Trying to understand framing.

Chris Mooney lays out the argument behind "framing". I give my thoughts, item by item.

1. We have long-running politicized science controversies on subjects like evolution and climate change, with separate polarized camps and the repeated use and misuse of complex scientific information in the arguments.

I'm not sure it's fair to characterize the controversies alluded to as "scientific" controversies. It's easier to make a case for scientific disagreement around climate change (at least, in terms of precisely how much human activity contributes, where the tipping point is, what exactly we can expect a century from now at the present rate, etc.) -- but the IPCC report established something like a widely-held common ground among climate scientists. About the broad details of evolutionary theory there doesn't seem to be any credible scientific disagreement to speak of.

What is controversial is what, if anything, we (and people making policy and laws) ought to do in the light of the picture science delivers to us of how these bits of the world work. Indeed, such decisions are not fundamentally scientific ones but political ones. To the extent that we'd like to be able to make good predictions about the effects various policy decisions might have (on things like how to educate more people who could pursue biomedical research, or how to keep Manhattan above sea level), it's good that we take account of what science tells us about how the pieces of the world fit together, but science can't tell us whether to prefer a dry Manhattan to an underwater Manhattan.

I do think it's important to be able to untangle real controversies from fake ones. Controversies that amount to some parties denying facts (or strong likelihoods) that don't line up nicely with their policies (in terms of what those policies will or could lead to if implemented, given the facts) smack of serious denial or worse. If there are some facts you simply cannot believe could be true because they'd conflict with the policy to which you're wedded, you've gone over to the state of credulity Popper described as typical of pseudo-science. If there are some facts you simply cannot admit are true because of who's paying your salary or your research grants -- well, then you're not so much a scientist as a shill.

It's a harder (and more interesting) question how to use scientific knowledge that is still mostly under construction -- where we're starting to understand something but there are still great uncertainties -- to inform important personal and political decisions. Where there is a scientific controversy, decisions about whether or how to rely on preliminary scientific information may well be decided by our political 'druthers, The science itself, however, shouldn't be.

2. Wonks and science enthusiasts--and ScienceBloggers!--can parse these arguments. But most members of the general public are unlikely to grasp the fine scientific details, and--having neither the time nor the interest to deeply inform themselves about them--are more likely to make up their minds about these complex issues in the absence of real detailed knowledge about them.

Because a few different things seem to have been conflated in the "scientific controversies" in #1, I'm not entirely sure how to parse "these arguments" in #2.

Are we talking about an argument from empirical evidence to acceptance of a scientific theory? From what a theory predicts will happen if we all keep putting carbon exhaust into the atmosphere at our present rate to the conclusion that we'd really better cut back on the carbon emissions? Some other kind of argument?

Depending on the argument, it's quite possible to "black-box" a lot of the "fine scientific details". To understand a model, you may need to see the detailed pieces of it -- but you don't need these pieces to understand that a particular model makes a certain prediction. You don't even need to understand all the fine points of a model to be able to follow someone's argument that relying on a particular assumption makes it a worse model than a competitor that doesn't rely on that assumption.

In other words, the amount of scientific detail required is completely dependent on what you're trying to communicate. I daresay a lot of scientists already know this.

3. Rather, these members of the public will rely on cues, cognitive shortcuts, and sources of information that may not be scientific--e.g., church leaders, neighbors, Fox News. They will use these information sources, in combination with their partisan, ideological, or religious backgrounds, to make up their minds.

"To make up their minds" about what, exactly? About what the science really says? About what the truth really is? About whether to care about what the science says (and whether it would be sensible to use this information to shape personal decisions and policies)? These are separable issues, and I think conflating them is bound to make a confusion of the effective communication that "framing" is supposed to enable.

First, notice that "black-boxing" of the sort I mentioned above is a cognitive shortcut. Scientists already have some experience using these. This isn't misrepresenting the science but saying, here are the details it's important to notice right now.

Next, to the question of "other sources of information", a certain amount of the communication challenge that "framing" is supposed to make manageable may come down to deeply held prejudices on the part of the audience to whom scientists want to communicate. If you believe that your pastor or your holy book is the last word on reality, you may just be unable to listen to anyone who provides an alternate view. I'd imagine that would make it challenging to live in a pluralistic society, but so it goes. In a case like that, I'm not sure there's anything a scientist could say to change someone's view of the facts.

Similarly, to the extent that these sources may endorse certain attitudes toward the appropriate way to respond to the facts (e.g., that future generations count for less in my decision making than my economic well-being right now), scientists (and others) can offer alternative attitudes or values, but there's not a heck of a lot you can do to present a scientific argument to weight your obligations differently.

So, is the worry here that people are getting their facts from the non-scientific sources, or that they're getting their values from them?

4. Furthermore, in the fragmented media system, many members of the public can opt out of receiving high quality scientific information entirely--and often do. They can just turn the channel. They can watch the Food Network.

Dude, Alton Brown totally talks about science. But I suppose VH1 and E! are still pretty light on scientific details, so I understand the larger point.

It's hard to blame this completely on the state of the media. The educational system seems to let people opt out of understanding (or caring about) science at a remarkably early age. As someone who teaches a goodly number of college students who are scared of science, I fully understand that we have to find effective (and probably sneaky) ways to counter the message the science is horribly boring or impossibly hard to understand.

5. Therefore, if--if--you want to get beyond audiences of science enthusiasts who understand the fine details, and move this broad public on these highly complex and politicized issues, you have to do more with your communication strategy than simply informing people about the details of science.

I'm in total agreement that most members of the public won't get much useful from a scientific report in the peer reviewed literature, nor even from your typical conference poster presentation. Wallowing in all the details will scare them. Focusing on a key detail or two and "black-boxing" the rest has a better shot at reaching them.

6. Rather, you have to pare down these highly complex issues--or "frame" them--selectively highlighting just those aspects of the issue that will resonate with the core values of the particular audience (and there are different audiences, of course, and different frames will work for them).

Here again, I feel like not separating out science (a theory, how it works, what it predicts, what evidence supports it, etc.) from how that science might bear on something we're trying to accomplish or a decision we're trying to make muddies up the premise.

If the goal of the communication is to help someone understand (say) how a thermostat works, you're not appealing to "core values" so much as background knowledge, what the audience already understands and what kinds of details and analogies will shed light -- for them -- on how a thermostat works.

If the goal is, rather, to make someone care about having their child learn a particular scientific theory, or persuading them to support a particular policy in response to a scientific prediction, then in makes sense to try to appeal to their core values -- to things they come to the table caring about.

My sense is that scientists are suspicious of this premise because they worry that it will amount to pussyfooting about what a theory does or does not predict or suppressing some key piece of the theoretical machinery -- giving your audience "facts" that fit with their values and the way they want to see the world but which aren't really facts at all. Since science is premised on the view that we're all living in the same reality (a reality which is susceptible to empirical investigation), they're not going to be happy about telling lies to win friends.

But I don't think this premise requires lies!

Rather, I think we're talking about paring down to really simplified models (in the case of communicating a piece of science) or coming up with a persuasive "so what" (in the case of communicating why to care about a piece of science or something it predicts). We do simplified models all the time in teaching people science in classrooms. And we answer the question "so what?" whenever we're trying to justify funding, or publication, or getting our students to think beyond the exam.

7. Furthermore, you have to reach a given audience through the media outlets it is actually going to--and that will often not be scientific media, ScienceBlogs, etc.

Sure. It seems to me more conversations about science in real life (with our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, soccer teams, bridge clubs, etc.) would also help. To the extent that people still talk with each other at all (about politics and sports, anyway), there's no reason to think science and why it matters couldn't make interesting conversational fodder.

8. All of this leads to the following conclusion: With various types of intensive (and expensive) research--polling, focus grouping, media research, frame analysis, etc--it ought to be possible to come up with a communication strategy that should work on a given scientific issue. However, these strategies will often not involve talking about the technical details of science. Often, it will be important to emphasize other aspects of the issues--moral, economic, and so on.

Again, which issues to emphasize will depend on whether the goal is to communicate something scientific or why something scientific matters. The moral and economic issues could be useful for the latter goal, but probably not so much for the former.

Also, no focus group is a perfect predictor of how a "similar" audience will receive your message -- so having a few good argumentative strategies seems to me a better idea of betting the farm on just one. People are funny sometimes, and it's hard to know just what's going to reach them.

It seems we ought also admit the possibility that there might be some audience to whom we cannot communicate X for particular values of X.

Finally, some of us are committed not only to communicating with people at their present state (of background knowledge, trusted sources, core values, etc.), but also to the project of helping people we communicate with improve their critical thinking skills. This is a separate project from the one highlighted by "framers" (who seem to hold the pragmatic premise that you communicate to the audience you have, not the audience you want). But it's not an incompatible project. And for a bunch of us, it's our day job.

The one complication the human ability to learn and grow and change one's views throws into the works is that the audience with whom you're communicating is a moving target.

To my mind, if they weren't, there wouldn't be much point in trying to communicate in the first place.

Chris Hallquist gives his take here. Feel free to use the comments to applaud or critiques particular premises that have caught your eye.


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"Finally, some of us are committed not only to communicating with people at their present state . . . but also to the project of helping people we communicate with improve their critical thinking skills."

This statement resonates with me. Improving the critical thinking skills of the general populace would go a long way toward solving the issues that framing is attempting to address.

For example, IIRC, in "The Demon Haunted World" Sagan does an excellent job fostering critical thinking. If every high school student had to read that book, our national discourse would be drastically improved.

As communicators, Mooney and his pals seem to fail as badly as they say the rest of us do!

As I (mis-)understand it, the nub of what they want to push is effective communication, which they have re-labeled "framing" to make it sound fresh (just as catastrophe theory, chaos theory, string theory, etc. had to have "sexy" labels!).

Effective communication usually requires two things: (1) understanding your audience, (2) having a clear message. As the framing clan have admitted, they have failed to understand their audience here, who are scientists first, not pure popularizers, not representatives to the world. And, as you point out above in questioning item 1, they don't have a clear message. They're horribly muddled, poor darlings.

Framing clearly isn't spin: spin is about persuasion to a partisan viewpoint, irrespective of facts, in a sea of potential hostility. I think the framers are talking about trying to push an honest message through barriers of indifference or ignorance.

Nisbet indirectly highlighted a communication issue in his attack on Myers: people (including scientists) don't make most decisions or judgements rationally, we do it emotionally. We might support or even change our decision through rational argument, but the initial judgement is always emotional. (Hence, for example, Myers attacking the Pope when he suggested looking after the environment -- it was an acceptable message, but Myers reacted against the unacceptable - to him - source.) So the "look and feel" of scientists matters when they are trying to change the public's perceptions.

Similarly with the "Mooneys", I find I react against what I perceive as long self-congratulatory screeds, whose smugness makes my nose twitch, even when they're being ever so 'umble sir. Fair or not, doesn't matter, the point is that I don't want to listen to them. It's the same effect that Nisbet was suggesting (incorrectly) might happen with Myers, that his whooping joy at the Expelled fiasco might alienate the hoi polloi.

So the key message must be:
* first, get yourself liked and/or respected by your target audience so you will be listened to
* then, have a clear message appropriate to your audience that you can communicate effectively before their attention wanders

As I said, the framers are failing to do either of these here!

I think Mooney is right on this one. Framing is not a technique, it is a linguistic necessity that we are waking up to belatedly.

Step 1 -- Think Kant's epistemology. The world is not given to us in an unmediated fashion. the mind plays an active role in making sense of the input it gets from the senses. The categories are the concepts we add to raw data to make sense of the world.

Step 2 -- Think Nietzsche. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche points out that these concepts are not innate, embedded in the mind, but come from the language we use. It may be true that "science is premised on the view that we're all living in the same reality (a reality which is susceptible to empirical investigation)," but the language we speak, the language of the body politic is not value neutral. Language not only denotes but is pregnant with a world view. Those in power get the privilege of setting the language.

What Lakoff pointed out with the notion of framing was that linguistically, this MUST happen and that liberals were getting suckered into allowing conservatives to do all the framing, thereby putting us in a place where we begin with an instant disadvantage because we are allowing the other side to tilt the rhetorical playing field. To use a sports metaphor, one team is going to be the home team and have the home field advantage and we have been unknowingly giving that away.

The whole point of this discussion is not a scientific issue, it is a political one. The scientific issue is settled, (that is, after all, the point we are trying to make). But we insist on bringing a scientific knife to a political gun fight. Mooney just thinks we need to be smarter tactically, that does not seem inappropriate if we want not only to be right, but to win the game. They've set a rhetorical trap and we need to be savvy about it. There's nothing dishonest or dishonorable in that.

I think that you misunderstood Mooney's point #1. He is not talking about genuine controversies among scientists, but rather political controversies with the science on one side and denialism on the other. The "wonks and science enthusiasts," according to Mooney, can grasp the arguments between these two sides, but the broader public, not so much.

Janet, you make an awfully lot of sense. I hope Chris and the other guy read your post! He IS supposed to be a communicator, so your last point should really resonate.

ps: I think this post should be Page #1 in your PhD Blogging Folder.

I think it's interesting to use something Wyatt said to talk about some of these points:
" "The Demon Haunted World" Sagan does an excellent job fostering critical thinking. If every high school student had to read that book, our national discourse would be drastically improved."

This all goes back to dealing with the audience you're dealt. First, let's say "The Demon Haunted World" WAS required reading in secondary schools. Well, in reality, we know many students actually DON'T read the books they're assigned. Even among those that do, most will just skim through it or read it as fast as they can without trying to comprehend what they read. Those that don't read it will either search the internet for a brief synopsis of Sagan's arguments or ask their friends to summarize it for them. In both cases, they're getting their information from secondary sources that may or may not have a grasp on the material themselves. Finally, some will just chose not to do anything and just flunk the test.

This all goes back to points 3 through 5. The general public often chooses to disregard the knowledge available to them and get their cues from others. I mean, some people's sole opinion of Carl Sagan (if they have one at all) is probably based on Mike Meyer's impression of him from Saturday Night Live. They know there are "billions and billions" of stars and that we're somehow all made from "star stuff". Which has nothing to do with the "The Demon Haunted World".

The point of Mooney's post is to spell this out and to say that if a topic is deemed so important that the general public should be informed about it, then you need to search for the most effective communication strategy possible to get across the most critical aspects of the topic. Or in other words, if most people will NOT read any of "The Demon Haunted World", how can you still get across the messages contained in the book?

I don't see any controversy in that. Neither does Mooney. He's trying to start from a point of consensus before getting to the points of contention.

By Harry Abernathy (not verified) on 03 Apr 2008 #permalink

Hi Janet,
As you know, we're analyzing these premises on my blog too:…

thanks so much for your efforts here. I think you are understanding much of what we're saying, misunderstanding some, and problematizing all!

Point 1: My language wasn't the best. I am talking about political fights with a scientific component--stem cells, say, or climate change--where many scientists think if we could just get the facts communicated, we'd have more rational policymaking. Evolution also fits. Framing has been applied to many other such issues too: nuclear energy, ag biotech, nanotech....

Premise 2: On scienceblogs, we often get into the nitty gritty details of the science on such issues. We counter the contrarians and deniers, explain why they're wrong, etc. Very good stuff. Also stuff that is totally lost on much of the public.

I could go on like this....but it would be very long and I'm at an airport. Hope to resume....

Harry Abernathy: "Well, in reality, we know many students actually DON'T read the books they're assigned..."

True. As the saying goes, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him read Demon-Haunted World. Some kids won't get it whatever we do. But we have to assign them something to read and it might as well be something as good as DHW. (Good luck getting that past the school board!)

My college roommate's dad owned an insulation company. His dad often told him; "You can't make money on every job". Something analogous is true of persuasion; people vary enough that you can't count on reaching every individual. Lucky if you get ten percent of them. Then they can start working on their friends.