Matthew C. Nisbet – Selling Science to the Public

April 20, 2007

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. His research tracks scientific and environmental controversies, examining the interactions between experts, journalists, and various publics. In this area, Nisbet has published numerous peer-reviewed studies, with his work having been cited more than 100 times over the past couple years. In addition to his research, Nisbet co-authored with Chris Mooney the much-talked-about Columbia Journalism Review cover story on intelligent design, and he has written for other popular outlets such as Foreign Policy and Geotimes magazines. He also contributes the semi-regular “Science and the Media” column for Skeptical Inquirer online, and he tracks current events related to strategic communication at his blog Framing Science, which was recently named by the NY Daily News as a “top political blog.”

Nisbet is a frequent invited speaker at conferences and meetings across the U.S. and Canada, and he is often called upon for his expert analysis by major news organizations. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication from Cornell University and an A.B. in Government from Dartmouth College. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as Public Relations Director for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry at the Center for Inquiry-Transnational.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Nisbet explores the issue of “framing science” in the public mind, how scientists may be failing at effectively communicating the importance of the implications of science for society, and steps the science community may take to more expertly sell their science to a disinterested public. He also argues about Richard Dawkins and his effect on the public appreciation of science, and the impact of linking atheism with science for issues such as stem-cell research, teaching evolution in the public schools, and global warming.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 20th, 2007. 

It’s Friday, so here’s another point of inquiry welcome, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, which is a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has a number of other branches all around the United States, including in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, California. Tampa, Florida. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

And on and on. Every week on this show, we look at the big questions of society through the lens of the scientific outlook, focusing mostly on pseudoscience of the paranormal, alternative medicine and secularism and religion in our society. Before we get to this week’s guest, I want to invite you to become a friend of the center. That’s one indication that this podcast. This radio show is having an impact as we try to advance the mission of the Center for Inquiry. You can do so by going to point of inquiry dot org. And now before Matt Nisbet hears a word from this week’s sponsor. 

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I’m pleased to have my friend Matt Nisbet back on point of inquiry, first became friends with him years ago as I was getting my start here at CFI. His work is right up our alley. He focuses on the connection between the media, public attitudes and political decisions about science. He’s a professor at American University and his writings have appeared in a number of scholarly journals. And he also writes a regular Web column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine on science and the media. He has a popular blog on science blogs, dot com called Framing Science. And he recently coauthored an article in the journal Science with Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science. It was about framing science to the public and how scientists need to do a better job of it than they’re now doing. Matt, welcome back to Point of Inquiry. 

Thanks, T.J., for having me. 

This week, you’ve gotten a lot of press attention for your piece in science about communicating science to the public. Start off by telling me exactly what you mean by quotes framing science. 

Well, you know, this is this is an interesting term and has very deep roots in the social science literature. And over the last 20 years, it’s been developed as a model or a theory for explaining media influence across the disciplines of sociology, political science and communication research. It also has kind of a alternative interpretation that’s out there in cable news shows and different kind of common language. Let me first start by saying what framing is not framing doesn’t mean, for example, in colloquial terms to frame someone for a crime to set them up. So there’s definitely that negative connotation about this term that’s out there. And that’s an unfortunate misinterpretation. 

Is it putting a spin on science? 

It can mean to spin science, but it doesn’t necessarily mean to spin science in false ways. So what we’re suggesting is that research and framing from the fields of political science, sociology, communication research suggests that with any complex issue, whether it’s science or it’s Social Security, different communicators focus on one dimension of that issue over others. Sometimes to the exclusion of any other dimension. And that can be a very effective way of communicating their ideas to a broader American public who are what I call cognitive misers, people who in their daily lives, faced with a torrent of information, rely very heavily on information, shortcuts or horrific sticks to make up their minds. Often, in the absence of knowledge, what we’re suggesting is to take this research on framing the frames that appear in the media, these kind of condensed versions of complex issues that emphasize just one dimension over others, leading to attributions about who’s responsible and what should be done. And the flames that people carry in their head, the cognitive shortcuts are horrific. Their schema in the frames that occur in people’s interpersonal conversation and language and in everyday basis. Take that research in that area that’s grown up over the last 20 years and apply it to engaging the broader American public on politically controversial areas related to science, such as climate change, the teaching of evolution in schools. In stem cell research. 

Yeah. Where there are controversies. Where science says one thing and science is cultural. Competitors say another thing. You want to more effectively get the word out about science. So you can persuade the public, the voting public, to side with science on these issues. 

Well, you know, it depends on on the issue. And let’s use the example maybe to start with climate change. Here’s a very complex issue that has a certain level of uncertainty. And it also has still a lingering partizan divide on whether the issue is a problem and what should be done. How does the wider American public make up their mind about this complex issue? Well, for the most part, they don’t know a lot about the science. The polls show, unfortunately, that despite record amounts of media attention to the issue and ever increasing scientific consensus, that there is a problem, that the public still scores very, very low in terms of scientific information. 

It sounds like you’re blaming science for that, as opposed to the cultural competitors who go out there and use conservative media outlets to misinform the public. 

Well, what we’re suggesting is that when a science issue moves from the regular kind of apparatus of communicating science from scientists to science writers to a small audience of science enthusiasts when it shifts from that regular science communication process. Out into the wider public sphere, it becomes politically contentious and grabs the attention of political reporters at the political beat and op ed writers and the editorial pages, etc., the image of science. Moore’s new players come into the debate and they take advantage of framing to push their preferred policy positions. So what are scientists to do when science leave that traditional science communication model? From scientists to science writer to an audience of science enthusiasts, new actors come into the debate and they start taking advantage of framing to achieve their communication goals. What are scientists both to do? Well, what we suggest is that scientists themselves start to frame these issues in a way that remains true to the science, but makes them personally meaningful and connects them to a diverse American public. 

You’re saying scientists should become as skilled at getting the word out about their points of view as the people who disagree with the scientists on these controversial questions? Do it. 

Yes, that’s true. And when we say scientists, what we mean by scientists is that this means large scientific institutions. It means scientists themselves, individual scientists who take on a communication role at the local level with their local media. We’re talking to local groups. It often means defenders of science, this hoopy advocacy groups. It could be a particular issue. It could be an environmental group. So when we say scientists, we’re thinking kind of this larger community of people who care about science. 

In your article in the journal Science, you pulled no punches. Not only did you talk about this broader framing issue, but you kind of stuck it to Richard Dawkins for giving science as cultural competitors all the ammunition they could want in this culture war of science vs.. Take your pick, religion or science vs. the people who disagree with science. 

That’s right. 

And to be clear in our article at The Washington Post, we don’t draw any judgments about the substance of Dawkins’ arguments in this book. 

You’re talking about the God delusion, not as generally more scientific books, although some would argue that the God delusion itself a scientific cause. As he says, it’s talking about a scientific hypothesis that God exists. 

And in fact, actually we leave that debate off the table. Instead, what we focus on. OK. Dawkins has this book. He’s gotten a fair amount of publicity for. He sold 200000 or something. 

Copies a fair amount. I give the man his props. It’s the single best selling title of its kind ever. And I think it just moved up to number eight on the New York Times bestseller list. 

Sure. Exactly. At bestselling book. So what is what is the larger public impact of Dawkins message? Leave leave aside for a moment the substance or the debate over his arguments. All right. And think, what is the broader public perceive or what information do they receive about his book? Now, his book has sold 200000 or so copies, which was reported in The New York Times, I believe. All right. Rabbi, chapter, about 300 million Americans. All right. So 200000 a very small portion of Americans have actually bought the book. And it’s in doubt. People have actually bought the book. How many people have actually read it? 

Right. But if opinion makers or elected officials or influential people are getting the book and talking about it, there’s kind of that trickle down effect. So goes the argument. 

Well, exactly. It’s very important to have a buzz factor. Exactly. But the empirical question is, what exactly is the buzz factor? 

If you look at the titles, if you look at the so-called frame devices, the metaphors, the catchphrases, the pictures, the magazine covers that have covered the book. The overwhelming frame device is a frame device that revolves around this idea of a conflict between science and religion. That’s the interpretation. That’s the shortcut. The horrific that the wider American public who are not buying the book, who are not reading it, are introduced. 

Right. Let me ask you, though, if there really is that conflict, isn’t Dawkins doing a world of good by bringing that conflict to the public’s attention? If there’s really that conflict, there not only is has he done more to advance the public appreciation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, but he’s also bringing this conflict to light, you know, letting people know that being an atheist is perfectly sensible, that science contradicts religion. How is making that conflict more public? How can that possibly hurt science? 

Well, certainly, you know, if if you see science and eight years and as one in the same, then you can make the argument that Dawkins is doing a public service. And perhaps 200 years from now, Dawkins book in his work and his message will be seen as a major cultural milestone. Our focus, however, is in the short term on these political questions of teaching evolution in schools, engaging the public on some type of systematic policy action on climate change issues related to the funding of stem cell research. How do you bring together a diverse and devout American public to make collective decisions about these science related policy questions? How do you communicate? What’s the best way to communicate with them? Well, certainly hitting them on the head with saying that science is in conflict with the religious belief, with their social identity is not the way to convince a very important swing public of Americans. People who might be moderate, religious people whose the leaders of their faith traditions are saying, you know, look, we endorse the teaching of evolution in schools. Yet if for some reason through inter-personal conversation or they just see something on TV about this British scientist, this person, and he’s bringing a message that science and religion are in conflict, that science actually undermines their faith, and that provides a very powerful, horrific that can be played upon. NPR campaigns, for example, by the Discovery Institute. 

Matt, do you think that if you believe the implications of evolution are atheistic for the good of science, should you keep that bottled up and not say so? Is should the public message be conveyed with honey so it goes down better? 

You know, there will always be an audience for criticism of religion and for scientific evaluations of religion and religious beliefs and claims. What we’re saying is and we’re certainly not asking people to to censor what they believe to be the implications of science, but we’re saying those we’re describing what is likely to be going on among the broader American public. Is Dawkins message helping us bring together a broader American public to make collective decisions about science related policy? And the answer is probably not. 

One more question about Dawkins is certainly didn’t come on point of inquiry to talk about Dawkins, and I certainly don’t need to defend him. But in your Washington Post piece, you single out Dawkins for and I quote, being an example of scientists failure to explain hot button issues such as global warming and evolution to a wary public. But Matt Dawkins didn’t write a book on global warming or evolution. He wrote it about God being a delusion. 


And again, you know, there’s all these different kind of spillover effects across the public sphere, across these popular media outlets where the public’s not necessarily paying attention to the substance of his arguments, but rather receiving what I call low information cues rarely available. Harris sticks about what exactly science might mean in their daily lives. And if we continue to promote this and feed into a fragmented media system, a conflict hungry media system make it very easy for journalists to reinterpret what should be a dialog between science and religion and a dialog with the American public as just another political conflict, another clash of world views, then that’s not productive in engaging the American public on science. 

So let’s broaden the discussion from Dawkins. Why is it important that the public get science in the first place? Other fields don’t get organizations to advance, and there’s no American Association for the Advancement of, I don’t know, law. Maybe there is an organization. Point is all this hand-wringing is going on about the public learning science. Why not the public learning about art or music, literature or history? What’s the big why science get all this angst going on about the public not getting it? 

Well, you know, certainly in our educational system, we prioritize science education because we’ve always viewed it over the last century as a science. And really, this is a dominant frame of science when the latent meanings that we attribute to science is that science leads to social progress, makes your lives better. And is incredibly important for the economic competitiveness of this country. Those are two ways that people reduce the complexity of the decision of two, we prioritize science or not to an easy choice. Yes, science is good at least, and social progress. It improves our economy. And if our students if our kids are going to compete in a global economy, they have to understand science. And that’s why they’re such a heavy emphasis on science education. 

So there are real reasons why people need to get science and appreciate it. But aren’t the implications of science exactly the kinds of things that you’re saying will necessarily scare people away from science? 

You know, it might be Richard Dawkins personal belief and it might be many people’s personal belief that the implications of science lead to a criticism of religion. But certainly when it comes to making collective decisions, when it comes to at the policy level, you know, I don’t think that’s an official position of our leading scientific organizations or the people that set science policy. So, again, it depends. Dawkins plays a very important role for people who are skeptical of religion or have doubts about religion for articulating their views and kind of crystallizing them and also expressing them to other people. In fact, his book is really an exercise in framing, condensing down a lot of complexity for readers and helping them come to terms and understand their position on religion and also importantly, to express it to other people. And that’s always an important role. And in that case, his communication is effective to that small audience of people who have doubts about religion. On the other hand, what we’re saying is we need to move forward in the next five, 10, 15, 20 years. We need to make collective decisions about how to solve the problem of climate change. When battles over the teaching of evolution and two, and there are elections coming up whether to vote in or vote out a certain school board or even a decision about whether a school curriculum decision that might be on the ballot. How do we engage the public to make a collective choice about teaching evolutionary science in only evolutionary science in school districts? And what we suggest is. It doesn’t make sense to move forward with an argument that science and religion are in conflict. It also doesn’t make sense to move forward with an argument that always comes back to arguing the consensus view on evolutionary science, even though that’s true. Why? 

Because that particular argument feeds back into the rival tactic about there being elite scientists who don’t allow opposing views to be taught, etc.. 

Exactly right. Into the PR campaign of Discovery Institute, which essentially boils down to the frame device or slogan teach the controversy. What we’re proposing as alternative messages would be that it’s important to teach evolutionary science in science class because evolution, a science is a modern building block for medical advances. And it’s important that our students understand that in order to participate in the global economy, it’s also a matter of public accountability. It’s really a political corruption story. And this is the interpretation that came out of Dover, the Dover case. So a federal judge, a Republican appointed, ruled that a small group of religious conservatives had taken control of the school board and had tried to push. There are one particular religious view on a community of diverse faith, and that’s wrong, and that’s the message that likely appeals to a moderate swing American public who happens also to be religious right. 

Like Judge John Jones, who ruled in the case himself, a devout Catholic. 

Exactly. And the third interpretation that likely works in engaging the public on why it’s important to teach evolutionary science in only evolutionary science in public schools. 

In fact, actually, this is maybe not an argument that is as persuasive with the general public, but definitely persuasive with things like state legislators and governors who are trying to decide where to weigh in on this is that if you’re the only state or you’re the only school district in the country that allows the teaching of intelligent design creationism or doesn’t teach evolution, then what is that going to do to the reputation of your locality or your state for economic investment? It is going to be a state that is seen as a good place for biotech companies to go to. Will your students be seen as being competitive to get into the best colleges and universities in the country? Should you be worried about that? 

I hear the argument and it’s persuasive on one level. On. On the other hand, I don’t know how I feel about telling people believe in science because it’s better for their pocketbooks and letting that be the winning argument. I want people to believe what’s true, not only what, you know, get some more money. 

Well, in fact, actually, all those statements I just made are true, that having really good science education in the state is good for the state’s economy. 

Investing in science education is good for the state economy. That’s true. It’s also true that this is a political corruption story. It’s also true that evolutionary science is a modern building block for medical advances. All those statements are true. 

You talk about how scientists need to shift their emphasis and also get new messengers. Should scientists emphasize science less and the benefits to the public more? Or it seems to me that if they just talk about science, that’s exactly what you don’t want them to do. Also, it kind of sounds like you’re saying scientists should hire PR firms to make their stuff more palatable. 

Well, you know, the reality is when you look at news audiences and you look at what news organizations are covering the audience for both public affairs coverage, but also especially science coverage is dwindling. There are fewer and fewer places in the traditional news media where you can get substantive coverage of science. And the audience for public affairs and science coverage is growing small. The great kind of paradox that we have is that online we have more good science information available to us than any time in history. Yet there’s a problem of choice that if people are not already science enthusiasts, all right, they don’t have the motivation to seek out or pay attention to that science coverage. So what do they do? They engage instead in other things like infotainment and entertainment. 

So the question becomes, how do you actually even get science related information to these fragmented audiences? You know, the first question is, how do you deliver it to them? And then how do you package it in a way that remains true to the science, but also is personally meaningful. So a great example would be you shift the messenger and you alter the message. And a great example of that would be the work that’s being done now on the issue of climate change. 

What does that call this environmental stewardship movement? 

Yeah, Rick Warren, the author, that mega best selling Christian book, Purpose Driven Life. He is advocating for environmental stewardship. He’s not a scientist, but he’s doing what you’re talking about. 

No, exactly. And this is this is very key, because if you look at the polling data on climate change, you have what you’d describe as the two Americas of public perceptions. You literally have a forty to fifty point difference in the polls between college educated Democrats and college educated Republicans and how they view whether or not human activities are contributing to climate change and whether or not it’s a problem. Right. So the question then becomes, how do you activate interest and attention and acceptance of the science among that Republican base? Well, the current tactic is to get a lot of scientific information out there via the IPCC reports, etc. So certainly the stronger messages about scientific consensus than in any other time. The problem is people aren’t paying attention to the news of the IPCC report. 

Yeah, people are skeptical of science, that science. They they think it’s, you know, the deck is stacked, that it’s people’s personal motivations or are getting them to say things that aren’t true. 

Right. So that’s on top. So the first problem is the really good coverage by people like Andrew Rafkin, The New York Times. 

It’s just not getting through to the wider American public. They’re not paying attention to. They’re paying attention to celebrity culture and entertainment. And they’re paying attention to what they are paying. The news, maybe coverage of Iran or Iraq or some type of sensational crime that might be going on. So there’s a problem just getting people’s attention. But the second problem is on the Democratic side, political leaders like Al Gore and some environmentalists and even some scientists that decided to package or frame their message on climate change as catastrophe, that we’ve unlocked this Pandora’s box and that we’re going to pay the price somewhere in the future with these major, major climatic impacts like more intense hurricanes. The problem there is that the error back error bars around that science, each one of those climate impacts is a lot higher. All right. A lot greater than that particular connection between human activities, the emission of greenhouse gases and global warming. So that opened up those claims to the rival frame from people like Senator James Inhofe, that these are liberal scientists, as he says, Hollywood liberals and environmentalists who are trying to scare you with alarmism don’t believe that. And he goes on Fox, Fox and Friends, for example, takes advantage of the fragmented media system. Drudge Report Drudge links to his blog. He goes on Fox and Friends. And he delivers this message the same week that the IPCC report comes out. 

Right. So all the conservatives getting their news from those outlets, they take the party line because that’s what’s given them. 

Right, that the most readily accessible attribution about what’s going on. 

Is this very quick, short cognitive shortcut that this is alarmism. Don’t believe the science delivered by a Republican leader which resonates with their partizanship. So the question then is how do you break through this? How do you break through this this conflict media? 

How do you break through this bipartisanship? Well, you alter the message, you alter the medium, right? You go into churches and you start talking about you recast the issue as really one of moral duty, our Christian obligation to take care of the environment and not add to global warming. 

Exactly. And it’s not only just a religious message, the moral message, but it can also resonate with a secular person as well, saying that, hey, this is like credit card, that you’re accruing all this debt and it’s going to be your kids and your grandchildren then have to pay the price. And that’s morally wrong. And you should care about this Jim Underdown. 

The one person we haven’t brought up in this context is E.O. Wilson, who seems to me to be doing exactly what you’re talking about in his book, The Creation. He hasn’t been on point of inquiry yet. He’s scheduled for the near future. But he rather than decrying the cultural competitors with whom he disagrees. He says, hey, let’s talk about what we can agree about, which is global warming is real. And now what actions do we need to take to confront it? 


And that’s probably a very effective way to recast the issue in a way that connects to American social identities, particularly their religious identities, to make some type of progress on the issue of the next five, 10, 15 years, which we need to do. But one other interesting observation. Notice that you’re Wilson’s book, despite being written by E.O. Wilson and having a novel interpretation of this issue, hasn’t gotten nearly as much media attention as Richard Dawkins. And the reason is, is that you, Wilson, does not feed the conflict frame that so many journalists and news organizations prefer to sell magazines and to sell news stories. 

Matt, your specialty is science communication. But why wouldn’t. Well, I wouldn’t. Just more people learning science do the trick. Why? Instead of trying to get scientists to be better communicators and kind of blaming scientists for it, why not put the onus on the public to learn more about science? Or why shouldn’t we just go out and try to get more people to become science enthusiasts, increasing science literacy? Isn’t that going to be an easier trick than adopting new communication strategies and and engaging in all these framing devices? 

Well, certainly what I’m recommending is moving it across a couple different levels. 

What we did in the science commentary and in the Washington Post Outlook article is that in roughly nineteen hundred words, we drew a lot of attention to how is the best way to engage a broader American public by way of the media. 

On these politically controversial, complex, science related topics, I also have a lot of ideas on how do you improve science education to make better scientific citizens both kind of go hand in hand. You have to have heavy investment, continued investment in science education through high school and college. But at the same time, you’re dealing with an adult population that didn’t get that good science education. Right. So how do you mobilize or how do you engage citizens now by way of the media? That’s the best thing you have going for you is reaching people by way of the broader media. All right. And we’re not just talking about science media, because that only reaches the people who are already concerned, who are already knowledgeable, the science enthusiasts. How do you connected this wider, diverse public who may not even pay attention to political coverage, let alone science coverage? So you have to think about new channels taking advantage of things like entertainment, celebrity culture to deliver a carefully tailored message. And also in one of my my most recent couple acquire online article, I talk about how you have to take advantage of inter-personal channels, how you connect media messages by way of what I call science navigators or opinion leaders. Average citizens who care about the scientific issues have a strength of personality and are willing to discuss the science issues when they’re at work, when they’re at church, when they’re out and volunteer communities. And if you can coordinate these people with some type of media campaign, now, you have a communication surge that moves both through different channels of the media and also the web reaching people where they’re not expecting to find science information, but also reaching them interpersonally. People at work saying, hey, did you hear about the IPCC report? 

As opposed to did you hear about the hockey game last night exactly. Let’s talk about some of the specific issues where scientists are failing. Let’s talk about where they’re succeeding at communicating with the public. You mentioned global warming. You talked about evolution there. There are some successes when it comes to science, communication of the public over, say, embryonic stem cell research. 

Right. And this is this is a great example. Back in 2001, when President Bush delivered his compromise decision on only allowing limited funding for embryonic stem cell research, a decision that was immediately criticized by scientists and patient advocates for not allowing enough stem cell lines available for funding for them to be able to do the work that they wanted to do. Right. How do you mobilize public opinion then to put pressure on Congress and the president to allow more funding for stem cell research? Well, what they didn’t do is they didn’t do an intensive campaign about informing people about the science of stem cell research. They didn’t try to use the media to increase the public’s literacy about the process of research, because that’s not something that can be paid attention to. And it’s not necessarily likely to be persuasive in changing people’s views on this issue, especially that middle ground public that might have some religious and moral reservations, but also see the promise. Instead, they while remaining true to the science, in most cases, they recast. The issue is really a matter about social progress that this issue boils down to doing the research that can lead to therapies and cures for a whole host of different types of diseases. And then second, the second message they offered is really this is about global competitiveness. Places like Asia, places like Singapore and South Korea are going to get out in front of us on this research. And that’s going to hurt the U.S. economy. Or if our state moves ahead with public funding at the state level, we can really accrue a lot of advantages within the United States in terms of the economic standing of our state. And they also delivered that message not necessarily by way of scientists by but by using celebrities, people like Michael J. Fox. People like Brad Pitt. People like Nancy Reagan. People like Christopher Reeve when he was still alive. And that was a very effective campaign. Now, there’s always caveats involved in some cases, like with the case of John Edwards when he ran as vice president in 2004. Some people have gone beyond the promise of the science, stretching the science beyond its uncertainties and making claims like if John Kerry were elected president, you know, you get up and walk from a wheelchair again, which was relatively the statement that John John Edwards made back in 2004. So you always have to be very careful when you’re when your scientific organization, when you’re a defender of science, you can take advantage of framing framings like nuclear energy. 

It can be used for bad purposes, but it can be also used to really good purpose. 

And you’re saying don’t overstate your case, otherwise, you’re a spinmeister. You’re not framing science to make it merely more palatable. Another issue that you’ve criticized the scientific community for not effectively framing is the intelligent design creationism issue. 

That’s right. 

And, you know, we talked about earlier, what’s the best way to engage a broad American public on the political question of teaching evolutionary science in schools and only evolutionary science? There’s also an interesting lesson from this whole debate, and that comes from the response in the late 1990s to the PR campaign that was launched by the Discovery Institute. Discovery Institute is a conservative think tank based in Seattle, Washington. At one part of this think tank started promoting this Weibel concept or idea to the theory of evolution called intelligent design creationism or what they just called intelligent design. 

And what they successfully did through their PR campaign and many people didn’t take this seriously. But what they did is they took advantage of framing, just like nuclear energy can be used for good in the right hands and can be used for bad in other hands. Intelligent design used framing to craft messages that spun the science in false ways. And they created the impression that teaching evolution in schools was really akin to Athie ism and that intelligent design was scientifically good enough. It was a nice, happy compromise between teaching evolution as Athie ism and teaching biblical creationism, which had been ruled constitutionally unacceptable. 

And they took advantage of the media norms. They weren’t really able to get this message across by way of science writers and in science coverage. But they went to the opinion pages and they played on the he said she said we’re clueless. 

Kind of normal political reporters where they want both sides of every issue and every issue. 

And then just carefully crafted as a he said she said argument without providing context for the science. Right. So they understood how they could use framing in this fragmented media system and play on the cognitive biases of audiences and push their preferred policy positions. 

OK, so we’ve we’ve talked about these issues that you say scientists should communicate more effectively to the public. I can’t let you go without asking. Do you have any ideas for how atheists should communicate their atheist more effectively to the public? I mean, look at Dawkins hasn’t. Hasn’t he done an excellent job of doing just that? His mega best selling book in the gay rights movement where, you know, homosexual activists tried to seek public acceptance. It started with drag queens, you know, who were out in front and controversial, but they kind of paved the way. 

That’s a really good question. 

And just let me say it again, that that’s not that’s not the question that we focus on in our science piece in our Washington Post piece, which is simply how you engage a broad American religious public in the short term on these political issues related to science, related to science. 

Yeah. I’m asking you on the side about Athie ism. 

Exactly. So if I were just to reformulate a question, how would you engage a broad religious American public on the topic of racism and atheists? 

The image of eight years. And I would assert to you that Dawkins plays a very important role for eight years or for people who are already questioning religion. He plays to a very relative to the larger adult population of of of America, to a small audience of people who have questions about religion. 

But you don’t think he’s turning any religious people into atheists? 

No, I don’t think you have this amazingly strong selectivity bias for people, for messages. And the strongest effect that you often find is when one message so strongly challenges the world view of someone, it just completely bounces off the time and paid attention to even though Dawkins. 

And if you look at his keys again, he’s gotten a fair amount of media attention. All right. But most of that media attention has been reinterpreted in terms of the conflict train, just like any other political battle. 

Well, he’s he himself is pushing it as a conflict between science and religion, selling a lot of books to people who might be curious about it relatively. 

A lot of books, 200000 books. But remember, there are 300 million Americans in the United States. All right. So 200000 versus 300 million. The question would be, what’s the better way to engage a broader audience on eight? And I would say that it’s really difficult to go through the traditional news media. What you need to do is you need to mainstream positive images of Athie. I’m an atheist by way of popular culture and entertainment media. And this is essentially what the gay movement was able to do very successfully. And over the last 20 years, they’ve been increasingly more and more positive images of gay Americans in the American entertainment media. 

Exactly. I remember in the early 90s when seeing the word gay in Danis or someplace where I’d be hanging out with my friends while even saying the word gay would get people’s heads turning. But now, after Ellen and Will and Grace and celebrities coming out, things like Bill Clinton speaking at organizations like Human Rights Campaign, it’s really no big flop anymore to be gay, it seems. 

Exactly. And, you know, of course, there was always a segment of the public that was leading these media indicators. Right. That had already accepted and had a tolerant view of gays. Right. But what the popular media were able to do among the heavier consumers of this popular media is that they were able to alter these heavy consumers perceptions of what’s what’s socially acceptable, what’s the social norm. 

They began to see the real world. Through the social reality that was created on TV, much like if you went to college in Philly, you for the first time had friends who were gay. That’s an important socialization process. And how you view gays? 

The same thing. To a degree, happens by way of the entertainment media. And what I’m suggesting is if if we work with entertainment producers to build in characters into the media productions that offer positive portrayals of atheists like it, like on the TV show House where the main character is an atheist. 


You know, I watchhouse what I like. 

I like how one of my favorite series and what I always find interesting about House is that, in fact, you have at least two or three characters, including the lead character house, who are upfront in discussing their criticism of religion and the religious nonbelief. And these these are lead character to have a lot of positive attributes. And it humanizes it gives people a sense of who an atheist is. And it also portrays them very positively. And that helps alter social perceptions. It increases tolerance, Wraith ism, and also for one for one part of the audience. It might then make them interested or might motivate them to seek out information about ISM as a philosophical worldview. 

Well, indeed, I’d love Hollywood to write in more atheist or secular humanist characters to be engaging on this topic a lot more. But what I’d really love is for the rest of the 300 million people in the United States who haven’t yet read Dawkins book to actually read it and be persuaded by it. Accuse me of having an agenda. Fine. I do. Matt, I really appreciate you being on point of inquiry. You’re the only one really grappling with these issues out there. And it’s something this in quotes movement needs to explore a lot more. Thanks for being on Facebook. 

I just want to add that this is a great podcast. This is a great way to take advantage of of all the new Web channels to reach a much broader audience. And I listen to your podcast every week. I’m going to go running. 

Well, you said that we love those kudo’s. Thanks, Matt, for coming on. And we’ll have you on again soon. OK, thanks. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Playlet. Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.