That old devil -- journalistic framing -- leads liberals and progressives and leftists to go astray as much as it does conservatives and creationists when it comes to evaluating science and scientific advances.
That's the view of Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell in their groundbreaking new book "Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left" (PublicAffairs, 320 pages, index, notes, $26.99).
What's framing? It's the dirty little secret of the world of journalism, my world since January 1966. Skip ahead to Page 204, where Berezow and Campbell give a great explanation of this technique: I quote:
"Progressives in science journalism have always been quick to cover issues important to them (e.g. climate change) or issues that make conservatives look bad (e.g. denial of evolution). But science stories (or anything else) that make progressives look bad: Not so much.
"The anti-vaccine movement is associated with the political left, Remember, it was Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who was an early and vocal proponent. Have you noticed who dresses up in ridiculous animal costumes to protest medical research? Or who wears gas masks to protest nuclear power? Kooky progressives. Are journalists quick to label any of them 'progressive crazies'? No, of course not. They are careful to avoid the obvious political demographic of these movements. But any conservative who is opposed to evolution is immediately labeled a 'religious nut.' Similarly, journalists frame progressive opponents of genetic modification as being anti-corporation rather than anti-science -- even though all the arguments they make against GM technology are anti-scientific."
Strong stuff, and it's even stronger because PublicAffairs is widely considered to be a liberal or progressive publisher. If this book had been published by, say, Regnery, or Crown Business, progressives would dismiss it as right-wing propaganda -- no matter how well reasoned the arguments in the book are. Coming from PublicAffairs, founded by journalists like I.F. Stone and Benjamin Bradlee, not so much.
Here are some progressive anti-science fallacies cited by the authors:
VACCINES: The anti-vaccine movement has been thoroughly debunked — vaccines do not cause autism, period. Yet during the H1N1 flu pandemic, the government put pressure on influenza vaccine manufacturers to avoid using thimerosal, a compound falsely alleged to cause autism. This pointless initiative contributed to a vaccine shortage in 2009.
FOOD: Everything natural is good! That's why, according to most progressives, you should boycott genetically modified (GM) food. Never mind the fact that GM food is essential to feed starving people across the developing world, and that there is no scientific evidence of anything unwholesome about it.
GREEN ENERGY A large subset of environmentalists have turned against wind power fearing that it's responsible for killing too many birds—about .006% of avian fatalities in the U.S. Hydroelectric power is no good either: its dams disrupt riparian ecosystems. As for solar, word is beginning to spread that the rare earth minerals are just as messy to extract from the ground as coal. It won't be long before "green energy" is shorthand for no energy whatsoever.
Progressive are quick to point out the creation museum in Kentucky (Link:http://creationmuseum.org/
) but they defend the wealthy -- mostly progressive -- NIMBYs (not in my back yard) of Cape Cod who oppose the Cape Wind project, which is very similar to the wind farms off the coasts of Denmark and Germany, two very "progressive" countries. (For my review of "Cape Wind", a book about this stalled project:www.huntingtonnews.net/.../070529-kinchen-columnscapewind.html
Hardly a day goes by when a story about the "dangers" of GM food is posted on progressive news sites. I found this one onNation of Change
, Aug. 30, 2012:http://www.nationofchange.org/6-new-gmo-crops-may-soon-hit-your-dinner-table-1346340520
Progressives forget about Luther Burbank and ignore DeKalb Agricultural, now owned by Monsanto, founded 100 years ago in the Illinois town where I went to college (Northern Illinois University, whose graduates include progressives like Daily Kos
founder Markos Moulitsas Zúniga. (You won't find anything complimentary about the chemical giant Monsanto in Daily Kos
! DeKalb Ag, with its famous Flying Ear of corn signs, is one of the companies responsible for our world-class agricultural industry -- the envy of the world.
The takeaway from the authors: Ideology and science don't mix, especially when subjects near and dear to both conservatives and liberals are on the table.
Framing comes up again on Page 180, in the discussion of scientific education, where Berezow and Campbell debunk the idea that America lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to scientific education, a commonly held liberal idea. The authors write: ".... how can scientific education be so bad that President Obama said, 'The quality of our math and science lags behind many other nations.' while at the same time American science functions so effectively
that it has been the world leader in Nobel prizes and peer-reviewed research for most of the past century?"
"The answer is framing, which is essentially creating a thought structure so that people understand the parts you want them to understand," Berezow and Campbell write. "Political pundits, including those masking as science writers, love framing. In its idealized form, the pundits and scientists who engage in it simply believe science issues are too complex for most people to understand, so they set out to 'frame' the parts they want the public to know, as you would frame a picture."
Exactly! I couldn't say it better myself, with all those decades of conscious and unconscious framing under my belt! If I were teaching journalism, this is a book that I would require my students to read and absorb -- and keep for reference.
About the authors
Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. His work has appeared on CNN, and in USA Today and Forbes, among other publications. In 2010, he earned a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington.
Hank Campbell is the founder and editor of Science 2.0, the world's largest independent science communication community. Prior to that, he was a senior executive at three physics software companies. He graduated from Duquesne University and was formerly a U.S. Army officer.
Publisher's website: www.publicaffairsbooks.com