Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Note About Conflict

Seems like everyone it talking about framing today. PZ makes the excellent point that the media loves conflict, and that science is all about generating and resolving conflicts. However, it also has to be the right kind of conflict.

The recent spate of "Science v. Religion" stories, to take a salient example, attracted eyes because people across the board have a vested interest in the outcome. Other recent conflicts that have been covered include "free speech v. political correctness", "Republicans v. Democrats", and "Christianity v. Islam"; in each case people find the conflict interesting because they've got a dog in the fight or feel that the conflict is somehow relevant to their lives. Then there's another class of conflicts (call them "Jen v. Ben" conflicts) that aren't particularly relevant to people's daily lives, but are appealing due to their salacious or voyeuristic aspects. The media ran with these stories because they knew ahead of time that the subjects would be of interest to a wide range of people.

It remains to be seen whether the kind of conflicts that science regularly generates have that kind of drawing power. There are very few people who care whether the universe has 8 dimensions, or 10, or 11, despite the fact that settling the matter would represent a tremendous step forward from a scientific standpoint. Other common types of controversy (taxonomic disputes, medical best-practice, etc.) suffer a similar fate; they're not of much interest outside of a specific field. It'll take a lot of work to turn the steady stream of conflicts that PZ describes into narratives that will interest the average person.


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