Framing and Truth

Truth, All the Truth, and Nothing but the Truth.

You are all familiar with the phrase. It actually figures prominently (though unspoken until now) in this whole discussion about framing science.

Nobody - absolutely nobody - ever suggests that anything but The Truth should be used when communicating science or communicating about science.

The wisdom of framing is that 'All the Truth' can be omitted, as too much information puts off the target audience in some cases, and is thus counterproductive.

The self-styled Defenders Of The Truth insist that a) 'All The Truth' should never be omitted, and b) that 'framers' want to omit 'nothing but the Truth", i.e. to advocate lying. Nothing is further from the Truth.

The important issues of the day - evolution, global warming, stem cell reseach - are too contentious and politically hot. Thus, to illustrate how omitting "All The Truth" does not mean lying, I'll use the examples from my own reasearh, as far from political (or even politicizable) as can be.

For instance, this is the way some of our data are presented to the peers in the field. Compare that to this treatment of the very same data intended for a different audience - readers of a science blog (some scientists, some interested lay-people, no chronobiologists). There is more background, more explanation of the basics, a more casual English language, and almost no numbers/statistics in the latter. Both contain the Truth and Nothing but the Truth, but the latter is not "All the Truth" as some less relevant information has been omitted. Does it turn it into lying? Not at all. Does it make more comprehensible and interested to a non-expert? Yes. The published paper was read by the dozens, the blog post by the hundreds at least - hundreds who probably could not have understood the published paper anyway and who don't need all the nitty-gritty details in order to understand it.

Or, how about this example: here is the actual paper, and here is the blog post about it. Not just does the blogpost explain in an easy language what the paper is about, but it also adds the wisdom of several intervening years of research and thinking, i.e., puts the paper in a historical perspective. It also has a slightly different emphasis on what was really important in the paper - something we learned only in hindsight. So, which of the two is The Truth? The paper has all the details and statistics that the blog-post lacks. The blog-post has the post-hoc insights that the paper lacks. Are they, thus, both Lies? No. They are both true, framed for different audiences at different times in history.

How about this one: here is the paper and here is the blog-post. The blog-post puts the data from the paper in a much, MUCH broader context, including data from a number of other papers by other people, and ends with new data that never saw the light of day previously, followed by a novel testable hypothesis that was never included in the original paper. Which one is The Truth? Both, of course. Just framed differently.

Another example: here is the published paper while here and here are two different blog treatments of the same data. The first post explains the data in the paper (sans boring details and numbers) and puts the paper into a historical perspective. It adds some of the background thinking that was not included in the paper - about my motivations for doing the work, about expectations how the data would turn out, the way we responded when the data did not turn out the way we predicted, and the way to see the data from the lens of what we know now seven years later. The second post also describes the data in simple English, yet goes further - by placing the data into a different context (ecological instead of physiological) it ends up proposing a novel hypothesis to be tested in the future. Which of the three treatments are the Truth? All three, of course, but each framed differently.

OK, that was my MS stuff. I am not allowed to tell you the details of my PhD work, but there is a way to frame it so you can understand what it was all about without revealing any specifics.

For instance, if asked by a person (professional or lay-person) interested in evolution, I would describe my PhD work along these lines: "I am interested in evolutionary implications of sex, strain and individual differences in circadian and photoperiodic time measurement in Japanese quail, with potential insight into group selection".

If asked by a physiologist of some sort, I would describe it like this: "I did studies in the way exposure to sex steroid hormones by embryos and adults affects the way bird brains measure time of day and time of year".

If asked by someone whose primary interest are humans, I'd say something like this: "I use an avian model to study the way circadian system is altered during adolescence".

If I were young and single and talking up a girl in a bar where loud music makes language economy an imperative, I'd say "I am a brain surgeon".

And you know what? All four statements are True. Nothing but the Truth. But obviously not All the Truth. Each emphasizes a different aspect of my work. Each neglects to say that the work is already done and that I have not set foot in the lab for a while. And each is framed for its target audience. The first reflects my real #1 interest and can help bond with a like-minded fellow. The second is my #2 interest, but that is what my Dissertation is supposed to be about and this is the way most people in the field (including my advisor) would like to hear about it. The third is good for selling my work to NIH, but also good for giving a polite answer to a non-scientist friend who asked the question out of being polite him/herself. The fourth emphasizes one of the methods in my toolkit and has a different goal in mind.

Each of the four is framed differently because the audience is different, the question ("What is your research about") was asked for different reasons, and my goal is different (though establishing my expertise and staking my turf are a common thread to all four): bonding, teaching, persuading, or self-aggrandizing, respectively. And I never inserted a single lie anywhere. Oh, and without knowing any details, you now have a pretty decent idea of my rresearch interests, don't you?

That is what framing is about. Knowing what your goals is. Knowing what to omit when. And knowing what style of language to use with which audience. No need to ever be dishonest. Leave that to Creationists and Republicans.

But, what really is The Truth in science and in journalism? Oh, do click on that link, I know you want to and it is worth it.

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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By Mustafa Mond, FCD (not verified) on 13 Apr 2007 #permalink

Dear Bora, your extremely politicized opinions are so disgraceful that I am amazed that someone would allow you to become one of their nearly official bloggers.

Science - and communication about science - is not about knowing your goals and promoting them, while attacking groups for political reasons. Science is about finding the answers that we don't a priori know, and communication about science is about reporting and discussing results that we don't always like.

Your opinions about these things sound like from the Stalin era when arrogant power didn't hide that it is always ready to suppress the truth whenever political goals justify it.

That's putting it a bit strong, Lubos ... I would say that the examples of framing you give from your blog are still relatively information intensive, similar to the kind of popular science writing or broadcasting that lots of people go out of their way to avoid. The reason my knee jerked against framing was the apparent suggestion that the supporting evidence would divorced completely from the message, and replaced with a naked appeal to emotions and pre-existing prejudice.

By Jonathan Vause (not verified) on 13 Apr 2007 #permalink

Of all the people complaining about politicizing science - Lubos Motl, the poster boy of politicizing AND dishonestly misrepresenting science - comes to my blog. It's like PZ getting creationist trolls. I should be honored, I guess.

Dear Jonathan, I don't know whether you have actually read what he wrote, for example this summary:

"That is what framing [that he defended] is about. Knowing what your goals is. Knowing what to omit when. And knowing what style of language to use with which audience. No need to ever be dishonest. Leave that to Creationists and Republicans."

He is completely open that communication about science, as he sees it, is about "achieving goals", "omitting things", "adjusting language", and he defines "dishonesty" to be associated with the Republicans. If you tell me that this guy is not a Stalinist and maximally politically biased propagandistic manipulator, then - sorry to say - you have lost your mind.

Mr. Motl,

I have a number of different skills and areas of experience. I teach martial arts, I have done fight choreography for amature movies, I've done acting in local plays, and I have been paid for my writing.

I have different "resumes" for each of these areas. Each truthfully detailing what I have done that might be specifically of interest to the peson I am trying to impress, and leaving out stuff that they will find irrelevant and not useful for determining if I am someone with skills they can use.

Essentially, I am "omitting things" and "adjusting language" to "achieve goals". Framing my presentation of my skills and experience to give relevant information tailored to my audience to persuade them to choose me over some other person, while not boring them or losing their attention with information they will find useless and irrelevant to their immediate concerns.

I had no idea that this was "Stalinist". Thank you so much for letting me know!

Ignore Motl. He is a disgrace to the science blogging community. And, due to actually having a PhD, he is more dangerous than Creationists - he is a Right wing shill. Nobody mentions his name without rolling one's eyes. I'd rather have Dembski appear in my comments than Motl.

Teresa, the irrelevant list of your skills has absolutely nothing to do with the question of science communication.

Unless you, of course, really want to apply your martial arts to discussions about science in which case I would probably replace the adjective "Stalinist" by "Nazi".

In science, there is no way to selectively denote things as irrelevant. If an insight is relevant for a scientific question, then it's objectively relevant, and if someone is being convinced by others that it is irrelevant because of some context or because of individual entertainment values, then he's being cheated.

Both of you seem to lack elementary moral values and honesty.

Great post, Bora! It seems to me that just about everyone uses framing to one extent or another except, perhaps, cocktail party bores who ramble on endlessly about the virtues of pre-stressed concrete structures without regard to either the interests or the knowledge-base of their audience. All you seem to be asking is that framing be made a conscious, disciplined act.

Having said that, what makes me pessimistic that the majority of scientistis will ever adopt more effective communications techniques is, among other things, the resistence seen to even a well founded and honest technique like framing.

That's fine. Not everyone is interested in effective communications, and doctorates should not be awarded in the sciences on the basis of whether or not someone can communicate with the public. But since there is a real need for science -- or at least it's implications -- to be communicated to the public, there is a real need for people who both can and will do that communicating. Why not bring some of those people together in an institute dedicated not only to communicating science, but also to coordinating the political response to political attacks on science? Such an institution could be overseen by a board of scientists to keep it honest. Effective communications need not, as you point out, be dishonest.

My dear Mr. Motl, are you seriously trying to suggest that your attempt to portray framing as an immoral activity practiced by immoral people is not itself an attempt at framing?

I'm really not sure what the big deal about all this framing stuff is.

It seems to me that both sides are exaggerating the characteristics of framing -- one side implying that it is the greatest thing since sliced bread and the other side implying that it is dishonest.

I'm willing to bet that it's neither.

Not only that, I'm also willing to bet that it will never become the norm for communicating science, because many scientists will simply have no interest in it -- either because they don't like it or because they could not be bothered finding out what it is about.

So, in the end, individual scientists will decide how they wish to communicate their science to the public. It will be a personal decision on the part of each scientist, as has always been the case.

At least I would certainly hope that would be the case and that no one would be telling scientists how they should and should not communicate their science to the public. That would be totalitarian and certainly anathema to an open communications process.

I'll believe it when I see it, but if framing does turn out to be a revolutionary method for communicating science to the public, I'm sure that individual scientists will adopt it because they see that it works, not because of what some academic or blogger says.

Likewise, if some try it and it turns out to be a dud -- or backfires for the ones who do it -- I'm sure it will die a quick and fairly painless death.

Mr. Motl,

You use frame the idea of framing as dishonest, and then try to create a frame that makes Bora (someone who says scientists should make an effort to make science acessable and relevant to non-scientists) into the moral equivalent of someone who butchered his political rivals.

You claim to do this in defense of honesty.

I'm a little worried that you are going to hurt yourself by such contortions.

In the question of scientific outcomes, there may be no "irrelevant" data. But in the eyes of the average person, there is much information that is "irrelevant"...or at least SEEMS to be. Some information wil have an impact, some information will cause people to "turn off". Presenting high-quality information in an acessable format for the intended audience is not dishonest. It is the ONLY way to compete effectivly with other sources of information, many of which are of low quality, but high acessability...and which are currently kicking the science communities' collective ass.

Deciding that if the average Joe can't (or won't)sort it out for themselves, that's their own tough luck is elietist.

We are explicit in the article that framing is "not all powerful." For example, as we write, no matter how much communication goes on in the stem cell debate, some people simply can't be moved on the issue.

It's about segmenting the public. Understanding the different perceptual lenses and identities that they bring to the issue, and then crafting a message that, while remaining true to the science, connects to that identity.

In this NPR interview yesterday, I repeat this and elaborate.…

We also had a very tight space limit in the Science article. The focus in that article is framing, but it is just one part of a communication took kit in engaging the public. For example, another effective strategy is to take advantage of everyday opinion-leaders, people who are average scientists except that they follow public affairs closely, like to talk to others about issues, and are persuasive in doing so. These people, recruited and trained, can connect media messages about science intepersonally by way of conversation. I call it a "two step flow of popularization." Take a look at this column that I wrote for Skeptical Inquirer Online that lays this out in the context of climate change:


Cortunix: An excellent post with which I agree fully. The most important aspect of appropriate framing by scientists now may well be the political battle over evolution/creationism. As one heavily involved for several years in opposing creationist ID at the grassroots level and in the state legislature, good framing is necessary. For example, legislators are mostly ignorant of the facts and most will not listen, and certainly not read, some long scientific explanation. Points must be made within a frame that will resonate with the target audience. Framing for an educated college audience should be different from that for a general audience, for example. Proper use of framing will certainly enhance the understanding by an audience of the points one wishes to make.

The conservatives have been doing this framing for about 40 years and have been successful. The ID framing of �teach the controversy,� is just one example. If we are to make any real progress with average citizens, PROPER framing to present the crux of our HONEST messages seems to me to be a necessity. Nisbet and Mooney are mostly on target.