Category Archives: Popularization

Interlude: Framing

The “framingkerfluffle continues apace at ScienceBlogs.com and elsewhere (also here). For a primer on this subject, see my earlier remarks here. I like Joshua’s most recent take, which can be summarized in the phrase, “Let’s look at the data.” I also like what “Revere” has to say at Effect Measure:

Nisbet and Mooney argue that just presenting the facts in favor of evolution or climate change isn’t sufficient. As a university teacher for 40 years I couldn’t agree more. It’s a matter of good pedagogy, which isn’t just displaying facts. If it were, we wouldn’t need teachers. But the implication that good teaching is “packaging” — aka, “spinning,” although they prefer to think of it as “framing” — doesn’t follow, unless all good teaching is called “framing,” in which case all we have done is substitute one word for another.

“All good teaching is framing” has no more content than “All is God”, “All thoughts are memes” or “Everything is love.” You don’t get to say “All is full of love” unless you’re a Björk-22 model gynoid from the Yamtaijika Corporation. I’d add that if you really want to use a jargon word, you should pick one which doesn’t have an everyday meaning: picking a word which everybody thinks they understand even though they actually need a background in the subject is setting yourself up for confusion. Call it “Lakoff framing” or “Goffman framing” or something of the sort.

You know what this whole thing reminds me of?

Beatlemania.
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I Was Framed!

Not too long ago, the way the outside world tells time, Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney published a paper in Science on the topic of “Framing.” Well, ’tweren’t really a paper — truth be told, it was more like an Op-Ed with footnotes. This being the Internet, humorous and ironic points have all been pointed out before you can get to them: as several people have said before, this essay on how to improve science communication was locked behind a subscription wall like a callipygian slave girl in the harem of academic orthodoxy.

What, you think I just went a simile too far? You try reading an explosion of interacting, conflicting blogs with scores of articulate and angry commenters, and just you see if you can stop your twenty-two remaining neurons from spewing up a metaphysical conceit of saturnine if not Jovian proportions.

There’s a technical definition of “framing” in the anthropological literature (or rather, a “turf battle” of several vaguely related and conflicting definitions, which doesn’t help), but the general sense in which most people seem to have interpreted the notion is that scientific ideas — global warming, evolution, Pluto not being a planet no more, etc. — should be wrapped in carefully chosen rhetoric like viruses coated in lipid membranes stolen from their hosts in order to evade the immune system, which is in this case the public’s reluctance to listen to scientific issues. It’s been said that this is really no different than what we science folk do every day when writing our grant proposals, speaking at conferences, glossing over the subtleties in freshman biology class and so forth.

Unfortunately, what could and should have been a useful discussion about communicating science when our society needs it most turned out, well, broken. To illustrate, I can hardly do better than quote PZ Myers:

I’m not playing dumb, I really am confused. I’ve got people telling me I already use frames, that I use frames well, that I use them badly, that I’m ignoring frames at my peril, what I’m describing isn’t framing, what I’m describing is framing, that frames are this thing or that thing or this other thing.

I’m getting next to nothing that’s practical. OK, don’t call it “evolutionary theory”, call it “evolutionary biology”. Is that it?

Maybe I do need a course in this.

I would like to argue that the confusion and general cross-purposes painfully evident in the Blagnet discussion indicates two things: first, that the initial Nisbet–Mooney paper was a thrust in the wrong direction, and second, that we are confronting a fundamental limitation of the way the Web currently operates.
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Gamma-Ray Burst of Damocles

Back in 1979, Isaac Asimov let loose a book called A Choice of Catastrophes. It covered a whole spectrum of Very Bad Things, from the end of humanity (a relatively mild outcome) to the extinction of the Universe itself. Being Asimov, he voiced his concerns about overpopulation and the degrading environment, but the publisher nixed his take on another threat: terrorism. (If I ever make a third visit to Boston University’s Asimov Archive, I’ll have to try hunting down the original draft.)

Our understanding of catastrophes has advanced since 1979. We’ve learned more about the potential disasters lurking in human nature, and we also know a few more things about what the sky might have in store for us. So, give a big cheer for the one, the only, the inimitable Phil Plait, who is unleashing upon an unwitting world Death from the Skies!

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Russell Blackford on Human Enhancement

I’m not sure when the idea of “human enhancement” first bubbled up in my brain. It seems to be one of those possibilities which I just grew up with, thanks to a childhood lost in books. In Cosmos, Carl Sagan wrote,

There must be ways of putting nucleic acids together that will function far better — by any criterion we choose — than any human being who has ever lived. Fortunately, we do not yet know how to assemble alternative sequences of nucleotides to make alternative kinds of human beings. In the future we may well be able to assemble nucleotides in any desired sequence, to produce whatever characteristics we think desirable — a sobering and disquieting prospect.

The video version ends with “awesome and disquieting prospect,” by the way. Sagan’s friend Isaac Asimov was a little more cheerful; while dying of AIDS, he concluded the revision of his book The Human Brain with these words:

Man would then, by his own exertions, become more than man, and what might not be accomplished thereafter? It is quite certain, I am sure, that none of us will live to see the far-distant time when this might come to pass. And yet, the mere thought that such a day might some day come, even though it will not dawn on my own vision, is a profoundly satisfying one.

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