusted experts, using framing to claim that a specific political party or a candidate is either “pro-science” or “anti-science,” the result is likely to be both normatively and strategically undesirable.

First, claims of a “war on science” or a “rising anti-science culture” are inaccurate– and similar to the New Atheist movement– reinforce deficit model assumptions. In Congress, for example, on the great majority of issues there is widespread bi-partisan support for science, a reality reflected in Federal spending on basic research and bi-partisan boosterism in areas such as food biotechnology (see Nisbet & Huge, 2006 for a review). Even members of Congress who personally believe in creationism are likely to vote for broad-based funding of scientific research, since they perceive science generally in terms of social progress and economic competitiveness. Moreover, in terms of the general public, as detailed at the beginning of this chapter, public opinion research shows that science and scientists enjoy widespread admiration, trust, and support among Americans, no matter their political identification or religious views.

The unintended consequence of “war on science” claims is that given the miserly nature of the public, the framing strategy easily reinforces the partisan divide on issues such as stem cell research and climate change while promoting a false narrative that science is for Democrats and not for Republicans. Since 2004, when the Democratic Party began to use stem cell research and climate change as part of an electoral “wedge strategy,” public perceptions have predictably followed. With these partisan messages as a strong heuristic, polls show that the differences between Democrats and Republicans in views of embryonic stem cell research and climate change have widened to more than thirty percentage points respectively (Dunlap & McCright 2008; Pew 2008; VCU Life Sciences, 2008).

In fact, this persistent and widening gap in perceptions over the past decade suggests that climate change and stem cell research have joined a short list of issues such as gun control or taxes that define what it means to be a partisan in the United States. So like the New Atheists, while “war on science” claimants believe they are defending the integrity of science, they are more likely to be part of the communication problem, reinforcing partisan divisions across key issues.


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