Fr*ming in the CJR

The framing kerfluffle has reached the Columbia Journalism Review‘s website, with a piece entitled “Just the Facts, and Opinions Too” (5 June 2007). Curtis Brainard does a pretty good job of setting out the scenario, but his story leaves out an aspect which I think is significant.

I have come to hypothesize that there are the reasonable Mooney and Nisbet, who get written up in places like Brainard’s article, and then there are their insane twin brothers who keep trying to kick those uppity atheists back into the corner. (Similar statements about rational and bizarre twins have been made for Thomas Kuhn and Lee Smolin.) To a first approximation, if I heard some people saying what Curtis Brainard records Nisbet and Mooney as saying, my response would resemble the following:

“Yeah, OK, we need more and better communicators. Are your claims that such-and-such technique worked in your example cases A, B, and C actually falsifiable, or are they Just-So Stories? What are your plans for funding plans X and Y, and what do you think of plan Z?”

Instead, I get told that if I speak what observation and inference tell me are the truth, I’m giving “creationist adversaries a boost,” and therefore I should keep my mouth shut about things I’ve known since I was a preteen bookworm.


In their Washington Post op-ed, Mooney and Nisbet worry that “The public cannot be expected to differentiate between [Richard Dawkins’s] advocacy of evolution and his atheism.” Well, if that’s the case, then why shouldn’t I be equally worried that the public can’t look at a framing scientist and tell his stance on climate change apart from his political beliefs? It’s all shaky and inconsistent, with the good framers divided from the bad ideologues just by how agreeable their ideologies sound.

The final passage of the CJR piece is worth repeating here:

“Aren’t you turning scientists into ideologues?” one man asked after the talk. But Mooney and Nisbet reiterated their belief that even when science is “reframed,” its practitioners should not misrepresent reality. Facts must inform opinions, Mooney said, but “the facts don’t speak for themselves.”

When you do let the facts inform your opinions, it is exceedingly difficult not to form the opinion that religion, like astrology, is a relic of past ages in which we understood less of the world, an artifact which should not be taken as a credible source of factual insight or moral guidance — a relic which certainly should not be granted freedom from criticism.

It might hurt, but dammit, we can’t ignore it.

Richard Dawkins, by his own admission, may not be the best messenger to certain kinds of messages. But he certainly has a vital point of view, one which must be reckoned with, and I think rhetoric that gives the impression that such viewpoints should be muzzled in the interest of ‘framing the message’ properly are short-sighted.

— Scott Hatfield (15 April 2007)

So yes, get the lobbyists to talk about “stewardship of the environment” and the sacred quality of living green spaces. But don’t underestimate the need to bulk up the critical-thinking powers of the citizen body, and don’t shy away from the consequences of what that necessary tonic might do to our lingering social illnesses. Skepticism is a wide-spectrum medication which, if coupled with intellectual integrity, doesn’t stop with the entrail-readers and the homeopaths.