Reframing framing

Jason objects to the claim that science is badly framed. He offers several examples in which he feels that:

it is the pleasantness of the message, not the slickness of the marketing, that is relevant.

That’s the fatal flaw in the argument [by Nisbet, Mooney, etc.]. The problem isn’t ineffective framing, it’s having a message most people find unappealing. But there are other problems as well.

Which is to say, the problem is ineffective framing. Framing isn’t about slickness. That’s a misframing of framing. (Yes, I’ve now made myself sick of the term.) Framing is about finding a message that will be effective at interesting and engaging your audience, which is to say an appealing message. It’s about giving the audience a mental shortcut to help them evaluate the message.

Jason’s examination of the examples are basically right, but his misdefinition of framing as “slick marketing” causes him to misinterpret the result.


He points out that the global warming debate in the public sphere has gotten framed in terms of personal sacrifice, while the evolution debate in the public sphere has gotten framed in terms of morality. Jason observes that:

In both cases the anti-science side has a message people want to buy, while the pro-science side has a message most people find rather gloomy. All the slick marketing and clever framing in the world will not change that simple fact.

But changing the message will change whether the audience likes the message. Global warming need not be an issue of personal sacrifice. Look at the hue and cry that rose up around catalytic converters and the ban on CFCs, and then look at the actual effects. We can make these transitions in ways that don’t destroy the economy or require deep personal sacrifices. Furthermore, there is a profound moral component to finding a real solution to the problem. As the case of evolution shows, a moral framing can be very powerful. Evolution, like gravity and any other scientific theory, is not about moral philosophy. It is about teaching accurate science in science classes. Creationism is about lying to children in public schools ? misrepresenting science and misleading them about the current state of knowledge and the methods that our children will use to continue our nation’s technological prominence. Morality, progress, and our children’s future are powerful framing tools, and can be turned to our advantage that simply.

There’s a degree to which we have let the other side of these debates choose the framing, and in doing so we’ve let them pick their battles. The Discovery Institute keeps talking about moral philosophy, so we respond by talking about moral philosophy. It’s a mug’s game for us to promote science by arguing about religion. People know and like religion, they don’t know science (that’s the problem, remember?) and don’t especially like it (as a corollary of the first point), so setting the two in opposition just makes it easier for people to reject what they didn’t like to begin with, and to keep doing what they had been doing.

We also misframe our arguments on our own. One example of a bad framing is presenting science as if it were entirely a technical matter. Consider the example of this debate between climate scientists and climate change deniers. By the end, the audience had actually become less convinced of the scientific consensus. The arguments that have convinced the overwhelming majority of experts in the field didn’t grab the general audience. Why? One of the scientists explained:

We are scientists, and we talk about science and we’re not going start getting into questions of personal morality and wider political agendas – and obviously that put us at a sharp disadvantage.

Grist’s Dave Roberts responds:

He knows science, he’s trained in science, he’s confident in the accuracy of his scientific judgments, so that’s what he’s sticking with — even if it means losing a debate, and with it a chance to change some minds.

I think that is a huge mistake, and Gavin is far, far from the only one making it.

Refusing to address broader moral/philosophical/political issues is not a refusal to frame. There is no virtuous purpose served there. It is a choice to frame the issue badly, indeed in a way that isn’t coherent to the audience.

Empirical scientific research of public reactions to arguments show how this works. We’ll let communications consultant John Neffinger explain:

our side often doesn’t grasp the reality of how swing voters make up their minds because we can’t get past our own emotional attachment to the power of ideas. We accuse swing voters of voting capriciously, irrationally, but if we were only rational ourselves, we could easily see why they do.

In fact, unlike blinkered Democrats, in some ways swing voters are acting perfectly rationally by voting with their gut (yet another irony, if you’re still counting). For voters who don’t pay close attention to issues, it’s not easy to figure out which positions are best (not least because conservative think tanks and media do an excellent job at muddying the waters of debates democrats would otherwise win). So what can a casual voter do? Go with what they know. Every day they make judgments about people they interact with, size ‘em up, trust their instincts. So they use the same method to pick a candidate.

Or, indeed, an argument about science. Part of this is raw presentation and charisma, something that is only teachable to a degree. Some of it is message choice. Frames are shortcuts; the violinist on the bus is a perfect example, people who knew classical music and musicians recognized Joshua Bell, but the general public judged the musician by the setting in which they encountered him. The framing gives the audience a way to judge the argument before deciding to invest the effort in trying to understanding the details. We all use those mental shortcuts all the time.

Framing science requires us to think about what useful context we can offer nontechnical audiences that will make them care about science and see it in a positive light. That doesn’t necessarily mean making them see it the way we see it, and it doesn’t mean being inaccurate. By framing it accurately, we make the total presentation more accurate and more precise.

Comments

  1. #1 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 19, 2007

    Hi Josh.

    Evolution, like gravity and any other scientific theory, is not about moral philosophy. It is about teaching accurate science in science classes. Creationism is about lying to children in public schools Ė misrepresenting science and misleading them about the current state of knowledge and the methods that our children will use to continue our nation’s technological prominence. Morality, progress, and our children’s future are powerful framing tools, and can be turned to our advantage that simply.

    My impression is that most scientists make all of these points when talking about evolution in public or writing about it in public venues, with only marginal success. The reason they have only marginal success is because it is evolution itself that people find so unappealing. That was the main point of my essay. All the framing in the world won’t change the fact that evolution poses a serious challenge to popular religious views, and paints a picture of our origins that most people find highly distasteful, to put it mildly.

    You’ll also have to explain to me the difference between framing and marketing. To me it looks like you and the other framing advocates are telling us that we should give up on trying to persuade people by presenting the scientific evidence and should instead look for emotional hot buttons we can press to help win people over to our side. That’s marketing.

    I’m also not convinced that the specific frames you mention are really all that effective. Tell people that teaching creationism is tantamount to lying and they see dogmatic scientific arrogance. And how do you convince people that creationists are lying without discussing the evidence and arguments? Furthermore, most people respond to the fairness argument. And why not? How could anyone oppose presenting both sides of a controversial issue? Are you really going to counter that argument by telling people that if their kids learn about ID in schools the future technological progress of this nation will be threatened? Lots of luck with that.

    The conflict between evolution and religion is not a Discovery Intstitute creation. It is a simple fact self-evident to almost everyone. Our side can try to downplay that fact, or point to Ken Miller and Francis Collins to show how the two can be reconciled, but most religiously inclined people are not going to be impressed by the mental gymnastics of those two gentlemen.

    The fact is that the only thing evolution has going for it is that all of the avilable evidence suggests that it is true. If that is not enough to win people over to our side then we are simply screwed.

  2. #2 John Farrell
    April 19, 2007

    Jason has a good point. Which I think is depressing. I can’t tell you how often, as a theist, I bring up the subject of chromosome 2, which I think is just the best and most awe-inspiring evidence of evolution, or I take the time to point out the various dishonesties of the Discovery Institute, at Christian blogs—and usually most commenters there regard me as a left-wing Darwinist.

    I despair. Where is a good Thomist to go these days?

    ;)

  3. #3 Josh Rosenau
    April 19, 2007

    The lying can be discussed in terms of how science is done. Creationism doesn’t follow the scientific method, so presenting it as science is a lie, regardless of whether the content is true. Talking about the scientific method is useful, because it is misunderstood but people unconsciously use it all the time. It’s how you figure out why your car won’t start in the morning, and methodological naturalism is why you call a mechanic and not an exorcist to fix it. That isn’t perfectly framed, but I think it’s a start. From that beginning, the process of investigating evolution can be developed by analogy to fixing a car, or whatever.

    All the framing in the world won’t change the fact that evolution poses a serious challenge to popular religious views, and paints a picture of our origins that most people find highly distasteful, to put it mildly.

    I agree that the main thing people worry about is the issue of morality, which they see as connected to the question of human origins and human exceptionalism. Putting on my framing hat and testing out some ideas, here’s where that leads. Questions about the metaphysics of morals, of course, are pretty far from what evolutionary biologists, even physical anthropologists and primatologists, study. Scientists certainly have personal opinions about it, but so do philosophers, theologians and heck, auto mechanics.

    There are a set of very positive values that arise from the study of human origins. I tried to show that with this post at the old TfK, perhaps with success. Discovery is exciting and it’s valuable. I don’t know, but I think that nonscientists appreciate the joy of discovery (though I can imagine how there might be selection bias).

    Were I a theist, I would find it arrogant to propose how God worked (which may be why I’m agnostic). Mysterious ways and all that. Going back to the analogy with fixing a car, that isn’t the question science asks or answers. These fossils are real, and we can’t find the truth if we don’t examine it honestly.

    We don’t pretend to have all the answers. We have some evidence and a method that lets us get increasingly good answers to certain sorts of questions. Beyond those limits, reasonable people can disagree. The empirical evidence gathered by science can help us narrow down the set of plausible answers to those broader questions, because our beliefs can’t change those empirical data.

    I think we can work around the moral issues. In the early era of organ transplant, it was necessary to redefine death so that organs could be removed after brain death and before the heart stopped. That was a big moral block to overcome, and it happened because the benefit was large enough. The same is happening for stem cells, there’s no reason the same can’t be done for evolution.

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