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 tristero
    April 9, 2007

    First of all – and please read the entire paragraph before jumping down my throat! – I have the utmost respect for many genuine religious beliefs and practices. That said, that respect is MY opinion and I have zero interest convincing others to agree with it (or disagree with it). Specifically, I see no reason why, if a scientist finds a particular belief wrong, or finds the very concept of religion wrong, they shouldn’t say so, in whatever language they feel is appropriate. Of course, it’s good social hygience not to needlessly make enemies, but it’s equally good social hygiene not to finesse what you believe passionately. In other words, I often disagree strongly with Dawkins, but the last thing I’d do is tell him to shut up.

    Secondly, PZ is 100% right: Remove or minimize the data, skip the technical details, and what’s left is not science, but just assertions. It reduces popular science writing to a prime example of the fallacy of arguing from authority. And I’m speaking as a layperson, here. I WANT the data and technical details (explained well goes without saying).

    Finally, if we laypeople have problems reading graphs, undertstanding math, and grasping how to infer meaning from data – and many people surely do – that is OUR problem, not yours. The best thing to do is not to drop the technical stuff, but help laypeople understand it better. And understand the importance of it.

    Yes, indeed, that requires world-class writing skills. But it doesn’t require re-framing. That requires expertise. And given that most of us have trouble becoming expert at even one thing, that is an awful lot to require of scientists struggling with knotty problems that require deep concentration and focus.

  2. #2 Alric
    April 9, 2007

    I think this is similar to Dawkins vis-a-vis Neil de Grasse Tyson as best illustrated by this short video:

    I think both approaches have their place. We need communicators with both styles for differences audiences.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    April 9, 2007

    Matthew C. Nisbet:

    I appreciate Greg Laden’s intense interest in framing. His latest post, however, dismisses literally hundreds of peer-reviewed papers across the fields of communication, political science, and sociology.

    As a card-carrying member of the APS, it is my Official Physicist Bastard duty to point out that hundreds of peer-reviewed papers in sociology are still just hundreds of papers in sociology. This is a special case of the mathematical principle that N times nothing is still nothing.

    They can snow all their clients
    By calling it “science” —
    Although it’s only sociology!

    Tom Lehrer

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    April 9, 2007

    More seriously, I think that the claim that “framing” is “nothing but tailoring your message to your audience” (to use PZ’s words) misses a big point. To put it more precisely, I think that glossing over subtleties for a freshman biology class or even “spinning” a grant proposal is not the same as doing a more-slick-than-accurate PR job for the general public. As I said at Respectful Insolence,

    Within science there are error-correcting mechanisms through which the spin, hype and other sins can be criticized. For example, if you dumb down your freshman lectures too much, your students will be left with a poor understanding, and you’ll get in trouble with your fellow faculty. Other mechanisms work in other arenas; we need such devices, honestly, because humans are awfully good at sinning and can do it with style. CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error.

    Our protective devices have at least a thousand failure modes, naturally, but at least they exist — within science itself! What comparable checks and balances exist in television, magazines, pulpits and the other avenues through which science is disseminated?

    See, this is where I put on my physicist hat and say that all this talk about framin’ is just that: talk. It’s sociological blah-dee-blah. I don’t know from frames — installin’ windows was never my trade — but I can tell that not havin’ consequences for people doin’ wrong is a sure-fire recipe for trouble.

    Since the problem involves communicating science, we need to look at our current communication structures and find out what they’re doing, too. […] In amongst all this talk of what scientists should do and how scientists should explain themselves, what’s being done to train new science writers and make it more profitable for media organizations to report actual, factual discoveries? Are we to assume that “framing” knowledge in the right way will make it propagate without error through a flawed system? Should we paint everything we discover with giant letters which say “MORALLY INSTRUCTIVE!” in vivid neon, like subway walls which tell us that “JESUS SAVES”?

    I couldn’t give a pair of fetid dingo kidneys for a “frame shift”, but changing the feedback mechanisms at work in particular arenas could do a world of good. expanded on this point:

    I heartily agree with the sentiment that any decent argument here should end in suggestions of actions. This is one of them. Another is that scientists working within the frame of science never the less should use unambiguous keywords. (For example, change “evolutionary theory” to “evolutionary biology” per Greg Laden’s suggestion.)

    Some of these will take time. What shouldn’t take time was the suggestion of using hired hands, communication experts that knows the frames, when for example science interest organizations push an agenda. Which they probably already do.

    I noted this elsewhere, but since Nisbet commented here, I will say again that I think he and Mooney muddied the waters by not exposing their version of definition of frame sooner. (Obviously being aware of the “turf battle”.) Which would not be a good start for an initiative on communication.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    April 9, 2007

    Dang it, I can’t get my HTML right. That second block quote came from Torbjörn Larsson.

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    April 9, 2007

    Matthew C. Nisbet:

    I’m not disputing the well-anchoredness of your terminology in the sociological literature, nor am I trying to imply that you invented these concepts out of whole cloth. If anything, I am trying to point out (in my fumbling way) that practitioners of the “hard sciences” may have little inclination to take grand sociological notions seriously, particularly when those grand notions sound (or can easily be made to sound) like they conflict with concepts of scientific integrity.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    April 9, 2007

    Latest to join the swarm is Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance, who concludes his post in the following way:

    But, in the absence of any actually helpful suggestions, I will take the opportunity to point to this recent post by Charlie Petit in the (awesome in its own right) Knight Science Journalism Tracker. The punchline: science journalism in the United States is in the midst of a catastrophic downsizing. In the wake of the news that Mike Lafferty of the Columbus Dispatch has accepted a buyout, Petit mentions other periodicals that have recently decimated their science coverage, including Time, Newsday, and the Dallas Morning News (I’ll add the LA Times to that list). Science sections have dropped from 95 less than twenty years ago to around 40 today.

    I’m just saying.

  8. #8 Chris
    April 9, 2007

    Everyone should understand, though, that the Science article has precisely two suggestions with respect to the evolution wars:

    – Respect religion so you don’t scare people away.

    – Talking about data and evidence doesn’t help, so avoid it.

    That just means I’m completely out of the picture, and someone else is going to have to do this business. Those are not ideas I can follow.

    Well, I don’t think anyone is proposing you as the ideal candidate for the post of Missionary to the Godridden. (Dawkins, on the other hand, does hold some position related to promoting the public understanding of science, IIRC. Fortunately for him he’s in England, where religion is both less widespread and less, um, dedicated in its opposition to facts.)

    But I also think your central point is right on: scientists can’t afford to avoid the messy details of science, or it will really be just another competing viewpoint. There’s quite enough people who think that already, without encouraging it by hiding the advantage science has over other “ways of knowing”.

    I know I’ve said this already on several related threads (and the point isn’t original to me by any means), but we don’t need more people to believe science, we need more people to understand science. It does no good to say that this is too high a standard – it is the only standard worth having. Without the scientific way of thinking – examining the evidence and scrutinizing both new and old claims – all you have is a new breed of dogma.

    For those people who really think that most people are too stupid and lazy to look at evidence before making up their minds, well, at least the Enlightenment is going to go down fighting. (But if that were so, how would it have gotten started in the first place? Such a contemptuous dismissal of the intellect of the human species doesn’t seem to hold water, given our species’ achievements.)

  9. #9 Norman Doering
    April 10, 2007

    we don’t need more people to believe science, we need more people to understand science. It does no good to say that this is too high a standard – it is the only standard worth having.

    It’s the only standard that will work. Most people already “believe” in science, they just don’t understand how it works. That’s why the ID/creationist and anti-climate change guys always want “scientists” on their teams. And they are pretty good at framing.

    They are also good at attacking the over simplified models that you have to use when you reduce a complex model into a bite sized chunk you can communicate in a short newspaper article.

    The best thing to ever happen for the climate change crowd was Gore’s movie. That appears to have worked. It changed minds. So, maybe evolution could use a good movie? Remember, “March of the Penguins” made money, so did Gore’s film. I think Dawkins has enough clout to get Hollywood interested in making a buck.

  10. #10 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.

  11. #11 Oran Kelley
    April 10, 2007

    And is the “greater acceptance” you do see simply respect for social authority rather than an actual understanding?

    You: Absolutely not. That is not even close to what I’m saying.

    That there what I wrote would be what’s called a question. To wit: is European “acceptance” of science a function of greater understanding or is it a function of greater deference to authority?

    And if Americans ARE laggard in science knowledge (I’ve never seen a study of general populations that measures scientific knowledge as opposed to attitudes), doesn’t that say something about the state of science communication in this country?

    And being better at PR than post-modern literati or philosophers is setting a pretty low bar for science communication, I’d say.

    In spite of the fact that many scientists teach, a great many of them seem to have no idea how–“you either get it or you don’t” seems to be the pedagogy often employed–which is bitterly complained about by their students.

    I really think science has no room for complacency here.

    Another problem is the tendency of scientists who ARE good communicators to use their expertise as a lever to make all kinds of claims that have nothing to do with it or which are, at best, real stretchers (Pinker and Dawkins would be my two big examples of this tendency.)

    The idea that scientists claim to know much they do not actually know has a lot more traction than it should in the public realm. Everyday oversell is probably one reason why.

  12. #12 Blake Stacey
    April 10, 2007

    Keith Douglas:

    A lot of crap does get published in sociology, but there is good stuff, too. (Often the better papers I’ve seen don’t seem too useful since they are idea-poor and the idea-rich papers are outlandish, alas.) All these weaknesses call for better scientific study of society, not abandoning such to “cultural studies” in English departments and such.

    I can certainly accept that. Ever higher — never surrender — damn the resonance cannons, full speed ahead! Etc.

    Which doesn’t stop me being irritated at a discussion which seems almost consciously to avoid the practical.

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