How about a real challenge for science communication?

Three days ago, ScienceBlogs did something it hasn’t done before. ScienceBloggers were given screener DVDs of a new movie by one of our own, Randy Olson of Shifting Baselines. The movie was Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, and the idea was to get as many of us as possible to review the movie and post our reviews on the same day. The reviews were pretty mixed, ranging from panning the movie to really, really liking it, with the majority from my reading tending towards negative.

Of course, as regular readers know, life intervened for me in a truly depressing way, which is why I was not part of ScienceBlogs’ little Sizzle-fest. I still haven’t watched my screener DVD, although I may do so over the weekend. I may even post a review if anyone’s even interested anymore–or if I can even be objective anymore, which is doubtful given that I’ve read too many of the reviews. That’s not what I’m about here, though. From the outside looking in, it’s not hard to see the ugly “framing” wars being rekindled by this little exercise in movie promotion.

As you may recall, two ScienceBloggers, Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet postulated that, in essence, scientists aren’t doing a very good job of communicating important science issues to the public. On issues of importance that science impacts, such as global climate change and evolution education, they postulated, the way scientists could do a better job of communicating what science tells us about these issues and persuading the public of the validity of the science behind these controversial issues is to “frame” them better. As they said in their original article in Science:

In reality, citizens do not use the news media as scientists assume. Research shows that people are rarely well enough informed or motivated to weigh competing ideas and arguments. Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own. Such screening reduces the choices of what to pay attention to and accept as valid.

Frames organize central ideas, defining a controversy to resonate with core values and assumptions. Frames pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible, and what should be done.

To my initial surprise, Nisbet and Mooney’s thesis provoked a great deal of hostility among some science bloggers, and not just members of the ScienceBlogs collective. I say “to my initial surprise” because, initially at least, the whole idea seemed so mind-numbingly obvious to me, as I explained in gory detail in these two posts. Basically, I attibuted much of the conflict to a cultural divide between “pure” scientists and science teachers and practitioners of more applied science, such as physicians like me, the latter understanding that you have to find a way to simplify and communicate in a way that your audience understands. And so it was for many months that I remained puzzled by the extreme intensity of the debate, whose nastiness at times seemed to go far beyond the actual difference between the two camps. Before too long, the very mention of the word “framing” became all but certain to set certain members of the ScienceBlogs collective into rabid fits of vicious invective that leave rational discourse behind, inspiring Mooney and Nisbet to return fire in ways that did not bring glory upon them, to put it mildly.

Then, earlier this year, there was the whole “expelled from Expelled!” kerfluffle, where flagship ScienceBlogger P.Z. Myers was prevented from entering a theater to see the anti-evolution crapfest known as Expelled! while the producers, not recognizing him, let Richard Dawkins, of all people, in to see the movie. It was a hilarious demonstration of the utter incompetence and mendacity of Expelled!‘s producers. “Expelled from Expelled!” was a perfect frame for that message. Here the producers were representing their film as being about how academia somehow “expels” any scientist with the temerity to dare to voice support for “intelligent design” creationism, yet here were the producers of that very movie, “expelling” one of the very scientists interviewed in the movie and shutting down the previews for a while to prevent any other skeptics from finding their way in to see Expelled!

Unfortunately, Nisbet’s and Mooney both concluded that the incident was somehow “bad for science” and piously told those of us who were–admittedly–gloating about it that we were “helping Ben Stein.” It was about that time that I started to come to the reluctant conclusion that, in Nisbet’s hands at least, “framing” seemed to mean in practice nothing more than kowtowing to religious extremists and avoiding at almost any cost anything that might annoy highly religious people, particularly when dealing with creationism.

Enter Sizzle. From what I can gather from the reviews, both positive and negative, is that the movie is a bit of a muddled mess that tries to poke fun at how scientists have difficulty communicating with the general public. One predominant theme running through the criticisms is that the movie seems to be making fun of scientists as being humorless and demanding nothing but data. Chris Mooney thinks it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread (or the “funniest movie about global warming ever made“) while Matt Nisbet hasn’t yet weighed in. What annoyed me was how Mooney dismissed criticism of the movie as just not “getting it”:

But I still just have to say….I’m mystified with the tone of much of what I’ve read over all.

And so I’d like to make a suggestion: Could it be that, for some of these hypercritical bloggers, Randy Olson’s documentarian character in Sizzle is really their reflection in the mirror? After all, the character is basically a caricature of someone who repeatedly demands facts, facts, facts, and can’t relate to non-scientists, have a good laugh, enjoy a good story.

In my view, what’s so great about Sizzle is the way it asks us to look hard at the insularity of our pro-science community–and the disconnect between the science world and other walks of life, other parts of American culture. In this context, doesn’t the fact that many science bloggers are slamming it–and misunderstanding it–simply validate the film’s central point?

In other words, the science bloggers who panned the movie must be humorless putzes who “can’t enjoy a good story.” I don’t know if Sizzle was a good story or not because I haven’t seen it yet, but I do know that whenever I see someone dismiss criticism as people “not getting it” or being humorless putzes who can’t relate it strikes me as lazy and defensive. From many of the reviews I read, my fellow ScienceBloggers were bending over backward to give the movie the benefit of the doubt and to try to understand its message. Several of them just didn’t think it was all that funny.

Of course, the whole undercurrent running under the exchanges between those who loved Sizzle (who appeared to be the minority) and those who really hated it (a somewhat bigger minority) and those who wanted to like it but appeared to be left mostly cold by it (probably the majority, or at least the largest minority among those who reviewed the film) is, of course, the whole framing imbroglio. The reason, of course, is that the whole criticism of scientists as being unable to relate to “normal” people is a frequent refrain from those who seem to see framing as the be-all and end-all of communicating science.

All of this got me to thinking (always a dangerous thing). One thing I’ve noticed in all the arguments about “framing” is that the discussions virtually always center around two topics: evolution or global climate change. Although I have a strong interest in evolution and in refuting creationism, I am not an evolutionary biologist, nor do I teach evolution. The best “frame” I can come up with for evolution is how useful it is to medical research. As for global warming, forget it. I know a little about the topic (enough to debunk a few common denialist canards) but I’m nowhere near an expert. Neither of these two areas are likely to convince me of the value of framing, because they’re not where my science lives, so to speak. Medicine is, specifically science- and evidence-based medicine. That’s why my thinking about the blogospheric reaction to Sizzle brought me to an idea. There is another area of science that is under assault by the forces of ideologically driven antiscience: Medicine. Not all medicine, of course, but certain areas of medicine. Let me explain.

One of the overarching topics of this blog since very early in its history has been combatting antivaccinationist lunacy and lies. Indeed, I was, as far as I can tell, the first person ever to point out what a cesspit of antivaccination propaganda The Huffington Post was right from its start. Resistance to vaccination and pseudoscientific misinformation every bit as ridiculous as any creationist nonsense appears to be growing, fueled by Generation Rescue, Jenny McCarthy, and the rabid band of antivaccinationists who deny they’re antivaccinationists over at Age of Autism. It’s even progressed to the point of rallies on Washington, such as the recent “Green Our Vaccines” rally. In fact, the whole “green our vaccines” slogan is about as Orwellian a bit of “framing” as I have ever seen. After all, who cold be against “greening” vaccines? Who, without a significant knowledge of the science of vaccines, would even realize that the slogan is a lie, a smokescreen for antivaccinationists?

That is why I now ask the pro-“framing” contingent a question: How would you deal with antivaccinationism? What “frames” would you use to combat the likes of Jenny McCarthy?

It’s a simple question. I would even argue that, in the short term at least, it’s a far more important problem than convincing the public of the validity of evolution or that we should do something to try to alleviate or reverse the effects of greenhouse gasses. The dire consequences of global climate change are far in the future, at least when compared to a human lifespan. None (or almost none) of us will be alive 100 years from now, and any but children will be old or dead fifty years from now. It is not us, but our children, who will suffer if the models for global warming are correct, and it will be very difficult to evaluate end measures of effectiveness of “framing” in that length of time. In addition, the situation with antivaccine activism is very similar to the situation with creationism. The scientific consensus is that vaccines do not cause autism and are, as far as medical interventions go, incredibly safe, just as the scientific consensus supports the theory of evolution. Just like the situation with creationism, there is a hard-core contingent of antivaccine denialists who are loud, vocal, and probably unswayable, bolstered by ideology plus pseudoscience generated by a small cadre of “scientists” who have become convinced that for autism (and other disorders), it absolutely, positively has to be the vaccines. Finally, just like the situation with creationism there is the vast middle, Americans with little knowledge of science who hear the “charges” against vaccines and wonder if maybe, just maybe, the myths are true, making them hesitant to vaccinate their children. After all, the whole concept that there are “toxins” in vaccines sounds compelling to the average, scientifically untrained person, even though on a strictly medical and scientific basis it is not.

In contrast to the effect of ideologically motivated antiscience on evolution education or whether or not we as a society do anything to address global climate change, the ideologically-motivated antiscience known as antivaccinationism has a much more rapid deleterious effect. Thanks to fearmongering over vaccines, measles is already endemic again in the U.K., after previously having been conquered, while in the U.S. it is surging back as well, fueled by lower vaccination rates. If current trends continue, and antivaccine activists make good on their promise of a “fall offensive” against the vaccination schedule, it won’t be long before other vaccine-preventable diseases start making a comeback as well.

Chris Mooney, Randy Olson, and Matt Nisbet, here’s your chance.

If ever an effective framing strategy were needed to counter the Orwellian “green our vaccines” movement, the time is now. Here’s your chance to shine. Here’s your chance to really show the utility of your entire “framing” thesis in a way that could potentially benefit public health very rapidly. No waiting decades. Reversing the decline in vaccination rates could restore our increasingly shaky herd immunity within a few years or even less.

I know, it’s not your area. It’s not what you know best, but I’d be happy to offer my services to help you learn the background and the ideologies behind antivaccinationism. I’d be happy to show you the very effective frames antivaccinationists have come up with, such as the ever-popular “we’re not ‘antivaccine’ but pro-safe vaccine” gambit or the even more popular conspiracy-mongering against the government and big pharma. You see, I haven’t entirely given up on your framing thesis. I still think it has something to say to scientists–and, yes, doctors–about how we communicate science to the public, but the debate over it has become so rancorous and so poisoned by personality conflicts that a clean slate is required. Also, quite frankly, Nesbit has demonstrated that he has a tin ear for a good frame any time religion is involved. His reaction to the “expelled from Expelled!” incident demonstrated that quite conclusively. That’s why I’m proposing a whole different area, an area that is for the most part free of any religious overtones. It’s a chance to begin again and show the utility of framing in a dramatic way that could benefit public health right away. Show me why calling antivaccinationists antivaccinationists is not a good idea, for instance or why, for instance, Paul Offit is not a good spokesperson for vaccines. (Hint: Antivaccinationists view Dr. Offit in much the same way as fundamentalists view Richard Dawkins or P.Z. Myers.)

Come on, what do you say? It’s a challenge, but an achievable challenge. I’ll even forget Mooney’s dismissal of scientists who didn’t like Sizzle as humorless, data demanding drones, although his comment makes me think I probably won’t like it either. Heck, you guys can even portray physicians as humorless drones, if you want. Just give us an effective frame we can use.

And then, after that, maybe you’d be interested in helping this skeptical physician take on cancer quackery.