Friday, November 28, 2008

Where Matt Nisbet fails

I've been a regular reader of ScienceBlogs for about two years and I've always found Matt Nisbet's Framing Science blog to be something of an oddity on that site. Nisbet and Chris Mooney (of The Republican War On Science fame) have been pushing a concept of science framing that has rubbed a lot of people in the science and skeptical community the wrong way, since it seems to be unrelentingly accommodationist, and tends to prefer subtle ways of undermining people's prejudices. Overall, Mooney (and his blog partner Sheril Kirshenbaum) is actually quite an enjoyable writer, and although I may disagree with his concept of framing he's mostly fairly reasonable. Nisbet, however, is another story.

Nisbet has made quite a few enemies on ScienceBlogs (including PZ Myers, Mike the Mad Biologist, and PalMD), and has even alienated people like Orac who sympathize with his aims but don't like his approach. But now I think he's worn out his welcome, at least in this lurker's eyes; he has tried to make the case that the term "denialist" is a Godwin. Wait, what?

He's completely serious about this -- claims that we shouldn't use it because it lumps in creationists, anthrogenic global warming deniers, germ theory deniers, etc, etc, etc with Holocaust deniers. And he actually quotes people who fall into one or another category of denialism to support this. Mark Hoofnagle at ScienceBlogs' awesome Denialism Blog responds. Hoofnagle's response, as well as his analysis of Nisbet's unrelenting obtuseness and evident incompetence as an expert in communications, is pretty much as you'd expect, and I more or less agree. I posted the following on Nisbet's response to attacks on his position, which seems to be little more than the old conservative canard that amounts to "I may be wrong, but at least I'm more civil than you":
Matt, if there's one thing I've noticed about your work it seems to involve bending and accommodating, defending and (attempted) desensitizing, but it constantly and consistently shies away from going on the attack and trying to reclaim the high ground from the anti-intellectuals and shills who have stolen it. We've seen from the last three US Presidential elections that your strategy tends to fail miserably in politics; the main reason Obama succeeded where Kerry failed had at least as much to do with promoting his message in states where no one expected it to take hold as it did any of the candidate's personal charisma (even though Obama has way more of it than Kerry).

It's as if you're teaching an MBA course and telling your students the importance of turning a profit without explaining how to create income. There are no tools for success in your concept of framing, only those to keep the skeptical side from being marginalized too quickly. (And not only that; you've shown yourself to be terrible at the very communication skills you're trying to convince people to have.)

12 comments:

MartinC said...

Nisbets blog and overall approach are not too unusual in terms of US politics. The problem arises beacuse people on scienceblogs read his site expecting it to be science based whereas 'Framing Science' is really a political site. In contrast to science, within political debate its not unusual to cherry-pick data, ignore negative findings and fail to give empirical support to assertions of one sort of the other. That's pretty much what you get on 'Framing Science' and is the reason why scientifically inclined readers of scienceblogs get so upset with Nisbet's posts. If the same sort of posts appeared on the Huffington Post they wouldn't look out of place at all.
By the way in my experience Matthew Nisbet is actually calmer and more responsive than Chris Mooney (who has the annoying habit of throwing a hissy fit if you disagree with anything he says in his posts).

BrianX said...

Excusing Nisbet's comments by saying it's a political blog is pretty insane. Ed Brayton's and Zuska's are also pretty political, and while Zuska can be very abrasive, I think they are really quite honest about their approaches. Nisbet seems to prefer wankery to actual discussion, as anyone who's tried to get through his comment moderation can tell you.

As for Mooney throwing hissy fits, well, even if I give you that point, I still think he comes from a less outlandish point of view than Nisbet. Mooney at least seems to understand science and skepticism; Nisbet has been, so far as I can tell, willfully ignorant on both fronts.

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