Sunday, October 21, 2007

"Just a theory" -- WIRED on reframing scientific debates

Clive Thompson's essay in the November issue of WIRED magazine is titled "A war of words: Science will triumph only when theory becomes law." And Thompson's central argument may not be new, but it's painfully on target. The Intelligent Design (ID) movement has hijacked the word "theory" and stripped it of its original academic meaning in public discourse. "Just a theory," in ID newspeak, means a lack of scientific certainty and something that is open to interpretation.

And the frame stuck. The public has bought into the idea. This, of course, highlights once again the need for scientists to pay attention to their language when communicating publicly about science. The words and frames they use to present their findings and their disciplines can have a a huge impact on long-term public discourse and public thinking about scientific issues. I have written about this repeatedly (for overviews, see nanopublic posts from September 30, 2007 and August 30, 2007, for example).

And Thompson's suggestions for a solution follow the same logic. He argues that we need a reframing of science ... not the content, just the label:
"For truly solid-gold, well-established science, let's stop using the word theory entirely. Instead, let's revive much more venerable language and refer to such knowledge as law."

(Click here for the WIRED piece.)
Unfortunately, it may be too late for that. Most academic research (for an overview, click here and here) suggests that once a frame is established in public discourse it is difficult to change. And the uncertainty frame around the "just a theory" slogan didn't have much competition from scientists for a long time. At this stage of the debate, it may be impossible to counter.


Enrico said...

The general principle is: never, ever concede a word to the adversary.
You give up on "theory": that's 1-0 for your opponent. He'll just move on and attack the next word.
"Law" is clearly a word it's eminently easy to play with, for its connection to the very uncertain and socially constructed world of judicial matters. I can see the sticker: "They couldn't convince us of evolution with their arguments, so they passed a LAW" (I guess a native English speaker could do better :-)).
Then you give up "law" and you put forward "fact", and there the troubles really begin because explaining "fact", now *that's* a hairy thing to do :-P
We should keep theory around, it's one of the best word we have; we should find a way to explain it easily to those who are concerned and to at least reframe it away from "fancy" for those who don't care. And we should concede to the IDers that yes, "theory" does mean there's a lot of thing we still don't know down there in the deep of time, and that's why we're having so much fun doing (and writing about, and reading of) science.
Disclaimer: I have actually no problem with ID, even with creationism, let alone religion - I'm a catholic myself. It just isn't the same as science - muddling the boundaries between these two very different way of human thought (both of which have excruciating limitations) is demeaning for both of them.
Bye (and thanks for your work), Enrico