Cognitive Daily

The debate about Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet’s recent Science article has gotten quite contentious. Nisbet and Mooney contend that if scientists hope to persuade the public to value science, they must take heed of recent research on “framing.” In other words, they claim, scientists are failing at presenting their message effectively.

So what exactly is this “framing” stuff anyway? Matthew Nisbet might not agree that this is all there is to it, but I thought this article in the APS observer offered a nice summary of what we’re talking about:

People are more likely to take risks when they are given options in terms of losses, but less likely to take risks when they are shown options in terms of gains. For instance, if people are forced to choose between the following: a 50 percent chance they will lose $100 but a 100 percent chance they will lose $50, they tend to go with the first, more risky, option. Conversely, if people are faced with a “gain frame” choice: a 50 percent chance they will win $100 or a 100 percent chance they will win $50, they tend to go with the latter, less risky option. Basically, people tend to take risks when there is something to lose, but tend not to take risks when there is something to gain.

People will gamble to try to avoid a guaranteed loss, but will take the sure money when considering a gain. So let’s apply this logic to a controversial scientific issue: evolution. Religious fundamentalists say that evolution is wrong because the Bible says God created all life. What’s more, if you don’t believe in the Bible, you’re going to suffer eternal damnation. So “believing” in evolution leads to damnation. From a framing perspective, this is a pretty good argument — people will take the “safer” bet and believe in the truth of the Bible.

The typical response to this argument is that there’s lots of evidence supporting evolution — we can look at the fossil record and see it; we can see animals that have evolved even within a human’s life span. There’s no scientific evidence supporting the idea that life was created by a designer. Some scientists go even further and say that this shows the Bible is wrong, and Christians should throw away their silly notions and accept the fact that everyone is eventually going to die. From a framing perspective, this is a lousy argument. Not only does it offer nothing for adherents to gain from supporting evolution, but it also says they’ve got everything to lose!

Nisbet and Mooney say that scientists would be more persuasive if they didn’t try to argue that their work challenged religion: after all, people are willing to take extraordinary risks to avoid a sure loss. Might they even discard an argument so well supported that it is obvious to every scientist? They can, and they do — the creationist movement is alive and well.

P.Z. Myers offers an impassioned defense of the scientist: I like framing less and less: Why are scientists the targets? He says Mooney and Nisbet are only blaming the scientists, when it is the media that takes the simple-minded framing approach, and it’s the public’s fault for accepting brain-dead reporting on science. People are smart enough to understand real science, and scientists are smart enough to explain it to them without reverting to “framing.”

In some ways, I agree with Myers — after all, thousands of readers visit Cognitive Daily each day to read incredibly detailed explanations of highly complex phenomena. On the other hand, as Mooney pointed out in a talk I attended last year, if the other side is using a more sophisticated framing approach to manipulate its audience, scientists at least need to aware of this rhetorical strategy and find effective ways to counter it.

Chad Orzel has an excellent suggestion: Why not hire some good P.R. people to mount an effective response? I don’t think it’s fair to ask scientists to dumb down their work, or to try to “spin” it in a way that’s more appealing to the general public, but they might at least try go get some good publicity buzz going, by relying on people who do this for a living. Why not show some of the benefits of coming to a more comprehensive understanding of science — isn’t that what framing is all about?


  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    April 9, 2007

    I don’t think it’s fair to ask scientists to dumb down their work, or to try to “spin” it in a way that’s more appealing to the general public,

    I suggest (gently) that you and Myers are building a straw man with this sort of complaint. I saw nothing that proposed doing either of these. I took the point to be the need for more effective communication to a general audience. As part of that audience, I agree completely.

    And I also suggest that the comments about stuff being read on ScienceBlogs and effective lectures to university audiences are absolutely irrelevant to the key point being made. That’s not talking to the “general audience” in any sense.

  2. #2 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 9, 2007

    Hi there,
    Thanks for the comments and the citation to the APS Observer article. The debate so far has been very interesting, and we will have more on framing forthcoming. In the meantime, something of possible interest to your readers.

    Research on framing as a theory of media influence has developed in the fields of sociology, communication, and political science over the past two decades. For overviews and applications of the literature see the citations we reference in the Policy Forum article but also the following:

    Price, V., Nir, L., & Capella, J.N. (2005). Framing public discussion of gay civil unions. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69, (2), 179-212.

    Gamson, WA. and Modigliani, A. (1989). Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95, 1-37.

    The latest issue of Journal of Communication, the flagship journal in the field. It’s a special issue devoted to framing and media influence. See especially the following overview:

    Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, agenda-setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9-20.

    See also this earlier article by Scheufele, possibly the most heavily cited article in the field over the past decade:

    Scheufele, D.A. (1999). Framing as a Theory of Media Effects. Journal of Communication 49 (4): 103-22

  3. #3 Juha Haataja
    April 9, 2007

    The question about framing is worth considering, and may be a quite deep question, as many aspects of human decision-making are. But is this viewpoint necessary in this context? Isn’t the real question about communication and rhetorical skills – unfortunately scientists may be clumsy when arguing on the level understandable by the general audience.

    There are great exceptions of course, scientist who easily counter any arguments posed by creationists or any other such group. But prevailing in an argument may be more a question of personality than argumentation.

  4. #4 acm
    April 9, 2007

    well, we don’t want to lose sight of the desire to educate. but there’s value in recognizing that the wrong approach to a debate could lead to your offering very little gain (explanatory power that the listener will never apply; perhaps intellectual satisfaction or superiority) against a huge loss (a sense of moral betrayal of preexisting beliefs, a possible loss of life framework). there are plenty of ways to discuss evolution without negating religion, and that’s important, but it’s also important to contemplate whether there are other advantages that can be pointed out — whether it’s as “low-brow” as applications to pop psychology or as elevated as the predictive value of keeping our species alive on this planet — that give reasons for the dubious to keep listening. to date, I think that scientists have not done much along those lines.

  5. #5 Paul Sunstone
    April 10, 2007

    I completely agree that we should hire some public relations people to deal with the public debate over evolution/creationism/intelligent design. I would actually prefer to see an institute set up to both inform the public of what’s at stake in the debate and to coordinate political responses to the political attacks on evolution. The time has come to address the fact that the Grand Debate is as much a public relations issue as it is an educational issue.

  6. #6 Mark Frank
    April 10, 2007

    Isn’t “framing” making a simple point appear difficult? Scientists, like anyone else, need to think about their audience and what they want to achieve when communicating. That’s obvious (although easily forgotten).

    “Framing” makes communication sound difficult and technical. This could have some sad consequences. Some scientists may think it sounds too hard for them and just give up. Others may resolve to “frame” their communications, but, lacking the experience, produce communication that is patently false and political. Above all, scientists need to preserve trust and a performance that is unnatural and clearly designed to achieve political aims will go a long way to destroy that.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2007

    Aside from questions of what “framing” really is (I’ve written too much on that topic already!), I just want to add this: If you are an evolutionary biologist and you find yourself needing ideas as to how to deal with creationists, and you go to standard resources such as the National Center for Science Education, you’ll find lots of information on approaches to what Nesbit and Mooney would call “framing” … in particular, with respect to the issue you bring up regarding religion, is the approach that science explores the material, natural world and has nothing to do with religion, etc. etc.

    In other words, there is a kind of widespread standard procedure that does not need to be invented.

  8. #8 MT
    April 20, 2007

    The point is just to pitch them something worse than Hell and better than Heaven, which shouldn’t be too hard, Heaven and Hell being just ideas. I mean, we could make their actual lives Hell, so to speak. Shunning? Make ‘em feel real stupid?

  9. #9 MT
    April 20, 2007

    But speaking of reframing, I’d like to see “atheist” chucked, along with “belief in God” and all use of “God” without quotation marks among my fellow anti-supernaturalists. Anselm’s corollary is that there is no part of speech that “God” cannot provide. Let us type (or chant, with “air quotes”) “God” is the word, and the word of “God” is “God.”