If it’s spring, it must be time for another round of posts trying to get clear on the framing strategies advocated by Matthew C. Nisbet, and on why these communications seem to be so controversial among scientists and science bloggers.
My past attempts to figure out what’s up with framing can be found here:
- Movie screening expulsion: whose hearts and minds are up for grabs?
- Trying to understand framing.
- Trying to understand framing (II): draw me a picture.
- Trying to understand framing (III): the example of stem cell research.
- Minor epiphany about framing.
The present post has been prompted by Matt’s recent post on the ethics of framing science.
If you haven’t the stomach for another round of the framing wars (or the attempt at analysis from here on the sidelines), come back later for tasty framing-free content: This afternoon I’ll be posting an illustration by the elder Free-Ride offspring, and this evening I’ll be revealing the identities of the mystery crops in my garden.
For those still reading, here’s my plan: First, in this post, I’ll consider the four ethical principles Matt says ought to be guiding scientists, journalists, and other communicators who are framing science. In the next post, I’ll say something about what seems to be going on when proponents of the framing strategy object that scientists are not applying it correctly. Finally, I’ll try to draw some broader lessons about the folks interested in communicating science – and about the strategies that might be useful (or counterproductive) in trying to sell scientists on the utility of the framing strategy.
You’ll recall that “framing” is a communication strategy concerned with reaching your intended audience by highlighting the particular aspects of the issue about which you’re trying to communicate that will resonate with that audience’s core values. In short, the aim is to get that audience to understand why they should care about the issue – how that issue connects to other things they already care about. The aim is not to bombard the intended audience with a bunch of technical details that they don’t have the background or interest to follow. (How does one figure out which core values will resonate best with a particular audience? Data from focus groups and the like.) Predictably, scientists and science bloggers raised concerns about whether framing didn’t amount to dumbing down scientific information to try to persuade non-scientists to accept or reject certain policies or points of view. As well, concerns were raised about whether gathering focus group data was as feasible or reliable as framing advocates thought it was, and about whether doing so might somehow shift scientists from their roots as denizens of the reality-based community to “spinners” or public relations hacks.
Matt’s post sets out the following as ethical principles that should guide those framing science:
- Whenever possible, dialogue should be a focus of science communication efforts, rather than traditional top-down and one-way transmission approaches.
- No matter their chosen role, whether as “issue advocates” or “honest brokers,” scientists and journalists should always emphasize the values-based reasons for a specific policy action.
- Scientists and journalists must be accurate, respecting the uncertainty that is inherent to any technical question and resisting engaging in hyperbole.
- Scientists and journalists should avoid using framing to denigrate, stereotype, or attack a particular social group or to use framing in the service of partisan or electoral gains.
The first principle is one that hasn’t been entirely clear in earlier discussions about framing. I wondered about this very issue last summer:
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!
If framers feel the pull of an ethics in which dialogue is preferable that unidirectional transmission – of listening to the intended audience before and after making the case for a particular position – it’s much more likely that the information reaching that intended audience will at least approximately address the concerns voiced by that audience.
Starting with some reasonable model of what people in this kind of audience value (whether built on polling data or focus group data) obviously helps initiate the dialogue in more productive terrain than opening with no idea at all of what matters to the people you’re trying to persuade. However, in an actual dialogue, listening is important – so much so that information gathered from the actual people you’re trying to persuade probably ought to trump prior data from samples intended to model people like the ones you’re trying to persuade.
The second principle asserts that framers ought to focus on the values the target audience cares about (or at least, on those that can be connected to the values the target audience already recognizes and/or prioritizes). I think the idea here is to be clear that the facts themselves do not argue for any particular response to them. Rather, policies ought to be chosen on the basis of what we value, and how we can secure what we value in the light of the facts.
Being clear about the difference between how things are and how we want to respond is an excellent goal. Of course, framers need to keep in mind here that, given agreement about a given set of facts, people can have legitimate disagreements about how to respond to those facts. The values of your target audience may lead them to different conclusions than the ones you are advocating – and knowing what they value in no way guarantees that you can make your case successfully.
The third ethical principle emphasizes making accurate claims and coming clean about the uncertainties in the scientific knowledge at hand. No surprise that I think this is a good idea. Given that scientists have specialized expertise and thus can build reliable knowledge that non-scientists cannot, they also have a duty not to abuse these powers to take advantage of non-scientists. Pumping up the apparent strength of the evidence that makes one policy option look more likely to succeed or more pressing – and doing this to persuade people without the expertise to evaluate the evidence themselves – is an abuse of power.
The fourth ethical principle here reads like another exhortation for scientists and journalists not to abuse their powers. Surely, just on practical grounds, denigrating, stereotyping, or attacking are not things you want to do to a social group with whom you are trying to communicate – since prefacing your pitch for a particular policy with “You suck!” is not likely to persuade your audience that you are arguing from shared (or even compatible) values. If the idea is to make your case for X by showing that X is a good fit with your audience’s values, implicitly your case relies on those values being legitimate ones to hold.
It seems the strategy the fourth ethical principle is supposed to rule out is something like this:
“People who are against X display absolutely crazy values, which you can see in play in these examples … Assuming you’re not crazy like those people, you’ll be for X.”
I agree that this is not a great strategy for selling X, as there may be a number of legitimate values one could hold while still being against X. Moreover, the “crazy” behavior pointed to as a reason to reject a particular set of (X-rejecting) values might well have some other source than those values. Finally, it’s much harder to present an objective argument for or against a particular set of values than it is to present one for or against a particular scientific conclusion.
The last part of the fourth principle, I imagine, will be a little more contentious. What exactly is covered under using framing in the service of partisan or electoral gains? Since the strategy of framing has been commended to scientists as a way to make the case for specific policy actions, implementing your desired policy must not count as a partisan gain. But given the tight connection between policies and the parties and elected officials that institute them, it’s hard to know just where the line is supposed to be. My best guess is that scientists (and journalists) are being urged to use their powers as scientists (and as journalists) to present honest arguments engaging the values of their target audiences, rather than arguments that turn on ulterior motives.
Taken as a group, what do these four guiding ethical principles tell us about the type of activity framing is supposed to be? The idea seems to be that effective communication about science should focus less on what scientists know and how they know it than on the ways that an audience’s pre-existing values and concerns are (or can be) connected to scientists’ values and concerns; that effective communication about issues that matter to scientists will involve scientists actually listening to the people with whom they’re communicating and taking their concerns seriously; that scientists will be honest and accurate in their representations of what is known and what is not, and will draw clear distinctions between knowledge and values; and that scientists won’t use their “expert” status to unfairly rig the dialogue or to unfairly marginalize the voices of others in the dialogue.
On its face, this picture of communication between scientists and non-scientists doesn’t strike me as terribly objectionable. But perhaps we need to consider specific examples in which scientists have been taken to task for not using framing well – or for using the framing strategy less than ethically — to understand the rift between the framers and the framing skeptics. Since Matt’s post suggests that Richard Dawkins (and the crowd he runs with) runs afoul of these four ethical principles, we’ll dig into the particulars in the next post.