Truth, All the Truth, and Nothing but the Truth.
You are all familiar with the phrase. It actually figures prominently (though unspoken until now) in this whole discussion about framing science.
Nobody – absolutely nobody – ever suggests that anything but The Truth should be used when communicating science or communicating about science.
The wisdom of framing is that ‘All the Truth’ can be omitted, as too much information puts off the target audience in some cases, and is thus counterproductive.
The self-styled Defenders Of The Truth insist that a) ‘All The Truth’ should never be omitted, and b) that ‘framers’ want to omit ‘nothing but the Truth”, i.e. to advocate lying. Nothing is further from the Truth.
The important issues of the day – evolution, global warming, stem cell reseach – are too contentious and politically hot. Thus, to illustrate how omitting “All The Truth” does not mean lying, I’ll use the examples from my own reasearh, as far from political (or even politicizable) as can be.
For instance, this is the way some of our data are presented to the peers in the field. Compare that to this treatment of the very same data intended for a different audience – readers of a science blog (some scientists, some interested lay-people, no chronobiologists). There is more background, more explanation of the basics, a more casual English language, and almost no numbers/statistics in the latter. Both contain the Truth and Nothing but the Truth, but the latter is not “All the Truth” as some less relevant information has been omitted. Does it turn it into lying? Not at all. Does it make more comprehensible and interested to a non-expert? Yes. The published paper was read by the dozens, the blog post by the hundreds at least – hundreds who probably could not have understood the published paper anyway and who don’t need all the nitty-gritty details in order to understand it.
Or, how about this example: here is the actual paper, and here is the blog post about it. Not just does the blogpost explain in an easy language what the paper is about, but it also adds the wisdom of several intervening years of research and thinking, i.e., puts the paper in a historical perspective. It also has a slightly different emphasis on what was really important in the paper – something we learned only in hindsight. So, which of the two is The Truth? The paper has all the details and statistics that the blog-post lacks. The blog-post has the post-hoc insights that the paper lacks. Are they, thus, both Lies? No. They are both true, framed for different audiences at different times in history.
How about this one: here is the paper and here is the blog-post. The blog-post puts the data from the paper in a much, MUCH broader context, including data from a number of other papers by other people, and ends with new data that never saw the light of day previously, followed by a novel testable hypothesis that was never included in the original paper. Which one is The Truth? Both, of course. Just framed differently.
Another example: here is the published paper while here and here are two different blog treatments of the same data. The first post explains the data in the paper (sans boring details and numbers) and puts the paper into a historical perspective. It adds some of the background thinking that was not included in the paper – about my motivations for doing the work, about expectations how the data would turn out, the way we responded when the data did not turn out the way we predicted, and the way to see the data from the lens of what we know now seven years later. The second post also describes the data in simple English, yet goes further – by placing the data into a different context (ecological instead of physiological) it ends up proposing a novel hypothesis to be tested in the future. Which of the three treatments are the Truth? All three, of course, but each framed differently.
OK, that was my MS stuff. I am not allowed to tell you the details of my PhD work, but there is a way to frame it so you can understand what it was all about without revealing any specifics.
For instance, if asked by a person (professional or lay-person) interested in evolution, I would describe my PhD work along these lines: “I am interested in evolutionary implications of sex, strain and individual differences in circadian and photoperiodic time measurement in Japanese quail, with potential insight into group selection”.
If asked by a physiologist of some sort, I would describe it like this: “I did studies in the way exposure to sex steroid hormones by embryos and adults affects the way bird brains measure time of day and time of year”.
If asked by someone whose primary interest are humans, I’d say something like this: “I use an avian model to study the way circadian system is altered during adolescence”.
If I were young and single and talking up a girl in a bar where loud music makes language economy an imperative, I’d say “I am a brain surgeon”.
And you know what? All four statements are True. Nothing but the Truth. But obviously not All the Truth. Each emphasizes a different aspect of my work. Each neglects to say that the work is already done and that I have not set foot in the lab for a while. And each is framed for its target audience. The first reflects my real #1 interest and can help bond with a like-minded fellow. The second is my #2 interest, but that is what my Dissertation is supposed to be about and this is the way most people in the field (including my advisor) would like to hear about it. The third is good for selling my work to NIH, but also good for giving a polite answer to a non-scientist friend who asked the question out of being polite him/herself. The fourth emphasizes one of the methods in my toolkit and has a different goal in mind.
Each of the four is framed differently because the audience is different, the question (“What is your research about”) was asked for different reasons, and my goal is different (though establishing my expertise and staking my turf are a common thread to all four): bonding, teaching, persuading, or self-aggrandizing, respectively. And I never inserted a single lie anywhere. Oh, and without knowing any details, you now have a pretty decent idea of my rresearch interests, don’t you?
That is what framing is about. Knowing what your goals is. Knowing what to omit when. And knowing what style of language to use with which audience. No need to ever be dishonest. Leave that to Creationists and Republicans.
But, what really is The Truth in science and in journalism? Oh, do click on that link, I know you want to and it is worth it.
Framing Science – the Dialogue of the Deaf
Did I frame that wrong?
Framing and Truth
Just a quick update on ‘framing science’
Joshua Bell and Framing Science
Framers are NOT appeasers!
Framing Politics (based on science, of course)
Everybody Must Get Framed