My SciBlings Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet just published an article in ‘Science’ (which, considering its topic is, ironically, behind the subscription wall, but you can check the short press release) about “Framing Science”
Carl Zimmer, PZ Myers, Mike Dunford (also check the comments here), John Fleck, Larry Moran, Dietram Scheufele, Kristina Chew, Randy Olson, James Hrynyshyn, Paul Sunstone and Alan Boyle have, so far, responded and their responses (and the comment threads) are worth your time to read. Chris and Matt respond to some of them. Matt has more in-depth explanations here, here and here (pdf) that are worth reading before firing off a response to the whole debate.
This is not a simple topic, but I will try to organize my thoughts in some way….
First, let’s look at what framing is. It has been described by George Lakoff in his books Moral Politics (which I reviewed here) and Thinking Points (discussed here) and a couple of others, e.g., “Don’t Think of an Elephant” that are not as useful.
It is possible that Lakoff did not present a correct explanation for the deep neuro/cogsci/psych explanation for framing, and if you are interested in that aspect of it, Chris of Mixing Memory shows why that may be true. But that is besides the point here, really. In his works, Lakoff correctly desribes what framing is, how is it used in everyday life and how the Right systematically used it over the last few decades.
Revere wrote an excellent series (look at them all linked from the sidebar) about framing in the context of public health. You can find much more information on the Rockridge Institute website and forums and you can dig through my blog as well for posts about ideology, i.e., how one’s ideology shapes one’s worldview which, in turn affects the way one uses and comprehends language.
Very short summary: words have effects beyond their dictionary definitions. Language evokes emotional responses: ‘frames’ (as in ‘frames of mind’). There is no such thing as emotion-free language. If you can understand a piece of text (and that includes math, not just English), you will respond emotionally. The kind of response to language results in one accepting or rejecting the message (and the messenger). The kind of response to language is dependent on one’s worldview – the same sentence will elicit different responses (and thus acceptance or rejection) in different people.
The worldview depends on one’s upbringing, i.e., it is not genetic, but a developmental effect. A view that people are inherently bad and that the only way to make them good is by using Dobsonian punitive style of childrearing to instill fear and instant obedience, results in a conservative, hierarchical (as in “chain of being” and “ladder of success” sense) ideology. A person raised in this way will respond to pretty much every word of English differently than a person raised in a liberal environment, where people are assumed to be born good and are raised accordingly (you mat have to dig through my Ideology archives to see in what way I define “conservative” and “liberal” so as not to be confused by the other usages of the terms). The former style of childrearing results in External Locus of Moral Authority while the latter results in internalized morality, i.e., coming from within (doing what is right because that is your second nature, not because you are afraid of punishment). Every opinion on every matter – thus response to language describing it – will be diametrically opposite in these two groups of people.
Good news: most people are biconceptual, i.e., they possess both frames in their minds. By evoking the right frame by careful use of language, you gain trust and authority with the audience and as a result they believe that what you are saying is true. In other words, just saying the truth is not enough, as it is processed through ideological glasses. By invoking the correct frame, you allow the truth to penetrate and get accepted. By dismissing framing as method and by being careless in the use of language, you are bound to “buy into” the currently dominant Rightwing frames and will thus reinforce them while at the same time preventing your audience from accepting the truth. Since conservatism, religion and pseudoscience do not have the truth on their side, their frames are deceptive and Orwellian. Since our frames are backed up by truth, in a head-to-head competition we should win, but we cannot let the opposition frame the issues in the first place.
The worst way to try to persuade people who are either disinclined to believe you to begin with, or people completely ignorant, agnostic and uninterested in the topic, is to try to strip, as much as possible, everything evocative from your text. By making it dry and “sticking to the facts only”, you are guaranteed to turn the audience off and make them ripe for the picking by the other side.
And scientists, mathematicians and philosophers have been trained to do exactly that. Furthermore, scientists, mathematicians and philosophers tend to look down at text that is overtly emotion-evocative. A scientist should always use an entirely value-free language, we are taught for years. Of course, this is an illusion – there is no such thing as a ‘value-free language’. Pick an animal behavior paper form the 1960s or so. Without looking at the methods or results, by focusing ONLY on the analysis of language, you can easily figure out if the authors belong to the ‘behaviorist’ or ‘ethologist’ school of thought. The choice of words reveals it easily.
The result of our training is that scientists are uniquely trained to be poor communicators of science. Scientists – a tiny percentage of any population – are the only people in the society who even try to think and talk in a value-free way, get insulted when someone suggest they shouldn’t do so, and view other people who can’t do so as intellectually inferior.
Now, to the case in hand – the Nisbet/Mooney article and the responses to it.
I think, just as in the closely related case of M&Ms, there are two groups of people who pretty much agree with each other but do not realize that they are not exactly talking about the same thing.
Thus, the term ‘framing’ has two meanings and one is discussed by one group and the other meaning by the other group. As the two meanings suggest two different strategies, the two groups think that they disagree with each other.
The first meaning of ‘framing’ is the use of language to evoke pre-existing frames in a very small, limited audience for a quick and effective “conversion” [ed.: yes, I used this term intentionally, to make you stop and think - I really mean it] for a cause that has immediate political consequences, i.e., the next bill in congress, or the next election, etc. You do not educate them in details of science – they are not interested, do not have enough background and it does not matter if they do or don’t understand the fine points. The goal is to bring them over to your side and recruit them to do whatever is politically necessary to win a particular battle over the side of pseudoscience/religion/conservatism. This is what Matt and Chris are discussing.
The second meaning of ‘framing’ is the use of language to introduce new frames into the public discourse and, as a result, change the entire intellectual landscape. This is necessarily a long-term project – as in: a couple of decades at best. By placing new frames into people’s minds – more science-friendly or reality-friendly frames – it makes it easier in the future to recruit greater numbers of people to the cause-du-jour. A frame that is new now, and perhaps rejected by many as silly, will in ten or twenty years be a normal part of everyone’s (especially the next generation’s) emotional armamentarium. You put them in there now, and evoke them later when you need them. This is what PZ and Moran are talking about.
I agree with both groups, of course, as they are both correct in regards to the strategies relevant to the meaning of ‘framing’ they are talking about. I just wish they would be more clear when they are talking about the first, and when about the second meaning of the word.
Short-term, case-by-case, science communication
OK, now that we know what framing is, and the distinction between two time-scales of framing, let’s look at the two one at a time. First, the short-term goals, what Mooney and Nisbett are talking about.
First rule: Know your audience.
Adjust your language to the audience. One language for fellow scientists, another for educated lay-people who are inclined to agree with you, another for people who are disinclined to agree with you, etc.
Second rule: Truth will not let you free.
Truth is not sufficient. Dry data will not sway non-scientists. Their eyes will glaze over and they’ll move on. Reserve your precision for your papers, posters and talks. You can talk like that to your fellow scientists. But as soon as you leave that narrow circle you will have to adjust your language.
First, you will have to find a way to make it relevant to the person. Find out if your audience will be swayed by economic connections, by aesthetic appeals, by self-preservation instincts, whatever it may be.
You will have to simplify to the point that what you say is inaccurate. You will have to state your convictions with greater certainty – your ‘95% sure’ in a paper will have to become ‘capital-T Truth’ when you talk to non-scientists. This is NOT sloppy. Sloppy is stating the Truth in a paper manuscript. Using stats on a layperson conveys uncertainty that non-scientists are very uncomfortable with: why are you so wishy-washy? Something must be fishy about it if you are not prepared to state that it is the Truth.
Remember, your goal is to change opinion on the fly, not to do science education (which is a long-term strategy). You want to turn a global-warming-denier into a global-warming-believer – yes, ‘believer’, not ‘understander’, not a climatologist – within minutes. You want to turn a creationist into an ‘evolutionist’, not an evolutionary theorist. It is wonderful to fantasize about getting everyone to REALLY understand evolution, but in reality, most people don’t care. But you want them to be on your side next time there is an election for the local school board.
This is not dishonest (or Orwellian, or selling-out to your principles), though it appears to be so for people trained to revere hyper-accuracy. This is a realistic way to talk to humans and their relatives. And, as Matt Nisbett stresses, this is based on scientific studies of the way human mind works, human language works, and human societies work. We scientists are real weirdos, specifically trained to think and talk in a very unusual-for-humans ways. There is a stereotype that scientists are all mildly autistic, thus more capable of stripping emotions away from their work. Perhaps some are, but it is more likely that we all just appear autistic to normal humans.
It totally does not matter if the targets of your framing have no comprehension of evolution as long as they believe you when you tell them it is true and then act accordingly in the voting booth. This is not a sell-out to our high-minded principles: we will still adhere to our high standards of accuracy in the classroom and in our research reports. But not in our “Natural History Magazine” articles (depends on the type of article), or on our blogs, where that is inappropriate (at least in some types of blog-posts, like this one, for instance).
That is why I, contra PZ and Larry, think that this movie is an excellent tool. It gets evolution wrong, but that is not the point. It visually frames evolution in a way that an uneducated, uninterested, busy, short-attention-span layperson can “grok” in about two minutes. The movie prepares the person for your carefully crafted spiel. And if the person ends up believing that evolution is a fact, it makes no difference if his/her conception of evolution is not 100% correct (hey, Dawkins and Dennett get it wrong, so why not some Joe Schmoe?). If one out of a thousand viewers of the movie shows more interest, there are plenty of resources you can use to teach that person finer points and make his/her understanding better.
So, if our training makes us singularly the worst possible people who can persuade the non-scientists about scientific matters, what can we do? One, we can learn – and teach new generations of scientists – how to get over our hi-fallutin’ insistence on intellectual purity and use the findings of social science to adjust the way we talk to the lay audiences. Second, we can leave the task to the professionals and just make sure that they get sufficient science education in their j-schools or wherever they learn their craft. Or both. Some scientists will be better at this than others, and some journalists will be better at this than others, so a combo approach using the best of the two worlds seems to be the best approach.
Long term change of the public discourse
Now let’s turn to the second meaning of ‘framing’, the one that Myers and Moran are talking about – the long-term change in the intellectual landscape of the country (and the world).
What they understand is that defeating creationists, one legal case at a time, or one local election at the time, while important, is not enough. What needs to be done is to change the environment in the USA in a way that makes creationism untenable and obsolete – not a threat anymore, either completely gone or relegated to a small isolated group of wackos who have no chance of ever getting any media attention, even less a chance to get elected to any office.
They understand that Creationists are not stupid but have other motivations for opposing science. The motivations are based in their religion, and their understanding of religion is based on their conservative ideology. Thus, the only way to eliminate creationism is to eliminate conservatism and its persuasion tool – the conservative religion. One hope is that liberal theists, who speak the same language, would rise up against the conservative misuse of religion. Unfortunately, that is not happenning – whenever the topic pops up, the liberal theists side with their co-religionists on the Dark Side, rather than with the reality-based community they should be siding with.
The goal is to have a society in which both the conservative ideology and religion are ousted from the mainstream society, politics and media. The proper response to each is denigration and sneering. So, how do you get from here to there? Not by sneering at a small group of people who you need to vote for a bill tomorrow. But by a long-term, well-orchestrated, concerted effort. And that effort is step-by-step. First, promote the idea that atheists are not immoral and that liberals don’t have horns and ‘hate America’. The fact that atheists, by posessing ‘internal locus of moral authority’ are actually more moral than theists is something we can leave for a little later.
Second, destroy the myth that the Bushie ideology is a deviation from conservatism – it is the most purely conservative ideology we have seen in more than a century – it really shows its true face. All that Rockefellerian Republicanism from the mid-20th century was a mix of conservative and liberal ideas and it is the liberal ideas that people liked about it. Those liberal ideas are now gone from the GOP platform, rhetoric and practice, and raw conservatism has shown its ugly face. Bush, in his ineptness and ideological blindness, has delivered conservatism to us, and now is the time to move in for the kill.
Relegating conservatism and its religion to the margins of society and out of sight and mind of most Americans is what will allow the Enlightement ideas to fruit again and rationality and reason will, once again, be the norm, not the “extremism”. We can counter the developmental effects of conservative upbringing through an enlightened educaitonal system and media and through the realization that most people do not like to belong to a group that is openly ridiculed by everyone every day. At least, the ridicule may get them started on their introspection and the long, painful journey towards emotional and intellectual freedom from the conservative (and religious) prison.
But, just yelling about all this (obviously, this post is geared towards a receptive audience, I obviously did not frame this argument in a way that can sway a conservative or a religious reader so if you are one, go home and come back tomorrow) is not a strategy. The strategy is much more long-term and it is wonderfully explained by Sara Robinson (linked on the sidebar as two series: “Cracks in the Wall” and “Tunnels and Bridges” – a must-read for everyone who is interested in this overall topic).
Inventing new frames is not easy (and Lakoff is notoriously famous for being bad at it). At first, the new phrase will jar. Remember when the “death tax” phrase was first used? Everyone stopped in their tracks and thought and talked about it – what it really means?! But now, when you hear it, you don’t stop to think about it. It evokes a conservative anti-tax frame without any conscious effort on your part. You cannot use new frames in short-term battles – you just baffle people. New frames have to be pounded and pummelled into the public discourse for several years before they move from consciousness to subconsciousness. Once there, they can be evoked by a careful use of language when needed to sway people for your point of view.
You cannot, in one day, turn a deeply religious, Young-Earth Creationist (YEC), stridently conservative person into an atheist, liberal evolutionary biologist. And there is no need to put up such a lofty goal in the first place. We don’t need to push everyone from one end of the spectrum to the other. We only need to move the society as a whole somewhat in the right direction and repeat the process with each new generation until the entire society is somewhat reasonable. That’s it.
This is what is meant by the concept of The Overton Window (more discussions of it can be found, e.g., here, here, here, here, here and here). Gradually, the discourse moves as some ideas become acceptable on one end (as they enter the window), while the ideas on the other end, leaving the window, become ideas non grata. Think about the appropriate language today in comparison to 20, 50 or 100 years ago relating to women, blacks, gays, etc. What the onslaught of books about religion and atheism (including “The God Delusion”) and the media interest in them is doing is moving the Overton Window so as to make negative remarks about atheists non-acceptable in public discourse. Vocal atheists on blogs, like PZ, perform the same useful function. This takes time, of course, but it is slowly moving in the right direction.
Let’s look at the idea of the Overton Window in the specific case of Creationism and use this cool Creation/Evolution Continuum graph as a visual aid:
First, I don’t think we need to worry much about Flat-Earthers and Geocentrists – they are already so few and so marginalized. What we need is to move as many Americans (and of course citizens of other countries in which this is a problem) along the continuum. Every person who moves from YEC to a version of OEC is a success story. Every person who moves from IDC (Intelligent Design Creationism) to Theistic Evolution is a success story. Every person who moves from Theistic to Materialistic Evolution is a success story. Moving millions along this continuum moves the entire society in the right direction. There is no need to immediately (or perhaps ever) move every individual all the way from YEC to Materialistic Evolution. As long as each generation is positioned better than the previous one, it is a success.
Now, add to the continuum a little bit on the right-hand side as well. Materialistic Evolution is not a unified view either. One can belong there without a very good understanding of evolution – someone who is in the ‘reality-based community’ for other reasons (e.g., growing up in a liberal household) will accept evolution even without any understanding of the process. I say – that is perfectly OK.
Next step is some – but faulty – understanding of evolution. Perhaps adherence to a 1960s-style naive genocentric/deterministic/adaptationist version of evolution held by people like Daniel Dennett, Desmond Morris and Richard Dawkins (in order of increasing sophistication). I’d be perfectly happy if a hundred million regular, non-scientist, creationist Americans adopted this view, no matter how faulty it is.
It is only very few – the professional evolutionary biologists and theorists, that need to reach the modern sophistication of people like Robert Brandon, Elliot Sober, Richard Lewontin, Elisabeth Lloyd, Evelyn Fox Keller, Stephen Jay Gould, Wallace Arthur, David Sloan Wilson, Bill Wimsatt, Fred Nijhout and Janis Antonovics, to name just a few that easily come to mind. Or, if you are blogocentric, the modern sophisticated understanding of evolution by PZ Myers and Larry Moran.
Thus, insisting on purity of evolutionary theory when trying to sway someone from IDC to evolution-of-any-kind is misguided, and probably counterproductive – you lose your audience after the first two minutes of presenting hard science. The people in such transitions are scared of such change in their core beliefs – they need a helping hand, not denigration and abuse.
Now look at the graph again and imagine that each one of the steps is a grade in school. This is a metaphor for the broader society – not a suggestion for a real educational system!
Everyone starts with Flat-Earth beliefs and gets rid of them due to parental teaching before reaching pre-school, where Geocentrism is eliminated by sweet Ms.Goody. Then, in Kindergarden, Ms.Nice takes over and, talking to kids the way kids need to be talked to, takes each by the hand and gently ushers them from YEC to OEC. Subsequent grades in elementary and middle school take the students from teacher to teacher, each teaching a more and more correct version of the story, until they all graduate as IDC. In high school, they encounter nice teachers like Ken Miller and Francis Collins who move them from IDC to Theistic Evolution.
After high school, some kids get jobs. Their understanding of evolution remains at the level of Theistic Evolution and that is OK. Other kids go to college, where they get basic ideas about evolution from their BIO101 classes taught by Richard Dawkins. They are still wrong, but MUCH better than what they were fifteen years ago.
Finally, a few decide to study biology in grad school and get tough advisors and the committee composed of people like Nijhout, Antonovics, Myers and Moran. This is where they shed the last vestiges of erroneous understanding of evolution and become experts themselves – people who, depending on their own personalities, use their authority to teach new generations at different levels of schooling. Some have aptitude for Kindergarden teaching, others for being grad school advisors. Not everyone can do everything equally well. But experts are authorities, and moving the Overton Window will make scientific experts generally accepted authorities on their subjects (instead of political hucksters or religious swindlers – the situation we have today).
Actually, much of science is really taught similarly. Not starting with religiously-based nonsense and gradually shedding it, but starting with oversimplified versions of science and gradually shedding the errors. We necessarily lie to 1st-graders about evolution (or anything else in science for that matter), because basics are oversimplifications that are factually wrong but are neccessary to learn in order to be able to understand it and be able to move on to more sophisticated versions later. Only in graduate school, with full immersion into the literature, one sheds the last errors in one’s chosen area of one’s chosen field of one’s chosen scientific discipline.
Even scientists adhere to semi-erroneous ideas outside of their narrow area of expertise. There is no way anyone can know everything absolutely correctly about all of science. And non-scientists should not be expected to know it either. So teaching them with that goal in mind is doomed to failure. And the way we tend to teach is just like that – trying to teach the best available knowledge of our own disciplines to the unprepared minds – of course they switch off and get easily swayed by the sweet-talking preachers.
One problem with the school metaphor I used is that in schools, if you are in third grade, you have no idea what the fourth grade teacher is teaching – it all happens behind closed doors. In the real world, everything is public. So people who need to hear Ken Miller will also hear Richard Dawkins – we cannot prevent this from happening. If they are not ready for Dawkins, they will reject him and call him “shrill”. Fortunately, people are cognitive misers, picking and choosing what they will listen to. Going into a bookstore, a person not yet ready for Dawkins will likely not buy a Dawkins book – he will pick a Ken Miller or Francis Collins book instead and get started on the way to making the next step in his personal growth.
This is also why there has to be a division of labor – you cannot have the same person doing the job of a Kindergarden teacher and the college professor in the public arena. You do not send PZ to talk to the audience that needs to hear Ken Miller first. And vice versa.
There is a need for all sorts – the Panda’s Thumb crew (and many other bloggers) counters Creationism with scientific facts. This will work on some segments of the population, those who are ready to make that step. It is important to do this work mainly for the availability of the information online and for Google searches. Every creationist idea has been debunked a million times (and I have no patience to write anything more than once – so hats-off to people who can), but, for instance, a new keyword search term may come up every now end then. Such a new keyword term recently was the name of Michael Egnor, a new addition to the Discovery Institute – and we had to make sure that everything he writes gets debunked and then moved to the top of the Google searches for his name.
But mass media does set the tone. Having Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and others on TV all the time puts the issue up front, educates the pundits (who get better and better at asking questions and understanding the issue), and provides a background noise for the majority of the population, making them more receptive for such arguments once they are ready for them. It also redefines what is and is not acceptable in public discourse – something that political candidates and their advisors carefully watch. There is no way any serious candidate can now say – and have that go unpunished – what Bush Sr. said about atheists not being real Americans.
So, there is no conflict between two versions of ‘framing’ – it is done by different people in different situations. The evoking of pre-existing frames in a narrow target audience wins battles. Inventing new frames and having them stick wins wars.
Update: Larry Moran responds.
A few more reactions and related posts: Mark Hoofnagle, Buridan, Guru, Mark Leggott, Eli Rabett, Michael Tobis, Kent, Hank Campbell, Wolfrum.
Update 3: More responses from Greg Laden, Chris Rowan, RPM, Chad Orzel, Kristjan Wager, Eric Berger and Orac.
Update 4: I have re-posted this as a Diary on DailyKos (which was rescued by SusanG over night) where there are some interesting comments. Many others have chimed in as well: Madhu, Greg Laden, Dave Munger, John Wilkins, John Hawks, Chris Mooney, Gavin Schmidt, Matt Nisbet, PZ Myers, John Lynch, Eric Baerren, Laelaps, Alric, Sam Wise, Josh Rosenau, Sean Carroll and Kate again. Also see Franz (in Slovenian) and ORF (in German).
Another response by Larry Moran (and no, just because Larry does not understand the relevant cogsci research, does not make it “psychobabble”).
Fresh additions: Susannah A, Jim Torson (who likes my post), Michael Tobis (who hates it – dunno, perhaps he is conservative or something, and not knowing me from before, would find my regulars in disagreement and vice versa), JLowe and Mike Dunford.
Now Chris Clarke on Pandagon, Anomalous Data, Bruce Loebrich and Chris on Mixing Memory have new stuff up. In the meantime, Matt Nisbet announces that the Science article is now available for free here.
A suggestion by Greg Laden, and excellent succinct point by David Roberts, a good link provided by Tingilinde, a heated debate in the comments here (and a jokular response by Greg Laden to it) and a new example by Matt Nisbet.
And do check out the comments on all the blog responses – there is some good stuff there. Here is a brief introduction to what frames are. You may also want to check out Simple Framing for the bare-bone basics of what it is, or this excellent book – How People Learn as anantidote to the naive notion that truth can speak for itself.
My additional thoughts after reading the blogospheric commentary:
Most of those bloggers and commenters who disagree with Chris and Matt give examples of good (or supposedly good) communication by scientists. But EVERY SINGLE one of their examples is irrelevant to this discussion. Why? Two reasons:
1. Because each example is about science education or popularization. This has nothing to do with it. Framing is about persuasion – making people believe you are right, not learning anything new, not getting interested in the topic (though this can be a nice side-effect), just aligning themselves with you because of who you are, what you said, and how you said it. It is about making political allies, people who will do the right thing when it matters – at the next election (or protest, or write-in campaign). It is about swaying the public opinion, about winning in court, about pushing the right legislation through Congress, and about winning political battles. If we win them, we will be able to teach and popularize science in the future. If we lose, we’ll end up in Gitmo whenever we try to do so. In short, it is not about science itself, it is about politics.
2. Because each example deals with willing, self-selected, eager audience consisting of people who trust you to begin with, have necessary background, are willing to take some time and mental effort to learn from you. Those are the people who read science blogs, popular science magazines, watch Discovery Channel, go to the local Cafe Scientifique, buy popular science books. They are not the audience Chris and Matt have in mind. They are concerned with unwilling audience, people who mistrust you, think you are a nuisance, do not want to believe you, do not want to listen to you, want you to go away, do not have any inclination to make a mental effort to follow your argument, and have no background in science whatsoever. But you need them to change their mind. And you have 30 seconds max to do it.
Also, they do not think about division of labor – that different people will do best with particular audiences and should shy away from talking to other kinds of audiences. They insist that you are forcing all scientists to go on FoxNews to explain evolution!
Finally, most of the bloggers and commenters continuously conflate the short-term and long-term meanings of the term “framing” which my post is all about.
Cross-posted on Daily Kos
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Joshua Bell and Framing Science
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Framing Politics (based on science, of course)
Everybody Must Get Framed