Framing: still baffled.

To my dismay, even after a good night’s sleep and a fresh perusal of the paper, after reading both of Greg Laden’s thorough articles, Mooney’s latest summary, Orac’s claim that it’s nothing but tailoring your message to your audience, and Nisbet’s roundup of responses, I’m still hopelessly confused. What the heck is this paper telling me to do?

Here is my crude, primitive and confused understanding of frames. If I am an advocate for science, I should avoid saying, “I like science, and I strangle puppies!” I should say instead, “I like science, and I snuggle puppies!” OK so far, I can agree with the general concept, even if it does seem a little obvious … but then, that could be more the fault of my ignorance of the idea than anything else. Unfortunately, I’m not getting much more than that out of the Nisbet/Mooney paper.

I’m also seeing examples of bias in the work. What if my goal is to be an advocate for strangling puppies? Shouldn’t my comment instead be seen as an example of good framing, trying to link my puppy abuse to a positive frame of science? I was a bit put off by the fact that the authors single out religion as something that must be respected—it gives the impression that Nisbet/Mooney consider atheism something akin to puppy strangling, a habit to be practiced in a dark closet and never to be discussed in polite company.

There’s another common scientific practice (not that puppy strangling is common among scientists…) that they tell us to avoid: technical details.

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.

Oh, no … so we can’t use this webcomic anymore?


Now we all know that we have to dole out the technical details appropriately—I’ve misgauged an audience a few times myself—but our possession of the data is one of our greatest strengths—if we’re going to start equating explaining the evidence to puppy-strangling, we might as well hang it up and go home right now. Rather, I think I’ll argue that Nisbet/Mooney are using poor framing, and what we ought to be doing is hammering away with the wonderful evidence we have, and pointing out the lack of evidence on the other side. Now it’s fair to say we shouldn’t explain PCR and list nucleotide-by-nucleotide differences produced by evolutionary mechanisms, but general principles and explanations of how we know what we know are a core of science; you can’t simply tell us to avoid it. It’s like suggesting that we could do a better job of promoting science if we could only hide that sciencey stuff.

I have the feeling that if I had a Nisbet/Mooney Training Seminar in how to frame science, I’d end up giving fluff talks that play up economic advantages and how evolution contributes to medicine with slides of puppies rather than squid, and I’d never talk about mechanisms and evidence again. That sounds like a formula for disaster to me—it turns scientists into guys with suits who have opinions, and puts us in competition with lawyers and bureaucrats in the media. It’s saying that we should abandon our strengths and adopt the strengths of the other side. Bleh. I think I’ll have to pass.


  1. #1 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 10, 2007

    I’m already quoted, so I haven’t much new. Well, unless I repackage and add to some of my comment from Greg’s last post:

    I think it is clear that Nisbet & Mooney has failed in efficiently communicating what they want to do. They also seem to have failed to put their message (in the Goffman sense) in the correct frame for scientists.

    But N&M larger and fuzzier framework (which seems to be about social construction of meaning) is correct in the sense that this is what we want to do.

    Normally people switch between frames all the time, but the problem is to break or modify the bounded rationality of an inappropriate frame.

    However, I don’t think it is possible to step into any individuals fundamentalist frame to change it. These frames and most of their individuals are heavily guarded against change and/or switch. (And perhaps even individually indicative of pathology.)

    The conversion descriptions from fundamentalist positions one reads is most often triggered by them being presented by material that shows that they have been lied to or at least not gotten all of the available alternatives presented for them.

    On the other hand, one could possibly publicly try to affect change in the common frame as it is presented.

    Respect religion so you don’t scare people away.

    Well, in the last century were was a frame called “discussion” or “discourse”. It seems people met to freely exchange and evaluate ideas. I believe the roots goes back to the Greeks and the Socratic method.

    But it is all extinct now. In the media world of today we respect all ideas and frames, we just don’t value them.