Framing and the invisible college

i-54562b318eec5d88fb752c4326a96ba3-barnframe.jpgLarry Moran criticizes Coturnix (and by implication Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbett) for their focus on “framing,” as described in Chris and Matt’s paper in Science (behind a paywall, alas):

the top three requirements for good science writing are scientific accuracy, scientific accuracy, and scientific accuracy. As soon as you sacrifice the attempt to convey good accurate science to the general public then you’re not doing science writing. You’re doing something else.

He presents this as a compelling argument against framing, but I think it argues for very careful thought about how we frame arguments. Misframing an argument can leave the audience with a sense of the data exactly contrary to what you actually presented. Accurate framing is a part of scientific accuracy.

Part of the problem is that scientists are trained not to trust language. A journal article is not meant to make an argument through the text, the text is supposed to be a gauzy veil through which your colleagues can see the data itself. We all know that the actual practice is a little trickier, but that is how we are taught. Metaphor, literary allusions and other attempts at textual massaging of stories that the data tell is frowned upon in the scientific community.

Unfortunately, that style carries over into the way we present scientists to nonspecialists in popular magazines, blogs, news stories and even classrooms. My experiment with the Invisible College has taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Part of what I’ve learned is that you are always framing, whether you intend it or not. As a corollary scientists who don’t intend to frame things, and as a result are frequently doing it badly, to their own detriment.

What is “framing” anyway? It centers on the simple point that Bora makes in his summary: “There is no such thing as emotion-free language.” However you express yourself in words, math, or graphics, you are going to evoke some emotional response in your subject. The same concept expressed in different ways will produce different subconscious responses, and that will mean that your audience learns something different, depending how you express an idea.

The power of that concept is obvious. To Larry and to others, the concept itself evokes some very negative frames. Larry (above) sees it as a fundamental contrast to accuracy, while PZ Myers says this of scientists’ failure to use effective framing:

We are not trained to be glib and glossy, and we simply do not come across as well as we could. We’re also not really that interested, generally speaking, in the kind of presentation that plays well in 3 minutes on a news broadcast.

Effective framing is not about producing sound bites (which tend to be closer to 10 seconds than 3 minutes) or seeming glossy. I confess I’d rather be glib than tongue-tied, but I think glib is meant to tie in which Larry’s sense that framing and accuracy are negatively correlated.

i-54135fac2a2a723505e9a792e1c58650-doorframes.jpgThis is unfortunate, and I suppose it means framing needs to be reframed. I’d ask Drs. Moran and Myers to consider how they prepare for a class they are going to teach, and how they mentor new professors/TAs handling their first semesters teaching. Careful thought goes into not just what to present when, but how to present it to maximize comprehension and accuracy. We’ve all been in dull, poorly organized lectures which left us feeling stupider after it was over than before, and we’ve all had classes where every lecture contained at least one “Aha!” moment and a few “I get it”s. Sometimes those are different people teaching the same class, from the same syllabus. One opens a door and leads students through, the other thinks that’s the data’s job, or perhaps the students’.
In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore talks about how he refines his slideshow by “removing blocks,” the phrases, examples or data that cause people to dig in their heels. The response is not to fudge the data or to be inaccurate (experts are in general agreement that he did pretty well in terms of accuracy). The response is to express that same idea as accurately, in a way that people will understand and integrate into their thinking. Good teachers do that with their presentations and lecturers. That’s framing.

Framing helps clarify issues and convinces the audience that they care. Before and during the Kansas Kangaroo Kourt, I organized something I called “the Evolution Project,” a demonstration for the general public of the power and central importance of evolution to all of science. I made efforts to summarize at least a fraction of the papers published every week which used, demonstrated or otherwise relied on evolutionary biology. In a few months I’d posted excerpts and brief summaries from a few hundred papers and I felt like my brain would explode. (The Non-evolution Project was, predictably, less taxing.)

After summarizing 300 papers, I posted some reflections on what I’d learned from the effort. I concluded it by writing:

Every scientific paper should be summarized, by the author or a colleague, in a blog post. Many paper’s abstracts [that I summarized] had one sentence that was interesting to the public, or maybe parts of two sentences. The blog summary would use that sentence, explain why a scientist would care, and what it means to the public.

The public neither understands nor cares to understand the scientific context of a paper. So use metaphors that work for the community. But also present a clear, public statement of what this research means in simple terms.

That’s a form of framing. It isn’t dishonest, it isn’t a call to leave out details that matter. It’s a call to explain what we do in ways that make sense and are compelling to nonspecialists. If that isn’t the goal, why bother blogging, or teaching, or giving public presentations? Chris, Matt, PZ, Larry and I all share a set of goals. The question is how best to achieve them.

I’m here to learn and to teach. Here in grad school, here in the blogosphere, and perhaps even here on earth. There are other goals, too, of course, but learning and teaching are important. I pay attention to my student evaluations because I want to be a better teacher, and I pay attention to responses on the blog for the same reason. Dr. Myers complains of the framing advocates: “nowhere is there an understanding or acknowledgment that scientists must also stretch boundaries, or even break them.”

I would be the first to say that teaching means stretching, even breaking, boundaries. I just think that if there’s a door, or a window, that’s a better way to get at someone than banging your head against a wall. Framing is a tool that lets you stretch people’s minds, and keeps them from shutting you out.


  1. #1 bigTom
    April 9, 2007

    I think we have a basic cognitive disconnect. Scientists are trained to teat connotation as irrelevant, at best, and confusing at worst. A good example would be how we handle a (mathematics) word problem. We are trained to distill the relevant data, and discard irrelevant detail. So we naturally think that only a precise statement of facts should be done. Anything else is considered to be distracting, probably deliberately so.

    The problem comes when we interact with politics/culture. Since the vast majority of people are highly affected by emotional connotaions and frames, we are at a complete disadvantage. We have no clue how our opponents illogical halftruths usually carry the day. We rightly realize that clear non-emotional logical thinking needs to be taught to the public. We incorrectly think that clear logical communication is all we need to see us through.

  2. #2 Scholar
    April 9, 2007

    I like the honesty of your blog, been reading off and on for a month or two. I think that you are missing Moran’s major point. As soon as you start “framing” you are skirting away from the scientific method. The data collected must remain free of any connotations, lest the scientist could be tempted to make future observations “fit”. I have in fact, had this temptation, to “summarize” or worse “assume” results rather than present the actual data. Vital information can get lost as a result of framing. I tend to agree with the notion that journalists, teachers, and pastors, not scientists, are the only ones who should be DILUTING anything. Leave the science alone, or else you will continue hearing…
    “That’s not factual, he is just framing the real data so you will believe in Global warming/evolution/human rights”.

    “See you can’t trust scientists, because they all have agendas”.

  3. #3 Josh
    April 9, 2007

    I’m not missing Moran’s point, I’m disagreeing with it. You are always framing, the question is whether you’re doing it well. Doing it well enhances your presentation of the scientific method, it certainly doesn’t skirt away from it.

    The way you frame an argument for a scientific audience is different from how you frame it for the general public.

    Scientists are teachers. The act of publishing or speaking publicly is teaching, and is an essential part of the scientific process. That isn’t dilution, it is reinforcement of the content by the form in which you present it.

  4. #4 bigTom
    April 9, 2007

    The sad fact of the matter is that we’ve had a group of political culture warriors you have had the goal of single party domination of US politics. They have determined to use the best available psychological marketing techniques to get their way. They have been very successful, and this needs to be countered. Perhaps the scientists shouldn’t be the ones to do it, but perhaps their popularizers should. Most of us would be very happy if we could get back to something resembling a level playing field.

  5. #5 Stephen
    April 10, 2007

    You’ve hit on another idea worth thinking about. Sagan’s Cosmos has emotional content everywhere. He presented the facts. He used visual analogy (a calendar year to the time span of the Universe). He used history for stories. He explicitly put in emotional context.

    When i first saw it, i thought “who is he to tell me how to respond to the facts”? But people come to the most absurd conclusions. Especially when you tell them not to.

  6. #6 justawriter
    April 10, 2007

    Let me just make up a few titles in my head…

    “Botanical response to phytonutrient adjuvents on sodic chernozems”

    “Fertilizer choices for alkaline soils”

    “Plant foods for salty ground”

    The exact same data could be presented in each presentation, but the expectations of the audience (and hopefully the style of presentation) would be much different for each. It’s really not that complicated.

  7. #7 Scholar
    April 10, 2007

    Thanks, Jpsh, I guess it depends how one interprets the word “frame”. I saw it as framing in a deliberate attempt at misrepresenting for social/political goals. But yes, a frame could enhance a masterpiece, and is actually a vital and vivid part of most works of art. Still, you must agree it is wise to tread carefully or something which you frame for one audience could become harmful or backfire if reaches the wrong audience. I guess what I am always vigilant about is trying to keep the social/political/framing aspect out of the laboratories so the science remains pure and natural (not that framing isn’t already there in some form or other).

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