Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Being Framed

Leah Ceccarelli, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington and the author of the book, Shaping Science with Rhetoric, has a good article in the Seattle Times. She outlines some of the recent areas in science in which manufactured controversies, or "manufactroversies," have been created, including global warming, AIDS and, of course, Intelligent Design Creationism. Professor Ceccarelli identifies three methods by which such manufactroversies are wrought:

[M]odern-day sophists skillfully invoke values that are shared by the scientific community and the public, such as free speech, skeptical inquiry and the revolutionary force of new ideas against a repressive orthodoxy. It is difficult to argue against someone who draws on these values without seeming unscientific or un-American.

Second, the modern sophists exploit the gap between the technical and public spheres. Scientific experts who can't spare the time for public communication are then surprised when the public distrusts them.

Third, today's sophists exploit a public misconception about what science is, portraying it as a structure of complete consensus built from the steady accumulation of unassailable data. Any dissent is cited as evidence that there's no consensus, and thus that truth must not have been discovered yet.

Anyone familiar with the Discovery Institute will have seen its frequent claims that the very fact that scientists dispute its claims demonstrates that there is a controversy. On the other hand, as Professor Ceccarelli points out, "to cede the public stage in the naive hope that no one will pay attention" won't work either, putting scientists and their supporters in a bind of the creationists' making. The tactic is as old as the Greek Sophists and Aristotle's attempts to counter them.

Professor Ceccarelli's recommendation:

Science will continue to be the victim of anti-science sophistry until the defenders of science learn to use my field — rhetoric — to achieve what Aristotle envisioned for it: to make strong arguments carry the day before an audience of non-experts.

That is, naturally, a species of the dreaded "framing," the specifics of which we seem intent on endlessly debating -- while science burns. Nonetheless, some way, by some method, science supporters are going to have to do a better job of educating the public about the real nature of science.

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