I’m going to jump into the framing wars again. As I mentioned last time,
I think that most folks who are “opposed” to framing really don’t understand what they’re talking about – and I’ll once again explain why. But on the other hand,
I think that our most prominent framing advocates here at SB are absolutely
terrible at it – and by their ineptitude, are largely responsible for
the opposition to the whole thing.
Suppose you’re watching an interview with a writer, and the writer says something like: “I don’t believe in style. I don’t write with any style
at all – I just write. All those people who talk about writing styles are just full of crap.”. Is what the writer is saying making any sense at all?
I’m saying no, it doesn’t. A writer might not be paying attention to their writing style. They might not be deliberately trying to write in a particular style. They might not care what kind of writing style they use. But everything
they write is written in some style. You can’t write something that
doesn’t have any writing style – in fact, it’s pretty much meaningless
to say that you don’t write in any style at all. Style is an attribute of every piece of writing.
Framing is something similar. It’s an intrinsic attribute of every piece of
communication. You can’t communicate without framing your communication. Everything you say is said in some context, expressed in some style. You can’t not frame. Anyone who says that they aren’t framing is either (a) clueless, or (b) lying.
The point of thinking about framing is similar to the point of thinking about
style. For example, when I write my blog, I’m very careful about style. If I were to write these articles in the same style that I use to write a technical paper for publication in a conference, no one would ever read this blog. If I were to write a technical paper in the style that I use for my blog, it would be rejected. I need to chose the right style for the right audience.
Similarly, when I’m writing my blog, I do think about how I’m framing my
arguments. When I write about why I think category theory is valuable, I’m going
to frame the argument very differently from how I frame an argument about Michael Egnor’s latest bullshit.
That’s the point of talking and thinking about framing. By recognizing that
the way a piece of communication is framed affects the way that that communication will be received, I can choose the most appropriate way of expressing it for
the point I want to make, and the audience I want to make it to. Once again, it’s
very similar to the idea of style: style is an intrinsic attribute of all writing. You can’t write with no style at all – that just doesn’t mean anything. But when you recognize the idea of style, and think about it, you can become a more effective writer, by harnessing style to express yourself in the most effective
way for what you’re writing.
The problem with framing is pretty much the same as the problem with style. Framing and style are both meta-concerns – they’re not the primary goal of communication; they’re part of the way you express communication. If you become obsessed with the meta-concerns to the exclusion of the primary concern, you end up with pointless dreck. Just look at some of the dreadful things that are written
by students (or even by professional writers) who are so obsessed with the writing
style that they forget to include any actual content in their writing!
You can get so concerned with how to frame an argument that you forget what
the argument actually is.
I think that that is what Mooney and Nisbet have done with the whole
“Expelled” fiasco. They’ve spent so much time thinking about how to frame arguments so as not
to alienate theists that they’ve completely forgotten why they don’t
want to alienate theists. The “Expelled” mess is a perfect example
of events providing a perfect frame for talking about what a bunch of
two-faced liars the IDists are. They’ve completely undermined the entire point
of their little movie. That fundamental contradiction, that dreadful screwup,
is the perfect frame for presenting an argument about what the movie is really trying to accomplish, and how dishonest its supporters really are.
But Mooney and Nisbet have spent so long arguing about how PZ Myers and
Richard Dawkins have been alienating people by mis-framing that they aren’t even looking at the actual facts or events. All they’re seeing is their frame,
which doesn’t fit. But if you look at it in terms of their basic frame – Myers are Dawkings are loudmouthed atheists who alienate theists by arguing that science and theism are completely incompatible – then the fact that the “Expelled” mess puts Myers and Dawkins smack-dab in the middle of things is a bad thing.
Only it’s not a bad thing. The advocates for framing are doing a terrible
job of framing their arguments. They’ve lost the point – they’re so focused on
the frame that they forgot the argument.
That’s why there’s so much opposition to the whole idea of framing. The people who are most forcefully advocating it have become so concerned with how to frame an argument that they’ve forgotten about the argument itself. Framing is a tool: a way of understanding how the way that you’re presenting you argument affects the way that your argument will be received. If you frame things correctly, you increase the quality of your presentation, and the likelihood that it will have the effect you intend. But it’s just a tool, not an end in itself. The best frame in the world has no effect if you don’t put a good argument in it: the best frame won’t help if you’re using to frame the wrong argument, or worse, no argument at all.
Mooney and Nisbet are doing a terrible job of framing the argument about whether or not you should care about framing. By forgetting the actual argument, they provide an example that says “Framing is about influencing people by how you present things, instead of about making a good argument”, when they should be showing “Framing is about tailoring your presentation so that your good argument will be as effective as possible.”