I had a Dream about Chris Mooney

Make no mistake, I do not have physics envy and this isn’t a post-positivist tirade against the social sciences, but when Chris Mooney starts talking about framing and science communication my eyebrow starts twitching.

Mooney, in a recent interview, gave a version of a now familiar assertion about how to improve the public understanding of science:

You have to take away the defensive reaction; more facts only strengthen the defensive reaction. The facts, then, have to be made to seem non-threatening. This requires knowing the source of the defensive reaction—why the facts seem such a menace to a person’s worldview—and an understanding of framing, or, how to present the same facts, or similar facts, in a context that conveys a very different and less threatening meaning.

Mooney should be far more cautious about speaking with authority on matters social scientific. He talks about science communication and framing as if his position has the same kind of evidential support as, oh, I don’t know, the shrinking of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

Both the social sciences and natural sciences attempt to identify and interpret meaningful patterns, solve problems, provide explanations, and form predictions. But the social sciences don’t make progress like the natural sciences and they’re not high consensus. In combination with vitriolic infighting about fragmentation and unification, triviality, and parochialism, this lack of consensus tends to get politicized in ways that are counterproductive to inquiry.

Pointing to scholars like Matthew C. Nisbet who do work in this area isn’t helpful because internal debates in the social sciences do not play out the same way they do in the natural sciences. Many members of the secular community don’t get this. They seem to think that if an article is published in an academic journal that it should be accepted.

Please, take the social sciences seriously (I do), but be cautious about granting them the same authority as the natural sciences when advocating for a particular perspective on an issue. While I was initially turned off about Massimo Pigliucci’s chiding of skeptics for having too much hubris, I have been coming around to his position, though from a different angle. He’s mainly reacting to skeptics and atheists who reject a scientific notion without proper expertise, e.g., climate change, but I am also concerned about people who accept a scientific notion without proper expertise in disciplines that aren’t high consensus.

I haven’t addressed the topic of framing or where I stand on movement politics. I will say something about that in a future post, but if you’re anxious to find out what I think, I don’t diverge much from Laurence A. Moran, who has provided a nice collection of his commentaries on Mooney’s positions regarding science communication and framing.