On Framing, Part One

My SciBlings Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet have created quite a stir recently, first with this article in Science and later with this article for the Washington Post. The basic premise is that scientists need to become more effective communicators, especially on controversial issues like evolution and global warming. In particular, they need to “frame” scientific issues in a way that will have resonance with specific groups of people. In some cases this might mean eschewing a discussion of the scientific minutiae in favor of discussing more practical ramifications of the issue at hand.

This all blew up while I was in the middle of preparing my big talk for the Roanoke math conference. Consequently, I did not comment at that time. In the interim, rather a lot of bloggers weighed in on the subject, and Nisbet and Mooney offered numerous replies. So I am arriving late to the party. I have only read a small fraction of what my fellow bloggers have written on the subject, so I apologize in advance for the inevitable overlap between what I am about to say, and what others have already said.

For those who do not wish to read a long blog entry, here’s the short version: I think the argument made by Mooney and Nisbet suffers from one fatal flaw, and several other lesser flaws. Overall, I find far more wrong with their argument than I find right with it.

We begin with an excerpt from the Science article:

Issues at the intersection of science and politics, such as climate change, evolution, and embryonic stem cell research, receive considerable public attention, which is likely to grow, especially in the United States as the 2008 presidential election heats up. Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively “frame” information to make it relevant to different audiences. Some in the scientific community have been receptive to this message (1). However, many scientists retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists’, and controversy would subside.

In reality, citizens do not use the news media as scientists assume. Research shows that people are rarely well enough informed or motivated to weigh competing ideas and arguments. Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own (2). Such screening reduces the choices of what to pay attention to and accept as valid (3).

Frames organize central ideas, defining a controversy to resonate with core values and assumptions. Frames pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible, and what should be done (4, 5).

The two main examples used by Mooney and Nisbet are evolution and global warming. They point out that in both cases there is a clear scientific consensus on the basic facts of the issue, but that this consensus is not reflected in public opinion polls. In the Science article they write the following about evolution:

As another example, the scientific theory of evolution has been accepted within the research community for decades. Yet as a debate over “intelligent design” was launched, antievolutionists promoted “scientific uncertainty” and &lduqo;teach-the-controversy” frames, which scientists countered with science-intensive responses. However, much of the public likely tunes out these technical messages. Instead, frames of “public accountability” that focus on the misuse of tax dollars, “economic development” that highlight the negative repercussions for communities embroiled in evolution battles, and “social progress” that define evolution as a building block for medical advances, are likely to engage broader support.

They go on to give some brief examples of how scientists might communicate more effectively, all of them based on downplaying the actual science and playing up more practical considerations instead.

And that brings us to the fatal flaw in their argument: They seem to think the public’s reluctance to accept the reality of global warming or the correctness of evolutionary theory is the result of poor marketing from the science side vs. good marketing from the anti-science side. In making this argument they overlook something fundamental. Specifically, that in both of those cases it is the anti-science side that has the more attractive message to offer.

On global warming the pro-science side has the message that our current way of life is unsustainable, that major changes in the ways we obtain energy are necessary, and that if we do not make these difficult changes we risk some serious climatic catastrophes. The anti-science side gets to tell people they don’t have to change a thing, that they can continue driving their ridiculously oversized vehicles, and that it’s only a handful of chicken littles who think otherwise.

On evolution the pro-science side has the message that we are just an animal like any other and that our existence is the chance outcome of four billion years of bloodsport. The anti-science side gets to assure everyone that there is a God who loves them, that the world was created for humans specifically, and that there is more to life than science alone.

In both cases the anti-science side has a message people want to buy, while the pro-science side has a message most people find rather gloomy. All the slick marketing and clever framing in the world will not change that simple fact.

And it’s not as if people are perceiving things inaccurately. Evolution genuinely does pose a grave and serious challenge to traditional religious beliefs. Few people really need Richard Dawkins to point that out to them. And doing anything substantive about global warming really would require people to make some inconvenient changes in their lives.

This point is reinforced by the one example given by Mooney and Nisbet to illustrate the success of their general method: embryonic stem-cell research. From the Science article:

On the embryonic stem cell issue, by comparison, patient advocates have delivered a focused message to the public, using “social progress” and “economic competitiveness” frames to argue that the research offers hope for millions of Americans. These messages have helped to drive up public support for funding between 2001 and 2005 (9, 10). However, opponents of increased government funding continue to frame the debate around the moral implications of research, arguing that scientists are “playing God&rduqo; and destroying human life. Ideology and religion can screen out even dominant positive narratives about science, and reaching some segments of the public will remain a challenge (11).

But the relative success on this issue is not the result of clever framing. Rather, it comes from the fact that on this issue it is the pro-science side that has the more attractive message to sell. Pro-science forces get to talk about potential cures, the advancement of knowledge, and giving hope to people with dread diseases. The anti-science forces are stuck trying to convince people that a two-week old embryo is the moral equivalent of a human being. Once again, it is the pleasantness of the message, not the slickness of the marketing, that is relevant.

That’s the fatal flaw in the argument. The problem isn’t ineffective framing, it’s having a message most people find unappealing. But there are other problems as well.

If the issue is getting away from the actual scientific facts in favor of more touchy-feely approaches, then it is not clear why scientists are on the receiving end of the Mooney/Nisbet thesis. After all, the scientist’s expertise is in assimilating large quantities of data, thinking clearly about complex issues, and being able to explain it to anyone who is interested. But according to Mooney and Nisbet, “data dumps” are precisely what should be avoided. If that is the case, then why are they talking to scientists about this at all?

This becomes clear from the examples they provide in the Washington Post article:

So once again, scientists and their allies would be better off shifting their emphasis, as well as the messenger. For example, church leaders can speak to the evangelical community about the necessity of environmental stewardship (a message that’s already being delivered from some pulpits), even as business leaders can speak to fiscally oriented conservatives about the economic opportunities there for the plucking if Congress passes a system for trading carbon dioxide emission credits.

It’s nice that some in the evangelical community have found a message that resonates with their flock, and that business leaders see some economic opportunities in global warming legislation. What has that to do with scientists? Mooney and Nisbet are even telling scientists to change their messengers. I’m all in favor of enlisting nonscientists in the fight for better public awareness on scientific issues. But are scientists themselves expected to approach evangelical Christians and talk to them in religious terms? Are we expected to formulate business models for how people can make money off of global warming?

The fact is that scientists are especially ill-suited for the kind of work Mooney and Nisbet say needs to be done. Framing is all about condensing difficult issues into simple buzzwords and catchphrases meant to appeal to people’s emotions more than their intellect. Real science is all about subtlety and nuance and fine distinctions. People who are good at one tend not to be good at the other.

Allow me to close with an anecdote. When my brother and I were little, we used to joke that it was impossible to get a simple answer out of our father, a chemical engineer, about anything. We would ask him what we thought were simple questions requiring one sentence answers, and suddenly find ourselves on the receiving end of a fifteen minute lecture. Now I find myself doing the same thing. I routinely have students come to my office hours with what I’m sure they think are simple questions, only to find, twenty minutes later, that they’re still uncertain as to the answer. I try very hard to write short, concise blog entries, but rarely succeed.

And so it is with science popularization. If you need someone to lay out the facts, go to a scientist. If you need someone to boil everything down to a simple take-home message people will respond to, hire a marketing firm.


  1. #1 coturnix
    April 18, 2007

    Interesting food for thought. I am looking forward to Part II.

    You are right that some issue favour our side more than others. Still, that does not mean that we cannot sell other issues as well, or that we should not try to win over at least some potentially winnable minds.

    Also, I did not get the impressions that Matt and Chris are asking ALL scientists to participate. Some won’t for various reasons. Probably most would rather stay out of it and keep doing research and teaching. Others may already be involved in the greater Culture Wars against pseudoscience, religion and superstition and may be too well known from that arena to be appropriate messengers of pro-science message to particular audiences.

    I also do not get the impression that Matt and Chris are asking ONLY scientists to participate. But, wherever expertise is needed teh experts are scientists – it will be scinetists who are invited to testify in court or in front of Congress, or will be invited to explain stuff in the media. It would be nice if science writers or science journalists could do that as they are trained in communication, but they do not possess official expertise on the matter so they will not be invited. Unfortunately, most scientists are not trained in communication, especially to potentially hostile audiences (and no, as much as it may seem that way sometimes, our students are not potentially hostile audience). Look at you or me or Orac or a bunch of other science bloggers: thousands of words per blog post! That does not work. But, the idea is that a small number of scientists with the aptitude and enthusiasm for this GET communications training and be th eones who always go to explain the stuff to the media, congress and juries.

  2. #2 John
    April 18, 2007

    I’m not sure it is as simple as people always gravitate towards the happiest message. People seem to widely believe things like “you can’t let your kids play outside like when we were kids” or that violent crime is on the increase even though real stats are lower than the 70s for violence and stranger kidnappings. I don’t think it implies that people hope to be victims of violence.

  3. #3 JohnnieCanuck
    April 19, 2007


    You substituted ‘happiest’ for ‘appealing’. Put it back and you will be closer to Jason’s point.

    Back when, the media and authorities seemed to engage in a consensus of silence regarding abuse, sex and ‘perversions’. With the pendulum fully in the opposite direction, it is appealing to parents to be protective.

    Hairless apes did not evolve in an environment where accurate risk assessments and carefully nuanced responses to threats were valuable. This is an area where a competent ape designer could have done some good work…

    Once again, the advocate of reason has a disadvantage. After all, what kind of person tells people to put their children at risk of terrible things? Highly unlikely things maybe, but what, for example, would your mother in law say about you if harm did come and you hadn’t done everything possible?

    Quite often our emotions over-ride our intellects in ways that we hide from ourselves.

  4. #4 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 19, 2007

    You will probably be interested in Steve Case’s take on the whole matter.


  5. #5 John Farrell
    April 19, 2007

    I try very hard to write short, concise blog entries, but rarely succeed.

    I disagree. You succeed better than most, Jason. Just one of the reasons why you’re on my bloglines list.

  6. #6 paula
    April 19, 2007

    This is the best post on framing that I’ve read so far.
    However, I have a couple of questions for you. How do you explain the other half that buy the non-appealing message of global warming? In fact, part of the “marketing” technnique of environmentalists is selling the doom’s day scenario. How do you explain that in other countries the majority of people do buy evolution?
    …At last we’re talking about “the message” and real communication issues, and this is encouraging for the debate.

  7. #7 Larry Fafarman
    April 19, 2007

    The problem is not that Darwinism is hard for laypeople to understand and the problem is not that scientists are poor communicators. Darwinism is a mickey mouse idea that is easy to explain and understand — it is basically the idea that all forms of life were created by natural genetic variation and natural selection. And the problem is not that there are too many fundies out there — for example, most fundies reject the biblical idea that the earth is the center of the universe. The problem is that a large segment of the public does not find Darwinism to be plausible.

  8. #8 Ronald L. Cote
    April 19, 2007

    There is a certain irony in that, for decades,evolutionists have garnered exclusive rights to the public school classroom and they still can’t get their message across. Creationists, on the other hand, have been muzzled and their cause has not only survived, but is prospering. Could it be that the truth is prevailing?

  9. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 19, 2007


    Glad you liked the post.

    Concerning the relatively higher rates of acceptance of evolution and global warming in other countries, I think it’s largely due to cultural differences between the U.S. and most other Western countries. Organized religion is far more powerful here than it is in Europe. In particular, the sort of Protestantism that holds so much sway in the US seems considerably less powerful in other countries. The US has always been a very anti-intellectual country, more so than most of our European counterparts.

    As for people in this country who do accept things like evolution and global warming, I chalk it up to the fact that not everyone is a seething mass of emotion and religious biases.

  10. #10 itchy
    April 19, 2007

    Very good points, Jason. I still agree with much of what Mooney and Nisbet say. It’s certainly not black and white.

    Yes, the ID crowd has an easier sell, but they really have some slick marketing going.

    And, on the climate change side, An Inconvenient Truth is a powerful example of framing that has made a (relatively) big difference.


    With the pendulum fully in the opposite direction, it is appealing to parents to be protective.

    Wouldn’t that also apply to parents who don’t want their children to inherit a planet that is on the way to ruin?

  11. #11 bmkmd
    April 21, 2007


    I will frame my response as follows. Your future as a scientist/mathematician requires you to get the funding for education and research from somewhere, like the government or big business. you, or your agents, must adress this issue for there to be a future in our country for reason based science. You must pay attention to this “frame of reference.”

    Whatever the additional frames of reference be, they should be included in the scientific community’s intellectual and financial message to our country. This is inclussive, not exclusive. The more ways to get the message across the better.

    An excellent example of such framing was the 1950s nationalism and competitive spirit in America to catch up with the Russians that got funding and interest in rocket science.

    I think we need to get he message accross of our contry loosing out in international competition to countries with education systems where high schoolers study calculus at high percentages, like China. Frame it as a nationalistic challange which we dont’ want to loose.

    Its true, and in no way negates our efforts to just get the basic science done and understood.

  12. #12 Roland Schulz
    April 21, 2007

    Why do you write we have something less attractive to offer? I agree with Dawkins:
    “The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful does it appear.” I think the existing of humanity is even more fascinating understanding evolution and the existence of atoms becomes interesting by understanding QM. QM enables us to be existed about answer to questions we didn’t even know are questions (of our existence) before. Rising awareness of this beauty will help people to see science has actually more to offer.

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