St. Pete Times Demonstrates that Framing Works

Ron Matus and Donna Winchester report on the results of a survey done by the St. Petersburg Times.

First, what they found:

The Times survey – which included questions about evolution and a host of other education issues – was administered to 702 registered voters Feb. 6-10, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

It revealed a huge gulf between scientists and the public.

While the vast majority of scientists consider evolution to be backed by strong evidence, nearly two-thirds of those polled were skeptical.

Twenty-nine percent said evolution is one of several valid theories. Another 16 percent said evolution is not backed up by enough evidence. And 19 percent said evolution is not valid because it is at odds with the Bible.

This is a different distribution from the nearly-stable numbers found by the Gallup poll over several decades across the USA. Why might that be the case?

A summary of the Gallup numbers shows that 49% of respondents thought humans evolved. 37% of those thought evolution occurred with God’s guidance, and 12% thought God had no part in it.

The Gallup question on man’s origin had these possible answer categories:

Humans developed, with God guiding

Humans developed, but God had no part in process

God created humans in present form

The St. Petersburg Times has a sidebar with the polling questions. People studying survey design could use this as a model of how not to phrase questions. Especially egregious is the last question and its provided answer categories:

Which of these do you think should be taught in public schools?

A. Evolution only: Evolution says that human beings evolved from earlier stages of animals. (22%)

B. Creationism only: Creationism says that human beings were created directly by God. (21%)

C. Intelligent design only: Intelligent design says that human beings are so complex that they required a powerful force of intelligent being to help create them. (29%)

D. All three (18%)

E. None of them (5%)

F. Don’t know (5%)

This comes close to using the rhetorical framing that the Discovery Institute likes. They always talk about “Darwin-only” education. And they know how to use rhetoric, those folks at the Discovery Institute. What the St. Petersburg Times poll demonstrates clearly is that when using the framing preferred by the Discovery Institute, people respond in a way that the Discovery Institute likes.

What if the poll designer actually thought about the issues a moment before drafting that last question? We might have seen something like this:

Which of these do you think should be taught in public school science classes?

A. Science only: Teach only those concepts that have undergone long, rigorous scrutiny by the scientific community and have been found to be useful and productive concepts by the scientific community.

B. Creationism only: Creationism says that human beings were created directly by God, though this concept was considered and rejected by the scientific community in the 19th century.

C. Intelligent design only: Intelligent design says that human beings are so complex that they required a powerful force of intelligent being to help create them, though this concept was considered and rejected by the scientific community in the 19th century.

D. All three

E. None of them

F. Don’t know

Think the numbers would be the same? I don’t think so.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

7 thoughts on “St. Pete Times Demonstrates that Framing Works

  • 2008/02/15 at 8:23 am
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    all the more reason to just cut florida loose about 75 miles south of jacksonville, and then float the rest of the state back up and reattach it to the Jersey Shore.

  • 2008/02/15 at 8:54 am
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    PZ Myers took issue with my use of the word “framing”.

    What I’m looking for is a way to communicate the issue properly, which is that we need to teach science in science classes, and not teach non-science there. Is that “framing the problem away”? I don’t think so. The fact is that where progress has been made on this issue, this is exactly what has worked, as in Darby, Montana. Once the voters realize that the arguments peddled under “intelligent design” or the label of the week are not “cutting-edge science”, they lose enthusiasm for the project of making their children learn them. The voters shifted proportionally far enough in Dover, PA to toss the IDC-pushers out on their bums long before the court decision came down.

    We already know that students and the general populace are amazingly ignorant of evolutionary science, so I don’t see how one can argue that the SP Times poll as is is edifying. This is a simple consequence of the antievolution efforts that have been going on since before the Scopes trial being effective. What we need to find out is how amenable Floridians are to making concepts pass scientific muster before being topics in K-12 science classes. That certainly was not elucidated by the SP Times poll.

    Matt Penfold spewed some drivel directed my way over in comments on Pharyngula. Matt talks big about what I do or don’t want, without any basis in what I have actually said or done. There no such thing as me “blaming new atheists” for anything. If Matt wants to build strawmen, I’d ask him to kindly leave my name out of it.

  • 2008/02/15 at 4:10 pm
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    well, i suppose it is trivial to point out that, with some issues, it’s pretty easy to frame yourself into the opposite side of PZ. I think the difference is in principle and in practice. You are taking a pragmatic line, and PZ is in this case an idealist.

    I still say cut Florida loose.

  • 2008/02/15 at 10:10 pm
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    What PZ has never seemed to understand is that framing is what happens all the time, whether you try to use it or not. If you use language which is easy to twist, you’ve framed your argument in a way that’s handy for your opponents, whether or not you tried to. If you use language which is difficult to twist, you’ve framed your argument in a way that’s difficult for your opponents to twist, whether or not you tried to. And I’d be surprised if PZ didn’t try to. For instance, in his recent debate with Simmons the creationist, his “your ignorance” line was an good example of effective framing (which is why Simmons whined about it).

  • 2008/02/16 at 9:05 am
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    What you did isn’t framing, Wes? Sheesh.

    BTW, both of those polls left out an option.

    Teaching Evolution and ID…scratch “creationism”. From those polls, one would have to choose to teach all three or only one of them.

  • 2008/02/16 at 12:16 pm
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    I would ask whether one believes that God was the cause as independent questions. Or maybe even omit them altogether.

    The questions that are sorely needed should simply ask whether one thinks that:

    1. Life has a ~4 billion year history, as nearly all biologists and many evolution-deniers believe.

    2. Humans share common ancestors with other species as nearly all biologists and some evolution-deniers believe.

    Another question, which would identify those who claim to accept evolution (or what they think is evolution) but still think it’s fair to “teach the controversy.” I would phrase it:

    3. Do you think it’s fair to teach long-refuted misrepresentations of evolution disguised as “critical analysis” when there is unlikely to be enough time in class to fairly cover the technical refutations of them?

  • 2008/02/16 at 8:50 pm
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    What you did isnít framing, Wes? Sheesh.

    BTW, both of those polls left out an option.

    Of course it’s framing. Everytime you open your mouth and talk it’s framing. The thing you have to do is recognise it and combat the dishonest uses of framing typically used by anti-science forces. You can refer to framing as “baggage” or “connotation” if the word “framing” either confuses or annoys you.

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