Adventures in Ethics and Science

In the aftermath of Sizzle Tuesday, Orac wrote a post posing a challenge to the science communicators:

How would you deal with antivaccinationism? What “frames” would you use to combat the likes of Jenny McCarthy?

In the comments on Orac’s post, Matthew C. Nisbet turned up:

The anti-vaccine movement is a perfect issue to examine how framing has shaped communication dynamics and public opinion; and how various groups have brought framing strategies to bear in the policy debate.

I personally haven’t had time to do research on the topic. …

To understand and to make recommendations about the anti-vaccine movement, you would need to conduct polling, focus groups, and do an analysis of media coverage.

That’s the point I’ve made about framing from the beginning. It involves taking a scientific and research-based approach to science communication. Do the research, combine it with an understanding of past studies on science communication, and then plot a strategy.

Unfortunately too many bloggers think framing is something you whip up on the back of an envelope, and in the process they have little concept of what a frame might be, or understand the research in the area.

And finally, I think, I came to understand a crucial way in which the pro-framing camp and the “framing skeptics” have been talking past each other.

The sort of data Nisbet identifies as crucial prior to developing your strategy to communicate your message — from focus groups and polls — assumes not only that the group of people with whom you’re communicating are relatively homogeneous and stable (with regard to the assumptions and core values with which your message will need to resonate), but also that you pretty much have one shot at getting your message across. In other words, framing is a strategy that assumes mass communication (via TV, radio, or print media, for example) where the person trying to communicate the message lays it out and the intended audience takes it or leaves it.

It is not a strategy that assumes a back and forth interaction between communicator and target audience.

I think the bloggers and others who are not sold on the strategic importance of polling and focus groups see themselves engaged in communication that involves a real back and forth. In that exchange with the people with whom they’re communicating, they can find out what it is those people take as given and what they value. Indeed, to the extent that their communications are happening at a smaller scale (maybe in online conversations of a hundred people on the high end), they can probably get better information about the people they’re talking to than polls or focus groups would yield, since they aren’t getting information about people approximately like their target audience — they’re getting information from their actual audience!

(Of course, it’s more complicated than this if your target audience includes lurkers and not just commenters. However, the ability to comment means that members of the target audience can say, “That sounds good!” or “I don’t buy it and here’s why …” or “I’m not sure I understand this part …”)

Similarly, to the extent that science is communicated in classrooms, it’s not a problem that professors don’t plan their lessons around the polling data. They can, and do, keep adjusting their delivery of the message on the basis of the ongoing feedback they receive from the actual audience they’re trying to reach (i.e., their students that particular term).

I don’t think this accounts for all of the resistance to the “framing” approach, but I think these different assumptions about the type and scale of communication explain some of why the conversation between framers and “framing skeptics” keeps running aground.

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    July 19, 2008

    Hmmm, perfect timing as I was mulling something along the same lines for my tomorrow’s post….

  2. #2 Lassi Hippeläinen
    July 19, 2008

    That was new to me, too. Now it looks that you can replace the f-word with “marketing”.

  3. #3 Ian Tindale
    July 19, 2008

    With developments in the hypertextuality ‘broadcast vs narrowcast’ aspect of future hybrid media, perhaps there’ll be a scenario where the people in the BBC News24 newsroom or the Sky News studio actually get to directly hear several million armchair viewers retort back at them, constantly, “Statler and Waldorf” style.

    Individual retorts then become mass noise, which isn’t the case in a direct blog except for the most popular ones (where the blog content is the top 10% of the scrollbar and you just think “oh no” when you see the Mount Everest of comments that can only be ignored, especially the big bit in the middle). From that mass noise, only a trend can be ascertained, but the discerning deviant or eclectic opinion is lost – maybe a good thing, or a bad thing.

    In the days of the Spanish Inquisition, the information channel highly tightly shaped the expectation of the information about to be emitted from the conduit. This induces an aligned and societally-shared response, which self-perpetuates.

    I know, I know… I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.

  4. #4 ngong
    July 19, 2008

    Unfortunately too many bloggers think framing is something you whip up on the back of an envelope, and in the process they have little concept of what a frame might be, or understand the research in the area.

    Yeah, the framers need someone who can effectively reach out and communicate this point.

  5. #5 Laelaps
    July 19, 2008

    Excellent post, Janet. I have to admit that, as someone who is skeptical of framing, I hadn’t thought of it this way before. The main problem I have trouble over coming is the question of what the goal of framing is. I think scientists do need to “do their homework,” prepare for speaking engagements, make their points relevant, etc., but it appears that the goal of framing is to get an audience you have not reached to “believe” in your point or otherwise agree with you without really understanding why. Many of the early rebuttals to framing took it to task for it being too much like spin, and it still seems to be a major divisive issue in the framing arguments.

    What we do on our blogs probably does influence our ideas of how we should engage the public, but the big question seems to be how to reach people who aren’t already interested in scientific issues (they probably have opinions on evolution, climate change, etc., but the questions is what those opinions are based on). Is it better to use focus groups, polls, etc. to hone your message to persuade the maximum number of people or do your tailor your message so that people can better understand the topic being addressed? That, to me, seems to be one of the major questions in this debate (although whether it’s the right question isn’t a certainty).

  6. #6 PuckishOne
    July 19, 2008

    Two cents from a non-scientist: If framing is based on the one-way communication of the mass media, wouldn’t it be ideal to use framing/marketing as the “get them interested” tool, and then follow it with the opportunity for the reciprocal communication found in education and the blogosphere? Wouldn’t it be the responsibility, then, of the framers/marketers to generate the initial interest and then leave it to the scientists/bloggers to provide the in-depth analysis for those who take the next step? Finally, if this is, in fact, what framing entails, why on earth have two of its most prominent advocates gone out of their way to alienate the very people needed to back them up in the pursuit of communicating science to the public?

  7. #7 Matt Penfold
    July 19, 2008

    It is the talk of polls and focus groups that worries me.

    Here in the UK that is associated with the re-branding of Labour under Tony Blair and it is not a favourable association. The opinion most people seem to have is that it was about putting presentation ahead of content, or even about hiding the fact the content was either non-existent or not what people thought it was.

    What is the point of framing if you have to distort or ignore the science in the process ?

  8. #8 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 19, 2008

    Janet,
    From the beginning, as we explicitly wrote in the article at Science, our proposals have been aimed at reaching targeted publics by way of the media.

    But audience research and the principles of framing can also be applied to face-to-face discussions whether at public meetings or between doctors and patients.

    In fact, you could structure research to provide a set of recommendations for both mass-mediated efforts to engage the public on the anti-vaccine issue but also for recommendations on interpersonal discussions between experts, doctors, and the lay public. Research would probably point to a lot of overlap in the frames and messaging.

    I would not be surprised if there are not grant proposals under review or already funded research in progress that aims to do this.

    –Matt

  9. #9 greg laden
    July 19, 2008

    If you actually read the critiques that have come out regarding framing, the issue are somewhat different. There has been less resistance to research than opposition to some of the specific suggestions made by ‘framers’ regarding certain hot button issues. You will see the phrase “appeasment” used to focus that discussion.

    I agree that education is an entirely different enterprise as to how it would function, and this (the importance of education) is what I have been pushing all along.

    I’m sure you are absolutely correct regarding what you say about how blogging works. Problem with that is that hardly anybody actually reads blogs. Also, bloggers have not demonstrated themselves to be that interactive with their readers, or sensitive to them. They are far more interested in one upping other bloggers and hearing themselves blog.

    IMVHO

  10. #10 Tony Jeremiah
    July 19, 2008

    This makes sense, especially given the implicit recognition of a basic tenet in effective communication, which is that one must know the audience to which a particular message is directed.

    Following the specific line of reasoning concerning two-way communication, it seems something like this website is a somewhat concrete example of your point. The website contains the average moviegoer’s (representing a sample of public opinion) reaction to the movie Expelled. This reaction is broken down by age, gender, and movie viewer comments with ratings out of 10.

    For all intents-and-purposes, the site essentially is a poll providing data about the effectiveness of Expelled as it concerns public opinion about science. Eyeballing this informal data sample, there’s a suggestion that Expelled’s (presumably) anti-science message had a polarizing effect–the ratings suggest that it was most effective with women 36+ and least effective with males under 36. This effect is quite noticeable in the comment/rating section, which showed the majority of ratings to either be 1-2/10 or 9-10/10 (average rating: 6.4/10). Those giving the movie the lowest ratings focused primarily on the movie’s distortion of evolutionary theory; those giving it the highest ratings had a diverse set of comments that included such comments as science does not have all the answers, scientists are not open-minded, and some reflecting what might be the implicit assumption of the movie’s effect–believing the ‘teach the controversy’ doctrine.

    So assuming Expelled represents a type of anti-science frame, clearly the impact of a frame isn’t straightforward. Also, this leads me to believe (and consistent with research) that a particular message is not really relevant if people already hold strong views prior to the message; they will walk away with a perception of information consistent with pre-existing notions.
    Of course, the data on the site cannot confirm this (only the polar effect suggests this). It would have been necessary to obtain viewer reactions before and after.

    Which leads me back to the particular question of exactly what is the goal of framing. Is it to develop effective science communication, persuade persons holding an anti-science attitude about the merits of science, or a combination of the two? And, if so, does anyone really believe that a significant portion of public opinion can be changed if strongly engrained pre-existing notions are already present.

    Presumably, if the goal of framing is persuasion, it would really be only effective for person’s holding no pre-existing attitudes. And my sense is that the percentage of person’s holding an ambivalent attitude toward science and religion, is probably few and far between. Not sure what it would be for those holding antivaccination attitudes.

  11. #11 Skeptigirl
    July 29, 2008

    Presumably, if the goal of framing is persuasion, it would really be only effective for person’s holding no pre-existing attitudes.

    You make two obvious mistakes here. You are assuming that “Expelled” effectively framed the message, and, that you actually have a random sample from which to draw your conclusion. And you make a third but less obvious mistake that just because we recognize the importance of framing, we are necessarily framing science in the most effective way.

    “Expelled” did a bad job of framing the argument. The idea of equating university biology departments with Hitler and Nazis was a bit much. It looked like a propaganda movie from the 50s. I’m sure enough people recognized the absurdity, that word got around and affected the turnout to see the movie.

    It didn’t reach a very wide audience. And from that select group, you likely saw a reflection of the most hard core pre-existing beliefs among the reviewers who were motivated to post their opinions. Changing the minds of those with more hardened pre-existing beliefs is certainly quite difficult.

    But that is no reason to underestimate the effectiveness of the theme of Stein’s movie, changing the evolution debate from the issue of science to the issues of ‘fairness’ and free speech. That theme came from market research. The Discovery Institute, taking its cue from the Evangelical movement it was born out of, has been using marketing research, aka ‘science’, from its inception.

    When the anti-science crowd wants to persuade, they do the scientific research to find the most effective method. When the science crowd wants to persuade, they attack all persuasion problems as a knowledge deficit and wonder why they are so ineffective. Perhaps that is an oversimplification and actually the science crowd has begun to at least examine the issues surrounding our failures to communicate science effectively. But we have a long way to go and we are already far behind the anti-science promoters.

    When I first began discussing the ‘science of communication’ with friends and colleagues a few years ago, I was met with disdain. The reaction was to complain that persuasion has a negative connotation and persuasion is politics, not science. And when I began looking for research on how to communicate science, all I found were articles addressing translating technical into lay language.

    I would agree we don’t currently have the means to address strong pre-existing anti-science biases. But that should just tell us we need more research if we expect to ever be able to do so. It is worth noting that George Lakoff, who first coined the term, ‘framing’, is a linguistics professor. And it is also worth noting that while there is some research on how to reach people in the education sciences, the vast majority of the current research comes from marketing. It’s the one science the anti-science crowd actually promotes research in and the one science the science crowd doesn’t recognize.

    The pro-science crowd needs to use science to solve this problem. Why that goes unrecognized is baffling. We need market research to find the best ways to promote critical thinking and science. We need a broader look at the barriers to promoting science. That means noticing the evolution deniers are changing the question from evidence to fairness and changing the question back. That means noticing that every problem in communicating science is not a knowledge deficit.

    While the debate over evolution theory cannot be lost because one cannot change the nature of the Universe through persuasion, we have let the discussion go on longer than necessary because we failed to address earlier the fact that the evolution deniers were successfully changing the debate question. We just need to approach this problem the way one would approach a biology problem. Do the necessary research in the science of communication and apply it.

  12. #12 Skeptigirl
    July 29, 2008

    Forgot to note the quote I commented on was from Tony J in the above post.

  13. #13 Skeptigirl
    July 29, 2008

    A further comment on framing.

    Framing is not some narrow little issue of a catchy word or two. Think bigger picture.

    Here are two examples.

    When we in the medical field use the term, “alternative medicine” we are implicitly saying an alternative to evidence based medicine. If one then adds, “complementary” or CAM as it is referred to, one is implying non-evidence based medicine complements evidence based medicine.

    But it doesn’t. So many of us have adopted sCAM as the acronym instead of CAM. AM is just fine as long as it is evidence based. And if it is evidence based then it need not be called ‘alternative’.

    Another message I hear often within the scientific community is to word the fact evidence and research can be mis-used in a way that says evidence and research can never be relied upon to resolve a question.

    “Statistics can support either side”. “Each side can cite studies that support their position.”

    While these statements are inherently true, they communicate the added message that one cannot actually find the answers using the scientific process.

    It would be better to speak of unresolved issues as just that, unresolved.

    “There isn’t enough research yet to answer the question”. “There is a valid conclusion supported by the evidence but one side (or both) is mis-using the evidence to support a false conclusion.”

    The point is these very subtle messages have very big impacts. Marketers know that all too well. Framing is not just about doing a focus group and finding out the public trusts a scientist in a white coat more than one in a suit. It is about analyzing a problem, generating hypothetical solutions, testing them, then applying the results.

  14. #14 Tony Jeremiah
    July 29, 2008

    You are assuming that “Expelled” effectively framed the message

    That’s partially correct; it depends on how you define effective. Assuming Expelled represents an anti-science frame, I made an inference from the informal data sample (different from a rhetorical assumption), that the message seemed most effective (for this data sample) for a particular age-group and gender given the somewhat anti-science statements that accompanied high ratings for the movie. One could argue that it was ineffective given the pro-science statements (e.g., that the movie misrepresents evolutionary theory) that accompanied low ratings for the movie.

    that you actually have a random sample from which to draw your conclusion.

    I don’t (directly) make such assumption and indicate that it’s not a random sample via the qualifiying phrase ‘informal data sample’ (meaning that there are formal procedures for collecting a representative data sample; without going into a discourse on research methods in the social sciences).

    And you make a third but less obvious mistake that just because we recognize the importance of framing, we are necessarily framing science in the most effective way.

    Actually as a whole, my commentary evaluates an anti-science frame. Thus one would have to speculate as to inferences concerning science frames.

    The overall point of my comment was to provide a concrete example of Janet’s insight about two-way communication. In particular: (1) illustration of a concrete example of what two-way communication might look like in the form of the website; and (2) the polarization effect suggests that an assumption underlying framing indicated by Janet (The sort of data Nisbet identifies as crucial prior to developing your strategy to communicate your message — from focus groups and polls — assumes not only that the group of people with whom you’re communicating are relatively homogeneous and stable) is inaccurate.

    “Expelled” did a bad job of framing the argument. The idea of equating university biology departments with Hitler and Nazis was a bit much. It looked like a propaganda movie from the 50s. I’m sure enough people recognized the absurdity, that word got around and affected the turnout to see the movie.

    Hmm, are we in agreement that Expelled is an anti-science frame. I’m assuming the movie was designed to put science in a good light. Also, I’m guessing this is probably where we differ concerning the definition of the movie’s effectiveness. My definition of effectiveness is an inference based on the data sample from the website; it appears your definition is based on a personal reaction to the film’s content. And it seems your particular reaction to this portion of the film is opposite to the reactions of movie goers from the data sample, who probably did not react negatively to that aspect of the film, evidenced by making comments such as scientists are not open-minded, scientists are evil, etc.

    It didn’t reach a very wide audience.

    What would be your definition of a wide audience from a demographic standpoint, and, what would be the data to indicate this?

    And from that select group, you likely saw a reflection of the most hard core pre-existing beliefs among the reviewers who were motivated to post their opinions.

    This is in agreement with my quoted statement.

    Changing the minds of those with more hardened pre-existing beliefs is certainly quite difficult.

    Despite the small data sample, the age/gender polarization effect is consistent with two observations: (1) on average, people become more spiritually-focused with age (probably due to being closer to one’s mortal coil); (2) science still has the residual effects of being viewed as a masculine domain, which may result in a greater portion of women holding (a perhaps implicit) anti-science attitude which may make it easier to be susceptible to anti-science messages. Even more telling, is that the informal data also suggests that women from this sample (probably generalizes) may not be actually anti-science as much as they are anti-scientist (e.g., more turned off by sciences’ masculine social ethos (e.g., < a href ="http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2007/09/why_arent_there_more_women_in_1.php"> Why aren’t there more women in science and math).

    So by investigating the impact of an (assumed) anti-science frame on a select sample of people, some inferences should be possible as how best to frame a science message for another select group of people(s).

  15. #15 Ed Darrell
    July 31, 2008

    It also seems to me that there would be differences depending on whether one is communicating to inform, or communicating to persuade. Standard audience analysis issues for any presentation, no?

    But I confess I am confused by both sides of the “framing” discussion, which should probably trouble others as much as it troubles me: My experience includes years pushing information about complex legislation on health care and research (and education and labor) for the Senate Labor Committee, for environmental and education agencies.

    The whole discussion looks highly academic, arcane, and divorced from reality, to me.