Framing Science

The Discovery Institute have a blog post up commenting on our WPost Outlook article.

Given this latest response to our Framing Science thesis, I wanted to take time out from an incredibly busy week to once again describe framing and its implications for successful science communication.


As I have noted and Coturnix so eloquently describes, in the process of communication, you can’t avoid framing. Scientists do it all the time in lab talk, in conference papers, in powerpoints, in journal articles, and in grant applications.

However, as the communication process passes to science writers, given the different messengers and the intended lay audience, the level and nature of framing also shifts. This is commonly referred to as “science popularization.”

Generally, re-interpretations by science writers remain true to the science and also heavily science focused. Indeed, science writers do an amazing job of being the conduit between scientists and the small audience of enthusiasts who pay close attention to science-related coverage.

Yet something different happens when areas of science emerge as a political issue, and it is this process that I have spent most of my research career studying.

It is when science shifts to the political beat, the opinion pages etc. that new frames (or interpretations) emerge and new voices are given standing in coverage. These new and sometimes rival voices strategically craft frames that feed on the biases of political reporters, columnists, cable news hosts and their respective audiences.

As Chris Mooney and I describe in a 2005 cover story for the Columbia Journalism Review, this is exactly what the Discovery Institute managed to do so successfully,

The Discovery Institute used framing to “spin” the science in ways that cut against the peer-reviewed literature and the overwhelming consensus of scientists.

For some critics of our suggestions, this is what they argue, that framing means losing scientific integrity. Yet they also miss a key point. Framing doesn’t have to mean accenting false information and interpretations.

In this sense, framing is like nuclear energy. It can be used to further social progress or it can be used to promote disaster. It depends who’s hands it is in. What we and others like Dietram Scheufele are suggesting is that scientists take advantage of what we know about how audiences interpret messages across our fragmented media system and use this knowledge to more effectively engage the broader American public.

Scientists should remain true to the underlying science, but recast messages about issues such as climate change, the teaching of evolution in schools, and stem cell research in ways that make them more personally meaningful to Americans who otherwise probably tune out the scientific details.

In framing, if you go beyond the science, things can backfire, as we describe in the original Science piece and at the Washington Post. There we detail how claims that global warming causes more intense hurricanes have led to a counter strategy by conservatives that asserts “alarmism,” another frame device.

The result is that it becomes very easy for citizens to just default to their partisanship as a short-cut in making up their minds about the issue. That’s why we have a 40-50 point difference in polls on how Republicans and Democrats view the science and the urgency of the issue.

And this leads back to our central argument: If scientists don’t effectively provide readily available heuristics that remain true to the science, then someone else will. Opponents and allies alike will take advantage of framing to promote their preferred science-related policies. In political coverage, at the opinion pages, in television advertising, and the cable news shows, scientists will literally be ceding their important role as communicators to others. AND this is exactly what happened in the early years of the ID-creationism debate.

Moreover, one of the reasons why a coordinated response to the Discovery Institute was so slow to develop was that there just wasn’t enough appreciation among science advocates for how framing could be used to play on the cognitive biases of the public and the fragmented nature of our conflict-driven media system.

We assumed that the facts would simply win out, without any real attempt to sell those facts. Most of us thought that surely, in today’s world, after so many court victories, “creationism 2.0″ would never be accepted as an alternative to the building block for so many advances in the medical and life sciences.

We were wrong. The Discovery Institute, through careful tailoring and targeting of their message, literally created a public perception wedge, casting intelligent design as the “middle way,” the scientifically “good enough” compromise between teaching “atheistic evolution” and constitutionally unacceptable biblical doctrine.

I talk in detail about this in a past special issue of Geotimes. Here’s what I wrote back in 2005 (the co-author is my brother Erik, doctoral candidate at Cornell and assoc. director of the survey center):

At one level, balanced coverage plays on the Christian evangelical outlook held by roughly a third of Americans. These citizens, as an average tendency, use their religious values, cues from religious leaders and their strong belief in the veracity of biblical scripture as a screen in interpreting news coverage, selecting and accepting only those pro-ID arguments available in the media that reinforce their natural reservations about evolution. Unfortunately, any change in the views of this committed minority is probably generations away.

For other Americans, however, support for teaching alternatives to evolution stems in part from a lack of appreciation for the strong scientific consensus backing evolutionary theory. To use an analogy from election campaigns, these citizens are the swing vote or “persuadables” in the communication battle over evolution. Their lack of understanding connects to a well-intentioned, but, in this case, misguided sense of democratic pluralism: no specific belief, no matter how scientific, can be the complete answer, and therefore all beliefs should be included and respected.

Confusion about the scientific dimensions of the controversy is also likely linked for some citizens to growing reservations about the impact of science on daily life. These concerns may include increased anxiety about the speed of technological change and the perception of an increasingly technocratic, expert-dominated society.

Emerging from these orientations is a populist view that teaching both evolution and ID makes sense. “Low-information pluralists” believe rightly that students should be exposed to multiple points of view, and be allowed to make up their own minds. However, in this particular case, where they are misguided is in believing that ID passes both the scientific and the legal standards necessary to allow inclusion in science textbooks and teaching standards. If these citizens accept ID as being scientifically legitimate, then it is easier for them to additionally accept the paired argument from ID supporters that the issue is fundamentally about enabling local control of education and about respecting a diversity of beliefs.

Lacking both the time and the motivation to be fully informed about the debate, these low-information citizens remain heavily dependent on only the arguments most readily available in news coverage; if many journalists therefore increasingly paint evolution and ID as dueling and competing scientific viewpoints, then public opinion is likely to move in favor of altering science standards.