Larry Moran listened to Nisbet’s podcast on Point of Inquiry. No surprise—he didn’t like it at all. I finally listened to it last night, too, and I have to crown Larry the King of the Curmudgeons, because I disagreed with fundamental pieces of his story, but I’ll at least grant Nisbet that there aspects of communication theory scientists would benefit from knowing. So why does he ignore those aspects in his own talks?
I want to focus on one thing: conflict. The podcast revealed another unfortunate inconsistency in the framing approach.
Science is really, really good at conflict. It’s right at the heart of the scientific method, and we intentionally try to set up conflicts all the time. When we have two competing hypotheses, our first instinct is to drill down and discover precisely where they differ in making testable predictions—hey, my hypothesis predicts X, while your hypothesis predicts Y! Let’s see whether X or Y is the actual result, and that will settle which of us is right! (And often we discover Z, and then we both go back to the drawing board.) We do not say that since two hypotheses are 99% congruent in their predictions that we should just sit back and accept both. We are always most interested in the 1% that is incompatible.
Dawkins’ The God Delusion is bang-on that strategy. He’s fond of saying that if Abraham’s god existed, we’d expect that the universe would be rather different than it is: the Bible makes predictions about the nature of the universe that fail the test, and therefore it is a failed hypothesis.
Now here’s where it gets interesting: the media loves the conflict frame. As Nisbet notes, it gets cover stories on major news magazines. It creates a comprehensible narrative that catches the public eye. People who push cooperation and don’t feed the conflict frame don’t get attention or promotion, and Nisbet specifically mentioned EO Wilson’s recent book, which is not getting media traction precisely because it lacks that clear conflict-argument-resolution story. Here’s a case where the talents of science and the desires of mass media coincide perfectly and we’ve got a record of success of engaging audiences with that strategy.
Predictably, where we seem to have an angle to get us into the public eye, Nisbet deplores it. I’m getting the impression that if there is anything scientists do well, whether it is explaining the evidence (boring!) or generating conflict narratives (divisive!), Nisbet is going to tell us to throw it away.
That is not useful.
It doesn’t even make sense. We’re not supposed to do “data dumps” because it bores people and they ignore us, and we’re not supposed to use conflict narratives despite the fact that it gets people interested in us.
The dynamic for decades has been that scientists are eggheads who bore everyone, and that the real excitement goes on in the evangelists’ tents, where they preach a loud and vigorous conflict narrative at great length, all in opposition to science. The Nisbet/Mooney suggestion so far seems to be that scientists will correct that by being less eggheady (which is where I see some hope for their ideas) and being innocuous and as harmless as little churchmice, who just emerge to whisper productive, cooperative suggestions to the ranting preacher. Using the strengths of science to write bestsellers is too, too crass, and besides, books will never shape the popular discourse. That’s the nonsense that turns me off.
Come on, people. Look at science and its problems objectively, and make appropriate suggestions that will help make it better. It’s as if we’re trying to sell a car that runs well but has a rusted out body and torn upholstery, and their suggestions to improve it all involve ripping out the engine and sticking something else in there … and we’re not even getting a clear explanation of what’s going to replace the engine.