The Island of Doubt

We can’t stop arguing about framing, can we? I’ve been pondering the subject much of late, especially while I waited these past four days for Duke Power to get us back on the grid following Sunday’s windstorm, and I think I’ve got something relevant to contribute. I know Matt Nisbet has got lots of social science research that suggests people’s eyes glaze over when a scientist uses data to explain something, but that’s not my experience. Which is:

As some may recall, I’m a member of The Climate Project, a team of some 1,000 volunteers that Al Gore trained to present his Keynote/PowerPoint slide show on climate change. I’ve done it half a dozen times now, to a wide variety of audiences, including high school students and town councilors. I posit that the slide show is an excellent test of this framing theory. There are some notable reactions to certain slides that bear on the debate.

Matt and Chris Mooney argue that climate science, to use one of their favorite examples, goes over the heads of too many people and this is why the message of urgency is being lost. The data are clear, but, according to Framing advocates, unless most of the scientific details are replaced by emotion-laden, audience-targeted imagery and metaphorical anecdotes, folks are just going to tune out. In fact, goes the argument, opponents of global warming action have managed to make such progress among the American populace by exploiting framing techniques.

I disagree. While the Gore slide show is full of emotionally powerful images, such as Manhattan drowning under 20 feet of sea-level rise (no longer a completely ridiculous notion, as James Hansen writes), it also contains a fair bit of data in the form of slides that would be at home in a scientific presentation. (Well, OK, a very polished scientific presentation, but still).

i-592b436f4ca8bb32ac49a6617931b399-cliamtegraph.jpgAmong them is the famous graph depicting the linked rise and fall of carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures over the last 650,000 years — the one that Gore uses a cherry picker to get to the top in “An Inconvenient Truth.” The cherry picker is pure theatrics but not really anything to do with framing. He’s appealing to the audience’s sense of humor and the absurd, not their “framed” predispositions. The data are pure science. It is perhaps the most important data-based slide in the show. It’s quite information dense. When showing the slide, I linger on it for longer than any other slide.

It’s important to discuss the depth of time, the way in which the two signals are connected, the fact that sometimes temperature leads CO2 in the early stages of the upswings in the cycles, what the ice age has to do with it, how Milankovitch (Earth orbit) cycles are involved, what are the climate consequences between the height of an ice age and an interglacial period, and the level of uncertainty surrounding the future predictions. That’s a lot of detail, and according to framing theory, it should turn off a fair portion of the audience.

It does no such thing. People react strongly. You can tell that this is the point at which the show begins to become compelling and audience members are beginning to buy into the overall argument. The slide is crucial, and a perfect example of how data, detail and hard science can be interesting. Also, in full-length versions of show, it follows immediately on the heels of a discussion of oxygen isotopes found in air bubbles trapped in ice cores. Mentioning the word “isotopes” takes some courage but it can be explained without expending too much time, and I find people enjoy getting this glimpse into the down and dirty of climatology.

Of course, you can’t bombard a lay audience with this kind of data density for 90 minutes. Most of the show is dominated by more visceral imagery, but data slides aren’t exactly rare. And the popularity of the show suggests to me that the balance between data and pretty pictures is a good one, one that Gore has refined over two decades.

I conclude first that people can handle data and details, as long as they’re noting buried by them, and second that a little framing — tailoring a presentation’s focus to the audience — is an appropriate tool, but it’s only one tool in a kit. For example, if one is giving the Gore show to a group of religious fundamentalists, what to do with fact that the ice core data goes back 650,000 years? I’m still working on that one. But you can’t leave out the slide showing the link between carbon emissions and temperature because it’s crucial to making your case, and so successful at it.

If this sounds a little like trying to find a compromise between framers and anti-framers, so be it. I will, however, sign off by objecting strongly to Matt and Chris’ recent dismissal of Dawkins and other anti-religious polemicists in their Washington Post piece. Like Larry Moran, I find it odd that they would offer such an idea without even a smidgen of evidence. My own take is that Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris’ books over the past couple of years seems to be having a remarkable effect, giving atheism a public platform it has never enjoyed before. And that is a good thing. The latest issue of Canada’s Maclean’s magazine, for example, has as its cover story “Is God Poison?


  1. #1 Stuart Coleman
    April 20, 2007

    I think you have the most sensible take on this framing thing yet, and you’re the first one I’ve seen to back it up with anything but speculation and hunches. I guess data is convincing!

  2. #2 Mecha
    April 20, 2007

    I think you’re misrepresenting framing (like a lot of people). Presenting a graph in a clear and dramatic manner, in the midst of a lot of other things, _is a framing technique_. And it’s a darn good one.

    Go to
    and scan over that list. Tell me if you think that, minus the jargon, is in any way part of the goal of An Inconvenient Truth. If it’s used.

    In my opinion? It’s all four listed types of Frame Alignment. Bridges it into the real world, amplifies it emotionally and with data (graph effect! You say it makes people take notice.), extends it with emotion and data, and at least tries to transform to reach people. Looks like framing to me. So why is your position ‘compromise’? If you believe An Inconvenient Truth works, you sorta have to believe Framing works. You have, in essence, provided an example of framing science being better than just throwing it out there and saying ‘Take it.’ Embrace the framing. It’s not a bad word.


  3. #3 Stephen
    April 20, 2007

    There is a rule of thumb in the book publishing industry that you lose half of your audience for each equation in your book. So, a book that has 300 equations reduces your audience by a factor of 10^90. Since there are fewer elementary particles in the Universe, you should not expect to be able to sell a book. I expect to have half the normal readership of this comment.

    But this rule of thumb is for when you don’t know your audience. My calculus text book in school has tons of equations, and i wouldn’t have bought it if it didn’t. If you KNOW your audience, you can do much better that any of these rules of thumb.

    Which is where we get to your comment on bringing the message to fundamentalists. Knowing that audience, it has been suggested that a tack to take is to appeal to the very Christian mandate that humans must take proper stewardship of the Earth. That can likely be done without the key slide. Doing that does an end run around the Young Earthers, if any. It doesn’t mean that you have to abandon the slide show. It means you need more than one presentation.

    More than one presentation. And, i’m sure, one of them has to look like Dawkins. I probably won’t give the Gore presentation without having heard the Dawkins presentation. (OK, so i’ve mixed metaphores. Sue me.)

  4. #4 Trinifar
    April 20, 2007

    … according to Framing advocates, unless most of the scientific details are replaced by emotion-laden, audience-targeted imagery and metaphorical anecdotes, folks are just going to tune out.

    That’s not a fair characterization and reminds me of Dr Engor’s take on evolution and Darwin (link is to Orac’s recent post).

    Framing advocates — or people who what to address hot button issues effectively — seemed to be saying something much more pragmatic. Most of the discussion has been about what to do in the case when you have little time and want to reach a wide audience — in which case data dumping makes no sense. In the context of a 90-minute talk on the other hand, if you didn’t not present some of the details and offer some explanation of scientific terms and methods you’d just be stepping out of the picture altogether. Not a good move. Venue, time, context, audience — they all need to be considered.

    As you note, Gore’s slideshow is quite powerful and great framing for many audiences, who attend knowing its length and general theme.

    Mecha, thanks for the link. I hadn’t seen that page.

  5. #5 Alvaro
    April 22, 2007

    First “framing” article where I do see good framing…and very nice to learn about your experience with The Climate Project.

    Still, aren’t we reinventing education and communications 101? we know the usual limits of working memory, that people tend to prioritize “what’s in for me”…couldn’t agree more with “I conclude first that people can handle data and details, as long as they’re noting buried by them, and second that a little framing — tailoring a presentation’s focus to the audience — is an appropriate tool”

  6. #6 muhabbet
    March 26, 2009