Respectful Insolence

I remain confused.

Yes, I know that people who don’t like me very much or at least don’t like the message that I lay down here day in, day out, week in, week out probably aren’t surprised at this startling admission, but I don’t mean it in a general fashion (although no doubt those aforementioned people will take it that way). No, in 10 days or so since I first weighed in about it, I remain confused at the vociferously hostile reaction that Chris Mooney‘s and Matthew Nisbet‘s recent article in Science, Framing Science, and their follow up article published on Sunday in the Washington Post. Since then, as Bora has pointed out, a certain spin about Mooney’s and Nisbet’s message about how scientists need to frame their work in ways that will resonate with the public has arisen, specifically that “framing = spin,” with Larry Moran in particular characterizing framing as “a fancy word for spin,” a comment that I found particularly ironic, given that that comment is a particularly good example of “spinning.” At least, that’s how I “spin it.”

Yes, I’m being a bit sarcastic, but that’s OK. My sarcasm is quite mild compared to what I’ve seen in the anti-framing contingent; so I hope you’ll forgive me. It’s just a mild taste of my Respectful Insolence™ applied to bloggers that I respect but who, to my frustration, maintain a persistent blind spot when it comes to this particular issue. This led me to think about why this might be, given that it’s patently obvious to me that as scientists we frame our data and message all the time and my puzzlement as to why there is such hostility to Mooney and Nisbet’s mostly quite reasonable suggestion that we as scientists should do a better job at framing discussions of our work for the consumption of the lay public. After all, when bloggers I respect (although frequently disagree with on some issues) are so incensed over something, I can do one of two things: either dismiss them as wrong (which would be the surgeon thing to do, à la Dr. Egnor) or reexamine my view on the topic. I chose to do the latter, and doing so led me to an idea about why there might be such a violent disagreement over this issue.

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. I do not have that luxury. If I lose my grants and go without funding for more than a year or so (which is all the buffer I have left in my startup funds), I will lose my lab. Period. This provides an enormous incentive for me to frame my work in such a way that I can convince other scientists of its correctness and value.

Perhaps I can make this clearer with a couple of concrete examples. Instead of just talking about writing grants in general, I’ll discuss a specific grant mechanism, the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, specifically the Breast Cancer Research Program Idea Award. This is a grant program that exists to reward innovative, high risk projects. Right there, that tells a scientist that “framing” his work as a natural stepwise extension of previous work in his lab (as one would do when trying to apply for an NIH R01 or to renew one’s R01) would not be very likely to be successful. The “audience” (namely the Army reviewers) are looking for innovation and impact. A second aspect of these grants is that there are breast cancer survivors and advocates on the committees and study sections deciding which grant proposals are funded. Consequently, one has to “frame” one’s proposed study with that additional audience in mind. These advocates will tend to be less interested in obscure, albeit scientifically interesting minutiae of mechanisms of cancer progression, unless it can be framed in such a way as to convince them that it will make concrete progress at laying the groundwork for a better cancer treatment.

There are multiple components of a D.O.D. Idea Award application, but the most relevant for the issue of framing are the public abstract, innovation statement, and impact statement. Here’s what the Army says about the Public Abstract:

Public Abstract: One-page limit. Start on a new page. The public abstract is an important component of the proposal review process because it addresses issues of particular interest to the consumer advocate community.

  • Describe the scientific objective and rationale for the proposal in a manner readily understandable by non-scientists.
    • Do not duplicate the technical abstract.
  • Describe the ultimate applicability of the research.
    • What types of patients will it help and how will it help them?
    • What are the potential clinical applications, benefits, and risks?
    • What is the projected time it may take to achieve a consumer-related outcome?
  • If the research is too basic for clinical applicability, describe the interim outcomes.
  • What types of contributions will this study make to advance breast cancer research?
  • How will the research enhance this or other studies being conducted?

There you have it, your frame. It’s a rather difficult and unforgiving frame as well. You have one page (0.5″ margins, 12 pt. Times New Roman type) to represent your science accurately in language that an interested lay audience can understand in such a way that the audience will be excited enough about it to fund your project to the tune of $300,000 over three years. I would submit to you that you would have to be quite good at framing your work to describe your work accurately in such a short span and in such a way to get this audience interested enough in it to recommend it for funding. But that’s not all. Let’s look at the Impact Statement and Innovation Statement, which are both even more difficult:

Impact Statement: One-half-page limit. The Impact Statement must be submitted as a single PDF file named “Impact.pdf,” in accordance with the formatting guidelines specified in Appendix 4. State explicitly how the proposed work will have an impact on breast cancer research or patient care. Describe how the combination of innovation and the expected results of the proposal will contribute to the goals of eradicating the disease and advancing methods, concepts, prevention, diagnosis, or treatment of the disease or quality of life for patients.

And:

Innovation Statement: One-half-page limit. The Innovation Statement must be submitted as a single PDF file named “Innovation.pdf,” in accordance with the formatting guidelines specified in Appendix 4. Summarize how the proposal is innovative. The following examples of ways in which proposals may be innovative, although not all-inclusive, are intended to help PIs frame the innovative features of their proposals:

  • Study concept – Investigation of a novel idea and/or research question.
  • Research method or technology – Use of novel research methods or new technologies, including technology development, to address a research question.
  • Clinical interventions – Use of a novel method or technology for preventing, detecting, diagnosing, or treatment.
  • Existing methods or technologies – Application or adaptation of existing methods or technologies for novel research or clinical purposes, or for research or clinical purposes that differ fundamentally from those originally intended.

Oh, my goodness, did I actually see the dreaded f-word in these instructions? And, between these two statements, you only have one page to accomplish all this framing. (Of course, it is the dreaded military-industrial complex, I guess, so I would guess that the Army would require all sorts of Orwellian “framing” in its applications.) Do you think this sort of framing is “spinning” or “lying” or “dumbing down” your science, charges that have been leveled at the word “framing”? What about the fact that you only have six pages to describe a three year project and expand the “frame” in such a way to convince those who were interested based on your Public and Lay Abstracts and Innovation Statement to think it might be worth funding? Do you think this additional, albeit somewhat different, framing is “lying” or “spinning” and thus not to be done by a scientist? Too bad for you, I guess. No grant money for you. Good luck keeping your lab funded, because all grant applications, federal or private, require a high degree of framing, based on the purpose of the granting agency and the constraints in space and form placed on the application. Longer grant applications allow one to discuss more of the science, but there are grant applications out there that are only one page long (I know; I’ve applied for a couple such grants). You’re deluding yourself if you think you can write a successful application that short without some serious framing. Longer applications, such as NIH applications, allow more leeway for detailed discussions of data and science, but pointing out that “it is the job of the applicant to convince the reviewer” and that reviewers “may not fully understand the significance of the research area without a clear, compelling argument presented in the application.” Given that many reviewers will not be familiar with the specific issues involved, it will be up to the applicant to frame those issues for them.

Thus, I ask again: If it’s acceptable to frame science in such a way that will convince granting agencies to fund that science, why is it not acceptable to frame science for a different audience, the public? Or are both not OK? And if both are not OK, then how does a scientist convince his fellow scientists and lay people controlling the purse strings at private foundations that his work is worthy of funding otherwise? As an example, a typical reviewer for an NIH study section has to read in detail and review around 10 grants, each of which is 25 pages long, often with an additional 50 pages or so of other supporting documentation (budgets, BioSketches, etc.). Salesmanship within the bounds of scientific accuracy is, like it or not, essential to catch the reviewer’s attention and inspire him remember and support the grant. Lastly on this issue, I’ll point out that framing data and the science this way can help an investigator hone his science and intentions to a fine edge. To write such a grant, it’s necessary to distill the supporting data and the aims of the project down to their bare essences, casting aside all extraneous sidelines that do anything to distract from your core hypothesis and plan. It’s also necessary to review all the literature related to your project and distill it, too, down to its essence and describe correctly but in a way that supports your rationale and hypothesis while recognizing controversy. All in all, as painful as it is, when looked at properly, the framing that is necessary to write a grant can actually be a powerful tool to help an investigator clarify his understanding, ideas, and research plan. Admittedly, the downside of this process is something called “grantsmanship,” where certain buzzwords, catch phrases, and strategies are used to frame the application, but, by and large, grantsmanship is nothing more than knowing how to persuade other scientists and knowing how to budget.

Being the long-winded type that you all know that I am, I can’t resist one last example, which may explain why physician-scientists appear not to be nearly as afraid of or hostile to the frame as our esteemed colleagues, such as PZ, Larry, or ERV. This came in response to a comment that framing is “condescending, offensive, and naive.” My retort to that is that it is naive to think that framing isn’t necessary. It seems to rely on the idealistic belief that people will just “understand” if you put the facts out there enough times or that the “facts will speak for themselves.” They won’t, because any presentation of the “facts” will require choosing which facts and in what context to present them, in other words, a “frame.”

Be that as it may, I have to wonder why someone would would consider framing necessarily “condescending” or “offensive”? I suppose that there are cases where it could indeed be all of those things, but it is not inherently so. And, in fact, it is essential for what I do. Consider this example, which I as a surgeon encounter all the time. A woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, and I need to explain the scientific rationale behind my proposed course of surgical treatment. Let’s say that she is a high school dropout (I have a high percentage of charity care patients in my practice), and hasn’t had any science or biology education beyond the seventh or eighth grade. Moreover, let’s assume that she doesn’t read about science; she’s too busy working a crappy, low-wage job with no health insurance to support her family. What is more “condescending,” simply to tell her this operation is what needs to be done, with no attempt to explain the scientific rationale behind the surgery and the evidence supporting its efficacy, which, given her lack of education, will certainly require considerable simplification of the facts and scientific research behind it, or to “frame” this information for her so that she understands it as well as her educational background allows?

I remain puzzled why “framing” my rationale so that the patient understands as well as her background allows her to my rationale for my proposed treatment might be so “offensive” or “condescending” in this situation. In fact, I would consider it far more condescending to revert to the paternalistic model of medicine and just tell this patient that she needs a lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy with a followup course of chemotherapy and radiation without bothering to attempt to explain why. If I were to do that, the end result would be that my well-educated patients would get an explanation of my rationale (because they wouldn’t accept treatment otherwise or would quickly find a new surgeon) while the less-educated would get a pat on the head and instructions just to trust me on this. In fact, in this case, there is an absolute ethical imperative to attempt to explain the scientific rationale for the procedure, along with its potential risks and benefits, to the best of my knowledge and to the best of my ability to frame the issues involved in such a way that the patient can understand. I may not always succeed (indeed, I can think of a few spectacular failures at doing this that I’ve had), but I at least have to try. Moreover, clinical trials themselves would be impossible, because it is also an ethical imperative for physicians to frame the scientific rationale behind the trial to potential research subjects so that they understand the potential risks, benefits, and uncertainties as well as possible.

Thinking about this issue in these terms, I have to admit a grudging respect for PZ and Larry’s purity of vision when it comes to science, even as I remain puzzled and exasperated by it (particularly given the way Larry, for example, persists in enthusiastically repeating the execrable and historically inaccurateNeville Chamberlain atheist” and “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists” spin, which shows that he’s quite willing to spin to his heart’s content when it suits his purposes, although I’m sure he doesn’t see it that way). Sadly, in my position, I can’t maintain such a rigorous level of intellectual purity when it comes to selling my work. Science is a human endeavor, which means that all the foibles of humans and their modes of communications necessarily enter into any discourse about science, be it between a grant applicant and the study section evaluating the grant, a speaker at a scientific conference and the audience, a physician and his patient, or a scientist and the public. Perhaps one of them can explain to me why, if it isn’t “spin” or “lying” to frame one’s science for a grant application or to patients in a clinical trial, it is “spin” or “lying” to do so when explaining complex science to the public. I realize that framing can be used for good or bad, but tell me why it is inherently such a bad thing, a characterization that seems to be the “spin” being placed on it.

I really want to know. And, please. frame it in simple terms for me. After all, I’m just a dumb surgeon.

Comments

  1. #1 ERV
    April 18, 2007

    I dont think you saw my last post to you at coturnix’s place :) I think I understand where our break down in communication is– repost:

    Orac– I still haven’t seen you answer my question about what’s “condescending” or “offensive” about framing in the context of dealing with patients, as I described above…

    ERV– Ah! Nonononono! Not condescending or offensive towards the patients/Average Joes! Condescending and offensive towards scientists who have discovered this mystical magical ‘Frame’ and already use it every day (in your case) or in every presentation (my case). I read the Science article as ‘If you scientists would just frame things better there wouldnt be a problem’, as if this was a novel idea and the heart of scientific illiteracy in this country. To me, suggesting everyone ‘frame’ their presentations appropriately is like telling everyone to make sure they present in a language their audience speaks– Duh! So that ‘suggestion’ from N/M was incredibly condescending from my perspective.

    And I maintain that ‘framing’ is incredibly low on the list of hurdles for communicating science to the public (as everyone already does it), thus suggesting that improving framing will improve Average Joe scientific literacy is naive. My problems havent come from the side of the scientists– theyve come from people who have a vested interest in keeping their flock/followers/readers/viewers in an anti-science environment. I need help dealing with THAT!

    I apologize for not being clearer, as thats obviously the source of our disagreement :)

    This is a perfect example of why I am annoyed with the ‘Frame’ and how it was presented! (though the WP article is another matter entirely, completely unprofessional behavior from N/M)

  2. #2 Orac
    April 18, 2007

    Fair enough, but yours is not the most common complaint about Nisbet and Mooney that I’ve seen.

    Yours is also a bit of a straw man, given that Mooney and Nisbet never implied or claimed anything “mystical” or “magical” about it or that it was anything other than basic Communication 101.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    April 18, 2007

    Is anyone even listening to anyone else by this point? I get the feeling that by now, most everybody just sees a comment on fr*ming and scrolls on past. For the two people still reading, though, I have a few points:

    1. If fr*ming boils down to the adage, “Know thy audience,” why justify it with footnotes to anthropology journals?

    2. And if a healthy fraction of scientists are used to fr*ming for their grant proposals, why wouldn’t they do it for the public — you know, just by default?

    3. In the linguist community, it’s taken as a default assumption that “speakers adjust their speech primarily towards that of their audience in order to express solidarity or intimacy with them, or conversely away from their audience’s speech in order to express distance.” They call this effect “audience design”, and (as Mark Liberman says) “most of us are pretty good” at it.

    4. Can we see a block of text — say, an example press release intended for general distribution — written in an uncompromising manner, which we can then try to fr*me together, so we can see what this process entails in practical terms?

  4. #4 James
    April 18, 2007

    And if a healthy fraction of scientists are used to fr*ming for their grant proposals, why wouldn’t they do it for the public — you know, just by default?

    One problem is that you have to frame things differently for grant proposals than for the public. You can be really good at writing grant proposals and still be lousy at writing for the public.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    April 18, 2007

    Oh, I forgot:

    5. If Nisbet and Mooney wanted to convince anybody of anything, why in blazes did they lead off with the “Dawkins is boosting the creationists” gambit? At the very least, setting aside Sean Carroll’s argument about shifting the Overton Window, this contention is divisive and unsupported by the data. That’s, ahem, poor fr*ming.

    6. Since the social feedback mechanisms in place to correct excessive hype are completely different within and without the scientific community, can we really say that what we do on grant proposals is “the same as” what we’d do for the public? Insofar as right and wrong depend on the consequences of our actions. . . .

    7. One big problem with this whole thing is that it presumes the people we’re trying to educate are busy, short-sighted, uninformed but basically honest. But guess what? The honest folk of America have nuclei of pure evil in their midst, professional liars and authoritarian power-trippers who will counter every “reason is a gift of God” with a “Darwinism caused the Nazis.” Please tell me how tweaking the phrasing on our press releases will change that.

    I suspect that the whole debate has become so ill-formed that no practical changes will come of it, so I too will probably stop listening soon.

  6. #6 Orac
    April 18, 2007

    One problem is that you have to frame things differently for grant proposals than for the public. You can be really good at writing grant proposals and still be lousy at writing for the public.

    True enough. However, my point was that the hostility that I’ve read seems to be towards the concept of framing itself, which makes me wonder if it’s really hostility towards having to frame for the public rather than hostility against framing itself.

    It’s also no longer entirely true that you have to frame things differently in grant proposals. Increasingly, there are lay people on the boards and study sections reviewing grants, and they need to have the application framed–which was the point of my including an excerpt from the grant application instructions above.

  7. #7 Scott Belyea
    April 18, 2007

    Being the long-winded type that you all know that I am,…

    No comment. :-)

    But seriously, folks … this is the best extended comment on framing that I’ve seen. My belief is that lots of folks are getting too knotted up about the “academic details,” and losing sight of the reality that we all use framing frequently. Some of us are better at it than others, but use of frames is not optional, whether you realize it or not.

    It’s struck me that physicians are in a strong position to understand this reality more explicitly than research scientists. Your breast cancer example is an excellent illustration of this.

    The best I’ve ever seen was the surgeon who did serious emergency surgery on my late father. I’d flown down to be with him, and arrived about an hour before they took him off to prep him. The surgeon came to speak to me. She was understandably generic at first, but it took her less then a minute to to size me up and decide that I knew enough and wanted some level of detail (my use of the term “necrotic tissue” seemed to help). She was then very forthcoming and allowed me to guide the conversation.

    In my mind, that was “framing” at its best.

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    April 18, 2007

    Scott Belyea:

    Some of us are better at it than others, but use of frames is not optional, whether you realize it or not.

    That comes dangerously close to the following:

    Some of us are better at it than others, but communicating is not optional, whether you realize it or not.

    And if we say that “all talk is framing,” why not just go ahead and admit that all is Love and all is God, so we can go home early?

  9. #9 Ompus
    April 18, 2007

    I think the initial problem with the framing debate was how it was framed. Framing, after all, is a metaphor with all sorts of connotations. Unfortunately framing, to some, raises sinister images. As in “I was framed!” That is “You have been misled based upon false evidence.” And indeed Mooney and Nisbett’s article, “Framing Science” is quite easily misinterpreted. Framing science seems to be something the DI would do.

    With that said, the intent of the article could not be more true. Know the audience to whom you are presenting, and present your science accordingly.

  10. #10 Scott Belyea
    April 18, 2007

    And if we say that “all talk is framing,” why not just go ahead and admit that all is Love and all is God, so we can go home early?

    Please don’t put words in my mouth. I said nothing even close to that, or anything that would lead to your silly new-agey nonsense …

  11. #11 Blake Stacey
    April 18, 2007

    Scott Belyea:

    I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, just trying to point out that your statement, if read carelessly, tends to resemble a tautology. Please. I think pantheism is logically void (like Dawkins says, it’s “sexed up atheism”), and I don’t even like to hear Susan Blackmore say that “all thoughts are memes”.

  12. #12 ERV
    April 18, 2007

    *shrug*
    Its been my complaint from the beginning. The very beginning.

    I was being sarcastic with the ‘mystical magical’, jabbing at the pretentiousness of the N/M Science article. As if this was a wonderful magical discovery no one had thought of before that can solve all the worlds ills. Like Blake said (and you, and most of us), ‘framing’ is a fancy way of saying ‘do what you did to get a decent grade in high school speech.’ Its offensive and conveniently side-steps addressing real problems with science communication.

  13. #13 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 18, 2007

    On Discovery Institute, scientists, framing, and spin, I have this post up, just restating exactly what we have said all along, but applying it what DI pulled off. Hopefully you will take a look:

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2007/04/what_the_discovery_institute_u.php

    Also on framing and truth, I note the transcript of the NPR interview is available, just again, restating what we have been saying all along. I’ve bolded key segments so people catch the important stuff:

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2007/04/npr_are_we_asking_scientists_t.php

  14. #14 AngryToxicologist
    April 18, 2007

    This is an excellent discussion of framing but I have a couple of things to add:

    1) Sometimes the ‘scientific’ language we use means different things to the public who don’t parse sentences like we do. In other words, we’re using a frame without knowing it. This is why it’s important to be cognizant of the frame you’re using. Example: To scientists ‘It hasn’t been shown to be harmful’ means something specific. To the lay-person it means ‘It has been shown to be non-harmful'; a world of difference, really. Like it or not you’re using a frame. No one can change language, we can only pay attention to how it is used and communicate appropriately.

    2) Of course you can use it to spin. However, speaking ‘scientifically’ doesn’t keep anyone from spinning away, integrity does. Integrity and style of communication are different concepts and posters need to seperate these two concepts. We’re not talking about ethics, we’re talking about how good people can get their point across.

  15. #15 Scott Belyea
    April 18, 2007

    I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, just trying to point out that your statement, if read carelessly, tends to resemble a tautology.

    Fair enough … I withdraw the accusation of “putting words in my mouth.” Mind you, the “reading carelessly” point might have been well to have made first time around.

    I think pantheism is logically void (like Dawkins says, it’s “sexed up atheism”), and I don’t even like to hear Susan Blackmore say that “all thoughts are memes”.

    I have trouble commenting on this in context, since I don’t see any connection with what I wrote. I was attempting to be very pragmatic about it, since I really don’t think that the academic definitions, classifications, and subsequent debate have all that much to do with how people use framing effectively, perhaps without being really aware of it … and perhaps even while resenting the terminology.

  16. #16 Flex
    April 18, 2007

    Of course the term ‘framing’ already has some negative baggage associated with it, which is where, I think, the root antagonism to the word comes from.

    As many people understand the term, it is about intentional manipulation of the audience. Not simply being aware of the capabilities and limitations of the intended audience, but manipulation.

    It’s yet another case where the use of the concept in a political arena has added unrelated concepts to the word. Where ‘intellectual’ now carries the baggage concept of ‘elitist'; ‘progressive’ implies to many people the concept of ‘socialist'; and ‘conservative’ suggests to many people ‘strongly religious’.

    The concept of framing is an interesting tool, which allows a certain insight into the communication process. It’s a shame that it has been coupled to the concept of manipulation.

  17. #17 Blake Stacey
    April 18, 2007

    Scott Belyea:

    I could probably have been much more clear the first time around. (Such, alas, is always the case.) My apologies.

    The remarks about pantheism and my irritation at claims like “all thoughts are memes” were meant to indicate my real attitude about assertions like “all is love”. Such claims — and I don’t think I’m alone in saying this — have no real content worth bothering about. This is why I get edgy when I hear people say, “Whenever you talk, you’re really framing” (not that you, specifically, said that here, but I’ve definitely seen that attitude elsewhere in these increasingly incoherent threads). What can you say to a statement like that? “Yeah, well, if talking has all the attributes of framing and vice versa, you’ve just invented a new, useless word. Congratulations.”

  18. #18 Scott Belyea
    April 18, 2007

    Blake Stacey:

    …my real attitude about assertions like “all is love”. Such claims — and I don’t think I’m alone in saying this — have no real content worth bothering about.

    Ah … we can certainly agree on that! That’s about when I wander off to get myself a glass of wine.

    A rare pleasure to come to agreement without either of us resorting to personal invective. :-)

  19. #19 coturnix
    April 18, 2007

    Talking is never just imparting of information. It is always also elicitation of emotional response to the message. There is no emotion-free language. Not even math.

    For informaiton to get through, it has to avoid eliciting negative emotion towards the speaker.

  20. #20 Joshua
    April 18, 2007

    I think Blake raises some great points, and not just because he links to me.

    In particular: What if the “problem” isn’t that scientists are poor communicator, but rather that the well of public discourse is so poisoned that large numbers of people are automatically predisposed to disregard anything that a scientist says? Think evolution (“Satan’s mouthpieces!”) or climate change (“Hippie communist fearmongers!”).

    That’s the problem we’re largely dealing with. There’s a lot of good, accurate, easily-digestible popular treatments on both evolution and climate change. The trouble is that if you give, say, At the Water’s Edge to an evolution denier, he’ll probably just add it to the bonfire.

    It’s not at all clear to me how “framing” is supposed to help with that. If your words are automatically suspect simply because you’re a scientist, does it even matter what you say?

    I think we as a group need to give up the illusion that we’re going to win over most of the religious right who reject evolution, or most of the conservative right who reject climate change. What’s the point, then, of saying, “Shh, Dr. Dawkins! You’ll spook the Christians!” when the Christians are, in fact, already spooked?

    I also find it fascinating that nobody criticises Al Gore for being “too strident” in defending climate change or suggests that he ought to tone it down a bit so as not to upset the oil companies. He’s at least as “extreme” as Dawkins in respect to promoting acceptance of a hardcore version of anthrogenic climate change, but nobody tells him to tone it down even though legitimate climate scientists have raised objections to some of the simplifications and exaggerations he presents.

  21. #21 stogoe
    April 18, 2007

    As many people understand the term, it is about intentional manipulation of the audience. Not simply being aware of the capabilities and limitations of the intended audience, but manipulation.

    And not merely manipulation, but manipulation without merit or goal beyond tricking the audience and obtaining their precious moneys. It’s what consultants and marketing ghouls do.

  22. #22 Blake Stacey
    April 18, 2007

    Joshua sez:

    In particular: What if the “problem” isn’t that scientists are poor communicator, but rather that the well of public discourse is so poisoned that large numbers of people are automatically predisposed to disregard anything that a scientist says? Think evolution (“Satan’s mouthpieces!”) or climate change (“Hippie communist fearmongers!”).

    To which I would add:

    If you’re trying to win over people who possess an authoritarian personality, it doesn’t matter one whit how you make your case if their chosen authorities tell them that you’re Satan’s spawn.

  23. #23 Brian
    April 18, 2007

    I find it a rich irony that M&N are telling scientists to frame thier work for the public so the public will understand it properly, and then when scientists interpret these statements incorrectly as frame=spin (i.e. the wrong frame), you blame the scientists. If framing boils down to knowing your audience, then their peice was very badly framed.

    Still, this is an opener to a larger (and presumably more complete) argument, so I think we should wait and see what comes next.

    But I really think your respectful insolence is not so respectful, as you really haven’t addressed the strong form of opposing arguments here. For one thing, PZ points out that we have loads of great communicators among our ranks, who do a lot of outreach, and yet you pretty much posit that he doesn’t get it ’cause he doesn’t write grants.

    So if we put together PZ’s point that we have loads of great communicators doing outreach at every opportunity with yours that all grant-writers are doing framing already, it provides probably the the most damning critizism of the M&N peice so far, which is if we’re already doing this to the extent that we are, then where the Hell do M&N get off telling us we’re doing things wrong?

    And if we’re doing things wrong, as they seem to contend, then it’s pretty understandable that people would get the idea that they’re suggesting framing means more than you’re suggesting, i.e. “spin”.

  24. #24 Orac
    April 18, 2007

    Actually, I did address his arguments in the Part 1 of this two-part series. Respectfully insolently, if you don’t think I addressed it, you weren’t reading:

    We scientists already do on an esoteric level exactly what Mooney and Nisbet argue that we should do on the level of communication with the public. P.Z. is correct in one way: The most successful scientists are often also the best communicators. It’s just that they’re communicating to other scientists. Is it really so much of a stretch to try to get them to communicate more successfully with nonscientists? I think not.

    If you’re a scientist, consider this. What is the very first thing you do when you sit down to write a scientific paper to submit to a peer-reviewed journal? Well, if you’re like me, you gather together your data and organize it into a number of figures that you will include in your paper. But how do you organize the data? Again, if you’re like me, you organize it around a “story,” a narrative that is designed to make sense of the data for scientists who might not necessarily be in your discipline or even familiar with the scientific question that you’re discussing. I learned this from my Ph.D. thesis advisor. Indeed, one of the most important things that he taught me was how to communicate my findings. I always wanted to include more and more detailed data; he showed me the value of the “data not shown” phrase in a paper at strategic points, telling me that, if the reviewers ask for it we can provide the data that wasn’t shown, but putting it in otherwise just muddies up the message.

    And:

    P.Z. may say that most scientists are “awesome” at communicating, but I have to disagree. He must hang out with a different bunch of scientists than I do. (Either that, or physician-scientists are a particularly boring and uncommunicative lot compared to hardcore basic scientists, which is a distinct possibility.) Most scientists are average at best at communicating, even with their fellow scientists. Just think about how many scientific talks at various conferences are not sleep-inducing compared to the ones that truly engage you, and you’ll see what I mean. Just think of how few scientific papers are a joy to read, rather than chore to slog through, and you’ll see what I mean. Not unexpectedly, most scientists tend to be even worse at communicating with nonscientists. The reason for this, I suspect, is that communication is generally not a priority in science education.

    You can disagree with me and tell me that what I said was idiotically wrong and why, but you’re wrong when you claim that I didn’t address PZ’s argument directly.

    By the way, characterizing my rather long posts on this topic my “pretty much positing that he doesn’t get it ’cause he doesn’t write grants” is an excellent example of framing in a way to mock my argument by making it sound less nuanced than it is. Very impressive.

  25. #25 steppen wolf
    April 18, 2007

    I think that there is quite a difference between the two main “anti-frame” stand points here: PZ seems to be indicating the fact that N&M, while stating that scientists are not doing enough framing/doing it well enough, are not quite giving scientists any practical suggestions to improve. On the other hand, Larry seems to be stuck on the “framing = evil, immoral spinning” position (though I do have quite a feeling – just a feeling – that this is also PZ’s opinion).

    I think half of this discussion would basically either die or finally evolve (in the colloquial sense, mind you) once either N&M, or one of us, come up with some practical suggestions for framing science.

    Also, Blake says that “if a healthy fraction of scientists are used to fr*ming for their grant proposals, why wouldn’t they do it for the public — you know, just by default?”. Well, I do not have stats, but how many scientists are actually active in the public debate (blogging, writing, collaborating with their university’s communications department)? From my personal experience, they are not that many.

    This means that, althought they might be perfectly able to frame their discourse for the lay audience, they might not actually be doing it quite as often as to make a visible (think of – uhm – Dawkins) impact.

  26. #26 steppen wolf
    April 18, 2007

    I forgot to mention that, for obvious reasons, the anti-framers of the kind “frame = evil” are already a lost cause, and no amount of Orac-length blog posts is ever going to change their mind.

    Just as Bible-thumping bigots wouldn’t, no matter how many books Dawkins writes.

    But that, of course, is just a lousy artsy metaphor.

  27. #27 Kristjan Wager
    April 18, 2007

    Orac, I notice that you don’t address the many comments (including mine) that agrees with Mooney and Nisbet to some degree, but make clear that they think it’s a bad sell. All those posts goes a long way towards explaining why Mooney/Nisbet gets such strong reactions.

    As PZ said, they claim to give people a method, but end up telling people what position they should hold (the lead paragraph of the Washington Post op-ed is a prima example of this). Also, to be honest, they have made a very bad job at addressing the criticism – Nisbet especially, which is strange considering what his expertice area is.

  28. #28 Blake Stacey
    April 18, 2007

    steppen wolf:

    I think half of this discussion would basically either die or finally evolve (in the colloquial sense, mind you) once either N&M, or one of us, come up with some practical suggestions for framing science.

    On this point, I agree (see my #4 above, and my first post on this topic), except that I strongly suspect that if such suggestions ever appear, the word “framing” will not occur in them. We have all amply demonstrated, I believe, that it is a word which does not communicate a useful message.

  29. #29 JimV
    April 18, 2007

    At least some of the hostile reaction you’re confused about comes from M&N’s apparent citation of people like Dawkins and PZ Myers as examples of bad communicators. That’s just wrong!

    (I would have the same reaction if they singled out you–Orac–as ineffective at communicating since your arguments don’t appeal to various denialists.)

    However, I am grateful for the controversy since it has introduced me to some good blogs which were new to me, such as ERV’s.

  30. #30 JimV
    April 18, 2007

    At least some of the hostile reaction you’re confused about comes from M&N’s apparent citation of people like Dawkins and PZ Myers as examples of bad communicators. That’s just wrong!

    (I would have the same reaction if they singled out you–Orac–as ineffective at communicating since your arguments don’t appeal to various denialists.)

    However, I am grateful for the controversy since it has introduced me to some good blogs which were new to me, such as ERV’s.

  31. #31 Brian
    April 18, 2007

    Orac,

    I certainly didn’t mean to impugn your entire body of work on this issue. When I said that you hadn’t “addressed the strong form of opposing arguments here”, I meant here, in this post. Indeed you may have been fairer to PZ and others in other posts. Perhaps I should have been more explicit.

    I would also like to apologize for “framing” your post in a manner that did not sufficiently express the nuance of your argument. If I may be frank, I didn’t actually think your point had all that much nuance to it, but truthfully I was not trying to mischaracterize or charicature your position in any way. It’s just that you specifically asked your commenters to “frame it in simple terms for me”, so I did not take the time to restate your arguemtent in its fullest form.

    But you did repeatedly express confusion as to why these people were hostile to the idea of framing, and I was merely trying to put in my two cents worth on why that might be.

    You expressed particular confusion at the words “condescending, offensive, and naive”, and I was trying to point out that it’s naïve in that C&M seem to be attributing to scientists beliefs they probably, by and large, do not hold, and seem to be suggesting solutions that, as you, PZ, and ERV have gone on about at some length now, most scientists already do. It’s condescending to be telling us what we already know. When you’re naïve and condescending to a group of people, they tend to take offense.

    I haven’t seen anyone weigh in against the kind of framing you talk about in your grant writing or your “surgeon proclaiming from on high” examples, which led me to think that you have not really considered the reasons that the people whose attitudes you profess to be confused about hold those attitudes.

    Unless of course this whole “I really am confused, somebody please explain it to me” thing is just a clever rhetorical gambit, in which case please disregard everything I’ve said and I will not trouble you further.

  32. #32 T_U_T
    April 18, 2007

    I guess ther main problem with framing is, that some people understand is as a kind of “backdoor in the brain” that can be used to make someone accept what ever you say regardless whether he understands it or not, whether it is true or false.
    And of course they recoil from that regardless whether it is used to force people believe falsehoods or genuine truth.

  33. #33 steppen wolf
    April 18, 2007

    Blake, I have checked your post – quite interesting, I will read it more carefully later. I must say though that simply avoiding the term “framing” will not necessarily solve some people’s reticence to use any communication tool consciously, no matter whether it already works unconsciously on them and others or not.

    T_U_T, framing is not somthing you can use to “force people to believe genuine truth”. It is simply a way of wording a topic so that it recalls cultural/thought patterns already present in a certain population. The frame goes with the picture, not the other way round: framing only works because there are patterns of thought that already exist in a certain population.

    We (as cultural entity) make a frame work, not the other way round. It is really like choosing a frame for the picture, not a picture for the frame. We can change the picture only in the long term (with more attention & funding for science education, for example). This is something people have failed to understand in the course of this debate.

  34. #34 Flex
    April 18, 2007

    Heh. Upon reviewing these comments something strikes a chord in me. Both Blake Stacey’s mention of The Authoritarian personality type, and T_U_T’s comment about a “backdoor in the brain” remind me of the numerous urban legends (and earlier the mythological stories) about undetectable manipulation of people’s minds.

    Certainly one of the biggest fears we have is that our thoughts are not private, or that we can be controlled by others without our knowledge.

    Conversely, there have always been floating around in society mention of various tricks people (or elves, fairies, magicians or ghosts) use to control others.

    Where we once feared pixies and demonic possession we now have subliminal suggestion and hypnosis. Possibly the concern over the concept of framing falls into that category. If ‘framing’ is seen as being able to be used to make someone accept whatever you say, as T_U_T suggests, no wonder it’s a suspect technique for communication.

    I’m just thinking out loud here (well not really), but ‘framing’ seems to be something that ‘those other guys do in order to manipulate the masses into trusting them.’ (I’m using quotation marks to indicate that I don’t hold that belief myself.)

    Finally, framing (like all other sorts of mind control) may offer an excuse to the individual affected to avoid responsibility. These days it’s not that the Bush Administration mesmerised the public (or Karl Rove if you prefer) it’s that administration never let the possibility that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass-destruction into the frame of discussion. Yes, I know I’m reaching a bit. But I could have just written that examples are left to the reader.

    Now it is perfectly clear to me that while we are not immune to persuasion techniques, no one is so proficient at manipulating the thought paths of others so as to be able to directly control another’s mind. The most accomplished artists in this field may well be Disney, as they have spent many, many years trying to learn to do this. And they are pretty good at it, but even they miss-read the pulse of the public on occasion.

    Which brings up Dr. Bob’s The Authoritarians again. It’s much easier for someone in a position of authority to convince others that they are speaking sooth. Karl Rove didn’t need to do much in the way of ‘framing’, regardless of how much he thought he did. He was speaking from a position of authority in the republican party, and his message was listened to. Don’t get me wrong, the republican party is not alone in abusing authority, this was simply the first example which sprang to mind.

    Oop! Class is about to start, I’d better log.

  35. #35 Larry Moran
    April 18, 2007

    Orac says,

    Sadly, in my position, I can’t maintain such a rigorous level of intellectual purity when it comes to selling my work.

    I know you said lots more than that but I want to address that particular comment because it brings up another issue.

    I’m also sad that you, and me, and PZ, have to “frame” some of our comments from time to time. I have to do it whenever I’m writing my textbook. You have to do when you write grants.

    This is sad. We know it’s sad because “framing” is something that we know to be intellectually dishonest. We’re forced to do it but we don’t like it. Did you see where Nisbet & Mooney address this issue? Have they ever explained why we need to be “sad” for some greater good when we’re not writing a textbook or a grant?

    If I had my druthers, I’d ban framing from grant writing and textbook writing as well. It’s not good to be sad. I don’t think you make a case for framing being good by pointing out that you’re forced to do it against your better judgement.

  36. #36 usagi
    April 18, 2007

    While not wishing to trod on your valid points, Orac, it’s time for an episode of “What Digby (or rather Tristero) said.”

    I’m seeing a lot of participants in this discussion talking past each other because the people involved are using the terms differently (like the way poor ‘theory’ gets abused). Anyone who writes (or rather anyone who’s published) understands your argument about conforming to the editorial requirements where you’re submitting (and knowing your market). Hearing all the members of an editor’s panel on short fiction explain how three quarters of the submissions are rejected on format alone, followed by arguments from shocked would-be authors in the crowd, I quickly realized how to improve my chances for publication immensely.

    Properly formatted westerns still don’t get published in Analog, no matter how well written, and I doubt you’re going to alter the frame of your grant writing far enough to pursue Templeton money.

  37. #37 Brian
    April 18, 2007

    Sadly, in my position, I can’t maintain such a rigorous level of intellectual purity when it comes to selling my work.

    I doubt Orac is really saying that it’s sad, I would guess he’s just framing it in a way that opens him up to your particular critique, Larry. I think what Orac is trying to say that even the positive aspects of grantsmanship are examples of framing. Where I would fault him is in acknowledging the dark side of framing and grantsmanship, but still professing confusion as to why some people might find approaching the public in this manner objectionable.

  38. #38 Blake Stacey
    April 18, 2007

    steppen wolf:

    I must say though that simply avoiding the term “framing” will not necessarily solve some people’s reticence to use any communication tool consciously, no matter whether it already works unconsciously on them and others or not.

    Of course not. It is, I think, a necessary but not sufficient condition for giving practical advice in the matter of science communication.

  39. #39 Tracy W
    April 18, 2007

    We know it’s sad because “framing” is something that we know to be intellectually dishonest. We’re forced to do it but we don’t like it.

    Let’s imagine an architect drawing plans for a house. And we’ll imagine he was doing it before computer 3-D modelling came in. For some purposes an architect will draw a floorplan. For some he will draw a front elevation. For some a side elevation. For some a perspective drawing of how the house will look from someone walking down the front gate.

    Each drawing will leave something out. The floorplan doesn’t tell anyone how high the windows are above the ground. The front elevation doesn’t tell you how large the rooms inside are. The perspective drawing doesn’t tell you how large the rooms inside are and gives you a distorted view of the size of the windows in the front.

    Are all these drawings intellectually dishonest? Is the architect sad that they have to provide all these drawings that only show bits of the house?

    Let’s take another form of communication. My mother teaches presentation skills professionally. One of the things she teaches is to never use red and green to distinguish between two things (eg on a graph), because about 10% of men are red-green colourblind. Is adjusting your graphs in line with that advice intellectually dishonest?

    Now, imagine you are teaching American university classes about probability. You talk about baseball games and how probability is applied in them. One year you spend at a university in another part of the world where no one plays baseball. Is it intellectually dishonest to change your analogy to one the locals will recognise?

  40. #40 Mike the Mad Biologist
    April 18, 2007

    Orac,

    I want to hear more about those one page grants.

    Seriously.

    P.S.-great post

  41. #41 Tracy W
    April 18, 2007

    Another example of framing from my mother. She did some work for the Public Trust Office. Their problem was that laws relating to inheritance had come in giving surviving spouses/domestic partners and children a right to a share of the estate. “Children” included any children born outside marriage.

    This law meant that the Public Trust’s employees were being obliged to ask grieving widows something like “Mrs Smith, do you have any reason to believe your husband might have had any other children than your own?” This was getting a negative reaction.

    Mum taught them to say something like “I’m very sorry Mrs Smith to ask you at this time, but the law obliges us to ask if you have any reason to believe Mr Smith may have had any other children?”

    Now is this second question dishonest, intellectually or otherwise? No – the law does oblige them to ask the question. It is supplying more information than the first question. The difference is that the second question frames it as a bureaucratic formality that the Public Trust must ask of everyone, not a personal attack on Mr Smith’s morals.

  42. #42 Keanus
    April 18, 2007

    Orac, as a non-scientist I think you’re on target. We all “frame” things for our intended audience, whether we know it or not. And it’s neither spin nor demeaning to the audience. I liken it to one of my favorite quotes from the German mathematician David Hilbert about a century ago

    “A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street.”

    Hilbert’s adage is, if not the same thing, than a corollary to M&N’s point. And the adage applies to science, or any other discipline, academic or applied, just as much as mathematics. To be understood, one must speak in the language of one’s audience.

    Returning to M&N, I don’t think they made one point with sufficient emphasis: That to attack religion all the time in the context of explaining evolution, as PZ, Dawkins and Moran are wont to do, accomplishes nothing other than to cause the majority of the public to tune out completely, defeating the whole purpose of trying to increase the acceptance of evolution. PZ even admits as much in explaining on Pharyngula that he never mentions religion or atheism in his lectures, unless it’s brought up by a student. Were he to push his atheism there, not only would he incur the ire of the university but he’d turn off a significant number of his students.

  43. #43 olvlzl the Heretic
    April 19, 2007

    This is sad. We know it’s sad because “framing” is something that we know to be intellectually dishonest. We’re forced to do it but we don’t like it. Larry Moran

    “Framing” is intellectually dishonest? It’s even more dishonest to pretend that a presentation of information can escape choices, exclusions, placing into contexts, ordering to achieve a specific purpose… And don’t forget point of view, because there isn’t a single thing that a human being produces that isn’t the product of their point of view.

    This kind of pretense of complete objectivity and honesty is one of the biggest flaws in what I roughly call the Dawkinsite cult. Oddly, Dawkins’ polemical writings, as well as several mentioned above, is entirely dependent on the most rigorous framing, not only rejecting cards they don’t want to see come up, but removing them from the pack.

    Hey, guys, no matter how much you pretend, you’re only human. I’d have thought that would be something you’d welcome hearing.

  44. #44 sailor
    April 19, 2007

    Of course everything gets framed.
    Which is why I am surprised you would say:
    “I remain confused at the vociferously hostile reaction that Chris Mooney’s and Matthew Nisbet’s recent article in Science”

    To me it is clear the vociferously hostile reaction came from extraordinarly bad framing on behalf of the authors.
    Would you expect to change a priest’s mind by starting off and telling him he is a dumb asshole and full of shit? No, similarly if I was trying to convice a group of well-informed mainly eitheistic crowd I would not start with:

    “If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do better than Richard Dawkins, the famed Oxford scientist who had a bestseller with “The God Delusion.” Dawkins, who rose to fame with his lucid expositions of evolution in such books as “The Selfish Gene,” has never gone easy on religion. But recently he has ramped up his atheist message, further mixing his defense of evolution with his attack on belief.”

    Especially when I had no evidence to back it up and there was some evidence that Dawkins et al have for the first time opened the window to let in some fresh air and start a discussion of what previously had been almost taboo.

    In a strange way it is a very effective message of how important framing is! But unfortunately few will get it.

  45. #45 Orac
    April 19, 2007

    f I had my druthers, I’d ban framing from grant writing and textbook writing as well. It’s not good to be sad. I don’t think you make a case for framing being good by pointing out that you’re forced to do it against your better judgement.

    Strawman.

    I never said I “against my better judgment.” I said that I do it because I realize that it’s inescapable in human communication. In fact, I am simply acknowledging the fact that it is impossible to communicate complex information effectively to people without framing, particularly if those people do not have the same level of knowledge about the topic as you do. That’s all I was saying. It seems so self-obvious to me that it shocks me that people as smart and savvy as you and PZ don’t “grok” the whole concept, as evidenced by your comment about “banning framing” from grant writing. That comment shows just how out of touch you are with regard to framing. Removing framing from grant-writing is utterly impossible! Any time you try to convince an audience, even discussing science to a study section, that your project is worth funding, you have to frame it. Similarly, although I’ve never read your biochemistry textbook, I’d be willing to bet that you frame a lot in it if you expect it to communicate and teach such complex information to students who do no yet understand it. Finally, you are actually pretty fond of framing when it suits your purpose, whether you’ll admit it or not. The whole “appeaser” schtick is an example of a frame that’s slipped into raw spin, and you use it frequently.

  46. #46 Orac
    April 19, 2007

    I would also like to apologize for “framing” your post in a manner that did not sufficiently express the nuance of your argument. If I may be frank, I didn’t actually think your point had all that much nuance to it, but truthfully I was not trying to mischaracterize or charicature your position in any way. It’s just that you specifically asked your commenters to “frame it in simple terms for me”, so I did not take the time to restate your arguemtent in its fullest form.

    OK, I probably deserved that.

    On the other hand, my retort would be that I don’t think there’s much to the passionate arguments against framing other than emotional revulsion based on misunderstanding; so maybe that came through.

  47. #47 PZ Myers
    April 19, 2007

    I am NOT anti-framing (or at least, I wasn’t — I’m beginning to break out in hives every time I see the word). I think scientists could greatly benefit from the assistance of professional communicators, and I’ve even considered taking courses in the subject here at my university (it’s either that or more philosophy, both of which I consider important…but every time I look at my workload for the coming term I back off.)

    My complaint is that under the guise of giving us useful information on how to be better advocates for our passions, Nesbit and Mooney have instead tried to sell us proscriptions about what we can discuss in public, and have some how along the way forgotten to tell us how to be better communicators. This may be acceptable if their proscriptions don’t impact what you talk about anyway, allowing you to gull yourself into thinking you must be a good “framer”…but if they’re telling you to silence yourself, you’re more like to notice that they haven’t given you any positive suggestions instead. That’s why I called it snake oil — it looks like a placebo effect to me.

    So tell me: what specific piece of Nesbit/Mooney advice are you finding useful? What do you plan to implement? Are you, perhaps, going to be more sensitive to the holocaust deniers?

  48. #48 Graculus
    April 19, 2007

    As someone who grew up with a parent in construction, frames are the things that hold the walls up. ;-) The word has gotten a negative connotation, akin to “propaganda”. Maybe Nisbet and Mooney could have framed their argument with less troublesome vocabulary.

    I agree with PZ, that them calling outspoken characters like Dawkins and PZ “bad” they were wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Absolutely brimming over with wrongability. They know their audience, and it isn’t the theocrats.

  49. #49 John
    April 19, 2007

    Brian wrote,
    “I find it a rich irony that M&N are telling scientists to frame thier work for the public so the public will understand it properly, and then when scientists interpret these statements incorrectly as frame=spin (i.e. the wrong frame), you blame the scientists.”

    You’re missing a really, really important distinction that Orac is making here, which is that ACTIVE scientists understand framing, and are far better at it than those who no longer producing primary scientific literature, such as PZ and Larry.

    I hypothesize that those who are no longer active scientists are inactive largely because they aren’t very good at framing (getting grants), which explains their hostility to anyone who argues for its importance.

  50. #50 Kristjan Wager
    April 19, 2007

    You’re missing a really, really important distinction that Orac is making here, which is that ACTIVE scientists understand framing, and are far better at it than those who no longer producing primary scientific literature, such as PZ and Larry.

    I don’t think Orac would claim that people who teach science are not active scientists – or at least, I hope that’s not the case, and I’ve never seen any indication that he believes that. There is more to being a scientist than writing papers.

  51. #51 John
    April 19, 2007

    “I don’t think Orac would claim that people who teach science are not active scientists – or at least, I hope that’s not the case, and I’ve never seen any indication that he believes that.”

    Regardless of the label Orac uses, he clearly did make the distinction, so arguing about that is a red herring. My point is simply that human nature predicts that those who aren’t good at framing will tend to deny its importance.

    “There is more to being a scientist than writing papers.”

    Of course. My definition of active scientist was clear–one who produces new knowledge. The way virtually all scientists communicate their new data to others is in the primary scientific literature. That’s not merely peer-reviewed, because it has to include new data. One can have many publications in the primary literature without writing a single word; those who only produce data are authors as well.

    You seem to be using a definition of “scientist” that would include ID proponents who falsely portray science as dueling essays–more like literary criticism.

    Is that your view?

  52. #52 Brian
    April 19, 2007

    No John, I’m not missing the distinction, I just don’t think that it’s the reason Larry and PZ are criticizing what C&M have written. For one thing, both PZ and Larry have a number of publications to their name (some fairly recent), and I find the idea that they’ve somehow forgotten what it’s like to be an “active” scientist, even if they hadn’t published in a long, long time, well, let’s just say uncompelling.

    FWIW, when Orac thought I had summed up his entire argument in this manner, he didn’t think much of it.

    As for your hypothesis, well, as an until very recently “active” scientist, I can’t think of an apt description that I would care to use in this respectable corner of the blogosphere.

  53. #53 John
    April 19, 2007

    “For one thing, both PZ and Larry have a number of publications to their name (some fairly recent),…”

    Neither has recent publications in the PRIMARY literature. Their last publications were in 1998 and 1994, respectively.

    “… and I find the idea that they’ve somehow forgotten what it’s like to be an “active” scientist, even if they hadn’t published in a long, long time, well, let’s just say uncompelling.”

    Why? And it’s not merely being one, it’s being an INDEPENDENT one. As I noted above, students, postdocs, and technicians can be incredibly productive while never dirtying their hands (irony intended) with framing. There is little training for framing in our system, but it is a critical talent/skill once one starts applying for independent positions. Framing greatly helps the cover letter and statement of research interests in applications, and once one has an independent position at a research institution, framing for grant applications is essential. No grants, no job. I think that I manage to get by because I’m very intent on framing, not that I’m good at it.

    As for my hypothesis, thanks for your opinion, but what matters is whether it explains the data we have and predicts future observations, including past events that we learn about later.

  54. #54 Brian
    April 19, 2007

    I’m not questioning your abilities at framing, I’m questioning your attribution of reasons as to why other people are (supposedly) less apt at understanding it. If one has to be an independent scientist in order to understand framing, then I seriously doubt that the idea of framing is going to have much use in communicating science to the broader public. While Orac is quite right to point out the framing that goes into a grant proposal – especially a short proposal – I think that suggesting that this is the only way to get your head around the idea of framing is ridiculous. You don’t think that the exact same considerations go into a lecture?? Of course the stakes are not as high in any given lecture as with any given grant proposal, but do you really think that these non-“active” scientists are just phoning it in or somehow can’t do framing because they don’t have the pressure of losing funding? The whole idea simply assigns primacy to one kind of communication over another in the ability to understand an intellectual proposition.

    I found your hypothesis so ridiculous because it suggests that people in this debate are simply blinded by professional jealousy, and further assumes that people choose their career paths in science based upon how well they obtain grant funding. I don’t think you should be surprised if plenty of “real” scientists find those ideas a bit insulting. I, for one, will be surprised if you find that it turns out to be predictive.

  55. #55 Blake Stacey
    April 19, 2007

    One last comment, and then I at least will shut up. Everybody does realize that “framing” justifies calling people “Neville Chamberlain atheists”, right?

    The reasoning is straightforward:

    To a person equipped with a decent public-school education, stronger on names and dates than subtleties of motivation, “Neville Chamberlain atheist” is not a bad phrase. It succinctly evokes the spectacle of backing down before a great evil. A person who hears it isn’t likely to forget it, and most of the book-buying public have the high-school history background necessary to understand the reference. It sells the case.

    Now, why might we not like that? I can identify two cases:

    1. Historical inaccuracy. We can say, if we are so inclined, that the picture given us in high school history class is not an accurate portrayal of Chamberlain or the situation of his time. This boils down to saying that the frame is not rooted in the facts.

    2. Contemporary inaccuracy. We could also say that the image of “backing down before a great evil” is not the appropriate way to visualize what people are doing today. In the struggle for rational thought, perhaps the effects of the people called “appeasers” are not what their detractors claim.

    #1 and #2 are, for all practical purposes, independent of one another. A history buff can agree with #1 but dispute #2: “Yeah, we shouldn’t call them Chamberlain atheists, but what they’re doing is still not right.” Contrariwise, an “appeaser” can think they’re doing the right thing and think the Chamberlain appellation is satisfactory (people who put “proud Neville Chamberlain atheist” stickers on their blogs may be doing this).

    The case #1 argument against the “Chamberlain” accusation is, in essence, the argument that a useful frame unsupported by the facts is a bad thing.

    Both Orac and PZ have voiced their distaste for the “Chamberlain” moniker. I believe their arguments both fall into case #1; they may differ on #2. In conclusion, then, the argument against this terminology is that it is bad framing, or more specifically that the divergence of frame from fact is too severe to be redeemed by rhetorical usefulness.

  56. #56 Orac
    April 19, 2007

    One last comment, and then I at least will shut up. Everybody does realize that “framing” justifies calling people “Neville Chamberlain atheists”, right?

    Isn’t that essentially what I’ve said time and time again, namely that that vile, idiotic epithet (“Neville Chamberlain atheist”) is a frame that’s gone beyond framing to become nothing more than “spin” and ad hominem–except that there’s nothing about the concept of framing that “justifies” using nasty spin like that. In any case, specifically, I have taken Larry Moran to task for repeating such flagrant spin on the one hand and then saying how much he hates framing as “spin” on the other, and I will continue to do so. Moran is more than intelligent enough to know better (but apparently doesn’t), and as long as he repeats that despicable meme, I will be point out how idiotic and despicable it in fact is.

    The whole “Neville Chamberlain” spin is historically inaccurate, designed to demonize without enlightening, and is virtually indistinguishable from the most contemptible right wing spin used to attack opponents of the Iraq War as “appeasers” of Saddam Hussein. I view those anyone who uses it as guilty of sinking to that subterranean level of discourse, and, as far as I’m concerned, the gloves come off when I see that spin.

  57. #57 Brian
    April 19, 2007

    Everybody does realize that “framing” justifies calling people “Neville Chamberlain atheists”, right?

    Um, No. And aside from not really having any idea how that got introduced into the conversation here (did I miss some comments up there??), I would add that I can’t actually see how the idea of “framing” itself justifies anything, let alone disparaging characterizations – hell let alone non-disparaging characterizations.

  58. #58 Blake Stacey
    April 19, 2007

    Orac says:

    Isn’t that essentially what I’ve said time and time again, namely that that vile, idiotic epithet (“Neville Chamberlain atheist”) is a frame that’s gone beyond framing to become nothing more than “spin” and ad hominem.

    I agree with you on the “vile” and “idiotic” part. My point is that it follows naturally from the commandment “know thy audience”. You could ace the AP European History exam and still think that was a valid characterization of Neville Chamberlain. Therefore, the rhetoric would work on you: the “framing” would be successful.

    Maybe this is a better way to put my point:

    All communication, Bora and MarkCC tell us, involves “framing”. OK, fine. That’s not particularly informative, because it doesn’t tell us where the dividing line is between acceptable and unacceptable framing.

    Larry Moran might say, “Communication is good, but communication which involves framing is bad.” Others would say, “Framing is good, but framing which descends into spin is bad.” The content of these two statements is, as far as I can tell, exactly the same, once you figure out how people are using the words they choose.

    Whether you’re dividing speech between communication and framing or between framing and spin, I don’t really care. Either way, you’ve got to draw a line beyond which statements become, well, vile and idiotic. Has the Mooney-Nisbet paper in Science, their newspaper op-ed or any of the blog posts on this topic helped draw that line or clarify where it should be placed? For me, no.

    This is what I was trying to get at, which I probably explained badly, thereby confusing Brian:

    And aside from not really having any idea how that got introduced into the conversation here (did I miss some comments up there??), I would add that I can’t actually see how the idea of “framing” itself justifies anything, let alone disparaging characterizations – hell let alone non-disparaging characterizations.

    If you accept that “I’m just framing” is a valid excuse, then you’re stuck saying that the Neville Chamberlain gambit and the argumentum ad Hitleriam are legitimate. This is a completely unacceptable outcome! Therefore, we need to look at actual examples of where “framing” goes too far.

  59. #59 J. J. Ramsey
    April 19, 2007

    Blake Stacey: “If you accept that ‘I’m just framing’ is a valid excuse, then you’re stuck saying that the Neville Chamberlain gambit and the argumentum ad Hitleriam are legitimate.”

    Except that Nisbet made very clear that not all manifestations of framing are acceptable. As he wrote in the post “What the Discovery Institute Understood about Framing”:

    “… 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…

    “Scientists should remain true to the underlying science”

    The Neville Chamberlain bilge isn’t true in either the historical or the contemporary sense, so it isn’t the kind of framing that Nisbet would endorse.

    (Indeed, I’d say that the Chamberlain gambit has become a frame for something dangerously close to slander.)

  60. #60 J. J. Ramsey
    April 19, 2007

    BTW, Mr. Stacey, I don’t think that this is correct:

    “Contrariwise, an ‘appeaser’ can think they’re doing the right thing and think the Chamberlain appellation is satisfactory (people who put ‘proud Neville Chamberlain atheist’ stickers on their blogs may be doing this).”

    The “proud Neville Chamberlain atheist” sticker seems to be meant as sarcasm.

  61. #61 Orac
    April 19, 2007

    The “proud Neville Chamberlain atheist” sticker seems to be meant as sarcasm.

    There’s no “seems to be” about it. It’s clearly meant to mock the whole “appeaser/Neville Chamberlain” appellation–which is exactly what it deserves.

  62. #62 Orac
    April 20, 2007

    I want to hear more about those one page grants.

    A couple of the D.O.D. granting mechanisms for cancer research (the Concept Award, for one, if I recall correctly) were one page grants. I don’t know if the Army is offering that particular grant mechanism this year or not.

  63. #63 John
    April 20, 2007

    Brian wrote:
    “I’m not questioning your abilities at framing, I’m questioning your attribution of reasons as to why other people are (supposedly) less apt at understanding it.”

    I’m not necessarily disputing their understanding of it. I’m disputing their claims that it is unimportant and/or dishonest, and offering a strong reason for them to do so.

    “If one has to be an independent scientist in order to understand framing,…”

    I made no such claim. I claim that scientists who have to write successful grant applications tend to have far more appreciation for the importance of framing than those who don’t, which seems congruent with Orac’s position.

    I also claim that those who aren’t good at framing will tend to claim that it isn’t important. Finally, I explicitly claim that there are exceptions to these tendencies, and offered myself as an exception to the latter tendency.

    “…I think that suggesting that this is the only way to get your head around the idea of framing is ridiculous.”

    I suggested no such thing.

    “You don’t think that the exact same considerations go into a lecture??”

    No, I think the considerations are very different, and framing is less important.

    “Of course the stakes are not as high in any given lecture as with any given grant proposal, but do you really think that these non-“active” scientists are just phoning it in or somehow can’t do framing because they don’t have the pressure of losing funding?”

    I made neither claim.

    “I found your hypothesis so ridiculous because it suggests that people in this debate are simply blinded by professional jealousy,…”

    I never said anything about jealousy, Brian. You’ve inferred a ridiculous number of things that I’ve neither suggested nor implied.

    “… and further assumes that people choose their career paths in science based upon how well they obtain grant funding.”

    I would have to say, as a rule, that ability to obtain grant funding plays an enormous role in career paths. I would not deny that there are exceptions.

    “I don’t think you should be surprised if plenty of “real” scientists find those ideas a bit insulting. I, for one, will be surprised if you find that it turns out to be predictive.”

    So in addition to multiple straw men, now you’ve introduced a new term: “real” scientists. What the hell does that mean?

  64. #64 Brian
    April 20, 2007

    Well John, it seems I’ve badly misunderstood some of the points you were making. I have never been an especially careful reader, and no doubt that is playing a large role in our current misunderstanding.

    I’m not necessarily disputing their understanding of it. I’m disputing their claims that it is unimportant and/or dishonest, and offering a strong reason for them to do so.

    Ahh… You see, I indeed thought that was what you were disputing. Somehow when you first responded to my comment by saying „You’re missing a really, really important distinction that Orac is making here, which is that ACTIVE scientists understand framing, and are far better at it than those who no longer producing primary scientific literature, such as PZ and Larry.” (emphasis mine), I got the idea that you were disputing PZ and Larry’s understanding of framing.

    In my defense, however, it probably didn’t help that Orac subtitled his post „A Cultural Divide”, and went on to say “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…” I was trying to work within the context of this particular post. I should perhaps go back and read him more closely.

    Similarly, my comment about professional jealousy seems to be off the mark. When you hypothesized that the hostility of “those who are no longer active scientists… because they aren’t very good at framing (getting grants)” are “hostile to anyone who argues for [framing's] importance”, you didn’t necessarily mean that the hostility was directed at the people who were good at framing (getting grants), just any ol’ person who happens to be arguing for the importance of framing. Indeed, the fault for this misinterpretation lies with me, and I am justly chastened as to the dangers of attributing motive to explain the arguments of others.

    Finally, I was also wrong to sumarize your position as suggesting that being a successful grant writer was the only way people would be able to have a good intuitive understanding of what framing is. It is indeed uncharitable of me to assume that you would not recognize lecturing and writing, whether it is done in seminar rooms, classrooms, or public venues, as also being a valuable context in which to understand the framing debate. It’s downright silly, in fact, as application of framing to some of these things is precisely what this debate is about!

    Of course, I do think that you may have misinterpreted me also. For example, when I wrote that stuff about “You don’t think…?” and “…do you really think…?” I wasn’t attributing those views to you, I was employing a rhetorical device in which I put forth examples of what follows from your argument (as I understand it, of course) in order to get you to embrace, reject, or clarify points which comprise the foundation of your argument. If I wanted to say that you were making these claims, I would have quoted you.

    This dynamic is played out in your response to me about the assumtion that people choose their career paths in science based upon how well they obtain grant funding. You seem to embrace this position, while allowing for exceptions:

    I would have to say, as a rule, that ability to obtain grant funding plays an enormous role in career paths. I would not deny that there are exceptions.

    So now, with your position better established, I am now in a better position to probe its veracity. For example, would you have to say, as a rule, that the ability to obtain grant funding plays an enormous role in the underrepresentation of women in science faculty positions across the nation?

    Oh, and as for that “real” scientists, thing – yeah that was kind of lame. In truth, I don’t really think slapping on qualifiers to scientists is wise or helpful in this debate…

  65. #65 John
    April 20, 2007

    Thanks for the clarifications.

    “… just any ol’ person who happens to be arguing for the importance of framing.”

    No, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily directed at people. I’d say more disdain toward the concept that framing is important. Even we scientists tend to view our successes as the result of our talents and our failures as the result of bad luck.

    “It is indeed uncharitable of me to assume that you would not recognize lecturing and writing, whether it is done in seminar rooms, classrooms, or public venues, as also being a valuable context in which to understand the framing debate. It’s downright silly, in fact, as application of framing to some of these things is precisely what this debate is about!”

    Exactly. But the importance of framing differs dramatically between lecturing on biology for premeds vs. nonmajors. If you find someone whose biology course for nonmajors gets rave reviews from students, I’d say there’s a 99% chance that the instructor has great talent for framing.

    “Of course, I do think that you may have misinterpreted me also. For example, when I wrote that stuff about “You don’t think…?” and “…do you really think…?” I wasn’t attributing those views to you, I was employing a rhetorical device in which I put forth examples of what follows from your argument (as I understand it, of course) in order to get you to embrace, reject, or clarify points which comprise the foundation of your argument. If I wanted to say that you were making these claims, I would have quoted you.”

    Fair enough. There’s a pretty fine line between that and innuendo, don’t ya think? In your next question, you avoid that problem:

    “So now, with your position better established, I am now in a better position to probe its veracity. For example, would you have to say, as a rule, that the ability to obtain grant funding plays an enormous role in the underrepresentation of women in science faculty positions across the nation?”

    Not at all. I’d say that’s an effect, not a cause.

    In biology (I can’t speak for other sciences), I’d say it’s more a tendency for female faculty to be paired up with male faculty (setting up huge conflicts in jobhunting, childrearing, etc), while far more male faculty have partners that aren’t under the same pressures. That makes two clear predictions–that females not paired up with faculty will do better than females who are, and that males that are paired up with faculty will do worse than males who aren’t. Anecdotally, I do know that one of the faculty positions I was offered was contingent on me not having a partner who also was looking for a faculty position, but this was all determined orally.

    I haven’t noticed any bias against women in study sections, and I’d say that women tend to be as good or better than males at framing.

    That’s not to say that I haven’t seen grant applications from women that were horribly framed, of course.

  66. #66 Brian
    April 20, 2007

    But the importance of framing differs dramatically between lecturing on biology for premeds vs. nonmajors.

    Perhaps this is where we (substantively) disagree – I would say the importance of framing is the same, the importance of which frame you use differs.

    And to just try to sum up my position as briefly as possible:

    We scientists use framing in our grant applications all the time – yes, excellent point, strong work.

    Those who don’t do much grant writing in their careers won’t/don’t understand framing (and/or) its significance in science communication – Um, no.

  67. #67 olvlzl the Heretic
    April 20, 2007

    namely that that vile, idiotic epithet (“Neville Chamberlain atheist”)

    I’m finding it increasingly useful as a diagnostic tool. It’s use is a dead giveaway that you’re in the presence of an arrogant jerk.

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