A Blog Around The Clock

On Neurophilosopher’s blog, I saw this, one of the winning cartoons from the 2006 Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest, drawn by Reva Sharp from Warren, PA (btw, you have only about a month to send in your entries for the 2007 contest):

i-9518c9d97cacc94e14f03560744f003d-Box of Spin.jpg

The image obviously mocks the relationship between the published peer-reviewed papers and the data they are based on, putting a negative spin on the way we all frame our scientific communication for the audience of peers, something that both Orac and I addressed previously.

But the cartoon also depicts how many participants in the debate, particularly those suspicious of the concept, frame framing. Apparently, the word ‘framing’ has a negative connotation to native speakers and seduces the reader into equating it with spin and lying, which it most definitively is not.

Of course, those who want to spin and lie are quite capable of using the findings from cognitive linguistics about framing and they can use the technique to spin and lie if it is in their interest. Perhaps, as we’ve all watched Frank Luntz and his spin fool people into voting Republican, and heard the word ‘framing’ attached to what he is doing, we are leery of the idea to begin with.

Framing is pretty truth-neutral. Being cognisant of the way people listen, hear, process and understand information, then act upon it, helps one push whatever agenda one wants. Being aware that emotions strongly influence the way people accept or not accept information presented to them, irrespectively of the real truth-value of the information, is extremely important in the business of changing minds.

Aware that their policy positions are wrong and unpallatable to the majority of Americans, the only way the GOP could keep winning elections was to spin and lie. And they used the understanding of framing to spin and lie. It worked because Democrats had no idea that presenting dry truths, or laundry lists of policy proposals, or reams of statistics, does not change minds. People are busy surviving. People are busy entertaining themselves. That half of the population that even remembers to vote (in a Presidential election, much less in midterm and local elections) makes their decisions within seconds to minutes – not based on a careful analysis of the policies, but on which slogans make then happy.

Once they reframed the Iraq war, the Bush incompetence (Katrina) and corruption (Foley, Abramoff, DeLay…), Democrats won. Why?

Because when both sides try to frame the best they can, the side with the truth on its side has an advantage. Once the framing efforts by the two sides cancel each other out, all that remains are facts, and the truth will win.

Science deals with facts and truths. Anti-science movements, religiously or politically motivated, do not have facts on their side. So, they mastered spin, using framing techniques as a part of their toolkit. Whenever the science side framed issues well, or was lucky that their frames were already agreeable to the majority of Americans, science won. Framing by one side cancels the framing by the other side and what remains are the facts. In other areas, science lost, or is chronically losing, or is temporarily winning only by the aid of courts. Framing the issues better is a necessity.

So, if you look at the cartoon again, this depicts the way anti-science spin machine works. The pro-science spin machine has no use for the “Fact Elimination” element of the machine.

“Reduction”, in the sense of reducing gazillions of data points into a few well-worded statements that are scientifically correct, is just fine.

“Political manipulation” – there is no reason not to tell people that the other side is lying and spinning. It is also good to point out how policies based on science (versus policies based on anti-science) will affect the average citizen, the economy, the country, the world and the environment – that is not manipulation, but it is politics, which is an important part of the process, actually the main goal of the process: changing minds of voters in a politically sensible direction.

“Simplification” is important if one is to reach the target audience. There is a reason why newspapers are written at a 5th grade level.

“Sugar-coating” sounds dishonest so the pro-science machine should have an “Accentuating the Positive” box instead.

So, if the same facts are fed into both the anti-science and pro-science spin machines, each will spit out a short message that appeals to the emotions (not rationality) of at least some voters. But the pro-science machine also leaves the facts and the truth intact, which gives it an advantage: it removes cognitive dissonance (which may bother some minority of people) and it appeals to rationality (which is also used by a minority of people). Moving a couple of minorities of people from 50:50 split over to your side means you win. And once you win, your people put in legislation that is actually based on science. And has a chance to stop global warming, or open the stem cell research, or ban teaching creationism from public school classrooms.

Another way to look at the cartoon is this: you have to frame a science-based issue in such a way that, if fed into the anti-science spin machine, it has to be immune to all modifications and will emerge at the other end completely intact and unaltered. Make your case invincible to the spin from the other side.

Now, it would be wonderful if 300 million Americans were rational, well-educated, understanding scientific method and science facts, holding scientists up as authorities, interested in science, willing to take time and effort to learn, etc. Unfortunately, that is a fantasy. Even for Europe. People have their own backgrounds, and their own lives, families and businesses to tend to, and are unlikely to care much – “just tell me how to vote?” But that question needs to be asked of us, not of Dembski or Inhofe.

In the long-term, through improvements of science education, through science popularization, a total reform of the media, and, yes, through critical analysis of religion (as well as critical analysis of the conservative ideology which feeds the religion), we may make our job of selling science-related political policies easier than they are today. That will take some years. And will face fierce opposition.

But we need to start funding stem cell research today. We need to start stopping global warming today. We need to rethink our energy use and energy production today. We need to rethink about food production and use today. We need to rethink our economic system, our electoral system, our foreign policy – everything. And science can inform all of those areas. And to an audience that is not interested in (or is even hostile to) science, the policies have to be sold on other merits, on the economic, medical, emotional and aesthetic interests of the voters, with the underlying science being brought up as needed and in small, palatable measures.

Framing science is not teaching science. Framing science is persuading voters that a policy (which, in this case, is based on some underlying science) is good. It has little to do with science, and all to do with politics. But we have to win some political battles first (hello, see who is running all branches of the government these days!?) if we want to survive and if we want science to survive as an endeavor.

Related:
Framing Science – the Dialogue of the Deaf
Framing ‘framing’
Did I frame that wrong?
Framing and Truth
Just a quick update on ‘framing science’
Joshua Bell and Framing Science
Framers are NOT appeasers!

Update:
Ben Cline has an excellent summary of framing and the current debate.

More from Brad, Will Von Wizzlepig, Skeptigator, Shinga, Kent and Greenwash.

Trinifar, Tobasco da Gama, Blake Stacey, Knight Tracker and Greg Laden have more.

FriendlyAtheist and Chris Rowan have more, and I have added yet another post.

Related:
Framing Science – the Dialogue of the Deaf
Framing ‘framing’
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

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan Vause
    April 16, 2007

    It seems that the essential purpose of framing is, for you, getting the Republicans out of power and keeping them there. Which is fair enough, because you’re an active Democrat. But surely this makes it completely obvious that it’s the Democrats, not scientists, who should be ‘pursuading people that a (i.e., their) policy is good’ – if you have your way the danger is that ‘anti-science’ framers will be able to successfully portray the scientific community as a prejudiced bunch of atheistic liberal Democratic activists. OK, they might do that anyway, but the charge will resonate more if it is actually true. Take the ‘framing science’ message to your political teammates, and sell it to them – that’s where it’s needed.

  2. #2 coturnix
    April 16, 2007

    Once Republicans stop waging the War on Science, there will be no anti-science spinning entity out there of any size or influence. This does not mean there will never be a need to sell a new policy to the population.

  3. #3 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    April 16, 2007

    Chris Mooney has done absolutely nothing for science. In his last book, he tied science to politics. The stupid American electorate cannot be expected to distinguish between Mooney’s science and his politics, therefore I can completely ignore any scientific contribution he thinks he has made because it will have no effect. In fact, he has done great harm to the cause of science through this.

  4. #4 jeffk
    April 16, 2007

    After reading all of the chatter about this topic, here’s my conclusion:

    Anti-science movements … mastered spin, using framing techniques as a part of their toolkit.

    The reason I’m hesitant to take up this sort of strategy is it only allows us to be further conflated with them. I want the public to come around and become better than this. Otherwise, we’re playing on their terms – and the power of spin dwarfs the power of truth.

  5. #5 Coturnix
    April 17, 2007

    It is the GOP that turned science into a partisan issue. Mooney documented how it happened. Shoot the messenger?

    GW deniers, creationists, anti-choice/anti-contraception/anti-women groups, anti-tax groups, talk radio, FoxNews, the official GOP, etc., etc., are all division and brigades of the anti-reality army. Their main weapon is spin. The spin is provided by “think”-tanks and disseminated via different channels. Each divisuion and brigade has its own goal and its own target audience, each being a part of a Bigger Goal of turning the clock of history by some decades, if not centuries.

    We do not have such organization on our side. But we do have people who self-specialiaze in fighting against particular righwting divisions and batallions. Often, they are not aware that their particular fight is a part of a bigger war, i.e., do not make connections between Heritage Foundation, Sen.Inhofe, Limbaugh/Coulter and DI. We have a bunch of Rambos, each great on his/her own, but facing an organized army.

    We need to make a more coherent approach. Learning how to fine-tune our communication across the various battlefields is a key element in this war. Perhaps we need our own think-tanks. Our advantage: we have the facts on our side. But we cannot win on facts alone when the other side has a well-oiled spinning machine. We need to place our facts within a counterspinning effort.

  6. #6 laurasdad
    May 17, 2007

    ” I am a Red-State Serbian Jewish atheist liberal PhD student with Thesis-writing block and severe blogorrhea trying to understand the world by making strange connections between science, religion, brain, language and sex.”

    Have you ever sought counseling? You have way too many issues. Please don’t confuse an education with wisdom – anyone can get an education – wisdom comes from experience.

  7. #7 coturnix
    May 17, 2007

    Issues? No. After all, I do not have to deal with any kind of cognitive dissonance in my life. Perhaps a person who could describe himself in exactly opposite terms has issues. Perhaps a person who feels driven to react to a funny description of me has issues? Have you ever sought counseling?

  8. #8 Phil
    May 31, 2007

    LOL laurasdad, you were serious?

    Why do people have such a negative reaction to framing?
    The way I see it, the anti-framers are like aliens who have come to earth and are trying to communicate with humans… but the problem is these aliens use radiation or light or something to communicate instead of sound waves. But, once they’ve worked out the mechanism by which humans communicate, they’re trying to make value judgements on that mechanism instead of just accepting it.

    Framing is just a mechanism for interpreting information, exactly like our ears or eyes. Admittably, framing is not such a physical part of our brain, but it is certainly a property of the brain. I may have this concept completely wrong, I guess, but I just don’t understand how so many scientists could be missing the point.

    Phil from Adelaide, Oz