Framing Science

A small yet very vocal contingent of critics continue to ferociously attack our Framing Science thesis.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are left wondering why.

Here are two observations posted today by fellow ScienceBloggers.

The immensely popular “Orac,” the nom de blog of a surgeon/scientist offers this interpretation:

I’ve concluded that a lot of issues underlying this kerfuffle may be the difference between the “pure” scientists and science teachers (like PZ and Larry Moran, for example), who are not dependent upon selling their science for the continued livelihood of their careers, and scientists like me, who are, not to mention nonscientist journalists and communications faculty (like Mooney and Nisbet), for whom communication is their career. As I’ve mentioned before, writing grants and giving scientific talks force scientists to “frame” their data all the time, to maximize their persuasive powers in the service of convincing their audience that their science is valid. Indeed, just presenting data in different formats involves framing, as Bora detailed so well. PZ and Moran, for example, appear no longer to have to sell their ideas to external granting agencies or suffer a severe hit to their careers, as far as I can tell.

Over at Uncertain Principles, a professor of physics suggests something even deeper:

The entire problem with “framing” is that Nisbet and Mooney are looking for the best way to promote science, while PZ and Larry are looking for the best way to smash religion. The goals are not the same, and the appropriate methods are not the same– in particular, Nisbet and Mooney argue that the best way to promote science would be to show a little tact when dealing with religious people, and that runs directly counter to the real goals of PZ and Larry.


  1. #1 Tony L
    April 18, 2007

    I’ve been quite disappointed with PZ’s “Either you’re with us or you’re with the appeasers” rhetoric. Not to mention his stubborn insistence on seeing framing as spin.

    Just a suspicion, but perhaps much of his over the top resistance stems from the likelihood that his day-to-day experience is either with very well educated students and faculty, or with extreme creationist types.

  2. #2 Kristjan Wager
    April 19, 2007

    Matt, have you considered addressing the criticism many of us have made of the lack of evidence for your claims about Dawkins in the Washington Post op-ed?
    Or actually try to engage in a dialogue, instead of talking about people “getting it” or refer to people as “candles in the dark”?
    In case you don’t realize it, that’s an incredible patronising way to talk about the rest of us who have some issues with your and Chris’ writing.

    Maybe you should try to link to some of the many good, scientific posts that are critical of the op-eds, and explain why you disagree/expand on your writing. As it is now, the only thing I can find on your blog is links to other blogs that agree with you. That’s nice, but doesn’t really address the concerns many have, and it’s actually pretty bad form, both in blogging and in science, to not at least link/refer to people who are critical of your views.

    I believe that you and Chris has an important point about communication, but to be honest I think it has been sold in a bad way, and that you in particular has been very bad at selling it, which is ironic considered your area of expertice.
    Coturnix and Orac have been better at explaining the idea of framing, and unlike you and Chris, they didn’t take any cheap, undocumented shots at one of the best-selling living science writers, who has, more or less single-handed, managed to reframe the entire debate about religion in the US.

    My suggestion would be that you and Chris start thinking about how to explain the method in a way that doesn’t involve a position (e.g. anti-religion is bad). In that way, you won’t turn people who disagree with your position away from the method.

  3. #3 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 19, 2007


    a) I’ve spent quite a good deal of time posting lengthy replies in the comment sections of PZ and Greg Laden’s blogs, plus I have probably posted “unique answers” in the comment section of at least ten other blogs, probably a lot more.

    b) Before that, figuring that people would actually want to read the literature in the area on framing and media influence, I sent probably a dozen people actual PDFs, and posted in a number of places the citations.

    c) Chris and I have linked to presentations I gave at AAAS HQ and at a senate briefing sponsored by the AMS that literally include dozens of slides depicting data on public opinion and further explains framing with examples. At Chris’ blog I wrote a 1000+ word response in the comments section to Ponderingfool on a “typlogy of frames” specific to science.

    d) At my blog, I wrote a lengthy post on “What the Discovery Institute Understands about Framing” that elaborates on all of our key points about framing and how it applies to the evolution debate. Did you read it? I would be interested in your thoughts.

    e) I’ve done an NPR interview, of which the transcript is available online, that further explains and contextualizes our view. I have other interviews forthcoming that directly address the Dawkins issue.

    f) I have tracked all of the blog commentary (for the most part) and at my blog highlighting the really stellar writing that further elaborates on our views.

    e) In Steve Case’s view, I try to bring readers beyond the very narrow slice of perspectives in the blog world, and offer the insight of someone actually on the frontlines every day trying to communicate this issue with a religious America.

    f) Further elaborating on our views, Chris and I are giving public presentations at major venues in the next month or so in DC and NYC, including the National Academy of Sciences, the annual meetings of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and the Center for American Progress (a think tank here in DC.) Video of at least one of these presentations will be posted online.

    g) As I have said all along, Chris and I will continue to roll up out argument and suggestions for communication at our blogs.

    On top of this, I am a full time professor, in the middle of teaching, advising thesis students, writing grants, and writing journal articles and book chapters in my academic specialty…

    And yes, as an expert in communication, I know that blogs are not a good medium to resolve what I see as an ideological divide in perceptions, as Uncertainty Principles aptly describes (and I therefore link to).

    In fact what blogs are good at is intensifying already held opinions and views. As I have written many times at my blog, people are cognitive misers, including scientists. They pay attention to and select from opinions with which they already agree. In this debate, like with the general public on stem cell, evolution etc, there are very powerful perceptual screens at play.

    So I am not sure what else I can do or have time to do. And to be honest, I have not really seen much serious minded criticism to respond to. I will weigh in where I see it, like in Greg Laden’s latest post.

    Otherwise, it is far more beneficial to move forward, rolling out the argument over time and in different venues. Even after all this, a small segment of people will never agree with us. And that’s okay.

    (PS Add this to list of lengthy replies I have posted on blogs. Now I need to get up to campus.)

  4. #4 PZ Myers
    April 19, 2007

    Ho hum. Neither Orac nor Chad are anywhere near the mark. I spend more of my time now trying to sell science than I ever did before, which is why I was initially looking forward to your articles and was so disappointed when I read them. I am looking for the best way to promote science; the problem that Chad overlooks is that everywhere I look in my discipline, the primary obstacle is religion. Apparently, though, it’s the one problem we’re never, ever supposed to address, because people have this automatic deferral to religious authority. How about if some of us work to end that, eh?

    We opponents have repeatedly stated our objections. Why do you ignore them to favor second or third hand guesswork?

    I am not dead set against better communication tools, and would welcome advice. My primary complaints from the very beginning were that 1) you haven’t explained how to use these nebulous frames in a way I can understand and use. 2) You have muddled up suggestions about how to communicate with what to communicate; a communication strategy that tells me I’m supposed to simply abandon a significant part of my message is useless to me. And 3) while telling us that we have to maintain a conciliatory tone to the religious community, you have taken an antagonistic tone to the atheist community; there’s some dissonance there that discredits your message, since apparently you aren’t going to practice what you preach.

    It’s nice that you’re leaving comments on other blogs. The problem is that none of those comments have actually answered any of our criticisms. Is it just easier to answer questions that some people imagine that we’ve asked? If you’re serious about trying to understand why we criticize, maybe you’d be best off paying attention to what we say are the basis of our criticisms, rather than what people who don’t share our views are claiming are our reasons.

  5. #5 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 19, 2007

    From the beginning, I have emphasized that our question is how to better engage the broader American public on science-related controversies by way of the media.

    I think you continue to confuse this goal with how you might speak about science in the classroom, to a small group of science enthusiasts at a science cafe, or how you or Dawkins might talk about science (and religion) to a small audience of people who are very interested in science or very interested in critiques of religion.

    To be honest there are a lot of long blog posts out there that don’t really offer up substantive criticism and just a lot of rhetoric and, yes, personal attacks.

    I’ve responded directly to your “WaPo Snake Oil” post at your blog, and when Greg Laden in his most recent post took a serious minded approach to what we were saying, I posted several comments in reply that address his and your concerns.

    I think (last I checked at least), what is going on at Greg’s blog is the type of discussion I was hoping for.

  6. #6 Orac
    April 20, 2007

    “Immensely popular”? Moi? I’m flattered, but I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. PZ, for example, routinely draws at least 6-8 times my traffic, and not all that long ago it was more like 10-20 times my traffic. Ed draws about double my traffic.

    I will, however, admit that, much to my surprise I seem to have one among the handful of most widely read medical blogs there are, at least as far as I can tell.

    I’ll take it.

  7. #7 Orac
    April 20, 2007

    Ho hum. Neither Orac nor Chad are anywhere near the mark.

    So where’d I miss?

    I’ll grant you that Larry is way more off-base than you are. (Indeed, I find it hard to believe that someone so smart can be so clueless about this one issue, even going so far as to happily spin when it suits his purpose to throw the “appeaser” or “Neville Chamberlain” label about–but not admitting that that’s what he’s doing.) That being said, you don’t seem to “get” the whole concept at an intuitive level. I don’t claim to be any great expert at it (and, indeed, I’m a much better writer than speaker. You’ve undoubtedly got me way beat there. Even so, I seem intuitively able to grasp the concept in a way that you seem not to, and perhaps the excessive verbiage even beyond my usual verbosity is because of the difficulty of explaining something I seem to grasp intuitively.

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