Framing Science

Over at the blog Nanopublic, Dietram Scheufele, a professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin, has posted a very useful discussion of our Science Policy forum article.

Scheufele, one of the most widely cited scholars on framing and the media, recently co-edited a special issue on the subject at the Journal of Communication. I encourage readers to check out Scheufele’s blog post, along with his article in the special issue of JoC.

I also encourage readers to check out the following study published at Public Opinion Quarterly by Vince Price, Lilach Nir, and Joe Capella at the University of Pennsylvania. The literature review is perhaps the best introduction to research on framing and media influence. Moreover, the innovative research design incorporates the strengths of experimental, focus group, and survey methods. As I’ve discussed with several colleagues, this type of design might be uniquely suited for evaluating how media frames and interpersonal conversations shape public opinion about controversial areas of science.

Comments

  1. #1 Tony Lee
    April 11, 2007

    Thanks professor. You’ve just provided me with an invaluable reading list for my lit review. Awesome!

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    April 12, 2007

    Matt,

    Hey, your buddy just called me “lame” for spelling your name wrong, and he’s right. I apologize. I’ve known a lot more Nesbits than Nisbets so it just came out wrong a couple of times … but I should note that on my last post on my own site, I worried about the name so I looked somewhere to check that I had it right … not your site, not my site, somewhere else that happen to be convenient. And duely entered that spelling into my spell checker. But it was wrong, and I’m very sorry that happened.

    But that aside, I want to talk about this a little bit. I posted a question that I think is key to the debate on Mooney’s site, please have a look at that if you get a chance.

    I think the gay marriage study is a good paper for people to read. It includes a very good overview of the theoretical background and if it is as you say, a good example of the practice, it would be helpful to use this study as a reference point.

    There are a lot of details of this study beyond what can be discussed in a comment, but I want to pose a question to you based on it:

    In this study, different online groups of people are assembled with distinct political makeup (conservative, liberal, mixed. The groups were given one of two “scripts” to “frame” the discussion. The two scripts were designed to potentially elicit different conversations, the differences being responsive to certain cues that could affect opinion, but presented in a “fair and balanced” format in the sense that one “side” of the debate was not given priority.

    One could argue about the nature of these prompts in other ways, and maybe it would have been good to do more different wordings, but that is not the point I want to make here, and to ask you to respond to.

    Here are key phrases from each of the two treatments. Upper case indicates the most important phrases:

    Treatment A:
    civil union
    gay couples
    gay or lesbian
    parthership
    EQUAL RIGHTS

    Treatment B:
    marrige for homosexuals
    marriages recognized legally
    homosexual marriage undermines an
    important institution
    SPECIAL RIGHTS

    The study showed not very much effect at the large scale. Many of the usual elements one would expect in a discussion of this issue were brought into the discussion regardless of the framing. But there seem to have been some very large differences in the discourse depending on which way the framing was done. In (what I’m calling) Treatment A group, you have people saying things like “I think homosexuals are sick” … “It is a sin…” while in Treatement B, where the issues if framed as an equal rights problem, you get things like “Homosexuals are citizens of the US, they should have the same rights” and “I’m sorry that is one thing I can’t agree with…”

    The analysis in the paper is much more detailed than this, of course. The biggest effects, if I’m reading this correctly, was still the basic initially determined political orientation of the subjects, but framing effects are claimed. I’m going to assume they are right and not attempt here any kind of critique of the analysis …

    In fact, the exact nature of the effect is not what one might desire if you were marketing gay marriage … but let’s just assume for the moment that framing “worked.”

    Here is my question. Look at these two lists of terms. The differences could be thought of as profound. There is a very large difference, in terms of constitutional law and political meaning, between civil vs. special rights. This may be a large as the difference between the following two statements about evolution:

    “Evolutionary theory explains the diversification of life and the range of adaptations we see today, but the origins of life remain as yet explained. However, there are strong indications that the origin of life involved a sequence of steps involving naturally forming amino acids, some early form of sel-replicating molecule which may have been RNA or may have been simple proteins, followed by increasing degrees of organization and differentiation until eventually cells emerge.”

    VS.

    “Evolutionary theory explains the diversification of life and the range of adaptations we see today, but the origins of life have not been explained by research, and likely cannot be. The proposition, made by many religious scholars, that God ‘started’ life, setting it up with basic rules, is reasonable and is likely to remain so”

    One could argue that these two propositions about evolution are of roughly similar magnitude in difference between the “Civil rights” vs. “Special Rights” arguments. In any event, this evolutionary distintion could be the basis for framing the public discourse on evolution. Keep the NeoDarwinian Theory for everything after the origin, but have the scientific community recognize the possibility of god in the origin.

    Am I wrong? Is it possible that if the NSF/NIH etc. hired you and some of your colleages as consultants, and this distintion was shown to work really well … where the second statement above tested by research was shown to be a strong and effective “Public Discourse Frame Manipulation” … that this is what you would recommend?

    I think this is the concern many people have expressed. Others may correct me on this, but that is how I read it.

    I’ve tried to put this concern firmly in the context of the kind of research that you have explicitly said (and I think quite correctly) is central to your approach and overall well done. This question, then, is not about the side show we’ve been experiencing about the history of research, or if someone is a mental dwarf or a mental giant! I eagerly await your comments and the beginning of a productive discussion.

    Cheers,

    Greg Laden

  3. #3 Larry Moran
    April 12, 2007

    As I mentioned over on Scheufele’s blog, the issue is not about wether there’s an extensive literature on framing. Of course there is. There’s also an extensive literature on all other forms of argument, including propaganda.

    The issue isn’t whether “framing” is an effective way to argue in a polemical discussion. Of course it is. The Creationists use it very effectively and so do many other groups I oppose.

    The issue is whether scientists should deliberately use “framing” when they’re explaining science to the general public. I say no.

    Whether or not you agree, there’s one thing that’s quite clear. Neither you or Mooney has done a good job of explaining what you actually mean when you criticize scientists and science writing. This goes for Scheufele and everyone else. All of you are whining about being misunderstood.

    This is extremely ironic since you all claim to be experts in how to “frame” your personal opinions in order to be more convincing to your intended audience. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

  4. #4 ponderingfool
    April 12, 2007

    With Scheufele, I have the same concerns that were raised by your statement regarding frames “allowing a citizen to make up their minds in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion.”

    He said with regards to Stem Cell ads and in a positive light near as I can tell:
    “And the strategy of recasting opponents of expanded stem cell funding as anti-science and anti-life may very well work on November 7. But more importantly, these attempts to establish one frame over another are good indicators of what we can expect for future debates about emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology.

    And they highlight a key aspect of successful communication. Neither proponents nor opponents of stem cell research build their arguments on scientific information. What they rely on are heuristics or cognitive shortcuts that will allow voters to make decisions without understanding the obvious complexities surrounding the issues. And it doesn’t matter if these shortcuts are based on religious beliefs, celebrity, or personal hopes. Packaging matters … regardless of which side of the issue you’re on.”

    I have no doubt these strategies of framing in such a matter work and are shortcuts from other ways of engaging the public. The question/concern I have is what are the unintended consequences of using such shortcuts? Is this the type of world we want to live in? Isn’t it fair easier to play into biases people have (such as racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc)? To play on fears? Where is the line that you are drawing that you won’t cross? What is the selection to keep framers from crossing those lines?

  5. #5 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 12, 2007

    Greg,
    I appreciate the comment, since it is the type of serious engagement with framing and media influence that I hope would come out of our Science piece. I literally have been swamped with work all week, and hope to get back with a reply soon.

    Best,
    Matt

  6. #6 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 12, 2007

    Greg,
    Here’s a question. When you think about the goals of engaging with the public on the topic of evolutionary science (biology) etc….what are your goals?

    On the matter at hand, our Policy Forum piece included in part a focus on the question of how can the scientific community (science advocates, institutions etc) engage a devout American public, by way of the media, on the political issue of teaching evolutionary science, and only evolutionary science, in public schools?

    We argue that one thing *not* to do is to attack their religious beliefs.

    Moreover, in defining the issue, you have to connect to a core identity or value that activates support for kids actually learning about evolutionary science in science class. In other words, why should the average American care? Why not, as Bush framed it, let kids learn all sides and make up their minds?

    *In other words, why is evolutionary science, and only evolutionary science, so important to teach?*

    That’s why we suggest in the piece an emphasis on evolutionary science as a building block for medical advances, or the public accountability frame that came out of the Dover case…that a particular group of religious conservatives had taken control of the school board and tried to push their one religious view on a community of diverse faiths, and that’s wrong.

    Both of this interpretations remain true to the science, but are far more effective with the wider (disinterested) public than constantly hammering away at the scientific basis of evolution. Not ideal, but political reality.

    We probably share a lot of overlap philosophically, but differ as to the best communication strategy on the political issue of teaching evolution in schools.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Hopefully we can start a productive conversation in this comment section where others can similarly join in.

    Though I warn you, I don’t know how you and others do it. I’m not sure if I can keep up with the frequency of your posts!

  7. #7 Larry Moran
    April 12, 2007

    Matthew Nisbet asks,

    Here’s a question. When you think about the goals of engaging with the public on the topic of evolutionary science (biology) etc….what are your goals?

    My first goal is to make sure they understand the science of evolutionary biology and the evidence that supports evolution. My second goal is to convince them that religious beliefs do not trump science.

    On the matter at hand, our Policy Forum piece included in part a focus on the question of how can the scientific community (science advocates, institutions etc) engage a devout American public, by way of the media, on the political issue of teaching evolutionary science, and only evolutionary science, in public schools?

    I’m not interested in that since I believe that we should teach creationism in schools. It’s the best way to show children that it can’t stand up to science in a head-to-head battle. In other words, I favor teaching the controversy.

    We argue that one thing *not* to do is to attack their religious beliefs.

    I disagree. Religion is the problem and it needs to be discussed openly. Fortunately Richard Dawkins didn’t listen to your advice so we now have a healthy debate involving atheists.

    Moreover, in defining the issue, you have to connect to a core identity or value that activates support for kids actually learning about evolutionary science in science class. In other words, why should the average American care? Why not, as Bush framed it, let kids learn all sides and make up their minds?

    Right. Why not? What do evolutionists have to be afraid of?

    *In other words, why is evolutionary science, and only evolutionary science, so important to teach?*

    It isn’t. We should also teach the most popular pseudosciences and show where they fail. The reason why children need to learn about good science is because it represents the truth about the natural world. It’s always better to believe in what’s correct than in superstitious nonsense.

    That’s why we suggest in the piece an emphasis on evolutionary science as a building block for medical advances ….

    America has made tremendous advances in medical sciences in spite of the fact that the general public is scientifically illiterate. Thus, it appears that the absence of evolution in the schools has no effect on medical advances. In all honesty I could not say otherwise because that would be lying. Lying may not bother you but it bothers me.

    When I hear people making incorrect arguments I will call them on it whether it’s an evolutionist or a creationist.

    Both of this interpretations remain true to the science, but are far more effective with the wider (disinterested) public than constantly hammering away at the scientific basis of evolution. Not ideal, but political reality.

    If “political reality” means saying thing s that I believe to be untrue then count me out.

    We probably share a lot of overlap philosophically, but differ as to the best communication strategy on the political issue of teaching evolution in schools.

    No, actually I think we differ substantially. You want me (and Greg) to spin things the way you see them. You don’t seem to care whether we agree with your spin or not. Is that what framing is all about? Does political expediency trump integrity?

    I’ll let you in on a little secret. Not all scientists think alike. We don’t all agree with your particular spin on this issue. I’m surprised that you don’t know this.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Hopefully we can start a productive conversation in this comment section where others can similarly join in.

    The most important question is whether it’s permissible for a scientist to promote arguments that they personally disagree with in order to convince the general public to go along with a particular point of view. I say no.

  8. #8 coturnix
    April 13, 2007

    Larry – how many times can you hear, yet not hear, that there is no need to lie? That framing is opposite of spinning? Or that education takes too much time for urgent policy matters? Or that everyone agrees that education is a part of a long-term strategy? Or that many people will not allow to be educated? Or that pounding on religion – an important activity on its own – should be kept seperate from short-term persuasion of voters? Or that different people should do different things, i.e., you teach biochemistry and pounce on religion, while someone else persuades the ‘softies’ to vote for stem cell research, while someone else drags soft creationists a step towards evolution (where you can come in and teach them more once they become receptive to your teaching)?

  9. #9 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 13, 2007

    Larry,
    Thank you for that comment. I have a much better understanding of your position now. I hope Greg can also respond.

  10. #10 Trinifar
    April 13, 2007

    Larry, I don’t see where anyone is suggesting scientists should lie or “spin” (as in talking deceptively). When you suggest that’s the case it’s really difficult to take you seriously.

  11. #11 Larry Moran
    April 13, 2007

    Trinifar asks,

    Larry, I don’t see where anyone is suggesting scientists should lie or “spin” (as in talking deceptively). When you suggest that’s the case it’s really difficult to take you seriously.

    I guess you didn’t read what I wrote. Why is this so hard to understand?

    Nisbet tells me that I should not attack religion. I think he’s wrong so if I were to follow his advice I would be behaving in a manner contrary to what I think is right. I think religion is the problem and I’m not about to ignore the hippo in the room.

    Nisbet suggests that we should oppose “teach the controversy.” I’m in favor of teaching the controversy so if I were to adopt Nisbet’s “framing” I would be lying.

    Nisbet tells me to emphasize how teaching evolutionary biology advances medical science. I don’t think it does–at least not in the sense he claims. If I were to adopt Nisbets “framing” I would have to lie.

    The problem is that “framing” is subjective. Everyone has their own ideas on how a particular argument should be framed and it’s based on what they think is the truth. I happen to think that Nisbet is wrong about a lot of his points.

    Furthermore, in some cases we recognize what the other side wants to hear but that does not mean we have to slant our message toward that bias. Just because our opponents don’t want to hear religion being challenged, for example, does not mean that we should avoid the topic. If that’s what Nisbet and Mooney want us to do then I’m having no part of it.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    April 16, 2007

    I answer your questions here:

    http://gregladen.com/wordpress/?p=709

    I have two goals.