Framing: It's About The Goal

During a weekend that was marked by the release of another of the IPCC's summaries for policymakers, the hottest topic here at Scienceblogs was (still) the Nisbet/Mooney "Framing Science" paper. (It's also a bit of a water-cooler debate topic here at UH right now, and I suspect the same is going to be true at other universities.) This is, of course, not unexpected. It's a touchy topic among scientists, and has been for some time. One paper is not going to change that overnight.

Some good points have been raised by people on both sides of this debate, but there's also been a hell of a lot of talking past each other going on. That's ironic, really, since the whole discussion centers around the concept of effective communication, but it does seem to be what's happening right now.

Bora did a fairly good job at trying to bridge this gap, but I'd like to take a swing at it, too - from a slightly different perspective. In particular, I'd like to look at communications and framing from the perspective of goals.

Most of us - and by "us" I mean both scientists and Sciencebloggers - don't spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate effectively. We've all got our own communication styles, and our styles have been refined through a very Darwinian process - we write something, and people respond to it. We react (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) to the responses, and slowly refine our styles.

For what most of us have been doing, this is fine. We're writing about particular things, we're targeting a particular audience, and neither the audience nor the subject matter change very much. We have the luxury of being able to gradually adapt to our audience (and, if we're good enough at what we do, we can gradually adapt our audience to us). Scientists (and some Sciencebloggers) have become very good - very well-adapted - when it comes to talking about science to an audience that consists of informed, knowledgeable, and interested people.

The problems with communications arise when we move outside the sadly narrow niche of the informed, knowledgeable, and interested, and try to communicate with the broader public. It's a new environment, and we can't assume that the skills that work well when we talk to the interested public will work well when we talk to the uninterested public. This brings us quite nicely to the first basic point from the Nesbit-Mooney article:

We need to think about how we communicate when we shift audiences.

We cannot assume that everyone will like our communications style as much as the informed, knowledgeable, and interested audience we usually talk to. Actually, we can assume that they don't like our communications style as much - if they did, they'd already be listening to us, and the whole discussion would be moot. Unless we are content to continue talking to just that small group - and if we are there is something very wrong with us - we're going to need to think about the way we communicate, and we're going to have to decide if and how to change that. This brings us to framing, at least as I understand it:

"Framing" is a term that describes the process of tailoring communications strategies.

If we're going to change the way we communicate, we're probably going to want to take some time to think about how to do it. Trial and error does work (eventually), but it's very frustrating and very inefficient. Thought and planning are quite probably going to be a more rewarding approach in the long run. This, in turn, brings us to the next main point:

When we want to decide how to communicate a concept, we need to think about who we are communicating to, and what we want to accomplish.

This is almost certainly the key to what Nisbet and Mooney are arguing for, and it is almost certainly the point where there is the most disagreement. The disagreements, though, aren't really about the concept of framing. The disagreements are about the "who" and the "what." On one side, we have folks like PZ and Larry Moran, who seem to think that we should focus our efforts at increasing the pool of informed, knowledgeable, and interested people rather than talking to those who don't fall into the group. On the other, we have those (including Nisbet, Mooney, Bora, Orac, and myself) who believe that there are issues where we need to be talking to everyone, even if they don't care about the basic science.

Now, finally, we come to the tactics of the communication. When we have decided who we are going to talk to and why we want to convince them, we need to settle on an approach that is most likely to engage the interest of those we want to talk to, and that is most likely to convince them that they should care about what is happening. Ironically, this is an area that I don't think Matt and Chris did as well with as they might have when they wrote the policy forum - they didn't frame the reasons why scientists need to care about framing clearly enough. Let me give it a try:

Scientists need to involve the currently apathetic in politically controversial debates about scientific topics because those debates have implications that effect all humans.

Human-caused habitat destruction is happening, and it is happening fast. We are changing the geographic distributions of just about every species on the planet, and we are doing it fast. These changes are likely to result in the loss of many, many species of life. They could potentially result in the total loss of entire ecosystems. What we decide to do about these issues will determine what this planet will look like when our grandchildren and great-grandchildren inherit it (if not our children). Everyone should care about what kind of planet we will leave our descendants, even if they don't know or care about the MacArthur/Wilson model of island biogeography.

Climate change is happening, and it is happening fast. Carbon dioxide concentrations continue to increase in the atmosphere, and global average temperatures continue to climb. As we learn more, we discover that the system may well be more delicate than we had thought, and that small changes may have large effects. Decisions that we make - or fail to make - today may have lasting effects on the world we live in. Everyone should care about this - particularly the substantial fraction of humanity that lives near coastlines - even if they don't care about the intricacies of detailed climatic modeling or how scientists manage to figure out how old ice is.

Antibiotic resistance is happening, and it is evolving fast. A generation ago, virtually no clinically important bacteria were resistant to common antibiotics. Now, many (if not most) have some resistant strains. Bacteria evolve quickly, and this problem is going to get worse. The public health decisions that we make today may very well effect the medical treatment options for our children and grandchildren. Everyone should care about this - or at least understand why it's important to take the full prescription of the drugs - even if they don't know or care about ligands, third- and fourth-generation cephalosporins, or mathematical models of natural selection.

I could go on, and maybe I should, but I hope the point is becoming clear:

Scientists need to talk to everyone about these issues because we probably - almost certainly - don't have the luxury of waiting until more people get interested on their own. We need to capture their interest. We need to show them the importance of these issues to them today. We need to make many, many more people understand that these really are issues that they, personally, have a stake in. And we needed to do this yesterday.

It's good to try to get more people to be more informed about and interested in science, and there's no reason to stop working toward that goal. But that cannot, cannot be the only thing that we do. The stakes are far too high, and there is far too little time remaining to have the luxury of waiting until people get interested on their own.

Updated: ~ 1 hour after posting, I edited this post to remove a deliberately insulting final line (it included the phrase "remove the ivory tower from your ass"). The sentence was originally included to demonstrate the problems with insulting your potential audience, and I fairly quickly decided that insulting my audience probably wasn't the best way to do that.


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You rock Mike and they should deal with the ivory tower.


You gave three examples of science topics that, supposedly, have something to do with framing. All three examples suffer from the same flaw; namely your assumption that recognition of change automatically means that all scientists have to fix it in the way you prefer.

There may, in fact, be substanital numbers of scientists who know about human destruction of habitats but don't really care. If that's the case then what exactly are you proposing and how does it relate to framing? I think what you're saying is that when scientists move into the area of advocating social change then they should adopt a polemical strategy and abandon a scientific one.

You've been critical of people like me who, in your opinion, confuse science and anti-religion. According to you, we misuse science when we use it to bolster our case against belief in the supernatural. But isn't that just "framing" on our part? It's supposed to be a good thing, right?

The one thing we must never do is to alter the science in order to make it more acceptable to our audience. Unfortunately, that's the message sent by Nesbit & Mooney. The title of their opinion piece is "Framing Science." It's not "Framing Your Personal Opinion" and it's not "Framing a Political Discussion."

We need to keep those distinctions clear. All scientists might agree on the fact that global warming is real but there can be legitmate disagreement over whether we should ban SUV's or give China an exemption on Kyoto. Deliberate "framing" is not okay when we're explaining the facts of global warming and what causes it. If a major study comes out tomorrow showing that global warming is not going to be as significant as we thought then I expect all decent scientists to report it truthfully--even those who take public transit and want to ban SUV's. I hope you agree. I'm not certain that Nesbit & Mooney do.

Mike, you are absolutely correct. If you want to get a message across to people who are not already engaged in your subject, you have to frame it in a way that will be relevant to them and get your interest.

Larry's comment seems to be reading something into the Nesbit/Mooney article that wasn't there. Leaving out the technical details is not being untruthful. It is leaving out stuff the audience is going to skip anyway. To use an analogy, I might be interested in the Aggies winning a big football game. But try and explain a play to me and you've lost me within seconds.

BTW Mike, you can expect to hear a lot more about communications from your incoming Chancellor, currently Provost here!

For crying out loud, Larry, would you kindly yank your head out of your ass long enough to actually read what people are really saying instead of bitching about what you think we're saying? Andy's right - you're reading a hell of a lot into what both the article and I are saying that isn't there.

Let me see if I can break this down a little more simply:

1) There are issues - like the ones I mentioned - that are likely to have an impact on everyone who lives on this planet.

2) Addressing these issues is going to require major public policy changes.

3) Public policy changes involve politicians and are, by definition, political issues.

4) The more people you can get to pay attention to an issue, the more likely it is to be addressed.

5) There are a lot of people who are not at all interested in the science involved in those issues.

6) If we want to get those people to pay attention to these issues, we're going to need do something else besides talking about the science. (See point 5).

7) If we talk about those issues to the uninterested-in-science segment of the population in terms of why the issue will have an effect on them personally, we're a lot more likely to get them to pay attention to the issue.

That's what we're talking about here. We're not talking about lying to the public. We're not talking about misleading the public. We're talking about presenting issues to the public in a way that is more likely to catch their attention.

I do, from time to time, get mad at you, PZ, Dawkins, and others when you do confuse science and anti-religion. I do believe that all three of you have misused science in making anti-religious arguments, and I continue to believe that even though I would no longer describe myself as being religious. But you're not "framing" - you're misleading. There's a difference.

What we're talking about is not presenting a misleading version of science to the public. What we're talking about is focusing on the aspects of an issue that they are more likely to care about.

Let's take climate change and the new IPCC report as an example (I'm planning on elaborating on it in a full post later today). We can talk about the disagreement between the diplomats and the scientists in terms of the concern that the scientists had that their findings were being diluted. That will interest people who are interested in science and the intersection of science and politics, and it will interest people who are interested in scientific integrity. (That's more or less the approach I took in my last post on the topic.) That particular focus is an honest and accurate way of looking at the issue, but it's not the only honest and accurate way to look at it. I can - and will, later, reframe the argument in terms that are more likely to capture broad interest, but that are still entirely honest and accurate. To do that, I will stop talking about "diluting the science" and instead put the argument in broader terms - the diplomats changed the report in a way that conceals real threats that are caused by climate change and threaten the lives of millions of people around the world.

I am not (at least in my own opinion) distorting science or misleading people with either of the two approaches. What I am doing is trying to convince as many people as possible that they should care about, and pay attention to, what's happening with the politics of climate change.

Clearly, there will be some scientists who are not interested in cases where science (for better or worse) intersects politics. For them, there is no reason to worry about communications strategies or capturing public interest. I'm pretty sure, though, given the server that's sitting in your office, that you're not one of them.