Framing Science

In an article in the Sunday Outlook section of the Washington Post, we advance the arguments offered in our Science Policy Forum commentary. We also respond directly to some of the questions raised over the last week at several blogs. For more, listen to this segment from NPR’s On the Media. Chris Mooney elaborates on the Post piece over at the Intersection.


  1. #1 devo
    April 14, 2007

    I was recently at a talk by a humanities chair who’s part of an NSF-funded project to study how science policy boards have recently been looking at classic literature to try and understand public perceptions of genetic research. At the talk, we briefly discussed whether literary texts might be seen as a useful set of potential frames — he said it hadn’t come up, to my surprise. I’ve posted recently about “framing” — a vocabulary I’m not super satisfied with — on my blog. I agree with your essential argument for the need to contextualize explanations using common and colloquial models; I just wonder why Lakoff is seen as the cornerstone (besides the term, “framing”).

  2. #2 coturnix
    April 14, 2007

    Actually, Matt comes from a different research tradition than Lakoff. I come from Lakoff and I am busuly trying to educate myself in the other traditions.

  3. #3 Ted
    April 14, 2007

    It is amazing that “scientists” (those are airquotes, not scarequote) need US government funding to help them communicate better. I would assume that most “scientists” have at least four years of post-HS education, although I suspect that most sneer down the nose at their peers unless it’s closer to eight or more.

    May I respectfully suggest that scientists can get out among the public to learn of the daily concerns of regular citizens. We can’t all be engaged in science 24×7 — America needs someone to run its infrastructure as well.

    I appreciate the fact that you and Mooney are attempting to influence public policy with the correct drivers, but we — the citizens — didn’t sign up for an oligarchy or some benevolent aristocracy. You need to convey public policy through us, with our political approval.

    Unfortunately, we’re all idiots that have a short attention span, so you’ll have that to work with.

  4. #4 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 14, 2007

    I agree with you. We need to engage and involve the public in decision making about science. That’s why, no matter where you stand philosophically, it makes no sense to attack religion when trying to bring together a pluralistic society to make collective decisions about global warming, biomedical research, school curriculum, energy policy etc.

    Our Science and WPost articles have been necessarily short, so we have only been able to explain framing as part of the tool kit for effective public engagement. In a recent column at Skeptical Inquirer Online, as you advocate, I discuss how communication can flow through average citizens by way of “science navigators” or opinion-leaders. Check it out. I would be interested in your thoughts.

  5. #5 Mark Frank
    April 15, 2007

    I agree with much of what you wrote in both articles but I am worried that by using technical language such as “framing” you may be creating a generation of scientists who are nervous, artificial and over-complex communicators.

    Framing is a subject that involves articles, books,careers and even rival schools of thought. (The Science article has resulted in as much discussion about what framing is, as about whether it is a good idea). It appears to be a complex, subtle and contentious subject. It is also the kind of social science concept which puts off many natural scientists.

    I can envisage scientists frantically reading up papers and books on framing and desperately hoping that they are framing their material properly. Or just as bad, scientists who think “this framing is all too difficult I had better avoid communicating”.

    Or perhaps all you really want is for scientists to communicate Science in a way that meets the interests of their target audience? But in that case do you need to call it framing? Why put it in the context (frame?) of an academic terminology and discipline? Communication is a practical skill. A few simple concepts, expressed in their own language, and the confidence they bring with them, will make an enormous difference to an inexperienced communicator.

  6. #6 quork
    April 15, 2007

    In the WaPo piece, you make the “Dawkins is aiding the Creationist cause because his atheism is offensive to believers, who after all are too stupid to differentiate” argument. Do you have evidence for this? Michael Ruse has made the same argument, and he backs it up with a quote from William Dembski. I hope your argument has a more solid foundation than taking Dembski at face value.

  7. #7 ponderingfool
    April 15, 2007

    When are you going to give examples on how to frame without being spin? Without playing into the biases of society? I think that would help. You are trying to address scientists. As you noted we like details. Give us details. The problem is you are not framing things properly for those scientists that wouldn’t already agree with you. Atheists were labeled as unAmerican during the 1950s. They rightly get nervous when you use an atheist who is outspoken to frame what you are trying to do. It does come across as using atheists and the fear of atheists to make yourself seem more legitimate & less scary. That is how it came across to me & to my girlfriend (non-scientist, Christian and a teacher). The worry there is it may backfire, you may feed the flames of intolerance not by design but by accident.

    Using Dawkins & Myers for your arguement was absurd. Dawkins and Myers are trying to mobolize secularists of all strips to stand up, to use reason and to fight back. It just isn’t about teaching evolution and global warming. They are out right fighting a revolution.

    To make your case you did not have to drag out the image of scary atheists. You choose to frame it this way for a reason which is my concern. What frames are you going to choose to use?

  8. #8 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 15, 2007

    Hi there Ponderingfool,

    In the left side bar of my blog, I have links to the full text of the Science article and the recent NPR interview. In both we provide specific examples of alternative frames that engage specific audiences. We do so similarly in the WPost piece.

    On climate change–> enviro stewardship
    On climate change–> public accountability/political wrong doing

    On stem cell–> social progress and medical advances
    On stem cell–> economic development

    On teaching evolution–> social progress and medical advances
    On teaching evolution–>public accountability/political wrong doing

    It’s all there. Each frame connects to a different targeted audience, an audience that might not traditionally pay attention to standard science coverage.

  9. #9 ponderingfool
    April 15, 2007

    Nisbet maybe I should clarify- give us the technical details. Where is the data that shows not just correlation but also causality? You are framing things to scientists as you would to the public which doesn’t make sense; as you have pointed out they are not the same.

    Also with the NPR article once again touched upon Dawkins, why? There is no reason to do that unless you are framing yourself against militant atheists. You talk about not getting into the conflict tendency of the media but you yourself give into it. You are playing on many people’s fears of such people. In the WaPo article why bring up Myers? Most of the audience won’t know who he is. Most people in science don’t know him. The labs I have worked in most certianly did not. What came across to me was once again framing yourself not being a militant atheist. That may not have been your intent butit is what you are tapping into.

    What subjective biases in society are you not going to play into? Racism? Sexism? Look what happened to Harold Ford in the last election. The Republicans played into the frames of white fearing blacks and women as sex objects. You talk about the short term and winning on important issues. Ok, but what is going to prevent you from taking things ot that level? The selection is to win. What is the counter selection to keep that from happening? Those biases are in all of us. You and Mooney are busy and appear about to become even busier. When rushing, the tendency is to make decisions by giving into the biases we have learned in society (Martell JApplSOcialPsych Vol221, 1991).

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