Ok, I give up. I’ve stayed out of the framing debate until now, but I just can’t take it anymore.
As much as I respect people like PZ and Larry Moran, the simple fact is: they’ve got it wrong. And not just them: there is a consistent problem with the political left in America when it comes to things like framing, and it’s a big part of why we’ve lost so many political battles over the last decade.
“Framing” is not spinning. And even the most vocal opponents of framing
are doing framing in their arguments. It’s unavoidable. Whether you like it or not, framing is an inescapable part of communication. Framing is, quite simply, a term for describing the way in which you present information or argument. If you’re communicating, that communication takes place in a frame. The people who advocate framing are
simply saying that it’s important to consider how you frame your arguments: that the way in which arguments and information are presented affects how they’re going to be received. It seems like an astonishingly obvious point – and I think that some of the pushback against it is really coming from people either trying to present it as if it were something deeper than that (on the “pro-framing” side of the debate), or people trying to interpret it as something deeper than that (on the “anti-framing” side of the debate.)
I’m going to start with a metaphor. I just changed jobs, so decoration around my desk is pretty sparse at the moment. The main thing I’ve got is a picture of my wife. A picture of my wife sitting on my desk means something. Anyone who sees that picture on my desk understands what it means and why it’s there. Suppose I took the picture, but instead of putting it on my desk, I put it on one of the side-tables in the conference room around the corner. Same picture – but would it mean the same thing anymore? No. Now people, when they see it, aren’t going to react to it by saying “Oh, there’s Mark’s picture of his wife”; they’re going to react by saying something like “What the heck is that picture doing in here?”. It means something different because of its environment.
Communication is always like that: the environment in which you are communicating affects the communication. The way in which information is presented affects the way in which it will be interpreted and understood. The same idea, the same information, can produce drastically different impressions on people depending on how it’s presented. Taking the time to think about the context in which you present information is worth the effort – because it can change the way that the information will be received.
This is something that the conservatives in American politics have been really good at. Sometimes it does amount to malicious spin: for example, discussions of the estate tax that call it “the death tax”. But sometimes, it’s just presenting information in a way that will set the interpretation of the information in the way that the presenter prefers. Look at virtually any debate over the last decade in American politics. The conservatives are constantly setting the terms of the debate, and the liberals are left arguing from a very weak position – because they refuse to acknowledge the importance of framing the debate, and by doing that,
wind up arguing within the frame created by the conservatives. Look at the debates about the Iraq war when it started – how the liberals completely caved to the warhawks. There was
absolutely no question from before the war started that the evidence being used to justify it was shaky at best, that the claims about how easy it would be were unsupportable nonsense, that the planning was totally inadequate. But the conservatives consistently pushed their framing of the facts: “We may not be sure that Saddam has WMD, but we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”. That statement contains the admission that they lacked evidence – but it sets the terms of the discussion. The correct response to that isn’t to accept that framing of the information, but to re-frame it to put the burden of argument back where it belongs – on the people who were trying to start a war.
As scientists, we face pretty much the same problem. There is a large, vocal, and powerful group of people who are opposed to the teaching of real science, who fight against public acceptance of what should be undeniable public facts. But all too often, we let them set the terms of the public debate. We act as though by simply dumping the facts out in the blandest possible way that we should win the debate, because the facts are on our side. But communication doesn’t work that way. If we blandly dump the facts, and some antiscience asshole argues passionately against them with a nonsensical but attractive argument, who’s going to win the debate? It won’t be the facts.
Even the most virulent anti-frame debaters in this whole
argument do actually agree with the pro-framing argument. For example, PZ has repeatedly
argued that we shouldn’t let outselves get drawn into “debates” with creationists:
Many scientists have a policy of refusing to grant creationists any credibility by sharing a podium with them (we will happily discuss science in the public arena, though … it’s just a waste of time to try to inform and educate with a kook lying and obfuscating next to you), so I can understand why the SMU professors aren’t going to bother with them. …
That, right there, is a framing argument: “It’s just a waste of time to try to inform and educate with a kook lying and obfuscating next to you” is just another way of saying “A setting where you have kook lying an obfuscating next to you is a poor frame for presenting educational information”.
The point – such as it is – is that framing isn’t something new that needs to be added to our communications. It’s already part of every communication. No matter how
we present information, the information is always framed. Even if we just had out CDs with raw data on them, we’re presenting the information in a frame. All communication is framed. The important thing is to recognize that how we present information is important, and that for many scientific subjects, the way that we present information
is incredibly ineffective, because we do such a poor job of framing the information.
One last example of what I mean. There shouldn’t be any debate about global warming anymore. The evidence is clear and overwhelming. But the anti-global warming people have been much more effective at communicating than the legitimate scientists have. They’ve managed to set the frame in which the discussion takes place – and by doing so, they’ve turned reality on its ear. The reality is that no legitimate scientist who’s studied the data has any doubt that global warming is a real phenomenon that we should be concerned about. But the common perception is that it’s an open debate with legitimate arguments on both sides. That common perception is due to our failure in framing. We’ve allowed the crackpots to frame the issue to their advantage, and by doing so, we’ve allowed the facts to be thoroughly obscured. And the biggest reason that we’ve allowed reality to be fuzzed to the point where there appears to be a legitimate debate is because we’ve considered framing
our arguments for laymen to be beneath us.