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Politics and Framing Science


One of the best "teaching moments" I experience teaching the Chaos and Fractals course is when students get enmeshed in BIG issues and start linking the concepts presented in their readings and discussed in seminar to the various uses - good and bad, utilitarian and political, of modeling in the world.

In the past two versions of the course, the science and politics of climate change has been one such issue. This is mainly because both courses were done while the Kyoto agreements were very much in the news - I taught two versions of the course that straddled the change in presidency changed from Clinton to Bush, with the concomitant refusal to sign Kyoto and strong attempts to dismiss the science of global warming predictions and causes. The class discussions that term indicated to me that students were starting to grasp the full impact of how we come to learn about scientific issues from the media and, in turn, how the media’s presentation is ultimately channeled by prevailing political ideology and efficient spin doctors.

Until recently, I didn’t have a really good context and source for helping out these class discussions, other than my own bristling at what I saw as clear anti-science stance taken by the current administration. I have since been reading about the work of Matthew Nisbit, in the Communication Department of Ohio State. Nisbit is a communication theorist who specializes in what he terms Framing Science (also the name of his blog) In his words:

At FRAMING SCIENCE we track how political strategists, scientists, and the news media selectively define science in ways that shape policy decisions, public opinion, and political culture. We apply "framing analysis" to understand the social meanings behind technical controversies (and sometimes we will look at other areas of politics.) Frame analysis is an incredibly useful invention of the social sciences, diffusing across a number of academic disciplines. Frames are used on an everyday basis by political operatives, journalists, and average citizens (though they may not realize it.)

I could have really used this blog as a resource this past semester, when the Evolution vs. Intelligent Design Debate was clearly being "framed" from all sides of the political spectrum.

So add the Framing Science blog to the must-subscribe-to list (especially in conjunction with the science/politics blog The Intersection, described in my previous post.). At the very least, it will give me, and my future students, a special resource to "frame" our own discussions and understanding of whatever the scientific/policy debate happens to be during that term.