On Framing, Part Three

Some of the commenters to my previous two posts have suggested that they are tired of this subject. But since Matthew Nisbet himself stopped by to alert me to this post over at his blog, I figure the least I can do is reply to it.

The bulk of the post consists of comments from Steve Case, an assistant director of the Center for Science Education at the University of Kansas. Case is supportive of the Mooney/Nisbet thesis about the importance of framing in discussions of evolution. Let's consider his remarks in full:

OK, here is a from the hip Monday morning rant . I have been reading all the blog stuff and the [Washington] Post response. It is a pretty interesting discussion - that reminds me of the poker game in Flock of Dodos. All of the communication issues, so it is argued, are outside of the scientists control so we cannot do anything about them - we are doing a great job (you can tell by the poll numbers and the level of science illiteracy in society).

It would be helpful if Case (or Nisbet) would provide a specific example of someone arguing this. It sounds like a caricature of some more serious position. I, at least, am not aware of a single scientist who says we are doing a great job or that the poll numbers are anything other than depressing. And what communication issues does Case have in mind? This paragraph is mostly too vague to treat seriously.

People are just too stupid to get it, people want simple answers, people are isolated from nature, for religious reasons (read emotional), people just will not listen to us all knowing scientists.

This comment comes straight from Mars. The scientists were the ones dutifully presenting the facts and evidence about evolution to the public, in the apparently naive belief that people cared about such things. Then Mooney and Nisbet came along to tell us we were doing it wrong. No, no, they said, “data dumps” are offputting and boring. We need to present things in ways that resonate with normal folks.

They're the ones saying people either can't or won't handle complex arguments. They're the ones saying people need simple take-home messages if we are to win them over.

Let me remind Case that Mooney and Nisbet wrote this:

The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism.

thereby suggesting the public is too unsophisticated to separate the scientific facts from the metaphysical conclusions some people draw from them. It was Mooney and Nisbet who wrote:

Scientists have traditionally communicated with the rest of us by inundating the public with facts; but data dumps often don't work. People generally make up their minds by studying more subtle, less rational factors.

thereby suggesting that people form their opinions not based on facts and reason, but on what they euphemistically refer to as “less rational factors.” It was Mooney and Nisbet who wrote:

There will always be a small audience of science enthusiasts who have a deep interest in the “mechanisms and evidence” of evolution, just as there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored or, in the case of atheistic attacks on religion, backfire.

thereby suggesting that talk of mechanisms and evidence are likely to be ignored if they come in too close proximity to criticisms of religion.

So please, no lectures about how it's the scientists who are being condescending or arrogant. It is Mooney and Nisbet, not scientists, who talk, in almost every sentence, about how people want simple answers, or how they won't listen to scientists if the scientists are doing what they do best.

Moving on:

I thought that Chris and Matt did a great job with the [Washington] Post Ed response but if read out of context of the blog discussion, it could be a little confusing.

“Good communication is by its very nature informative rather than misleading.” was my favorite line in the Post editorial. The blogs and comments seem to use the same strawman argumentation that the ID folks use - i.e. that Matt and Chris are asking scientists to dumb down or spin science.

Gosh! I can't imagine where scientists got the idea that Mooney and Nisbet are asking scientists to dumb down their message. Could it be from any of the quotes provided above, all of which say that it is not reasonable to expect people to make up their minds based on a sober consideration of the evidence? Perhaps we were led astray by statements like this one:

Thus, despite ever-increasing scientific consensus, prominent GOP leaders such as Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma still use conservative media outlets to describe climate science as too “uncertain” to justify action. If scientists and their defenders seek to answer such charges by explaining how much we know, they become enmeshed in the technical details (for instance, does climate change really contribute to more intense hurricanes?). And this only creates new opportunities for Inhofe and his flat-earth friends to sow doubt.

So once again, scientists and their allies would be better off shifting their emphasis, as well as the messenger. For example, church leaders can speak to the evangelical community about the necessity of environmental stewardship (a message that's already being delivered from some pulpits), even as business leaders can speak to fiscally oriented conservatives about the economic opportunities there for the plucking if Congress passes a system for trading carbon dioxide emission credits.

Apparently we are supposed to eschew having scientists present actual data and instead get church leaders to prattle to their flock about enivronmental stewardship. Who could possibly construe that as “dumbing down?”

Or maybe we were led astray by this quote:

As another example, the scientific theory of evolution has been accepted within the research community for decades. Yet as a debate over “intelligent design” was launched, antievolutionists promoted “scientific uncertainty” and “teach-the-controversy” frames, which scientists countered with science-intensive responses. However, much of the public likely tunes out these technical messages. Instead, frames of “public accountability” that focus on the misuse of tax dollars, “economic development” that highlight the negative repercussions for communities embroiled in evolution battles, and “social progress” that define evolution as a building block for medical advances, are likely to engage broader support.

So in replying to creationists we should make our replies less “science-intensive” and instead rely on science-free catchphrases about the misuse of tax dollars or economic development? That's not dumbing-down?

(As an aside, I don't think these frames fare too well on the merits. If creationism has any scientific legitimacy then it is not a misuse of tax dollars to teach it in public schools. But explaining why creationism has no legitimacy requires one of those science-intensive responses so anathema to people like Case. And I don't think very many people will find it compelling to argue that if creationism is briefly discussed in science classes the world will be deprived of great medical advances).

Let's move on. Case writes:

Communicating science effectively does not mean you have to speak from a religious frame. In fact, since I have been involved with the front lines of this since the late 1970s, just do not try to communicate science from the anti-religion frame - if you do you will not be heard and lose most of your audience.

At last, the real agenda is made plain. In the context of evolution, it seems that “framing” is a euphemism for “don't criticize religion.” As I've written before, I don't think it's true that religious people stop listening as soon as someone criticizes religion. Perhaps some fundamentalists respond that way, but you will never reach them no matter how cleverly you frame the issue. This idea that religious people are so delicate that their ears start bleeding when someone criticizes their views is precisely the sort of arrogance and condescension of which atheists are so often accused.

I do not disagree with the right to take on religion, however, looking across history it is [not a] good way to promote or communicate science. When rationalism is put toe to toe with emotion (religion) then emotion wins.

This guy is simply not to be believed. A few paragraphs ago he was lambasting scientists for thinking people were stupid, and for thinking people based their decisions on religious beliefs instead of reason. Now he's stating it as a blunt fact that people are, indeed, irrational and emotional.

When Dawkins was here at KU he suggested that we never use religious metaphors or imagery when we are talking to the public. So I asked him, since some 90% of our listeners have religious views - what imagery and metaphors we should use so that they will hear us. He had no suggestions.

He seemed to be saying that when we communicate we do not have to pay attention to the listener - all we had to do was send information. I decided his advice was not very helpful. As to his comments on religion - who cares. I am not really interested in his religious views (or anyone else's for that matter).

Second-hand anecdotes from biased observers don't impress me much, so I will ignore the Dawkins story for now. But how can Case possibly say he's not interested in people's religious views, but then lecture scientists to be more respectful of them when framing their message? If I am expected to walk on eggshells in discussing evolution for fear of offending people's religious beliefs, shouldn't I first invest some time in understanding what those beliefs are?

Of course, when you do invest that time you quickly realize that most of those religious beliefs are centered around the idea of a God who loves us and who created the world specifically with us in mind. Rather hard to square that with the idea of humanity emerging as the contingent result of four billion years of evolution by natural selection, wouldn't you say?

The right wingers use Dawkins and Sam Harris as flash points since they both seem to think that the best way to get people to listen is to piss them off. My experience is that this strategy only works for the people who already agree with you. The mushy middle gets alienated and those who disagree with you still do not hear anything you have to say.

Dawkins and Harris seem to have little trouble getting people to listen to them. Their books are massive bestsellers, they command huge speaking fees, and their auditoriums fill up well in advance of their start times. Case, for his part, works in a state that has had one evolution flare-up after another. Perhaps Dawkins and Harris know something about effective communication that Case does not.

As for the right-wingers, there is absolutely nothing they can't use as a flash point. The idea that the right-wingers would become less powerful and influential in our society if people like Dawkins and Harris were to disappear is naive in the extreme.

Dawkins is a useful example in this discussion but then again so is Pat Robertson, when he claims that god will cause the physical world to rise up against us because we are so sinful. I dismiss their current activities as irrelevant to anything I would like to accomplish in helping people understand the natural world - although I also like several of Dawkins books and works about biology, I find nothing that Pat Robertson has done to be interesting (frightening but not interesting).

It is time to listen to what Matt and Chris are really saying about communication, to do some self reflection and learning, and seize control for the elements of this issue that we actually have control over.

Matt, Chris and Randy are not the enemy because they point [out] our flaws and errors. They are teachers who have the best interests of our community at heart.

Intentions are not the issue here. I have no doubt that Matt, Chris and Randy want only to promote science and science education.

But the fact remains their arguments here are simply naive. We all look at the intransigence of so much of the public on subjects like evolution and wring our hands over what to do. It's enormously tempting to blame the victim, and chalk up the problem to something scientists are doing wrong. If only scientists framed their arguments better. If only scientists told everyone they could eaccept both evolution and Christianity. If only loudmouths like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris went away, maybe then we could get through to people.

It's all nonsense. There is no simple solution to this problem. Personally, I doubt if there is any solution at all. People do not perceive a conflict between science and religion because RIchard Dawkins says there is one, or because right-wingers fan the flames of division. The conflict is perceived because it is real. Better framing will not solve that problem.

As for Case, I'm quite sure he's an able fighter in the battle for better science education. But his comments above are a mess of contradictions and baseless assertions. I'm surprised that Nisbet would link to them with such enthusiasm.


More like this

It's all nonsense. There is no simple solution to this problem. Personally, I doubt if there is any solution at all. People do not perceive a conflict between science and religion because Richard Dawkins says there is one, or because right-wingers fan the flames of division. The conflict is perceived because it is real. Better framing will not solve that problem.


(As an aside, I don't think these frames fare too well on the merits. If creationism has any scientific legitimacy then it is not a misuse of tax dollars to teach it in public schools. But explaining why creationism has no legitimacy requires one of those science-intensive responses so anathema to people like Case. And I don't think very many people will find it compelling to argue that if creationism is briefly discussed in science classes the world will be deprived of great medical advances).

Also yes.

make our replies less �science-intensive� and instead rely on science-free catchphrases

Oh, get a grip!

This whole append is as big a collection of "excluded middle" fantasies as I've seen in a while now.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

Somewhere in the mass of comments on the mass of posts on this issue, I ran into what I think is the most perceptive. It was to the effect that in light of the response of a fair number of scientist-bloggers to Mooney & Nisbet's presentation of the framing stuff, they didn't do a real good job of framing their argument. :)

A suggestion from me:

If you don't like M&N's advice re: framing, don't follow it.

Likewise, were I writing on a post by M or N, I would suggest that rather than telling other people how to frame science, they should just go about framing it that way.

Scientists don't need to "dumb down" science to get people interested in it. They need to learn to communicate to non-scientists what science is about, how science knows what it knows, and why it's valuable to all of us -- and do it in an engaging way. That is, if they care to. No one's forcing them to. It's just that science in general will have an easier time winning hearts and minds and funding if they do.

Some scientists talk at a purely intellectual level. But humans generally respond to things that evoke some emotional response. Carl Sagan was a good example (we miss him greatly) of a scientist who inspired millions with his own enthusiasm and wonder about science. Where is our Carl Sagan? I'm not so worried about kids, because at least in Kansas, there are some exciting science education efforts afoot. It's adults I'm concerned about, because they VOTE. And they elect anti-science people to local and state school boards and legislative bodies. And those are the people who decide curricula and control funding for education.

The bottom line about science is that it's all about PR and politics. Scientists, try to get good at both or not, as you choose. It's your ox that's being gored.

Jason, a quick question: Have you ever read one of Lakoff's books on framing?
If not, I suggest you read one before commenting further. If you can't or dont want to buy/borrow Moral Politics or Don't Think of an Elephant!, then why read some of this articles and follow it up with the first few chapters of Thinking Points, which is free in handy PDF form.
I didn't get the concept of framing until I read some Lakoff either (though I had read Women, Fire and Dangerous Things and Metaphors We Live By some years ago), and I see you (and a bunch of other sciencebloggers) making exactly the same mistakes that I did then.

By Pseudonym (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

This whole "debate" is a tempest in Russell's teapot.

I haven't kept very close track of the players in this game, but it seems that the pro-framers in the scienceblogs community are almost exactly the anti-(vocal)atheists in earlier skirmishes, while the anti-framing contingent now was the pro-atheist faction then. It certainly looks as if the anti-atheists are renewing the previous brawl, following the same strategy, and to as little avail. Now, as then, Bora/Coturnix is the only one detached enough to describe the overall fracas usefully.

My problem with the "framing" schtick is not that it's wrong, per se, but that its proponents act as if this is a new and powerful insight. It may have some power, but it's not new, and it's not even well presented. The core concept here is what the old Greeks called "rhetoric", usually defined as the art of effective, persuasive speaking and writing. It's been an essential skill for over 25 centuries; “framing” is but a subset of rhetoric.

Lakoff and friends say nothing that hasn't been said before and better - pick up any manual on techniques of basic salesmanship to see just how naive and mentally/tactically limited these ivory-tower self-promoters and their enthusiasts are.

Before the Lakoff cult we had Richard Bandler and John Grinder, whose ReFraming was a key text in the "Neuro-Linguistic Programming" fad of the ‘70s & '80s. Those with a sufficiently sick sense of humor might enjoy reading up on Bandler's 1988 homicide trial to see how Bandler's own testimony revealed the uselessness of his methods to his own mind at a purported time of need (sorry, that was a pre-Web event, & I don't have any links to suggest - the Wikipedia version is, sfaik, accurate but insufficiently detailed).

In short: yes, scientists as a group need to improve their public presentation(s); no, feuding against atheism is neither necessary nor useful to that task.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

Thanks Jason for rounding up the relevant quotes and the analysis. I'll add one more from the NPR transcript:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How would you have advised Copernicus to advance his highly controversial and unpopular sun-centered theory of the solar system?
MATTHEW NISBET: Well, again, you know, there are certain ideas that come about in science that clash so strongly against prevailing world views that any type of short-term communication effort is going to run up against a wall.

How was framing going to help the public understanding of evolution again?

The part of the Nisbet posting that I found so revealing was this paragraph that he used to introduce Steve Case.

Case has been in the trenches and on the front lines for the past three decades. He probably has more experience working with science teachers and dealing with the news media than anyone in the country. Indeed, he is perhaps the most successful and savvy ambassador for science education in America.

I don't know who Steve Case is. Is this opinion widely shared? What "success" are we talking about here? As far as I can tell, the old tactics of the past three decades haven't been working very well. I seem to recall some kerfuffle in Kansas, for example, that nearly drove the state back into the stone age in terms of science education. Was that one of his successes?

I've heard Neil deGrasse Tyson called "the next Carl Sagan", but I haven't heard anything about Steve Case until now (that I can remember). I'm not trying to malign the guy; PZ has good things to say about him, after all, but he just doesn't have blogo-visibility.

PZ Myers on Steve Case:

Case is smart and media-friendly and he certainly deserves more attention. I'm just struck by the fact that in the WaPo article, Nisbet went out of his way to slam Richard Dawkins and call him a failure. Case is an educator in Kansas. No disrespect intended, and Case has certainly persevered wonderfully, but when presented with the equations Dawkins = Failure and Case = Success, I find myself hoping for more failure. Is there some criterion for success here other than agreeing with Nisbet?

You see a contradiction between this:

"All of the communication issues, so it is argued, are outside of the scientists control ... People are just too stupid to get it, people want simple answers, people are isolated from nature, for religious reasons (read emotional), people just will not listen to us all knowing scientists."

and this:

"The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism."

Somewhat understandable--but wrong.

What seems to be happening is that Case sees people like PZ Myers blaming the media and blaming the consumers of media (which is where the slight exaggeration "People are stupid ..." comes in), with the implication being something along the lines of "Hey, it's the audience that needs to change, not us!" Case's complaint is that Myers and company are playing the blame game rather than do as Mooney and Nisbet are trying to do, which is work with the audience that is there, with all its flaws.

Furthermore, from what I gather, Mooney and Nisbet aren't saying that the public is stupid so much as that the public is made of cognitive misers--which is not the same thing. You're a cognitive miser. I'm a cognitive miser. Carl Sagan was a cognitive miser. Joe Sixpack is a cognitive miser. It comes with being human. Basically, what happens is that we tend to use quick but not necessarily accurate heuristics most of the time and economize our use of more accurate but slower careful thinking. People applying quick heuristics to Dawkins aren't going to separate out his advocacies of atheism and evolutionary biology, especially since he often mixes them up.

Regarding the many comments that Nisbet/Mooney didn't frame their own argument well: Consider the possibility that maybe they did, but they weren't talking to you.

I mean, just because they say that scientists should act differently doesn't mean they're actually talking to scientists.

Just a thought.

Pierce said:

My problem with the "framing" schtick is not that it's wrong, per se, but that its proponents act as if this is a new and powerful insight.

Agree completely, that's why I ignored the first dozen or so blog posts on this. It seemed so uninteresting. Of *course* you have to frame your message. What's new?

But I guess "frame" is loaded in ways that I didn't expect.

I guess we should be glad that the framing approach wasn't so fashionable in the fifties or sixties during the civil rights movement. Sometimes you have to point out why attitudes are wrong, not simply rely on peoples personal greed winning the argument.
That said, in certain circumstances such a greed based approach may be the correct means to an end. In particular I think its the appropriate method to use in the global warming debate. Talking about future giant hurricanes (the 'Day After Tomorrow' approach) sounds too much like obvious scare tactics. On the other hand producing a map showing where the increase in sea levels is going to reduce house prices to zero may cause people to appreciate that this will affect them.
Going back to the religion question I think I would make the following comparison to the current pro-gun/anti-gun debate.
How one approaches the question of gun control in a gun rich environment is very different to a gun free environment. Europeans look with horror at the US situation and have no desire to have guns in the hands of everyone. Criminals still get guns but its pretty rare for the average person here to be a victim of gun crime. Many Americans on the other hand seem to think that, because everyone else has a gun, they need one too, for their own protection.
In non religious, secular societies such as in Europe, there is little need to pander to religious bigotry. For instance the anti-homosexual stance common in many religions is simply called for what it is - bigotry and it is thrown back to the religious to try to defend their stance against reason. This is the environment Dawkins writes from. Whatever Mooney and Nisbet want to advocate regarding scientists media approach in the US they should not expect non US scientists (or even non bible belt science advocates) to regard this as anything more than one possible temporary and region specific tactic that is not relevant or appropriate for the rest of us.

"I guess we should be glad that the framing approach wasn't so fashionable in the fifties or sixties during the civil rights movement."

I disagree. Martin Luther King had a great frame: We are all brothers and sisters, and we shouldn't be treating some of us as second-class citizens on account of the color of their skin. Instead of belittling his opponents, he appealed to their sense of fairness. Even his protests were well-framed. By remaining non-violent, he made the people who wielded the nightsticks and the hoses look like the bad guys. It's one thing to see cops busting the heads of rioters. It's a whole other thing to see them battering peaceful people who refuse to fight back.

J.J. Ramsey, you make it sound like MLK managed to change the segregational laws simply by turning up and staging a non violent demonstration ("you know what, maybe stringin' up the local coloreds isn't quite fair. Lets stop"). From my reading of the situation he didn't have too much success locally, progress only happened when the federal government stepped in to impose these laws against the wishes of the local electorate.
I don't wish to disparage the actions of the civil rights leaders at that time, it's clear that the strategy they chose was a major contribution to change. However, the minds they managed to change were not the local bigots, it was the fair minded section of the community at large.
'Fairness' is hardly the best frame to chose in the current debate anyway.

I cannot help to think I need to be far more informed in many areas to make any judgements. [This includes the M/N article, Lakoff etc]. I'll just provide my personal thoughts.
As a general member of society [read biology teacher, father of two boys, a guy just trying to get things right in both areas] I find that I like Dawkins. Having been raised in a religious home I still, at 36, have trouble stating my problems with organized relgion [if you make a distinction]. This is from a guy who accepts evolutionary theory and teaches it to the best he can in science class. Its my framework. But when Dawkins [I admit I need to hear him rather than just read him] writes about evolutionary theory and G(g)od I cannot help but percieve most religious [spiritual] people get angry and stop listening far before he finishes his arguments.
I LOVE PZ and his blog. I learn SOOO much. But its hard to defend [to others I point to his blog] the language he uses. Even if I might agree. I understand the arguments being presented [I think] but I also don't find them advancing the acceptance of evolutionary thought. As a teacher I hate 'dumbing' down. Its counterproductive. I don't understand 'framing' enough to advocate it. But as long as we [as scientists - I call myself one loosly] promote science accurately - who cares?
When the majority of people are more concerned with work, salaries, buying food, paying the bills, 'getting a little action' and sports scores - the time they have left over won't be in listenting to people denigrate their beliefs. End of conversation.
This is why I need to HEAR Dawkins to see if he is being civil in delivery of 'the message' - so to speak.
Lastly, the public debate is soiled with scavengers using it get their ratings higher. The issue, the 'debaters' themselves, we (?), are being used as a marketing tool. How can the issue truly be discussed on this battlefield? [think CNN, FOX etc]
I don't have any answers. But I'd love reading the comments here. It makes me think - when I have the time!

Oh. And Jason, I love the blog. Its actually a small honour to comment.
Thanks for the inspiration and thought provoking writing.

Steve Case has indeed been in the trenches for a long time. Unlike many other scientists, he has been actively promoting science education in schools and among the general public. His most recent collaborative effort is KC Science, INC. He has brought together the Johnson County Resource Library, the Kauffman Foundation, and a growing number of partners in this public education effort. If he is not well-known among those who only blog, so what?

Steve was a founding member of Kansas Citizens For Science (www.kcfs.org), the organization which was instrumental in tying the 1999 "creationist" science standards to a Missouri creationist group. Ever since, he has been involved in and started various organizations supporting science education.

Anyone who thinks Steve Case is not qualified to talk about science education to students or adults doesn't know Steve. He began as a biology teacher in public schools. He knows students. He has continued as an educator of the general public about science. Which is a damn sight more than most scientists do. Generally, they're content to sit in their ivory towers and criticize from on high. Anybody can do that. Get down in the trenches, talk to real people, and start being serious about educating the general public. Sure, dumb it down if you have to. VOTES and our country's future are at stake. If you're not willing to DO something about scientific illiteracy in our country, then at least quit criticizing people who are.

But is the teaching of Evolution in our schools really a science issue? And if it's not, then why should the solution be a scientific one?

I think the idea of framing is right on. The conflict is not a scientific one, but a political and emotional one. You are never going to convince fundamentalist people to give up their literal bible views because it doesn't make sense or isn't really science.

so what is left? Stop trying to convince people of the validity of science.

I think the issue should be framed along political and nationalistic lines. Something along the lines of, America's future depends upon staying a leader in technology and scientific knowledge and achievement. We and our children and our children's children will be a distant second or third to a world of well educated foreigners who study science without concern for Genesis. If we are to remain strong and powerful, we must have the smartist, best educated people, knowledgable in every area of science, especially biology.

We can't stay on top if our children are prevented from learning the best that scientists have discovered and developed.

As we coudln't let the Russians beat us to the moon, we can't let the Chinese and Indians, among other well educated peoples around the world beat us in using knowledge of the genome and yes, Ev-Dev.

This plea to nationalistic pride, competitive spirit against others beating us to the punch changes the discussion entirely. It can change marginally knowledgable people without an axe to grind on the literal bible, to find a cause to fight for, American power and pride. It worked in the 1950s with space research. It worked for George W Bush in getting us into Iraq, protecting us, seeing us as an endangered nation.

It can work for biology and science in the 21st century, in getting allies amongst the religious. A simple nationalistic plea.

Is this what you are all talking about as framing? I don't know for sure, but I do know that we need to re-frame the discussion away from equal rights for unfounded pseudo-science to competitive, nationalistic pride in staying number one in the world in science and technology. ID and Creationsim doesn't do that. Real science does.