Framing Science - the Dialogue of the Deaf

i-21db76ebed8f30a22aad0e4e55fbbe9b-Blog Against Theocracy.jpgMy SciBlings Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet just published an article in 'Science' (which, considering its topic is, ironically, behind the subscription wall, but you can check the short press release) about "Framing Science"

Carl Zimmer, PZ Myers, Mike Dunford (also check the comments here), John Fleck, Larry Moran, Dietram Scheufele, Kristina Chew, Randy Olson, James Hrynyshyn, Paul Sunstone and Alan Boyle have, so far, responded and their responses (and the comment threads) are worth your time to read. Chris and Matt respond to some of them. Matt has more in-depth explanations here, here and here (pdf) that are worth reading before firing off a response to the whole debate.

This is not a simple topic, but I will try to organize my thoughts in some way....


First, let's look at what framing is. It has been described by George Lakoff in his books Moral Politics (which I reviewed here) and Thinking Points (discussed here) and a couple of others, e.g., "Don't Think of an Elephant" that are not as useful.

It is possible that Lakoff did not present a correct explanation for the deep neuro/cogsci/psych explanation for framing, and if you are interested in that aspect of it, Chris of Mixing Memory shows why that may be true. But that is besides the point here, really. In his works, Lakoff correctly desribes what framing is, how is it used in everyday life and how the Right systematically used it over the last few decades.

Revere wrote an excellent series (look at them all linked from the sidebar) about framing in the context of public health. You can find much more information on the Rockridge Institute website and forums and you can dig through my blog as well for posts about ideology, i.e., how one's ideology shapes one's worldview which, in turn affects the way one uses and comprehends language.

And I agree, Lakoff is not perfect, but much of what he says is correct and the inability of the so-called "reality-based community" to comprehend him is a continuous source of frustration for me.

Very short summary: words have effects beyond their dictionary definitions. Language evokes emotional responses: 'frames' (as in 'frames of mind'). There is no such thing as emotion-free language. If you can understand a piece of text (and that includes math, not just English), you will respond emotionally. The kind of response to language results in one accepting or rejecting the message (and the messenger). The kind of response to language is dependent on one's worldview - the same sentence will elicit different responses (and thus acceptance or rejection) in different people.

The worldview depends on one's upbringing, i.e., it is not genetic, but a developmental effect. A view that people are inherently bad and that the only way to make them good is by using Dobsonian punitive style of childrearing to instill fear and instant obedience, results in a conservative, hierarchical (as in "chain of being" and "ladder of success" sense) ideology. A person raised in this way will respond to pretty much every word of English differently than a person raised in a liberal environment, where people are assumed to be born good and are raised accordingly (you mat have to dig through my Ideology archives to see in what way I define "conservative" and "liberal" so as not to be confused by the other usages of the terms). The former style of childrearing results in External Locus of Moral Authority while the latter results in internalized morality, i.e., coming from within (doing what is right because that is your second nature, not because you are afraid of punishment). Every opinion on every matter - thus response to language describing it - will be diametrically opposite in these two groups of people.

Good news: most people are biconceptual, i.e., they possess both frames in their minds. By evoking the right frame by careful use of language, you gain trust and authority with the audience and as a result they believe that what you are saying is true. In other words, just saying the truth is not enough, as it is processed through ideological glasses. By invoking the correct frame, you allow the truth to penetrate and get accepted. By dismissing framing as method and by being careless in the use of language, you are bound to "buy into" the currently dominant Rightwing frames and will thus reinforce them while at the same time preventing your audience from accepting the truth. Since conservatism, religion and pseudoscience do not have the truth on their side, their frames are deceptive and Orwellian. Since our frames are backed up by truth, in a head-to-head competition we should win, but we cannot let the opposition frame the issues in the first place.

The worst way to try to persuade people who are either disinclined to believe you to begin with, or people completely ignorant, agnostic and uninterested in the topic, is to try to strip, as much as possible, everything evocative from your text. By making it dry and "sticking to the facts only", you are guaranteed to turn the audience off and make them ripe for the picking by the other side.

And scientists, mathematicians and philosophers have been trained to do exactly that. Furthermore, scientists, mathematicians and philosophers tend to look down at text that is overtly emotion-evocative. A scientist should always use an entirely value-free language, we are taught for years. Of course, this is an illusion - there is no such thing as a 'value-free language'. Pick an animal behavior paper form the 1960s or so. Without looking at the methods or results, by focusing ONLY on the analysis of language, you can easily figure out if the authors belong to the 'behaviorist' or 'ethologist' school of thought. The choice of words reveals it easily.

The result of our training is that scientists are uniquely trained to be poor communicators of science. Scientists - a tiny percentage of any population - are the only people in the society who even try to think and talk in a value-free way, get insulted when someone suggest they shouldn't do so, and view other people who can't do so as intellectually inferior.

Now, to the case in hand - the Nisbet/Mooney article and the responses to it.

I think, just as in the closely related case of M&Ms, there are two groups of people who pretty much agree with each other but do not realize that they are not exactly talking about the same thing.

Thus, the term 'framing' has two meanings and one is discussed by one group and the other meaning by the other group. As the two meanings suggest two different strategies, the two groups think that they disagree with each other.

The first meaning of 'framing' is the use of language to evoke pre-existing frames in a very small, limited audience for a quick and effective "conversion" [ed.: yes, I used this term intentionally, to make you stop and think - I really mean it] for a cause that has immediate political consequences, i.e., the next bill in congress, or the next election, etc. You do not educate them in details of science - they are not interested, do not have enough background and it does not matter if they do or don't understand the fine points. The goal is to bring them over to your side and recruit them to do whatever is politically necessary to win a particular battle over the side of pseudoscience/religion/conservatism. This is what Matt and Chris are discussing.

The second meaning of 'framing' is the use of language to introduce new frames into the public discourse and, as a result, change the entire intellectual landscape. This is necessarily a long-term project - as in: a couple of decades at best. By placing new frames into people's minds - more science-friendly or reality-friendly frames - it makes it easier in the future to recruit greater numbers of people to the cause-du-jour. A frame that is new now, and perhaps rejected by many as silly, will in ten or twenty years be a normal part of everyone's (especially the next generation's) emotional armamentarium. You put them in there now, and evoke them later when you need them. This is what PZ and Moran are talking about.

I agree with both groups, of course, as they are both correct in regards to the strategies relevant to the meaning of 'framing' they are talking about. I just wish they would be more clear when they are talking about the first, and when about the second meaning of the word.

Short-term, case-by-case, science communication

OK, now that we know what framing is, and the distinction between two time-scales of framing, let's look at the two one at a time. First, the short-term goals, what Mooney and Nisbett are talking about.

First rule: Know your audience.

Adjust your language to the audience. One language for fellow scientists, another for educated lay-people who are inclined to agree with you, another for people who are disinclined to agree with you, etc.

Second rule: Truth will not let you free.

Truth is not sufficient. Dry data will not sway non-scientists. Their eyes will glaze over and they'll move on. Reserve your precision for your papers, posters and talks. You can talk like that to your fellow scientists. But as soon as you leave that narrow circle you will have to adjust your language.

First, you will have to find a way to make it relevant to the person. Find out if your audience will be swayed by economic connections, by aesthetic appeals, by self-preservation instincts, whatever it may be.

You will have to simplify to the point that what you say is inaccurate. You will have to state your convictions with greater certainty - your '95% sure' in a paper will have to become 'capital-T Truth' when you talk to non-scientists. This is NOT sloppy. Sloppy is stating the Truth in a paper manuscript. Using stats on a layperson conveys uncertainty that non-scientists are very uncomfortable with: why are you so wishy-washy? Something must be fishy about it if you are not prepared to state that it is the Truth.

Remember, your goal is to change opinion on the fly, not to do science education (which is a long-term strategy). You want to turn a global-warming-denier into a global-warming-believer - yes, 'believer', not 'understander', not a climatologist - within minutes. You want to turn a creationist into an 'evolutionist', not an evolutionary theorist. It is wonderful to fantasize about getting everyone to REALLY understand evolution, but in reality, most people don't care. But you want them to be on your side next time there is an election for the local school board.

This is not dishonest (or Orwellian, or selling-out to your principles), though it appears to be so for people trained to revere hyper-accuracy. This is a realistic way to talk to humans and their relatives. And, as Matt Nisbett stresses, this is based on scientific studies of the way human mind works, human language works, and human societies work. We scientists are real weirdos, specifically trained to think and talk in a very unusual-for-humans ways. There is a stereotype that scientists are all mildly autistic, thus more capable of stripping emotions away from their work. Perhaps some are, but it is more likely that we all just appear autistic to normal humans.

It totally does not matter if the targets of your framing have no comprehension of evolution as long as they believe you when you tell them it is true and then act accordingly in the voting booth. This is not a sell-out to our high-minded principles: we will still adhere to our high standards of accuracy in the classroom and in our research reports. But not in our "Natural History Magazine" articles (depends on the type of article), or on our blogs, where that is inappropriate (at least in some types of blog-posts, like this one, for instance).

That is why I, contra PZ and Larry, think that this movie is an excellent tool. It gets evolution wrong, but that is not the point. It visually frames evolution in a way that an uneducated, uninterested, busy, short-attention-span layperson can "grok" in about two minutes. The movie prepares the person for your carefully crafted spiel. And if the person ends up believing that evolution is a fact, it makes no difference if his/her conception of evolution is not 100% correct (hey, Dawkins and Dennett get it wrong, so why not some Joe Schmoe?). If one out of a thousand viewers of the movie shows more interest, there are plenty of resources you can use to teach that person finer points and make his/her understanding better.

So, if our training makes us singularly the worst possible people who can persuade the non-scientists about scientific matters, what can we do? One, we can learn - and teach new generations of scientists - how to get over our hi-fallutin' insistence on intellectual purity and use the findings of social science to adjust the way we talk to the lay audiences. Second, we can leave the task to the professionals and just make sure that they get sufficient science education in their j-schools or wherever they learn their craft. Or both. Some scientists will be better at this than others, and some journalists will be better at this than others, so a combo approach using the best of the two worlds seems to be the best approach.

Long term change of the public discourse

Now let's turn to the second meaning of 'framing', the one that Myers and Moran are talking about - the long-term change in the intellectual landscape of the country (and the world).

What they understand is that defeating creationists, one legal case at a time, or one local election at the time, while important, is not enough. What needs to be done is to change the environment in the USA in a way that makes creationism untenable and obsolete - not a threat anymore, either completely gone or relegated to a small isolated group of wackos who have no chance of ever getting any media attention, even less a chance to get elected to any office.

They understand that Creationists are not stupid but have other motivations for opposing science. The motivations are based in their religion, and their understanding of religion is based on their conservative ideology. Thus, the only way to eliminate creationism is to eliminate conservatism and its persuasion tool - the conservative religion. One hope is that liberal theists, who speak the same language, would rise up against the conservative misuse of religion. Unfortunately, that is not happenning - whenever the topic pops up, the liberal theists side with their co-religionists on the Dark Side, rather than with the reality-based community they should be siding with.

The goal is to have a society in which both the conservative ideology and religion are ousted from the mainstream society, politics and media. The proper response to each is denigration and sneering. So, how do you get from here to there? Not by sneering at a small group of people who you need to vote for a bill tomorrow. But by a long-term, well-orchestrated, concerted effort. And that effort is step-by-step. First, promote the idea that atheists are not immoral and that liberals don't have horns and 'hate America'. The fact that atheists, by posessing 'internal locus of moral authority' are actually more moral than theists is something we can leave for a little later.

Second, destroy the myth that the Bushie ideology is a deviation from conservatism - it is the most purely conservative ideology we have seen in more than a century - it really shows its true face. All that Rockefellerian Republicanism from the mid-20th century was a mix of conservative and liberal ideas and it is the liberal ideas that people liked about it. Those liberal ideas are now gone from the GOP platform, rhetoric and practice, and raw conservatism has shown its ugly face. Bush, in his ineptness and ideological blindness, has delivered conservatism to us, and now is the time to move in for the kill.

Relegating conservatism and its religion to the margins of society and out of sight and mind of most Americans is what will allow the Enlightement ideas to fruit again and rationality and reason will, once again, be the norm, not the "extremism". We can counter the developmental effects of conservative upbringing through an enlightened educaitonal system and media and through the realization that most people do not like to belong to a group that is openly ridiculed by everyone every day. At least, the ridicule may get them started on their introspection and the long, painful journey towards emotional and intellectual freedom from the conservative (and religious) prison.

But, just yelling about all this (obviously, this post is geared towards a receptive audience, I obviously did not frame this argument in a way that can sway a conservative or a religious reader so if you are one, go home and come back tomorrow) is not a strategy. The strategy is much more long-term and it is wonderfully explained by Sara Robinson (linked on the sidebar as two series: "Cracks in the Wall" and "Tunnels and Bridges" - a must-read for everyone who is interested in this overall topic).

Inventing new frames is not easy (and Lakoff is notoriously famous for being bad at it). At first, the new phrase will jar. Remember when the "death tax" phrase was first used? Everyone stopped in their tracks and thought and talked about it - what it really means?! But now, when you hear it, you don't stop to think about it. It evokes a conservative anti-tax frame without any conscious effort on your part. You cannot use new frames in short-term battles - you just baffle people. New frames have to be pounded and pummelled into the public discourse for several years before they move from consciousness to subconsciousness. Once there, they can be evoked by a careful use of language when needed to sway people for your point of view.

You cannot, in one day, turn a deeply religious, Young-Earth Creationist (YEC), stridently conservative person into an atheist, liberal evolutionary biologist. And there is no need to put up such a lofty goal in the first place. We don't need to push everyone from one end of the spectrum to the other. We only need to move the society as a whole somewhat in the right direction and repeat the process with each new generation until the entire society is somewhat reasonable. That's it.

This is what is meant by the concept of The Overton Window (more discussions of it can be found, e.g., here, here, here, here, here and here). Gradually, the discourse moves as some ideas become acceptable on one end (as they enter the window), while the ideas on the other end, leaving the window, become ideas non grata. Think about the appropriate language today in comparison to 20, 50 or 100 years ago relating to women, blacks, gays, etc. What the onslaught of books about religion and atheism (including "The God Delusion") and the media interest in them is doing is moving the Overton Window so as to make negative remarks about atheists non-acceptable in public discourse. Vocal atheists on blogs, like PZ, perform the same useful function. This takes time, of course, but it is slowly moving in the right direction.

Let's look at the idea of the Overton Window in the specific case of Creationism and use this cool Creation/Evolution Continuum graph as a visual aid:

i-dd7d2c0b9d621977b16c6ac964b3de58-Creation-Evolution Continuum.jpg

First, I don't think we need to worry much about Flat-Earthers and Geocentrists - they are already so few and so marginalized. What we need is to move as many Americans (and of course citizens of other countries in which this is a problem) along the continuum. Every person who moves from YEC to a version of OEC is a success story. Every person who moves from IDC (Intelligent Design Creationism) to Theistic Evolution is a success story. Every person who moves from Theistic to Materialistic Evolution is a success story. Moving millions along this continuum moves the entire society in the right direction. There is no need to immediately (or perhaps ever) move every individual all the way from YEC to Materialistic Evolution. As long as each generation is positioned better than the previous one, it is a success.

Now, add to the continuum a little bit on the right-hand side as well. Materialistic Evolution is not a unified view either. One can belong there without a very good understanding of evolution - someone who is in the 'reality-based community' for other reasons (e.g., growing up in a liberal household) will accept evolution even without any understanding of the process. I say - that is perfectly OK.

Next step is some - but faulty - understanding of evolution. Perhaps adherence to a 1960s-style naive genocentric/deterministic/adaptationist version of evolution held by people like Daniel Dennett, Desmond Morris and Richard Dawkins (in order of increasing sophistication). I'd be perfectly happy if a hundred million regular, non-scientist, creationist Americans adopted this view, no matter how faulty it is.

It is only very few - the professional evolutionary biologists and theorists, that need to reach the modern sophistication of people like Robert Brandon, Elliot Sober, Richard Lewontin, Elisabeth Lloyd, Evelyn Fox Keller, Stephen Jay Gould, Wallace Arthur, David Sloan Wilson, Bill Wimsatt, Fred Nijhout and Janis Antonovics, to name just a few that easily come to mind. Or, if you are blogocentric, the modern sophisticated understanding of evolution by PZ Myers and Larry Moran.

Thus, insisting on purity of evolutionary theory when trying to sway someone from IDC to evolution-of-any-kind is misguided, and probably counterproductive - you lose your audience after the first two minutes of presenting hard science. The people in such transitions are scared of such change in their core beliefs - they need a helping hand, not denigration and abuse.

Now look at the graph again and imagine that each one of the steps is a grade in school. This is a metaphor for the broader society - not a suggestion for a real educational system!

Everyone starts with Flat-Earth beliefs and gets rid of them due to parental teaching before reaching pre-school, where Geocentrism is eliminated by sweet Ms.Goody. Then, in Kindergarden, Ms.Nice takes over and, talking to kids the way kids need to be talked to, takes each by the hand and gently ushers them from YEC to OEC. Subsequent grades in elementary and middle school take the students from teacher to teacher, each teaching a more and more correct version of the story, until they all graduate as IDC. In high school, they encounter nice teachers like Ken Miller and Francis Collins who move them from IDC to Theistic Evolution.

After high school, some kids get jobs. Their understanding of evolution remains at the level of Theistic Evolution and that is OK. Other kids go to college, where they get basic ideas about evolution from their BIO101 classes taught by Richard Dawkins. They are still wrong, but MUCH better than what they were fifteen years ago.

Finally, a few decide to study biology in grad school and get tough advisors and the committee composed of people like Nijhout, Antonovics, Myers and Moran. This is where they shed the last vestiges of erroneous understanding of evolution and become experts themselves - people who, depending on their own personalities, use their authority to teach new generations at different levels of schooling. Some have aptitude for Kindergarden teaching, others for being grad school advisors. Not everyone can do everything equally well. But experts are authorities, and moving the Overton Window will make scientific experts generally accepted authorities on their subjects (instead of political hucksters or religious swindlers - the situation we have today).

Actually, much of science is really taught similarly. Not starting with religiously-based nonsense and gradually shedding it, but starting with oversimplified versions of science and gradually shedding the errors. We necessarily lie to 1st-graders about evolution (or anything else in science for that matter), because basics are oversimplifications that are factually wrong but are neccessary to learn in order to be able to understand it and be able to move on to more sophisticated versions later. Only in graduate school, with full immersion into the literature, one sheds the last errors in one's chosen area of one's chosen field of one's chosen scientific discipline.

Even scientists adhere to semi-erroneous ideas outside of their narrow area of expertise. There is no way anyone can know everything absolutely correctly about all of science. And non-scientists should not be expected to know it either. So teaching them with that goal in mind is doomed to failure. And the way we tend to teach is just like that - trying to teach the best available knowledge of our own disciplines to the unprepared minds - of course they switch off and get easily swayed by the sweet-talking preachers.

One problem with the school metaphor I used is that in schools, if you are in third grade, you have no idea what the fourth grade teacher is teaching - it all happens behind closed doors. In the real world, everything is public. So people who need to hear Ken Miller will also hear Richard Dawkins - we cannot prevent this from happening. If they are not ready for Dawkins, they will reject him and call him "shrill". Fortunately, people are cognitive misers, picking and choosing what they will listen to. Going into a bookstore, a person not yet ready for Dawkins will likely not buy a Dawkins book - he will pick a Ken Miller or Francis Collins book instead and get started on the way to making the next step in his personal growth.

This is also why there has to be a division of labor - you cannot have the same person doing the job of a Kindergarden teacher and the college professor in the public arena. You do not send PZ to talk to the audience that needs to hear Ken Miller first. And vice versa.

There is a need for all sorts - the Panda's Thumb crew (and many other bloggers) counters Creationism with scientific facts. This will work on some segments of the population, those who are ready to make that step. It is important to do this work mainly for the availability of the information online and for Google searches. Every creationist idea has been debunked a million times (and I have no patience to write anything more than once - so hats-off to people who can), but, for instance, a new keyword search term may come up every now end then. Such a new keyword term recently was the name of Michael Egnor, a new addition to the Discovery Institute - and we had to make sure that everything he writes gets debunked and then moved to the top of the Google searches for his name.

But mass media does set the tone. Having Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and others on TV all the time puts the issue up front, educates the pundits (who get better and better at asking questions and understanding the issue), and provides a background noise for the majority of the population, making them more receptive for such arguments once they are ready for them. It also redefines what is and is not acceptable in public discourse - something that political candidates and their advisors carefully watch. There is no way any serious candidate can now say - and have that go unpunished - what Bush Sr. said about atheists not being real Americans.

So, there is no conflict between two versions of 'framing' - it is done by different people in different situations. The evoking of pre-existing frames in a narrow target audience wins battles. Inventing new frames and having them stick wins wars.

Update: Larry Moran responds.

Update 2: More from Mike, Matt and Chris. And SA Smith. Also Laelaps. Now PZ Myers again. And John Wilkins.

A few more reactions and related posts: Mark Hoofnagle, Buridan, Guru, Mark Leggott, Eli Rabett, Michael Tobis, Kent, Hank Campbell, Wolfrum.

Update 3:
More responses from Greg Laden, Chris Rowan, RPM, Chad Orzel, Kristjan Wager, Eric Berger and Orac.

Chris Mooney responds to PZ. And so does John Fleck. And Matt's response to bloggers has a new URL.

There is more from Trinifar, Trinifar again, Steppen Wolf, Sciencesque and Kate.

Update 4: I have re-posted this as a Diary on DailyKos (which was rescued by SusanG over night) where there are some interesting comments. Many others have chimed in as well: Madhu, Greg Laden, Dave Munger, John Wilkins, John Hawks, Chris Mooney, Gavin Schmidt, Matt Nisbet, PZ Myers, John Lynch, Eric Baerren, Laelaps, Alric, Sam Wise, Josh Rosenau, Sean Carroll and Kate again. Also see Franz (in Slovenian) and ORF (in German).

New: StaceyG on Rockridge Nation, Steven Novella and Kent again

Another response by Larry Moran (and no, just because Larry does not understand the relevant cogsci research, does not make it "psychobabble").

More on Brian Larnder's and Benjamin Cohen's blogs.

Laelaps again

Guru, Steppen Wolf and Trinifar have some more....

Fresh additions: Susannah A, Jim Torson (who likes my post), Michael Tobis (who hates it - dunno, perhaps he is conservative or something, and not knowing me from before, would find my regulars in disagreement and vice versa), JLowe and Mike Dunford.

Today's updates: Chris Clarke, Chad Orzel, Inel and Eclectics Anonymous.

Also, John Lynch, PZ Myers and Mike Dunford respond to Bill Dembski's incredible response to the Science paper.

Robert Camp pitches in. And I wrote another post on the topic.

Andy Fell, Samuel Bradley and Janet Stemwedel have the latest...

Now Chris Clarke on Pandagon, Anomalous Data, Bruce Loebrich and Chris on Mixing Memory have new stuff up. In the meantime, Matt Nisbet announces that the Science article is now available for free here.

Simon Donner, Blake Stacey and PonderingFool.

Fresh: Ed Brayton, Eclectics Anonymous, Michael Tobis and Michael Tobis again.

Robin Engelhardt will talk about this at a meeting and Greg Laden collects the links.

More from Greg Laden, river2sea72, Trinifar and Chris Mooney

New material from Matt Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele

New arguments by Catherine Brahic, PonderingFool and Chris Mooney.

A suggestion by Greg Laden, and excellent succinct point by David Roberts, a good link provided by Tingilinde, a heated debate in the comments here (and a jokular response by Greg Laden to it) and a new example by Matt Nisbet.

Deric Bownds reprints the entire article. More from Fergus Brown, Dan Conover and me.

And do check out the comments on all the blog responses - there is some good stuff there. Here is a brief introduction to what frames are. You may also want to check out Simple Framing for the bare-bone basics of what it is, or this excellent book - How People Learn as anantidote to the naive notion that truth can speak for itself.

My additional thoughts after reading the blogospheric commentary:

Most of those bloggers and commenters who disagree with Chris and Matt give examples of good (or supposedly good) communication by scientists. But EVERY SINGLE one of their examples is irrelevant to this discussion. Why? Two reasons:

1. Because each example is about science education or popularization. This has nothing to do with it. Framing is about persuasion - making people believe you are right, not learning anything new, not getting interested in the topic (though this can be a nice side-effect), just aligning themselves with you because of who you are, what you said, and how you said it. It is about making political allies, people who will do the right thing when it matters - at the next election (or protest, or write-in campaign). It is about swaying the public opinion, about winning in court, about pushing the right legislation through Congress, and about winning political battles. If we win them, we will be able to teach and popularize science in the future. If we lose, we'll end up in Gitmo whenever we try to do so. In short, it is not about science itself, it is about politics.

2. Because each example deals with willing, self-selected, eager audience consisting of people who trust you to begin with, have necessary background, are willing to take some time and mental effort to learn from you. Those are the people who read science blogs, popular science magazines, watch Discovery Channel, go to the local Cafe Scientifique, buy popular science books. They are not the audience Chris and Matt have in mind. They are concerned with unwilling audience, people who mistrust you, think you are a nuisance, do not want to believe you, do not want to listen to you, want you to go away, do not have any inclination to make a mental effort to follow your argument, and have no background in science whatsoever. But you need them to change their mind. And you have 30 seconds max to do it.

Also, they do not think about division of labor - that different people will do best with particular audiences and should shy away from talking to other kinds of audiences. They insist that you are forcing all scientists to go on FoxNews to explain evolution!

Finally, most of the bloggers and commenters continuously conflate the short-term and long-term meanings of the term "framing" which my post is all about.

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Cross-posted on Daily Kos

You can read more about framing on Wikipedia as well, e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Framing Science - the Dialogue of the Deaf
Framing 'framing'
Did I frame that wrong?
Framing and Truth
Just a quick update on 'framing science'
Joshua Bell and Framing Science
Framers are NOT appeasers!
Framing Politics (based on science, of course)
Everybody Must Get Framed


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An excellent post. Frankly, every scientist about to go on TV or radio needs to read this. The other side tends to be strong on language rather than facts, so we have to remember that facts alone are not enough.

Good article! I think if people in the "reality based community" get serious about winning the public debate over evolution, they will do much that you've outlined here. But they will do more too. For instance, the other side has created institutions dedicated to propagating it's views. And so should the "reality based community". We need the equivalent of a Discovery Institute. Do we have one yet?

Nicely done.

I find myself agreeing with you on the big picture, although I'm pretty sure that in any actual argument about how topic X should be taught, I'll be the guy saying, "You don't need to simplify that far" and "That explanation will cause too much trouble later on!" I'm happy providing the CITOKATE in such situations.

This is probably more of a medium- or long-term issue than a short-term one, but I worry that this whole discussion is putting too much emphasis on what scientists should do and how scientists should explain themselves. Since the problem involves communicating science, we need to look at our current communication structures and find out what they're doing, too.

Regular Language Log readers will know that Mark Liberman, a linguist and a clear communicator himself, has tracked a great deal of bad science reporting and arrived at some melancholy conclusions.

Seeded by a breezy Daily Mail article that didn't even get the author's name and book title right, two pieces of quantitative psych-lore have been spreading through the world's media over the past few days [November 2006]: women talk three times as much as men, and men think of sex every 52 seconds, compared to once a day for women. These "facts", we've been told by Matt Drudge and and dozens of newspapers and CNN, the BBC and NPR, have been "discovered" or "confirmed" by Dr. Louann Brizendine's scientific studies.

The public reaction has mostly been that this is like doing experiments to discover that the sun rises in the east, or to confirm that animals deprived of food will starve. In fact, however, the "facts" about word counts and sexual thoughts are false: Louann Brizendine hasn't done any research on either topic, the sources she cites contain no relevant evidence, and existing studies contradict her claims. [Sources included in original text]

But to insist on the concept of "fact" in this context is a recipe for frustration. As I've watched the reaction to Louann Brizendine's book over the past few months, I've concluded that "scientific studies" like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It's only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they're true. For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive.

In amongst all this talk of what scientists should do and how scientists should explain themselves, what's being done to train new science writers and make it more profitable for media organizations to report actual, factual discoveries? Are we to assume that "framing" knowledge in the right way will make it propagate without error through a flawed system?

Finally, some nits:

And if the person ends up believing that evolution is a fact, it makes no difference if his/her conception of evolution is not 100% correct (hey, Dawkins and Dawkins get it wrong, so why not some Joe Schmoe?).

I presume this should be "Dawkins and Dennett", or something like that, and was written with reference to group selection.

Going into a bookstore, a person not yet ready for Dawkins will likely not buy a Dawkins book - he will pick a Ken Collins book instead and get srated on the way to making the next step in his personal growth.

"Ken Collins"? Is this is a clever way to conflate Francis Collins and Ken Miller, which I haven't had enough caffeine today to appreciate?

Lastly, about the "creation/evolution continuum", I think it's important to note that sorting people along that axis presumes that their public statements are essentially honest. This is a dangerous assumption when dealing with the Discovery Institute: the prominent spokesmen of "Intelligent Design" are professional manipulators and paid propagandists. I am not sure how many people actually believe in ID; it seems more plausible that people spout the memes — "bacterial flagellum! bacterial flagellum!" — in order to comfort themselves about a pre-existing creationist belief.

I suspect that Francis Collins really does believe what he writes. However, I get the feeling that if you scratch an ID advocate, you'll find a creationist.

The whole driving force behind this "framing science" debate is the fact that our society is not a digital free-flow of pure ideas, but rather a realm where ideas stick to and are processed by human brains, with all the failings and peculiarities that entails. If we want to persuade people of anything, short-term or long, we have to understand how they believe, and wherefore.

Thanks, Blake - those are excellent points and a great quote from Language Log.

Late last night when I wrote this I posted this with typos. Then I went back to fix errors and somehow it showed up as a separate post. I guess I deleted the corrected post and left the uncorrected one up. I'll go back and fix the typos again.

You're rather fond of grand conceptual schemes that posit that multiple domains - child-rearing, mental health, politics, scientific theories - are all causally interrelated.

Even when I agree with you on specific topics I find myself disagreeing with your assertions about their implications for politics, theory, and psychology. (I've read Lakoff too, and I think his work is interesting, though highly uneven.)

Those evolutionary biologists that you identify as the most modern and sophisticated tend to embrace pre-Darwinian (or at least pre-Synthesis) ideas historically associated with Process Structuralism, as opposed to allegedly naive and unsophisticated genocentric adapationism associated with the Modern Synthesis and its evolutionary ecology elaboration. In a sense, they are more theoretically "conservative" than theorists in the school of Hamilton-Trivers. Some of the figures you list as the most sophisticated scarcely understand behavioral ecology and life history theory yet believe themselves qualified to dismiss whole research programs. (That's not true of all of them, of course.)

There are several dangers posed by grand conceptual schemes that attempt to explain too much. For one, they tend to collapse from the folly of sheer overreach. Another problem is that they can be self-justifying, even self-congratulatory. It's tempting to dismiss those with differing views - whether on biology, psychology, or politics - as naive, ignorant, or mentally ill, but it's not conducive to enhancing the sophistication of one's own views.

I'll fess up - back in the 90s I attempted to develop an overarching conceptual scheme encompassing evolutionary theory, politics, and psychology. It was, of course, a failure - but it was an instructive one.


Thank you so much for this post. It can explain to a science-oriented audience why PR (which is basically the art of framing) is so important to science communication, at least as much as the hard facts.

Just curious -- since I'm an aspiring MD/Ph.D (High School Senior), and most of what I've learned about evolution, I've learned from Dawkins (the Selfish Gene, Ancestor's Tale, etc.), what parts of what he explains are deprecated? Blake Stacey, above, mentioned group selection, and from what I've read, Dawkins is very skeptical towards group selection, and takes an almost entirely gene-centered view of evolution. Is group selection now pretty much accepted within the scientific community?

By Jongpil Yun (not verified) on 07 Apr 2007 #permalink

Terrific post! Thank you.

I would add that framing creates associative constellations. When we described the events that happened in Littleton Colorado as "Columbine" for example, we created an intersection between school, kids, guns, and violence that instigated a hysterical rush to action. This quickly superseded the reality of the situation, and helped to create surveillance systems aimed at teenagers who might stand out in any way while at the same time criminalizing adolescents generally. More tellingly, it served as an excuse to remove parents, teachers and judges from participation in any sort of discretionary disciplinary process. Meanwhile, the root causes of this American kind of violence went unexamined, and any sense of proportionality went right out the window. The event was fetishized, and copied by others.

Framing establishes a context - a mind-set of associations that is more complicated than the simple parenting associations that Lakoff presents for understanding political spin. To be fair, I think this is really just one example, an important one, that he focuses on. He could have used different terminology for those who do not consider the government to be any kind of parent at all.

Some of the framing done recently is laughable doublespeak. "Tax relief" for the rich, "clean skies" to protect pollutors, and the like.

Still, a good method of understanding how framing works is to draw a map of word-associations, and to think about alternative maps that might enable more fruitful debate and engagement.

I have often tried to explain evolution to fundies, and man, they just don't want to get it. Do they think that it's reasonableness is a sign of its Satanic origin? I don't know. It's supremely frustrating. I should just go out and proclaim evolution on the freaking streetcorner. Can you see it? Thumping a leather-bound copy of Origin of the Species. Ah! If there was just a little more performance artist in me, I'd totally do it.

Blog Against Theocracy!


Coturnix: "Yes - it's called the school system, and especially the University System. We just need to start utilizing it."

Good point! The school system is the single most powerful ally of the "reality based community", but I suspect it's not enough. I'd like to see an institute, analogous to the Discovery Institute (but honest), focused on getting out the word on evolution in a persuasive and market savvy manner. It could also serve to head up responses to the political attacks against teaching evolution. The school system can impart information, but it's not geared towards (nor should it be geared towards) fighting the public relations battle as a public relations battle. Just a thought.

You are right - the school system is geared for the long-term. For the short term we need something/someone that is trained in rapid-response action in 5second sound-bites. Not teaching science, but agitating FOR science in an effective manner.

The main problem I have with this "paper" is that the entire concept of "frame analysis" has been butchered. It is clearly not even remotely understood by the authors, or for that matter, by most commenters on the paper.

It is not a difficult concept, but it is a real concept that they clearly mean to use. "frame" is not just a word, any more than "gene" or "cell" are words. For some clarification on what a "frame" is and how it could be used in the context the authors mean, see:

Despite my criticism, I think Coturnix gets the point, unlike Larry Moran, PZ Myers, and some others. There seems to be an odd notion of ritual purity underlying their distaste, as if making aspects of science more accessible to the American Idol-watching masses would somehow taint it.

Coturnix: "Even scientists adhere to semi-erroneous ideas outside of their narrow area of expertise."

Exactly so. Not only that, they constantly accuse their own colleagues in rival schools of thought within their own fields of getting it wrong.

Jongpil Yun: I recommend Jablonka and Lamb's 'Evolution in Four Dimensions' for an expanded perspective.

As for the accomplishments of the "naive" and "genocentric" adaptationist (behavioral ecology) research program, see this review:

Owens, IP. 2006. 'Where is behavioural ecology going?' Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 21(7):356-61.

Hi Greg,
Thanks for the thoughtful comments over at your blog. Earlier today, in your comments section, I wrote the following response for your approval and posting.

a) The citation to Beardsley is simply to point out that some people in the scientific community have started to think about alternative modes of communication strategy, not to ground the concept/theory of framing.

b) If you are looking for sources on how the fields of communication, political science, and sociology have developed framing as a theory of media influence, see the two citations that we reference in our commentary:

Price, V., Nir, L., & Capella, J.N. (2005). Framing public discussion of gay civil unions. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69, (2), 179-212.

Gamson, WA. and Modigliani, A. (1989). Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95, 1-37.

Also, see the latest issue of Journal of Communication, the flagship journal in the field. Its a special issue devoted to framing and media influence. See especially the following overview:

Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, agenda-setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9-20.

See also this earlier article by Scheufele, possibly the most heavily cited article in the field over the past decade:

Scheufele, D.A. (1999). Framing as a Theory of Media Effects. Journal of Communication 49 (4): 103-22

I would be happy to send you (or others) PDFs of the articles. Part of what you are describing involves a disciplinary turf battle over the use of the social scientific term framing. It would be useful to bring together linguists, anthropologists, communication researchers, sociologists, and political scientists to hash out some differing views, though to date, little of this has ever been done.

Here is what we all missed out on: the article on framing was published in Science, under subscription barrier, and should have therefore catered to scientists. Instead, the article is written in typical "school of communication" style, talking to the audience of the future journalist/media that might pick up the story and might want it to be ready to be talked about through TV, short articles, etc. The phrasing and development of the argument (which retains its value nevertheless) was often obscured by what a scientist would see as sloppiness: inaccurate use of quotations, terms that start having double meanings, use of terms and expressions such as "demonstrate", "respect diversity" and "strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science", which immediately raised, in at least part of the blogosphere, the feeling that what the authors are arguing is to turn science communication into "spin".

Unfortunately, the authors' advice on framing was not followed by the authors themselves in the first place: the argue was not correctly "framed" for their target audience. An already controversial subject generated a large debate on semantic issues with the use of "frame", "spin", "truth", etc.

It seems to me that often even the most authoritative comments stopped at the semantics, and failed to pick up the main message: adapt your message to your audience. Not everybody understands, cares, or is technically versed in scientific issues/communications, therefore the messages should be intelligible to a large audience, and not only that - they must be relevant, they must clearly explain why they are relevant to people's lives, not in principle but in practice. This is not about "spin", it is about smart communication. How many 18-year-old actually give a turd about their prof's lecture? They mostly do, as long as it gives them a good grade and they can forget about it ASAP. Unless of course, they plan to be scientists. But that is preaching to the choir - it will not positively affect policy change, nor will it contribute to science communication in political settings.
Some argue that science communication should be left to "science communicators". However, the career of science communicator is often looked down by scientists (yes, it is, check out the Career section on major journals), and often they are blamed with not being able to "communicate science properly". Which brings me to the point: if "they" are so lousy, why don't you all get off your ivory tower and start learning about the challenges of doing real science communication - i.e. not having a choir willing to be preached at, not having unlimited blogging space, and having super-limited time and space media resources, as well as having to reach out to a very wide audience, while also keeping in mind that there are cultural communication issues to be kept into account?

These are my five cents. Now, let me get back to my science article for lay people.

Wow -- I'm with Jennifer, this post wraps things up very nicely! A couple of thoughts, though (since it rarely hurts to toss another log or two on the fire)...

I suspect part of PZ Myers' motivation / personal viewpoint might be intrinsically tied to being a college professor. As such, he has a simpler job than do most in the "business" of communicating science -- he has a captive audience, and members of his audience arrive with the expectation of (if not always enthusiasm for) learning. Communicating science to the general public removes both these advantages, since the audience in many cases isn't searching for additional knowledge, and they are free to walk away at any point.

Essentially, what we need are a whole lot of latter-day Carl Sagans -- popularizers and (for lack of a better term) evangelists of science.

Also, FWIW, I avoid the terms "conservative" and "liberal" entirely these days. The definitions of these terms have changed so dramatically over the years, and have so many different flavors in a variety of countries, that I suspect they're essentially useless as adjectives any more. Maybe you know what you mean when you say Bush is a pure "conservative," but I suspect every reader will come away with a different meaning (as a function of their personal political persuasion and home address).

My $0.02,


I hope this discussion can continue and that scientists will more and more step into the media to communicate: Those who believe that vaccines or mercury or heavy metals poisoning are the cause of a child becoming autistic constantly cite "science" and "research" to back their arguments up; no matter how often one says "there is no credible scientific evidence" for a vaccine-autism link, the more stubbornly these claims are clung to, and much effort and energy gets expended. A more thoughtful public discussion of science and autism would be very welcomed.

Thank you---

I thoroughly disliked this article, taken at face value, and said so here.

Coturnix got wind of this and made what I consider to be an astonishing response, that this article is satire.

Quoth he:

In case you missed it, that was self-sarcasm. ... Obviously I have a lot to learn, as I was not clear enough for you to understand that the humor/sarcasm was targeted at "me" or at worst "we", not at "you" or "them".

Well it fooled me entirely. Did others read this present article as satirical?

It seems to me consistent with at least one other article on this site.

To be specific I also disliked the cavalier dismissal of the research on the heritability of religiosity. The idea seems to me an entirely sound (in the Popper sense) falsifiable hypothesis, and in studying twins raised apart, investigated using a sound methodology. Coturnix's response to that also, to me, betrayed both arrogance and a nonrational hostility to religion even as an observable behavioral phenomenon.

Coturnix's further reply was to advise me to consult with his regular readers on this blog, so I am doing so now.

Did you read this present article as satire? What do you think of the exchange on between me and Coturnix on my linked blog article?

I was just incredulous, until I got to:

"... You will have to simplify to the point that what you say is inaccurate. ... your '95% sure' in a paper will have to become 'capital-T Truth' when you talk to non-scientists. This is NOT sloppy.....Something must be fishy about it if you are not prepared to state that it is the Truth."

Then I recognized I was in the middle of reading a very long shaggy-dog-story joke, or a confession from a hostage, or something.

This is bad. It will have legs.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

Not that I don't enjoy the work you do here, but I have to ask: Are you superhuman, or are you just going to be in grad school forever?

Just saying hi on a more recent post as I already noted on an archived post this page links to.

I have a post on my own blog, and on DKos concerning the tendencies for trauma to be a source of the Pathologies that are connected to Authoritarian thinking and what the research you are aware of that shows this.

More directly to this post, I have posited a frame that will lead many in the right to reach progressive values that is the major point of my blog.

This whole blog and the comments are the best discussion I have seen on the vital topic of education of larger and larger goroups of people on issues that are now looked on as only of interest to scientists. Climate changes are a great example of why this is important. In order for any public understanding and orderly acceptance of self evident changes, such as temperature shifts, change in weather patterns, changes in water currents, changes in ocean levels, violent storms and even geological changes that may relate to large scale climate shifts, there has to be a general understanding of the basic principles. Maybe the framing issue can be better explained in another context. When personal computers first came out, they were the subject of tekkies, those interested in technology for it's own sake. That made a very small market for the early computers. Computers had to become simpler to be of interest to the larger group of potential buyers who understood computers, even if they were not interested in software or hardware technology. Now, after 30+ years, computers are something widely accepted and widely used by non-technical people. This is truly and "Apples to Apples" shift, if you will pardon the pun. Television was invented in teh 1920's but took 30 yeers to reach the public. Cell phones took less time, about 20 years from eaarly adopters to universal acceptance. Ideas, like products, may also take a long time to become widely believed and understood. ocean water lapping at doorsteps may hasten the undeniable aspects of climate change, but to those not affected, this will not be enough. We all watched New Orleans go underwater, without thinking that could happen to us too.
Perhaps the concept of "scaling", as is done with video streaming technology, where the content adapts to the lowest common denominator, would be a better approach. This might be termed dumbing-down technology, but somehow, education of larger and larger groups needs to be accomplished to force change in attitudes and basic beliefs, for people to learn to deal with changes. Some scientists need to become spokespersons for their subject matter. The issues are too important to be left to haphazard communication and certainly to political dumbing-down as a way to reach people. If everyone could have learned Physics from Richard Feynman, more people would be able to understand Physics, and so on. This job cannot be left to politicians or the popular press as they tend to communicate at a very low level and only there. It needs to be "scalable" like streaming video, to settle and work at various levels. this approach could be applied to education in general, no change in content, just words used to convey meaning.

By John MacKay (not verified) on 01 May 2007 #permalink