Trying to understand framing (III): the example of stem cell research.

I haven't given up yet. You know I'm still looking for more clarity on the basic premises of framing. I tried to work out what does and does not fall within the framing strategy in a flowcharted example and (again) came away with a bunch of unanswered questions.

This round, I'm going to look at an example from the Nisbet and Scheufele article in The Scientist (a link to the PDF given here. I'll confess that I'm still confused, but I think I'm getting closer to identifying precisely what I'm confused about.

Here's what Nisbet and Scheufele say in The Scientist article about communication about stem cell research:

[D]espite the availability of information on the topic [of stem cell research], public knowledge of both the policy and scientific issues involved in the debate remains very low. In place of knowledge, the public has relied heavily on their social values in combination with the most readily available interpretations featured in the media.

Opponents of expanded funding have emphasized the "morality/ethics" frame, arguing it is morally wrong to destroy embryos, since they constitute human life, countering the scientific moral argument that research could lead to important cures. In targeted messages and news reports, the latent meanings of "morality/ethics" and "social progress" are communicated in short hand by several different kinds of frame devices, including metaphors such as "scientists are playing God," or "scientists are racing to find a cure"; comparisons to historical exemplars such as the Holocaust or discovering the cure for polio; and catchphrases such as "crossing an important moral boundary," "experimenting on young humans," or "it is pro-life to be pro-research."

Advocates for expanded funding have also emphasized the "economic competitiveness" frame, arguing that current limits on federal dollars would catalyze an overseas "brain drain" of top scientific talent, or similarly, that funding for stem cell research at the local level would boost the economy.

The importance of how stem cell research is framed is illustrated by two nationally representative surveys taken in early 2001, one sponsored by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) and the second by the National Council of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). The JDRF poll question emphasized the social progress interpretation, and referred to medical research on "extra embryos" that could lead to cures for a long list of diseases. Here, public support for funding registered at 65%. In the NCCB survey, the frame was very different: When asked if they supported using their federal tax dollars for research on "live embryos" that would be "destroyed in their first week of development," 70% of respondents voiced their reservations about the funding.

What are the folks communicating with the public about stem cell research trying to accomplish with these dueling frames? The effort here is not, from the looks of it, primarily aimed at conveying the details of what stem cell research involves on a technical level, nor at communicating the details of the various scientific questions that might be answered by such research.

Rather the goal is to persuade the public to adopt a particular position with regard to whether stem cell research ought to be funded (as well as whether such research ought to be legal to pursue without restriction). In this example, the scientists are represented as being in favor of expanding funding (and keeping the research legal), and their interactions with the public are trying to get the public to agree. The National Council of Catholic Bishops, on the other hand, is trying to persuade the public that such research ought not be pursued at all, let alone funded.

Nisbet and Scheufele say the scientists actually have been pretty successful in the framing around this issue. Presumably, this means that (in this instance, anyway) they were on board with the controversial premise #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).

The resonating core values of the public in this case seem to be:

  • cures for diseases are good
  • economic competitiveness is good
  • human embryos should be accorded a special moral status (where the details of what exactly that moral status should be are somewhat fuzzy -- but more on this below)

To the extent that the well-framed efforts at persuasion work, they work by getting the target audience to focus on some of their core values ... and to ignore (for the moment) other of their core values. This is not, as far as I can tell, a communication strategy that aims at changing the public's core values. Rather, the strategy seems to focus on bringing some of the pre-existing core values to the foreground until they've answered the survey the way you want them to, or they've voted the way you want them to, or they've gotten tired of thinking about the issue again so they retire from deliberation with the "settled" view you want them to have.

And here, I wonder just what terms of engagement the framers envision -- what kind of persuasion they're after.

Would it be enough to discover (through focus groups or what have you) the magic words that elicit the response you're after from your target audience, as if by reflex? Or, do you want the public's assent to your goal of persuasion (e.g., more funds for stem cell research) to be on the basis of some level of understanding?

You can highlight one set of the core values held by your target audience ... but that doesn't make the others magically go away. You can redescribe the situation in your preferred frame ... but that doesn't mean the competing frame's description of the situation is wrong, just that it highlights different features than your preferred description, and thus resonates with different core values of your target audience.

Now it may well be the case that you think certain of your target audience's core values are problematic. You may disagree with them, or you may think they ought to be subordinate to the core values to which your framing appeals. But the framing strategy seems to be about locating core values that are already there and making them resonate to your advantage.

Ultimately, though, how you describe the possible payoffs of stem cell research won't necessarily make a whit of difference in whether the people you're trying to persuade think we should accord special moral status to human embryos. Indeed, people may have this attitude toward human embryos whether these embryos are made specifically for stem cell research or whether they are "extra" embryos from the in vitro fertilization clinic. Some people may base this regard in misconceptions about whether week-old embryos can feel any pain (and in this case, it is possible that communicating additional scientific details about what an embryo is like at one week might shift people's view of the moral status they ought to accord to to embryos), but others may feel such regard is appropriate despite the embryos having no awareness or sensory function of any sort.

Possibly the fact that the "extra" embryos at the IVF clinic would be frozen indefinitely or destroyed could persuade the folks who view embryos as having a special moral status that using them in stem cell research that could, eventually, yield cures which lessen human suffering would somehow "redeem" the loss of these embryos -- not taking away the (morally relevant) harm to them, but generating a positive good to balance it. There's no guarantee, though, that everyone with the set of core values enumerated above will prioritize them in that way.

And the framing strategy seems very much aimed at getting the audience to focus on some of them to the exclusion of others.

But the reality is that non-scientists may have legitimate interests and concerns that differ from those of the scientists trying to persuade them to assent to a particular view. Especially if you're trying to persuade them that more funding is needed for a particular line of research, it is bizarre to ignore the fact that people in possession of the same facts can legitimately disagree about how to act on those facts. There is not an objective fact of the matter that funding for stem cell research ought to be prioritized over funding for some other societal project.

The scientists working in this area of research may want the funding very badly. But to the extent that the will of the other members of the public matters in how we allocate public funds, the scientists have to make a reasonable case why this funding should be prioritized.

In making this case, of course the scientists will want to point to ways that funding stem cell research will serve interests other members of the public already have (and recognize that they have). But there's something worrisome about pretending (by maintaining extreme message discipline in your framing of the issue) that such funding might not be in conflict with other interests they have (and recognize that they have).

Will ignoring the particular troublesome (from the point of view of what you're trying to persuade them) core value make it magically disappear? Will harping on the other core values keep the troublesome core value in the background until you've secured assent and funding? What happens when people notice it again? Will they feel deceived by the scientists? Alienated from scientists who took this value less seriously even though it was just as much their core value as the ones the scientists played to?

I suppose one of my big worries here is that in playing up some core values and essentially ignoring others, the "communicators" are imposing a prioritization scheme on them from without -- which is a very different thing from engaging the public and asking them to consider for themselves how they prioritize their own values. It's also a different sort of engagement than recognizing that individuals in a pluralistic society have different values that they prioritize in different ways -- and yet, conceivably, we can still work out ways to prioritize our shared values as a society that don't require us to pretend these individual differences don't exist.

So, at this point my question boils down to this: Does the framing strategy amount to getting your audience to (at least temporarily) forget about their core values that resonate with the other side's frame?


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Thanks for the article. I am starting to get the picture of what framing is supposed to be about, that it is about persuading policy makers as much as it is about persuading the public that science is important. Of course, policymakers are beholden to their electorate; so framing also seeks to find a way to influence the public that scientific research has tangible benefits. I agree that this needs to be done.

I told my ex-wife that I would be interviewing Karen James and Peter McGrath of The Beagle Project and explained to them what is so exciting about what they want to do; but she just kind of rolled her eyes and didn't think that it matters all that much. She still thinks it is a bit of a lark.

What she doesn't get is that even a small thing, such as a visit to a working scientist's lab inspires kids. Since my two younger children visited PZ's lab, their interest in biology and science has been exciting to watch and they are now interested in topics related to science.

So, I think that one way to frame science as a good thing is to work on getting people close to how it is done, to work on erasing the frame that a movie such as Expelled is trying to portray (especially with their continued references to "Big Science."

Sorry Janet, but you clearly don't understand framing.

I thought I would get that excuse out of the way at the beginning as its the invariable response that we hear every time we ask awkward questions of the framers.
In fact the way you describe it above - trying to emphasize certain aspects of a topic that an audience agrees with while ignoring others aspects that they don't - is actually the way the framers respond to their critics. The resounding lack of success in convincing their critics for some reason doesn't raise the question in the framers minds whether the same thing might happen in the public arena.
If they fail to convince the public over evolution, stem cells or global warming will it be due to the public 'just not understanding framing'?

Depends whether you're trying to inform, to educate or to persuade.

Thank you for this post. I believe you have done that which the pro-framers have not and that is to describe the method of framing. Although I think there are other arms to framing (such as be conversational when talking about science), your assessment highlights the underlying current of what framing means in the ongoing debate. I believe this is why many people, myself included, have equated this approach to framing as spin.

I like Chad's response, though I'll admit I had to skim quickly, but I'd like to add something. The apparent conflict between these values can be resolved. How? Point out that the choice between allowing stem cell research or not is not one where we determine whether an embryo will become a person or an experiment (a situation where those values obviously conflict). It is one where we determine whether a donated IVF-created embryo will be destroyed or used to potentially save human life (a situation where the conflict can be resolved).

As for framing on the whole, it's simply a tool like any other that can be used for good or ill, to spin or to enlighten. Think about it. Chemistry can be used to create life-saving medicines or life-destroying weapons. Physics can be used to produce advanced civilian technologies or to build a bomb that can and has destroyed entire cities. It is the application, not the tool, that leaves room for ethical quandaries.

I read Chad Orzel's response, and I don't think I agree with it. At least part of the problem with framing in the case of embryonic stem cells and ID/creationism is that the people taking opposing viewpoints on these issues aren't motivated by different orderings of principles, but by different principles entirely. The stem cell issue depends on what one considers as human life - if one considers embryos to be human lives, then it seems difficult to come up with a rationalization that makes stem cell research acceptable. If one views the Bible as an inerrant and literally true document, then evolution is going to be a difficult concept to grasp because it is inherently contradictory to biblical literalism. I don't know that people will come to positions on controversial issues without substantial agreement on their underlying principles, and since the opposing principles are contradictory, relative valuations won't help because they can't be held in part without holding neither. Arguments of utility only mask the underlying principles - when the principles are revealed in a way that makes them unavoidable, arguments of utility become less than useless (because they appear dishonest) to those who disagree with the underlying principles.

Attempts to convince people on issues based on relative weights of principles only work when the principles have finite strengths - but in the case of ID and stem cells, they don't, for any nonzero weighting towards at least one of the options defaults the outcome of opinion to that option. Framing seems to avoid conflict with the underlying principles - but if the principles have nonfinite strengths, then the issues can't be confronted without confronting the truth of their underlying principles, or at least the applicabilities of those truths to specific issues. For example, if life (as embryos) is considered inviolable but those of people who perform abortions are not, then the inviolability of life can't be absolute - either life is not inviolable (in which case one has to decide issues of life for other reasons), or the conditions for its inviolability are less specific than those stated (and need to be explicitly stated to clarify their relevance to stem cells).

By Robert Bird (not verified) on 14 Apr 2008 #permalink


You're right that framing generally doesn't work with the "hard core believers," but that's not what it's for in the first place. Generally, on any issue, you'll have those whose values are completely opposed and cannot be appealed to in any productive way. (Or completely "for" the issue and can't be changed.) However, the target of framing is those people who aren't militantly engaged in the subject and may have values that can be appealed to in explaining the issue BUT are receiving bad information from the "other" side.

In the case of stem cell research, most "target" people aren't going to have an unchangeable value against the use of embryos that would have been destroyed otherwise. It is when we get into CREATING human embryos specifically for experimentation that their values may pose a problem. The history of human experimentation and the many crimes committed in association have made people wary of anything that may smack of creating humans for experimental purposes or creating a market for human "parts" such as embryos.