The blogosphere is all lit up with views and commentary on the "Framing Science" article by Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney. Interesting discussion can be found at Sandwalk, A Blog Aroung The Clock (and links within), Pharyngula, as well as Matthew Nisbet's site. Essentially, the article argues that scientists are losing the battle of popular opinion because they don't frame science in a way that normal folk can relate to. People glaze over when someone start to talk science. Unless scientists and science writers get better at communicating with the public, so the argument goes, we will lose valuable mind-space to interests that are better "framers", such as Conservative politicians and the Intelligent Design movement. If only scientists could choose better words, use friendlier concepts, and be more inclusive, surely everyone would see things our way, and society would be ruled by the concepts of pure science and reason.
As far as I can tell (and I'm not the first to say it), "framing" is little more than a neo-term for rhetoric, a.k.a. "spin". Nisbet and Mooney have framed rhetoric in a new way to make it new and exciting for scientists again. Allow me to frame the issue in a different way using a favourite device of rhetoricians everywhere: the analogy. Science is like that smart kid in the class that no one likes. The only reason anyone talks to Science is to get help with their homework, and she is only too happy to oblige. But Science has this bad habit of rambling on about things that seem important to her, but unless it relates directly to their homework, the other students have better things to do. Despite Science's best intentions, the rest of the class see her as arrogant, impenetrable, and even threatening, albeit useful from time to time.
To bring this analogy back into the real world, unless science has assured the world faster porn downloads or a cure for cancer, the majority of people simply are not interested. People want their science useful, or not at all. In their article, Nisbet and Mooney contrast the rhetoric scientists have used to defend their positions on evolution and embryonic stem cell research. They suggest that scientists have failed in the debate on evolution because they have been arguing the science instead of the cost of creationism to society and the taxpayer. On the other hand, by framing the debate over stem cell research in terms of "social progress" and "economic competitiveness" (not to mention the possible health benefits), scientists have been quite successful in securing funding dollars, even when faced with attacks from the right-wing. So, what Nisbet and Mooney are saying is that we need to drape science in a utilitarian shroud, whether that be financial, social, or medical.
This doesn't seem especially novel to me, and just sounds like good sense. Of course scientists should expound the utility of their work; that's a good part of why science is done (the other part is curiosity). But when we do frame science in this way, it should always be done within the super-frame of accuracy and truthfulness. I doubt that Nisbet and Mooney are advocating anything different. However, I will say that the idea that "framing" science properly will suddenly illuminate where science don't shine is really a very arrogant (or perhaps naive) one. Science is intimately bound up with reason, and once we step outside its limits, we find ourselves surrounded by pseudoscience, superstition and religion. Reason simply isn't welcome here, and even the most well-reasoned, utilitarian rhetoric will likely fall on deaf ears. Many people are still going to feel threatened by that smart kid in the class whether she is useful or not. That's not to say we shouldn't try though. Certainly, the goal of every science writer is to make science accessible to the general public, and a worthwhile goal it is. Rhetoric has always been a useful tool in this respect. However, I caution that if rhetoric were the magic bullet, there would have been no need for Nisbet and Mooney to write their article in the first place.