Framing and Arrogance

An idle observation: One of the more ironic things about the whole framing argument (other than the sheer number of people talking past one another, as Mike notes in passing) is how quick a lot of the anti-framing people are to declare that Mooney and Nisbet are just completely and totally wrong. And the people who are most adamant about Nisbet and Mooney being way off base are the people who are most outraged whenever somebody with an engineering degree dares to say something stupid about biology.

The irony here is that this framing business is exactly Nisbet’s area of expertise. This is what he does as a scholar, not some casual hobby where he’s talking out his ass the same as everybody else with a blog. I’m not saying that nobody who isn’t an expert should be able to comment– that would be stupid– but you’d think that people wouldn’t be quite so quick to dismiss the whole thing as if it were something he and Chris Mooney came up with over a few beers one weekend. I doubt there have been any objections raised in the on-line discussion that he hasn’t already considered, and I really doubt that any of the objections raised are half as devastating as the people posting them imagine.

As a physicist, I’m used to this sort of thing– we’re famous for our arrogant dismissals of other sciences, particularly social sciences. I try not to do it myself (I’m enough of a squishy liberal arts type that I’ve found myself defending the validity of research in the humanities to a number of colleagues and students), but I know I’m not always successful. In a perverse sort of way, it’s nice to see that other sciences have the same problem with assuming that a degree in science confers automatic expertise in all fields.

Of course, this sort of attitude is probably a contributing factor to the fact that science has an image problem in the first place…

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan Vause
    April 10, 2007

    OK, as someone who’s vented a bit of of anti-framing spleen, let me set the record straight. I have no problem with people who are ‘just doing their job’, either as professional science communicators or science journalists, and they should feel free to do whatever it takes to get their message (i.e. the scientific consensus opinion) across to the public. But these people make up a small minority of the scientific community, and hopefully they know what they are doing. If, on the other hand, a broadcaster asks a ‘normal’ scientist to comment on a given topic, the response has got to be a simple, straight, presentation of the facts, because that is what scientists do – nothing more and nothing less.

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    April 10, 2007

    If, on the other hand, a broadcaster asks a ‘normal’ scientist to comment on a given topic, the response has got to be a simple, straight, presentation of the facts, because that is what scientists do – nothing more and nothing less.

    If you think that scientists only and always tell the unslanted truth in response to questions, either you’re working in a more idyllic field than I am, or you’re being naive. As Orac noted in his comments, we “frame” research results all the time– there’s a reason why the phrase “typical data” causes snickering among a lot of scientists.

    We “frame” our results for people in our field, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do the same sort of thing for people outside the field.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    April 10, 2007

    And as I (among several others) noted in the comments to Orac’s post, the hype and spin we scientists do at conferences and on grant proposals is not the same animal as more-slick-than-accurate PR coverage fed to the general public. Not saying that either thing is good or bad — they’re just not directly comparable.

  4. #4 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 10, 2007

    My beef with Nisbet and Mooney is that they had a lousy strategy for presenting their ideas on the blogosphere (has anyone shown a copy of the paper yet?), hasn’t defined frames (see Greg Laden’s blog for a discussion of what it is), and used the wrong framing for their public, the scientists.

    Otherwise it is all peachy. ;-) They do have a point in that frames (theirs or Goffman’s) are important. And they may even have some concrete proposals on what to do. Any day now.

  5. #5 Orac
    April 10, 2007

    Not saying that either thing is good or bad — they’re just not directly comparable.

    And I have yet to see a convincing argument as to why they’re not comparable, at least in principle.

  6. #6 adam
    April 10, 2007

    I think that you worry too much about the alleged ‘image problem’ of science. I think that we still get more credit than we probably deserve, for all that some certainly do view us with, at best, suspicion should we produce work with difficult implications for their beliefs.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    April 10, 2007

    Orac:

    In a sentence, the feedback mechanisms which keep the hype and spin from getting out of hand are completely different in the two situations, so whatever moral equivalence we might like to draw between the two, we shouldn’t use the comparison as a basis for choosing policy.

  8. #8 Jonathan Vause
    April 10, 2007

    Perhaps I am being naive, but anyway … ‘a simple, straight, as-objective-as-possible presentation of the ‘facts’ that constitute the present scientific consensus’ (I assume we are talking about subjects that scientists overwhelmingly agree on, such global warming or teaching evolution in schools) might have been a better way of putting it. On the other hand, if scientists are asked about conclusions of their own research that have yet to become generally accepted, then of course they will be liable to exaggerate its importance. But in such situations the broadcaster normally gets another scientist to say what might be wrong with the research … and in either case scientists generally attempt to use evidence-based reason to convince their audience, which is what people seem to be saying doesn’t work when you’re trying to persuade ‘normal’ people.

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    April 10, 2007

    My beef with Nisbet and Mooney is that they had a lousy strategy for presenting their ideas on the blogosphere (has anyone shown a copy of the paper yet?), hasn’t defined frames (see Greg Laden’s blog for a discussion of what it is), and used the wrong framing for their public, the scientists.

    The paper was in Science, which is notoriously strict about publication of its articles. If you’d really like a copy, I’ve got institutional access and can send you the text, but I’m not going to post it here.

    Somebody on ScienceBlogs (Wilkins, I think) had a evry good response to the Laden argument, which is basically that he’s faulting them for failing to meet a standard of linguistic precision that basically nobody meets. Their use of “frame” may not be strictly identical with that of the first person to use the term, but it’s consistent, and their meaning was not unclear.

    I also don’t think their framing was wrong for scientists in general. It doesn’t work all that well for a very particular subset of blogging scientists, but I don’t think there’s any way to “frame” their idea to make it palantable to those people.

    in either case scientists generally attempt to use evidence-based reason to convince their audience, which is what people seem to be saying doesn’t work when you’re trying to persuade ‘normal’ people.

    That’s not at all how I read the calls for “framing” of scientific issues. They’re not saying that you need to abandon “evidence-based reason,” they’re saying that you need to think about how to make the science clear and relevant to the people you’re trying to reach. Exhuastive lists of facts, with all the associated scientific caveats, don’t work that well, but that doesn’t mean you need to just ask people to take things on faith.

    The point is to choose ways to present your evidence that make it relevant to the interests of the people you’re talking to. If a condensed matter physicist asks me why laser cooling is interesting, I’m going to talk about how we can use optical lattices and BEC to investigate condensed matter sorts of problems in regimes that are difficult to reach in liquid helium systems. If a prospective student asks me why laser cooling is interesting, I’m going to talk about how you can use laser cooling to make better atomic clocks, and improve the accuracy of the Global Positioning System. That’s an apolitical example of “framing” an issue to match the interests of different groups of people.

  10. #10 Jonathan Vause
    April 10, 2007

    Framing ‘plays on human nature by allowing a citizen to make up their minds in the absence of knowledge’ (Nisbet). That doesn’t sound to me like evidence-based reason, let alone making the science clear and relevant.

  11. #11 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 10, 2007

    Their use of “frame” may not be strictly identical with that of the first person to use the term, but it’s consistent, and their meaning was not unclear.

    If you say so. The problem is that they open up a blog discussion on a restricted paper, and even if they happen to make a clear meaning, it is fuzzified by other’s attempt of trying to decipher their meaning. Reading Laden’s analysis the Nisbet/Mooney frames seems harder to define, though.

    I appreciate the offer to send me the paper, but N&M has had their 15 minutes of fame. Nothing much concrete has been presented, and perhaps nothing at all from the originators of the discussion – Blake Stacey has made an excellent recap elsewhere. So I’m going to opt out of this discussion for now.

    I also don’t think their framing was wrong for scientists in general.

    Someone observed that many scientists came down as negative to the N&M article, and many journalists as positive. If that is true I do think they made something wrong.

  12. #12 Chad Orzel
    April 10, 2007

    I appreciate the offer to send me the paper, but N&M has had their 15 minutes of fame. Nothing much concrete has been presented, and perhaps nothing at all from the originators of the discussion – Blake Stacey has made an excellent recap elsewhere. So I’m going to opt out of this discussion for now.

    For those who haven’t written this off completely, here’s the full text of the article. (Nisbet just posted the link on his blog.)