Framing, Evolution, and Power

While I’m away on vacation, here’s a blast from the past:
Once again, the science framing wars have flared up. While I’m not allergic to the concept of framing as some are, one of the major reasons why I’m not a big fan of dwelling on the topic is that obsessing over language reminds me of the late 80s and 90s when the Left won the battle of words, and the fundamentalist Uruk-hai took over the damn country.

I’ve been doing some thinking about the ‘progressive’ concern with media communication (including my own)–and it is important, no doubt about it. But, as the 2006 elections have shown, if words aren’t turned into the exercise of power, there is little effect. In fact, the inability to deliver could actually hurt the goals of Coalition of the Sane.
Let me provide some personal context. I grew up in Virginia..well…a while ago. I remember in the 80s when a congressional candidate referred to the Potomac Bridge from Virginia to D.C. as the longest bridge in the world since it spanned from Virginia to “dark Africa”–and his poll numbers rose. And the religious right which has gone Full Metal Milosevic on the birthplace of Jefferson, has its origins, not in the abortion issue, but in the ‘Christian’ segregation academies–the private schools to which many conservative whites fled after desegregation. Like it or not, racism is a fundamental part of American history. How this country began to move past segregation and Jim Crow had little to do with framing, and much to do with the just exercise of power.
Despite what conservative revisionist history claims, segregation was not ended by a change in attitude, it was ended by massive, and on occasion, armed federal intervention. Put another wary, if liberals instead had worried about how to frame integration instead actually integrating institutions, this would still result in a lynching:
What bothers me about the whole debate about how framing, whether framing is good, and so on is that the entire debate ignores how the wielding of power essentially creates its own frame. Matt Stoller poses the following question to those he calls “Concern Troll Democrats” (italics mine):

Given the scope of the causes that led to this electoral situation, isn’t it as equally obvious that this isn’t something political strategy or a change in rhetoric can solve? These are massive, underlying, ideological and economic trends in America, and will not be fixed unless there is a broad shift in the operation of several important ideological state apparatuses. Democrats can’t paper over these differences with a few tweaks in candidate recruitment and national convention rhetoric. These divisions will persist in America almost no matter what Democrats do, even during a long-term period of governance.

As Jonathan Chait details in The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics, we have to take the lunatic economic policies of the extreme right seriously because they are running the economy. It’s not that they make much (or any) sense, but because those in power believe in them, they suddenly become relevant (although no less lunatic).
The consequences of the impotence of evolution–and it is impotent in that, despite evolution being the cornerstone of modern biology, it receives scraps in terms of funding–are disastrous. While we’re arguing over framing evolution, the right is using government tax dollars to train cadres through all sorts of faith-based programs.
So what do we do? Back when I was a wee Mad Biologist in blogospheric terms, I suggested that we needed a lobbying group. Not an advocacy group–although Intelligent Designer bless Eugene Scott and the NCSE–but a lobbying group. By my calculations, between NSF and NIH, I estimate that evolutionary biology receives around a total of $30 million per year–and that’s being generous and counting some initiatives as ‘completely evolutionary.’ The figure is probably smaller.
The next time the creationist pimple flares up–that silly Ben Stein movie seems like a good opportunity–don’t just respond to the propaganda (although by all means, we should do this). What is needed is for a politically savvy senior scientist to organize a political lobby on behalf of evolution.
Let’s askfight back by demanding a half billion dollars over a decade to characterize the evolutionary diversity of natural populations–call it “Tree of Life” plus. Let’s fight for a similar amount to explore ‘underspace’: the biological diversity found in the ocean, about which we understand so little, whether it be plant, animal, or bacterial. Like it or not, the wielding of power, as the conservatives have shown so aptly, creates its own legitimizing frame. It’s time for evolutionary biology to get in the game, and get serious in fighting what is a political battle.

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