The Intersection


There have been a lot of oddities when it comes to the reception of our Science piece.

One is how many people can’t even correctly spell Nisbet’s name.

Another is the seemingly dismissive attitude towards much communication research. Perhaps the best comment on this phenomenon came from Chad Orzel:

…the people who are most adamant about Nisbet and Mooney being way off base are the people who are most outraged whenever somebody with an engineering degree dares to say something stupid about biology.

The irony here is that this framing business is exactly Nisbet’s area of expertise.

Now, thankfully, another expert in communication research has weighed in: Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin, who’s one of the most cited scholars on the topic in the field. He notes that “framing is a construct that has developed across disciplines and across levels of analysis.” Scheufele goes on to enumerate some of the different fields in which the concept has been discussed, and ends with this resonant point:

…[some responses] focus on terminological disagreements or disciplinary turf battles that are largely irrelevant to the point Nisbet and Mooney are making. And that is the trap that is so easy to fall into when communicating about scientific research. We are talking to each other, using words and distinctions that most of the public does not care about and that sometimes, unfortunately, miss the larger point altogether. And then we’re surprised if nobody pays attention.


  1. #1 Greg Laden
    April 12, 2007

    I’m one of the wort offenders on the name spelling, for which I apologize. I’ve known mmany more nesbits than nisbets and it just comes out that way.

    Why do you suppose people are assuming Nisbet is a biology or, for that matter, an engineer? I can’t remember seeing anything on his site or elsewhere indicating that he’s anything other than a communication guy. Why is this important, do you think?

    I’ve read and commented on Scheufele’s post, but there is as yet no response. Have a look at it. There was a discussion that I probably started, about the history of the framing idea. When I made that post I was very much under the impression that I was approaching an esoteric side of this discussion. I had noted that some of the other key ideas being discussed were already rolling along with a lot of momentum so I avoided that. I really don’t think the discussion of Goffman vs. NeoFraming is important to the issue at hand, and I find it interesting that the biggest reaction from you’all and some of your colleagues is about this rather than the other critiques and comments. Maybe this is a thing we academics do …

    In my view, the most important issue that has been brought up is this one: OK, you guys are the framing experts. We’all are thinking that framing roughly equals spin, and framing/spin to be effective involves making your immediate point. Such as: give us more money, leave our curriculum alone, don’t regulate our access to stem cells, stop enabling the “debate” on global warming and just get on with it … these all being messages to the public, congress, etc.

    But we’all (the one’s you’ve come to with your message) are worried that in working towards these important objectives you have to present the science in ways that are not true to the science itself, and you have to sometimes appease political factions that are anathema to us.

    This seems to be the main concern. Is it real? Is this simply a side effect of the medicine? If so, fine, now you have to convince people that they need the medicine anyway. There will be those who refuse to “like” this, of course.

    Or is this characterization wrong? Is it the case that these side effects are urban myths and that we don’t understand?



  2. #2 James Hrynyshyn
    April 12, 2007

    I don’t know, Chris. You and Matt make some good arguments about the power of framing — and I just realized that I am using framing techniques each time I present Al Gore’s climate change slide show (tonight for the League of Women Voters in Hendersonville, NC). But have you made the case that framing is for scientists? That’s where the reasoned dissent flares up. Greg Laden left good comment on Scheufele’s blog:

    The majority of criticism that has developed, however, is not about this. It is about concern over framing … as described by the authors … being a form of either appeasement or intellectual dishonesty (or if not intellectual dishonesty, at least, a practice of generating constructs that are put forward as what we are thinking when it is not really what we are thinking).

    The way I see it, no one who has bothered to think about your thesis disagrees that scientists are facing an uphill battle against those who are good at framing their arguments. But many of us are quite uncomfortable with using the very techniques that define the modus operandi of the other side.

    The fear is that we will become the enemy if we embrace framing tactics; and does the end justify the means?

    Perhaps with climate change it does, given the threat and the short amount of time we have left to change the prevailing zeitgeist. But with other, less urgent, issues, such as evolution vs creationism, that argument gets harder to make.

  3. #3 Trinifar
    April 12, 2007

    I wrote to Matt and Chris to get their comments on Greg’s and PZ’s comments on this post: putting a good picture in a bad frame.

    Chris is on his way to Australia and asked that I post the link here; he will “weigh in next time i have a chance”.

    [I remember (with a shudder) when I thought international business travel was exciting. Hope you are not stuck in coach.]

  4. #4 Nathanael Nerode
    April 18, 2007

    I’d like to follow up on what others said. We can’t make a dishonest frame for science (one we really don’t believe in) — even if it works temporarily, it will backfire in the long run. How do we make a convincing frame which is also intellectually honest?

    I think the only way to do so is to start with our philosophical principles: rationalism and empiricism. That is, think logically and trust the evidence. This is a strong and powerful frame as well as being, honestly, the core philosophical principles behind science.

    Within this frame “fact”, “truth”, “evidence”, “theory” have particular meanings. Within the evangelical Christian frame they have different meanings. Working to shift people’s frames from theirs to ours is absolutely critical.

    *And it seems to be done more effectively by the ‘loud atheists’ than by anyone else*. Weirdly, perhaps.

New comments have been disabled.