Monday, October 23, 2006

Framing wars: Religion vs. science

Leading up to key races in Missouri and other states, mass media have fully endorsed the framing wars between science and religion. Fueling the fire is Richard Dawkins’ tour for his latest book The God Delusion, which was enough to have Wired Magazine declare the age of “The New Atheism" in their November issue. As their title says: “No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science: Inside the crusade against religion.”

Science, of course, has little to do with religion or a crusade against it. But science is fighting for its life. Proponents of the Intelligent Design movement have very aptly and very successfully reframed religion as a scientific theory. They have recast margins of error as "uncertainty," and concept-based reasoning as “just a theory.”

And these frames fall on fertile ground. In a 2004 Newsweek poll, 93 percent of Americans said they believed that Jesus Christ actually lived and 82 percent believed Jesus Christ was God or the Son of God. Fifty-two percent of all those polled believed that Jesus will return to earth someday. Fifteen percent believed that Jesus will return in their lifetime.

This makes the recent battles over public opinion and framing of stem cell even more interesting. A number of think tanks and interest groups are actively battling back. MajorityAction, a DNC think tank, just released an issue ad, attacking a number of Republican candidates who oppose expanded federal funding for stem cell research. Their frame: Anti-stem cell means anti-life and anti-science. Here’s part of the transcript of an ad targeting NY Congressman Jim Walsh that plays directly into the religion versus science frame:

“He voted against federal funding for stem cell research. Is he a doctor? Is he a scientist? Why did Congressman Walsh bet my life that he knows best?”

Michael J. Fox also just came out with a campaign ad supporting Claire McCaskill (D) who is running for one of Missouri’s U.S. Senate seats. Among the sound bites from the ad:

“Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope.”

And the strategy of recasting opponents of expanded stem cell funding as anti-science and anti-life may very well work on November 7. But more importantly, these attempts to establish one frame over another are good indicators of what we can expect for future debates about emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology.

And they highlight a key aspect of successful communication. Neither proponents nor opponents of stem cell research build their arguments on scientific information. What they rely on are heuristics or cognitive shortcuts that will allow voters to make decisions without understanding the obvious complexities surrounding the issues. And it doesn't matter if these shortcuts are based on religious beliefs, celebrity, or personal hopes. Packaging matters ... regardless of which side of the issue you’re on.