There’s been a lot of hay made lately over articles by Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet in Science (not linked because it’s behind a pay subscription wall) and The Washington Post regarding the importance of “framing” in communicating a scientific message to the public. The scare quotes probably give a hint to my opinion on the subject, but I’m not actually interested in that part of the discussion. It’s been well covered by others.
The best so far, in my opinion, are Gred Laden’s numerous posts (if you have to pick just one, pick this one). For a more directly anti-frame position, read no further than PZ Myers. For a more pro-frame position (which I am somewhat sympathetic towards, even if I do end up disagreeing in the end), read Coturnix.
They covered everything I could hope to say about frames. I want to talk specifically about a claim that Mooney and Nisbet make in the opening of their WaPo article:
If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do better than Richard Dawkins, the famed Oxford scientist who had a bestseller with “The God Delusion.” Dawkins, who rose to fame with his lucid expositions of evolution in such books as “The Selfish Gene,” has never gone easy on religion. But recently he has ramped up his atheist message, further mixing his defense of evolution with his attack on belief.
This is a really common argument, so it surprises me that I don’t think anybody has really questioned the premise before. More importantly, nobody to my knowledge has ever actually provided evidence to support this assertion. You’d think it would have come up during the “Chamberlain vs. Churchill” debates of last year, but no such thing occurred. There was simply a load of “Dawkins turns off believers from evolution!” on one side and “No, he doesn’t!” from the other.
Obviously, to really examine the claim would require a well-designed, multi-question study that I simply can’t afford to do. However, what I can do is run a quick sanity test by going meta and examining a related question, namely “Has public support for evolution gone down in the years Dawkins and the other ‘New Atheists’ have been publishing?” I asked Gallup. Survey says, “Nuh-uh.”
I’m tempted to host the graph locally and inline it, but I won’t for copyright concerns. However, there’s a very clear trend in that public belief in creationist claims about human evolution — “God created man in present form” — has changed by all of 2% since 1982, the first year for which data has been presented. This may or may not be significant, but the graph oscillates between 44 and 47 percent, putting 46 near the middle of the oscillations. On the other hand, acceptance of straight, atheistic evolution has increased by six percentage points, and without visible oscillations!
Given that the numbers for Strict Creationism and Theistic Evolution remained roughly the same at around 45/46 and 37, respectively, the source of that increase in acceptance of Atheistic Evolution had to be from a pool of undecided individuals, which shrank from 9% to 3% between 1982 and 2006.
My analysis is clearly very much off-the-cuff and lacking in rigour, but nonetheless it seems to strike a blow for at least two equally unsupported claims, made by creationists and some atheists, respective — a) that evolution is a “theory in crisis”, b) that “strident” atheists like Richard Dawkins reduce acceptance of evolution. Indeed, the only significant effect from the Gallup data is an increase in support for evolution, with an attendant decrease in “undecided” respondents.
Barring some better data (in particular, I’d like to see information for the 1970s, which was the decade that saw the emergence of Dawkins particularly as a public figure), I’m going to call this case provisionally closed. It’s not possible to claim that Dawkins et al. have had a positive effect on acceptance of evolution just based on this, but I do think the poll data falsifies the claim made by Mooney and Nisbet that Dawkins hurts evolution — their claim has, to borrow a legal term, no standing.