Framing Science

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I have a Policy Forum article appearing this week in the journal Science that is likely to spark a major debate. Co-authored with Chris Mooney and titled “Framing Science,” the themes covered will be familiar to readers of this blog.

In the piece, we respectfully argue that scientists shouldn’t blame politicians and journalists all the time for gridlock on issues like climate change, stem cell research, or evolution. Indeed, part of the problem is that scientists carry with them the wrong assumptions about what makes for effective communication.

More than sixty years of research in the social sciences suggests that something more than just always focusing on improving “science literacy” will be necessary to successfully engage the public. Given this challenge, scientists, without misrepresenting scientific information, must learn to shape or “frame” contentious issues in a way that make them personally relevant to diverse segments of the public, while taking advantage of the media platforms that reach these audiences.

In short, as unnatural as it might feel, sometimes the best way to communicate with the public is to avoid talking about the science and to go beyond traditional media outlets. In the article, we provide examples. Here’s a passage from our Science commentary that applies our argument on framing:

…as a debate over ‘intelligent design’ was launched, anti-evolutionists promoted ‘scientific uncertainty’ and ‘teach-the-controversy’ frames, which scientists countered with science-intensive responses. However, much of the public likely tunes out these technical messages. Instead, ‘public accountability’ frames that focus on the misuse of tax dollars, ‘economic development’ frames that highlight the negative repercussions for communities embroiled in evolution battles, and ‘social progress’ interpretations that define evolution as a building block for medical advances, are likely to engage broader support.

It’s likely that many will consider our article outright heresy, and prefer to just “stick to the facts” when it comes to public communication. Yet as we outline, once an issue becomes politicized and emerges as a partisan or religious debate, this strategy doesn’t work. Moreover, even as scientists remain “neutral communicators,” they come under increasing attack, with their authority and objectivity called into question.

The article derives from the research I have published over the past couple of years, and from thoughts accumulated at recent lectures I have given at venues in DC and other cities. Chris Mooney, as a science journalist and commentator, has arrived at similar observations.

Chris and I truly believe our message is urgent, since scientific topics will once again be pulled into the political crossfire in the context of the 2008 election.

So we are going on the road, making our argument in a number of upcoming multi-media lectures targeted towards the scientific community but also towards science advocates more generally. Some of these lectures in DC and New York are listed in the sidebar of my blog. Venues include the Center for American Progress, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the annual meetings of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

Expect many more to be scheduled soon, hopefully at your campus or in your city.

See round up of blog reaction.

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan Vause
    April 5, 2007

    But it IS the job of the scientist just to ‘stick to the facts’. If subjects like global warming or the teaching of evolution become polarised along political lines, surely it’s up to science-friendly politicians to ‘frame’ the presentation of the facts in order to win over public opinion – the real problem is how feebly the Democrats have reacted to Republican ruthlessness over the last few years. If you want scientists’ ‘authority and objectivity’ to take a real nose-dive, encouraging them to spin their public presentations sounds like a good way to go about it.
    Now I should probably go and read the article.

  2. #2 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 5, 2007

    Jon,
    What we are suggesting is not that scientists “frame” the details of the *scientific research* itself, but rather “frame” how they talk about the *issue.*

    For example, instead of always defining global warming as a scientific issue with a focus on science-laden messages about where consensus and uncertainty exists, the scientific community needs to also start providing “frames” or interpretations of global warming that make it personally meaningful to audiences who otherwise may not care that much about the science.

    Here’s a great example:

    The “creation stewardship” frame activates attention and interest from Evangelicals on the issue of global warming, perhaps mobilizing some to seek out “science rich” information sources like the science coverage at a major newspaper or the executive summary of the IPCC report.

    But for the great majority of Evangelicals, the fact that global warming can be perceived as a religious and moral concern–joining abortion, gay marriage, and poverty as issues they should care about–is good enough for them.

    That’s the power and influence of framing when it resonates with an individual’s social identity. It plays on human nature by allowing a citizen to make up their minds in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion. It’s definitely not the scientific or democratic ideal, but it’s how things work in society.

    In a special section of my blog, I have begun to more fully develop the ideas from our Science piece. Toward the tail end, you will see it is still a work in progress, but it will be complete soon.

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/contact.php

  3. #3 Roger Pielke, Jr.
    April 5, 2007

    Well done guys!

  4. #4 bob koepp
    April 5, 2007

    To press the example of framing global warming as a “creation stewardship” issue…

    It can help to frame “environmental” issues in this manner when addressing evangelicals, to speak the language of the natives, as it were. But if they happen to be skeptical about the scientific basis of claims about what good stewardship requires, framing won’t get them to where you want them to be. You’ll still have to persuade them that your view of the “state of creation” represents a challenge to good stewardship.

    No matter how wisely you choose your frames, you still need to tell a persuasive story about the “facts of the matter” that fill those frames with scientific content.

  5. #5 Kristina Chew
    April 5, 2007

    I eagerly look forward to reading the aritcle in full. The “disconnect” that you describe here is a real problem in regard to autism: Proponents of a vaccine-autism link seem always to be able to get media attention, while the complexities of genetic and other research is quickly and briefly reported and passed over. I am a literary scholar by training and what you describe as “framing” seems very much to me the sort of “focusing” and “finding a good angle” I encourage students to do in constructing a thesis. The level of misunderstanding and distortion in regard to science in autism discussions is not small, and more reasonable and carefully presented reporting is much needed.

  6. #6 tristero
    April 5, 2007

    As a layman who’s always interested in reading about science, I understand your point and I suppose you’re not wrong.

    But truly, I don’t think it’s a working scientist’s job to explain anything outside his field of expertise. What does PZ Myers know about politics, or care? It’s his job to do and teach science. Let the pr flacks frame the issue.

    As for Dawkins, he actively courts controversy, and in some sense thrives on it. Clinton has been targeted by the rightwing smear machine. They are not comparable so let’s leave her out of it.

    Instead, Dawkins is more like Malcolm X. Martin Luther King once said about him, “[Malcolm] took my wife aside, and said he thought he could help me more by attacking me than praising me. He thought it would make it easier for me in the long run.”"

  7. #7 PZ Myers
    April 6, 2007

    You know, you’re right about the audience for Dawkins’ science books: small, maybe important to that group, but not necessarily extending their reach much beyond that. But if you’re going to emphasize this framing thing, I don’t see how you can belittle The God Delusion. With that book he blasted his way into the public discourse…housewives and students and business people talk about it. It’s discussed in churches. He was doing exactly what you suggest, addressing issues that people personally care about, rather than esoterica.

    When you disparage it here, what you are doing is poisoning your suggestions about how to better reach a wider audience with your personal biases about what scientists should tell the public. It is not our business to serve up palatable pablum.

  8. #8 Kristjan Wager
    April 6, 2007

    I must admit that I can’t really see why it is the scientists’ job to convince the Evangelicals. They are a fringe movement, and trying to frame the debate on their premises will only lead the Evangelical deniers more influence.

    As a matter of fact, the very reason why the US is dominated by the fringe movements, like the Creationsists, is exactly because the debate is happening on their framework. In other countries, where their sort of arguments are rightfully dismissed as lacking scientific merit, there is no such debates.

  9. #9 Curtis
    April 6, 2007

    I believe that another critical problem with science communication to the public is that the scientific community doesn’t have a leader. There is no common voice. This lack of leadership makes it difficult to “frame the science” consistently or most effectively. Even if some experts have decided how to “frame the science” they may not be the ones featured on the evening news or quoted in the paper.

  10. #10 Coin
    April 9, 2007

    But if you’re going to emphasize this framing thing, I don’t see how you can belittle The God Delusion. With that book he blasted his way into the public discourse…housewives and students and business people talk about it. It’s discussed in churches. He was doing exactly what you suggest, addressing issues that people personally care about, rather than esoterica.

    But, of course, The God Delusion is not science, or a book about science. The God Delusion doesn’t advance science, and only really relates to science to the extent that, kinda like that Collins book, it tries to use the scientific credentials and perspective of the author as a wedge to advance some external political/religious agenda.

    If we’re having a discussion about the better presentation of science to the public, and as far as I can tell we are, then a book which attempts to present better atheist perspectives on religion to the public is wholly irrelevant to this discussion. Maybe, as you seem to be saying, The God Delusion incidentally is a great example of framing. But if so, it’s still irrelevant here because it is an example of framing religion, not framing science. It is highly improbable that science and religion are most effectively framed the same way.

  11. #11 Dr Rob Marchant
    April 10, 2007

    I’ve just read the ‘Framing Science’ article in Science. As a former scientist – and sometime science communicator – I’ve truly despaired at the way many scientists here in the UK ? and I suspect also in other countries, including the USA ? approach communication and continue to pursue methods/approaches which have clearly proven ineffective and inappropriate many times in the past. It seems to me that many (most?) scientists still follow the mantra that ‘to know science is to love it’ – this results in a lot of scientists still approaching their communications around the principle that providing the public with scientific facts will make them more accepting of the science (and the scientists) – an assumption that rigorous academic and practical study has shown to be wrong many times over.

    Previously I was a biotech researcher working on a prominent plant genetic engineering project, and here in the UK there was a major furore about GM in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In my (humble) opinion one of the major problems with this debate was the way in which my fellow scientists insisted on ‘sticking to the scientific facts’ when clearly the press, public and others wanted to contextualise and frame the debate in terms of politics, who’s funding the work, corporate greed, role of Monsanto and other major corps, risk to the local environment and so on. In effect the outcome of all of this effort was effectively just a ‘clash of the frames’ – and some very entrenched views on both sides of the debate. Alas, I’m not sure much has changed in the years since.

  12. #12 Pondering Fool
    April 10, 2007

    The “creation stewardship” frame activates attention and interest from Evangelicals on the issue of global warming, perhaps mobilizing some to seek out “science rich” information sources like the science coverage at a major newspaper or the executive summary of the IPCC report.

    But for the great majority of Evangelicals, the fact that global warming can be perceived as a religious and moral concern–joining abortion, gay marriage, and poverty as issues they should care about–is good enough for them.

    That’s the power and influence of framing when it resonates with an individual’s social identity. It plays on human nature by allowing a citizen to make up their minds in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion. It’s definitely not the scientific or democratic ideal, but it’s how things work in society.
    *************

    So basically scientists should focus on winning the battle if it means losing the war? I am sorry encouraging such ignorant decision making is only creating in the long term an environment that is hostile to science. Without the threat of revolutionairies, liberals are not worth much. Scientists should become more militant and less hidden. Yes you should know your audience but pandering is not the way to go. And yes the example you gave is pandering. You may accept the world as it is but not all of us do.

  13. #13 Kenneth Fair
    April 13, 2007

    bob koepp:

    It can help to frame “environmental” issues in this manner when addressing evangelicals, to speak the language of the natives, as it were. But if they happen to be skeptical about the scientific basis of claims about what good stewardship requires, framing won’t get them to where you want them to be. You’ll still have to persuade them that your view of the “state of creation” represents a challenge to good stewardship.

    Why are they skeptical to begin with? It’s because the only people that have been talking to them in a language they understand are the hucksters. So of course they’re skeptical. It’s not that framing the arguments better won’t work, it’s merely that the hucksters have a head start.

    And yeah, we won’t convince everyone. So what? Even if we could only peel off, say, 10% of evangelicals to support action on climate change, that’s still a large number of people. In some locations, the “conventional wisdom” on climate change would be shifted; in others, the message could at least be given a hearing rather than being dismissed outright.

    Sometimes I long for the olden days when “rhetoric” was considered a standard part of a university education rather than something to be shunned.

  14. #14 Thought Provoker
    April 14, 2007

    As an American with reasonable scientific knowledge and passing exposure to the science field (relatives with PhD’s and a daughter finishing hers) I can empathize with scientist’s plight.

    I am torn between agreeing with what is right versus what is necessary. “Framing” a debate/issue isn’t a problem for me. Communicating a message in today’s noisy environment practically requires it. I am more concerned about the message itself. I am very uncomfortable with scientists trying to manipulate policy using artificial messages. It is too close to “the end justifies the means”.

    It is more than an ethics problem. The final message must be about science; otherwise more people will view science as optional. Even if an “economic development” frame is true, science loses if that is the only message received. That is too high of a long-term cost for a short-term win.

    In summary. It’s ok to use scantily-clad dancing girls with bright shiny teeth to explain that fluoridation helps prevent tooth-decay. It’s is not ok to leave out the tooth-decay part and substitute it with a more attractive “helps you get laid” frame.

  15. #15 Caroline Ailanthus
    September 9, 2010

    It is the job of SCIENCE to stick to the facts, but no SCIENTIST is only and purely a scientist. Individual scientists are also parents, siblings, patrons of restaurants…and informed citizens. Unless he or she has a job that ethically requires political neutrality, a scientist is free to take a hand in interpreting the science to the public, including framing relevant political messages. In fact, some scientists have jobs that expressly include such involvement.

    If you’re already talking about “strategies” for influencing the public in any way, even if it’s only through fostering science literacy, than you’ve already abandoned neutrality and become an actor on the stage of policy to some degree. And you should do a good job of it.

    Which is to say I agree with you completely.

  16. #16 pv solar panels
    July 2, 2011

    I also think it is best for scientists to stick to the facts, because for example, the medical doctors would be more incompetent than they are now, if they wouldn’t stick to the facts. Now, don’t stick to the same facts all your life. Of course, you need to evolve as much as possible. That is also a big problem, that many people don’t want to develop and work harder.