Framing and Coordination

I haven’t been following the discussion of the Mooney/ Nisbet “framing” article in Science all that closely, because most of the commentary has tended to be uninteresting in predictable ways. You can find a fairly comprehensive list of links from Bora (who else?), and Matt and Chris respond to most of it.

There was one response that struck me as worth highlighting, though, from James Hrynyshyn of the Island of Doubt:

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.

I think this is right on the mark, though I disagree somewhat with his proposed solution. The damage to the public reputation of science has not been done by scientists, it’s been done by a well-funded network of political operatives and professional PR flacks. It’s crazy to expect scientists to be able to counter this directly– that’s not what we’re trained to do.

James suggests that the best counter for this is for science journalists to take the lead in responding, but I’m not sure I agree with that. The current model of “objective” journalism in the form of “he said, she said” stories has been skillfully exploited by the right-wing PR machine, and could do with some reform, but even if journalists found the political will to start including factual evaluations in their stories, I don’t think this would really solve the problem. Science journalists are still a distinct group with their own set of goals and interests, and those goals and interests will not always be aligned with those of scientists.

What’s needed is really to fight fire with fire. In a battle for public opinion, professional PR flacks are going to beat professional scientists nine times out of ten, so why let it come down to that sort of uneven battle? What we need is not so much to train individual scientists to be mediocre PR flacks, but to get the scientific community to employ professional PR flacks. There are people out there who manipulate public opinion for a living, and they’ll work for anyone. Find them, hire them, and listen to them.

The problem here, it seems to me, is not so much a matter of framing as one of coordination. The anti-science forces, regardless of issue, are waging a well-funded and coordinated campaign against the scientific consensus. They have a concrete goal that they all agree on, and they all say the same things about it.

Scientists, on the other hand, are mostly operating on their own. They’re mostly approached as individuals, and they all say slightly different things about what they’re doing, creating the impression of a vague and scattered message, even when the actual scientific consensus is as clear and unambiguous as scientific consensus ever gets. And when the anti-science message is “None of this stuff is really certain,” that’s just death.

It’s like the Sunday talk show battle. If you flip around the Sunday morning news shows (or, better yet, watch the Daily Show on Monday night, and look at the highlights), every show has someone there to represent the Bush administration position. And every single one of those people will say the same thing, in almost exactly the same words. Meanwhile, the various Democratic representatives will offer their objections with different emphases and different words.

Taken as a whole, this creates an impression in the public mind of a strong, confident, and decisive executive, even when the actual policies are a nonsensical collection of ad hoc reactions without a coherent plan behind them. And it makes the opposition seem weak and ineffectual, which, well, they mostly have been, to be honest, but they’re getting better.

John Stewart has a good old time making fun of the way that administration officials speak in robotic lock step, but the fact is, it’s tremendously effective. As demonstrated by the fact that there are still people in this country who think that Bush is doing a good job. A coordinated response with a well-crafted message repeated over and over again is going to win out over a scattering of individual responses, even when all of the individual responses are right.

Chris Mooney gets it right in his response to James:

Matt and I never meant to suggest that every last scientist has to become a top knotch framer. Rather, we want scientific societies, institutions, and universities to rearrange their priorities and step up to the plate on this. That means training a generation of better science communicators (although many scientists will assuredly opt out of the “framing” curriculum). It also means launching communication initiatives–such as advertising–targeted at specific publics, and using the right frames to reach them.

I think this is really the important point, and I think it needs more emphasis. What’s really needed is not so much for individual scientists to become experts at “framing” their work for the public, but for scientists as a group to recognize that there is a public relations problem, and that “framing” is part of the solution on an institutional level. We need a centralized and coordinated message to be coming from the scientific community, in the same way that there’s a centralized and coordinated message coming from the anti-science community.

This is always going to be an uphill fight, as there are vast sums of money at stake in maintaining the status quo in the short term, while there’s little short-term gain to be had in addressing real issues of climate change and the like. (It’s the horizon problem again– in the long term, there will be a lot more money for everybody if we take action to address global warming, but that won’t help Exxon Mobil’s stock price this quarter…) That means there’s going to be a lot more motivation for the people on the anti-science side of some of these issues to craft and promote their message, while a comparable response from the scientific community will require scientists to buy in on principle, more or less.

It’s the best chance we have to actually win, though.


  1. #1 adamsj
    April 8, 2007

    I kept thinking you’d left a big gap in your top ten list.

  2. #2 Stuart Coleman
    April 8, 2007

    I’m not so sure that institutions don’t realize it. I think it might just be that the vast majority of Americans don’t care. For anyone who actually cares the information that you want is easy to find, but if you just read the papers and watch the news then you’ll see a steady stream of misinformation. How can scientists stop that? They can’t, it takes the journalists and editors and producers to stop being assholes and feeding the public lies.

    And I’d like to know what department can afford a PR person. I can’t imagine a single department in the entire country saying “Let’s hire a PR firm rather than a new faculty member (or two).”

    As long as the American public doesn’t care about science we will have this problem. Who’s fault is it that they don’t care? Schools, the media, and maybe the scientists themselves. But fitting science into sound bytes will almost certainly do nothing to help, since no editor or producer will air it.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    April 8, 2007

    And I’d like to know what department can afford a PR person. I can’t imagine a single department in the entire country saying “Let’s hire a PR firm rather than a new faculty member (or two).”

    I’m thinking more of entities like the national scientific societies– the APS, and ACS, etc. They already do have some PR apparatus, but they don’t take as much of a coordinating role as they probably ought to.

    As long as the American public doesn’t care about science we will have this problem. Who’s fault is it that they don’t care? Schools, the media, and maybe the scientists themselves. But fitting science into sound bytes will almost certainly do nothing to help, since no editor or producer will air it.

    I don’t think that’s true. We’re not talking about Science in general, here, we’re talking about politically relevant science issues– global warming, stem cells, genetically modified crops, etc. Editors and producers have to do stories about these things, and if you make it easy for them to get a scientific perspective in there, they’ll do it.

    I’m also not sure it’s true that people really don’t care about science. I think there’s definitely a market for popular-level science– look at things like March of the Penguins or even An Inconvenient Truth. If Al Gore doing a PowerPoint show can make buckets full of money and win an Oscar, I don’t think you can really say that there’s no interest in science out there.

  4. #4 CCPhysicist
    April 8, 2007

    Every college or university has a PR department. Heck, even my CC has one. Every major research university has a PR department that promotes the work they do to various publics, from alumni through the usual media outlets. Some of these are large operations.

    One take on the Science article is that these operations do not do a very good job where it really matters. I’d say that most scientists are happy if they can read the press release and not find any embarrassing scientific errors, and the college is happy if no alumni call and cancel their donations.

  5. #5 Trinifar
    April 9, 2007

    The AAAS which publishes the Science journal which containted the article by Matt and Chris could take a small step by including a column in every issue about this very point. It might address framing or counter the spin occurring in the most recent news cycle.

  6. #6 ponderingfool
    April 11, 2007

    Are you advocating the type of framing as Nisbet is (his comments on his blog)?
    “That’s the power and influence of framing when it resonates with an individual’s social identity. It plays on human nature by allowing a citizen to make up their minds in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion. It’s definitely not the scientific or democratic ideal, but it’s how things work in society.”

    As a scientist do you really want to enabling a society that makes up their “minds in the absence of knowledge, and importantly, to articulate an opinion”? A little too ends justify the means to me.

    I totally agree better communicators are needed from science and on behalf of science but given comments like that what Nisbet and Mooney and advocating is dangerous in the intermediate/long run. It will feed a cycle that will forever need better and better framers & in turn making it harder and harder to have a somewhat scientifically literate populace.

  7. #7 Bob
    April 11, 2007

    “There are people out there who manipulate public opinion for a living, and they’ll work for anyone. Find them, hire them, and listen to them.”

    Is this really what we are after? To manipulate the public?

    That seems to be what Nisbet is after, as described in his presentation “Framing Science: understanding the Battle Over Public Opinion in Policy Debates”

    “Science literacy and public engagement models are limited, esp. when thinking about the “mass public.”

    “For strategic communication, there is nothing essentially unique or different about science from other political issues.”

    “Battle for public opinion is about activating favorable predispositions [with frames] and these predispositions are then used as powerful filtering devices by public.”
    // end quote

    But is that really what scientists are after?

    This problem needs to be approached rationally — something I have not seen in either the Mooney Nisbet piece or the ensuing blog “debate”.

    If scientists are having a hard time getting the public to accept their messages, what is(are) the reason(s) for that?

    It could be true, but I have seen no evidence (at least not from Mooney and Nisbet) that the primary reason is that scientists are using the wrong “frames” (which Mooney and Nisbet simply assumed in their piece without even defining the term frame).

    Even if it is the scientists’ communication method that is the problem, whether scientists hire PR flacks to do their communication for them really depends on what they hope to accomplish.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2007

    There are rumors of a trend in the decrease in the number of science reporters working for news outlets, and there is discussion here and elsewhere that these journalists may not be of sufficient quality to effectively promote science.

    But there are some good science journalists, and there are fellowship programs by which science journalists can get excellent training that makes a difference. One problem with this is that once a good journalist gets this extra training, they may become overqualified and move on to bigger and better things.

    Yes, most colleges and universities have PR departments. Many of those departments may not have science journalists, but also, many times I think the scientists do not work with the journalists enough.

    Most reported science is actually rehash of the press release that the institution puts out. The scientist actually has a lot of control of what this press release says. (If a scientist working for a college or U finds themselves not having that control, a simple phone call to a dean will fix that … this is a matter of messing with academic freedom, technically) . But the scientist has to spend the time working with the press office. Many do not wish to do so.

  9. #9 ponderingfool
    April 12, 2007

    Greg how many of them actually have the time to do so? Or have the management skills to organize their day to have the time to help a press release? Where I did my graduate work, more and more responsibilities the university used to handle are being pushed upon the labs themselves to do. The same is true of journals. It is about cost cutting and the burden of the work is shifting to labs without a subsequent increase in resources. Which is one of my major questions about what Nisbet and Mooney are proposing especially given their short term interests of dealing with issues in the current election cycle. To get better communicators of science out there is going to require a revolution in how science is getting done in this country and the selection process of who stays in science. That is going to take time.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    April 12, 2007

    Ponder: those are all good point, but I don’t think it takes a lot of time. True, my research does not pump out short-lab result papers every few weeks, but more like a tour-de force every many months or more. But I spend a total of a few days a year in all on this, and I probably do more than average. Last year I was featured in a documentary and it took all day to do the filming and maybe an our prior to that on email. Yesterday I spent 20 minutes with a PBS production person on the phone discussion what may turn into a few hours of time which will be 20 minutes of final product (or less) in a Nova-like show. The whole time I was spaking to the production staff person, I was thinking of this framing debate … and one of the things that is very true is that I can explain the research we were talking about now in a few minutes in a kind of bullet proof yet true to the science way partly because of all the time I spent with our press office a couple of years ago and the time I’ve spent preparing and giving public talks (like to teachers groups).

    I imagine this varies alot across the different kind of sciences.

  11. #11 kavik
    April 12, 2007

    Personally, I didn’t find the process of becoming a scientist to be one of “enormous sacrifice” but instead rather enjoyable. But let’s face an uncomfortable truth here. Unless you happen to be working in a national lab or in the private sector, we’re also expected to be teachers. Some are researchers who happen to be teachers and some are teachers who also do research, but WE ARE EXPECTED TO TEACH. I know, I know; the system is configured now such that there’s no benefit to teaching – you don’t gain promotions or the Holy Grail of tenure by being good in the classroom, tho’ being a dud is often used as the reason for the denial of tenure. At the Univ of Chicago, Rabi insisted that EVERYONE taught (and they were expected to be good at it), and he generally sent the best to teach the classes for non-majors (some might argue that this is the most important class). I believe that we have a responsibility to teach, tho’ the opportunity to do so may involve work outside the classroom…who can do it better?

  12. #12 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 12, 2007

    Response to #8: “Most reported science is actually rehash of the press release that the institution puts out.”

    True. But most reported “news” of ANY kind is actually rehash of press releases. Where is the valid statistical evidence that distinguises Science news from the ensemble of general news in which it is embedded, with respect to article/press release ratio?

    My bias here is acute. I was one of the 3 finalists for the position of Caltech Director of Media Relations over a decade ago. My pitch was that, of the 3, I was the only Caltech alumnus. I claimed that scientists considered me a scientist (albeit a strange one) and could speak to me collegially, while (as I held a National Writers Union press card) I was a journalist whose Science Writing had appeared in places such as Science, Scientific American, and Omni, and so journalists considered me a journalist (albeit a strange one) and could speak to me collegially.

    Good line, but not compelling. They hired a politically correct former local TV newsanchor who didn’t know science.

    I still get press badges at the occasional Science confernce, such as the AAS conference on Astronomy and Planetary Science in Pasadena a few months ago.

    I’d love to be a full-time Scientist, or full-time Science Writer, but there are trade-offs. David Brin, Caltech alum with PhD in Astrophysics, said to me once: “I’d rather be a first-rate scientist than a first-rate author. But since I’m second rate at both, I’m better off as an author — it pays better.” He quit his search for tenure-track faculty when his royallty checks from science fiction passed a specified threshhold.

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