The Island of Doubt

Fellow SciBloggers Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet have a short essay in this week’s Science that says scientists need to adopt the “framing” strategy that right-wing propagandists have been so successful with over the past couple of decades — if science is ever to trump the neo-conservative claptrap that infects global warming and evolution debates, among other important public policy issues. It’s generating a lot of attention in these parts of the blogosphere and throughout the scientific community, I expect. Subscribers can read the whole thing but the publicly accessible one-line summary is pretty much all you need to know: “To engage diverse publics, scientists must focus on ways to make complex topics personally relevant.” I, and others, interpret this as: Don’t be afraid to dumb it down.

Chris and Matt might not like that oversimplification of their argument, but after all, they’re arguing in favor of not getting too anal-retentive about the facts and details, and replacing them with something that resonates, emotionally, with audiences, so they really can’t complain when I do the same thing with their case.

“Frames” say Matt and Chris,

pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible, and what should be done
…scientists must realize that facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it.

First, there’s some extraordinarily astute and comprehensive discussions responding to the paper. Among my favorites are those on Bora’s Blog Around the Clock, Carl’s Loom and PZ’s Pharygula. It’s not easy to come up with something original to say after all that. But I’m going to make a stab.

Essentially, my response is that it is neither realistic nor fair to ask scientists to ditch their penchant for the facts and wander into territory more familiar to the propagandist and the journalist. To be a great scientist requires enormous sacrifice and years of focusing on those very details that our framing enthusiasts would so readily discard. To tell them “Oh, and by the way, in addition to knowing your own field backwards and forwards, and being a good people manager, and writing killer grant applications, you also have to be a master of rhetoric, well-skilled in crafting public PowerPoint/Keynote presentations, and be completely up-to-speed on the latest political hot-button issues,” is just plain cruel. Yes, it’s wonderful when you stumble across an accomplished Renaissance scientist with the ability to make clear what was until then obscure and arcane. But these people would be on the endangered species list if they’re weren’t human.

Indeed, the job of making science relevant has already been taken, by science journalists.

You might accuse me of a little conflict-of-interest here, because I am one of those science journalists. I’m not the best science journalist who ever lived, but I have gone to the trouble of getting a degree in science (biology), and I like to think that there is a role for those of us who straddle the two cultures. It is our job to dumb things down — just enough to make science interesting (fascinating, if we’re very good) to the public, but still faithful enough to the science not to corrupt the essential message.

“Framing,” if I may be so blunt, sounds to me like just another faddish term for knowing how to tell a good story. The right-wing elements of American society have been quite successful at telling their story for a while. Now it’s time for the rest of us to tell ours. That much of the Nisbet/Mooney argument I embrace wholeheartedly. I just don’t think there’s anything particularly revolutionary or new about it.

Most importantly, however, we have to remember not to get carried away with the tools of rhetoric. In our zeal to tell our story, we have to stop short of making stuff up (which is what the other guys are so good at). So, yes, leave out some of the detail in order to get the point across. But

1. Why not leave the job primarily to those who are already trained to do it instead of asking already over-tasked scientists to take on the responsibilty?


2. Remember that respect for the truth is what defines the scientific perspective, and separates us from neo-conservative, fundamentalist, authoritarian types we all love to hate.


  1. #1 Jonathan Vause
    April 7, 2007

    Exactly. I’ve tried to express my feelings to this effect on Chris and Matt’s blogs, but you have summarised the two major objections perfectly.

  2. #2 writerdd
    April 7, 2007

    Why are scientists so afraid to communicate in a way that resonates with the general public? People don’t give a crap about stats and figures. In fact, most are afraid of numbers, formulas, and “science” in general, having been convinced by bad high-school teachers that math and science are too hard for the average person to understand.

    Talking about science in a way that engages people emotionally and socially is certainly not dumbing it down. It is learning how to communicate with real people who are not totally engrossed in your jargon and embedded in your subculture. If scientists don’t learn this and stop being so afraid to speak to normal people in normal language, then they are doomed to irrelevance.

  3. #3 bigTom
    April 7, 2007

    I think Chris and Matt have certainly touched off a very useful debate. Of course your comments are relevant. Only a few scientists are likely to be familar and comfortable with the approach advocated. Perhaps we only need a few, backed up by sciencewriters, and well informed lay-people to take up their challenge.

    In any case, when opponents try to muddy a debate by impugning that scientists are really just a pack of opportunistic fraudsters, and the scientist responds by providing yet more incomprehensible detail -it doesn’t really help his case. In situations like this we need someone defending the integrity of science and scientists, not providing yet one more decrement of uncertainty of the result.

  4. #4 Chris Mooney
    April 7, 2007

    Hi James,
    Thanks for your thoughtful post. Our Science piece was necessarily brief, so we couldn’t lay out our whole “framing science” plan–but suffice it to say that we don’t require every last bench scientist to become a master framer. I respond to your points in more detail here

  5. #5 L Jewett
    April 7, 2007

    I just don’t think there’s anything particularly revolutionary or new about it.”

    Nor do I. I was also educated as a scientist and as a science teacher. These guys — Mooney and Nisbet — have education/expertise in neither area.

    They are simply assuming with no evidence that (as they put it) “scientists carry with them the wrong assumptions about what makes for effective communication.”

    I agree with your assessment:
    “Most importantly, however, we have to remember not to get carried away with the tools of rhetoric. In our zeal to tell our story, we have to stop short of making stuff up (which is what the other guys are so good at)”

    Right you are.

    Hopefully, the “science framing” fad will be over quickly (before it starts, with some luck. God forbid that it last as long as disco!).

  6. #6 Curtis
    April 7, 2007

    I’m shocked to read that so many scientists want this framing science “fad” to go away. It should be clear to everyone that science communication with the public is not working. I’m excited that the article from Mooney and Nisbet has sparked this much debate. Maybe it will get more scientists to focus on the question: How do we improve science communication?
    Doing nothing won’t work.

    As a scientist, I feel that Mooney and Nisbet’s article is a great step to improving science communication. But it’s not the only step or the last step. Science education is another important step, but it is also not the only step or the last step.

    We should approach this question like a scientific question. Analyze the problem, make hypotheses, test hypotheses.

  7. #7 L
    April 10, 2007

    “I’m shocked to read that so many scientists want this framing science “fad” to go away”

    I’d restrict it to the framing fad that has broken out over the past few days on blogs.

    Scientists and science educators have been framing science for a long time now and it works very well, thank you in that restricted form. It’s hardly revolutionary or even new to make science relevant and meaningful for one’s audience.

    “It should be clear to everyone that science communication with the public is not working.”

    And the reason for that is what?

    The assumption of Mooney and Nisbet is that the primary fault lies with scientists.

    Where is the evidence for this? Mooney Nisbet published in a journal called Science and they provided no evidence for this assumption.

    Where is it?

    Let me point out that in the political environment that has existed over the past 6 years, it has been virtually impossible for scientists to get their message out — on global warming, stem cells, evolution or anything else.

    Faced with the kind of massive disinformation campaign that has been waged, scientists have had all they could do simply to hold down the fort.

    But the problem runs much deeper than that. With regard to several of the issues that Mooney and Nisbet mention (stem cells, evolution, even global warming), people’s religious beliefs often determine their positions.

    It is a gross oversimplification to assume that the issue is a simple matter of framing and that changing the frames that scientists use is going to suddenly make the public listen.

    Mooney and Nisbet’s article is a great step to improving science communication.”

    How is it great, specifically?

    The authors never said in their article how it is so much better than what scientists are currently doing. In fact, they never even defined precisely what they would do, so perhaps someone else will do it for them.

    How is it better?

    “Framing” is not new, by the way, so that alone can not be used as evidence that what they have proposed will be a real advance in the way that scientists communicate with the public. The word might be new, but science educators have been using the concept of framing for a long time now.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2007

    I think your “dumbed down” definition of framing (tell a good story) is pretty much right on, but I worry (as do others) that it would specifically add the additional element is that the criterion for the story being good is, mainly, that the story is good, not that the story is factual or conceptually accurate and consistent with the actual science.

    There are those of us who believe you can do that … it’s just some times harder.

New comments have been disabled.