Framing Science sparks a seismic blog debate

Our Policy Forum article at Science has generated a monster blog discussion, one that is almost too much to keep up with. I continue to try to keep a summary here with my quick responses, where appropriate. I have also posted several comments at other blogs. I will continue to update as more blog commentary develops.

Reactions so far:

-->Over at The Intersection, a very strong endorsement from Flock of Dodos director Randy Olson:

Nisbet and Mooney are taking on the odious job of being the messengers of the new era for the world of science with their excellent essay in Science this week. I'm afraid they will be greeted with plenty of resistance, but the times are a changing.

--> Praise from UWisc Life Sciences Communication prof Dietram Scheufele:

Google co-founder Larry Page scolded scientists for not thinking about their audiences enough at this year's AAAS meeting in San Francisco. Science, he argued has a marketing problem, and if we like it or not, it needs to be fixed....Framing is not about pushing simplistic and potentially one-sided frames, but it is about making sure that people are exposed to all sides of the debate and to all possible ways of making sense of these issues. American University's Matthew Nisbet and journalist Chris Mooney hammer that point home one more time in their excellent Policy Forum piece in Science this week.

-->A reaction to all the reaction from Scheufele. -->A "tip of the hat" from Lakoff's Rockridge Institute.

-->Another reaction to all of the reaction from Chad Orzel, a physics professor:

One of the more ironic things about the whole framing argument... is how quick a lot of the anti-framing people are to declare that Mooney and Nisbet are just completely and totally wrong. And the people who are most adamant about Nisbet and Mooney being way off base are the people who are most outraged whenever somebody with an engineering degree dares to say something stupid about biology. The irony here is that this framing business is exactly Nisbet's area of expertise. This is what he does as a scholar, not some casual hobby where he's talking out his ass the same as everybody else with a blog. I'm not saying that nobody who isn't an expert should be able to comment-- that would be stupid-- but you'd think that people wouldn't be quite so quick to dismiss the whole thing as if it were something he and Chris Mooney came up with over a few beers one weekend. I doubt there have been any objections raised in the on-line discussion that he hasn't already considered, and I really doubt that any of the objections raised are half as devastating as the people posting them imagine.

-->Terrific analysis (and praise) from's Alan Boyle:

For now, the Policy Forum essay is available only to Science's subscribers, but I would argue this is one article that should be put out in the open online: After all, it's designed to spark a wider discussion about how scientists engage themselves with the public, and makes great fodder for a host of Weblogs to chew on.

--->Quoted in the same Boyle article, an endorsement from UColorado's Roger Pielke:

"The dynamics that they describe about framing are spot on," he told me today. "This is exactly how humans filter information." He does quibble, however, with the idea that scientists can hold themselves back from framing their research. "The reality is that scientists do this, too. ... We don't have a choice. We're always framing information when we present it," he said. "I actually teach this stuff, so I'm simpatico with the information they're presenting. Facts don't speak for themselves."

-->More analysis from the New Scientist.

-->Reaction to all of the reaction from David Roberts at the environmental news site Grist.

-->In a follow-up, Roberts endorses once again our central argument:

People begin with a worldview, a set of assumptions and values and predilections, and tend to work backward from there, gathering facts that are convenient. Inconvenient facts just slide right off. So if scientists want to persuade, instead of just lecture, they must take those worldviews and values into account.

-->In echoing our argument, Yale University neurologist Steve Novella turns to the example of Carl Sagan:

There is no perfect solution, so uncomfortable compromises have to be made - and that's when people fight the most fiercely. For me, the solutions (as much as they are) are to recognize human nature and work with it - that means telling engaging and meaningful stories that are informed by rigorous scientific facts and concepts. We need to follow the lead of Carl Sagan by finding the human angle in science - especially the positive uplifting ones - and emphasize them.

-->A warning from Eric Berger at the Houston Chronicle:

The bottom line is that the public view of scientists -- which is pretty good right now -- will be compromised if scientists start looking and presenting evidence that only supports their preconceived notions, or are widely perceived as doing such. At that point science starts looking like something less than science. Perhaps this is the only way to go in an increasingly fractured media world, but it is not somewhere I would tread lightly.

-->Lone Star praise from Texas Tech communication professor Sam Bradley:

There are important implications in scientists stepping away from the proverbial microscope and into the policy arena. However, as Nisbet and Mooney point out, sticking to the facts might end in a lost battle to defend their science.

-->Over at the influential RealClimate, NASA's Gavin Schmidt relates framing to his IPCC-related media interviews.

-->Similar observations from Princeton University by climate scientist Simon Donner.

-->At Cosmic Variance, Cal Tech physicist Sean Carroll observes that as science journalists disappear from news organizations, understanding what is effective communication becomes even more important.

-->A lengthy synthesis and commentary at the Daily Kos.

-->Thoughts from my brother Erik, a Cornell PhD candidate studying framing as it applies to international media.

-->An alternative view from U of MN-Morris Biology professor PZ Myers :

I agree with Nisbet and Mooney that assistance from those better versed in the politics of communication should be welcomed. I appreciate suggestions for polishing. However, I think Nisbet and Mooney are so focused on how better to fit scientist's goals to the public's perceptions that they neglect another important function: sometimes we want to change the public's ideas. We want to break the frames of the debate and shift whole world views, and accommodating ourselves to the status quo won't do.

My response: Investments in formal science education and traditional science media remain important as long term strategies, since these initiatives will hopefully sponsor generational gains in citizen knowledge (and maybe actually change world views.) But PZ's hoped for revolution won't happen over night. Indeed, in the contentious policy debates that take place over the next election cycle or decade, scientists must learn to focus on "framing" their messages in ways that resonate with Americans' existing world views. More than 80% of Americans believe in God and going to church remains the most popular of American volunteer activities. As a result, with many members of the public, communicating on issues like climate change or evolution means developing messages that resonate with, or at least complement, their religious identities. --

>Praise from John Fleck, science writer at the Albuquerque, N.M. Journal:

I am going to print out hundreds of copies of the piece in tomorrow's Science by Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney, to hand out to every scientist I meet.

--> A well-crafted response from Fleck to PZ Myers:

Meyers (sic) and his pals on the scientific loading dock would be well advised, if they really care about helping solve the problems they are working so hard to address, to spend some time in the social science literature Nisbet and Mooney are citing, rather than thinking they know better than the scientists who study the field. In ignoring the data and the literature that surrounds it, they're making the same mistake they so rightly criticize their opponents for making - ignoring the science.

-->Praise from Mike the Mad Biologist:

I've just finished reading Chris Mooney's and Matt Nisbet's Science article about communicating science to the general public. It's right on target.

-->A must-read synthesis by Bora at Blog Around the Clock:

...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.

--> A suggestion from geologist Chris Rowan, a post-doc in South Africa:

Indeed you can't deny that a frame - or the understanding of how people filter and prejudge the information which a frame represents - is clearly a valuable and effective communication tool. It's how they're used which is the issue: nicking some terminology from another scientific hot potato, the debate boils down to, do we concentrate on adaptation, moulding ourselves to fit the current media landscape, as Chris, Matt and others argue? Or do we pursue a mitigation strategy, where we fight to change the media obsession with 15 second soundbites? Probably we need to pursue both...

--> At Uncertain Principles, a call to arms from a physics professor:

What we need is not so much to train individual scientists to be mediocre PR flacks, but to get the scientific community to employ professional PR flacks. There are people out there who manipulate public opinion for a living, and they'll work for anyone. Find them, hire them, and listen to them.

-->Perspective from science journalist Carl Zimmer:

I suppose more elaborate framing may be effective for scientists when they testify in front of Congress or go on talk radio, for whatever goals they decide to achieve. But if I call someone up for an interview and get a lot of buzzwords, my journalistic hackles will definitely be raised.

-->Criticism from Larry Moran, UToronto biochemistry prof:

I think I'll try and emulate Isaac Asimov, Dick Lewontin, Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers.... They're scientists who, in my opinion, communicate pretty effectively and they attracted lots of readers. They didn't have to disguise their atheism or their liberalism in order to get a point across. I don't think they took lessons on 'framing.'

My response: Dawkins et al. are great at explaining science to science enthusiasts, but don't really go beyond that small audience. In fact, Dawkins' attacks on religion end up alienating an important swing public on the political issue of teaching evolution in schools. As much as I might personally admire his books, he rallies both bases, feeds misleading "science vs. religion" coverage in the press, and catalyzes more polarization.

-->An observation from Trinifar:

The debate about framing initiated by Matt and Chris has in large part become co-opted by people interesting (sic) in the evolution/creationism and atheism/religion debates. Let's try to bring it back to what is both urgent and important.

-->More reaction to all the reaction from Trinifar.

-->Criticism from freelance science journalist James Hrynyshyn

Essentially, my response is that it is neither realistic nor fair to ask scientists to ditch their penchant for the facts and wander into territory more familiar to the propagandist and the journalist.:

-->Praise from Mike Dunford, grad student in zoology and contributor to Panda's Thumb:

As long as the people we need to reach are uninterested in the science involved in the issue, we're going to need to find other ways to get them interested in the issue itself. Framing the issue in a way that shows people why they should care is one way to do that, and I'm not sure that there is a better one.

--> Orac, the nom de blog of a surgeon/scientist, hits a home run with this point:

Scientists already "frame" their arguments and work each and every day. They just don't do it for the audience that Mooney and Nisbet are talking about, the public. They do it for their fellow scientists, to persuade them that their research is correct. We scientists already do on an esoteric level exactly what Mooney and Nisbet argue that we should do on the level of communication with the public.

-->Joshua Rosenau, a graduate student at the Univ. of Kansas, offers an endorsement from the frontlines:

I would be the first to say that teaching means stretching, even breaking, boundaries. I just think that if there's a door, or a window, that's a better way to get at someone than banging your head against a wall. Framing is a tool that lets you stretch people's minds, and keeps them from shutting you out.

--> A response (in German) from Science @

(Basic translation) Staying out of the framing wars would be the honorable thing to do, but then you wouldn't be heard. Yet getting involved comes with a bunch of pitfalls. It's a fine line.


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For what it's worth, I think both you/Mooney and PZ Meyers are right. We need a portfolio of approaches, from the very accessible approach you describe of framing within the current discourse to the shifting-the-debate approach of PZ Meyers. If one looks at how the right wing noise machine operates, this is exactly how it is done, from the pseudo-reputable think tanks to talk radio. The fact that we in fact have reality on our side is no reason to *not* go for the full-spectrum strategy.

I also think you're right that it's the framing part of the portfolio which needs the most development right now. Every major city has a university full of experts which the local media call on for comments from time to time, and we need better training as to how to inform the public in the current media context. But the current media context *also* needs changing; that's a longer-term project but every portfolio needs both short-term and long-term assets.

I'm a bit taken back by the fact that this post is still myopically discussing American debates. The strength with new medias, such as blogs,is the non-national wide coverage. I think framing is one of several important exposition tools, but it must be 'framing done right'.

Dawkins strategy can't be analyzed from the narrow national perspective. It seem also to have been effective in moving an extreme of the debate to open up and engage more debaters.

And until there are facts showing that there is an "important" swing public, that Dawkins is alienating (at least the American part of) it, and that it is affecting teaching evolution in schools that particular part of the analysis doesn't seem to have any basis to start with.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 06 Apr 2007 #permalink

I echo Jonathan Dursi's view. We need a heterogenous approach. With Compulsive Centrist Disorder still the social norm, we need the Myers/Dawkins/Dennet/Harris/Moran crew out there calling religiously motivated pseudoscience for the crapola it is, and thereby pushing the boundaries of what is considered reasonable debate. If that boundary gets pushed far enough for Francis Crick and Ken Miller to be considered the middle, the bulk of the battle will have been won. Whatever problems we may have with their views (and I have many), a societal science viewpoint in the Crick/Miller mold would be a far sight superior to what we have now.

It is also important to remember that our audience is not a monolith, and so again, a varied approach seems best. Some need the swift kick in the intellectual pants that PZ would gladly give them. Others need the less theologically imposing approach Miller offers. As long as the science is solid, and the opposition's arguments are dealt with rationally, the more approaches the better.

Besides, having a single approach would play right into the hands of the enemy. The IDer/creationists try to attack the integrity of science by claiming there is some sort of lockstep conspiracy among scientists and supporters of science. The more vigorous debates and varied approaches we have, the more tenuous that claim appears.

I also echo Sr. Larsson's comment. Where is the evidence that Dawkins has alienated the undecided middle? He has not doubt pissed off the decided right, but so what? Sometimes antagonizing one's opponent in a debate can be a very effective way of getting them to expose their truly hideous selves. For example, every time a ID/creationist Dawkins critic harps on his atheism, they expose their own religious agenda, since there is no reason for someone focusing on the science to do so.

I am in agreement with Torbjörn, and I think one thing that's missing is trying to understand what's different from the US debate compared to the debate in other countries. Certainly it's not how the scientists frame their communication - rather it seems to be how the science communicators, be it politicans, journals or newpapers, report of the science. Also, there is a basic science illiteracy in the US that doesn't seem as widespread in the rest of the Western world.

When I visited Australia in januray, I noticed that there was a lot of science in the newspapers - at least a science story every day. The newspapers did a sober job of reporting the findings, without trying to invovle fringe scientists to bring balance to the piece. After reporting the science, they would then try to put the science into a social or political perspective, but they still based this on the actual science.

In the US, it seems to me that the newspapers report the science, then get the opinion of some fringe scientists, and then basicly conclude that it's a subject under debate, and nobody knows the right answer.

No wonder people feel that they are entitled to their own facts.

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. It's 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.

I want to thank Chris, and Matt for opening up this very important debate. I think most of the people commenting are actually a lot closer to each others views then it appears to be on the surface. The recognition that our traditional means of communication have left science vulnerable to anti-science political forces is not a pleasant one for us. We will work out ways to be more effective -these debates are the start of the process.

I'm sorry if the debate seems too USA centered for our foreign friends. This is probably necessary at first, as the most serious anti-science forces are further ahead here than elsewhere IMHO.

We have to realize that there are many different audiences. Scientists are used to professional scientists, and interested student populations. The next group down might be considered to be Scientific American readers, those who have an interest in the subject, but who lack the training, aptitude, or time to try to understand the science on anything approaching a rigorous level. Then there are the great unwashed masses, to them science is all about getting better iPods and medicines. They clearly all require different approaches if we are to reach them.

Framing, maybe. I'll believe it's working to the extent we see the journalists making just as much effort to promptly acknowledge not just blatant mistakes but misstatements and ambiguous writing. I want to see the journalists publishing corrections as the scientists do --- whenever they get a fact wrong, or realize something they wrote can be misread or misunderstood.

Nitpicking is one of the basic primate social bonds. If the journalists can acknowledge uncertainty the way the scientists do ---- rather than obscuring it claiming they're 'framing' it for their readers --- they'll be teaching something important about understanding what we know. To the extent they forgive one another's sloppy writing, they're not doing the job as science writers.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 08 Apr 2007 #permalink

The arrogance of deciding that regular people are just too stupid to follow scientists is in a way well placed. Afterall, it is self-declared enlightened framers who have sold climate study into an apocalyptic secular relgion. However, the assertion that the cure is yet more framing (spinning) will cure the problem scientists have created does not seem valid. Politicans and journalists have not improved their credibility by engaging in ever more amounts of framing. I think the cure will be for scientists to act less like political activists or PR flaks, and more like scientists. Stop permitting governmental bodies to pre-edit science papers. Stop permitting activists to have free reign in editing science reports. And stop selling out to politicians.
The authors of this essay (note that they are not scientists) are the ones waging war on science. They should stop while they are not so far behind, and before they lead science off of a cliff.

PZ Myers' latest reaction:

I'm not playing dumb, I really am confused. I've got people telling me I already use frames, that I use frames well, that I use them badly, that I'm ignoring frames at my peril, what I'm describing isn't framing, what I'm describing is framing, that frames are this thing or that thing or this other thing.

I'm getting next to nothing that's practical. OK, don't call it "evolutionary theory", call it "evolutionary biology". Is that it?

Maybe I do need a course in this.

I gotta say, I'm getting pretty confused too.

Latest to join is Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance, who concludes his post in the following way:

But, in the absence of any actually helpful suggestions, I will take the opportunity to point to this recent post by Charlie Petit in the (awesome in its own right) Knight Science Journalism Tracker. The punchline: science journalism in the United States is in the midst of a catastrophic downsizing. In the wake of the news that Mike Lafferty of the Columbus Dispatch has accepted a buyout, Petit mentions other periodicals that have recently decimated their science coverage, including Time, Newsday, and the Dallas Morning News (I'll add the LA Times to that list). Science sections have dropped from 95 less than twenty years ago to around 40 today.

I'm just saying.

Hi Matt,

First of all, thanks for checking out my blog response.

I am sure that you researched the term "framing" thouroughly before even trying to get your paper in Science, and I appreciate the fact that finally somebody gathered the courage to state that if people do not understand science, it is often because science (which is a broad term already) really sounds like another language altogether to most of them.

I'd love to 1) read the papers you mentioned and 2) see them discussed, maybe by guest bloggers/experts here at Framing Science?

Keep the good work up, it is time for scientists to live up to their social responsibility...if they want to continue being able to have academic/financial freedom from prejudice.

I gotta toss in one comment here. I've read a lot of these posts about communicating science over the past few days and it makes me very thankful that I did virtually no blog reading or research before setting out to make my film, "Flock of Dodos" (which by the way airs on Showtime on May 17, 8:30 p.m., shameless plug I guess).

If I had, I might have lost any ability to communicate and ended up like an over-thinking deer in the headlights, which is problem #1 for academics (and I know a ton about this -- you should have seen me in my Hollywood acting classes the year after I gave up my tenured professorship -- every teacher had the same simple critique for me -- "stop thinking so much and ACT!").

In 1999, shortly after graduating from USC Film School, I did a video on how scientists give talks. I interviewed about a dozen USC faculty from both the Cinema and Communication Schools. A very clear pattern emerged. The Communication faculty knew a lot about HOW to communicate (at least in theory), but they couldn't, very well. The Cinema faculty knew very little about how to communicate, they just do it.

That's the big divide between academics, who tend to think and discuss a subject to death, versus the broader audience who actually do stuff.

So I guess a little bit of what I'm saying is that a lot of this lengthy discussion I'm reading among academics about how to communicate science falls into the "blind leading the blind," category that I witnessed at last December's special symposium at AGU on "Communicating Science Broadly," in which a bunch of academics gave terrible talks on how to reach the broad audience. And nobody listening complained.

At some point everyone just needs to be like Nike and "Just Do It," as Nisbet and Mooney have done with a short and punchy article in Science, and Mooney has done with his books. Co-mune-eee-kate.

That's the big divide between academics, who tend to think and discuss a subject to death, versus the broader audience who actually do stuff.

Welcome to the world of science blogs. Gotta know the frame! ;-)

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 10 Apr 2007 #permalink

I think part of the problem is that those who object to the idea of framing think that framing requires one to be dishonest; I don't believe that's the case. Frames can be honest or dishonest and I don't think anyone here is advocating the use of dishonest frames. For example, if you genuinely believe that evolution and atheism are inherently linked in some way then I don't think you should pretend otherwise. I don't happen to believe that's true so I'm being honest when I frame the issue that way; others, of course, will certainly disagree.

And I think PZ is right to say that a very important tool of advocates everywhere is to break the frames - particularly the dishonest ones. I've done this on my blog in a couple of posts that I labeled Exposing the Frame, and I did it this morning in my discussion of this article in a post where I exposed the transparently obvious framing used by the ID movement.

Are we talking about communication? Are we talking about the best way to present information to the general public? If that's the case, what's with all the crap about framing? This isn't about packaging dammit, it's about communicating for crying out loud.

Scientists as a whole would do well to learn how to explain things to the common man, without talking down to him. And the first place to start is by using the appropriate terminology. Your first goal is to communicate, let the feedback you get teach you what works and what doesn't.