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).
Among 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?”